In March, while working for his erstwhile employer, Newsweek , as senior editor for technology, Steven Levy took home the Apple MacBook Air to review and left it on a pile of papers. He hypothesizes that his wife didn’t notice the thing and therefore threw it out, along with the entire pile (a hypothesis his wife disputes). What an illustration of the Air’s famously superthin profile—and what a story. Of course, Levy pounced on it himself.

Erstwhile? No, no, it’s not what you’re thinking. Losing that loaner didn’t lead to a ­layoff. Levy had been ­weighing a move for some time, and when Newsweek foolishly offered fat buyouts to its entire staff, he pounced on that opportunity too. Now he’s at the tech mag Wired .

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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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