The legendary Apple inventor was much in circulation this winter and spring, promoting his hit autobiography, written with Gina Smith, iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It. When we had Smith on our NeoFiles podcast a few months back to talk about the book, she told us that all Wozniak ever wanted to talk about was the pranks he'd pulled. So we figured we'd give him his big break and invited him to come on the show to talk pranksterism.
We did get to talk a bit about technology as well. But, sorry to say, that other Steve apparently never gave him a free iPhone to play with, and this was prior to his heroic crowd management stint during the iPhone release at the Apple store in Santa Clara, so Wozniak had little to say about the greatest thing since… the Segway? (OK. That was uncalled for. Sorry.)
Futurist Jamais Cascio joined me in conversing with Woz. Cascio helped to start WorldChanging, a site dedicated to Open Source problem-solving that often focuses on solutions to global warming. After the show, they started talking about that situation and it transpired that Wozniak is, in Cascio's words, "a bit of a climate-change denialist." Cascio and Wozniak have agreed, in theory, to a brief email discourse on the topic for 10 Zen (although it seems that we have more enthusiasm for this than they do.) We hope that this will be forthcoming.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.
"I Took Him (Colbert) Down!"
RU SIRIUS: You've been touring and appearing on behalf of your bio. You even got to face Colbert…
STEVE WOZNIAK: Not only did I get to face him, I boasted to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter two days before the show that I was going to take him down. I'm usually pretty witty about turning conversations my way. Anyway, she quoted me in her blog. So now I'm heading out to Stephen Colbert's show with a blog on the internet saying I'm going to take him down. Man, I played so many good pranks on him backstage.
And I took him down on the show! I didn't plan it. I figured, I'm going to be a punching bag. This guy is good. But I knew they were going to treat me with kid gloves by the pre-interview they did over the phone. He asked one wrong question. He asked, "Have you pulled any pranks lately?" I said, "Well, I take my steak knife onto airplanes." And that was the line that caught him wavering — "Do I go my way, or do you I go your way?" And he sort of went my way a bit. He said, "I'll get you on a list." I said, "I want to be on the list! Anyone who knows me knows I'd love to be on all the lists there are." And I managed to pull these thin metal credit cards that are thin as a knife out of my pocket. And I
RU: He definitely looked confounded. And you say you were goofing on him in the green room as well?
SW: Oh my gosh! I was sort of trying to let him know my personality. So you know how at the Presidential Press Corps Dinner, Stephen Colbert was the host and he came on and said, "Oh my god, I got to sit right next to the man! President Bush!" So I walked up to him and I said, "Oh my god! I get to meet and touch the man himself! How nice to meet you, Mr. Stewart." And then I pulled out some two dollar bills that I always carry around...
I have pads of sheets of these bills. They're perforated like green stamps. You can tear 'em off in ones, or twos, or threes or fours. And he grabbed it out of my hand and ran out to the hallway where there was more light. He held it up to the light. He was so concerned! I'm thinking, "Why is he so concerned about something that I just use as a prank here and there?" And he's looking at it for the longest time, feeling the paper and analyzing the different pages. So he tells me that his brother works for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where they print the money on 14th street in Washington, D.C., which is where I buy these.
Woz Punks the Secret Service
RU: Now this is legitimate money that people assume is...
SW: It meets the specs of the U.S. government, so by law, it is legal tender. The Secret Service has approved it three times. Why would they approve it if it's not legal? I don't even know if it has the right President's face on it. And the serial numbers — there's something very suspicious about them. The bills — you can smell the ink is still fresh so don't get it on your finger. And I'll sell a sheet of four of them — that's $8 — for $5. But not very many people buy them from me. I start saying, "Since they cost me three, you're really buying $12 worth for $5. (ed: we don't understand it either.) Only an idiot would turn that down." And that's about the time they start thinking, maybe I won't buy them. And they won't buy 'em. I give myself a point if they don't buy 'em, because they are legal tender.
The Secret Service read me my Miranda rights once. And when they asked for an ID, I pulled out this ID that I'd used for every airplane flight for five years of my life. It says "Laser Safety Officer, Secretary of Defiance" (instead of Secretary of Defense) on the card, and in the photo I'm wearing an eye patch. (laughter) And the Secret Service didn't catch that it was a phony card! They figured out that the bills were good and legal tender, too. Gina (Smith) didn't put this one in the book! A lot of my good prank stories didn't get in the book. That's the third book that I have planned.
RU: Good lord. The things you can get away with when you're Steve Wozniak.
SW: You know, I think any actor and comedian that can just act like they're in the right can do it — that's mainly what it takes.
RU: Bluffing is the main thing. Bluffing is social engineering, basically.
SW: Yeah. The attitude is, "What I'm doing is right," you know? And then it's real easy. People get real nervous and try to hide stuff when they think what they're doing is wrong.
RU: Gina said some people buy the two dollar bills and don't think that they can use them.
SW: Sometimes they buy them and think they should cash them in a real dark place, so they don't get caught.
RU: Why do you think you wound up being such a prankster?
SW: It's because I was so shy in middle school and high school. I had to kind of have a way to have a presence. Everyone's born with an energy to socialize — to mix with other people. And when you're shy and can't talk to them; and they start to talk weird language that you don't want to be part of; and they're snooty about the people who are "in" and "out"; and you aren't part of that "in" group — it's very intimidating. So one of the ways I communicate is with pranks.
RU: So, if you're at a party, do you do a prank to get attention? Or...
SW: Oh no no...
RU: Or just to get (laughs) vengeance on the snobby people?
SW: No, its not that. But in my school days, I wasn't in the group that would ever get invited to a party. But I was kind of friendly with a lot of druggies back in the late 60s at our school. And they were "out"-ies and techies and all that. But I didn't go to their parties either. The way I thought about it — I looked at church, and I said, "You know what? Everybody goes to church and they're saying those same words together, and they're singing the same songs together. And they're just following the exact same ligature. Everybody's doing the same thing. I don't want to be a follower like that. I've got a brain! I'm going to think out what is right and what's wrong, to do in the world. I don't need to be like everybody else and just follow their lines. Well, I extended that to parties and to that druggy peer group. We always talked about, "Don't conform!" Don't conform to the values of your parents.
RU: Right. But on the other hand, everybody must get stoned.
SW: All the peers in our high school – everybody was going to the parties and doing the same things. And they were drinking because other people were. That's conforming. So I thought, if I'm going to drink, I'm going to drink all alone because I think it's something I want to do. And it kept me kind of clean, because I wouldn't just go out and do something because my group's doing it.
RU: So there's an iconoclasm there.
RU: Back to pranks…
SW: I have these professionally printed stickers that I've had made. They're done with this sort of foil-type stuff in the exact OSHA style and the OSHA colors. And it says, "Danger: Do Not Flush Over Cities." And I put 'em in the bathrooms on airplanes...
RU: (Laughs) I think I've seen that, actually. Do you fly Jet Blue?
SW: Yes, I have done it on Jet Blue.
RU: I remember thinking about it and wondering what that was!
SW: They're red with a black-shadowed airplane picture. The bathroom has a little seat fold-down. I fold that up and there's a sign in the middle of it saying, "Don't throw trash here." And I put my two little stickers behind it, so the stewardesses won't notice it right away. If they notice it right away they might realize that somebody put that there. But after a while, if they slowly get used to it, they'll stay on for years.
I have another sticker that I made in OSHA style and colors. It's a yellow one. I put it in the backstage bathroom at the "Colbert Show." It has a little graphic of a butt with a poof coming out and it says, "Keep our air fresh."
RU: In Robert Anton Wilson's book, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, there's this character, Markoff Cheney, who leaves weird bureaucratic commands in offices and places like that just to sort of boggle people's minds.
SW: That's almost like what I read about in the The Pentagon Papers — the psychological warfare. You kind of put out a message saying one thing, but it implies that something horrible is going to happen just because you're saying that it isn't going to happen. It triggers bad thought in people's mind.
RU: Cognitive dissonance...
RU: ...is a great weapon of war, and also of...
SW: … comedy!
RU: …guerilla pranksterism, and all those things. I guess you're indicating that pranks challenge conventional behavior.
SW: Absolutely. I've always very much wanted to be a rebel, and against authority. Because if we just sort of accept authority, and never question it — we just go through a life without knowing what truth really is — thinking we know it all. Everybody reads the same headlines and sees the same seven-second soundbites on TV. And because they all know the same thing as everyone else, they're all in the right. "We are all intelligent." They're not intelligent. They just saw the same things and repeated it. You know? They're the ones who aren't intelligent. I mean, the definition of intelligence in schools is pretty much being able to know what every other kid in the school that has studied the book would say... and not to have original thought of your own.
When Woz Convinced the Waitress He was "a Pavarotti"
RU: Speaking of getting an education and then getting a shitty job, Gina told me a story about a prank on a waitress.
SW: Yeah... I did a prank on a waitress recently. And I put a lot more energy, time, and even money into my pranks than most people. I don't want all my pranks to be just the normal duds you play every day. You know, every comedian will have one gem of a joke for every ten duds. So I play little dinky pranks all day long.
But in this case, it was based on the fact that I have season tickets to Warriors' games and I had special passes for a special parking lot. So one time, I took a friend in the back seat of my car who didn't know I had the pass. And as I got to the window, I tell the guy there that we have the guy with us who's going to sing the national anthem. And then to embarrass him (the guy in the back seat), I'd say, "Sing a line for him!" and the guy can't sing but they let us in anyway, and...
So I had done this sort of prank a few times. And then I was at a restaurant in San Francisco, and I knew that I had four tickets for Saturday's game but I wouldn't be there. So I asked the waitress, "Hey, you going to the game on Saturday? I'm singing the national anthem!" And she looked at me like I was the most important person she'd ever waited on. I didn't expect that, but now I had to play with it. When someone's mind is thinking something weird, or in a… I call that a creative state. You don't want to inhibit creativity. You want to keep it going. So you always say yes. So I said, "Oh! I could probably get you some tickets from the Warriors staff — you know, if you want..." And then I said, "You want to hear me sing?" And she says, "Yes!" And I go (half-speaking) "Oh say can you see." And that's the best I can sing. Everyone at the table started laughing. So I figured the jig was up. But then I heard from Gina later on that this waitress had come over to Gina, and asked privately, "Does he really sing the national anthem?" And Gina said, "Oh, he's a famous opera singer! He's got the voice of an angel!" (laughter)
So now I had to follow through. I had to take this one further. So I came back to the restaurant one day and left two tickets for the waitress. And I set up a story that my friend Jim would have my other two tickets. And he was supposed to tell her I got food poisoning at the restaurant. I was a Pavarotti, and in the hospital they had mixed me up with somebody else and taken my kidney out. They'd discovered the mistake, switched operating teams and gloves and they'd put my kidney back in. (I always love to throw in the glove line. Like they'd really switch gloves.) And I'm the first person to ever get a kidney transplant [from myself]. Great story.
The Zaltair Prank: Two Pranks in one
RU: You make really elaborate schemes and stories. Talk about some of the pranks that were left out of your book. Maybe go back to the early hacker days, or Apple times?
SW: Early hacker days? There's the prank that I did when we introduced the Apple II. At this time, all these people were using Z words based on the new Z80 Microprocessor from Zylog. So I had these fake brochures for "the Zaltair" made. It was this two-sided brochure that had all the fakest hype I could think of using, like – "Imagine a car with five wheels!" You know, stupid little things that were inspired by the worst ads I'd ever read. It had comparison charts to things like the Apple and it looked so phony — but it was against the Apple and this and that. It said you could send your own computer in and get a $120 discount. It was really jamming MITS Corporation, but that's another story.
I took thousands of 'em in a box and put it out in front of The Civic Auditorium (in San Francisco). After a while, my friend called me. He said, "Somebody took the box. It was gone!" But MITS — the company that I was making fun of — wasn't there. So who did it? It turns out, they had a rep there. So we went to the hotel and brought another box and set it down. After a while a guy goes up, he spots it and takes the box away. So then, we took tons of them underneath our coats and went around and started shuffling them into packets. Our green ones would go into packets of green handout fliers, and our blue ones would go into packets of blue fliers. We were careful about it but we got thousands of 'em distributed. I mean, all the members of the Homebrew Computer Club were waving copies in the air.
And I'd put a stupid made up quote from Ed Roberts — the President of MITS — at the top. And if you took the first letter in each word in the quote, it spelled P.R.O.C.E.S.S.O.R T.E.C.H.N.O.L.O.G.Y. You always get two pranks for one if you frame someone else.
And sure enough, Gordon French, who was one of the Homebrew club members, came by Apple in the early days, and I asked him, " Did you hear about that Zaltair prank?" And he said, "Oh yeah, it was a hoax. I know who did it! Gerry Egram of Processor Technology!... because he's got a weird sense of humor." I'm laughing my head off at this point. And I pull one out and said, "There was supposed to be a cipher in here." And they started reading the cipher, and everybody read the letters "Processor Technology." Steve Jobs did the final 'Y'. For 12 years, everybody "knew" that this guy at Processor Technology had done the prank.
RU: When did you 'fess up?
SW: Twelve years later. I actually framed a copy and gave it to Steve Jobs as a birthday present. He opened it up in a restaurant and he just started laughing out loud. And that's unusual.
RU: Your most famous prank, which is in the book, was when you called the Pope at 5 am pretending to be Henry Kissinger. What was going through your mind as you were doing that?
SW: I used one of the blue boxes... the blue boxes were an exciting time in my life — around 1971.
RU: Was John Draper with you when you did the call?
SW: No, he wasn't. I read articles about him. He had stimulated my interest. I had quickly tried to whack together a blue box but it didn't work. I finally designed a great little digital box. It worked every single time. And Steve Jobs said, "Let's sell 'em." So we built some and sold them. We gave door-to-door demonstrations in the dorms. Can you imagine doing that and not getting caught?
RU: Right. That was the perfect time for phone phreaking. Everyone was interested.
SW: By the end of that year, I was worried that they had methods to catch 'em, so I never did 'em after that year. And during that year, I was careful that I didn't use the blue box for personal calls. I paid for them. It was partly out of fear, but also I wanted to be honest, as I thought Draper and others were. We only want to explore the system, and fix it, and find its little flaws, and tell other people. That's a great thing to a technical person — to know a few little flaws. It's like finding a few little Easter eggs in a program — little secret surprises. Since I was very shy, it gave me one area of life that I wasn't shy about.
I was the demonstrator. I was the emcee. I would demonstrate the blue box for an hour or two. We sold one every time we did a demonstration!
RU: I'm sure lots of other people just used them to get free phone calls.
SW: Yeah, and ethically, when I look back...
RU: I think that was part of the spirit of the early '70s.
SW: Yeah, but when I look back I have a problem with that.
RU: Well, phone phreaking was associated with The Yippies and a kind of anti-corporate radicalism. You didn't quite get into that...
SW: I wasn't in there. Sure, I admired all those thinkers…
RU: Right. I mean, Abbie Hoffman had that kind of stuff in Steal This Book.
SW: He had a black box schematic in Steal This Book. I bought Steal This Book. I had his black box schematic! Same year! But Ramparts magazine — which was like the Mother Jones of its day — came out with a nice clear, easier-to-follow one that year as well and they kind of got put out of business for a while. I made copies of that and spread 'em around to everyone. So I was helping everyone else do this even when I wasn't selling it. And that was probably wrong. I just sort of wanted to show off that I knew things that most people didn't know. That was my real motivation.
JAMAIS CASCIO: So what do you think are the rules for being an ethical prankster?
SW: Ethical prankster? It's tough. I don't think there's 100% ethical. In theory, you have agreements with society not to do things that are going to be disruptive — to not do things that are gonna be different. And yet, practically, all of us have to do things that are a little bit different. And there's always some weird little laws that are written to catch you just for being different.
Ethical hacking today is largely finding flaws in major computer systems, or possibly the phone systems. And to be ethical, you don't use it to harm anyone. And generally, that means you don't want to keep it secret forever. You want to boast that you're the one who found it. There's a young kid, I forget his name right now – and he would find these flaws and then tell the companies: "Here's the flaw. You have two weeks to fix it, and then I'll make it public." And he wound up in jail. I met him, and he was just so pure that he was going to keep searching no matter what they did to him. He was going to keep on this track of finding the flaws and notifying the people what the flaws were and giving them a certain time to fix it before he made it public.
RU: You didn't mind tweaking the Pope! How far might that have gone?
SW: Yeah. I said we were at the summit in Moscow. Someone said, "Here's the Bishop, who's going to be the translator." And I said, "Yes, I'm calling from a United States number. But you can call me back." He said, "I just spoke to Henry Kissinger." I said, "I am Henry Kissinger. You can phone me back now." And I gave them a United States number to call. And I figured they would think, "Oh, we've got his number!" I figured they knew it was a hacker. But I had given them a loop number, so they dial one number and I dial another and we get connected. There are really no records.
RU: Right. A great phone phreak trick.
SW: Calling the Pope was just a weird idea that was kind of fun.
RU: Did you have a plan, if you actually wound up talking to the pope? Did you have a narrative for the exchange?
SW: No. I should've!
RU: Did you grow up watching "Candid Camera"?
SW: Yeah! I did. Guess what? My son was pranked on by "Candid Camera." He got into an elevator in a hotel and headed down to his car early in the morning. And when the elevator door opens to let him out, instead of finding himself in the garage with cars, he's in a room. And he looks back and the elevator had no button. He played with it for a while, and somebody popped out and said, "You're on Candid Camera." But they didn't put him in the show. He probably wasn't animated enough for them.
RU: He was probably not too easy to surprise, after growing up with you. I hope you go ahead and write this book about pranks.
SW: I have forty years of pranks. That's going to be the third book. I'm thinking that for my second book, I'm going to publish my "manuscript." You've heard about Einstein's manuscript — it sounds really impressive. Well, I'm the only one who ever wrote this much code — I made the Apple II by hand. I couldn't afford what's called a rental system, where you can type it into a computer, and you type in your program, and it will give you back the 1's and 0's. So I figured out the 1's and 0's in my own head, and wrote them down on the piece of paper. Everything for the Apple II was done by hand.
Apple II was Coded by Hand
RU: So you'd publish the code in book format?
SW: I plan to publish the code and the schematics with some explanations of what I was thinking. It would be one of those things that you don't sell very many of.
JC: With a visual machine language editor, you could basically drag and drop 1's and 0's into a window.
SW: (Thinks) Visual machine... oh! Now, that's a good idea. That's a clever idea. Yeah! That would be the modern version of what I did.
The best things I did were because I didn't have money. I couldn't afford the computer system to type my programs into. They were written in machine language — real geeky computer stuff for the microprocessor I used, and I couldn't afford it. But because of that, I got very intimate with the programs that I wrote by hand. Every step of the way, it was easy for me to be a very careful and thorough checker. And I would dream the programs! I would wake up with ideas about how to save one little step by doing something different, or I'd think of something I could get for free. Always believe in that — getting things for free. The next house I'm going to build is going to be built with that in mind.
Building an Energy Efficient House
I was out judging a History Channel invention contest. And David Pogue, who is the technology writer for the New York Times, and the guy who owns the National Inventors Hall of Fame, were also judges. And we all decided we wanted to build this project that was the winner. The designer is a Civics Engineering Professor at Brigham Young — a very credible guy. And basically, he uses Southern Yellow Pine, the most energy-efficient wood that there is. It has a resin inside. And the resins — wood with resins – melts and freezes at 71 degrees. So if there's any impetus in the house for the temperature to get hotter than 71 degrees, it melts a little of the resin, which actually absorbs the heat and cools the house. It serves as your air conditioner. At nighttime, if it starts to freeze, it emits heat, and warms the house up to 71 degrees. And the houses can be built with another structure. They actually take dirt out of the ground... where they're going to build the house. They take the dirt out, they put it in machines, compress it into these tight bricks and then they heat it for about a week. Then they leave it out in the sun for about a week and they have these grooved parts that they slide together. And it's the cheapest, lowest energy, most green way to build a house that's going to last 500 years.
RU: Jamais, that sounds like something you might have heard about at WorldChanging.
JC: Yeah. BASF makes a thermal wax wallboard that does exactly what you described. They found that they could make houses in Germany 90% energy efficient.
On DRM, Open Source, & the iPhone
RU: Before I let you go, I should ask a few contemporary geek questions — to satisfy those in the audience who are going to say, "You had Steve Wozniak on, and all you talked about was pranks!" That was pretty much my intention, but I should ask a few. What do you think about Steve Jobs' decision to embrace DRM-free music in iTunes?
SW: I think it's a step towards the future. I mean, it doesn't make much sense if these things are going to have DRM forever. There's this whole problem that you can't trust everyone, but you can do a good enough job.
Look at newspapers. Nothing stops me from buying a newspaper and passing it around to 20 other people. But, you know, you just kind of get used to what's easy to do. Only six of my purchased music songs so far, though, are from (DRM-free) EMI.
RU: The whole idea of Open Source has been a long running dialogue in computer culture. Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation see it as a crusade. Is it necessary? Or can you have Open Source and proprietary stuff going on at the same time?
SW: A lot of people think that Open Source means "free." It was never intended to mean free and it shouldn't mean free. People should be able to develop software and market it and have control over what they build. But when you sell a product that has a lot of software in it, being Open Source means you publish your source. And if somebody else wants to take your product and make a specialized version of it that does their few special things for their application; or does something a little different; or leaves pieces of it out; they can do that and they don't owe you a license fee. It just means they were able to improve either your mistakes, or the things that you left out that they want.
RU: Sure. But do you consider that a moral necessity, or...
SW: I consider it a moral right-ness. I don't know how to speak for everybody in society about necessities. But I think it's very honorable and it's very good for the customers.
RU: Speaking of Open Source issues, have you ever hung out with Bill Gates?
SW: I haven't. I've only spoken with him briefly a couple of times. I admire him, he admires me. Good lord, I'd never written a computer language when he had written a BASIC in the early days of hobby computers. And I thought, "Oh my gosh — a computer with BASIC finally makes a computer that people can use for things." And so I said, I've got to write a BASIC. My goal was to be the first in the world to have a BASIC for the 6502. And I did it, but it was horrible because, in doing it, I left out one thing that could save a month — floating point...
RU: That's in your book, actually.
SW: And before we wrote our floating point BASIC, Bill Gates popped in the door and he'd done Microsoft. And my attitude was, "Oh, good, it'll save us the time." Of course, when our five-year license on it ran out, the Apple II was pouring gadzooks of money into his company. So they had us under the barrel. I like being the first at things. I had written my first syntax chart with floating point. In the Apple II ROMs, I even stuck in my own floating point routine. It wasn't incorporated into the BASIC, but I just didn't want the world thinking I couldn't write floating point routines.
JC: Jobs actually related that story when he appeared onstage with Bill Gates.
SW: And Jobs got it pretty right. He said it was because I hand-wrote everything. And handwriting it, I couldn't just type an extra part into a program. I had to move addresses around. All my addresses were fixed by hand. And I couldn't expand my syntax table easily to add the floating point back in before we shipped the Apple II. Otherwise I would've.
RU: Do you have a current technology project, outside of building your home?
SW: Yes I do! I have a bunch. My favorite idea right now… they're making flexible display materials now and showing them off. I would love to build a globe that's all a display. Maybe it would use Google Earth. And you could be zooming in on portions of this globe -- you can just look for Africa, for instance. And as you zoom in, the little dots are lit up like those programs that show you where all the volcanoes and all the webcams of the world are. You'd zoom in on blue dots, and zoom and zoom and zoom, and on a blue dot, you'll see a webcam right there in Africa; or right there in Amsterdam, or near the hotel you're gonna stay at in Greece. I would love that.
RU: People would want that.
JC: Yeah. And if you do it with Google Earth, you have all those KML layers so you can throw into it webcams and weather and traffic flows. There's all sorts of things you can do with that.
RU: Last question. What do you think of the iPhone and do you think it will be a success?
SW: I don't know. It will be a big hit off the bat, but after people have the iPhone it will truly be judged and compared. Will word of mouth kill it or make it a hit? Who knows? I can't even give my emotional feelings until I have a production unit for a while.
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