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Reverse Engineering Ahmed Mohamed’s Clock… and Ourselves.

Filed under: Media, News, Security
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I have something in common with Ahmed Mohamed: as a youngster, I was also an electronics enthusiast. At his age and even earlier, I frequently took apart electronic devices – anything from my own toys, to broken things around the house, and even that dirty garbage-picked black and white TV my parents dragged home that they knew I’d have a blast playing with (I did.) I’d try and troubleshoot, repair, or sometimes just disassemble things and salvage components for future projects. I’d try and imagine how all those bits and pieces, lengths of wires, mazes of conductive circuit board traces all came together to produce an image, or a sound, or some other useful function. I wanted to know how it all worked.

Without dating myself – fast forward a bunch of years, and I’m the same way. I’ve even picked up an engineering degree over the course of those years. I don’t have to only imagine how things work anymore, I have a pretty good understanding now. When shopping for electronic devices, my first instinct is to see if there’s a way to build one myself (and, I frequently do!) When something of mine breaks, I don’t send it back, I take it as a personal challenge to get it working again. If I fail, I still salvage useful parts – they might come in handy to fix something else later. This aspect of myself – being both methodical, and curious – hasn’t changed a bit over the years.

High resolution police photo of Ahmed's clock. Click to enlarge.

High resolution police photo of Ahmed’s clock. Click to enlarge.

So, this story about a 14 year old boy in Texas that was arrested on suspicion of creating a bomb hoax (who, apparently just wanted to show off his latest electronics project to his teachers) that has blown up (no pun intended) all over the news and social media, caught my attention immediately. Not because of his race, or his religion, the seeming absurdity of the situation, the emotionally charged photo of a young boy in a NASA t-shirt being led off in hand cuffs, the hash tags, the presidential response… no, none of that. I’m an electronics geek. I was interested in the clock! I wanted to figure out what he had come up with.

I found the highest resolution photograph of the clock I could. Instantly, I was disappointed. Somewhere in all of this – there has indeed been a hoax. Ahmed Mohamed didn’t invent his own alarm clock. He didn’t even build a clock. Now, before I go on and get accused of attacking a 14 year old kid who’s already been through enough, let me explain my purpose. I don’t want to just dissect the clock. I want to dissect our reaction as a society to the situation. Part of that is the knee-jerk responses we’re all so quick to make without facts. So, before you scroll down and leave me angry comments, please continue to the end (or not – prove my point, and miss the point, entirely!)

For starters, one glance at the printed circuit board in the photo, and I knew we were looking at mid-to-late 1970s vintage electronics. Surely you’ve seen a modern circuit board, with metallic traces leading all over to the various components like an electronic spider’s web. You’ll notice right away the highly accurate spacing, straightness of the lines, consistency of the patterns. That’s because we design things on computers nowadays, and computers assist in routing these lines. Take a look at the board in Ahmed’s clock. It almost looks hand-drawn, right? That’s because it probably was. Computer aided design was in its infancy in the 70s. This is how simple, low cost items (like an alarm clock) were designed. Today, even a budding beginner is going to get some computer aided assistance – in fact they’ll probably start there, learning by simulating designs before building them. You can even simulate or lay out a board with free apps on your phone or tablet. A modern hobbyist usually wouldn’t be bothered with the outdated design techniques. There’s also silk screening on the board. An “M” logo, “C-94” (probably, a part number – C might even stand for “clock”), and what looks like an American flag. More about that in a minute. Point for now being, a hobbyist wouldn’t silk screen logos and part numbers on their home made creation. It’s pretty safe to say already we’re looking at ’70s tech, mass produced in a factory.

So I turned to eBay, searching for vintage alarm clocks. It only took a minute to locate Ahmed’s clock. See this eBay listing, up at the time of this writing. Amhed’s clock was invented, and built, by Micronta, a Radio Shack subsidary. Catalog number 63 765.

Image property of eBay seller curiosities_curios

Image property of eBay seller curiosities_curios

The shape and design is a dead give away. The large screen. The buttons on the front laid out horizontally would have been on a separate board – a large snooze button, four control buttons, and two switches to turn the alarm on and off, and choose two brightness levels. A second board inside would have contained the actual “brains” of the unit. The clock features a 9v battery back-up, and a switch on the rear allows the owner to choose between 12 and 24 hour time. (Features like a battery back-up, and a 24 hour time selection seems awful superfluous for a hobby project, don’t you think?) Oh, and about that “M” logo on the circuit board mentioned above? Micronta.

clock5

clock6For one last bit of confirmation, I located the pencil box Ahmed used for his project. During this video interview he again claims it was his “invention” and that he “made” the device – but the important thing at the moment, at 1:13, we see him showing the pencil box on his computer screen. Here it is on Amazon, where it’s clearly labeled as being 8.25 inches wide. Our eBay seller also conveniently took a photo of the clock next to a ruler to show it’s scale – about 8 inches wide. The dimensions all line up perfectly.

So there you have it folks, Ahmed Mohamed did not invent, nor build a clock. He took apart an existing clock, and transplanted the guts into a pencil box, and claimed it was his own creation. It all seems really fishy to me.

If we accept the story about “inventing” an alarm clock is made up, as I think I’ve made a pretty good case for, it’s fair to wonder what other parts of the story might be made up, not reported factually by the media, or at least, exaggerated.

I refer back again to this YouTube video interview with Ahmed. He explains that he closed up the box with a piece of cord because he didn’t want it to look suspicious. I’m curious, why would “looking suspicious” have even crossed his mind before this whole event unfolded, if he was truly showing off a hobby project, something so innocuous as an alarm clock. Why did he choose a pencil box, one that looks like a miniature briefcase no less, as an enclosure for a clock? It’s awful hard to see the clock with the case closed. On the other hand, with the case open, it’s awful dangerous to have an exposed power transformer sitting near the snooze button (unless, perhaps his invention was to stop serial-snooze-button pressers by giving them a dangerous electrical shock!)

So again, I’m pointing all this out – about the specifics of the clock – not to pick on the poor kid. I’m picking on us, our culture, and our media. I don’t even care about the clock itself at this point.

If we stop and think – was it really such a ridiculous reaction from the teacher and the police in the first place? How many school shootings and incidents of violence have we had, where we hear afterwards “this could have been prevented, if only we paid more attention to the signs!” Teachers are taught to be suspicious and vigilant. Ahmed wasn’t accused of making a bomb – he was accused of making a look-alike, a hoax. And be honest with yourself, a big red digital display with a bunch of loose wires in a brief-case looking box is awful like a Hollywood-style representation of a bomb. Everyone jumped to play the race and religion cards and try and paint the teachers and police as idiots and bigots, but in my mind, they were probably acting responsibly and erring on the side of caution to protect the rest of their students, just in case. “This wouldn’t have happened if Ahmed were white,” they say. We’re supposed to be sensitive to school violence, but apparently religious and racial sensitivity trumps that. At least we have another clue about how the sensitivity and moral outrage pecking order lies.

Because, is it possible, that maybe, just maybe, this was actually a hoax bomb? A silly prank that was taken the wrong way? That the media then ran with, and everyone else got carried away? Maybe there wasn’t even any racial or religious bias on the parts of the teachers and police.

I don’t know any of these things. But I’m intellectually mature enough to admit I don’t know, and to also be OK with that. I don’t feel a need to take the first exit to conclusionville. But I do like to find facts where I can, and prefer to let them lead me to conclusions, rather than a knee jerk judgement based on a headline or sound bite.

I think the whole event – and our collective response, with everybody up to the President chiming in, says a whole lot about us. We don’t care that none of us were there and knows what happened, we jump to conclusions and assume we’re experts. We care about the story, but we don’t care about the actual facts. Headlines and click-bait are far more interesting than thinking for ourselves. We like to point out other any bit of perceived injustice or discrimination we can find – it’s practically a new national past-time. We like playing victim, and we like talking about victims – so much so we sometimes find victims where none really existed. We also like to find somebody to blame, even when there’s nobody at fault. We like to play social justice warrior on our Facebooks and Twitters, posting memes and headlines without digging in behind the sensationalism, winning bonus sensitivity points in the forms of likes and re-tweets. Once group-think kicks in, we rally around hash tags and start shouting moral outrage in a deafeningly loud national chorus. The media plays us like a fiddle, and we don’t even notice we’ve all been had.

As for me, I’m glad to apply the lessons I’ve learned as an electronics enthusiast to other aspects of life. There’s no emotion in troubleshooting a circuit, electricity doesn’t have morals. There’s just physics, and logic, and methodology. I think we could all benefit from applying a little more of that sort of thinking to these situations.

* Correction: A reader and commenter, Joe Donaldson, tracked down the clock in a Radio Shack catalog dated 1986. It’s likely that my guess of mid-to-late 70s was off by a bit, and it’s now obvious it was a model that was for sale in the mid 80s. Though it doesn’t really change the point, I want to post this correction here for accuracy sake and thank Joe for the heads up. (See the comment here, with link to the catalog page.)


Pirate Bay: So long and thanks for all the megabytes

529px-The_Pirate_Bay_logo.svgAs those of you who don’t surf the web under a virtual rock are already aware, the “Pirate Bay Four” were found guilty by a Swedish court of “assisting in making copyright content available” back in April. Site operators Peter Sunde, Fredrik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm, and apparent tech facilitator Carl Lundström have a year in jail to think about what they’ve done, and have a $3.6 million dollar tab for damages to split amongst themselves.  Despite the verdict, the site has continued to operate til present, some 20 million regular users strong.

Throughout the trial, the prosecution contended the sites’ co-founders brought in as much as $4 million per year in advertising revenues, while the defense argued no profits were made – hence any illegal activity was actually on the individual users who chose to participate. In an ironic (or is that hypocritical) twist, it looks like the Pirate Bay is about to be sold for a hefty profit. Details are being finalized at this point, with sources reporting Swedish based “Global Gaming Factory X” putting up somewhere between $7.7 and $7.9 million dollars for the acquisition – making that $3.6 million dollar fine look like chump change. [full text press release, PDF]

So what’s a Swedish company to do with an organization recently convicted of illegal activity by Swedish courts?  Legitimize it, of course. Stick with me for a moment folks, if this business plan doesn’t make any sense to you, you’ve got the jist.

First, Global Gaming chief exec Hans Pandeya, plans to license content from media companies for legal downloads. That’s right – they’re expecting the likes of the Sony and Viacom and Fox and Warner Brothers of the world embrace the namesake Pirate Bay to legally tout their digital wares. No, it’s not deja vu… how’s that business plan working out for you Napster? Surely, those 20 million users in search of free downloads will stick around when the site’s offerings are slashed to near nothing and will suddenly see the light and start paying for it.

Next comes some premium advertising. Pandeya and co hope to raise up to $50 million per year in ad revenues on the newly legit ‘Bay. As of now, the Pirate Bay (and sites like it) have difficulty finding advertisers that will even touch potential breeding grounds for digital theft. Advertisers on display range from bottom feeders to downright scammers, bidding at some of the lowest CPMs on earth. But hey – once it goes legit, everybody will forget the past! Large companies will surely see that same light the users do, and will ignore history to put their highly protected trademarks and reputations all over it. (You might want to turn down your sarcasm detectors if you haven’t already; I’m not responsible if they blow a gasket.)

But lastly, we have a real gem of a business idea. The Pirate Bay is going to get in the Internet services biz. They’re going to take the concept of peer-to-peer and leverage those millions of users’ Internet connections… Users can opt in to a program where they share their existing bandwidth with a peer to peer “cloud.”  Internet service providers can rent capacity on this network when they need short term boosts of bandwidth to handle unusually high loads. This new technology is called “Peerialism” and potential uses might be streaming video during major media events (like the great bandwidth drains earlier this year care of studious employees watching the NCAA Final Four on their work computers.) After all, this distributed model has been used by legitimate researchers to do things like search for aliens and seek out a cure for cancer.  Only here, users will be compensated – financially – for participating. Earnings might be paid out directly, or used within the site to purchase music from the afformentioned licensees.

Cool idea on the bizarro Internet, perhaps. In the real world, the whole idea is perposterous. It’s against the terms of service set by pretty much every single Internet Provider out there. Looking at my own provider’s ToS, I can count at least half a dozen ways this violates my contract. Save yourself the legal jargon – here’s the synopsis, assuming a residential connection. You can’t use the service to make a profit or run a commercial endeavor. You can’t re-sell your connectivity. You can’t redistribute audio/visual content. You can’t charge others in any way shape or form for access to any facet of your service. You get the picture. Ignoring the fact this will either be blocked by your provider or cause your connection to go dark without a refund, it still doesn’t make sense if you consider who the intended customer is: Internet pervice providers. Why again will an ISP essentially buy back the bandwidth it just sold you? It’s like buying a dozen ears of corn at the grocery store and telling your grocer “hey, I just noticed you’re short 12 ears of corn, I’ve got a dozen here you might be interested in!” ISPs already have bandwidth sharing strategies to buy bandwidth from one another when their tubes get clogged… but SURELY they’ll want to go around in circles and buy their own bandwidth back care of their own customers in violation of their own terms of services – from the Pirate Bay, of all places. (OK, you can turn those sarcasm detectors back on, I’m done.)

In summary, so long Pirate Bay. It’s been a good run. And while I’m not a certified financial advisor and you should always read your prospectus first… if Global Gaming Factory X or “Pirate Bay 2.0” ever goes public, you might want to devise a short sale strategy.


The Great Digital Delay

23181544This morning, in an unanimous vote, the U.S. Senate has agreed to delay the government mandated digital television transition. The target has been moved from the original February 17th date to June 12th.

(Updated: The bill has been voted down in the house. More info at the bottom.)

Media reports have been all over the map, with sources suggesting anywhere from 5 million to 20 million US households are unprepared for the transition.  There have also been reports of as many as 2.5 million on the FCC’s waiting list for their converter box coupon program.  13.5 million coupons have been passed out, but it’s estimated that roughly half have not been used.  The coupons carry a 90 day expiration, and as the unused coupons expire those on the waiting list will get a shot at one.

President Obama has called for an additional $850 million as part of his stimulus package to provide additional funding to the FCC coupon program.

The FCC has of course already auctioned off and collected it’s nearly $20 billion dollars to re-license the wireless spectrum that would have been freed in just 3 weeks.  (Why again, does the FCC need another $850 million of taxpayer’s dollars to cover the coupon shortfall? Anyway…)

Major players AT&T and Verizon will have to wait until June to begin using their newly acquired slice of the airwaves, though this morning’s bill includes a 116 day extension to the end of their original licenses as compensation.

(Shameless plug warning: who needs OTA anyway, when you’ve got Artvoice TV?)

Update, Wednesday Jan 28: Despite the unanimous vote and the support from President Obama, it turns out this bill was not a shoo-in after all. Because the bill had been fast-tracked in the House, it required 2/3rds votet here before reaching the President’s desk; however, this morning it was shot down by a 256 to 168 vote. So it’s not over yet folks. The House may vote next week for a second time on the issue. In the mean time, we can say the great digital delay… has been delayed.


RIAA Shifts Tactics in Internet Piracy Fight

Five years on, and 350,000 lawsuits later, the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) announced this morning that the’re finally giving up on small-time file sharers.  Well, sort of.

Wading through the blogosphere (as opposed to wading through the two feet of snow outside), it looks like the story starts here: CNET reports that sources close to the RIAA claim the group’s budget is being slashed and their role reduced. One might assume they face the same problems as any business or organization – a tough economic climate, dwindling sales, and so on. A likely story, but given the fact that those 350,000 lawsuits targeted many innocent individuals, levied disproportionately high penalties to very small time file sharers, and in sum total did next to nothing to curb on-line piracy, maybe the truth is their litigious witch hunt has been a near total failure, and they’re finally acknowledging that.

It’s not all good news for fans of file sharing, as you aren’t off the hook yet.  The RIAA has apparently struck deals with several major ISPs to enact a “3 strikes and you’re out” policy.  So the witch hunt is still on, but instead of slapping you with a lawsuit, the RIAA intends on tattle-taling to your Internet provider instead.  The ones who have agreed to cooperate (and so far, the ISPs in agreement have NOT been named), will likely follow this line of attack: (1) a warning; (2) a second warning coupled with speed reduction and/or possible block of peer to peer traffic, (3) cut off your Internet access all together.

NY State’s own Attorney General Andrew Cuomo apparently played a large role in brokering this deal.  You may remember Cuomo’s campaign to stop on-line child pornography earlier in the year (aka the ISPs campaign to have a good excuse to stop providing Usenet service while making good press yet not actually doing much to stop on-line child pornography)… borrowing a page from that book, we can see the list of ISPs Cuomo has already gotten cooperation from in the past here. I’ll reiterate – the RIAA has not said which ISPs are on board; and this is speculation on my part, but I have a feeling we’ll see a lot of those same names come out as participants.

So the bit of good news is, you probably aren’t going to get sued if you’re caught illegally downloading a couple of songs.  The RIAA also will never know your identity, nor harass or subpoena your ISP to learn your identity.

The bad news? There’s a couple points…

  • The RIAA doesn’t need to follow due process anymore. That saves them a lot of lawyers, a lot of time, and a lot of money.  Remember those budget cuts I mentioned?  Probably not relevant; they don’t need the budget to do things this way. No lawyers needed, less in depth investigation needed… any suspicion of somebody? Just fire off an e-mail!
  • The RIAA still reserves the right to sue big-time file sharers with large volumes of songs.  They might go after you if you do something particularly irksome as well (careful with those “leaked” pre-release albums, kids!)  There’s no clear line. So while the risk to file sharers has gone down, it hasn’t gone away.
  • It looks like enforcement is a the discretion of the ISPs, and it’s the RIAA’s word against yours. No real proof needs to be provided, no appeals process, etc… unless your ISP is nice enough to provide a fair process, you’re probably out of luck, be it rightly or wrongly accused.
  • Lastly, it’s just a huge can of worms that probably shouldn’t be opened.  ISPs should be neutral. They provide a service that transmits your data from point A to point B.  They shouldn’t have any business telling you what you can or can’t send from “A” to “B” – if you’re breaking the law, there’s a legal system to deal with it. Does this mean ISPs are going to start spying on your traffic to confirm RIAA complaints?  Does it mean they’re going to do the police work for other industry organizations?  Are ISPs themselves going to take heat if they fail to comply with RIAA requests? Are they going to go beyond cutting off your Internet access and blacklisting you from their services as a group – again, without any sort of legal due process to prove your guilt?  (That’s what they’re looking to do in some European countries, by the way.)  Are they going to apply the connection-slowdown-punishment to other areas at their discretion? Obviously there’s a lot more questions than answers right now, but it doesn’t look good for the pro-net neutrality folks.

Surely this will be an on-going process that we’re all going to have to wait to see how it pans out. It’s a small victory for file sharers.  Potentionally a large loss for privacy and neutrality advocates. Possibly, like the RIAA’s last campaign, a bunch of hot air that gets them nowhere fast. Some day we’ll come up with a way where artists looking to get paid can, and ‘netziens looking for free content can find it without fear… but it’s certainly not today.




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