Alex’s Last Article – Don’t Put Me at the Back

VISTA Technology Update

Alex Finnarn, VISTA member

As of November 11, 2010, you will no longer see me around the OLLI office. I’ll remain here in spirit, and hopefully someone will remember who Alex was on November 12, 2010. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here in Arizona working for both OLLI and SCORE. I’ve learned a lot about organizational structure, holding and running meetings, and how to work with committees and governing boards. Of course, I’ve also enjoyed the weather and taken advantage of a variety of outdoor activities around Arizona, Utah, and California. I went from a bumpkin with a fuzzy and worn out sleeping bag to a stoic hiker who can do Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rims without breaking a sweat. I’ll be leaving Arizona and going back to Ohio to work in community outreach for an organization redeveloping a neighborhood in Cleveland, but there will always be a special place in my heart for Prescott.

Although I will be leaving you, I’d like my ideas to continue to flourish well into OLLI’s future. I know that technology can sometimes be a pain. I, myself, struggle sometimes with remembering passwords to my online accounts, and I am honestly concerned with Google and Facebook using my private data for licentious activities. However, the benefits of technology far outweigh the negatives time and time again, and I hope you are able to see this point. Personally, with the help of Facebook, I’m able to keep in touch with people who have lent their couch to me on my trip back instead of me having to pay for a hotel. I’ve also found the best deals on a variety of electronics and picked out the right makes and models for me using hundreds of credible user reviews. I can think of several more examples where online technologies have made my life easier, and I hope you can too.

In our OLLI, there are a few key areas where I think technological progress needs to continue. The first area is putting class material and resources online. Not only does putting handouts and other materials online save paper costs to Yavapai College, but it also allows for the facilitator to make available as much material as possible to their students. Documents, pictures, videos, and web links can all be shared easily. On top of sharing prepared materials, whole class sessions can be recorded for viewing later. I know that some OLLI members take trips in the middle of a session or miss a class due to sickness, and it’s nice to have a video of a previous class that you can view to catch up. We’ve already recorded an OLLI class during the Fall 1 Session, and we’ve heard nothing but positive things from the students in that class. If you’d like to see your class recorded or your handouts placed online, start talking to your facilitator about it, and we might be able to accommodate next session’s class.

Another area where progress is needed is the archiving of our history. Lucy Hanson, our wonderful historian, has painstakingly put together years of newspaper clippings, event programs, and class schedules to make sure that we don’t forget our 17 year-long journey from an Institute for Learning in Retirement to an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and we need to make sure that her work is preserved. The simple act of a leaky ceiling or accidental fire could completely destroy the story of our OLLI, and our history would be lost forever. Thankfully, through the use of technology, we are able to scan the documents and put them online for any member to browse through at their leisure. Throughout our 17 year history, we have amassed a substantial amount of documents, and the OLLI office can surely use the help of any willing volunteer with a scanner in this process.

I can say without a doubt that this OLLI is one of the most forward-thinking OLLIs in the country, and I hope that tradition is continued in the coming years. Thanks for all the advice and conversation!


Frankenstein has arrived!

Synthetic Life

Submitted by: Sam Brunstein

Every so often there is a discovery that is little noted by the general public but that drastically and forever changes our future. In 1879, the invention of the electric incandescent light bulb (Edison at Menlo Park)) gave us control of the night. In 1947, the invention of the transistor (Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain at Bell Labs) gave us the supercomputer, allowing us to create designs and conduct analyses inconceivable before then.

The incandescent light bulb and the transistor were game-changers. Our lives are dramatically different because of them. Yet, they created little excitement at the time they were invented.

It just happened again! Possibly the single most important invention in the entire history of Mankind.

Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith have created a single-celled bacterium whose genome they created from basic chemicals in the laboratory. The bacterium has no ancestors, Venter and Smith “wrote the code” for its DNA.

The best analogy is a “Frankenstein’s Monster,” because Venter and Smith had to start with the dead shell of a bacterium from which they had extracted the natural DNA. Recall that in Shelley’s fiction novel, Victor Frankenstein used a dead body stitched together with parts stolen from various sources and gave it life by exposing it to a lightning storm.

Venter and Smith removed the DNA from a single-celled bacterium, thus creating a Frankenstein framework. They then inserted the DNA they had created and set the bacterium to reproducing. When they had grown a reasonably-sized colony, they checked the DNA in members of the colony, and it was indeed the DNA that they had created from off the shelf chemicals.

So, Venter and Smith have not “created life.” They had to start with the framework of a dead cell and give it life by inserting designer DNA. But it is possible that, given enough time, someone (possible Venter and Smith) will create the shell as well as the genome and will then be able to claim that they created life from basic chemicals.

But, consider – using off-the shelf chemicals and the “body” of a dead microbe, Venter and Smith modified the design of the microbe and thus created a bacterium that breeds true and has never before been seen on earth.

Think of the possibilities – both for good and for evil.

A thorough discussion of the technology, the dangers, and the morality can be found at in the May 20th 2010 issue of the ECONOMIST:

A video of the scientists explaining their discovery can be found here:

The iPad and Seniors

Maybe you’ve already heard about the new iPad that Apple is currently selling and maybe you haven’t, but it is a great new tool you might want to try out. It’s basically a tablet-sized computer, with a nice 9.7 inch LCD screen for awesome viewing. You can use the iPad to browse the web, watch videos, read books, look at pictures, and much more. A lot of what was included on the iPhone can be found in the iPad, and there are even great accessibility features built right in out of the box.

The iPad contains:

  • a built-in screen reader that supports closed-caption playback
  • a gesture-based screen reader that reads a description of whatever your finger is touching at the moment
  • mono audio conversion for those who have trouble hearing out of one ear
  • zoom in on anything on the screen up to five times it’s normal size
  • high contrast screen that allows you to view anything in white on black mode

But don’t take my word for it, let Virginia, a 100 year-old woman from Oregon, show you how it’s done.

If you would like to learn more about the iPad you can go to Apple’s website at:

Microsoft’s Virtual Senior Center

Microsoft is reaching out to seniors no longer able to leave the home with the introduction of the Virtual Senior Center. The center is a partnership between Microsoft, the New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA) and Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), and Selfhelp Community Services, an organization dedicated to enabling the elderly and other at-risk populations to live in their own homes, independently and with dignity.

The purpose of the Virtual Senior Center is to enhance home-bound seniors lives through the use of computers and internet technology. Seniors are connected with their local adult center using video conferencing software that creates an interactive experience  reducing social isolation, promoting wellness, and providing better access to community services. Users can have two-way interactions with live classes at a senior center asking questions and seeing what other members of the class see. For seniors with low vision or dexterity issues, the Virtual Center has screen readers and track balls included to increase accessibility.

The Virtual Senior Center also has the added functionality of  health monitoring software and devices. This feature can be very useful for seniors who have a difficult time making it to the doctor’s office. For example, someone with diabetes can use a device to monitor their blood glucose levels, upload the data to their personal HealthVault account, and share the data with their local physician. The whole process can save numerous, time-consuming trips to the doctor’s office, and allow the doctor more frequent and comprehensive data with which to make informed health care decisions.

With more than 2 million home-bound seniors, according to a 2008 report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, broadband technology is a useful and inexpensive way to connect the growing number seniors who aren’t able to leave the home and feel socially isolated. Social isolation and loneliness have been proven to increase the risk and severity of such diseases as dementia and depression, and this is why virtual participation through the use of online technology is such a crucial area that needs to be expanded throughout the country’s senior centers. Becky Bigio, director of the Selfhelp Senior Source Geriatric Care Management Program, conducted psychometric tests on all the participants in the Virtual Senior Center, and she found that they showed a marked improvement in areas like anxiety, depression, memory loss and their capacity for activities of daily living.

You can view some video logs of Virtual Senior participants by following this link:

The Internet May Be Good for Your Brain

Brain scan while reading a book

Brain scan while reading a book

In an era where watching television and surfing the internet has replaced reading a good old-fashioned book, some may wonder whether this switch has changed brain functioning. It seems to reason that passively watching TV would be less beneficial than reading a book, but what about surfing the internet? It’s definitely not a passive act, and searching requires thought for sifting through all the links and deciding what’s useful information.

Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles found that internet use increased brain functioning in a sample consisting of 24 individuals ranging from 55 to 76 years old. Each participant had a brain scan while reading books and performing web searches. Initially, web searching activated more regions of the brain than while reading including areas that

Brain scan while searching the internet

Brain scan while searching the internet

control decision-making and complex reasoning, but this change was only noted in participants who were experienced web users.

However, after the inexperienced web users had practiced searching on the internet for only a week, their brain functioning was similar to the experienced internet users group. This finding suggests that even a brief period of internet use can improve brain functioning and may help to ward off some of the aging effects on the brain.

Broadband for Seniors Training

Couple on Computer

As computers become more and more integrated into our daily lives, it is essential to keep current on how to use new technologies as they emerge. Although there are many how-to guides and tutorials available online teaching newbies how to use new programs and software, unfortunately not many of these guides are geared toward the retirement-aged population.

U3A Online in Australia partnered with NEC Australia, Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association, and Adult Learning Australia to bring a free series of tutorials on introductory computer skills. The courses include topics such as word processing, searching the internet, and introduction to email. You can follow the link below to register for a free account and begin to start taking some of the courses today!

U3A Online

While Americans use the term Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI), our neighbors around the world call their centers University of the Third Age (U3A). U3A’s have been around since 1973 and started in France where they were primarily associated with universities and the collegiate academic model. When the U3A model moved to Great Britain in the 1980’s, it started to look more like how most LLIs are operated in the US with a volunteer facilitating system and less of an emphasis on grades and tests. Members life experiences were used to form the basis of classes where both the facilitator and students could learn in tandem from one another.

Today, U3As exist independently around the world from Argentina to China, and some centers have even ventured into starting to put parts of classes online. There are at least two U3As who offer online courses: Great Britain and Austrailia. I recently spoke with Di Delchau, a representative from U3A online in Austrailia, to find out more about their program.

U3A logo

Alex Finnarn: What’s the history of U3A online?

Di Delchau: U3A Online was started by three people, Jack McDonnell, Dorothy Braxton and Rick Swindell, in 1998. They received a grant from the Federal Government in1999, which was the year of the Older Person, which allowed the project to proceed. It was established as a substitute for a regular face to face U3A for Isolated people — those who were unable to attend a regular U3A because of geographics, being incapacitated or being a carer or some other reason that they were unable to attend. They started with only a couple of courses that were converted to online courses but had been written and presented at regular U3As by the writers. Until July last year people used to just register on the site and then pay per course they undertook with special concessions for those people who were truely isolated or those already enrolled in other U3As that wanted to also do an online course. Last year we established a membership system.

AF: Is the popularity growing, stable, decreasing?

DD: Since moving to a full membership system last year we have been able to get a better picture of real support and our membership is growing very rapidly. At the end of November last year it was in the vicinity of 800 members and today it is over 1400. Any older people, from anywhere in the world, can become a member and can then have access to all the courses, as Independent Study, without further cost throughout their membership period. Membership is only $A25/yr. Isolated people are still supported by this system but it is also open to any older people and handicapped people of any age are also encouraged to take part.

AF: How do you keep the social nature of classes from diminishing?

DD: People are able, at times, to do the courses online with a Course Leader and when participating in this was they are encouraged to use the Discussion Forum to communicate with, not only the Course Leader, but also the other people in the course. We also have a Members’ Area where there are some social forums that the members can participate in —- this is member driven so we put up whatever forum is requested. We monitor this area to avoid any abuse but so far there has not been any. It is only available to members who have to login to it so we don’t anticipate any problems.

U3A Online has never (and never will) sought to replace regular U3As — the value they have in the social aspect cannot be replicated online. It was developed to allow at least some aspect of regular U3As to be available to people who otherwise would have nothing. Now that we are so well established and we now have a volunteer who is extremely competent at getting the courses online in a very short time, our range of courses has rapidly grown and we now offer 37 courses with others currently being written (all courses are written by retired experts or are courses that members of regular U3As have been offering in their U3A and are happy to have converted for use online).

If you want to find out more about U3A Online or even try out a class, you can go to their website to learn more.

– submitted by Alex Finnarn