The Clog interviews Steve Wozniak

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This Saturday, Cal alumnus Steve Wozniak will be the keynote speaker at UC Berkeley’s 2013 commencement ceremony. He transferred to Cal for his third year of college after completing his freshman year at the University of Colorado and his sophomore year at De Anza College. But he left Berkeley after only one year to co-found Apple Inc. with Steve Jobs and singlehandedly create Apple I and Apple II, which revolutionized the world. Ten years later, he returned to Berkeley to finish what he started, graduating in 1986 with a degree in electrical engineering and computer sciences.

But what was Steve Wozniak’s Cal experience really like? We at the Daily Clog sat down with the Wizard of Wozillia himself to find out.

The Daily Californian: Can you tell us a little bit about how you arrived at UC Berkeley? Why did you choose to transfer here for your junior year?

Steve Wozniak: My parents had me apply to the University of California because it was an awful lot less expensive. So I applied. Berkeley really was the school I would have wanted to go to, because it had a reputation for intellectual free-thinking. Civil liberties and the politics and economics of war were being challenged. Freedom of speech was being brought up as a subject. So I really admired Berkeley in that sense. I just wanted to be among great thinkers. So in my third year of college, I transferred into Berkeley.

DC: After your first year at UC Berkeley, you left and founded Apple with Steve Jobs. But you made sure to return to UC Berkeley to finish your degree. Why? Why does a college degree matter to you?

SW: I had done a lot outside of Cal that would have been equivalent to Master’s and PhD projects, but having a symbol to represent these accomplishments is very important. Also, just being able to tell your kids what college you went to is going to encourage them to go to college. And college is just the most fun four years of your life.

DC: Where, in your experience, is the best place for experiencing what it means to be a Golden Bear?

SW: Oh my gosh. The first place that comes to mind is the rallies before the Big Game. As part of Berkeley itself, Sather Gate stands out in my mind as the most prominent feature of the university.

DC: Sproul Plaza has always been a center of campus activity. Any memories, strange encounters or lessons that you learned there?

SW: I often saw musicians sitting down and playing the guitar. I was into that kind of folkish approach. Sometimes, I’d sit down and listen to them — and even skip class for it.

DC: Do you still like the same kind of music? What’s playing on your iTunes right now?

SW: [laughs] Usually something a little bit country. A little bit folk. Ariana Gillis is one of my favorites. Let’s see, I like The Airborne Toxic Event, Train, Counting Crows — oh my gosh — Counting Crows. Right out of Berkeley! I love them so much. We got to meet the guitarist and we go out with him and his girlfriend all the time.

DC: Do you have a favorite song from Counting Crows?

SW: “Round Here,” “Mr. Jones,” … actually, all their songs. They are just so incredible. I actually take most songs I like and go online, read the lyrics and think about them. This kind of thinking is what college is about and it means a lot to me. Music was a big part of my life in learning how to live.

DC: Cool. Other than music, Sproul is known for its demonstrations. Was this true when you were at Cal?

SW: We had sit-downs in those days. But there was one protest where marchers went to Bancroft and Shattuck and smashed every window. We had large demonstrations; the police would show up and start firing tear gas and everyone would run. The cops would be shooting rubber bullets, so the kids in the dorms would love to go looking for them. I kept hoping … to get a picture taken next to a tear gas canister spewing out smoke. But I never achieved that. I never found a rubber bullet either — but thank God I never got a hit by one. Although, one time I was at a payphone on Bancroft and Telegraph and all of a sudden cops pulled up in “blue minis.” They started shooting their guns; the crowd started running but I was trapped in the phone booth, waiting for an operator to get back to me. I was ducking down. The windows were already broken on that pay phone. I was so scared I was going to get hit. But I didn’t. They left me alone. [laughs]

DC: While living in Norton Hall, Unit 3, you describe phone phreaking. Can you tell us a bit more? What experience stands out?

SW: Wow. I discovered, the day before coming to school at Berkeley, this whole idea that you could put little tones into a phone and dial calls anywhere in the world. It was  a bug in the phone system. I was talented enough to build tone makers — I did this with Steve Jobs — and I was excited that we would be able to make a device that would make calls all over the world. We were honest enough to tell our parents what we were doing. They just said not to make any of the calls from their phones. So we would mostly do it from the dorm rooms.

I had read about phone phreaks that were great engineers. They would hook into payphone cables in Arizona and set up worldwide networks. They were smarter than phone company engineers and drove around with vans full of equipment. And oh my gosh, they were just like science fiction heroes — except they were real.

DC: Tell us about the Blue Box. We know it’s a device that you used to make international calls for free, but what did you do with it?

SW: It was never my idea to sell a Blue Box — just to make one to show off. But Steve Jobs said, “Why don’t we sell these to students?” He was always short on money. So we would set up demonstrations in dorms around campus. We would knock on doors until we found someone that looked cool … so, you know, they wouldn’t turn us in. Then we would set up an appointment to come back that night. Usually a group of about 12-20 people would be in the room. I would be the master of ceremonies. I’d tell stories about what phone phreaks have done and what they could do. I’d make a demonstration Blue Box call and we would wind up calling around the world. At every single demo, we sold a Blue Box.

DC: Wow, it sounds like you could do some crazy stuff with the Blue Box. Did you pull any pranks with it?

SW: We called the Pope. I pretended to be Henry Kissinger with Richard Nixon at a summit meeting in Moscow. I said that I wanted to talk to the Pope. I reached the Bishop, who was going to be the translator, an hour later — but he had called the real Henry Kissinger. So, I was busted. We didn’t have caller ID in those days.

DC: That’s awesome. Are there any other wild experiences you had because of your phone phreaking hobby?

SW: One day, we had a Blue Box to sell to somebody in the dorms. We stopped at a pizza parlor and demonstrated it to some people there. Then they came up to our car and robbed us of it at gun point. But they left their phone number so that we could call and tell them how to use it. They wanted to pay for it but just didn’t have the money.

DC: Wow, that’s intense.

SW: [laughs] We did a lot of incredible, interesting things that people couldn’t believe.

DC: Looking back, what advice would you give graduating seniors?

SW: Don’t expect that right away — even though you’re smarter than someone else — you’re going to stand out and have better ideas and approaches. It takes a while to learn that.

Contact Alex Mabanta at [email protected]