Chasing the Dream

The Back Story

1 min read

Engineers who court adventure and excitement in their careers aren’t to be found in cubicles, with a comfy chair and a cup of coffee to greet a guest. In fact, getting their stories can be a challenge.

”This is the first eye-safe laser scanning system ever built,” Gregory Makhov, one of the IEEE Spectrum’s 10 dream jobbers for 2007, told Senior Editor Tekla S. Perry in October. He assured her that sophisticated software and fail-safe hardware meant that he could shine laser light directly into her eyes without damaging her vision. Perry put down her notebook and fought the urge to bolt as the plane of laser light descended toward her face. The effect was magical, like entering the tunnel of light in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was just as well that Makhov had neglected to tell her that the prototype device’s safety systems weren’t automatic but had to be adjusted by hand. And that he himself had blind spots from laser scarring. (Perry is fine.)

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From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
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Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush
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Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

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