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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.)


There’s Something in the Sky Tonight

Filed under: News, Science, Space
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Tonight at approximately midnight, stargazers will be treated to a rare sight. Jupiter will be in near perfect opposition to the Earth, and at it’s closest in decades. Take a look to the sky tonight and the brightest thing you’ll see – besides our moon – is the red colored gas giant.

Jupiter's giant red spot, as seen from the unmanned Voyager 1 spacecraft. (NASA photo.)

While the planets cross once every thirteen months, their orbits are not perfect circles, so it’s of varying distances. Tonight marks the closest the planet will pass opposed to the sun since 1963, and it won’t align as so again until 2022 as Jupiter completes its nearly 12 year orbit. Tonight, it will be as much as 46.6 million miles closer than than usual for this sort of alignment, making it easily visible to the naked eye and outshining all of the stars in our view. (It will be at a near perfect minimum of about 365 million miles away; as opposed to it’s maximum distance of approximately 601 million miles – a 40% difference!) Jupiter will rise over the horizon beginning at sunset and will be at its closest, and brightest, at around midnight. While tonight is the best viewing in decades, Jupiter will remain close for the next few weeks if you miss your chance at midnight.

Taken from his amateur back-yard observatory right here in downtown Buffalo, local photographer Alan Friedman has an absolutely awesome shot of Jupiter from just three weeks ago on his website, here. (So awesome, it was was featured on NASA’s Science News website.) While you’re waiting for midnight, check out some more of his work at his home page, avertedimagination.com.

On a related note, another once in a lifetime alignment occurs tonight with Uranus also at opposition to our sun, about one degree apart from Jupiter in the sky. It is a rare coincidence that both planets nearly align in opposition from the sun at the same time. This one however will be barely visible, if at all, to the naked eye, but even the most basic hobby telescope should be enough to catch a glimpse. So while you’re taking a look at Jupiter, you’ll might be able to find an emerald green point of light that is Uranus near by.


Friday is International System Administrator Appreciation Day

Not Artvoice's network closet. Not far off though.

Although this made-up holiday will have its 11th anniversary tomorrow, it’s still relatively unknown. The last Friday in July has been dubbed International System Administrator Appreciation day. (As you may guess, it’s creator was an under-appreciated system administrator.)

While technically a system administrator is somebody who, well – administers computer systems – for the purpose of the holiday it’s a little more generic. We’ll throw tech support, desktop support, network admins, and general IT guys all under the umbrella, because chances are your organization has some, and chances are most days of the year nobody notices them until something breaks. As a whole we expect pressing “send” on that e-mail results in it being delivered. We flip out when an error pops up, but wouldn’t imagine saying thanks for when it goes through. Chances are the more skilled and harder working your sysadmin is, the LESS you notice them. When something does go wrong however, they’re expected to know it all – immediately – and fix it with or without the proper resources to do so. (Don’t forget the “drop everything because my problem is the most important problem” attitude, we totally love that and really have nothing else to do!)

In over a decade of sysadmin, support, and IT roles in three different organizations, I’ve seen a lot. From orange juice in the keyboard to peanut butter in the CD-ROM drive, spending hours on a job that should have taken minutes thanks to “secret” porn stashes clogging the works (naming the folder “business documents” doesn’t fool anyone) – and perhaps my all time favorite which occurred right here in the AV office – having an iMac spontaneously explode in my face, billowing a puff of pungent blue electronic smoke into the air. (As the old geek adage goes: electronics run on magic smoke; if you let the smoke out, they no longer work!)

Mountains of dust and filth just under the hood are a common system administrator hazard.

I’ve fixed machines that would fit in better at the Computer History Museum than on an office desk. I’ve fashioned replacement printer parts out of paper clips. Used soldiering irons and a jeweler’s drill to do things you aren’t supposed to be able to do with circuit boards to bring them back to life. (Thanks, counterfeit Chinese capacitors.) Taught a certain upstate NY ex-mayor how to use his computer once he no longer had aides to send his e-mail for him. Stuck dead hard drives in freezers to recover manuscripts bytes at a time – that deadline with the publisher was looming, no time to waste on nonsense like backups! Battled spammers, put in 20 hour emergency marathon sessions responding to virus outbreaks – fueled only by pizza and energy drinks – and spent more Saturday nights in server rooms than I’d like to admit.

I’m not complaining; if anything the surprise challenges in the field are endless and the solutions are often creative, which in itself can be rewarding. But still, it is always nice to hear “thanks.”

So, take a moment tomorrow, and let your local computer geek know he or she is appreciated.

If you’d like to find out more, visit the International System Administrator’s Appreciation Day website.

For the sake of full disclosure: I am myself the system administrator here at Artvoice. (Actually, I’m more like the sysadmin, IT department, network admin, webmaster, desktop support, and computer programmer.) To my co-workers, I’m not here fishing for compliments – I do feel more appreciated in this environment than some I’ve been in! I’m doing my part to spread the word about this “holiday” for the sake of my peers, because many are much less fortunate, to which I can still relate!


Sending Tweets to Heaven

Goldstone_DSN_antennaThis holiday season, remember a passed on loved one by sending a message to heaven. You’ll need to be long on faith, but you’ll have to keep your message short – 140 characters to be precise – which shouldn’t be an issue in this age of Twitter and text messaging, right?

The UK based Bereavement Register will provide the service via the Deep Space Communications Network (DSCN) at the Kennedy Space Station. (Ironically, the Bereavement Register is normally in the business of preventing communications with the deceased. Their “day job” is assisting British families with putting a stop to direct mail to those no longer with us.)

The bereaved can visit www.rememberingyouthischristmas.com and enter a Twitter-style message that will be beamed to the cosmos. They’ll compile the messages and fire them into space in one shot on Christmas day, using state of the art transmitters and a five-meter parabolic dish. (The dish pictured is actually a much bigger 70 meter model, part of the similarly named but not to be confused NASA Deep Space Network, or DSN.) The transmission will be aimed at an “empty” area of space, ensuring the transmission traveling at the speed of light expands outwardly, unimpeded.

For the interested geek, they have chosen a comma separated/tab delimited file to transmit – clearly a choice compatible with the great database in the sky.

Let’s hope the Lifeboat Foundation doesn’t find out, as this being a flagrant affront to their mission of keeping Earth off alien civilizations’ radar. Sending messages to nowhere may be a gesture appreciated by your dearly departed, but you never know how a hostile alien nation in the transmission path may interpret the message billions of light years along its way. That is, if they aren’t too busy responding to Craigslist ads that have gone out on the DSCN previously.

Oh, you’ve got until December 20th to add your message.




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