Transcript

78:

How Bad Is Bad?
Transcript

Originally aired 10.03.1997

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/78

Act One. How Bad Is Stealing $800?

Ira Glass

OK three boys aged 13, 15 and 16. All three chose to appear with fake names on this radio program. And the fake names they chose, ready, K-Rad, Mr. Wares, and Fred. Those first two names come out of the world of computer hacking and software piracy. It's Mr. Wares. That's Wares, as in wares, as in softwares, as in illegal softwares, pirated softwares. And as for Fred?

Fred

Why Fred? For no reason, man. There's gotta be someone else named Fred out there.

Ira Glass

Anonymity was important given the kinds of things we were discussing, namely credit card fraud, computer hacking, and the nature of hell.

Well, from WBEZ in Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today on our program, how bad is bad enough to count? Act One, How Bad is Stealing $800? Act Two, a little radio experiment. We're all going to put on the lab coats and need protective goggles and hope you do the same.

Act Three, How Bad is This Relationship? Act Four, How Bad is This Movie? We teach you a simple home test that anybody can do to determine if a movie is actually good or actually bad. Act Five, Creating Your Own Moral Code, the story of a teenager with the power to shut down your phone line or anyone else's, and how he decided to wield his power. Stay with us.

Act Two. Golden Peacock.

Ira Glass

Act One. So K-Rad, Mr. Wares, and Fred were trying to be criminals, but they were not too successful at it. They were in New York for a hacker's convention. Between sessions, I followed them to lunch at a McDonald's on Times Square. At first, Fred was going to pay for Mr. Wares and K-Rad.

Fred

What do you guys want?

K

I want a number one meal.

Ira Glass

But Fred wasn't used to the downtown prices.

Fred

Oh my god, that's $5 man. You guys are chipping in. I can't pay for this.

Ira Glass

I think it's safe to say that one sign that your criminal career is not going as well as you might want it to is if you have to worry about the prices at McDonald's. But K-Rad, Mr. Wares, and Fred were involved in very low level types of crimes. All the times involved computers. They pirated software. They scammed free CD-Rom games. They cheated one of the big online computer services out of a few hundred dollars in online time.

All in all, they didn't steal very much, and they didn't steal very effectively, but stealing was the ideal. Here's a typical one of their scams. They called people at random and tried to get a calling card number or a credit card number out of them.

K

Basically the way it works is this. You call up somebody. You say, "This is the AT&T operator." The whole point is you have to sound like you're not calling somebody up with the intention of getting them. You have to sound like you've been sitting in this chair for 10 hours, and you want to go home.

So you have to go, "This is the AT&T operator. I have a collect call for Paul. Will you accept charges sir?" "Yeah, I'll accept charges." "All right, hold one one second." Then you tap on the keyboard. You say, "I'm sorry, you seem to have a restriction on your phone line. You can't accept collect calls to this line." And then they yell, and they go, "What do you mean I can't accept collect calls to my line. I've been getting collect calls to this line for 20 years."

And then you have to go, "Sir, there's nothing I can do about it. My computer says you can't receive a collect call on this line. Would you like to try an alternate billing method?" And then they go, "What do you mean, alternate billing method?" "Well, you can bill it to your calling card or a major credit card." In which case, they'll proceed to either give you a calling card or a major credit card.

Ira Glass

And that of course is the idea behind the whole thing, to end up with a calling card number or a credit card number that they can use themselves. And, as you may suspect by now, there's just one problem with this little scam. That is, it does't work.

K

The reason it doesn't work is because a lot we had start yelling and saying, "What do you mean you can't bill it to my line. I want--"

Fred

There are a lot of mad people.

K

Because then they'll just say, oh, this is too much trouble. Forget it. I won't accept a collect call.

Ira Glass

The other scams these guys run don't do much better. They tried to hack their way into the mainframe system of a big computer retailer, but were caught and stopped before they got very far. They are such unaccomplished computer hackers that Fred himself was actually the victim of a hacker, twice. Somebody broke into his account on one computer bulletin board and then used his account and his electronic mail to visit some of the nether regions of the net.

Fred

Remember, you talked to the guy on IRC. There was this weird guy. This guy was going on all these sex channels, and he was wrecking my name and stuff. It was awful.

K

You can't get pissed at him. I wouldn't get pissed at him because that would be entirely hypocritical. I've said that if anybody ever steals one of my credit cards, or ever hacks into my account or computer system, I will not care, and I will be perfectly allowable to that. To go and say, "I can't believe it. Somebody took my credit card."

Fred

Yeah, I mean I wouldn't be like that.

K

Well, so what if I did it to everyone else. I'm perfectly willing to let someone do that to me.

Ira Glass

Over the summer was when they really started to get serious. Mostly it was what they call carding, getting other people's credit card numbers and then buying stuff on their credit cards. They met this adult who knew all about carding and who showed them some tricks. K-Rad and Fred ordered $1,600 in computer merchandise on somebody else's credit card, had it delivered to a neutral address, picked it up, sold half of the stuff for cash, kept the rest.

Now one thing that's peculiar about this story is that these are rich kids. K-Rad and Fred live in a wealthy, upstate community. They attend one of the most expensive, prestigious private schools in the country. But they steal. Fred believes he has no choice. He wanted to get all the things the other kids at private school had, a microwave, a stereo. He just wanted to be the same as everybody else.

A skinny, young-looking 15, he is perpetually strapped for cash. He said his parents could not help him much with money right now because they'd just gone a half million dollars in debt buying a house. At one point, to get some cash, he sold the computer his parents had given him for school without ever telling them. He wanted to replace the computer as quickly as possible with the help of a stranger's credit card.

Fred

I'm also pretty good at shoplifting, but my whole thing on that is it I will not steal anything if I have the money for it. And a lot of times, the store at my school, like the grill, I steal from that a lot. But I also give them $10 for no reason if I have the money because I feel bad about what I've stolen. And if I ever get the money so I didn't have to do this [BLEEP] anymore, then I'm not going to do it.

Ira Glass

What's most striking about this is how Fred and the other boys, I think, really want to convince themselves that they are good, that they really do not harm anybody with what they're doing. Or if it does harm someone what they're doing, there's the reassuring thought that someday, somehow, they might make it up to the injured party.

K

As noble as this sounds, if I ever-- this is one thing that I absolutely guarantee that sounds like the biggest load of crap anyone could ever say. But if I am ever--

Mr. Wares

We believe in you.

K

No, no one should believe me. This is the biggest, I'm really good inside. If I ever find myself-- and I've made this vow to myself-- in a good enough financial situation, I will repay everything I have ever done now. I mean if I find myself making $2 million a year, I will send a $10,000 check to the company which I stole calling cards from. That is something I definitely want to do if I'm in the financial situation to do it.

Ira Glass

K-Rad believes that the $1,600 they charged to a stranger's Visa card was a victimless crime, that the credit card owner would call Visa and have the charge removed from his bill. And that Visa figures a certain amount of fraud is just the cost of doing business.

K

One thing that I've always said in all of my doing is that I will never ever do something that will severely hurt an individual person, OK. So, for example, if it involves-- I would never mug someone. I would never beat someone up for money. I'd never shoplift. Well, maybe I-- no, I wouldn't shoplift because that is hurting an individual person.

Ira Glass

I'm just going to stop the tape right here. This is just this amazing moment that I love captured on tape. He is struggling over this so much that you could actually hear him figure out his position on this as he speaks. Let me play this for you again.

K

I'd never shoplift. Well, maybe I-- no, I wouldn't shoplift because that is hurting the individual person.

Ira Glass

We headed of the McDonald's and back to the hotel where the computer hackers conventions was taking place. Without any prompting from me, Fred started talking again about this notion that he was only stealing because he absolutely had to.

Fred

I go to boarding school, and I don't have any money or anything. And I get really hungry and stuff. I have a fast metabolism. And seriously, I starve. And I lost 10 pounds in one week, and that's not good for someone who's really skinny like I am. And then a lot of it is just stuff I want. And yeah, I just really want to stress that in other ways, we're not bad people. We don't go around trying to screw off people in any way we can because we're not at all. I mean I do social work. I tutor kids. I do a lot of stuff which isn't necessarily evil and is more good. But sometimes, it's just like, I don't know man, I like doing it. I can't explain it.

Ira Glass

Well, talk about that part of it. What is the thrill of doing it?

Fred

That was the reason I started carding, the thrill of going-- we went in there. It was like Mission Impossible. We went in. We had gloves on and stuff and we picked it up. We had it all worked out. We were connected. We had lookouts and stuff. And it's just a lot of fun. You're doing stuff that is not exactly legal, not legal all, and it's fun.

Ira Glass

By this point, we were back in the hotel lobby. We took the elevators up to the hackers convention. K-Rad said that real hackers don't do what he and Fred had done. Real hackers don't use their skills for personal gain. They don't steal credit card numbers. They don't defraud people. Real hackers, he said, break into computers just to see if they can do it.

We moved to a corner of the hallway where we wouldn't be overheard by the real hackers. K-Rad said that they'd never really talked with anybody about their illegal activities this much ever before.

K

The most thing I'm worried about is I'm actually starting, for the first time, to say this all out loud, everything I've done. And suddenly, it doesn't sound as hacker much anymore. And I've known that, ever since I moved into doing maybe some credit card thing. That's why I'm, in fact, even considering giving up on doing all the carding and stuff like that. Seriously I am.

Ira Glass

Fred shot him a look. If he were serious and they did quit carding, Fred would never get a computer to replace his old one.

Fred

What about my computer?

K

What? Your computer will come first.

Fred

Jesus Christ, man. I'm going to get a gun and shoot you.

K

All right, after your computer.

Ira Glass

The thing about a bad conscience is that it splits you in half. Fred said that he had two different modes, that was the word he used, modes. Sometimes he would think about what he and K-Rad were doing, and he knew it was wrong. But mostly, he tried not to think about it.

Fred

I try to limit that as much as possible because I generally feel crappy when I do that. And the rest of the time, I try to forget that I do that and just carry on with my basic life. And a lot of times when I think about it, my worst fear is that I'm going to end up going to hell for doing this. And that's my worst fear.

Ira Glass

Do you believe in hell?

Fred

Yeah, I do.

Ira Glass

And you think you can go to hell for getting a computer on somebody else's credit card?

Fred

I don't know. I hope not. I really hope not. It's always been my biggest fear. That's why I'm afraid of dying. I'm afraid if there's something I've done which is just the straw on the camel's back, that's going to be what's going to do it.

Ira Glass

How big is this worry? Will this keep you up at night?

Fred

Yeah, maybe for a couple minutes. And then I just put it out of my mind.

Ira Glass

His share of the carding profits was $800. I told him that from an adult's perspective, it did not seem like a lot of money. I didn't think you could do eternity in hell for just $800. And as soon as I said this, I regretted it. Fred's body language changed completely. It was just this moment. It was like I was calling him a little kid, saying he was ridiculous to worry about something so small. And he was offended and got quieter and just withdrew.

Then Mr. Wares spoke up. He said that maybe by adult standards this wasn't much money, but to them, it was a lot of money. It was plenty enough to count. When is hell a possibility? Whenever you think it is, it is. More on this when our program continues.

I'm going to hell and who cares. My subject tonight set forth the fact that there are people who are going to hell. And my subject for the show that there are people that don't care who goes to hell. People go to hell for not doing as well as doing.

Jesus said when I was hungry, you give me not meat. When I was naked, you didn't give me any clothes. And these shall go away in everlasting punishment. All liars on the way to hell. All deceivers on the way to hell. All gamblers on the way to hell. If the drunkard dies and goes to hell, who cares? The man that sold him a drink don't care. All he wanted was the money for the price of the drink. If the dancing woman dies and go hell, who cares?

Act Three. How Bad Is This Relationship?

Ira Glass

Act Two, Golden Peacock. For this act, we thought we'd try a little radio experiment. I told a Chicago playwright named Jeff Dorchen about the three boys in our first story today, what they said about sin and their own relative badness in this world. And he created a very brief radio play picking up where they left off. Here's what he came up with.

I'll call.

Child

Me too.

Actor 2

Three tens.

Peter

Full house, aces and eights.

Caleb

What do you got, kid?

Child

Four diamonds.

Caleb

You got nothing.

Peter

See if you had some where the numbers matched, or if they were in order and there were five of them, but that, what you have there, that's nothing.

Caleb

My grandpa used to call that a kangaroo straight.

Peter

My dad used to call it a Klondike.

Child

Klondike wins the game.

Caleb

No, Klondike doesn't win the game. Peter wins the game. Full house wins.

Child

I hate you, Peter.

Peter

I don't blame you.

[WAILING GRANDMOTHER]

Child

Grandmother, be careful. Grazie.

Peter

My deal. Straight five card draw.

Caleb

Anything wild?

Peter

No.

Child

[UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Peter

Shut up.

Caleb

Ow, watch it with those cards man.

Peter

Sorry.

Caleb

What's your problem today?

Child

He has sinned.

Peter

Yes I have. How did you know?

Child

Your eyes, they are the eyes of an accused man, furtive, alert. The eyes of a nervous beast who, once a lover of gambols and cheeks and standard metals, has been driven to nocturnal skulking by the pursuit of a relentless predator.

Caleb

He's got you there. 10,000 lira.

Child

Call.

Peter

Call. Caleb, do you believe in sin?

Caleb

Hell no, I believe in damnation though.

Peter

How can you believe in damnation but not sin?

Caleb

Predestiny. Take me, I was born damned. I'm cowardly, petty intolerant, lazy, and just generally destructive. I knew I was damned the first time I heard the word.

Child

Your Calvinism relieves you of the responsibility for improving yourself.

Caleb

Shut up kid.

Peter

What are you doing?

Child

It's all right, GI Joe, I am strong.

Caleb

Yeah Pete, the kid can take it. Now give me three.

Peter

How many, Dondi?

Child

Four.

Peter

You can't have four. The most you can have is three.

Child

OK, I'll take two.

Peter

And two for the dealer.

Caleb

5,000.

Child

Call.

Peter

Call. What do you have?

Caleb

Pair of nines. Dondi?

Child

Three onions.

Caleb

Those are spades, not onions. And you're supposed to match the numbers, not the suit, you little spaghetti sucker.

Child

I have a Klondike.

[WAILING GRANDMOTHER]

Caleb

You have garbage. How many times do we have to go through this? It's like rolling a boulder up a hill just to have it roll back down again over and over and over.

Child

I will not make the mistake again, sahib.

Caleb

Don't call me sahib. Peter, what do you have? Pair of jacks, all right. Pair of jacks takes it. All right, seven card stud poker, one-eyed royalty, red deuces, nines and all odd-numbered clubs are wild.

Peter

What do you guys think the worse sin is, murder?

Child

Betrayal.

Peter

Why do you say that?

Child

At the center of the ninth and innermost frozen circle of hell, Lucifer devours Judas eternally.

Peter

Really?

Child

That's what they say. 1 million lira.

Peter

I'll see that, and raise you one.

Caleb

Call.

Child

I'm there.

Caleb

What do you got?

Child

Seven aces.

Peter

Me too.

Caleb

So do I. All right, so there are a few too many wild cards. Let's hold the pot over.

Child

OK. Peter.

Peter

Oh, sure, leave it over.

[WAILING GRANDMOTHER]

Peter

Do you think a sin is worse if say you-- for example you betray somebody. Then suppose you don't feel any remorse, does that make it worse?

Child

Of course. Gentlemen, the game is Chicago low. Ace, no face, sevens, follow the queen.

Peter

Wait a second, Dondi. Caleb, could I talk to alone for a second? Over there by the window?

Caleb

Sure Pete.

Child

I will go fetch us some delicious ginger ale.

Caleb

Good idea. What is it, Pete? You think the kid's trying to hustle us?

Peter

No, I just wanted to talk. That's all.

Caleb

What's a matter?

Peter

Nothing, just I'm afraid of going to hell.

Caleb

What? Why?

Peter

I just don't think I'm a very good person.

Caleb

That's ridiculous, Pete. You're a very nice guy. You write letters. I never write letters.

Peter

Yeah, but what if you do something bad? How bad does it have to be? I mean if-- do you have to-- if you feel like it's bad enough to damn you, are you damned? I mean if you don't feel any remorse?

Caleb

Is that it? You betrayed somebody and then didn't feel any remorse? Is that what all those pregnant pauses during the poker banter were about?

Peter

Well.

Caleb

How can you say you don't have any remorse when you're practically tearing your hair out worrying about going to hell?

Peter

But being afraid of punishment isn't the same as remorse. Remorse is truly feeling apologetic for what you've done, not just worrying about punished for it.

Caleb

And you don't feel sorry at all?

Peter

No.

Caleb

Even though you recognize that what you did was wrong?

Peter

That's right.

Caleb

You know Pete, you're a very complex guy.

Peter

Thank you.

Grandmother

They when to a sea in Sieve, they did. In a Sieve they went to sea. In spite of all their friends could say, on a winter's morn, on a stormy day, in a Sieve they went to sea.

Caleb

Dondi, what's with the old lady?

Child

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] is causing her to recite "The Jumblies" by Edward Lear.

Caleb

Well shut her up, will you? I can hardly hear myself think.

Child

Shut up, Grandmother.

Peter

I mean what am I doing here? Who are these strange people? I don't remember deciding to come to Italy. What am I doing in Italy?

Caleb

Maybe to see the Pope.

Peter

Just last week I was in France in Rouen, the town where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. And I was visiting the tower where she was held before her execution. And I was thinking about writing a letter, you know apologizing, a letter apologizing to the injured party. I was looking down from the highest window in the tower.

And just how you do-- you know, you try to tap into the place in yourself where you have truly apologetic feelings because you want to be sincere. You don't want the letter to sound phony. Except I realized, I discovered that there was no such place in myself, that where that place should have been, there was just an empty hole. And it was frightening. It was like staring into the abyss.

Caleb

Go see the Pope. Ask for absolution.

Peter

But you have to be repentant. I'm not repentant.

Caleb

You could just act repentant. That's what ritual is all about, going through the motions.

Peter

No, I'd have to be truly sorry in my heart or it wouldn't save me.

Caleb

That is a very rigid attitude.

Peter

What do you mean? I can't just pretend to have remorse.

Caleb

You haven't even tried. I mean the Pope is a very near-sighted, distracted old man. If you buried your hands in your hands and pretended to sob, I'm sure he'd buy it.

Peter

It's not a question of fooling the Pope.

[GRANDMOTHER WAILING]

Caleb

You know, I'm starting to think that you don't really want to help yourself.

Peter

How did I get here? Why are we playing poker in Italy with a demonic little boy whose grandmother is dying in the next room?

[PEACOCK NOISE]

Peter

What was that?

Caleb

A peacock.

Peter

What's that a symbol of?

Caleb

Pride. Look, there it is the middle of the cemetery.

[PEACOCK NOISE]

Peter

It's golden. A golden peacock in the middle of a graveyard. I wonder what it means.

Caleb

My advice is that you come up with the most positive interpretation you can.

Child

We're out of ginger ale. I can only offer you root beer.

Peter

Well, that's all right.

Child

All right, gentleman. The game is--

Caleb

We know what the game is you little pistachio masher.

Actor Child

Who dealt this mess?

Caleb

Don't give me that bluffing baloney. You've got a possible straight flush and onions.

Child

Do not mention onions, sahib. My grandfather was killed by El Duce.

Caleb

Don't call me sahib.

Peter

Talk is cheap, gentlemen. 2 million lira.

[PEACOCK NOISES]

Ira Glass

Well, "The Golden Peacock" was written by Jeff Dorchen. Jeff also played Caleb. Peter Handler played Lisa. Lisa [? Stoddard ?] played Dondi. And I played the dying grandmother. Jeff Dorchen has a new play here in Chicago called Arrogant Living.

Act Four. How Bad Is This Movie?

Ira Glass

Act Three, How Bad is This Relationship? Well, most of us have probably been in some relationship where it got to the point where you just had to look at it and say, all right, here are the things between us that are good. These are the other things that are bad, not so good. Is this relationship bad enough that the two of us should call it quits? Is it bad enough to count?

Now on dates, it's different. On a date, things can be going well, and then suddenly turn around on a dime. In one sentence, it can go from good to bad. The other person says one thing, and you just think suddenly, oh, well this is going nowhere.

This experience is so common that you could just walk up to somebody on the street, and they'll tell you one of these stories.

Woman 1

I should have known the relationship was doomed when on the first date-- he did order an amazing bottle of wine, so I was excited about that. But then when it got time to start with appetizers, he ordered the aspergas and shrooms. And that's when I found out that he couldn't just talk like a normal person. Everything-- aspergas is asparagus. Shrooms was mushrooms. He was never at home. He was at his hacienda. And if he wanted to go get a drink, it would be cock-a-tail. Enough said, I think.

Man 1

Well, I was on a date, and I was going to dinner. And me and this girl, we're talking over dinner. And she asked me how my family was. I said that my older sister was married and just had a kid. And then I mentioned that my parents and my sister weren't getting along too well because she didn't get the kid baptized. And then she said, well why not? Doesn't your sister realize that your kid is going to burn in the fires of hell if she doesn't get her kid baptized? And that told me that maybe this isn't going to work out too well.

Man 2

The only thing that really bothers me is when every time it's time to go out on a date-- and at the end of the date, she's asking, "Now are you paying for it?" That's it.

Woman 2

So we're sitting at the bar, and we're having drinks. And we're going over each other's history, what do you do? And he asked me what I did before I had my job now, and I said, oh well you know, I worked in Berkeley. I worked at one of these lefty research institutes, and I wrote papers for them. And he's like, "Lefty? You mean left handed?" And I was like, check.

Man 3

Talking very much. A lot of conversation and you are not involved. A lot of their life story, and you didn't ask for it. I mean so much conversation where it's like Charlie Brown. It's just to a point it gets, blah, blah, blah. What did you say? Oh. Blah, blah, blah. Basically, that's it.

Woman 3

This guy calls, and he comes to pick me up. He was very nice. I have to say I told him that I didn't know anything about Cincinnati, and he brought this architectural guide. We drove around and he showed me all of these historic landmark buildings that were very beautiful. And then he started driving around in these other neighborhoods and saying, "Well, I used to own that building but I sold it."

And I didn't really know what to say. I mean you're on a first date with someone. You don't really want to find out about their land holdings. So I just was polite, nodding, and we were driving around. And he points out another building. "Well, we own that one. And now we own this over here." And a lot of them were substandard housing. And then we drove by this other apartment complex, and he said, "Yeah, we had to put someone out of their apartment in that building on Christmas Eve. It was terrible." And I realized he was a slum lord.

Man 4

We sit down to eat. And because of the way my kitchen is, we are eating in the living room. Because of the way my living room is, we're eating on the floor. And eating, eating, everything's going fine, I think. And midway through dinner, she drops her fork on her plate, clank. And I look up, and I'm wondering if something's gone wrong. And she says, "Why haven't you kissed me yet?"

So I kiss. And we kiss, kiss, kiss. And the kissing is going fine. There's no problem with the kissing. 10 minutes into kissing, again pulls back, starts to cry. And she says, "Don't you think it's sad that everyone else can fall in love and people like us just can't?" Well, what do you do at that point?

Act Five.

Howard Rabinowitz

Is it better or worse than The Truth About Cats and Dogs? Because I take The Truth About Cats and Dogs as the absolute midpoint.

Ira Glass

That is the midpoint between good and bad, great and unwatchable. The Truth About Cats and Dogs, you may recall, is the mediocre romantic comedy in which Janeane Garofalo is good, Uma Thurman is bad, and a dog is on roller skates. It stands at the crossroads. It stands at the dividing line. And it's easy to use. Witness a typical movie-going night for Howard and his boyfriend.

Howard Rabinowitz

We saw Chasing Amy, which a lot of people have liked and have said good things about. And we definitely agreed that it paled in comparison to The Truth About Cats and Dogs, which doesn't really bode well for the movie.

Ira Glass

Let me just run a couple of recent movies by you and ask how they rate on The Truth About Cats and Dogs scale. LA Confidential, have you seen it?

Howard Rabinowitz

I have. I think it's definitely above The Truth About Cats and Dogs line.

Ira Glass

Far above?

Howard Rabinowitz

Well, it might be helpful to say The Truth About Cats and Dogs is the midpoint. Then there's a tier of about-- I mean I don't want to get too specific-- but say, 37.5% of the rest of the movies that are made are in that realm of good, pretty good to good to very good. And I would say it falls on that shelf. It doesn't climb above into the great movies.

Ira Glass

Another recent move, In the Company of Men.

Howard Rabinowitz

Yeah, I would have to put that in just slightly above The Truth About Cats and Dogs unfortunately. If they had had one or two animals on roller skates, it could have been a different story.

Ira Glass

Friends, you heard it here first. Things that can make our lives easier, the metric system, Esperanto, The Truth About Cats and Dogs. Well, coming up, one man's wild Wild West, Catholics and their special problems, and does absolute power corrupt absolutely? That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act 5.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program of course we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, how bad is bad enough to count? And before we go any further, I'd like to just make the case that Catholics have a special burden when it comes to this question.

Jim Nelson

Oh my god yes. I've always loved how Protestants can go sashay through life not really wanting to know whether something is really a big sin or just a little sin.

Ira Glass

This is Jim Nelson, who was raised outside of Washington DC, where he attended DeMatha Catholic School for boys where he remembers many discussions in religion class over the difference between big sins and little sins. In 11th grade, for example, a heated, and surprisingly ambiguous discussion over how bad is masturbation. Church doctrine, he was told, said it was a cardinal said, meaning you'd go to hell for that.

But the living church, his teacher said, was much more lenient. Perhaps, current theologians said, it was just a venial sin, meaning bad, very bad of course, but you won't actually go to hell. The ambiguity drove Jim crazy. Which was it? Which was it, he says. He just had to know. He can still get worked up over it.

Jim Nelson

And if it isn't a cardinal sin, and if nobody-- if none of the priests believe that it is a cardinal sin-- then let's update the records. You know what I mean?

Ira Glass

Yeah, let's get everything in order question.

Jim Nelson

Let's just get everything in order. Let's be on the same page.

Ira Glass

Let's get organized here fellows.

Jim Nelson

Exactly.

Ira Glass

Looking back, what do you make out of the entire endeavor of this, of trying to define well OK, here's the line. Here's the line that gets you into hell.

Jim Nelson

I think it still sticks with me. That's the hard part about it.

Ira Glass

Really?

Jim Nelson

Yeah.

Ira Glass

And this is the vexing thing he says, that although he no longer is a practicing Catholic, he no longer believes in heaven and hell, he still finds himself asking, how bad is this? Cardinal sin? Venial sin? Is this bad enough to count. For instance, just last week, talking his way out of jury duty. Big sin or little sin? Not responding to email within 24 hours. Little sin, he says, but big enough that he lies to the people who write him the email, which of course is a big sin. But he figures not as big, and not as bad, as hurting the peoples' feelings by not responding quickly. Then there's the whole returning phone calls thing, returning them right away. If you don't return them right away, is that a sin?

Jim Nelson

Oh yeah, oh totally. It's more like even just screening phone calls I go through that because--

Ira Glass

You worry that you may be sinning by screening phone calls?

Jim Nelson

Well, because when somebody calls you, I feel like it's an honesty thing that if you're there, you should pick up. And I lately have been not answering. And I just screen the phone calls, and it's a little bit of a moral quandary for me. I talked it over with a couple of friends who suggested a compromise.

Ira Glass

What's the compromise?

Jim Nelson

To turn the volume down so that I can't hear. So I don't know who's calling me, I'm actually not being forced to decide whether I should answer the phone or not. So I'm at peace with myself again.

Ira Glass

Jim Nelson in New York City.

Act Five, Creating Your Own Moral Code. Eli had no problem deciding how bad is bad enough to count. Unfortunately for him, federal officials did not agree with his judgment about good and bad, and they threw him and his friends in prison for what they did as computer hackers. Did he learn a lesson from his time in the big house?

Eli

It was so fun. I have to say I had fun. It was a good experience, and I don't regret going there actually.

Ira Glass

I think a lot of people are going to hear this and feel a certain horror. They're going to feel like people should be punished.

Eli

Oh yeah, what I did was a bad thing, and I don't suggest anybody else do it because that would be wrong. I don't do anything illegal anymore.

Ira Glass

Well, we started this program with three aspiring computer hackers who feared hell. This is the story of an accomplished computer hacker who does not fear hell. Starting in mid 1980's, Eli was a member of a crew of computer hackers called MOD. In the crew and online, Eli was known as Acid Phreak, that's phreak, P-H-R-E-A-K. Journalists from The Village Voice and Esquire magazine documented just how much MOD was able to do. It is entirely possible that no group American of hackers before or since has ever gotten as far in breaking into other people's computers. They infiltrated dozens of businesses and government networks.

At one point, the reporters from Esquire asked them to demonstrate their skills by breaking into the White House computer system. And then, they watched them do it. But MOD's real love was not actually breaking into stuff like the White House. What they loved was trying to figure out the biggest, most sophisticated, complicated computer system in the world, which is the phone system. They hacked their way into the highest level computers that run the phone system for New York and New England, meaning they had the power to assign any services to any phone, listen to any phone, disconnected or create accounts, get unlisted phone numbers or bring the whole system down.

Eli served six months in a minimum security prison and six months on home confinement. This interview was recorded a few years ago while he was still on home confinement in his parents house in Queens.

Eli

The prison I had to gone to was very relaxed. It was more like a fame camp. People who were known and people who were involved in high profile cases went there. That's what it was. I had a couple of really good friends there. Across from me, on the other side of my rooms, was a man they used to call the Condo King. And he lived in Massachusetts in a castle that was probably worth $5 million and had butlers and Roll-Royces and this and that. It was a real castle right on the water. And he taught me about real estate, which was the funny thing. So I learned real estate from him. I learned about stocks. I learned from the best, and it was such a great experience. It was like college all over again.

The attitude there was that of camaraderie. Everybody there had this one thing in common, and that was that they looked for the shortest way possible to achieve what they wanted to achieve. And they all got there at some point, and they just felt a stroke of bad luck I suppose.

There were no losers there, that's for sure. Everybody there had achieved a very high level of success, very well known in whatever they did. I was friends with all the mobsters there, and they took care of me and stuff because I was from New York and I knew about Little Italy and Mulberry. And they were just impressed because I was the only hacker in this whole compound.

Ira Glass

As the only hacker, Eli got a lot of job offers in prison.

Eli

Everything from obtaining credit cards to changing credit to-- yeah, changing credit was a big thing because-- I don't know if you know about this but-- every time these real estate guys get busted, their credit usually goes down the tubes. One big request I had was to change a lot of credit reports and stuff. But I didn't' do that and didn't take it seriously. I just told them, yeah it was possible, but you're not going to get it from me.

And there were a lot of mobsters who wanted me to set up phone lines for them that couldn't be detected by the police and things like that. And again, well, it's possible, but I can't do that for you. But then again, if you were to ask me that and I was to do it, I wouldn't tell you anyway. So that's a question that's hard to answer.

Come into my domain. This is my room. As you can see, it's a typical teenager room.

Ira Glass

Well, sort of typical. The bedroom he lived in during his six month home confinement was tiny, barely enough space for a bed, a desk and a bookshelf. There was a TV and VCR, two computers. Eli flipped on the stereo.

Eli

I don't know. I guess I've got a lot of equipment around here. I've got a fax machine here. In my room, I've got five phone lines. I've got a two-line phone, but I've got everything else connected to computers or a fax. I've got three modems lying around. My computer is always on.

Ira Glass

There were cheesy Kung Fu movies on video. On Eli's CD player, old school rap, Nine Inch Nails, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix. Finally, he said, "Let me show you the good stuff." And he pulled out xeroxes of old spiral notebooks.

Eli

What was seized from me but they had to return back to me is my evidence examination report by the United Secret Service. Subject, Acid Phreak. These notes have basically all the systems I got into. Look, I have little sketches and diagrams of how things work, different protocols and networks, definitions. See, a lot of stuff was really good. I had stuff outside of the country, NASA.

Ira Glass

"The something defense," what is that?

Eli

Government defense.

Ira Glass

Government defense.

Eli

Yeah, that's a Washington number. McDonald's, since I had telenet, I had McDonald's accounts. If you were a McDonald's employee, I could raise your pay. So that way you'd get $15 an hour for shuffling burgers and stuff.

Ira Glass

So did you decide just at random to help someone out?

Eli

I didn't do it to anybody. I just wanted to know how. We did this from payphones. We'd have a line of payphones. We'd get into the computer, first liberate one phone, liberating meaning make it so that you don't need quarters for that payphone. You just pick up and dial like a regular house phone. So that way, we could make endless amount of phone calls without putting in quarters.

Next step was to get into the network, find a session that was already going and then knock them off while they were connected. And then sit there watching them. In other words, put us in the place of the computer they were going to connect to. So next time they'd try to log in, they would get our computer. And we'd type in, "login." And they'd put in their login account. Then we'd go, "password." The password. They'd say, OK, password, and they'd put their password in. All these things were already encoded in one key, so we could just hit one key, and it wouldn't look like we were typing it.

Ira Glass

Login would just appear, whumph. Password, whumph.

Eli

Yeah, we'd hit the password key, and the password would come out. And then we'd say, "login incorrect" and then disconnect from them. But we already got their login and password. And then when they reconnected, it would be the regular system, so they'd figure, hey, I made a mistake typing it in or something. And that's how we would get into accounts. It was funny.

You get into things that are good. You start targeting systems that are interesting. And then you start developing a collection. It's like baseball cards. I have NASA. I have NSA. I've got phone company computers. I've got [? Mizar ?]. I've got [? Cosmos. ?] I've got this, I've got that. McDonnell Douglas, [? Merriam Marietta, ?] TRW, CBI, TransUnion. What else can I get? You try to get the big names, so you start developing a collection.

Then, after a while, it became fun to look up famous people. Let's look up John Gotti's credit. Let's see what he owns. Let's look up Julia Roberts. Let's get her home phone number. Let's get this guy's home phone number. I'd go into payphones and stuff and hooking up. I would drive up to a payphone really quick and do what I had to do and leave really quick. That's when I really got into a movie.

I felt like it was Mission Impossible, like that whole gang where it's like [SINGING MISSION IMPOSSIBLE THEME SONG]. And then we would all go out and hook up and everything. It was like, yeah, all right. I'm that black guy who does all this technical stuff. I can get into it. Let's go, let's go.

I felt like we should have walkie talkies and headsets and everything, and be like "OK, Blue, go do your thing on 5. Ready? 5, 4, 3. You're in, you're in." It was just amazing after a while. And we were just so excited we were getting all that stuff, and it was just a rush, the flow. Once you start going, you can't stop. You're just steamrolling one after the other. And the flow gets you going, and then, you're just like, yeah, we rule. We're it.

Ira Glass

If anything, it's striking how little they did with their power over computers. It was mostly pranks, making someone's phone line ring continuously for hours unstopping. Turning an enemy's home phone line into a pay phone line, so that when the guy picked up the home phone, it demanded that he deposit a quarter, which of course he could not do because it was just a regular phone. It was his home phone.

They did call Julia Roberts once. They called Queen Elizabeth too. But there's an emptiness at the heart of a lot of these stories. Once you've got the queen mother on the phone, what do you say?

Eli

She's like, "Hello?" She's talking to us. And we don't know what to say. "Hi, we're calling from the United States," and this and that. And she knew what was up. She's like, "OK, hello." And then she said goodbye, and that was it. We didn't know what to say. What do you say to Queen Elizabeth. "Hi, so, you see that movie, True Lies?" What do you say? The fun of it is finding the number.

Ira Glass

Eli was thrown in prison for a relatively minor offense. It went like this. Some of the members of his crew broke into the computers that list everybody's credit ratings. They copied some credit reports, and they sold that information. Eli was named as a member of this conspiracy.

Eli

They said we abused our power, but we didn't abuse it at all. We did nothing compared to the things that could have been done. What we did was such a small thing in such a larger scheme of things. It's kind of depressing in a way. I mean there are so many things we could have done. We could have monitored Peter Lynch, and what's the next best investment for the day. And we'd make millions of dollars investing or shorting some stock. But we never did. Now we wonder why. We're like, damn. There are so many applications for this stuff. What happened? But then, we were like, "Ah, we were just kids."

Then one time one of us got the Mad Magazine owner's phone number, and we called. At that time, he was going through some rough times or something. And we were calling him for about two weeks. And he was just so goofy. He was kind of crazy. And he was just really stressed or something. And we just kept calling him and calling him, and finally we started harassing him and harassing him. We made fun of him and laughed at him and called him Alfred E. Neuman and just ridicule him. And then he got so mad at us, and we used to keep calling and screwing around with him.

And then one day, we read in the paper he died. The day after we had called him, he passes away. And we're there, like, yo, did we kill him? I hope not. And then they said he had some nervous breakdown and this and that. We were like, oh my god, I think we contributed to his demise there. We better not tell anybody this. But then, we realized there were probably other factors that contributed to it, not just a kid calling him on the phone. But since then, we stopped doing things like that because it was like, oh my god.

I don't destroy computers. I don't take them down. I don't delete information that shouldn't be deleted. I don't. I think there's something morally wrong if you affect a person personally and it's not only in his computer life but in his personal life, his right to make a living. I think that's wrong. It's just a question of morality.

Ira Glass

One thing about the computer world is that it's still relatively new, and hacking is still relatively new. So people in this world are still running across situations where no rules have been set about what's right and what's wrong. And in that situation, people have to create their own moral code. Eli's crew had its own particular code of behavior. For example, unlike most hackers, his crew did not share its information with other hackers.

Eli

We had complete control over certain networks. We could have any system we wanted on that network. Any host was ours, but still you don't let it get out to other hacking groups and other hackers because if they don't know how to use it, they don't understand the power of it all. You can trust them. It's too much power for some people.

Basically, it's like having a gun. Let's say it's the Wild West. You take it upon yourself to have a gun. You're responsible for it. If you give that to someone, you're responsible for that. So you don't give it out. If you want to shoot somebody's sister, somebody's wife or something, that's upon you. It's all a question of morality in my eyes. And if I know something, and it's of importance to somebody else, who's to tell me I can't sell it if I know it?

We're not evil people. We're good people at heart. There was a time when me and my friend Nynex Phreak, another guy in the group, we found a system that actually-- what it did was you could input a certain series of digits. It would take those digits and see if it was a credit card. So you could basically hack out credit card numbers just by guessing. Is this a credit card number? It would tell you if it was or not.

And we found that system. Finally, somebody wrote a program that would automatically do it, scan all night and get thousands of credit cards. And we were like, yo, this is no good. What if they start selling credit cards and stuff. We were like, this is no good, so we actually called the FBI and told them about it. I mean we didn't narc on anybody. We didn't say who wrote it or anything. We just said there's a system that isn't right that it's open like that. It was just getting ridiculous. So I was like, we have to put an end to this. And we did that, and we were like, we can't tell any hacker we did this. They'd be pissed. And we felt like that was right to do. That's kind of wrong.

Ira Glass

In fact, when I was visiting Eli, he was facing a daily question of right and wrong when it came to his own home confinement. The prison system monitored his movements with this electronic device that was riveted to a strap around his ankle. The device sent signals to a computer about his whereabouts, and then that computer called another computer at the department of corrections. It used a phone line to do that. Hacking this computer was pretty easy work. It was clear how to do it, but Eli chose not to do it. He was going straight, he said, not because he thought hacking was wrong, and not because he was scared of getting caught. He was just tired of hacking.

Eli

We had lists and lists of computers and no time to do it in. It just got to the point where it was such a large burden. It was like, oh, we have to this one. Oh, there's another one we have to do. It got to hundreds and hundreds. And finally, it's not even fun anymore. It's such a rush to get it when you initially get it, but then it gets to be boring.

Ira Glass

Here in Chicago, I've talked to members of big street gangs who've told me the same thing as those. They were quitting the gang not because they thought it was wrong to be in a gang or because their pasts were catching up with them. They were quitting because they were just tired of having the same night over and over again, hanging out on the streets, seeing the same people, doing the same stuff. That's the thing about being bad people don't talk about much. It gets boring.

Eli

I've just burned myself out, I think. I just got to that point. Everybody gets burned out if they have a little too much of everything.

Ira Glass

Today, three years after that interview, Eli is a manager of information security on Wall Street.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder. Our senior editor is Paul Tough. Contributing editors Jack [? Hitt ?], Margy [? Rockland, ?] and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Emily Hampford, Rachel Howard, and Alex Blumberg. To buy a cassette of this program, call us at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. 312-832-3380.

Our email address, radio@well.com This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Mr. Torey Malatia, who says this about his years before public radio.

Eli

Oh yeah, what I did was a bad thing, and I don't suggest anybody else do it because that would be wrong.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life. Until then, I'll dedicate this song to you.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.