Archive for July, 2006

The rise and fall of Atari

July 29, 2006

The tale of game manufacturer Atari’s rise to market dominance in the late 70s and early 80s is as much about innovative electronic art as it is savvy business operations. It is unsurprising, then, that when the creativity dried up at Atari, so did the profits.

At its peak, Atari was the pre-eminent video game manufacturer in the world. But by the mid 80s, its fortunes had so radically changed that it was forced to literally dump hundreds of thousands of game cartridges and consoles in the New Mexico desert.

In the early 1980s Atari owned 80% of the video game market, they accounted for 70% of Warner’s operating profits, and in the fourth quarter of 1982 the Wall Street “whisper number” concerning Atari’s expected earnings predicted a 50% increase over the previous year.

If one game cartridge could be selected as the symbol of the sudden demise of Atari’s golden goose, however, it would have to be the ill-fated E.T.

Atari rushed E.T. through development in a matter of months to get it onto the market in time for Christmas, and the result was a virtually unplayable game with a dull plot and crummy graphics in which frustrated players spent most of their time leading the E.T. character around in circles to prevent him from falling into pits. Atari produced five million E.T. cartridges, and according to Atari’s then-president and CEO, “nearly all of them came back.”

Some other video game manufacturers attempted to rid themselves of excess inventory by selling it at sharply reduced prices, but Atari, stuck with millions of games and consoles that were largely unsellable at any price, sent fourteen truckloads of merchandise from their plant in El Paso, Texas, to be dumped in a city landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico in late September 1983. In order to keep the site from being looted, steamrollers crushed and flattened the games, and a concrete slab was poured over the remains.

Read an exhaustive history of Atari and other early video game companies at “The Dot Eaters”.


SAIC overseeing development of US Army video game

July 24, 2006

Ubiquitous government contractor SAIC doesn’t just handle psychological operations in Iraq. Its InfoTech branch is now hiring managers for the development of America’s Army, a freeware first-person shooter that is the narrow end of the US Army’s recruitment spear:

[The successful candidate will]…manage the software development of the public Americas Army Game and all Americas Army based training and simulation application. Experience with simulation and training applications, video game programming and 3D modeling is desirable. This position involves managing, designing and directing the development of real-time simulation software. The person selected for this position will provide software management over the Americas Army development teams and Americas Army code/asset repository and will also be required to handle duties such as scheduling, estimating, product demonstrations, software project documentation and training. These duties will involve travel assignments to support program reviews, or support demonstrations.(SAIC Job Opportunities)

Grey goo problem a paper tiger?

July 14, 2006

Any paper containing the section heading “Minimum Replibot Dispersal Time as a Function of the Number of Uniformly-Distributed Replibot Release Sites” is worth a read:

Perhaps the earliest-recognized and best-known danger of molecular nanotechnology is the risk that self-replicating nanorobots capable of functioning autonomously in the natural environment could quickly convert that natural environment (e.g., “biomass”) into replicas of themselves (e.g., “nanomass”) on a global basis, a scenario usually referred to as the “gray goo problem” but perhaps more properly termed “global ecophagy.”

However, biovorous nanorobots capable of comprehensive ecophagy will not be easy to build and their design will require exquisite attention to numerous complex specifications and operational challenges. Such biovores can emerge only after a lengthy period of purposeful focused effort, or as a result of deliberate experiments aimed at creating general-purpose artificial life, perhaps by employing genetic algorithms, and are highly unlikely to arise solely by accident. (

An unusual solution to the Fermi Paradox: alien secrecy

July 10, 2006

…of course, any solution to the Fermi paradox is going to be unusual. Back in 1950, Nobel laureate physicist Enrico Fermi wondered why, given the vastness of our universe and the fact of our own existence, we haven’t heard from any alien civilizations. His thinking led to several seemingly insoluble questions. Is life really so rare that we are literally alone, at least in our local galactic area? Or is it our observational methodologies that are “rare,” and are we in fact bathing in messages that we simply cannot detect? Another classic 20th century problem of uncertainty… Until now?

Dr. Gato-Rivera suggests that we might be embedded in a higher civilization in the same way that mountain gorillas and chimpanzees are embedded in our civilization, and that alien secrecy may be nothing more than an inability to communicate with beings on a lower level. She points out that it might make as little sense for aliens to send us an ambassador as it would for us to send ambassadors to baboon troupes. (

An abstract of Ms. Gato-Rivera’s paper can be found here, along with a PDF of the text itself.