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”Nerds are the ones who don’t go to the party so they can stay home and do homework; geeks bring their homework to the party.”
—David Anderegg, Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them (2007)

Is the word nerd an insult or not? Until recently, there was no doubt; in fact, most dictionaries call nerd an offensive term, used to insult a person’s appearance, hygiene, or social skills. That sense of the term has been around since at least the early 1950s. The 28 October 1951 issue of Newsweek tells us that ”in Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, ­regrettably, a nerd.” The word nerd also appears in the 1950 Dr. Seuss story If I Ran the Zoo , but he was referring to a ­fictional animal, not a socially inept person.

Now, however, most reference guides also include a second definition for nerd that’s practically a compliment. For example, Encarta defines a nerd as a ”single-minded enthusiast: somebody who is considered to be excessively interested in a subject or activity that is regarded as too technical or scientific.” The phrases ”excessively interested” and ”too technical or scientific” still give the definition an odor of insult, but that bit about being a ”single-minded enthusiast” doesn’t sound bad at all. Wikipedia’s ­definition is similarly ambiguous: ”a person who passionately pursues intellectual activities, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests that are age inappropriate rather than engaging in more social or popular activities.”

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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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