A Computer Lunch Group Shares Bytes

Times Staff Writer

"Birthing Microchips"? "Hacker Ethics"? "Keyboard Karma"? "Computers Who Dance "?

What else would you expect when a group of freewheeling humanists sits down to celebrate the microelectronics revolution-- and in the process produces a book on the strange, the glorious and the sometimes useless ways in which computers are transforming today's culture.

The result of their collaboration, which includes articles on the aforementioned topics and far more, is called "Digital Deli" (Workman Publishing: $12.95). It's subtitled "The comprehensive, user-lovable menu of computer lore, culture, life styles and fancy."

A Boost for Cupid

It's a book that will tell you everything from how to create a love letter writing program (to create "personalized" form letters of a romantic variety) to why computerized checkbooks will one day "rank with the lava lamp." (The computer "requires 90 seconds to turn it on, find the right floppy disk, load and access the checkbook program. I then have to: find all the stubs of the receipts I wrote this month, type in the year, month and day in numbers separated by slashes (I usually have to delete at least one line of the check because I made a mistake), exit the writing mode, turn on the printer, enter the print mode, find my checkbook, insert a check in the printer and start it.")

As might be deduced, the contents of "Digital Deli" spring from decidedly low-tech roots. The book was born at lunch. In fact, its author is officially listed as "The Lunch Group & Guests," although "guests" include such spicy, brand-name contributors as William F. Buckley, Timothy Leary, Herbie Hancock, Steve Jobs, Ray Bradbury and Henny Youngman, among others.

According to Lunch Group veteran and ringleader Steve Ditlea, the organization originated in 1982 at a Mexican lunch attended by five journalists on Manhattan's West 44th Street. (Before that, Ditlea, a 37-year-old free-lance journalist, had participated in another New York writers' lunch group of 10 years' duration, but the group split up after some of the writers be came rich and famous enough to have serious debates on whether to put their nannies on unemployment for the summer months.)

Of the five journalists at the first meeting of the new Lunch Group, three had been using personal computers for more than a month. It wasn't planned that way but the computer became the focus of their conversations. Soon, several of the writers were writing about computers as well as on them and within a year one member had been responsible for a business magazine cover story credited with pushing the price of IBM stock up by more than 10% in a single week.

Exclusive Ensemble As the computer industry grew, so did the lunch group, which soon became an exclusive ensemble of journalists and authors covering the world of microelectronics. The New York group now averages about 20 members at its monthly meetings, and a second Lunch Group has been launched in San Francisco.

As Ditlea emphasized during a recent trip to Los Angeles, Lunch Group writers have mercifully not been transformed into nerds by virtue of their fondness for the wonders of technology, although some of them have been known to periodically surrender their lives to video games like Dig Dug and Donkey Kong.

"Seldom were heard the words bit or byte or any unduly technical debates, since our backgrounds and interests tended to be humanistic as well as practical," Ditlea wrote in the introduction to "Digital Deli." "We shared the joys and tribulations of setting up a first computer system, of learning a word processing program, of sending articles over telephone lines, of applying the personal computer revolution to our lives. We took pride in experiencing the frontiers of what many felt to be the most far-reaching and influential cultural development any journalist or author could hope to cover at this time."

'We Must Have a Book!' What has been missing in much of the coverage of high technology has been how it really affects people's lives, Ditlea emphasized, adding that when Peter Workman of Workman Publishing heard that an eclectic group of computer journalists even existed, his first response was, "The Lunch Group. We must have a book by the Lunch Group!"

So the ensemble was instantly named. And now that its book, edited by Ditlea, is on the shelves, both casual readers and gear freaks alike can peruse:

--Why musician Herbie Hancock is looking forward to the day when the electronic cottage becomes an electronic bandstand: "In the future, I'd like to be able to create music on-line with anyone anywhere in the world. Recently, I saw a concert in Vancouver where the musician on stage was playing with two other people in Sydney and Tokyo. The only limitation was the speed of the electrons on-line--the speed of light. There was a slight delay in the audio, and the musicians had to take risks with their playing to stay in sync. But here they were, playing together on three continents."

--Photos of famous Silicon Valley garages, bedrooms and kitchens; not only is there the expected shot of the now-legendary garage that served as the first home of Hewlett-Packard, there's also a photo of Lucile Packard's oven (which baked the paint used for instrument housings), and a picture of Stephen Wozniak's original Apple I (which existed in Wozniak's bedroom before Apple graduated to a garage).

Confession Time --A confession by software whiz Paul Lutuz (the "Oregon Hermit" who created Apple Writer, one of the best-selling word-processing programs of all time) that as a result of his "strange" relationship with the computer, "a mistress of perfect consistency," he became "too spoiled for the flesh-and-blood women around me"; Lutuz further admits that he doesn't always "write computer programs day and night, until in starvation I crawl to the kitchen for a carrot. This is true only sometimes."

--Ditlea's argument that the "I Ching" was the first primitive computer: "With astonishing mathematical precision the early Chinese catalogued all natural and social phenomena, then, with binary transformations, interrelated every possible physical interaction. The 'I Ching' was a universal organization of symbolism, a cosmic filing system that directly interacted in binary fashion, anytime, anyplace. As a computer it was not always user-friendly, but it was extremely portable."

--A rundown on Pong-inventor/Atari founder Nolan Bushnell's "lost arcade classics," among them such failures as 1970's Computer Space, the first commercial arcade video game and 1974's Dr. Pong, a version of Pong designed in a cabinet resembling Snoopy's dog house and intended for use in physicians' waiting rooms. ("Unfortunately, the medical community wasn't buying. Word is, Snoopy's creator wasn't too crazy about the idea, either.")

'A Song in Our Hearts' --Reassurance from Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer, that computers will never completely replace human musicians: " . . . Music is and always will be an aesthetic and emotional experience for humans and not for computers. There will always be musicians as long as there is a song in our hearts."

--Stephanie Hack's plain-spoken "brief history of artificial intelligence," which provides the going pros and cons on whether machines will ever be able to think as people do, then concludes: "The common-sense question remains academic. No current program based on mathematics or frame systems has common sense. What do machines think? To date, they think mostly what we ask them to."

--William F. Buckley's chiding of his "brothers in the conservative and libertarian movements" for their fears that the computer will seriously diminish individual powers and privacy. He proposes that progressive conservatives pass a law making it unlawful not to use a computer.

--Timothy Leary's prediction that freedom may eventually hinge on whether the right to bear computers becomes as inalienable as the constitutional guarantees of free speech and a free press: "Solid-state literacy will be almost universal in America and the other Western democracies. The rest of the world, especially the totalitarian countries, will be kept electronically illiterate by their rulers. At least half the United Nations' members now prohibit or limit personal possession. And, as the implications of home computers become more clearly understood, restrictive laws will become more apparent."

"Digital Deli" has clearly included the technical, the philosophical, the esoteric, the visionary and the silly. And Ditlea said he's hoping it will make room for an even greater range of contributions in the future. As he explained, the book looks much "like a 400-page magazine dummy," and a magazine is exactly what he'd like to see it become, perhaps the Rolling Stone of high-tech life style.

In the meantime, though, Ditlea is simply pleased to see a collection of readable and often entertaining material on the microelectronics revolution available to the general public, even if it's in the short, magazine-article form or what he terms "bathroom reading."

"My publisher doesn't like me to call it that," Ditlea said, "but that's what it is."

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