Earlier this week, a 14-year-old high school student was arrested for bringing to school…
…a homemade digital clock.
Like Ahmed Mohamed, I was into electronics when I was in high school. I even built a digital clock from a kit when I was a little older than him. It looked very similar to his clock, except that the display was smaller (it was the 1970s, after all) and I didn’t mount mine in a case. I also didn’t think to bring it to school, not so much because I feared my teachers might consider it dangerous, but because I didn’t think it was that interesting. It was, after all, just a clock, and it wouldn’t do anything unless plugged in.
But I did build my own baby computer, and I did bring that to school. Computers weren’t quite ordinary consumer products in the late 1970s, and I couldn’t imagine asking my parents to buy me one. So I set about building one for myself.
My little machine had a Z80 processor and 256 bytes of memory. It had a panel with lights that flashed; I could hook up a speaker and make buzzing noises. It fit comfortably in a shoe box, but it looked way creepier than Ahmed’s clock. My physics teacher was interested, but didn’t say much. None of the other teachers noticed. Certainly, nobody thought it was anything nefarious. (And my real reason for bringing to school was so that I could tinker with it at lunchtime and show my friends.)
Later, on graduation day, I won a $200 prize for experimental physics. It was a total surprise: my only clue was the day before, during the graduation rehearsal, when I was told to sit in the corner of the auditorium reserved for the prize winners. I spent the money on more computer parts.
Ahmed, alas, wasn’t so lucky. He was arrested on the suspicion that the clock was a ‘hoax bomb.’ OK, perhaps it is: if you were making a movie and looking for a bomb prop, Ahmed’s clock would be a plausible candidate. And yes, it could probably configured to function as a timer for a real bomb.
But if it’s a timer you want, there are far cheaper and simpler alternatives out there. And if the thought was that the clock was meant to perpetrate a disturbance, the simplest way to deal with that is to deny the disturbance: confiscate the clock until the end of the day, and return it with a stern warning.
And yes, Ahmed is a Moslem. While I’m fully aware of the dangers of Islamic extremists, some judgement is still needed: sometimes a clock is just a clock. I’ll take the school and police authorities at their word: if Ahmed had been some other color, the events would probably have unfolded the same way. There are, after all, evil Tea Party types out there who believe in the (gasp!) Constitution.
Have we gotten so thoroughly stupid that we can’t recognize a smart kid who likes to build stuff?