The front desk clerk at the Sheraton in Sunnyvale, Calif., just pointed across the lobby at a house phone when IEEE Spectrum senior editor Tekla S. Perry [right] asked if she could call a guest in his room. But when that same unsmiling clerk heard she wanted to talk to James Meindl (this year's IEEE Medal of Honor winner), her face lit up like a Roman candle. "Dr. Meindl? You're meeting Dr. Meindl? I didn't know he was here. Just a minute, I'll ring him for you."

Meindl has that effect on people. All kinds of people: Silicon Valley titans, engineering graduate students, bellmen, taxi drivers, inventors, and even jaded journalists. As Perry was to learn, Meindl leaves a trail of smiles everywhere he goes. He's just that nice.

Perry really needed a smile on that gray day in February. She was making her first trip on assignment after taking time off to recover from a ruptured disc; still wearing a neck brace, she wasn't sure she'd be able to sit comfortably for more than an hour. That's why she was meeting Meindl in a Silicon Valley hotel instead of on his home turf at Georgia Tech, in Atlanta. Meindl was in California, not far from where Perry lives, attending a meeting at SanDisk Corp., where he's on the board. Also on his agenda was the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco--he hasn't missed one in almost half a century.

Greeting Perry in the lobby, he told her he'd read so many of her articles he felt he knew her. It's about the sweetest music a journalist ever hears, and it wasn't just flattery, Perry swears. During 4 hours of interviews in and around the hotel, a favorite of Meindl's, he paused from time to time to chat with hotel and restaurant workers, often asking them questions about their lives that suggested a familiarity that went well beyond small talk.

And when Perry left that day, she realized that Meindl had given her something more than a good story. He had let her borrow his rose-colored glasses, and for the next few days, everything she looked at seemed just a bit brighter.

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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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