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Deeply Superficial

Hackers must develop new tricks to modify the guts of today's surface-mount hardware

4 min read

A while back I had the idea of taking a cheap MP3 player, a spare infrared sensor, and a bunch of other parts from the back shelf and cobbling them into a motion-activated sound-effects generator. Each time someone walked onto my porch or into the front hall, the gizmo would bombard the intruder with strange noises, perhaps even a series of different voices or animal calls with every approach.

However, as soon as I opened up the player, I knew I was in trouble. The circuit board was about the size of my little finger, the conductors I wanted to solder to were barely visible, there were no posts to wrap a spare wire around and no vias to poke it through. And a few minutes with the manual showed me that even if I managed to connect to the player's controls, I would need something close to artificial intelligence to do anything useful with them. One press of the power button is on, another press of the same button is play, and repeated presses select sound files from a menu pulled up by pressing another button.

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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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