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10 Things You Might Not Know About Atari

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Forty years ago, on November 29, 1972, a startup called Atari announced the release of Pong, a coin operated “video game.” The company’s name was taken from the ancient Japanese board game Go, and vaguely translates as “to hit the mark.” In celebration, here are ten things you might not know about Atari.

1. In today’s dollars, you could found Atari for the price of a MacBook Pro.

Nolan Bushnell founded Atari in 1972 with a princely investment of $250. (His co-founder, Ted Dabney, put in an equal amount.) Within five years, the company was worth $28 million. Within ten years, its annual sales reached $2 billion. Many consider Bushnell to be the father of the video game industry.

2. There were early hints that Pong might be a success.

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The Pong prototype was installed at Andy Capp’s, a local bar. Its coin slot came from a Laundromat. The screen was a repurposed television. Quarters dropped into a milk carton. A week after the machine went live, Atari got a call from the bar with bad news: the machine was acting up. When Al Alcorn, the engineer who built Pong, checked on it, he figured out the problem: it was overflowing with quarters. He replaced the milk carton with a bread pan.

3. “Have fun, make money.”

In 1974, an unkempt, sandal-clad hippie walked into Atari’s lobby and demanded a job. He was answering an ad in the San Jose Mercury that read “Have fun, make money.” The hippie wouldn't leave until he got a job. Al Alcorn was called in to help. “I was told, ‘We’ve got a hippie kid in the lobby. He says he’s not going to leave until we hire him. Should we call the cops or let him in?’ I said bring him on in!” The hippie would earn $5 an hour and work as a tech.

Had the personnel director called the cops, they would have arrested Steve Jobs. Other Atari employees: Ron Wayne and Steve Wozniak. The trio would, of course, go on to found Apple.

4. The Gospel According to St. Pong.

Atari’s in-house newsletter was called The Gospel According to St. Pong. (“Founded in service to the Atari family,” read the masthead.) There had been a company-wide contest to come up with a name, and “a committee of Atarians” chose from a list of candidates. Dennis Flinn of the purchasing department was the winner.

5. Wii Fit was great ... when it was invented in 1982.

Atari's Corporate Research Department created the first computerized exercise device. It was called Puffer, and was designed by Tim McGuinness. As written in an internal memo from the company: “There is a whole generation of kids (and adults) out there who aren’t into sports and/or don’t get enough exercise. At the same time there is a huge fitness market. We have seen how kids can become addicted to our video games. We are going to hook up an exercise bike to a video game, where the bike is the controller.”

6. Atari had a fierce competitor ... secretly owned by Atari.

Pinball distributors in the 1970s demanded exclusive deals for products before they would sign contracts. This would have impeded Nolan Bushnell’s ambitious plans to establish an entire industry. To get around the exclusivity requirements, Bushnell and his neighbor, Joe Keenan, secretly formed a second company that would “compete” against Atari, selling slightly modified Atari games to other distributors. They called it Kee Games. Ironically, Atari would later run into management trouble, while Kee Games continued operating smoothly and successfully. As a result, Joe Keenan was brought to Atari and promoted to president of the company.

7. Atari culture set the tone for Silicon Valley.

Atari was well known for its egalitarian work environment. It had a casual dress code, hot tub parties, and beer bashes to celebrate meeting revenue goals. “T-shirts and jeans were something of a status symbol at Atari,” wrote Bill Haslacher, a former writer at Atari. “I swear my boss had a whole T-shirt wardrobe. He even had a T-shirt with a tie painted on it.”

According to Jim Huether, a former Atari game designer, “When I started they just said, 'We want you to do a game in about six months... you have no set hours, we don't even want to see you until the game is almost done.' It was great.”

8. There have been a lot of Pongs.


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Pong’s longevity is notable, and there have been versions of the game on just about every platform out there. In 1975, Atari built a home version that connected to televisions. Other Atari-designed variants include Pong Doubles, Super Pong, and Quadripong. Steve Wozniak programmed the prototype of a single-player version, called Breakout, in a sleepless four-day engineering marathon. Super Breakout followed. Pong’s visibility isn’t limited to consoles and arcades—Paddle 1 and Paddle 2 recently spent time on the silver screen in the film Wreck-It Ralph.

9. The magazine might have been called Atari Power.

When Nintendo’s executives decided to expand to the American market, it considered partnering with Atari for its first console, and releasing it with the Atari brand. The deal fell through, and the Nintendo Advanced Video Gaming System project was stripped of its keyboard and tape-storage, redesigned, and released as the Nintendo Entertainment System.

10. Clean out your desk, Bill.

In a million dollar deal, Atari contracted a company called Microsoft to port the BASIC programming language to the Atari 800. A young developer named Bill Gates was responsible for the project. One year later, the software had yet to be completed, and Alan Miller, an Atari game designer and programmer, took over the project. This very likely makes him the only person to have fired Bill Gates.

Special thanks to Dr. Tim McGuinness for his contribution to this article.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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