Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ahmed Mohamed's "homemade" clock

So there's this incident where a student, of middle-eastern descent, in a Texas high school made a "homemade" clock, put it into a briefcase, and then got arrested because they thought it was a bomb.

When one reads the headlines version of the story, one very easily gets the impression that this is an electronics genius who built an electronic clock from scratch, then went to his school to show it off, and then got arrested mainly because of prejudice and racism (a muslim brings a briefcase with a clock to school, it must be a bomb!)

This story got so much attention that even the president of the United States made supporting comments, and this kid was soon offered scholarships to the most prestigious universities of the country.

However, when you actually dig deeper, the story is a bit different.

Firstly, was calling the police to arrest him overreaction? Definitely. Americans especially, but in increasing amounts westerners in general, are scared shitless of terrorism, and we see this kind of ridiculous overreaction all the time.

Was there prejudice and racism involved? If it had been a white kid, would the same have happened? Was the police called because he was a muslim? Possibly, but I have my doubts. You hear news of similar ridiculous overreactions all the time, regardless of the ethnicity of the "perpetrator".

Secondly, he wasn't arrested because they thought he had a bomb. Both the school and the police knew perfectly well it wasn't a bomb. The reason he got arrested was because they thought he was playing a tasteless, even dangerous prank, similar to going to the bank with a toy gun: It doesn't matter how much of a "prank" it is, you will get arrested. You don't go to a bank with a toy gun, no matter what. In the same way, you don't go to a school with a fake bomb.

Was the arrest still overreaction, even in this light? Definitely. As said, western culture has become scared of its own shadow, and we resort to such ridiculous overreactions. However, the actual reason for the overraction is not as stupid as the headlines version of the story makes it sound.

Thirdly, the scholarships are themselves an overraction. The stories make it sound like he's some kind of electronics genius, who built a homemade clock from scratch in his home.

Reality is much more disappointing than that. In actuality he simply disassembled an alarm clock and put the pieces inside the briefcase, maybe just soldering a few wires, but that's it. This may not be something that every teenager does, but it isn't something especially ingenious or talented either. Any random teenager with even a modicum of interest would be able to do that rather easily. There was nothing special about it. I think that offering him scholarships because of this was a bit rushed.

(Not that there's anything wrong in offering scholarships to anybody. That's just fine. It's just that the reason why they offer scholarships to this particular kid is skewed and misaimed. Other kids in the same school are not likewise offered scholarships, only this one, and only because of this event, rather than because of actual merit.)

There is, in fact, a very real possibility that he did indeed deliberately make it look like a briefcase bomb, just for the lulz. After all, why would you disassemble an alarm clock and put its innards in a briefcase (moreover a briefcase that looks exactly like those used in movies where such briefcase bombs are depicted), even soldering some extra wires for additional effect?

The stories make it sound like he just wanted to show off his hobby. Is that really so? Or did he deliberately make it look like a bomb? After all, there is little sense in using such a briefcase to do this; he could just as well brought it in his regular backpack or whatever.

I am somewhat convinced that he did have a "briefcase bomb" look in mind when he did this little project. He probably didn't understand nor realize that in the modern western zeitgeist, this is a no-no. (It's a rather stupid no-no for certain, but still, it's something you can get in trouble for. He probably didn't understand this.)

Update: Digging even deeper, the situation is even more damning than described above.

Firstly, the notion that he's some kind of electronics genius who built a homemade clock from scratch, or even modified an existing clock, is completely busted. There are videos out there which you can find, where people take the same kind of clock and replicate his version by simply opening the clock, taking its innards, and just putting them into a small briefcase. And that's it. Zero electronics or engineering knowledge needed. The only skill required is the ability to use a screwdriver to remove the screws of the clock's case.

Secondly, he had a history of numerous pranks in that school. (Also his sister had such a history. There are some indications that their father may be somehow involved in this.)

Thirdly, when he first tried to play this prank, he was told to put it away, into his locker. Instead, he kept bringing it to several classes. The point that broke the camel's back was when he set the alarm of the clock to go off in the middle of a class. There was no "a Muslim with a bomb!" mentality. There was a "problem student with a history of pranks and disruptions was told several times to stop it, and he wouldn't stop it, and instead went and disrupted class once again." He was given plenty of opportunity and warnings to stop it.

Fourthly, he was finally reported to the principal, and the principal finally called the police because of zero-tolerance policies in that school. (Yes, "zero-tolerance" is completely stupid, but such policies tie the hands of the teachers and principals. They have to act accordingly, or risk suspensions or losing their jobs.)

Fifthly, the police did not arrest him because they thought he had a bomb. They detained him because he was uncooperative and refused to answer questions.

And playing this prank, which involved zero engineering skills, was rewarded by him being called to the White House, to the UN, and with scholarships to prestigious universities, and showered with free stuff from all kinds of companies.

So yeah. Our society can over-react in both directions, it seems.

And what happened when he noticed that he gets showered by free stuff by playing the victim card? He got greedy and now is suing the state for 15 million dollars. Yes, this kid who got to he White House, the UN, and got showered with prestigious scholarships and free stuff... got so "emotionally distressed" that he's now suing the state for a meager 15 million dollars grand prize.

Assuming he wins the case, where do you think that money will be coming from? The taxpayers. And where do you think that money will be away from? That's right: The education system (which is already struggling in Texas.)

When he was just an unruly schoolkid with a history of playing pranks, and not listening to his teachers, it was understandable. Now he's just a little piece of s**t.

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