A computer can be a thing of joy, a source of fear, or a mixture of the two. A growing number of Sarasotans are finding the Sarasota Personal Computer Users Group (SPCUG) helps make their computer their friend, and, in the process, helps them make computer friends as well.
"Starting off, most people find computers intimidating," says Dr. Saul Lowitt, who founded the Sarasota area's largest computer club 18 years ago to learn and share the new technology. From that first 1982 gathering of five people in Dr. Lowitt's living room, the Sarasota Personal Computer Users Group has surged to more than 2,000 dues-paying patrons. Membership has doubled since 1997, and each mouth dozens of new members continue to join the ranks. Sometimes attendance tops 1,000 at the monthly meetings.
"We're the leading computer-users group in Florida." says Dave Gerber, first vice president of the club. "Other groups around the state have dropping membership, poor leadership and difficulty getting people to teach." In contrast, says Gerber, the Sarasota club has more volunteers than it needs, "because we are in a senior community where members have time to volunteer."
Volunteers reach classes for members and also reach out into the community. For example, two club volunteers now help man Selby Library's computer stations. One person assigns computers and another is a floater, offering assistance to users in need.
In addition to regular meetings, the group also holds a variety of on-going computer classes, publishes an award-winning newsletter, hosts a busy (and award- winning) Web site (http://www.spcug.org), and beams out a monthly show on Sarssota's BLAB-TV, called Computers and You."
"My favorite show was around the holidays when we had five guests review software for gift-giving," says Gerber, who hosts and is executive producer of the show. "All were elementary kids, and we couldn't really predict or control their behavior. One kid was acting like a clown, another like an expert, and it was all on live television. But the show was both useful and fun." The show uses a call-in format, and Gerber boasts it broke BLAB-TV's record with 17 calls coming into one show.
When, I arrived at a recent club meeting at Sarasota Middle School, the sizable parking lot offered only a few vacancies. Inside, founder Dr. Lowitt was in the thick of things, chatting with old friends and assisting new members to choose the classes they needed.
Dr. Lowitt swapped his lectern and stethoscope for a mouse and monitor when he retired a few years ago from a 20-year tenure at the University of South Florida's Medical College. Now, instead of discussing childhood influenza symptoms with pediatric medical residents, he's likely to be talking about viruses of the digital kind.
"I'm most proud of the teaching we do here," Dr. Lowitt says of the computer club. "Back when we started the group, the software was primitive, and we didn't have the size to support targeted classes. Now, the spectrum of topics and students is broad enough to have dozens of classes going on at one time.
Most members agree that the major benefit of the club is its Special Interest Groups (SIGs). These groups provide classes--taught by volunteers--on subjects ranging from software such as Microsoft Office to more advanced hardware topics such as Computer Networking, all included in the modest $35 annual membership fee.
When I dropped into one SIG, Dr. Brian Lewis was at the head of a class-room brimming over with more than two dozen adults discussing computer security issues. They perched on school desks as they conducted a lively interchange about such security issues as having your home computer online 24 hour a day, using cable modems or DSL connections to the Internet. The discussion ranged from anecdotes to spontaneous software reviews from an audience that contained everybody from retired computer engineers to brand-new users.
"A woman was recently startled by the Sarasota County Sheriff's Department's arrival at her door, claiming to be responding to her call for help to 911," recounted Dr. Lewis. "As it turned out, she had unknowingly downloaded what's called a Trojan horse e-mail, which delivered a program into her computer that dialed 911 from her phone line." The group swapped stories about free software that would protect against such an attack, and some described what had happened when they used new software that detects hackers.
"I recently installed software that reveals who's trying to look into my computer, and I can now see that @Home [the service he uses to connect to the Internet] remotely checks my computer connection several times a day," noted one participant. When others said they'd noticed the same thing, several members told them that they'd been assured by @Home that the remote checks are just to make sure everything is working properly.
As a user of a cable modem myself, I was surprised to learn about workers at @Home being able to access my hard drive--and comforted to learn that a free software firewall can block unauthorized remote access.
A common complaint about computer class is that the pace the teacher sets can be too slow for some and too rapid for others. The SPCUG has lessened such frustrations by dividing classes up among levels of experience, but members say more remains to be done.
Dr. Lowitt promises those concerns will be classes where the technology will allow students to learn and work at their own pace," he says. "Instructors will wander the classroom and help as needed but nor force students to follow a set plan."
Although the makeup of the group tends to reflect Sarasota's older demographics, there are many young members as well. The computer security group was mainly male, but other groups had more women in attendance.
About half of those in the group learning how to scan images to send photos with e-mail or for desktop publishing were female. The mood seemed more humorous and task-oriented than in the computer security class, where the men had focused on the social and legal implications of personal computing.
The leaders of the digital-imaging class offered some excellent advice. Next time you're trying to figure out how to do something new on a computer, they urged, read what's on the screen. Read more, and then some more. Only when all else fails, hit the buttons. Hmm--I think I'll try that soon. How about you?
In addition to classes, meetings often present information about new products. Hope Hertz, director of volunteers for the group, says vendors such as Microsoft are eager to make presentations "because of our group's demographics."
"We have all the skilled volunteer teachers we need, and plenty of students," says Dr. Lowitt. Actually, their biggest challenge is one most organizations would love to have. "Our only problem is too much success: We are running out of space," says Dr. Lowitt.