Like many people last week, I was appalled when I read about the treatment of 14-year-old high school student Ahmed Mohamed in Irving, Texas. Ahmed was arrested for bringing what several people thought was a "hoax bomb" to school, despite his repeated assertions that it was simply a clock which he had invented. When I was Ahmed's age, I loved tinkering with electronics, and I brought my own creations to school several times, so I was understandably incensed when I read about Ahmed's plight.
However, there is a big difference between what Ahmed claims to have done and what he actually did. Ahmed did not - in fact - build a clock from scratch. As multiple websites and YouTube videos have shown, all Ahmed did was remove an existing clock from its plastic case and mount the unmodified electronics inside a pencil box. As someone who actually built things from scratch when I was Ahmed's age, this was insulting to me, because it means that Ahmed is a fraud. While his motives are unclear, the fact is undeniable that Ahmed actually did bring a hoax to school; but he didn't bring a hoax bomb, he brought a hoax invention.
As I looked at photos of the clock which Ahmed was supposed to have built, I couldn't see where he had done anything to merit "inventiveness." The jumble of wires appeared largely intact to me; the only thing which seemed out of place was the 9V battery connector, so I wondered if Ahmed had soldered a battery connector to the main board after the transformer in order to allow the clock to work when it wasn't plugged into the wall. If so, that would have been a cool idea. But my theory proved untrue when it was later revealed that the 9V connector was the built-in battery backup for the clock memory in the event of a power failure. So once again, Ahmed appears to have done nothing to warrant all of his new-found fame and accolades. (By the way, what is truly embarrassing about this situation is that Make Magazine, which is one of my favorites, completely failed to notice that Ahmed did not actually build his own clock. That's a really big fail, guys. You should have known better.)
I realize that everyone who pursues a career in electronics has to start somewhere, and the disassembly of an existing electronic product is the perfect place for Ahmed (or anyone else) to start. When I was a teenager, I was an avid electric guitar player, so I started out with electronics by taking apart existing guitar effects to see how they worked. When I didn't understand something, I went to the library to check out books about electronic theory, and I dutifully studied the subjects which were foreign to me. Eventually I moved on to repairing other people's broken guitar effects, and finally I moved on to building guitar effects from scratch. (Craig Anderton was my hero.) So when I brought a creation to school, it was something which I had actually created. But even more than that, when I was a little older than Ahmed I actually created a digital clock from scratch by wiring together all of the parts by hand. That is a far cry from what Ahmed did; Ahmed took someone else's work, slapped his name on it, and asked to be recognized as its creator. What Ahmed has done constitutes fraud. Period.
Nevertheless, even though Ahmed is a phony as an inventor, at least in this situation, he probably did not deserve to have been arrested for bringing his hoax invention to school. I will admit that the jumble of wires and the large LED screen certainly resembles a bomb which you might see on a low-budget television show, so I should at least acknowledge the good intentions of the safety-minded school officials who thought the situation was worth investigating. (Note: Can you imagine the uproar if a student had actually brought a bomb to school and the school officials did nothing about it?)
However, once the facts of the matter were made clear and everyone knew that Ahmed had not actually brought a bomb to school, the academic and police officials overreacted, and Ahmed was humiliated as he was handcuffed and paraded before his peers as he was led away by the police.
But the overreactions didn't stop there, because everyone in the community - myself included - quickly overreacted to show our support for Ahmed. Many people were angry at the close-mindedness of the investigating officials; we all wanted to take this young David's side as he took on the Goliath of insensitivity. "@IStandWithAhmed" and "#IStandWithAhmed" became instant Twitter sensations. Mark Zuckerberg invited Ahmed to drop by Facebook for a meeting. Microsoft sent Ahmed a treasure trove of goodies to encourage his inventiveness. The Google Science Fair invited Ahmed to drop by and bring his clock. And President Obama asked Ahmed to bring his clock to the White House.
I have come to realize that these overreactions are equally as wrong as the original overreactions by the school officials; perhaps even more so - because Ahmed is being heavily rewarded for being a charlatan. Everyone needs to step back and think about this for a second: if Ahmed brought his clock to Facebook or the Microsoft Garage or the Google Science Fair, he would be a laughingstock, because his "invention" is a fake. When Ahmed is done being praised by the press and exalted by social media for being the underdog in this story, sooner or later he will have to stand in a room surrounded by people his age (or older) who are actually creating cool things from scratch. When that happens, Ahmed desperately needs have something better to show than an off-the-shelf digital clock that he stuffed into a pencil box, because real teenage inventors will immediately identify him as an imposter.
So I have changed my opinion in this matter from being upset over Ahmed's treatment by the authorities to being upset over Ahmed's treatment by the community, because we are rewarding his dishonesty. If Ahmed had copied the answers for an exam from one of his classmates, everyone would immediately recognize him as a cheater. Yet that is essentially what Ahmed is doing with his clock; he is taking someone else's creation and claiming to have created it, and therefore he is being deliberately deceitful. And through our collective overreactions our country is sending a terrible message to the youth of Ahmed's generation: "If you lie to America, not only will you get away with it, but you'll win big prizes and get an invitation to meet the President."
I will admit, I have done a lot of crazy things in my life. It's pretty amazing that I haven't earned a Darwin Award by now. I drove cars way too fast when I was young; and I lost control on more than one occasion. (Once I spun the car so many times that gravel had managed to embed itself through the bead on the tires; when the tire was flat the next day, we found a bunch pebbles inside the tires.) During my tenure in the Army, I did some pretty foolish things, too. Before the end of the Cold War, I snuck across the border into East Germany - and I did so on more than one occasion. Oh sure, everybody in my unit had done that at one time or other... but still, sneaking undetected into Communist territory just for the rush of trying not to get caught is kind of... stupid. All told, I've avoided more vehicular catastrophes than I can remember: I've gone free climbing at night, I've rappelled from helicopters, I've been scuba diving with sharks, I've jumped over rattlesnakes in the desert, and I've survived a host of other reckless, ill-advised, and/or dim-witted decisions with regard to my personal safety.
But what has scared me the most in my life is when my first daughter was born. I know a lot of people make jokes about how becoming a parent is terrifying, but that's not what I mean.
My wife and I married very young - just out of high school to be exact - and we became parents when we were still quite young. In fact, I was a few months short of my 20th birthday when our daughter was born. I only mention my age because it made everything harder; I had no real life experience to judge the seriousness of any situation. So when we arrived at the hospital prior to the birth of our daughter, everything was new to us.
Thankfully my wife's good friend was there; she was a pediatric ICU nurse, and she helped keep things running smoothly for us. (And of course, by "us" I mean "me.") After my wife had been in labor for several hours, she apparently still had several hours ahead of her. With that in mind, my wife's friend told me that she and I were pretty worthless hanging around the delivery room, so she said that she and I should head to dinner.
However, when we got back from dinner, complete chaos had erupted in my wife's hospital room. Medical personnel were running all over the place, my wife was wired up to all sorts of equipment, and everyone's face had an expression of dire seriousness. When a nearby nurse finally had a moment to describe what was going on, she explained that our daughter's heart rate had dropped in half - from 140bpm to 70bpm. If the doctors didn't operate immediately, our daughter would die. So before I really knew what was happening, I found myself decked out in surgical scrubs and being quickly escorted down the hall and into a densely-packed operating room.
Watching a cesarean section was... well... it's hard to explain; I experienced a range of emotions. Under other circumstances watching surgery would be fascinating, but there was something that was really unnerving about watching someone cut open my wife with a scalpel. Added to that was the knowledge that both my wife's and my daughter's lives were at stake. And that part was especially terrifying.
There's a scene in the movie She's Having A Baby where Elizabeth McGovern's character is having a cesarean section while Kevin Bacon's character is nervously waiting outside the operating room with both sets of their parents. It's a heart-wrenching moment in the movie, but even more so for me because I more or less lived through that same experience.
The end of my story is that the surgery was a success; both mother and daughter recovered from their ordeals. Thirty years have come and gone since that fateful day, but I have never forgotten what if felt like to realize that I might lose everything that was important to me. I have never felt more helpless. Or more petrified.
I found the following video fascinating because... I love art. I have been to dozens of art museums all over the world, and I have often said the words, "I can do that." (See my blog post titled The Eye of the Beholder for more about that subject.)
To Those Who Have Looked At Art And Thought I Could Do That An Art Curator Explains Why You Couldn't
However, I vehemently disagree with this presenter's central supposition; pushing back on "unappreciative observers" by claiming that "it's their problem" if they cannot appreciate something which is obviously below the artistic standards of a two-year-old is a cop out. Much of what is called "art" in this generation will not survive to be admired by future generations because - to put it bluntly - most modern art is crap.
Don't get me wrong, there is something to be said for challenging artistic norms, breaking new ground, and using creative license to push any art form into new avenues. It doesn't matter if an artist is using oil on canvas, sculpture, photography, musical composition, etc.; the mark of a true artist is someone who takes their chosen field to new heights. However, within each artistic field are pretenders who are in a race for the bottom, while at the same time protesting that your lack of approval for their creations is due to some deficiency on your part. That - my friends - is a load of cow poop. (And as a quick case in point, a load of cow poop has been considered "art" by some people, which perfectly illustrates my premise. See Why is Modern Art so Bad? for more.)
The presenter in the original video asks her audience to consider asking why they didn't actually create the art which they are critiquing, and then posits the inane suggestion that her viewers are actually incapable of doing so. This assertion is also a bunch of hogwash; the reason why most people do not actually do the things they say that they can do when it comes to art is because: 1) most people realize that the unskilled smearing of paint on a canvas is a colossal waste of time and money, and 2) most of us are not con men.
It is a sad fact that in this day and age a lot of the peddlers of modern art make their living from convincing the rest of the world that anyone who cannot appreciate their art is simply "uncultured," so most everyone plays along in order to not seem like a unsophisticated simpleton. The presenter in that video is a perfect example; it's her job to make you think that you simply aren't as refined as she is. But the truth is - you're a much better person for standing back every once in a while and exclaiming, "That's a big pile-o-poppycock; I could do that." What's more, you're probably helping the art world. As more people begin point their fingers and laugh at the ever-growing number of incompetent charlatans who are passing themselves off as "artists," perhaps we'll finally be able send them back to art school where they can develop some sort of talent. Or even better, maybe these artists will get real jobs and quit milking the empty-headed stooges who continuously buy into their deceptions.
One parting thought, take a look at Can You Tell The Difference Between Modern Art And Paintings By Toddlers? and see if you can tell the difference between actual modern art paintings and creations by four-year-olds; I'll bet you'll find it nearly impossible to accurately separate the two sets of "art" into their correct categories, regardless of your appreciation for modern art.