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Woz Foreshadowed


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
November 27, 2006

For the month of December I am taking my annual month off from posting. In January, I return with an FENews piece called "Be a Financial Woz." It is about Steve Wozniak in the context of financial engineering. I will not spoil that column (and infuriate my editor) by divulging its contents; however, this column is a metacolumn about the writing of that column.

"Be a Financial Woz" should have appeared in the November/December 2006 issue of FENews. I got the idea to write the column after I ran into Woz in cyberspace several times. I think that the first encounter was hearing him talking about yellow lasers on TWiT, a popular podcast. A while later I came across a podcast of him talking at Gnomedex 2004, which is one of the greatest hits of the IT Conversations series. That was when I decided that I had to do a column about him. I would have written the column immediately except that he had an autobiography/memoir coming out shortly and it seemed worth reading Woz's full story before writing about him.

As an on-and-off writer of books, I know that most books are available for review as bound "page proofs" months before they appear in print. Some, like the Harry Potter books, are embargoed, but most are there for the asking to anyone with an audience. Unfortunately, books from the publisher of Woz's book, W.W. Norton, appear to fall into the Harry Potter category. Their publicity department requires faxing a request that includes credentials that even far more professional journalists than I fail to possess. (Basically, if you work for The New York Times and own a fax machine, you can get a review copy. I am under no illusion that I matter to the success of any book; however, folks with far less official standing than I have, such as the better bloggers, do matter and my guess is that Norton is ignoring them, too.) I sent an e-mail to W.W. Norton and never heard back from them. As far as I can tell, the folks at Norton are evil. They failed in both the editing and the promotion of the book, though Woz himself seems perfectly happy with it. What a shame. I don't diss the book in my FENews column (because I can do that here), but I do mention that the Gnomdex podcast is a better introduction to Woz. (For some reason, an audiobook version of Woz's bio was not available when the book came out.)

By the way, the columns that I write for FENews have a deadline that is six to seven weeks before they appear in print. (I can get that down to four weeks in a pinch, with or without a good excuse.) This is a typical publication lag for magazines and I have heard of even longer lags. Because the Internet is instant, this lag affects which of my writings go to FENews and which simply appear on I have also learned that four-letter words are not acceptable in FENews, even if The New Yorker prints them. I can deal with that, too, especially because the editors at FENews are such sweeties who otherwise let me write whatever I want (until I send them an installment of "Adventures in Retailing.")

There are many interesting things about Woz that have nothing whatsoever to do with finance. (In fact, most things about Woz have little to do with finance, and you will have to wait until January to learn what does.) For one thing, Woz must have been the only "hippie" who hung around (and attended) Berkeley, but never ingested mind-altering drugs. That is a most impressive feat, especially when one considers the reputed massive drug (ab)use of his partner in crime (literally, when it comes to blue boxes), Steve Jobs.

Another impressive thing is that with the exception of Apple, the story of Woz's life is the story of a long string of what other people might consider to be failures, culminating in Woz's autobiography (for now, at least). I do not say this to be in any way critical of Woz. First of all, the Apple II was such an earth-shattering success that he could mess up everything else he did for the rest of his life and still be far ahead of the game. Second of all, I respect failure. As many have said before, if you do not fail, you are not being ambitious enough. Woz was certainly ambitious and he certainly failed a lot. Woz's list of failures include three marriages, one remote control company, a few rock concerts, and a near-fatal plane accident. I doubt, however, that Woz would see any of these as failures, if only because he had a good time. Even the plane accident is recalled in positive terms. This kind of attitude is more than admirable.

The really impressive thing about Woz is how much people love him. I don't really know the guy and I love him. In the introduction to the Gnomedex podcast, the person who introduces him even says, "We love you."

The best that anyone in finance can seem to manage is "nice guy," There are several of them, but none of them is loveable. Ditto for economics. John Kenneth Galbraith was charismatic, but lovable? I think not. Once might consider Maria Bartoromo lovable, but that is a different kind of lovable from Woz.

Fortunately for Woz, his autobiography will not dent his lovability and could even enlarge his cult of personality. The only real buzz (aside from an awkward segment on The Colbert Report) that the book got was for Steve Jobs' refusal to write a foreword to it. This is probably because the book does nothing to dispel the popular notion that at the time of Apple's founding Jobs was a two-faced sneak. Woz's stated reason for writing the book was to dispel many misconceptions about him and Apple, most notably the misconception that Steve Jobs had anything to do with the development (in an engineering sense) of the Apple I and Apple II. We also learn that Woz was never fired from Apple and never even quit because he is still an Apple employee.

Woz's love of pranks (and his general cleverness) does raise the possible comparison with another "genius," Richard Feynman. As one who knew Feynman about as well as any Caltech undergrad could (that is a story I will tell eventually, along with how I came to know Murray Gell-Mann), it seems pretty clear that Woz is not Feynman. Woz may be lovable, but one loves him the way one loves a dog. Reverse that last word and you have the way that people loved Feynman.

Woz may not be a deity-class individual, but he's undeniable cool. Still, the world has changed a lot since Woz got his ham radio license and it was a big deal to design a digital circuit that added numbers together. Woz himself was partly responsible for an important component of that change-the pervasiveness of computers. While the technological issues that Woz faced seem quaint in a world where even the lowliest game console runs rings around Woz's creations, Woz's most vital gift is his enthusiasm. If our up-and-coming engineers can get even half as excited as Woz, the wild technology ride that we are on will continue well into this century.

Copyright 2006 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to