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The Indefatigable Inventor

An IEEE Fellow offers a humorous take on engineers and inventors

10 min read

Engineers really are different. From early childhood, they want to "fix" things--or at least take them apart and find ways to create new capabilities. When they go to college, the faculty emphasizes that they have a responsibility for bettering the lot of people. When they graduate, they go to work in the appropriate industry or government sector. And there we find civil engineers designing and building bridges, dams, and highways; mechanical engineers doing the same for cars, lawn mowers, and farm machinery; aeronautical engineers with their aircraft, rockets, and space stations; and electrical engineers with power grids, computers, and TVs. In addition, there are chemical engineers, railway engineers, and even systems engineers. All doing their "thing" to serve mankind.

However, long before there were engineering curricula in colleges and even before there were colleges, there were "engineers." A fellow engineer, upon visiting Egypt recently, wrote about how the pyramids were constructed. "Recent excavations showed that these ancient engineers scraped the sand and gravel off a prospective location until they got down to bedrock. They then chiseled a trench in the rock, just outside the area of the proposed pyramid. (The corners of the trench were squared with ropes knotted in the 3-4-5 right triangle configuration, thus guaranteeing 90-degree corners.) The trench was filled with water from the Nile. The bedrock was then smoothed to the level of the water, before they started hauling those enormous blocks from the quarry to begin the pyramids. It's amazing that 3000 years ago, one of our predecessors was figuring out the optimum approach to a problem."

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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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