I’m Ahmed. Except I’m Not Brown.

I’m disgusted by this story, reported by the Dallas Morning News tonight. A 14-year-old high school freshman named Ahmed Mohamed…

Do I need to fill in the details? I’m outraged about a story involving a kid named Ahmed Mohamed. Can you live in America today and not already understand the basic shape of what happened at his school?

He’s a kid with a keen interest in engineering. He made a simple digital clock at home and brought it to school so he could show it off to one of his teachers. After a different teacher subsequently saw it and thought it looked like a bomb, the school administration called the police and Ahmed was led out of the school in handcuffs in full view of the student body.

I recognized this kid immediately. This was me when I was in public school. Even in sixth grade, my classroom cubby contained a lunchbox filled with batteries, wires, and random circuits. In later years, I had technical manuals and printouts filled with arcane symbols that I knew were 6502 assembler opcodes but could have been coded German Army ENIGMA signals for all my teachers knew. I might have had the components of busted floppy drives in my bookbag. During a frustrated, failure-filled period when I was trying to master photographic printmaking, my bookbag might have contained brown bottles filled with stinky chemicals.

I twisted doorknobs and walked into unlocked, dark rooms. On one occasion, this led to my discovering a long-disused DEC minicomputer.

Then there was the time I looked at my locker combination dial and realized that it was a total sham. The little paper sticker told me that the first number in my combination was “17.” But…this is a crappy little lock. Can’t I be off by one or two, and it’ll still be good? Fast-forward through a period of theories and experiments and trial and error, and I’d figured out how to determine the combination through guesswork.

My hobby was breaking the copy protection on commercial games; yes, technically, theft. The knowledge I gained in this pursuit allowed me to create my own heavily-patched (but innocent) version of Apple DOS, which was running on all of the computer lab’s Apple //es without anybody’s knowledge. Yes, technically, distributing malware.

All of these stories come across as Charming and Nostalgic tales of a nerdy little kid on his way to a predestined career in science, math, or technology. There was never any negative fallout. Yes, partly because it was more than a decade before 9/11.

But they’re happy stories mostly because I was a white Catholic kid named Andy Ihnatko. Not a brown kid named Ahmed Mohamed, and not a black kid named anything.

My stories about being a nerdy schoolkid all have good endings. My teachers took all of these things as signs that I had a lot of potential — it helped that I was not just white, but a white boy — and they responded by supporting and encouraging me.

More than that, they trusted me. They let me take broken computer hardware home so I could learn engineering by trying to fix it. They gave me the key to the school darkroom. They let me stay after school and mess with that minicomputer. Even when I proudly (and naively!) told a teacher that I had, in effect, worked out how to break into anybody’s locker, the only person she reported me to was a fellow student a few weeks later. He’d forgotten his locker combination and she figured I could get it open for him faster than the custodian.

If I had been a black kid? No way. I can’t imagine that the teachers of a white, white, white suburban Boston high school would have patted me on the head for all of that. Opening unlocked doors would have been taken as breaking and entering. If I told them that I’d put in a lot of time to decipher the mechanical workings of a common school lock and how to exploit its weaknesses, they’d have assumed the only reason I’d have gone to all of that trouble was because I planned to steal stuff, not because I was intellectually excited by an intriguing puzzle.

Most of these stories would have ended with me being forbidden to use school computers ever again and losing other privileges. At worst, sure, maybe I would have been sent down to a special separate school for kids with disciplinary problems; essentially, a lockup for kids deemed to have no future anyway.

Ahmed says in the article that he wanted his engineering teacher to see what he’d made so that he could make a good impression here at the start of the school year, and show off what he could do. It should have resulted in him receiving the same kind of positive attention that I did, back in the 80s.

But again: brown kid named “Ahmed.” And lest I come across as a Northeastern idiot smugly complaining about how things work in Texas: this is how things work in America. Not any one region.

Ahmed has been suspended. Is he in a school system with one of those idiotic “zero tolerance” disciplinary cultures? The kind that absolves the administration of any responsibility for what they do to kids?

I hope not. This is the sort of system that just tosses kids into the input hopper of a machine designed to be operated by unskilled and mindless laborers. He brought a device to school; the administration imagined that it could be construed as a hoax bomb; therefore, it is a weapon; and now, zero-tolerance demands that he be suspended and then expelled oh gosh well it’s not me destroying the kid’s life I honestly wish I had another option gee my hands are just completely tied okay anyway moving on let’s talk about this terrific season our Wildcats are having this year…

It infuriates me. Ahmed’s been suspended. I imagine that’s on his record. Is it on his record as “violation of school anti-weapon policy” or is it on there as “our administrators made a colossal error and nobody had the strength of character to take responsibility for that error”?

My worry is that the administration will want to find a fast solution that helps them to duck blame. That they’ll offer Ahmed and his family the choice between suspension for the rest of the school year, which they can contest over a period of several months through expensive arbitration, or Ahmed can admit that He Done Wrong and he’ll be back in class at the end of the week. See the kid admitted he was wrong just as we said he was so we’re sure you’ll agree that there’s honestly no story here we’re here to ensure the safety and security of our campus and it speaks well of us that we were willing to give this poor troubled kid a second chance now how about you go and write about a real story like the successful bake sale to support our French club’s trip to the Lafayette museum…

Previous news stories about similarly-idiotic incidents of school discipline have, at the time, gotten me thinking about how I’d handle a situation like that as a parent. What should I do? How could I stand to allow a serious suspension to appear on my child’s school disciplinary record, to be seen by future college admissions boards? Do I fight it to the end? But that’s my kid on the battlefield. Should I try to resolve this as quickly as I can, to allow the kid to return to something akin to a normal school year?

But Ahmed can’t, can he? He started the school year as a brown kid named Ahmed Mohamed, which in many (if not most) schools brings enough unfair trouble. He’s now the brown kid named Ahmed Mohamed who was taken out of the school in handcuffs by police and was brought to juvenile hall, where he was fingerprinted and interrogated at length before being released to his parents.

I’m angry, and I’m a little upset with myself because I want to be useful. 

I suppose one useful thing I can do is write and post this. I hope his family sees the words of everybody who’s lining up to support Ahmed tonight.

Ahmed, you are a great kid. And the world is so much bigger than the town you’re in, and idiots are not entitled to define who you are. 

Smart people aren’t entitled to do that, either. Only you get to define who you are. You do that through your choices in life. From what I’ve read in that article, you’ve been making some terrific choices. You’ve defined yourself as the kind of person that I instinctively like, and I can see you continuing to be downright awesome.

Keep on building and making and learning and be proud of the things you build and make and learn. You live in a country that tries to pour sand in someone’s gears if they’re not a white dude. But there are plenty of places and communities where your curiosity, your industry, and your Ahmed-ness will be applauded and appreciated.

You are your own greatest build project, Ahmed, and you have nothing to worry about on that front because you have the soul of a terrific engineer.

Update:

I said this when Obama came out in support of marriage equality and I said it when Bin Laden was taken down and I’m saying it a third time now:

This is the BEST season of “The West Wing” EVER!!!!!!

Heigh-ho the derry-o, the TARDIS on the Dome

The TARDIS at MIT

It’s easy for Boston-area geeks to get a little bit blasé about the sudden appearances of improbable objects atop the Great and Not-So-Great domes atop Building 10 and Building 7 in the center of the MIT campus. If it’s your first time at the ballpark, a spinning no-look over-the-shoulder catch that robs the visiting team of two guaranteed RBIs is a heartstopping thrill. Meanwhile, the experienced season ticketholders are nattering to each other that  if the centerfielder had been paying attention to the shortstop, he wouldn’t have been playing so wildly out of position in the first place. Same deal here.

Tonight I attended a dinner salon of local geeks. Of course, conversation turned to the subject of today’s TARDIS appearance. Inevitably, we compared it to previous dome hacks.

“The phone booth was better,” someone said. “It was a working phone booth.”

“How do you know that isn’t a working TARDIS?” someone else asked, rather pointedly.

And all around the table, there was agreement that any final judgement would need to be postponed.

You Done It

I thought I’d handed out change-of-address cards to just about everybody after my move. But it wasn’t until last week that I realized that I’d missed someone: I haven’t received my annual You-Do-It Electronics Store Presidents’ Day Sale Flyer!

The Sale is a big day on the New England nerd’s calendar. And YDI is a special kind of electronics store. Put it this way: I needed to get my hands on a few 5V relays, LEDs, 555 timer ICs, power transistors, resistors and capacitors, terminal blocks, and a few project boards just a couple of days before I was to leave for Macworld Expo. In most areas of the country, this involves an Internet order and a two week wait. In eastern Massachusetts, it’s not even worth an atom of concern, old bean: you just swing by You-Do-It, right off of Route 128 in Needham.

And the Sale is the stuff of legends. Normally it features three big attractions:

1) The Doorbuster Deals. YDI was doing “We have only 3 of these at this price, so get there three days before and camp out” deals wayyy before the concept signed with a major label and started appearing in Wal•Marts and Best Buys. You-Do-It’s deals were often incredible enough that I’d be there 10 hours before the store opened to make sure I was first in line.

My best deal ever? “50% off your entire purchase, up to…” I want to say $2000, but it might have been $1000. Well, who cares? Half-off of everything in the store! We’re not just talking about a $2.29 spool of red hookup wire, either. See, the top floor of the store is full of name-brand consumer electronics. Suffice to say that I completed a reconnaissance mission on the very day the sale flyer arrived in the mail, and ultimately bagged my limit.

2) The Bag Sale. Head for the parts department and fill a shopping bag full of components: everything you get in the sack is 25% off. Which is why my house generally smells like solder during the second half of February.

And the cherry on top:

3) The Surplus Room. You-Do-It does all kinds of business and they acquire things that they just can’t sell in the store. Stuff that’s broken, stuff that’s out of date, some stuff that’s so odd and out-of-place that (I’m guessing) they had to take this thing as part of the deal when they bought out another store’s inventory.

You never know what you’ll find in there until you start digging. Camcorders missing their lenses; police scanners; DJ equipment; polybags stuffed with wires; police emergency lights; A Mysterious Large Plastic Dome; UPS systems; one of those “spinning colored ball” DJ light thingies, tuners and amps…the list of stuff I’ve seen in that room is long and bizarre.

And you never know if the thing’s going to work or not. I once bought three laserdisc players — this was back when laserdisc was still popular — hoping that maybe one of them would work. I scored two out of three, gave one to a friend, and harvested the motors and components from the third for future robotics projects. I could afford to be generous with the extra one; I’d paid just ten bucks apiece.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen anything stickered above $25. They seem to have rolls of $5, $10, and $25 stickers. And though there’s no stated rhyme or reason to how they price these things I’ve come to associate those prices with the statements “this don’t work,” “we have no idea if this works or not,” and “this is actually a useful thing,” respectively.

And there’s also “We can’t possibly charge less than $25 for this.” My last visit was two years ago, and a huge LCD TV the size of a child’s bed was visible through through the window all night long. A zoom photo revealed a $25 price tag. There’s no way the thing could have been functional. C’mon.

But for $25…gee, even as an Object D’art it was worth that price.

Actually, I reckoned it was probably worth far more than that as a prop in a staged YouTube video.

Luckily, before I could contemplate buying it, someone else already did.

(Don’t judge me.)

But a big part of the fun is the knowledge that you’re hanging out for several hours with the sort of people who are eager to show up at an electronic parts store at 4 AM in the dead of a New England winter. Again, in recent years this basic concept of freezing your butt off to be first in line for a holiday sale has been associated with pre-Christmas gunplay over game consoles. In Needham, it takes the festive tone of a Gathering of the Geek Tribe. I see lots of people at the Sale whom I see all the time at the MIT Flea Market.

I think I’m staying home this year. No doorbuster deals of any kind are listed in the ad, and to get a shot at the good stuff in the Surplus Room you need to be there well before 6 AM. To be first in line, I’ve found that 11 PM is the latest safe choice.

I have a full night’s work ahead of me, y’see. It’s bad enough to be driving to Needham at 4 in the morning on no sleep. Driving home again at 10 in that condition would be medically contraindicated to myself and others, particularly with a cracked, obsolete previous-generation TARDIS carelessly roped to the roof of my car.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t out and have some fun. At 7 AM the store usually springs for a catering truck to roll in and serve free breakfast, if that’s an enticement.

(I’m a freelancer. The prospect of a free hot meal is always an enticement.)

Check out my Flickr photo essay to see pictures and color commentary from my last visit. Think of it as your own reconnaissance. It contains all of the event’s particulars and also shows you that even if you do show up at 11 PM the night before, you’ll still get to spend most of the evening dozing in your nice, warm car without losing your spot in line.