Category Archives: Web/Tech

Kevin Scott’s “Behind the Tech”

In his photographic project “Behind the Tech,” Kevin Scott portrays the “relatively unknown” technologists who “make our modern lives possible.” “The Behind the Tech project’s singular purpose is to acknowledge the makers of technology and what they do.”

What is the genesis of your project? I read that you started by photographing a number of women with whom you have worked over the years? What was the seed? How has the project expanded?

With Behind the Tech, I had been thinking for a while about how important role models are for us as we imagine what we could be in the future. Role models have always been important to me. Just seeing someone who at some point was like me, who could do something I thought was hard or impossible, always gives me hope that I could do that thing too. For little kids in particular, technology can be this very abstract thing, but showing them that there are folks who look like them, who make the technology that they use, I think is a very powerful thing. But when you think about the people in tech who we celebrate, whose faces are well known, they are interesting, but not representative of the faces actually behind the technology. I wanted to do something that showed the diverse faces, and that shared the diverse stories of the folks who I see on a day-to-day basis trying to make the world a little bit better with technology. And by doing so, I hope that I can help a few people find role models, inspiration, and their own path to a better future.

I started Behind the Tech in July of 2016. I had a free chunk of time for the first time in a decade, and I decided that I was going to start by asking a bunch of folks I knew if they would sit for a portrait for this project. I then asked the Institute, which runs the Grace Hopper Celebration, if I could set up a temporary portrait studio on the GHC exhibition floor to do some portrait sittings for conference attendees. After that I had a pretty long list of folks to photograph. I contracted with a recent Stanford Classics Ph.D. graduate to help write some of the profiles. Now that we’ve got a bunch of interesting content, we’re starting to try to promote the project a bit.

How did you decide on your lens and lighting choices for this project? Why did you choose to shoot it in black and white? Are there any photographers from whom you got inspiration for those choices? How would you say it differs from your usual shooting choices?

There are a bunch of portrait photographers I admire. Arnold Newman, Peter Lindbergh, and Platon might be my three favorites. I love how Newman was able to use environment in this incredibly graphical way in his portraits. Lindbergh is a genius at getting people to relax, and I love how organic and natural all of his portraits seem. And Platon is my favorite photographer. He uses the face and the human body in such strikingly graphical ways.

I think that a lot of my shooting choices are influenced by these three. I always shoot black and white to accentuate the graphical nature of face and form. I tend to favor lighting and processing that creates contrast, again to try to give portraits a graphical quality. But I also try really hard to capture the subject as they are, not an idea of who they should be, which means no hair and makeup, no major retouching, and spending a lot of time getting the subject comfortable before and during shooting.

These photos were shot with a 120mm macro lens on a Phase One Medium format camera. It’s a brilliantly sharp lens that allows for close focus, and a comfortable space between me and the subject. I had a couple of lighting setups, although I almost always try to shoot with one light. The setup I used most often was an Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octa modifier positioned above and angled down toward the subject, just out of the shot.

You are said to speak to your subjects as you photograph them. How much of that is your interest in them as technologists, and how much of that is your way of working as a photographer (making them feel at ease)?

It’s both. I always chat with my subjects as I’m photographing them to try to capture glimpses of their real selves, not a conception of how I think they should look. When I set up I’ll frame the subject, then move out from behind the camera, and chat with them while I’m firing shots with a remote trigger. Every 10 frames or so I’ll recheck framing and focus and continue this way until I think we’re done with whatever conversation that we’re having. Keeping them focused on me rather than the camera has made my portraiture a lot better, IMO. And on top of that, I’m genuinely interested in everyone I photograph. I wouldn’t photograph them if I weren’t interested in learning more about them.

What kind of technical training have you had as a photographer, and what have you taught yourself along the way?

I’ve done some workshops [Ralph Gibson] and online courses over the years, but most of what I’ve learned has been through reading, talking with photographers when I get the chance, looking at a lot of photography and trying to imagine how photographers made the images that I admired, and then a lot of trial and error.

Which documentaries have been influential on you?

In terms of documentaries, the Salgado biopic “Salt of the Earth” was really influential, as was “Finding Vivian Maier,” “Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light,” and “Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens.”

It is interesting that one of your motivations to do “Behind the Tech” is because you wanted to highlight people in technology whom you believe deserve more attention, especially when Platon, of your inspirations, is known for a project like “Power: Portraits of World Leaders.” Platon has said that one of the reasons why he chooses the lighting he does is due to the limits of time he has with his subjects. Similarly, you have had short periods of time with some of your subjects, for instance, when you caught some of them during the Grace Hopper Celebration. Beyond that practical consideration, though, why do you like, what you called the “strikingly graphical” approach of Platon?

I really admire Platon for a bunch of reasons. The portraits themselves are striking: the contrast; the posing; the interesting use of perspective; the things that he does with hands. I’m a big fan of the work that he does with Human Rights Watch and in furtherance of human rights in general. The work that he’s done with Dr. Denis Mukwege and Panzi Hospital in the Congo is heartbreaking and a powerful call to action for all of us.

On lighting, I wonder if Platon’s choices were of necessity in the beginning, and are now his preference because of the simple beauty of single-light setups. In the Netflix documentary of his work, Abstract: The Art of Design, he was shooting a portrait of Colin Powell in his studio in New York City, where he could have used any setup he liked, and was using the same black backdrop and overhead, shoot-through umbrella keylight that he seems to use so often. I definitely feel that affinity with my single-light setup, even when I am in the studio with every tool imaginable at my disposal it’s the thing I most often go to.

Platon and Lindbergh both often seem to work fairly tightly in their portraiture, choosing to focus on face and posture to convey character. Lindbergh backs out sometimes to show some scene, though it often seems to be as a way of accenting the person he is portraying rather than conveying anything thematically. However, you said you also like the way that Arnold Newman uses the environments of his subjects when he portrays them. Any favorite Newman works? And in what ways might we see the influence of Newman’s approach in this project, or in your future work?

Newman’s portrait of Stravinsky at his piano is one of my absolute favorite pieces of art. I don’t know that I’m so much influenced by Newman as inspired by him. I’ve tried to shoot environmental portraits before and can’t even begin to approach his genius in getting subject and environment to reinforce and complement one other. Whenever I try, the background invariably distracts from the individual. But I’m going to keep trying. I love this idea that a portrait can be a bit of a self-contained biography of a subject, and that subject accompanied by environment might make you ask a different set of questions about an image.

Besides your motivation to do this “Behind the Tech” project, how else has your background in technology [Scott is the Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft] informed and colored your choices as a photographer? In what ways, if any, for instance, does it make you a more technically-inclined photographer, and how has that both helped and hindered your photography? You mentioned that you like to shoot subjects whom you like or admire, but how else do you make sure to overcome the “gadget (camera) freak” mentality of some technologists to properly focus on your subjects?

I think that having a background in math and physics and engineering has helped with thinking about the tools and technical bits of photography as a system, and for me at least has made it quick to ramp up on new things and understand how things work. Which is great because honestly I want all of the technical bits to disappear into the background and to be able to focus my attention on the subject. One of the reasons that I do photography is for the conversation with the subject, thinking about a composition, visualizing the image I would like to capture without having my eye at a viewfinder, all of that is like a release from the technical stuff that I do for my day job.

I haven’t always been this zen. Focusing too much on gadgets and gear has definitely been a distraction in the past. I still enjoy the tools of photography. But, I was in a workshop with Ralph Gibson once and just blown away by what he was able to do with a Leica M, a 50mm lens, natural light, and his eye. And if you look at the amazing images that my three photography heroes make, it’s not because they are shooting with peak technology and complex setups. I think that for some folks, perhaps especially techies, it’s hard getting to the point where you understand that you, not your gear, is the most significant factor in making an image. In a way it makes you very vulnerable. But if you can’t get past it, you will always be focused on the wrong thing. (No pun intended.)

Why are you drawn to portraiture?

Among Arnold Newman, Peter Lindbergh, and Platon’s works, are there specific images that stand out for as inspirations and/or for your admiration and why?

Newman’s Stravinsky portraits, his portrait of Kurt Goedel, and the one of Leonard Bernstein I think are really amazing. The Stravinsky and Goedel portraits are spare, beautifully composed, with both of these geniuses sitting with the instrument of their art: Stravinsky at the piano where he would compose; Goedel in front of a literal blank slate where he might prove his next great theorem. The Bernstein portrait begs so many questions. What is Bernstein thinking? He’s perhaps known most for his conducting, but it’s just him, a score, and empty orchestra in the image. Is that a reflection on his disappointment that he wasn’t better known for his work as a composer? It just seems to capture something about Bernstein’s inner conflict that we know from the historical record was a real thing.

I love so much of Peter Lindbergh’s work. His 2017 Pirelli Calendar is really great in my opinion. I’m not a huge fan of the Pirelli Calendar in general, but Lindbergh’s 2017 I think is really powerful, and shows these rare glimpses of these celebrated women with little or no makeup, no retouching, no ridiculous wardrobe. They are just themselves, and for many of them, who have been photographed countless times, these are my favorite portrayals of them in portraiture.

I’ve already talked a bit about Platon, but some of my specific favorite portraits are the one of Willie Nelson hugging his guitar, the one of the mother at the grave of her son, a Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq, the one of Jon Snowden with the US Flag, and the one of Sylvester Stallone smoking the cigar. The images of the grieving mother and of Snowden with the flag are just extremely well-done images of the juxtaposition of extremely emotional elements, and are obviously intended to provoke a strong emotion in the viewer. The other two are harder to explain, but both in addition to their technical qualities which I think are remarkable, also convey this sense of raw emotion.



Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-dissidents

Reporters Without Borders has released a Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-dissidents.

Blogs get people excited. Or else they disturb and worry them. Some people distrust them. Others see them as the vanguard of a new information revolution. Because they allow and encourage ordinary people to speak up, they’re tremendous tools of freedom of expression.
Bloggers are often the only real journalists in countries where the mainstream media is censored or under pressure. Only they provide independent news, at the risk of displeasing the government and sometimes courting arrest. Reporters Without Borders has produced this handbook to help them, with handy tips and technical advice on how to to remain anonymous and to get round censorship, by choosing the most suitable method for each situation. It also explains how to set up and make the most of a blog, to publicise it (getting it picked up efficiently by search-engines) and to establish its credibility through observing basic ethical and journalistic principles.

(Thanks to Anikó Bartos for the heads up.)

Disposable Laptops

Philip Greenspun, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist and founder of, argues that laptop computers have nearly reached the price where they are becoming "disposable."

So the price of a decent laptop is now converging with the price of an expensive cell phone." […] Will people still want to pay $1000+ for a laptop that they will have to guard from theft and impact when they could just buy a Thinkpad for $600 now and replace it two years from now for $450?

Jeff Nolan says he "wouldn’t be so quick to label a $600 laptop as disposable, but it’s definitely closing the gap with desktops."

Looking for Something to Wear

Unlike some wearable computing scientists, I do not think I could turn myself into a “cyborg.” Audacious souls, they have taken to wearing computers every waking hour. They say the visors and wearable keyboards they don daily mediate or heighten their perception of reality. In other words, not virtual reality, hyper-reality. Add in wireless, and they are able to constantly troll the Internet for answers to questions in real-time. Steve Mann, the wearable computing pioneer, says that wearable computing allows him to filter out content, like billboards, signs and other advertising, that has been essentially thrust on him.

Some wearable computing scientists have been brave—or foolhardy enough to have even experimented with implantation. Our reluctance to quickly follow suit should not surprise wearable computing scientists and developers when many of us still resist putting on the sweaters that our moms used to try to get us to wear. Those of us still shy about laser eye surgery might get positively leery about wearing displays over the eyes. PDA wristwatches have not caught on. They are essentially just a different way of binding PDAs to our bodies, when a good holster or coat pocket will do for most people. As road warriors, we happily lug our laptops, PDAs and cell phones (or devices that have begun to converge some of those capabilities) to meeting after meeting, but voluntarily weighing oneself with the tools of a road warrior still tends to be more about business than pleasure. Research in Motion (RIM) would probably admit that they would like to have pushed their market share further out of the business community that is its mainstay.

When I was still in finance, I used to keep a RIM Blackberry on me all the time. Actually, my firm insisted on it. My wife says I used to check my Blackberry frenetically every 10 to 15 minutes or so (much like she does now that she herself has one). Now that I am out of finance, though, I try to keep less technology on my body. Of course, that probably makes me somewhat of a luddite, at least compared to other white collar professionals. Mann’s vision of how wearable computers can mediate and recapture our ownership of our physical space sounds appealing, but do the rest of us want to feel tethered to technology? What if we like technology’s ability to heighten our experience but do not want it to be obtrusive?

What kind of device is going to get us to wear or at least tote our computers more? The current center of portable “computing” seems to be the cell phone and its multi-function counterparts. To be enticingly wearable, a device has to be indispensable. The phone function alone makes it so for some people. We all love to talk. In Europe, they have extended the capabilities of cell phones to digital purchases so that you can, say, buy a soft drink from a vending machine. If something as quintessentially American as digital cash cannot entice us to wear, though, what else can?

Other developers have focused on the entertainment aspect. News headlines, sports scores and stock tickers first filled our cell phone screens. Now writers like Yoshi and Zuan Huang have experimented with SMS novels, while The Guardian newspaper has sponsored SMS poetry contests. Multimedia remains a bit of a holy grail. Music files are more than common, but now purveyors are trying to get us to watch videos on our cell phones. India’s “Bollywood” tried distributing its movie “Stop If You Can” to Bharti Tele-Ventures customers. Camera phones have been popular with photobloggers, and users have turned their iPods into devices for listening to homemade radio shows. (Apple continues trying to find ways to use its iPod to back into other markets). Usability, as part of form and function, are paramount: Jeff Hawkin’s Palm, not Steve Job’s Newton; Steve Job’s iPod, not earlier iterations of mp3 players.

Entertainment value powerfully incentives us to wear devices. Those who grew up on Sony, Nintendo, Sega and Xbox (and not on primitive video games like Pong) are essentially already used to being less tied day and night to some kind of microprocessor. They are less apt to have qualms to being tethered. MP3 players and gaming devices underscore that well, but they are not computers in the sophisticated sense. Our devices still have quantum leaps they can provide in the way we connect to each other; wireless gaming and Howard Rheingold’s “ad hoc” communities, where wireless capabilities facilitate social networking, are steps in the right direction. Yet the adoption of 24/7 computing will remain limited if corporations ignore interactivity and look simply to monopolize or push information on us. Consumers need devices that enhance their experiences, not ones that simply make device accessibility ubiquitous. Devices need to be simultaneously accessible and unobtrusive. Today’s modern soldier cannot exist on the battlefield without the vision enhancement, communications devices and armor that have become de rigueur, but they still take off their equipment when they gather in the mess hall (as we tragically saw in Mosul) or when they climb into their bunks.

Developers continue to make strides in “smart fabrics,” the process of essentially weaving microprocessors into clothing. In the meantime, what might us “non-cyborgs” be willing to wear? Cell phones that fit perfectly in our ears (bluetooth devices only get us partially there, because they require a device that should be extraneous). Eyeglasses that look and work like eyeglasses (or sunglasses), but instantaneously become information display screens when called up or needed. (Or maybe screens that clip on or flip down over our glasses?) Input systems, whether joystick, glove, keypad or voice (or Thad Starner’s “twiddler” device) that are convenient, not cumbersome. Modular components that allow us to quickly add—or subtract functionality, literally the way that we might layer our clothes to suit the weather. Computing that reacts to us the way weapons systems in a modern assault helicopter like the Apache turn and target with the turn of the head or a flick of the hand. Wearable computers that are reliable and not overly susceptible to viruses and spam, since computing needs to enhance experience, rather than distract from it, to be pervasive. But most of all? Devices that go beyond information and file storage to embrace interactivity in ways that will surprise us.

Technorati Tag(s) – technology, computers and Internet.

Motorola Q

Engadget gives its initial impressions of the new Motorola Q, and the site shows side by side images of the Motorola Q and the Treo 650.

More Small Screen Readers

I missed this Associated Press article about cell phone fiction when it came out a few days ago. Like other articles on the topic, it plays up the growing popularity of cell phone books in Japan, mentioning the popularity of the novel Deep Love among teenage girls. (See also Brian Ashcraft’s interview of Deep Love author Yoshi.) AP also points to the Random House’s acquisition of Vocel as a sign of the inevitable rise of this market, despite the fact that Random House Ventures Richard Sarnoff, has said that cell phones are still inadequate for "sustained reading." One company that is trying to cash in is Bandai Networks.

The Tokyo-based wireless service provider offers 150 books on its site, called Bunko Yomihodai,
or All You Can Read Paperbacks. It began the service in 2003 and saw
interest grow last year. There are now about 50,000 subscribers. […] Users can search by author, title and genre, and readers can write
reviews, send fan mail to authors and request what they want to read,
all from their phones.

Technorati Tag(s):  , , .

ipod Slights Classical Music Fans

After trying to rip some classical music CDs for my father, I readily relate to the recent Wall Street Journal article: "Highbrow  Lament: Classical-Music Fans Feel Slighted in Era of the iPod."

But even if fans manage to find
the classical tracks they want online, MP3 players aren’t set up to
easily sort classical music. When a digital song is purchased from an
online site, or even "ripped" from a compact disk, it’s more than a
file containing audio information: each track also contains text that
identifies the artist, album name, track name and track number, which
software programs on PCs and in digital music players use to organize
and display songs.

Pop tunes are generally known by their original
performers and are easy to categorize. But there are hundreds of
recordings of Beethoven symphonies under different conductors with
different orchestras. Many classical-music fans often purchase more
than one version of the same work, to compare performances and build
their libraries. It’s not uncommon for an opera lover, for example, to
own several recordings of Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro" with
different casts or conductors, or a Baroque-music fancier to have two
or three different recordings of Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion."

And woe unto you if you corrupt your iTunes files on your desktop computer; while Apple makes it incredibly easy to move music from your desktop to your iPod, trying to move the music back from the iPod to your desktop is an incredible chore. The limitation is designed to prevent privacy, but it is yet another example of a company arrogantly deciding what you can do with music that you might have already legally purchased. Additionally, if you live in Asia, you will find it difficult to buy music online from Apple. I guess the assumption is that most people living in Asia live to simply pirate music.

NewsTarget is among those pushing the iRiver flash players instead of the iPods, and The Digital Music Weblog agrees that the iPod is overhyped. A Boston Globe article says that the public’s seemingly unsatiable appetite for digital music is drawing additional attention from the cellphone companies. (Brett’s Blog looks at one such offering from Sony Ericsson.)

Update 4/13/2005: Fazal Majid has a good discussion of the issues for iPod owners who want to listen to classical music.

Technorati Tag(s): , .

Random Cell Phone Publishing

Random House has purchased a "significant minority stake" in VOCEL, according to the Associated Press. The New York Times reported that  Random House has also agreed to license two of the company’s product lines.

Under the agreements, Vocel will adapt language-study guides and
video-game tips from Random House for delivery to cellphones beginning
sometime this summer. While most information will be in the form of
text, the Living Language service will also permit users to hear the
correct pronunciations of foreign words.

VOCEL bills itself as a "publisher of premium-branded applications," whose "push technology sends interactive messages to […] mobile phones." Articles about the investment mention more mature cell phone publishing efforts in Europe and Asia.

No news yet about how the partnership figures into Random House’s plans for fiction on cell phones, which seems to have been relegated so far to more guerilla-type publishing and haphazard efforts (see 12/5/04 post "Shorter is Better"). Richard Sarnoff, President of Random House Ventures (an investment arm of the publishing house), was quoted as saying
that cell phones were inadequate for "sustained reading." (Sarnoff sits on the board of The Princeton Review, which is one of VOCEL’s content partners.) Random House Ventures’ past investments have included Xlibris (the self-publishing business), Audible (the provider of digital audio content) and ebrary (a provider of online information and retrieval services).

Better Email

Jeff Nolan writes about the functionality he wants in email. Two items from his list that rank up there for me include "better mobile integration, take email with me everywhere," and  "better spam and spyware detection baked in, 100% effective with no false positives." Although, frankly, right now I would settle for a spam filter that effectively keeps me from seeing every iteration of that email about an overseas guy who wants to send me a portion of his funds if I will only help him unblock his accounts. I’ve long lost count how many versions I have received. I was surprised to find that the so-called "Nigerian scam" actually dates back to the 1920s, long before the advent of email, according to Do the spammers think my days as a Swiss banker make me more likely to fall for the scam?

Google to Offer VOIP?

Rumors circulating about Google showing interest in offering VOIP (voice over Internet protocol). Tom Keating has reported that Google has been looking to hire people with "dark fiber" experience, and he muses on the possibilities.

Google already has tons of bandwidth at its disposal. Imagine if they
decide to get into the VoIP biz? Google has a loyal, almost fanatical
following that dwarf’s even (dare I say?) Apple’s fandom. If Google
plays its cards right it could get into the VoIP business and offer
some really creative applications.

James Seng points to Google’s denials, and mentions Newsweek’s new article on VoIP and Vonage: "Hi! The Net Is Calling." Personally, I can say that I am a fan of Skype, which I use to keep in touch with relatives across the Pacific. (I remember once seeing a graphic that showed Taiwan second only to the United States in number of users.) Sometimes, the voice quality is unreliable (Skype relies on peer to peer–P2P–technology, and I occasionally get dropped calls), but you cannot beat the price, and I also like the way that I can IM (instant message) specific (lengthier) URLs to people so that I can surf web sites together with them.