When IEEE Spectrum Senior Associate Editor Stephen Cass [at right in photo] needed a particular antenna cable in order to review a software defined radio system [see ”Hardware for Your Software Radio”], he didn’t think there’d be a problem obtaining one. After all, Spectrum ’s offices are in New York City: if you can get lotus roots, a first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses , or a US $14 000 pair of shoes by hopping on the subway and going to the right shop, how hard could finding a cable be?

To his surprise, Cass soon ran into trouble. ”Electronics stores in New York seem to fall into two camps,” he says. ”There are the ones that sell consumer electronics like TVs and computers, whose staffs couldn’t even fathom what I was looking for. The others are out of business.” A plethora of stores that once catered to the city’s electronics and radio hobbyists have largely vanished from New York, leaving only a trail of disconnected phone numbers. Cass was about to give up, when he came across the number for Barry Electronics: ”A person answered—and they actually understood what I was looking for!”

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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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