HOPE Hacker Conference Shows Off New Tricks

Reverse engineering the Iridium satellite network, a home pharma reactor, and a new censorship-resistant file-sharing system were all demoed in NYC

3 min read
Automated vessel for pharmaceutical reactions made from a mason jar.
The Alpha Version: This automated vessel for pharmaceutical reactions was made from a mason jar. A later prototype adds an Arduino-controlled syringe to introduce reagents and catalysts to in-progress reactions at timed intervals.
Photo: Stephen Cass

In a steaming July in New York City, hackers from around the world gathered for The Eleventh HOPE, the latest installment of the biannual Hackers on Planet Earth conference organized by 2600 magazine. As in previous years, it was a gloriously grungy affair, with attendees wearing black T-shirts (adorned with geek references) crammed into the worn corridors and ballrooms of the Hotel Pennsylvania as they chugged on specially imported bottles of the caffeinated Club-Mate drink. But there was also a new emphasis on inclusion for women and the LGBT community, appropriate for a conference that has always styled itself as politically conscious.

This atmosphere was all the background to some eye-opening technical sessions. On the first day of the conference, Michael Laufer displayed a working prototype of an automated home-brew reactor for small-batch pharmaceutical production. The goal is to free patients from the kind of commercial price spikes made infamous when entrepreneur Martin Shkreli raised the price of the widely used antiparasitic drug pyrimethamine by over 5,500 percent in 2015. The prototype was essentially a mason jar with a modified lid. Temperature and pressure can be controlled as reagents, and catalysts are fed in via an Arduino-controlled syringe, but the real innovation is in the chemistry: Published drug-synthesis recipes are often intended for large-batch production by pharmaceutical companies, but Laufer and his colleagues have partnered with the company Chematica, which uses expert systems to find pharmaceutical recipes that are simple, have a large margin of error, and use cheap ingredients.

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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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