'Pack Rats' in the Digital Age While old comic books and clothes clutter house closets, old emails, photos and music files can take up space in your digital closets. Today's pack rats are hoarding gigabytes of data and finding that pressing 'delete' is just as hard as tossing old belongings in the trash.

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

After weeks of negotiations, there's news today of a compromise on an immigration overhaul bill. It would offer undocumented workers in the country a route to legal status, and it would implement tough new border controls, while cracking down on companies who hire illegal immigrants.

A group of key senators from both parties and the White House announced the agreement just a few moments ago. President Bush made a statement on the south lawn of the White House.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Immigration is a tough issue for a lot of Americans. It's a - the agreement reached today is one that'll - to help enforce our borders, but equally importantly, it'll treat people with respect. It's the bill where people who live here in our country will be treated without amnesty but without animosity. And so I want to thank you all very much for representing the White House. I thank the senators for working hard. I look forward to, you know, a good vote out of the United States Senate as quickly as leader Reid can get the bill moving.

And then, of course, we look forward to working with the House of Representatives and take this first step and convert it into a successful second step. I really am anxious to sign a comprehensive immigration bill as soon as I possibly can. Today, we took a good step toward that direction. Thank you.

CONAN: President Bush speaking just moments ago outside the White House. Senators hope to bring the compromised immigration bill to a vote before the Memorial Day holiday. And as the president said, it will, of course, have to be passed by the House of Representatives as well before becoming the law.

You can hear more details on the compromise, its implications and the next steps throughout the day on NPR News.

Tomorrow, it's SCIENCE FRIDAY, and Ira Flatow will be here. Art and science go head to head in the new play "Fallacy". Plus scientists crunch numbers to determine whether a Van Gogh was really painted by the master. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Books, stamps, shoes, comic books - they can take up space in your closet, but there's also stuff clogging up digital closets: emails, photos, embarrassing MP3s. Like most things nowadays, pack rats are digital, too. They're hoarding e-books, music, movies, bookmarks, and it's taking up thousands of gigabytes and a few mental gigs, too.

What's slowing down your downloads? How many times a day does that pesky systems administrator tell you your inbox is over its limit? Join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Mark McCluskey is the product editor for Wired magazine. He joins us from his office in San Francisco, and he's got a little experience with info-hoarding himself. Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. MARK McCLUSKEY (Product Editor, Wired magazine): Thanks for having me. I...

CONAN: And Mark, you're a digital pack rat yourself?

Mr. McCLUSKEY: I think I have what you could call a mild case of the digital pack-rattery, for the lack of a better term, yeah. It's another manifestation of that collecting impulse that has sort of always been there that, you know, completion need that people have.

CONAN: And it starts with what in your case?

Mr. McCLUSKEY: You know, music is a pretty good example of my case, you know. You start to look for obscure singles from your favorite bands. You look for special editions that, you know, normally you wouldn't necessarily be able to find in a records store but, you know, maybe somebody's ripped it. You know, Napster was a great way back in the day to acquire those things, perhaps not quite legally.

CONAN: Yeah, and not only the studio version, but of course the live version, and they may have performed it live several times.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: The live music thing is, you know, there's a huge universe, you know, of live music trading that, you know, the Grateful Dead really pioneered in a lot of ways. And that's moved online to a large extent. And now, you know, with bands that really encourage that sort of thing, there's thousands and thousands of songs and performances that people can collect and not listen to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And not listen to. And I don't know how old you are, but have you moved through different platforms? I mean, started out with vinyl and then switched it all to tape and then switched it all the CD, and now it's all digital?

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Yeah, the tail-end of vinyl, but then lots of tapes and then, you know, thousands of CDs, and now slowly trying to convert all those CDs to digital, but then also acquiring new things in digital.

CONAN: There is - one of the attractions of things like Gmail, for example -one of the ways they attract you to it is you don't ever have to throw away your email.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: And, you know, I think there's something powerful in that notion. What it requires is really good tools to find what you're looking for, you know, as storage has become so easy and, you know, approaches zero cost, frankly.

You know, you can buy enough storage now to store every piece of music you can conceivably ever listen to in a lifetime for, you know, a few hundred dollars. You start to get to this place where the problem isn't acquisition; the problem is knowing what you have.

CONAN: Organization.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah. In your case, the music files. Again, this is a bunch of stuff that for the most part you don't listen to.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: It's hard to listen to all that music, you know. There's - you know, I - and I have a much smaller music collection than - you know, I know people with terabytes of music, which is just an astonishing amount of music. You know, I have a couple of hundred gigabytes of mp3s in my world and, you know, that's literally years of constant listening.

CONAN: So if you put it all on a shuffle...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Yeah. If you put all in a shuffle, you know, in a couple of years I'll have to restart the shuffle, you know.

CONAN: Yeah. It's just the...

Mr. McCLUSKEY: But there's always that thought of, you know, one day I'll be sitting down and what I really want to hear is the Goo Goo Dolls cover of "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man," which was a Prince song. And that was on this album, and I think I've got that in - and lo and behold, I do, and that's the gratifying moment for sort of the hoarder, it's like that moment where you can tap into that library and find that one crazy little thing that just crosses your mind one day.

CONAN: Do you get obsessed with tracking down that one B-side that you don't have?

Mr. McCLUSKEY: You know, I have not gotten quite that bad on some things. There are a few a few bands that I'm a particular fan of that, yeah, there is that sort of completionist, you know, everything that they ever recorded, just that last song. There is something really - it's a quest. It's that collecting quest that, you know, spans everything from digital music to comic books to people who collect Wedgewood china, today, you know...

CONAN: Wait a minute, my nine boxes of comic books are nothing like your downloads.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: See, you could be downloading those comic books as well.

CONAN: I know, but then I wouldn't have them to touch; it's a tactile thing with me.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: And you know, I think that's a little - it's an interesting transition, the sort of - from the tactile to the ephemeral nature of digital in some ways. Is it about the thing, the artifact itself, or is it about the content in the thing?

CONAN: It's about both, in my case, but you know, there are comic books in there that I haven't read in more decades than I'd care to think about and there's some that I never read at all.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Well, and, you know, comic books is kind of interesting example of this. It's something that we've written about in the magazine a little bit. And there are plenty of collectors, comic books collectors who buy comic books, put them in the Mylar sleeve and actually never crack that comic book open.

CONAN: Well, because you're reducing the value the minute you open it.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Well, exactly. It's like taking the toy out of...

CONAN: Oh, I'm not that, yeah.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: ...taking the toy out the original packaging, right. It's never worth as much now.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: What the digital side of comics lets you do is actually read the comic book without worrying about that, which can be a nice analogue if you want to keep your good copy...

CONAN: Especially mint condition.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Yeah, safely ensconced in its Mylar.

CONAN: Yeah, well, mine of course were kept to - will help pay for my children's college education. Of course, my children are both out of college and I still have all the comic books.

Anyway, we're about digital hoarding now. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, email us talk@npr.org. Nick is with us, Nick is calling us from Boise, Idaho.

NICK (Caller): Hi. Yeah, I'm a musical completist as well and I've lived in the same town for 27 years, so I've sort of have records and tapes and A-tracks, and everything, 500 CDs. And just recently I decided to go to graduate school so I've had to sort of pare down. And what I've been doing is actually transferring the vinyl over on to a personal digital external hard drive and sort of packing it all in that way, you know. And it's amazing, the personal digital opportunities that you can have for, you know, 100 bucks or 80 bucks, you can get 250 gigs and backup thousands and thousands of albums, and I miss the tactile part of it.

CONAN: Yeah.

NICK: The Charles Mingus album that's really rare that I like to look at the album cover and everything. And so when I come home from graduate school, I'm going to certainly enjoy having that part of it again.

CONAN: Oh, so you're keeping all the vinyl?

NICK: I'm keeping all the vinyl. I couldn't possibly sell it, but it's going into storage while I move away, because, you know, living in a house in Boise, I can have all that stuff around me. Living in a little apartment in Chicago is not going to be quite the same possibility.

CONAN: That's interesting. And Mark McCluskey, as you think about it, in the world of vinyl collecting, most often it's not the record itself that's valuable, the music - it's the jacket, it's the cover.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Right. You know, I mean, and that's something we actually saw in the sort of transition from vinyl to cassettes and CDs is, you know, the 12-by-12 inch vinyl record cover is one of the great like graphic design platforms of all time, and it's an amazing place to do something cool officially. And, you know, when you get a CD jewel case that, you know, four and a half, five-inch square, that's much less compelling, and cassette cases.

CONAN: Nowhere near is gratifying.

NICK: Yeah.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Right.

NICK: I know that some people have frames for the records and things like that, you know and if you find it online somewhere, and you can back it up digitally that way, that allows you to still enjoy the music but actually have it as the art work as well.

CONAN: Right. Well, Nick, have a great time in Chicago and good luck with your studies. I hope you're not studying collecting.


CONAN: Okay. Good. We'll let you go then. Let's see if we can get Chris on the line. And Chris is with us from Tempe, Arizona.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi. I dated a girl for about two tears. And for about nine months of those two years, she was staying in Belgrade, Serbia as she was studying for school. So we would get into these really epic emails. You know, day after day, and it's just gigs and gigs.

I've since actually switched e-mail accounts, but I just can't bring myself to get rid of them. I don't go and read them or anything, but it's just nice to know that they're there, you know.

CONAN: And do you still have the girlfriend?

CHRIS: Ah, no. We actually - we broke up about a year ago.

CONAN: And you still want to keep the emails?

CHRIS: Yeah. You know, it's a sentimental thing, I guess.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: It's, you know - I mean, I think a lot of people have a boxful of letters kicking around that they kept over the course of their lives, you know, significant things that people have written them. You know, as...

CONAN: Tied in a little ribbon, yeah.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Tied in a little ribbon. Yeah. And you know, as that starts to happen to email, it's - you know, it's feeding the same psychological urges. It's just not physical.

CHRIS: Exactly.

CONAN: Well, Chris, thanks for the call and good luck with the new girlfriend maybe.

CHRIS: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye, bye.


CONAN: We're talking about digital pack rats with Mark McCluskey, the products editor at Wired magazine. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Sheldon on the line. Sheldon is with us from St. Augustine in Florida.

SHELDON (Caller): Yes, good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

SHELDON: First off, do you have a spare copy of "Killdozer"?

CONAN: "Killdozer" was not one of mine. No.


CONAN: You know, if I do, it's because I acquired it somehow and never read it. But "Killdozer" wasn't one of my faves. No.

SHELDON: Well, it's a bad film as well as a mediocre comic book.

CONAN: Well, there's a lot of them that are mediocre comics and bad movies, but I still have them in my collection.

SHELDON: I'm a second-generation pack rat. I'm trying to get my mother into digitizing some of the stuff that she's collected. But I have the same problem with vinyl. I can't bear to part with it. I've even saved broadcast carts from the station that I worked at here in town.

CONAN: Carts?

Mr. McCLUSKEY: And do you have the machine with which to...


Mr. McCLUSKEY: Okay. Well, at least you can...

SHELDON: That was supposed to go in the dumpster as well but I couldn't bear to do it.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Right.

CONAN: People should know, those of us who've been in radio a long, long time -I thought I would be buried with a cart machine. These were industrial pieces of equipment that failed - what, about one every five times you tried to hit the cart?

SHELDON: Well, it depends on your broadcast engineer. Our guy was really good, so could probably get two or three years out of a cart without a critical failure.

CONAN: But it would tend to wobble. The tape would wobble over the heads and...

SHELDON: Oh, yeah. You'd get - I have some very interesting bad recordings.

CONAN: Wow and flutter effects. But these are - these were devices that until very recently we had cart machines here at National Public Radio that - our broadcast engineers, of course, are top-notch too. But every once in a while, you'll hear Karl Castle(ph) gnashing his teeth because the cart wouldn't fire. Anyway - carts. God. I couldn't imagine anybody would collect those things.

SHELDON: Oh, certainly. Certainly. I just have to figure out how to put them into current use in the house. But dealing with - dealing with my mother's stuff and my stuff as well, I finally started to get to the point where, well, let's see, maybe I don't need 400, you know, copies of - well, I found four copies of one album one day. But my question for your guest is roughly how large, uncompressed, how big of hard drive would I need for about, oh, 2,500 albums?

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Uncompressed?

SHELDON: Uncompressed.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Well, doing some quick math - I mean, an uncompressed CD or album generally will run you somewhere on the order of a gigabyte or two.

SHELDON: Really?

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Yeah.

SHELDON: Oh, wow. So the 160 that I've been fearful to put in my computer will actually work. That's great. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay.

SHELDON: Both of you have a good day.

CONAN: And you'll have room for the entire library of Alexandria.

SHELDON: There we go.

CONAN: There you go. Bye, bye.

SHELDON: Take care.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Bye, bye.

CONAN: Let's see if we can talk to Megan. Megan is with us from Oakland, California.

MEGAN (Caller): Hi. My comment was when I used to have an old Macintosh and I would download very slowly, many MP3s from television shows - that was like, you know, when the Internet started putting pictures and things like that where we can download them onto your computer?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MEGAN: And eventually, my, you know, drive would get full so I put them on these lovable diskettes. And then I had hundreds of diskettes of just little bits of TV trivia and things like that. And then finally it got to the point where I was getting really bad and I saw a special on TV about Buddhism and they were creating this amazing sand sculpture, this big huge - took them hours, it took them, you know, made it - I don't know how many hours.

But when they were all done, they just wiped it away and destroyed all the work that they had done. And after I saw that, I sort of broke my habit of collecting things. You know, when you realize that, I think your guest said it earlier - that really is about the content of what you're collecting rather than the actual physical item itself, it's sort of knowing that you have this attachment to something that's more important than actually keeping it. So that was my comment.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: And, you know, it's - I think that - and there are just some people built with the collecting gene, for a lack of better term. You know, I think that they are plenty - you know, I have friends who, you know, have ten albums and that's what they listen to. And you know what, they buy music that they want to hear and have no desire to sort of hoard and complete and have the thing and, you know, and they're the people who end up buried under, you know, the newspaper they haven't thrown out.

MEGAN: Yeah, exactly.

CONAN: Well, Megan...

Mr. McCLUSKEY: I think I'm somewhere in the middle.

CONAN: Megan, it sounds like you've come - you've really arrived at a whole change of life.

MEGAN: You know, I'm hoping so. Although now that I've got an iPod Shuffle, I'm finding that I want to download more music. So now I got to find some spiritual way of disconnecting myself from MP3 players. So we'll get there.

CONAN: Good luck with it, Megan.

MEGAN: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Bye, bye. And Mark McCluskey, we wish you well and should your Shuffle last a thousand years.

Mr. McCLUSKEY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Mark McCluskey is the products editor for Wired magazine. He joins us from his office in San Francisco.

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