Near misses

Last night, while driving in a relatively unfamiliar area in the northern suburbs of St. Paul, I nearly died. Well, OK, I’m not sure I was that close to dying, but a fraction of a second was the difference between today being another ordinary day and being one spent in ICU or the morgue.

I was heading west on Ramsey County 96, about to make a left turn onto the southbound I-35W onramp. Highway 96 is a 4-lane divided highway at this point, and with some construction in the area, the interchange has recently been made into a 4-way stop. As I approached the intersection I stopped, observing a semi slowing to a stop in the oncoming right-hand lane. I arrived at the intersection first, so I began my left turn. Just as I was entering the intersection, an SUV blew through in the oncoming left-hand lane, oblivious to the stop sign, obscured by the semi. I slammed hard on my brakes (and almost as hard on the horn). They honked at me too, apparently blaming me for observing the stop sign they were unaware existed. I escaped unscathed, though I’m not sure how close we came to a collision. 4 or 5 feet, probably. Not a razor-thin margin, but with the SUV traveling at least 50 MPH, it was still too close for comfort. (And I don’t mean this.)

We all encounter varying degrees of “near misses” every day. Only rarely are they so clear and obvious that we are shaken by them, and even then, things quickly return to normal. We are a resilient species. We have to be, to survive. But there’s a downside to that resilience. It’s easy to forget just how precious our days are, and how soon they will be gone.

My near miss last night has me thinking more about what’s really important, and wanting to spend my time only on those important things as much as possible. That doesn’t mean working crazy hours or having life-changing experiences every moment. But it does mean spending less time worrying about things that don’t really matter, and making choices that make each day better instead of worse.

Don’t worry, and don’t regret. Take chances. Go after opportunities. Make things happen.

I’m still here. For now. And if you’re reading this, you are too. Let’s do this. Don’t stop. Except at stop signs.

Best Google Doodle yet

If you’re a regular user of Google, you probably know that Google likes to occasionally honor historical events by changing its logo for a day, in a way that symbolizes the event it’s honoring.

These are usually interesting (if for no other reason than simply what events the Google team deems worthy of their recognition), and sometimes quite artistic. But today’s Google Doodle is probably my favorite yet.

You see, today is the 25th anniversary of Tetris, one of the most iconic video games of all time.

And here’s the doodle:

Google Doodle: Tetris

Wow… Ask.com just became a serious contender (again?)

It’s been around for years, but frankly I’ve never given Ask.com much serious attention. There never really seemed to be anything wrong with it; it just wasn’t anything special. So I used Yahoo!… then Hotbot (remember that one?)… then AltaVista (known today only for its notorious offshoot, Babelfish)… then Google. Ah yes, Google… the end all be all of search engines.

Well… maybe.

Check out Ask.com. Not only is it glossed up with Web 2.0 goodness, it actually has some really cool features. Of course the search box has AJAX-based auto-complete. But it’s the results page that’s really impressive. I did a search on John Coltrane (of course… but not solely out of narcissism) and here are the results.

Everything fades in nicely as the results come back. The main column is your typical search results list. The left column gives a bunch of suggestions for narrowing or expanding your search, as well as searching on similar or related topics. The right column is what’s really cool though: different sections feature images, audio, an encyclopedia (well, Wikipedia) entry, and YouTube videos.

Sure, all of that stuff on the right side reeks of “synergistic” partnerships between Ask.com and the source sites. But whether they’re all throwing money at each other or not, the sources are well-chosen, and the overall effect is very cool.

Big thumbs up to Ask.com for their efforts on this. The big question, of course, is how good are the results? I am going to make this my primary search engine for a while, and put it through its paces.

The Mysterious and Elusive Sears Exclusives

The small town where I grew up had a fairly limited selection of available cartridges for the system, even when I acquired mine, at the peak of the innocent, naive, pre-crash frenzy, in May of 1982. Kmart and the small Kay-Bee toy store in the local mall were pretty much the only places you could go for this crazy new technological marvel, the home video game.

We didn’t have a Sears store anymore, its vacant anchor space in the sparkling new North Main Street commercial district (which has since become a grayed, decaying industrial district) having recently been filled by the town’s exciting new Kmart store. (More recently, the space, long abandoned by Kmart’s migration to the town’s sparkling new 18th Avenue commercial district — and now drastically renovated in an abominable and already “dated” 1990s architectural style — has become the home of the world-renowned Spam Museum.) As a result, I had no idea that Sears had its own version of the Atari 2600, complete with repackaged versions of Atari’s games, plus a few exclusives. (Even at the tender age of 8, however, I was already well-aware of the bizarre practices of Sears, Roebuck & Co. of selling products only under its own brands, even if those products were — as with the Sears Video Arcade — simply those of other manufacturers with new brand decals attached.)

I remember well my first encounter with a “Sears exclusive” Atari cartridge. At the time, I was deeply engrossed in the enticements of the game catalogs Atari shrewdly packed in with each cartridge sold. And in my insular little world, I was convinced that, thumbing the pages of the catalog, I had the entire library of games for the system at my fingertips. The concept of third-party games was wholly unknown to me, awaiting my discovery of the wonder of wonders, Activision, at the neighboring larger city’s Musicland store. The infallible comprehensiveness of the game catalogs I had studied and memorized had only recently met its first challenge, when I acquired a dusty, back-of-the-rack copy of Video Olympics, packed with an old (two whole years old, old!) catalog that featured two discontinued games: Flag Capture and Surround. “How can this be?” my 8-year-old brain wondered. “If they made these games, why would they stop selling them?” My childhood obsession with Atari taught me not only a love for electronic gadgetry and a modicum of hand-eye-coordination, but also some valuable lessons about graphic design and marketing, which have actually been somewhat useful in my adult career.

Anyway, as I was saying, I remember well my first encounter with a Sears exclusive. It came on the heels of the experiences outlined in such prolonged manner in the previous paragraph. As a child, I spent my days at my grandparents’ house while my parents were at work — a distinct advantage of living in the same town as one’s grandparents. Their next-door neighbors had 5 kids, the youngest of whom was a girl two years older than myself. She and I were close friends for many years. Thus it was that I was in these neighbors’ basement rec room, playing some of their Atari games I did not own (“Football,” for some reason, stands out in my memory), when I discovered something that shook my Atari worldview to its very foundations:

Steelplechase.

“Wha– wha– uh… what is this?” I wondered, perhaps aloud. An Atari game, but yet, not quite an Atari game. A strange artifact from an unknown world. Unfortunately, my 8-year-old attention span, already becoming frayed by another recent invention (MTV), was insufficient to sustain the intrigue. Oh yeah… and then I actually played the game. Not terrible, but… well… ehh…. Nothing to get that excited over. It was promptly long-forgotten.

My second encounter with a Sears exclusive came about 8 years later, in high school. All of my friends had, in the late 1980s, packed their Atari consoles away in a dark, musty corner of the darkest, mustiest closet they could find in their respective homes, to be replaced by the latest and greatest, the Nintendo Entertainment System. I never got a Nintendo. (In fact, I still don’t have one today… but it’s not for lack of trying.) I did covet the system many times, however, playing Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, Gauntlet, and the rest on their systems during junior high and high school sleepovers. Meanwhile, I kept the Atari flame alive, fanned by two marvelous, recently-acquired games: Solaris and Yars’ Revenge. The latter, a classic long-missing from my collection. Simple, to a fault. But oh-so addictive. The former, a wonder. Truly an impressive achievement for the system, and good enough to sustain me in my delusion that my Atari was just as good as that stinkin’ Nintendo crap my friends all had. Plus, I never had to give my cartridges the infamous “blow job” to get them to work, either! (Nothing X-rated here, folks… if you’ve ever spent any time playing a Nintendo Entertainment System, you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

One day in high school, one of my traitorous, Nintendo-loving compadres informed me that his parents were having a rummage sale (known to those of you in various other parts of the country as a “garage sale” or a “yard sale” or a “see how much money I can get for all this old crap I don’t want anymore sale”). He also informed me that he was planning to sell all of his old Atari cartridges at it, although he’d let me have first dibs on any of them that I wanted. I can’t remember now if he actually expected me to pay for them or not. But I am inclined to think he did. What the hey… I was rakin’ in the big bucks as a grocery bagger at the time, and he was unemployed, trying to earn enough scratch to buy the latest iteration in the “Mega Man” series, so why not help a chum(p) out?

I remember a few of the specific games I got in the deal. Cosmic Ark and Maze Craze were a few of the most anticipated in the bunch. And then there was this oddity called “Strategic Space Combat Game.” At least, that’s what I thought it was called, because the end label was missing. My friend informed me that it was actually called Stellar Track, and that it was one of his favorites. (The similarity of its title to “Star Trek” did not occur to me at the time.) Without an instruction manual, and in the days before all such information was archived for the ages on the Internet, the game was essentially useless to me, however, and to this day I have not given it more than a few cumulative, lifetime minutes of my attention.

I went on with my life… went to college, got married, moved to California, got a job, moved back from California, got another job, etc. etc. The Atari followed me in my many and varied journeys, and eventually acquired a companion/rival when I added an Atari 7800 to my collection in 1997. Somewhere along the way, my childhood interest in the numbering sequence of Atari’s games, and the mystery of CX2614 and CX2617 was answered. (Ah… of course, I thought, when I learned that those unused slots had been reserved for Steeplechase and Stellar Track respectively.) But there was still a nagging question, deep in the cavernous recesses of my brain: What of CX2647?

In May 2002, nearly 20 years to the day after I had first gotten my Atari 2600, I was introduced to the wonders of the AtariAge website. To be sure, I was disappointed that it bore no relation to the old Atari Age magazine from days of yore (although that disappointment was tempered recently when high-res scans of every issue of the rag were added to the site’s extensive archives). But the breadth and depth of information on the site was simply mind-boggling, and I pored over it exhaustively for days on end.

And at last, the mystery was solved. Submarine Commander. The missing piece!

I just recently added Submarine Commander to my collection. Having finally picked up Steeplechase sometime in mid-2002 (along with a newer, intact picture label copy of Stellar Track), I can now say that my collection of the Sears exclusives — all three of them — is at last complete.

But, being a naturally inquisitive soul, as well as an über-geek who delights in irrelevant minutiae, some unanswered questions linger:

  • Why were these 3 games released in Sears stores only?
  • Did Sears have an agreement with Atari to produce “Sears exclusives?”
  • Did Atari think these 3 games were too weak to be released under their own label?
  • If they were so bad, why did they bother to release them at all?
  • Why didn’t Star Ship meet a similar fate?