Saturday, September 30, 2006

We hope that you don't mind that our producer was caught doing blow

As I've previously discussed, I'm more of an Apple fan now than I have been in the past. As I don't think I've mentioned, though, I'm also a fan of very early Apple. I always thought PCs were better than Apples, but the STORIES about Apple were way better. One of my favorite books growing up was Steven Levy's excellent Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, and I thrilled to read about the Homebrew Computing Club and the two Steves making a computer for hobbyists.

So even if I wasn't currently feeling up about Apple, I still would have wanted to go and hear Steve Wozniak speak up in Menlo Park on Tuesday. Even when I was down on Apple, Woz was still one of the Good Guys, a true engineer with passion for design. While I'm not intimately familiar with him in the same way I am with, say, Richard Garriot, I still know enough to dig him.

He has been getting a fair amount of media attention recently, largely as a result of his recently published memoir "iWoz". I've enjoyed learning about his present life: he lives in Los Gatos Hills, fairly close to where I work, and has an amazing house and a personal fleet of Segways. He seems like a generally interesting geeky guy, who has retained his curiosity and channeled it as he grows older.

The book signing was at 7PM at the Menlo Park Barnes & Noble. That's just about the worst time possible, since it requires driving on 101 during rush hour. I decided to leave home around 5:45, reasoning that if by some miracle I wasn't delayed I could still easily kill any extra time in the bookstore.

Of course, traffic was awful, and I didn't pull into the lot until an hour later (after an unplanned detour to the shopping mall). I found a nice parking spot close to the door, and was amazed to see a person rolling up to the store on a Segway. Could this be Woz? He looked about the right size, though he didn't look that close to the pictures I'd seen in the paper. I snapped a picture anyways in case it was him, then went inside.

Even though the event wasn't supposed to start for another 10 minutes, Woz was already deep into his talk by the time I got there. There was a good turnout, enough that I couldn't get real close but not so much that I couldn't see him well. I'd guess maybe about 100 people total were there; this being Silicon Valley and the home of so many nerds, I had seriously worried that the bookstore would be overwhelmed by fanatics, but the low promotion for the event seems to have controlled that somewhat.

Woz's actual talk was fascinating. He is such an unreconstructed nerd; he became visibly excited when describing some circuit designs he had made, even though he has to have told these stories hundreds of times by now. I was also impressed by what a good speaker he was. Obviously, technical types aren't generally renowned for being good verbal communicators, so my expectations were low, but he was quite enjoyable to listen to, with good diction and great source material. He was occasionally funny, and always interesting.

One theme that kept rising in his talk was that of money. He never exactly called himself poor, but he did describe his concerns growing up: not having enough money for college, not having enough for a computer, not being sure if he'd be able to buy a house. At first I sort of took this as kind of a variation on the log cabin storytelling... "My family was so poor that..." I came to realize, though, that his acute sensitivity to scarcity may well be a prime factor in his genius. While he has a lot of passions, one that he seems most proud of was his ability to build minimalist processing systems. Where others would use fifteen circuits, he would use eight, and then figure out how to cut it down to six, then four, then three. He would design these circuits on paper because he didn't have enough money to buy them; later on, he could afford to make a computer only because his designs were so compact and required few parts. Ultimately, although he didn't explicitly say this, the reason the Apple II became a huge success was because of this drive of his to create the best thing he could out of the fewest parts at the lowest cost.

The funniest part of the talk was when he was describing starting the company with Steve Jobs. Jobs said, "What about Apple?" Woz said, "Isn't that the Beatles' company?" Jobs said, "Oh, it's a record company. That's totally different." That got the biggest laugh of the night.

Actually, there were a few times when he dug into Apple lore. Almost as an off-hand comment, he said that neither he nor Jobs was aware of the significance of the numbers 666 when they priced their first computer at $666.66. Woz just likes repeating numbers.

Listening to him talk was a bit like watching a train: he wasn't going to stop for anything. Again, it was all good stuff, so I didn't mind, but he just kept going and going in chronological order; if he hadn't eventually halted, he would have blown all the way forward to the present. As it was, his monologue basically went up through the launch, dominance, and decline of the Apple II, with some brief references to the later Apple computers.

He spent a good amount of time answering questions. One of the first was about the US Festival, a huge music and technology event in the 80s which Woz funded. After answering the question, this exchange occurred:
Woz: "Does that sound fun to you? A huge concert with a lot of great bands and amazing, cutting-edge electronics?"
Audience: "Yes!"
Woz: "Suppose that we held another one, say in 2007, right here in the Bay Area. Would you want to come?"
Audience: "YES!"
Woz: "Interesting." (Longish pause.) "That's all."

Someone asked about Woz's work with kids. He described a conversation he had with his dad when he was twelve years old, during which he said something like, "When I grow up, I'm going to make computers, and I'm going to teach fifth grade." He remembered that, and while he was at college he took classes like psychology that he thought would be helpful to a teacher. In the early 90s he started volunteering at the Los Gatos school district, helping them upgrade and network their computers, began teaching small groups of students and gradually added more and more until he had an entire class. It sounds like he really enjoyed the experience, but now it's done and he probably won't do it again.

In response to another question, he says that he doesn't really do any engineering work any more, just because his days are so crowded that he can't devote the time he needs to it. These days he corresponds an awful lot, does some public speaking and special events. The last time he did engineering was to build a remote (though he will contradict this later on).

In his main talk, he described Hewlett Packard in glowing terms: it was his dream place to work, a place he wanted to spend the rest of his life, and he was heartbroken when he needed to leave it to start Apple. He loved it because it was an engineering-focused company that treated its employees with utmost respect and fostered a collegial atmosphere. Someone asked if he could think of any companies today that are like HP was in the 70s (it going without saying that HP itself no longer is special in that way). I was expecting him to say Google, or at least mention Google as a possibility, but he couldn't think of any. He thought that if there were any, they were probably smaller companies, and said it's very difficult for a big company to maintain that kind of attitude. Interestingly, he says that Apple itself never tried to be an HP-like company: from the beginning it was a marketing-driven company, where they would decide what would sell and then build it, as opposed to HP, where the engineers would come up with an idea and the marketers would try to find customers for it.

Someone asked about his hobbies. He has a ton, but he talked about the Segway, which he loves. He talked about all the everyday and non-ordinary things he does with it, showing an engineer's love of using the right tool for a job: "There's no point in getting into the car and starting the engine when you don't NEED the WHOLE car. The Segway is great because it fills that gap between what you can walk to and when you need to drive." He briefly mentioned traveling to New Zealand for the first championship game of Segway Polo (I think he played, though I could be wrong about that). He also talked about how much fun he had modifying his Segway; he reprogrammed his onboard controller to remove the built-in speed limit, and has since taken it faster than 100 miles per hour.

The questions actually sort of petered out before the end, to the point where there were longish pauses between people raising their hands. After answering one lame person who asked him about what he thought of computers' power consumption (which I happened to know was a story playing on NPR immediately prior to the event), he thanked everyone and started signing books.

I actually ducked out soon after this. I had been planning on buying a book and having him sign, but there weren't any employees explaining how that would work, and everyone in line already had a book. Besides, it was getting late and, as much as I would have loved (briefly) meeting Woz in person, I was really hungry for some In-N-Out. I'd fulfilled my dream of seeing and listening to one of the great giants of computing, and could drive home satisfied.

Totally unrelated thoughts:

I bought four avocados at Trader Joe's on Monday, on the mistaken assumption that they would keep for a long time. Upon learning my error, I have decided to declare this weekend Guacamole Madness in September and October.

It's really hard to find dry vermouth. You'd think that since it's often used in cooking it'd be easy to find in a grocery store, but none I've tried so far have had it. Friendly neighborhood liquor store, here I come!

Civilization IV: Warlords is fun. I am not. That's the conclusion I've come to after several frustrating games spent trying to become a warmonger. I realized part way through the second one that, as best as I recall, I have not played a warlike game of Civ since the original Civilization. Now, I have done war scenarios, and I will occasionally fight a war when I can gain a specific advantage from it, but still: for the past decade I've pursued a strongly scientific strategy in Civ, and it's kind of depressing how bad I am at conquering the world. I'll try a bit more... this expansion adds some toys which are too much fun for me to ignore, and with luck I can grasp the strategy and tactics needed to really succeed.

"Brick" is probably the best movie I've seen this year. I'm reluctant to recommend it to people because it's so far out there, and you probably need to have a very specific type of mind (and background) to appreciate it. Still, if you get the chance, check it out.

It's hard to believe it's just about five weeks until the midterm elections. I remember in 2004 when I constantly thought about politics; lately, while I'm still passionate about my core principles, I just haven't had the time and energy to keep track of the day-to-day struggles. I'm delighted to read that the Dems have a shot at picking up a chamber... probably won't happen, but it's good to see them in this position for a change.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a fun talk. I miss the olden days of computer lore where nerdy college guys made the advances. Seems like these days there's still a lot of nerdy guys, but they're owned by their heartless megacorporations and that sucks the creativity out.

    I wonder how much companies decide technology back. I know American cell phones are just about worthless compared to Japanese ones. And way more expensive too. Seems liked a lot of advances are passed over for being expensive.