Less Than Perfect

Designing real things inevitably creates flaws

3 min read

I own an Oral-B toothbrush. I like it, especially its fat, curving handle, which fits my hand much better than the narrow straight handles of normal toothbrushes do. But there's a problem with the Oral-B: its distinctive handle is too big to fit into the holes of the toothbrush holder above my sink, so I end up balancing the toothbrush across the holder and regularly knock it into the sink or onto the floor.

In his latest book, the thoughtful and insightful Small Things Considered, Henry Petroski looks at the Oral-B toothbrush and other everyday objects to see what lessons they can teach us about the nature of design and the constraints that all engineers must face when bringing a new idea to fruition.

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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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