Maker Faire North Carolina has been maturing. When I visited the first Maker Fair NC in 2010, there were vendors, to be sure, but it was easy enough to find average weekend tinkerers—people not associated with any company or organized group—demonstrating their techno-handiwork. That was much less true of the fifth edition, which took place last weekend at the state fairgrounds in Raleigh.

There were still many interesting things to see and do; indeed, there was a lot more than at the first gathering four years ago. This year's event included lock-picking instruction, a learn-to-solder table, and a giant battlebot arena, to name some prominent attractions. I imagine this and other Maker Faires appeal to many more people now than when they first sprung up.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of loss. Sure, the gizmos were more numerous and more polished. But they were also more predictable, dominated by things that involved robots or 3-D printing. A group conducting high-altitude balloon launches was a welcome exception. The following video should give you a sense of what I mean:

There’s no question that this was an entertaining event for the whole family. (I brought my two kids, who much enjoyed it.) But somehow it didn’t really spark any wow moments or that "I-just-have-to-build-one-of-those" feeling. I suspect the reason has something to do with the way so much of the offbeat technical tinkering of five years ago has since become almost mainstream.

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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

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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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