Photo of a Minitel device with wire attached to a circuit board.
Minitel Research Lab, USA

One of us (Mailland) grew up in Paris in the 1980s, surrounded by advertisements for racy “pink” chat rooms, accessible through terminals connected to France’s Minitel network. They were a lucrative part of the wider Minitel economy, which also let you send messages, check bank balances, and read news. By 2000, as the Internet displaced the Minitel network, the billboards started being replaced by piles of terminals abandoned by trash cans. In 2010, while researching Minitel law and policy for a project that became the first English-language academic book on Minitel, I’d collected over 15 terminals of various models, when I met an American home brewer (Driscoll) who wanted to play with them.

We quickly completed our first project: turning a terminal into a Twitter client. Then we turned it into a webcam client; then, into a videotex slideshow display. We found a lot of help along the way because we weren’t the only people unwilling to let these stylish terminals end up as e-waste. Indeed, there’s now a vibrant Minitel hacking scene. You don’t need to be in France to try any of these upcyling projects either. Minitel was an open platform, and a number of failed attempts to replicate Minitel’s success means there are localized terminals to be found, with ones for Ireland, South Africa, and the United States, among others.

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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
Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush

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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