Thursday, September 17, 2015

Did Ahmed Make a Clock?

Speaking at an afternoon news conference outside the family’s home, Ahmed’s father said he’s proud of his son and wowed by his skills.
“He fixed my phone, my car, my computer,” Mohamed Elhassan Mohamed said. “He is a very smart, brilliant kid.”
Public discussion of the case centers on whether or not the school and the police unreasonably over reacted. As best I can tell the answer is that they did. But what interests me is an entirely different question. A central feature of the story is how talented Ahmed is, a fourteen year old engineering marvel. That makes it a better story, better for the news media and better for Ahmed. But is it true?

One commenter on a blog I read, looking at the picture of what he brought into school, concluded that what it was was an old clock the innards of which Ahmed had taken out of its case and transferred to a briefcase. I do not know enough about electronics to offer an intelligent guess as to whether he was right, but it seems plausible enough—and well within the ability of a fourteen year old. 
If so, this is not only about school officials over reacting. It's also about the willingness of the media to tell a good story without any serious effort to find out if it is true.

P.S. A fairly detailed analysis of what the clock was:

http://blogs.artvoice.com/techvoice/2015/09/17/reverse-engineering-ahmed-mohameds-clock-and-ourselves/

28 Comments:

At 12:15 AM, September 18, 2015, Blogger Shaddox said...

My guess is that, at the bare minimum, it's using parts from an existing alarm or desktop clock. The parts don't look like any development or hobbyist components that I have seen, or at least not modern ones. Based on shape and size, I think the two visible circuit boards are from an alarm clock. The longer skinnier one is probably where the buttons (usually on the top of bedside alarm clocks) are mounted. If I had to put money on it, I'd bet that it is indeed the parts from an alarm clock removed from their case wholesale and thrown into an aluminum case.

 
At 12:35 AM, September 18, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps Ahmed wants to unschool himself and wanted to provoke his expulsion?

 
At 4:03 AM, September 18, 2015, Blogger hightide said...

This explains the situation.
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/picture/2015/sep/18/ahmed-mohamed-its-a-clock-with-a-built-in-racism-detector

 
At 4:35 AM, September 18, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a good one hightide, but a "stupidity magnet" would also work, and would be less PC.

 
At 4:50 AM, September 18, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My concern is more that the first few pictures I saw of the clock - from left-leaning news sources - were close-ups, had the electronic components taking up the whole shot. Only when I saw the story in a source without a left slant did I see a shot of the whole clock, case and all.

The school probably did overreact, but the claim that they only thought it was a bomb because he's a Muslim and they're stupid racists is clearly wrong: it really does look like a bomb.

 
At 5:04 AM, September 18, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I slid down an entirely different tangent when people kept calling him a genius - back in the age of Heathkit (and more recently, when parts to make goofy things by like potato-powered clocks were popular birthday presents for kids), such little devices would have not been surprising. With all the STEM focus now, aren't lots of middle-school students who are not mechanical geniuses making stuff like this? And if not, why not? Because their schools will suspend them?

 
At 7:23 AM, September 18, 2015, Anonymous LH said...

@Anonymous:

It does NOT look like a bomb. It might "look like a bomb" to you due to ignorance of electronics or explosives, but that doesn't mean it has the visual characteristics of an electronically-controlled explosive device.

As for the question of the Ahmed's talent and the clock's construction, the photos available make it difficult to fully judge, but at the least the smaller circuit board is not of the boy's manufacture. It is quite possible that he added some of his own work in piecing together components sourced from different off-the-shelf products, but the bulk of the electronics were neither of his design nor construction. That should have been clear upon cursory inspection and provided further indication that there was nothing malevolent to the clock.

 
At 7:36 AM, September 18, 2015, Anonymous Chris said...

I don't buy the claim that this is just a clock taken apart and mounted in a case. This looks like there are at least 2 devices cobbled together since there is a 9 volt connector and a 110 volt plug and transformer. It looks to me like the kid was doing something interesting.

As far as it looking like a bomb, that's utterly absurd. Anything in a case with wires "looks like a bomb". When I was in college I made a model railroad power pack (it was cool with momentum and pulse control!) in a simple metal case. Open it up and it looks like a bomb. Bombs can be in shampoo containers, pressure cookers, pipes, anything. Assuming everything that looks like a bomb is a bomb leads to paranoia and insanity.

 
At 7:44 AM, September 18, 2015, Blogger August said...

I can imagine, back in the less P.C. days, a teacher would have gone up and inspected the device, likely just straight up asking Ahmed if he had any explosives in there. The people getting vapors over alleged racism never realize just how often the policies they advocate for end up causing this kind of nonsense. A teacher nowadays- probably a cultural Marxist and definitely too limp wristed to confront Ahmed- calls the police for all sorts of trivial things, and the police can longer do the sane thing and just tell the kid to knock it off. No, they have to follow a protocol, much like your doctor, even if he knows the standard of care is crap, has to follow it, for fear of being found liable.

There should be a rule about using the word racist, just like the one about comparisons to Hitler. We can do something about the laws in this country, but we can't control people's minds. Those who cry about racism are the dumbest arguers in the world, because, if their accusations were true, it would be an additional proof against the state.

 
At 8:28 AM, September 18, 2015, Blogger Power Child said...

Photo of Ahmed's clock.

Photo of a reconstruction of one of Ted Kaczynski's bombs.

A schoolteacher would not be able to tell the difference, certainly not from just a cursory glance. Neither would the average cop whose detail requires him to respond to calls from schoolteachers. Neither would most people in general.

 
At 8:41 AM, September 18, 2015, Blogger Russ Nelson said...

IT'S A BOMB BECAUSE EVERYTHING WITH 7-SEGMENT DISPLAYS IS A BOMB.

Turdbrains.

 
At 9:22 AM, September 18, 2015, Anonymous Bruce said...

It looks like he just took a 1970s clock and put it in a new case. I googled around for a picture and found a blog post.

http://blogs.artvoice.com/techvoice/tag/ahmed-mohamed/

 
At 9:39 AM, September 18, 2015, Blogger jimbino said...

If it weighs less than 13 oz, you can put it in a stamped envelope and stick it in a letterbox for mailing.

 
At 9:46 AM, September 18, 2015, Anonymous Max said...

I wondered the same thing. Just based on the blurry photo that is circulating, it looks like a normal consumer clock that has been disassembled. But there could be more to it.

Is it strange to take a hobby project to school? I don't think I ever did.

 
At 2:16 PM, September 18, 2015, Anonymous Carl Pruitt said...

Just a side note for those who say it looked like a bomb: The police certainly never thought it was a bomb. If they had, the bomb squad would have been called and no one would have been calmly sitting around it in the school office, and then later transporting it to the police station in the squad car. They weren't following any type of "bomb protocol".

 
At 3:05 PM, September 18, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

LH: I think we should assume that most teachers and most police are no better informed about what a bomb looks like than the average American. A comment a number of people have made is that it doesn't look like a real bomb, it looks like a bomb in a movie.

Carl: The explanation people defending the school have offered is that they didn't think it was a real bomb, they thought it was a fake bomb, and they have rules against that too. How plausible that is I'm not sure.

 
At 3:06 PM, September 18, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

In terms of what kids do ...

When my elder son was in high school, he brought in a bottle of small mead from a 17th c. recipe, I think to show other kids. It spilled or dropped out or something--in any case came to the attention of a teacher--and he was suspended from school for a while.

 
At 4:53 PM, September 18, 2015, Blogger Attempting to be a Skeptical Thinker said...

It spilled or dropped out or something--in any case came to the attention of a teacher--and he was suspended from school for a while.

How long ago was that now? Given the insanity today, I would not be at all surprised to find him, you, or both actually charged with crimes.

Remember that father in Detroit? http://www.annarbor.com/news/ann-arbor-familys-custody-ordeal-over-mistaken-alcoholic-drink-order-for-son-sparks-federal-lawsuit/

 
At 12:53 AM, September 20, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

It would be twenty some years ago. I'm safe--he was living with his mother and step father at that point.

 
At 4:44 PM, September 20, 2015, Blogger Ricardo Cruz said...

Chris wrote: "I don't buy the claim that this is just a clock (...) there is a 9 volt connector and a 110 volt plug and transformer. It looks to me like the kid was doing something interesting."

The 9 volt connector? It is called a memory battery. Most alarm clock feature those so that the clock can withstand a power cut. The other is the normal power plug.

 
At 8:46 PM, September 21, 2015, Anonymous Mark Bahner said...

"Remember that father in Detroit?"

"Mike's Hard Lemonade". I've seen that advertised, and didn't realize what the "hard" meant. (I guess it's probably obvious to people who drink a lot of alcoholic drinks...but not to a person who doesn't drink much alcohol.)

 
At 6:52 AM, September 23, 2015, Blogger gurugeorge said...

It's curious that from both angles, the thing is a thing that people aren't familiar with. Not everyone is familiar with what a deconstructed 80s alarm clock would look like in a pencil case; not everyone is familiar with what an actual bomb or bomb mechanism in a pencil case would look like.

I must admit, when I first read about the story it sounded ridiculous, but when I saw the picture of the actual thing, I had a twinge. Seeing the picture, it's not so unreasonable to think that the people on the spot might have been worried.

 
At 10:39 AM, September 24, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

A conjecture about what actually happened:

The English teacher sees the clock, thinks it is or might be a bomb, calls the cops.

The cops come. They see it obviously is not a bomb. They don't want the teacher to look bad for calling them or themselves to look bad for coming, so they arrest Ahmed for making a fake bomb.

 
At 9:06 PM, September 25, 2015, Blogger Attempting to be a Skeptical Thinker said...

Given the information that has come to light since the incident, it seems fairly clear that this was an orchestrated incident perpetrated with intent and planning.

I believe it was intended that the "device" create discomfort with faculty at some point during the school day. According to reports, Ahmed took it from class to class displaying it to everyone and it was in his English class that the alarm function activated and activated the day's events. This means he was plugging that clock into an outlet in order for the alarm functions to work. In that old clock the 9 volt battery didn't operate the clock, it just kept the working memory alive in the event of temporary power loss. Once this chain of events was initiated, it was easily foreseeable that school policies and bureaucratic autonomic nerve impulses would involve law enforcement. Ahmed's demeanor during that initial interview process has been described as passive aggressive and uninformative. Now maybe he's just got a typical teenager chip on his shoulder, but in my experience those tend to get lost quickly when the weight of possible consequences are realized. Instead of clearing things up, he just dug the hole deeper. I'm guessing he was coached to do specifically that. Texas has that hoax bomb statute on the books, so it was not unreasonable for the police to act in the way that they did. Then you have the parents failing to engage the school, but rather holding press conferences with CAIR representatives on hand. And now the school is muzzled due to privacy regulations regarding minor children and all they can say is that there's more to the story than they can reveal because the parents refuse to return their calls regarding opening the records. Add to that the political ambitions of the father and the reported earlier accusations against the sister for which she was suspended and I think you have all the elements needed to see how such a plan could be hatched and executed. From that perspective I think it worked beautifully. I feel bad for Ahmed at this point. While he's all smiles now at being given the keys to the city and strutting through his celebrity appearances, his newfound fame is likely based on a fraud. That will not do his ego any healthy favors.

 
At 3:34 PM, September 27, 2015, Blogger James Matheson said...


Hi I made a clock charge batteries.
My clock turns on lights , charges cellphone , powers cameras in places with no plug. My clock is a renewable battery
It can be seen here
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZX34d7zC9SQ&feature=youtu.be
I made it work indefinitely but I couldn't find a product manufacturer. It made me so depressed after years of trying I became homeless. It is only a hand crank dynamo (geared motor) on a clock. I thought we were all suppose to have a dream we pursued to better society, at least that's what they told me. I hope, like you mentioned Ahmed's clock , you will mention my clock and hopefully a manufacturer will put it on the shelf, my friend has a hearing aid and needs this to keep his batteries charged, another friend has a soccer club and needs cameras at night to protect his things where there is no plug, another friend wants to wear a camera on his shirt to improve security at his workplace, another friend wants his google glasses to work when he wants. I just want a light I can read with and a way to charge my cellphone when I sleep outside. Please be so kind , I am a Christian and would like to believe I am suffering to teach others humanity, I could be wrong still I want everyone to be allowed to dream as long as their dream is realistic. You saw the clock Ahmed built please mention the clock a homeless Christian built
Thank you
I pray someone will manufacture this to allow all the people who need this its service

 
At 6:10 PM, October 07, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It obviously worked out for him way better than he could have planned, but it was clever in hindsight to find out a way to personally profit by giving others an opportunity to signal their politics.

 
At 12:53 PM, October 19, 2015, Blogger Unknown said...

Since the crucial, defining part of a bomb is stuff that explodes, I'd say that looks nothing like a bomb.

 
At 12:45 PM, October 22, 2015, Blogger Attempting to be a Skeptical Thinker said...

Since the crucial, defining part of a bomb is stuff that explodes...

Perhaps you should familiarize yourself with the Texas statute regarding hoax bombs.

http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/txstatutes/PE/10/46/46.08

And before you go to the next obvious intellectually lazy resting place, I presume it's the same reasoning that allows one to be convicted of armed robbery for using a fake gun. It's the fear created in the mind of the victim that matters and what a "reasonable" person would conclude in those circumstances. Not many bombs look like wrapped bundles of dynamite sticks these days.

 

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