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Building Ironman: MIT Media Lab Biomechatronics Shoot

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

A couple of weeks ago I did a shoot at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab for the Biomechatronics Group (how’s that for a name?!). Now that the client has seen the images I get to write about it!

Given that it’s MIT, I was expecting to be amazed by what the people there were working on. Boy was I right. The “Biomech” Group is a small group of a dozen or so researchers who are, basically, building Ironman. Founded by an engineer and rock climber named Hugh Herr who lost both of his legs below the knee to an ice climbing incident (and who responded to the tragedy by designing and building himself artificial lower legs so good he could continue rock climbing), the Biomech Group has developed artificial biomechanical prosthetic limbs that move and function the same way human limbs do. The Biomech Group is redoing its website, and I was called in to create photographs of some of the things they’re working on, such as a biomechanical ankle and knee. Below is one of the photos from the shoot, of the current generation knee that the lab is working on under the direction of Postdoctoral Associate Elliott Rouse.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab Biomechatronics Group Knee by Elliott Rouse

©2013 Chris Conti Photography. All Rights Reserved.

In order to recreate the functions of human limbs in their biomechanical ones, the members of the Biomech Group need to have a deep and precise understanding of the motions and forces at play in the normal function of human limbs. In order to precisely measure the movements the human body makes in a natural stride, the lab uses an infrared motion capture system (similar to the systems used by Hollywood in the creation of lifelike animation and special effects) which consists of an array of infrared emitters and cameras recording the precise position of spherical “markers” that reflect the infrared light which are attached to strategic places on test subjects’ bodies.The below image is of Postdoctoral Associate Jared Markowitz on the motion capture system.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab Biomechatronics Group infrared motion capture system with researcher Jared Markowitz

©2013 Chris Conti Photography. All Rights Reserved.

This was without a doubt one of the coolest and most interesting photoshoots I’ve ever done, and I can’t wait to come back and work with the Biomech Group again.

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My Website is Being Attacked By Hackers

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

My website is being attacked by hackers.

My website, like many millions of others, is powered by the WordPress content management system. If you have a WordPress-powered website, chances are your site is being attacked as well.

What’s going on? A couple of days ago it was discovered that hackers somewhere in the world are using a massive botnet (apparently over 90,000 machines) to attack websites all over the world (and the servers that run them) powered by WordPress. Why did they pick WordPress? Well, in addition to being plentiful (WordPress is used by over 60 million websites) it also has a quirk: WordPress by default doesn’t limit the number of times someone can try to log in as an administrator. That means that hackers can write computer programs that try lots of different passwords in a short period of time, hoping they get lucky and happen to try the right password (this is known as a “brute-force” attack… they’re just throwing a ton of different things at the wall and hoping one sticks).

Once they guess the right password and successfully get administrator privileges, the hackers are apparently installing malware on the servers that host the compromised WordPress sites which gives the hackers the ability to send instructions to be carried out by the servers (yes, hackers are using a botnet to build a bigger botnet).

But how do the hackers guess the right passwords? Well, the sad truth is that many people who have WordPress-powered websites never bother to change the default password. So simply trying the default password will often get the hackers access. But even when people do create their own password, they often make it something that’s easy to guess (a word in the dictionary, for example). Since the hackers control tens of thousands of computers and since WordPress doesn’t limit the number of login attempts, the hackers can try lots of different common passwords to see if they can get the right one. There are anywhere from a quarter of a million to a million words in the English dictionary, which sounds like a lot. Except that if a hacker is trying a thousand different passwords per second, he can guess every word in the English language in less than twenty minutes!

Why are the hackers going to fail to crack my password? Two reasons: First, I have an incredibly strong password! Instead of a simple word from the dictionary, my password is 14 characters long and uses uppercase, lowercase, numeric AND special (!@#$%^, etc.) characters. So instead of the at most one million possible passwords if I were to just use a dictionary word, there are how many possibilities? (get ready for some math, and some big numbers)

There are 26 lowercase characters, 26 uppercase characters, 10 numerical characters and at least 10 special characters (although there are actually more than 30). This means there are a minimum of 72 possible characters. With a 14-character password, that means there are 72^14 possible passwords the same length as mine, or 1.006×10^26… which, written out, is roughly 100,613,197,241,792,000,000,000,000.

So at the same one thousand tries per second, when it would take a hacker about sixteen minutes to guess any word in the English language, it would take a hacker 3,190 trillion years to guess my password… which, of course, is many, many, many times longer than, for example, the age of the universe.

Plus, the second reason hackers are going to have a hard time breaking into my site is that I also added a plugin to my WordPress site that limits the number of times a hacker can try to login to my WordPress administration area. The plugin is called “Limit Login Attempts,” and can be found right from within the “Add Plugin” area of WordPress.

Hackers have been attacking my site with login attempts continuously for at least the last 18 hours, and are still doing so. But since I’ve taken these two very simple steps (having a strong password and a plugin that limits the number of times they can try), I’ve essentially guaranteed that this “brute-force” attack isn’t going to work on me. It will, sadly, work on lots and lots of other people who have weak (or even default!) passwords, and hackers will compromise thousands of people’s sites. Obviously if you have a WordPress site, I would strongly suggest you do these two things: make sure you have a strong password and install that plugin!

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Crazy Weekend

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

This weekend I have two photo & video shoots in two days involving six locations, seven models and a three-camera interview setup (one of which being the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera, which I’ve never used before). Today’s shoot was a location shoot for a university here in Boston where I visited five different locations in about six hours. Tomorrow’s shoot, by contrast, is a studio shoot where I’ll be in one room for six hours doing headshots and interviews of seven models.

It’s about 9:30pm on Saturday night and I just finished and delivered the same-day edit of today’s shoot (now how’s that for client service!), and now it’s time to pack of the Blackmagic camera along with my trusty Canon 5D Mark II and 7D to get ready for tomorrow’s shoot…

Quick frame from today’s shoot below.

©2013 Chris Conti Photography

Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L ISII USM @ 95mm, ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/125 sec. ©2013 Chris Conti Photography. All Rights Reserved.

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New Hampshire Timelapses

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

I hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving!

I spent Turkey Day this year in New Hampshire, and in between the never-ending meals and copious football games I took the opportunity of a few days outside of Boston (and its ambient light!) to shoot a couple of night timelapses. I’m working on processing them (I’ll actually have a whole new timelapse demo reel soon… I’m working on it and it’s almost done), but for the moment I just wanted to show a quick preview. The following still is one frame from one of the timelapses I shot this weekend. The area of New Hampshire where I spent the weekend is very rural, and as a result has very little ambient light / light pollution in the night sky, so it’s a great place for seeing the stars. If you know your constellations, you can see Orion on the right side of this image (the three stars that form his belt are nearly vertical).

Again, I hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving, and check back in soon for the new timelapse reel!

(Click the image below for a larger version)


Click for larger version

Still frame from timelapse shot in Cornish, New Hampshire (click for larger version)


UPDATE: I got the new timelapse reel cut together today. Take a look here!

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Rockclimbing Shoot

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

I mentioned in my last blog post that I’ve been focusing on the outdoors in my personal work recently. I’ve been an avid rock climber since college and have always thought rock climbing photos, done well, were really cool. I’d done a couple of rock climbing photo shoots, but none recently, so about a month or two ago I decided that I wanted to organize one. I was on a climbing excursion a several weeks ago when I happened to meet some other climbers who were amiable to the idea of having someone shoot photos of them while they climbed, so we exchanged some emails and set up a day we were all free to get together.

Rock climbing photos shot from the ground are usually pretty boring, so to do them well and get a more interesting camera angle, the photographer really needs to be an active participant and actually gear up and get off the ground. But doing this is logistically a bit complicated (you need a second anchor, people who know how not to kill themselves building the anchor, etc.), so it takes time to set up and do properly. So we decided to shoot for this past Sunday as our day.

This weekend was a busy weekend for me as I was shooting for Boston University all day on Saturday and we wanted to get an early start on Sunday (the particular area of rock I wanted to use faces directly east and it was imperative that we not be in shadow for the photos, so we needed to be shooting in the morning). But I think it was worth it. I haven’t had a chance to edit the images from the shoot yet, but I took a quick look and I like them. Additionally, one of my intrepid cohorts even pulled out a brand new, shiny iPhone 5 (mine is coming on Friday, I can’t wait!) and started taking pictures of me taking pictures! One of those images is below, followed by a rough edit of one of my frames from the day.

Photographing the photographer. Image by Luella Benn, shot on Apple iPhone 5. Click for larger version.

The iPhone 5 really does look like it is capable taking quality, quality images. When mine arrives I’ll have to do some tests with it… but that’s a post for another day. Here’s a rough edit of one of the images from the day. I can’t wait to go through and edit the rest!

Jason On the Rock ©2012 Chris Conti Photography. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L. Click for larger version.

Many thanks to my “models” for the day!

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