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10 Things You Might Not Know About Atari

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Wikimedia Commons

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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]