Daily Archives: November 20, 2016

The Suicide Tree

Alex hiked deep into the woods looking for the perfect place to kill himself. He carried no food or water. He would be dead long before thirst or hunger became a problem. He had no suicide note and had posted no video with final words. Alex knew that there was no point. As far as the rest of the world was concerned he had died long ago.

Christmas decoration in the deep woods

The suicide tree in the deep woods

At the busy mall where Alex worked he was completely invisible to everyone. He was the old guy behind the counter. He was of no more importance than the napkin dispenser or the soda machine. Alex was just an object. Alex could not remember the last time anyone  had looked him in the eye as he handed them the food. People did not even bother to glance up from their iPhones.

It had not always been like this. In what now seemed like a different lifetime, Alex had been the gorgeous guy all the girls turned their heads to see. Two hundred sit-ups every morning had given him the washboard stomach he had shown off at the pool every summer. Now he was almost out of breath from his long hike, and the days past when he had a perfect body seemed like something out of a dream.

Alex looked up and in the distance saw the place where he was meant to die. It was a dead cedar tree, denuded of bark, with a soft carpet of leaves and dirt under it. Alex reached in his pocket to make sure his suicide device was still with him. He pulled out a clear plastic bag, and a long length of twine.

Alex had thought for a long time about exactly how to commit suicide. He had no way to get a gun, and knives seemed so painful. Then he came up with the idea that was so simple he was amazed he had not thought of it before. He would put the plastic bag over his head, and use the twine to make sure it was air-tight.  Then he would lie down and let the peaceful sleep come to him.  In just minutes it would be over.

The weather was cold and there was supposed to be a deep snowfall that night. Alex had chosen this day on purpose. He wanted the deep snow to cover his body. He was hoping he would never be discovered.  Alex wondered about wolves, but then realized that no wolves had been in these woods for more than a century. Nothing left now but some deer and hundreds of chipmunks.

Alex reached the tree and lay down under it, exhausted by his hike. He lay flat on a pile of leaves and stared up at the cedar tree and the sky. Then he  noticed something odd. There was something blue and shiny on the tree. Alex stood up and saw it was a Christmas ball.

Alex looked around to see who might have put the decoration there, but he was alone in the woods. It had taken Alex  three hours of driving and two hours of hiking to reach this spot. Why was this decoration on this exact tree in this exact spot on the last day of his life?

He reached up and took the ball off the tree, and saw there was a tiny hand written note taped to the back. In beautiful cursive writing the note read;

“The woods are lovely dark and deep.

But you have miles to go before you sleep”

A shudder ran through Alex’s body. Who had written the note and why had the words of the Frost poem been changed? When Alex was a boy the old folks has told stories about witches in these woods. Had the stories been true all along?

Alex carefully replaced the Christmas ball on the tree. Then he searched through the woods until he found three lovely pine cones. He took the twine from his pocket, tied the pine cones together and hung them on the tree as another decoration.  He steeped back and admired his work. The pine cones  looked good next to the blue Christmas ball.

Alex was very tired and it took him almost three hours to hike back to his car. When he got back to the parking lot he took the plastic bag out of his pocket and threw it in a trash receptacle.

Alex got in his car and started him motor.  He looked at his watch and realized he had just enough time to go home, take a shower and then get to his night shift at the mall.

Atari Game Over- the myth and mystery of the E.T. Game

The documentary Atari – Game Over on Showtime is a fascinating look at  the urban legend of Atari’s “E.T. game” which is considered to be the worst video game ever made. The E.T. game was supposedly so bad that it destroyed Atari and almost the entire video game industry with it. Part of the legend is that Atari was so ashamed of the E.T. Game that it buried millions of copies of it in the desert outside Almagordo New Mexico

Atari E.T. Game considered the worst game of all time

Atari E.T. Game considered the worst game of all tim

Atari started in the coin operated video game industry.  The founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney changed the world when they came up with a method to bring games onto your home T.V. set. “Changed the world” may sound like complete hyperbole, but it is not. This was in the early 1970s and people did not have home computers and iPhones were still decades in the future. The Atari system made an ordinary television set an interactive medium.  It gave kids a glimpse into what the future could be. Thousands of geeky kids who played the early Atari games went on to become computer programmers, game and web designers and internet entrepreneurs. The Atari games were not great, but they stimulated the imaginations of kids who envisioned a universe of great computer applications.

Like many companies, Atari was actually destroyed by its own success. Early in its history it became part of Warner Communications, which saw Atari as a never ending cash cow. At one point Atari had 80% of the computer game market world wide.

Howard Warshaw - creater of Atari's E.T.

Howard Warshaw – creator of Atari’s E.T.

One of the top game designers at Atari was Howard Warshaw. He pioneered features that are part of all computer games today. He invented the use of “Easter Eggs” which are hidden levels inside games where you can find secret messages if you unlock something. He also gave games backstories. He made a hit game Yar’s Revenge about intelligent ants attacking from outer space. Before the game was released he wrote an entire comic book explaining who the ants were, where they were from and how they had come to power.

Atari E.T. Yes, that square green thing is supposed to be E.T.

Atari E.T. Yes, that square green thing is supposed to be E.T.

Then in 1982, Howard Warshaw was given an impossible task. Atari paid $22 million for the rights to use E.T. in a video game. But the deal had been finalized so late in the year that making the Christmas season was ridiculously tight. Atari gave Howard Warshaw only 5 weeks to design, program and complete E.T. the video game.

To Warshaw’s credit he actually came up with a game. The problem was it was awful. Basically the little E.T. character did nothing but wander around a mostly blank landscape, and occasionally fell down holes that were hard to get out of.  A little FBI agent and a scientist tried to capture him. E.T. could “phone” Elliott to help get him out of the holes. That’s the whole game.

The game had a beautiful picture of E.T. on the cover and millions of people who had loved the movie E.T. bought them. Then people played the actual game and hated it. Hated it like they had never hated a game before. Millions and millions of games were returned to stores for refunds.

Atari games at the Almagordo dump

Atari games at the Almagordo dump

Atari -Game Over focuses much of its running time on the search for the dumped games in the New Mexico landfill. This is actually the least interesting part of the film. Watching a bunch of machines dig in a dump is not exciting.  However, the interviews with the people who worked at Atari during its heyday are great. They tell stories of the wild times and drugs that were a part of the everyday scene.

Howard Warshaw himself comes across as a very likable person.  He had a rough time after the failure of E.T. He became a pariah  in the industry and left it completely. He tried being a real estate agent, and eventually got a masters in Psychology and became a clinical psychologist.

The truth is that the senior officers at Warner Communications, which owned Atari, made a strategic mistake and then blamed the failure on the young game designer. They should never have spent  $22 million to get the rights to use the E.T. name, and then ordered 1 guy to whip up a game in 5 weeks. Instead, they should have used $5 and spent a year having an entire team of people develop something original, even if it was not based on a movie.  The executives at Warner had no respect for the Atari  customers and failure was the result. Warner did not understand that the “geeks” buying Atari products expected value for their money the same as any other customer.

Atari Game Over is an interesting look at a bygone era when computer technology was just beginning its leap to the future.