Part-Time Passions: September 2009

This month's hobbies are fencing and scuba diving

4 September 2009
dd Profession:

Don Davis
En Garde!

It was the sword-fighting scenes in the 1987 film The Princess Bride that lured IEEE Senior Member Don Davis into fencing. It looked like a cool thing to try, so he signed up for a class during his junior year at the University of Maryland. Three weeks into it, he entered a local tournament and came in second.

It might have been a case of beginner's luck, but by the mid-1990s he was nationally ranked in the top 30 to 40 competitors, with a drawer full of medals. He was also a new father by then, however, which didn't mesh too well with constant traveling on the fencing circuit, so he stopped. In 2006, when three of his daughters entered middle school and his youngest was in elementary school, he rejoined the fencing fray, this time in the 40-plus age category. He went on to win the 2007 and 2008 men's foil U.S. national championships.

Davis's weapon of choice is the relatively thin foil. In foil fencing, points are earned by striking the opponent's torso. The other fencing weapons are the larger épée and saber; the latter can score points by slashing as well as thrusting.

The fencing season lasts about 10 months, during which Davis competes in 15 to 20 tournaments. He trains six days a week. His equipment includes a protective jacket and breeches, mask, gloves, shoes, and the foil, which has an electric push button that registers hits of at least 500 grams of force. A body cord connects the sword through the back of the jacket to a plug connected to a scoring machine by a reel-tensioned spring, which keeps the cord taut as the fencer moves. "It's state-of-the-art from 1950, but it works," Davis laughs. "You need the sensor because it happens so fast. Judges can't always see the hits."

Davis likens fencing to chess. "It involves moves and countermoves, but at superhigh speeds," says Davis, who works for Alloy Computing, the Clarksville, Md., engineering consulting firm he co-owns, as an embedded systems and field-programmable gate array designer. And it seems that with age he's gotten better at fencing. "This year I had my highest placement—in the top 20—and that was for the open age category," says Davis, 42. "I think age has given me a perspective on my opponents. I better understand how to read them."

Davis finds fencing and engineering a complementary combination. "It's not like you use calculus to fence better," he says. "But it does require a kind of real-time analysis. After you get beyond the basic lunges, attacks, and retreats, fencing is about how to trick the other person."


coop Profession:

Deborah Cooper
Swimming With Sharks

When Deborah Cooper found herself surrounded by hammer-head sharks while scuba diving off the Galapagos Islands, she didn't panic.

"Some of the sharks started moving toward me, but I think it was mostly out of curiosity," says Cooper, an IEEE senior member. "I don't expect to get attacked by a shark, but if I did, it would happen so quickly, it's not something I can get nervous about." In fact, Cooper recalls her time with the hammerheads as "one of the most awesome and beautiful experiences I've had while diving."

"Although," she adds, "I did have a really cute experience in the Caribbean when a barracuda followed me around."

Since getting her diving certification in 1998, Cooper has made more than 200 dives in places like Belize (her deepest dive, at 42 meters), Fiji, Hawaii, and many islands in the Caribbean. She hopes to dive in Indonesia next year.

But her favorite has been the Galapagos.

"Everything in the Galapagos is amazing," she says. "I could not believe how unspoiled and unafraid the marine life was. There were wild dolphins swimming around us, and a turtle even bumped into a diver. This was a rare experience for a scuba diver."

Cooper recalls watching broadcasts of Jacques Cousteau and finding herself "glued to the television, captivated." Her interest was also piqued when she accompanied some scuba-diving friends in California's Channel Islands, as a snorkeler only. But it wasn't until she moved across the country and met a colleague who was a scuba instructor that she decided to take a certification course.

Cooper dives mostly from live-aboard boats in open water. While her friends in Virginia frequently dive for fun in a local water-filled quarry, she uses it to check out her equipment and skills. "For me, scuba diving is underwater tourism," she says. "I'm there to watch the marine life and to learn, including how to protect marine life. Being a certified scuba diver allows me to dive safely and to see things at depths unavailable to snorkelers."

On land, Cooper is a computer security expert who has run her own Reston, Va.-based consultancy, DC Associates, for the past 14 years. She is a certified nitrox diver—nitrox is a gas mixture that lets divers stay underwater longer—and intends to take more courses to improve her skills.

If you have an interesting hobby you would like to share, e-mail the editors:

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Learn More