Vacation: scuba, friends, family, and... OpenGazer

[An admittedly odd collection of topics for a single blog post...]

Over the end-of-year break, I took my first significant vacation in years: a wonderful 3 weeks away from work, and in fact away from most e-mail and quite a bit of time away from all "screens" except the one on my camera. Most significantly, during those weeks I spent ~10 days in Hawaii - one of the favorite places for my wife and me to visit (and the site of my last significant vacation).

My wife, step-son Paul, and I went first to Oahu for a few days. We visited a high school friend of mine and his family (and also his parents, who were in town). We were staying in Waikiki (with a beautiful view from our room) - at the same time as President Obama! We didn't managed to run into him, but heard the sirens of his motorcade in the distance a couple of times.

We had a great time snorkeling in Hanauma Bay, and as before, I took my camera underwater. Anneli and Paul joined in the snorkeling fun. The water wasn't very deep, and sometimes you even had to climb over the rocks rather than swim. The view over the water was somewhat similar to under the water. There were nice fish near the surface, and also in and amongst the rocks. There were plenty of pencil urchins. Also some very strange fish (I think that one was a Panneliul fish).

In addition to snorkeling, we also drove around the island. We stopped briefly across from "Chinaman's Hat Island", and were awed by the steep mountains dividing the North Shore from South. We also did some shopping - making our pilgrimage to the Ala Moana Shopping Center and the "right out of Tokyo" Shirokiya store (they have the best mochi). Finally, we had a couple of great meals. Dim Sum at Legend Seafood in Chinatown, and a lovely Thai food dinner at the small and friendly Bangkok Chef (run by relatives of the high school friend we were visiting).

Then we flew to Kona where we stayed at the SuGAR cottage in Captain Cook. After unloading our car, Paul and I went for a dive with Gary, cottage co-owner and a dive master. The dive was right off Miloli'i pier, in and around the bay. Perhaps the most striking thing I saw was a blue starfish - something I'd only seen in aquariums. Most of this first dive was spent getting re-acquainted with my underwater camera gear (which I talked about in my previous blog about diving, though it was now upgraded with a second HID light). We surfaced to a beautiful sunset - a wonderful first day on the Big Island.

Paul and I did another pair of dives the next day with Torpedo Tours out of Kona (Anneli wasn't feeling well, and so spent the day re-familiarizing herself with the town). We went to "Kaiwi Point" and "Freeze Face" (so named because of the cold spring flowing out of a small cavern). There were small fish and fish that wanted to pose for me and fish that were hiding in plain sight. Away in the distance there was even a shark. Then our divemaster offered an octopus to Paul. Then I took my favorite photo of the trip: the octopus close-up! On the boat with us was a teacher-student pair getting their re-breather certification. Diving with them was a woman doing macro photography. And with that, the delightful day of diving came to an end.

We took a few days' break from diving. We went to visit Volcanoes National Park. It's amazing to be walking on Earth that is younger than you are! We walked out to the viewing point - crossing over cooled lava that looked like tree roots. Once we arrived, we shared the space with other photographers setting up for sunset photos. Folks who paid a lot of money could get closer - by helicopter or later by boat. As the sun set, I took a series of fiery photos.

The next day we went to Hilo, and visited Akaka Falls. After that, it was off to Puna, and a visit to Ahalanui Beach Park - where we did a bit more snorkeling, though this time without camera. They warn you about the dangers of the park, and unfortunately Paul failed to heed them. We drove Paul to the airport the next day, hung out in Kona that afternoon, and then went to the Sheraton Hotel in Keauhou Bay to watch another sunset and see the boats gathering for the manta ray night dive. We'd hoped to do the manta ray night dive ourselves, but the night we were scheduled go to it was canceled due to heavy surge, and we didn't manage to make it another night.

We did manage another day of diving though! Anneli and I had a wonderful pair of dives with Sandwich Isle Divers. We had been saddened by the closure of Dive Tek (who we loved last time in Hawaii), and are thrilled to have a good replacement in Sandwich Isle Divers! Having managed to "dial in my camera" during the previous dives, I had much better luck with lighting for these dives. At the first site - "No Conger Eeel" - I found that with proper light, things are colorful! Like the colorful cornet fish (alongside the Hawaiian cleaner wrasse). Or a fish posing for me. Or a fish hiding from me. Or a fish nicely framed against the blue. Other delights on this dive included a leaf fish, a crown of thorns starfish, and a colorful nudibranch.

At the second site - "Pine Trees" - I began by photographing a "retro diver" who liked to use "vintage gear". Then once I oriented myself on the bottom, I spotted a tiny pair of harlequin shrimp hiding in amongst the coral. Then came a beautiful moorish idol, followed by a second one. Then a passel of butterfly fish. One swimming nearer to the surface, then another with striking colors, followed quickly by a third. One swimming to the left, then one swimming to the right, and finally two swimming together! Sometimes a fish was hiding from me, while other times it was it was a school of fish in the distance. To prove that this wasn't the earlier dive site, I saw a conger eel who didn't like it when I got too close. In addition to the earlier nudibranch, this dive yielded a spanish dancer. Finally, this dive wasn't all about sea creatures. We also had fun with some large swim-throughs.

With diving done for the trip, we spent our last full day in the Southern part of the Big Island. We visited South Point, which is one of the windiest places on the Island. Here's another view of a windswept tree. In fact, it's so windy they have windmills there. You can see them from the coastline that looks like Mendocino. Here they are a bit closer up. Speaking of the coast, I loved watching the translucent waves as the crashed along the shore. In some places, the waves were busy creating green sand. South Point was a "working" region, and even now, folks were hauling up fish caught from boats down below. They tried to make a road to a pier, but they weren't too successful and the pier washed away. It was a spare and beautiful landscape, and I'm very glad I went there.

Near South Point is the town of Naalehu, where my aunt, uncle, and cousin live. Aunt and cousin were away, but it was really nice to spend some time with my uncle Louis. The brother of my father who passed away in 2001, he's the last link I have to that side of my ancestry, and this might be the last time I get to see him in person. We talked for hours, and among other things I learned some details of how my grandmother died. She had a stroke in March of 1985, and we at first thought she was in a "vegetatiave state", and after a short time on life support Louis had her disconnected so she could die peacefully. But she didn't - she took a gasp and kept on living. While others couldn't see it - especially at first - Louis believed she was conscious, and that she was able to communicate with him. After a month of therapy, she was able to move her eyes and her tongue. More physiotherapy later, and she was able to move her arms somewhat, and even stand. Unfortunately she didn't recover further, and she died in August of that year.

I'm sharing this story of my grandmother because of how this history connects with some of my present work. One facet of the AEGIS project that I'm the Technical Manager of is an incredible technology called Opengazer. Opengazer is being developed by Emli-Mari Nell and her colleagues at the Inference Group of the University of Cambridge. It is a multi-year research project to provide eye-tracking using commodity web-cams. As we demonstrated last November to the AEGIS review board in Brussels, as an interim step, Opengazer is now a functioning gesture switch. Emli-Mari has a video of it in action (assuming you have installed the open source VLC player or can otherwise play things in open source Ogg video format). Such technology would have made a huge difference to my grandmother's final months of life, as well as the lives of her caregivers. They could have had rich conversations, utilizing other technologies like Dasher or the GNOME Onscreen Keyboard hooked up to Opengazer. And while solutions exist today that they might have used such as the Tobii Eye Tracker for augmentative communication, these products are very expensive - potentially challenging to justify their many thousands of dollars cost, particularly if at first the doctors don't believe the patient is capable of communication. But with open source solutions like Dasher, GOK, the GNOME desktop, and where we are going with Opengazer, you could put together a powerful communication system for the < $300 it costs for a used laptop with built-in webcam.

But I digress...

I had a tremendous and very full vacation, and am now back at work, preparing for the excitement to come.


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Peter Korn


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