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Geek Summer

Back story

2 min read

On a humid Saturday afternoon in late June of 1978, a dark blue gas guzzler glides up to a dormitory at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y. It deposits Steve, a bright high school junior from Fair Lawn, N.J., and a big trunk stuffed with jeans and rock-concert T-shirts. He looks around at the odd mix of industrial architecture, abandoned factory buildings, and manicured lawns and wonders what people do for fun in such a place.

Along with 150 other high school students, Steve will be taking courses and getting a taste of what college is like. His concern, amid this congregation of elite teenage scientific precocity, is that he may not manage to find someone whose idea of fun doesn’t necessarily involve an HP programmable calculator.

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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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