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The Prize Wonderland Auction

I should mention right at the top that this piece begins with desperate self-pity but ends with an opportunity for you to acquire fabulous merchandise for pennies on the dollar and raise money for hurricane relief at the same time. So, do stick with it.

I once read an interview with some freshly minted international pop superstar (the sort who doesn’t realize that her continued international pop superstardom is only secure if she can somehow manage to make sure that every other girl that can sort-of-sing dies in a boating accident or somesuch the moment she turns 17). "The trouble with owning three vacation houses," she said, gravely, "is that every time you see a pair of shoes or a top that you like, you have to buy three of them. Otherwise, every time you want to take off for the weekend, you’ll have to travel with baggage!"

I mean, we all have our problems, but she’s really slitting her own throat by leading off with a complaint like that one. You’re so totally not on her side. For the first time ever, you’re actually looking forward to an upcoming episode of "The Surreal Life." Because it’s pretty clear that in two years – three, tops – this woman will hit the skids to such a desperate extent that she’ll leap at the opportunity to spend a month living in a condo with Ray Parker, Jr., the best friend from "Blossom," and any cast members from the Budweiser "Wazzuuuup?!?" commercials that haven’t taken their own lives yet.

I now ask you to maintain the focus of your Great Lens of Contempt upon this woman, and not swing it in my direction when I tell you that as an internationally beloved technology pundit, my greatest source of office clutter is the cavalcade of free software and hardware that arrive at my office on a regular basis. A colorful sleigh, adorned with traditional Norwegian words such as "FedEx" and "UPS," arrives in the wee hours of 8:00-10:30 AM, while visions of sugar-plums are still dancing in my head. And out leaps a person in a festive costume, carrying an assortment of wrapped packages! They await me three hours later when I jump out of bed and come running down the stairs at the crack of 11 AM or noon or perhaps 1 PM at the very latest.

Yes, it’s the same principle as Santa Claus, except that the sleigh often arrives several times in a single day. Oh, and sometimes the North Pole expects me to ship the toys back after thirty or sixty days. Nonetheless, many of the hardware companies and all of the software publishers feel that it’s in their best interests to let me hang on to the stuff, bless their hearts.

Hence my predicament. Either I research and write a column about the thing, or it never makes its way into one of my newspaper columns at all. Some stuff shouldn’t have been sent to me in the first place. I’ve no professional interest in a radio-controlled submarine, unless it can be made to run Linux.

(Crud. Hang on…)

(Okay: I’ve just checked SourceForge and I can’t find any source or binaries for an E-Chargers Submarine Linux Project. Though I’m sure it’s coming.)

At that point, the thing is just something I trip over on my way to the other side of the office to swap a DVD. Here’s a full copy of Adobe Creative Suite 1.0. It sold for a thousand bucks a year ago. But a brand-new edition came out this year, so this one (though still quite useful) is just cluttering up the joint. Into the box it goes. Why can’t I close this drawer in my utility locker? Holy cats! I’ve got… four, five, six… seven iPods! Nice ones, too, but now that Apple’s stopped manufacturing that model, I don’t suppose I need it in my reference library any more. Out. And guess what arrived this morning? A third copy of FileMaker Pro 8 Advanced, just released this month! The first copy was fantastic, the second copy is being enjoyed by the editor of my newspaper column, I’m sure, but the third one has to go away, $500 list price or no.

And what should I do about that G4 tower?

A couple of months ago I bought a new top-of-the-line G5, a machine so powerful that when a flock of migrating geese fly over the building into the machine’s huge bubble of electromagnetic interference, it changes formation from a tight "V" to a vague Apple logo. As soon as the G5 went on my desktop, the twin G4 became the Standby/Server Mac and the former Standby/Server Mac became a slick and powerful drink holder. And frankly, I can come up with other ways of keeping a can of Coke handy… ways that don’t displace an entire cubic foot of the office’s breathable oxygen.

But at least I could sell that G4 if I wanted to. No such luck with the rest of this clutter; my moral compass is true and unfailing, and items given to me for purposes of research shall not go to fund a new 60-inch hi-def flatscreen. Even though doing so would technically count as research, because I could then write a column about the new TV, thus benefitting my constituency. Gosh, why am I being so selfish and not buying myself a digital projector with 1080i resolution?

No! Away, devil-thoughts! My strength is as the strength of ten men, for my soul is pure!

(No, indeed not. Not by a long shot. The fact that I even implied such a thing only underscores how much my soul could use a dry-cleaning and one of those tree-shaped air fresheners. But still: selling this stuff would be creepy.)

But what else can I do with this hardware and software? It’s far too cool and useful to toss away. Okay, except for that basket of Newton MessagePad software, maybe. And a shrewd observer of the computing scene would probably acknowledge that a copy of Photoshop that installs from a brick of 16 diskettes is probably well past its sell-by date. Even donating stuff to a local school or library has started to become problematic. I’m sorry to report that finding a school system that (a) still uses Macs and (b) has hardware that can take advantage of modern software is fairly rare, at least within convenient driving distance of my house.

My solution, then? Well, the good stuff goes into The Box, AKA, the Prize Wonderland, where it awaits a future user group talk. And then, the contents are quickly converted into money that I donate to the Red Cross.

The Red Cross has always been my favorite charity. It’s the one organization that, frankly, no sensible person can possibly have any sort of beef with. They do two things: they save lives through their blood work, and they help disaster survivors, doing everything from being the first at the scene with a blanket and a hot cup of coffee all the way to finding people safe places to sleep and a way to provide for their children.

Plus, someone very dear to me is alive today because the Red Cross was able to locate nine pints of safe, typed blood when a surgery went unexpectedly and dramatically bad. So the Red Cross has always been my favorite charity. No sensible person, I repeat, can possibly have any sort of complaint about giving money to the Red Cross.

I’ve done the Prize Wonderland Auction a couple times before and it’s a pretty simple affair. I don’t simply hold up items and ask for money. That’d be boring. Instead, the Prize Wonderland remains under cover, its contents unknown to all but myself and God (if any), throughout the entire proceedings. People don’t bid on specific items… they bid on the right of First Dibs.

"Who will give twenty dollars for the right to be first to take an item of their choice from the pile of Fabulous Merchandise?" I ask. "Raise your hands." Nearly every hand goes up. "Thirty? Forty? Fifty?" I continue. With each increase, a few more hands lower until just two determined bidders are left. At this point, the results tend to be very competitive and very kind.

Winner gets thirty seconds alone with the pile. In the meantime, bidding opens on the second pick from what remains. Then the third, and then the fourth… well, it continues at my discretion, and I suppose if the bidding were spectacularly lame, I’d retain the right to remove an item to await a more generous crowd. But that’s just hypothetical. I’ve never been anything short of delighted by people’s generosity. The bidders go home with some pricey gear plus a tax deduction. I go home with an envelope full of cash and checks for the Red Cross. And often, the user group invites me to join them for dinner afterward! What a wonderful evening, from every conceivable angle!

It’s a mechanism that I heartily recommend to any group trying to raise money for any purpose:

  1. Every group has a local charity that needs money. Sometimes it’s the group itself. If you can’t come up with an idea, please re-read the earlier paragraph about the Red Cross and why there is no better target for your charitable dollars.

  2. Every group has lots of members with plenty of equipment that’s just cluttering up the house, but which is nonetheless far too good to throw away.

  3. The "first pick" concept is fairly compelling, and when you hitch it up to people’s tendency to want to support Good Causes, the results can be awesome.

  4. The "Hands Up" auction technique is quick, efficient, clear, and requires no messy paperwork.

And incidentally… if any of the above-mentioned pieces of clutter caught your fancy, all those items – maybe even the G4 – and a pile of other things will be in the Prize Wonderland on Wednesday, 28-Sep-05, when I give my talk at the Connecticut Macintosh Connection. Visit the link below for directions to the meeting, which will be open to everybody.


Just be sure to bring your checkbook. There are people down south who desperately need help, which means that the Red Cross desperately needs your money. For my part, I solemnly promise that relatively few items in the Wonderland will turn out to be free copies of my books.

[Andy Ihnatko is the Chicago Sun-Times’ technology columnist, the author of a best-selling book on Tiger, a longtime and current columnist and contributing editor for Macworld, and "the Industry’s 42nd most-beloved figure," a claim that he urges you not to examine too closely. He can be contacted at <[email protected]>, or through the address posted on his Web site.]


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