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Revenge of the Nerds

The Silicon Boys and Their Valley of Dreams. By David A. Kaplan. William Morrow & Co. $27, 358 pp.All needed to know about David A. Kaplan’s The Silicon Boys and Their Valley of Dreams I learned in the first seven pages. Reason is, for both Kaplan and the reader, it’s all downhill after that.Having pegged …

The Silicon Boys and Their Valley of Dreams.

By David A. Kaplan. William Morrow & Co. $27, 358 pp.

All needed to know about David A. Kaplan’s The Silicon Boys and Their Valley of Dreams I learned in the first seven pages. Reason is, for both Kaplan and the reader, it’s all downhill after that.

Having pegged Silicon Valley chief executives as the victims of their own wealth and the Valley itself as a land of multimillion dollar homes (yawn) and $18-a-pound ostrich salami (burp), Kaplan gets to the part where he tries to sneak into a local school board’s annual fundraiser, known for both its pageantry and the marquee value of its CEO attendees.

The inside scoop: Kaplan, a Newsweek senior writer, had to fly under the radar because his invitation to the event had been revoked. And he couldn’t get an invitation partly because he aroused the community’s suspicion and ire by going door-to-door seeking gossip. That’s the sort of social desperation being snubbed by CEO after CEO will inspire in a down-on-his-luck journalist.

Kaplan even suffered the ignominy of being blown off by a local gossip columnist, who rebuffed his information-slobbering with a curt: “Go find your own stories and stop trying to steal mine.”

It’s this peeping-through-the-keyhole theme that permeates Silicon Boys, dragging down a wanna-be “Fear and Loathing in Silicon Valley” to the level of a Kitty Kelley celebrity biography. The book pales in comparison to substantive and entertaining accounts of the Valley, such as Robert Cringely’s Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date, and even to material by other outsiders passing through, including Michael Lewis of Liar’s Poker fame, who recently wrote for the Slate website ( http ://www.slate. com).

Small surprise that Silicon Valley is the latest focus of the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” genre, given the enduring front-page appeal of Gates, Jobs, Ellison, Andreesen, Clark, and Yang-and the megafortunes they’ve amassed. What’s interesting is that Kaplan clomps along after the trend, whining about the corrupting influence of conspicuous consumption.

Unlike many journalists, Kaplan never seems to have had even a passing fling with the concept of poverty-as-noblelifestyle. Having received an undergraduate degree from the Ivy League’s Cornell University, and a law degree from New York University, Kaplan began his career as a barrister at white-shoe Wall Street law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, later moving to an academic post at the city’s $10,000-a-semester Benjamin Cardozo School of Law.

The jacket of Silicon Boys tells us that Kaplan lives with his family “north of New York City.” Make that Irvington, a pocket of wealth in tony Westchester County. All this conspires to make Kaplan a peculiar critic of the moneyed class, indeed.

What’s left to tell about the book that a week in a good public library wouldn’t make bone-obvious? There’s no love lost between Barb Ellison and ex-husband Larry Ellison; everyone pissed someone off on his way to the top; John Doerr of “Gore and Doerr in 2004″ presidential campaign rumors has a cell phone built into his ski helmet; and folks in the Valley have long thought Apple’s Jobsdoes-Amelio-does-Spindler-does-Scully-does-Jobs soap opera superior to anything the company has put on a desktop in the last 25 years.

Larry Ellison spent lots of time with Kaplan because he craves attention (gasp). Kaplan got cozy enough to out-of-the-limelight Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak-or he believes he did-to rate calling him “the Woz.” And “Dr. Mud,” a geologist with a local branch of the U.S. Geological Survey, believes the Valley’s Type A personality is bred by a fear of earthquakes and landslides, manifesting itself specifically in a “subliminal force that drives people to keep overachieving.”

Meanwhile, Kaplan whiffs completely on the Valley’s pivotal role in the American economic machine and the unique combination of entrepreneurial spirit and free-market capitalism that made it the most significant moneymaking machine of modern times. Rebuffed by many here, Kaplan uses Silicon Boys to “settle some scores,” our gossip columnist says. But 11 rather than mean-spirited, Silicon Boys comes across as inept. Kaplan is less Anthony Michael Hall as Bill Gates in the recent TV movie, “The Pirates of Silicon Valley” than Hall as the well-meaning, acne-scarred, teenage mutt chasing Molly Ringwald and a date for the prom in the 1986 John Hughes film, Pretty In Pink.

In the end, Kaplan outnerds the nerds. Small return on William Morrow & Company’s significant investment in the project.

And you can figure all that out from the first seven pages.


Former managing editor of CE magazine, Joe McCarthy left the Big Apple several years ago to join the Valley’s Cypress Semiconductor, aiming to make lots of money and drown in his own excess.

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