Ode to a Pitchman

After a string of celebrity deaths last week comes the awful news that famed TV pitchman, Billy Mays, was found dead in his Tampa home this morning. Unlike Michael Jackson, Mays won’t have thousands of tribute parties thrown in his honor around the world. Mays also didn’t have the body of work or the rapport that actress Farrah Fawcett or Ed McMahon had with television audiences. While the passing of all of these famed individuals are sad occasions, I feel the most moved by the loss of Billy. Ironically, this wouldn’t have been the case a few months ago except that I’ve gained insight into the man via his series on the Discovery Channel – Pitchmen.

Until I started watching Pitchmen, I really hadn’t thought much about Mays except when he and his loud voice would boom across my TV screen to sell me OxiClean or another infomercial product. I usually changed the channel pretty fast and really didn’t give Billy the time of day. Then in April, Discovery started airing a series based on how infomercials are produced starring Mays and his pitch-partner Anthony Sullivan. The series followed the pair as they looked for the next big items to hock to the American public, gave us a peek at the process and the private lives of Anthony and Billy.

Through Pitchmen I learned that Billy Mays absolutely loved his family and his life as a salesman. He worked tirelessly to bring, what he thought, were the very best products into our home. Prior to Pitchmen I didn’t know that everything Mays pitched, he tested and stood behind 100%. If he wasn’t comfortable with a product, it wasn’t safe or it didn’t perform, it meant that Billy Mays didn’t put his name behind it. I also learned of the wonderful relationship he had with his son, Billy Mays III. His son had started to work with him on set and loved his dad with all his heart. When young Billy tweeted this morning that his dad was gone, it was a real shock. My thoughts and prayers go out to his son, his wife and young daughter in this difficult time.

I am grateful for the Discovery Channel’s look inside the life of Billy Mays before he passed. Although many people probably thought of him simply as the “loud infomercial guy”, as my wife says he was more than just a pitchman, he was a true icon. A man of gentle spirit, yet booming confidence. He loved his family and worked his entire life to get ahead. He brought a smile to my face, and made my life better in small ways with the products he pitched. I’m positive heaven will be an even cleaner place, now that Billy’s in it.

Losing Control

Anyone who’s worked for themselves knows the satisfaction of being in control of your own destiny. The perception that by sheer force of will and hard work, you can be successful at what you do. Those who take on the challenge of owning their own business are often considered “control freaks” and more often than not, perfectionists. I never really realized just how much of a control freak I was until this past weekend when, completely without warning, I had none.

Last Friday, the Iconfactory’s popular Twitter client, Twitterrific, fell victim to the so-called Twitpocalypse bug, which caused the mobile version of our application to suddenly stop working. Thanks to the efforts of our talented engineer, Craig Hockenberry, a fix for both versions of the client was submitted to the App Store within a day. To Apple’s credit, the free version of the fix was approved swiftly and allowed the majority of our users to continue tweeting with minimal interruption. And although the Premium version of the application was also approved in record time, the displeasure from our user base, not surprisingly, came even quicker.

From the moment the bug hit, both Talos and I had begun monitoring tweets of users mentioning Twitterrific in their posts. What started as a trickle, soon turned into a deluge of upset and frustrated users. We began responding to individual tweets and Travis, our project manager, responded to support emails. The Iconfactory is a small company, we’re not Adobe or Google or even the Omni Group. All three of us did our best to let users know what was going on, and thanks to hundreds of RTs, word started to spread about the bug and our efforts to combat it. Unfortunately, Twitter is a very big community and it was impossible to personally respond to everyone. Even now, there are many people on Twitter who don’t know why their copy of Twitterrific isn’t functioning and there is very little I can do about it.

The best we could hope for was that the majority of users followed @twitterrific and would eventually receive news about the fixes. The troublesome part is that although I know the majority of users now have a working version, I still feel uneasy knowing there are potentially thousands that don’t even know about the fix. Part of this is due to the lack of communication channels, and part is due to the nature of the App Store approval process. As developers, we must turn control of our applications over to Apple to have our iPhone software published. This process can take days or weeks and until it runs its course, our hands are quite literally tied. By the time updates are published it may already be too late.

All of us at the Iconfactory count ourselves lucky that Apple recognized the seriousness of the bug we were facing and pushed through the Twitterrific updates as quickly as they did. We know we messed up and we thank the App Store team for helping to pick us back up off the floor. That being said, I didn’t sleep much in the days after the bug hit because there was a part of me that knew hundreds of tweets were flying by every hour from Twitterrific users I was powerless to help. As with most control freaks this usually means even more work, more testing and more diligence to guard against these kinds of catastrophic failures in the future. But that’s okay with me since I’m not anxious to give up this level of control, or sleep, ever again.

Aqua – Back to the 80′s

I’ve always loved Aqua ever since I first heard Barbie Girl, and now they’ve returned with the video premiere of their new hit – Back to the 80′s. Granted this tune is aimed square at Generation Xers like myself, but its still a great song. The beat is catchy and the lyrics are full of pop culture references like the Commodore 64, Banannarama and Moon Boots. Bravo Aqua, bravo!

To Thine Own Self

Ever since President Obama was elected, conservatives have looked for anything, no matter how small, to profess their disgust for the man. The things that send them into severe conniption fits are the very same behaviors that keep Barack grounded in reality. Taking his jacket off in the Oval Office, throwing his feet up on the desk, tossing a football around his house or sitting on the steps outside the ambassador’s office in Paris are all excuses for why the man isn’t fit to hold the office of the President.

Naturally, all of these things are what people do every single day. When Obama leans back in his chair he cues us in to the fact that, perhaps like no President before him, he is one of us. But when you compare the right’s distain for Obama’s casual habits to those of his predecessor, the hypocrisy is deafening.

The right used to point to the “folksy antics” of George W. Bush as an asset. They argued his inability to put coherent sentences together and his refusal to read the newspaper were because he was “an average guy”, someone Americans wanted to “have a beer with”. Yet when Obama tosses a football in his own home he’s denigrating the country and his office. How times have changed.

Unlike Bush, who spent 1/3 of his Presidency on vacation, Obama has had his sleeves rolled up and the jacket off from day one. In doing so, both figuratively and literally, he has stayed true to his roots and allowed us to see ourselves in him. Republicans would do well to remember there is nothing wrong with being yourself, particularly if you are the President of the United States. That’s one of the reasons why we elected him in the first place.

A Valid Question

Blogger Andrew Sullivan raises a very poignant question, and one that I hadn’t really thought about until the murder of abortion clinic doctor George Tiller. Sullivan asks:

“What interests me is why these groups target a late-term abortion doctor. By their logic, there is nothing worse in killing an eight month-old fetus than an eight-minute old one. By my logic – see The Conservative Soul – there is an intuitive reason to worry more about babies that are much more developed than an enbryo. But I can’t see why Operation Rescue would believe that. I suppose it’s better marketing, because the images are so gruesome.”

The point Andrew makes is well taken. Namely that most Right to Life members believe that the instant a sperm fertilizes an egg, a human being is created. Destroying or aborting this person, no matter how few cells they are made of, is in essence nothing short of murder. If this is true, why is it that most anti-abortion groups only target late term doctors? If they were truly honoring their convictions wouldn’t they just as aggressively defend against destroying zygotes as they would late term fetuses?

We never hear of the biochemists who develop drugs like the so-called “morning after pill” being targeted for domestic terrorism, but doctors like George Tiller have had their clinics attacked and even their lives taken. Are these conservative groups practicing their own version of situational ethics when it comes to the unborn? Or are they simply playing the media so that they can be depicted in the best possible light with the public? I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I lean towards the latter, and if true it makes the whole lot hypocrites.

You Know, for Kids!

A trip to the toy section of my local Target recently drove home the truism that “times change”. Kids toys are among the first to take advantage of new technologies but on this trip I wasn’t browsing video games, I was considering how much board games have changed since I was a kid. Oh sure you can still pick up the classics like Clue or Monopoly, but many of my favorite childhood board games are long gone. They were published when the world was less politically correct and parents didn’t sue toy companies at the drop of a hat. Here are three of the risque games I used to love to play as a kid. Strangely, all of them revolve around the ocean for some reason.

The Sinking of the Titanic (1975)

Here’s an idea: let’s take one of the worst maritime disasters in history and turn it into a child’s game where everyone except the winner drowns an icy death! Published in 1975 by Milton Bradley, The Sinking of the Titanic challenged players to escape their state rooms aboard the doomed luxury liner and make for the life boats as the ship slowly sinks into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

After the ship sinks, the players must get enough of food and water by visiting islands and/or drawing cards to stay alive until the rescue boat appears. The first player to make it to the rescue boat wins the game. The other lifeboats and all the other passengers in them are lost, leaving only the one victor and his/her passengers who are saved.

I love how it’s not enough to simply “win” the game, but how everyone who loses “dies”. How this game ever got made in the first place is beyond me, but I did have fun tilting the Titanic slowly below the waves with each roll of the dice. At the time, I don’t think I had any real understanding of the meaning of the game, which looking back, I’m sure was a very good thing since John Jacob Astor and Captain Smith were probably spinning in their watery graves.

The Bermuda Triangle (1976)

The 70′s were a big time for mysteries, myths and monsters so it’s not surprising that Milton Bradley would attempt to cash in on the biggest of them all, the Bermuda Triangle. For a kid who spent one too many Saturdays watching In Search Of… this game quickly became my all-time favorite. The rules were simple: maneuver your fleet of cargo ships safely around the parameter of the infamous Devil’s Triangle without getting gobbled up. Which ever player made it back to home port with the most valuable cargo won.

While the idea of transporting cargo was a nobel one, my friends and I often ditched that portion of the game, and simply tried to get our ships back to port in one piece. The game contained the ‘mysterious cloud’ – a plastic panel raised from the board on a central column – which moved around the board and twisted above the ships. There were magnets on the underside of the cloud and on top of the ships, so that if the cloud passed over your vessels you’d hear a “click” and your ships would be picked up and vanish from the board. Marvelous!

The Bermuda Triangle was another game that trafficked in the realm of real life tragedy. Although not as blatant as the Sinking of the Titanic, the game never-the-less played off of air and sea disasters in which people actually died. Despite this, I used to love the thrill I felt as my friends and I would spin the spinner and move “the cloud” closer and closer to our ships. While playing I’d often call out “Danger like dagger now!” Yes, I was a geek.

Jaws: The Game (1975)

As a child, I used to own toys and games based on movies I was not allowed to see. I’m not exactly sure why my parents thought it was okay for me to play with Kenner’s scary-ass Alien doll, even though I could never see the film. Likewise, my parents didn’t seem to mind when I asked for a copy of the official game based on the horror flick, Jaws, from Ideal. In the spirit of Operation!, Jaws: The Game was a brilliant and simple variant on pick-up sticks that boosted the creep factor up to 11.

Players would load up the mouth of the killer great white shark with all manner of flotsam and jetsam. The game would proceed as each player took turns fishing a single piece of junk out of the shark’s mouth until someone pulled the piece that made him snap. Who ever had the most pieces of junk at the end won. Even though I never saw the movie until years later, the toy shark still managed to give me the heebie-jeebies.

The toy would later be re-published simply as “Shark Chomp”, belying the sinister origins of the original. I remember the game having the added benefit of being completely water proof which meant it often made frequent trips to the bath tub with me. Looking back, I guess it’s a good thing I had no idea who Quint was or how he met his maker at the time. Ah, the innocence of youth!

Strange epilogue: As I was writing this post, Breaking News Online on Twitter broadcast that the last surviving member of the Titanic disaster, Milvina Dean, passed away in her sleep in Southhampton, England. I hope she’s up in heaven kicking the ass of Milton Bradley’s ghost.