Anthony DePasquale never set out to lead a pitchfork-wielding mob or deliver a digital sucker punch to a nerdy kid.
It was late Wednesday afternoon, when DiPasquale, 34, who oversees IT for an alternative weekly newspaper in Buffalo called ArtVoice, came across some photos of Ahmed Mohamed’s famous clock. “I was genuinely curious to see what he’d come up with,” he says.
The 34-year-old engineer, who’d spent his own teenage years tinkering with electronics and learning to program in BASIC, had instantly related to the Irving, Texas, high schooler, whose arrest last week for bringing a clock to school would transform him overnight into a trending topic and national hero. DiPasquale’s first thought on hearing the story of Mohamed's arrest: “Wow, I feel sorry for this kid.”
Then the techie, who holds a BS in telecommunications engineering technology from Rochester Institute of Technology, took a closer look at the device. What he found did not impress him.
Rather than building a clock, much less inventing one, as the teen claimed in interviews, it seemed clear he had taken apart an old store-bought clock and placed the components in a pencil box. “There's no mistaking it to anyone who's built hobby kits, modified circuits, prototyped their own designs,” DiPasquale tells Maxim. “Even at first glance, it’s plainly obvious it's a commercially mass-produced item that was removed from its enclosure and was put into another box otherwise unchanged. I guess it's hard to explain to folks who have zero experience with electronics. Maybe it all looks like a bunch of high-tech mad science. But it's a really obvious thing to any even beginner hobbyist.”
DiPasquale examined the circuit board, trawled eBay and quickly located a Radio Shack clock that appeared identical to the one Ahmed had dismantled and placed in the pencil box. Then just for fun, he found the pencil box too.
DiPasquale posted his findings on the ArtVoice blog. “Ahmed Mohamad did not invent, nor build a clock,” he wrote. “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.”
The story promptly blew up.
“The server has crashed twice,” he says. “We're not set up for this kind of attention. I spent Friday afternoon and evening tweaking the server configuration to handle the extra load best I could.” By Sunday night, the post had nearly 350,000 views — blowing past the site’s previous record-holder, a piece proposing a new Buffalo Bills stadium.
Richard Dawkins, the noted biologist, who is no stranger to controversy himself, tweeted DiPasquale’s story to his 1.25 million followers, along with a video making the same point, if a little more emphatically, by Thomas Talbot, entitled “Ahmed Mohammed Clock is a FRAUD.” Infowars, the site run by the libertarian radio host Alex Jones, picked it up. LibertyNews sneered at the youngster, “Figuratively speaking, your briefcase clock invention scheme has blown up in your face,” before going on to suggest that Mohamed’s clock may have been “a premeditated act of micro-terrorism/dry run aided and abetted by his parent unit and God only knows who else….to lower defenses.” Frank Gaffney, writing for Breitbart.com, suggested the whole incident might have been a “a premeditated and skillfully executed provocation and influence operation.”
“There were a lot of links back from far-right sites, conspiracy theory sites, that sort of thing,” DiPasquale says. “But when you have the President of the United States personally commenting, I guess there's no getting around politics.”
On Monday, the story seemed to be picking up steam. The ArtVoice site was down all morning and kind of buggy after that.
DiPasquale insists he never intended his story to become a piece of political propaganda or a talking point for the nascent Clock Kid Truther movement.
“Ahmed and his clock were almost besides the point,” he says. “I intended it more as a commentary on us. How we've all got our preconceived notions, and how quick we are to run away with things when we see something that confirms our existing biases. It's a story about how things go viral in our social media–obsessed society. And it went viral itself.
“We all want to show off to our friends and follows how much we're in the know by being the first to share news,” he continues, “without actually stopping to think about the news that we're reading. And that's been the response. I filled a void for people who held a contrary opinion to the popular narrative — they now had their ammo.”
That said, he also thinks Ahmed’s supporters, whose ranks include everyone from President Obama to Microsoft, which showered the kid with free gear, have been overeager as well. Leaving aside whether Mohamed should have been arrested — much less handcuffed — or to what extent anti-Muslim bias played a role in the authorities' response, the outpouring seemed to him overly self-congratulatory.
“I think a lot of the ‘support’ is probably totally phony, and selfish,” he says. “I'm more apt to believe those speaking up are just trying to win points for themselves, not to actually encourage the kid. And I feel bad for all the other kids out there just as, if not more, inventive and creative, who will never get their 15 minutes of fame, because their achievements don't serve some politician or CEO's need to make themselves look like decent human beings.”
Of all the encouragement heaped on Ahmed in the last week, perhaps the most interesting take came from Forbes contributor Emily Willingham, who compared him to the great 12th-century Muslim engineering genius, Ismail Al-Jazari, whose famous elephant clock is considered one of the marvels of the Middle Ages.
To DiPasquale, such extravagant praise does a disservice to science, to other young inventors and maybe to Mohamed himself, whose hobby of taking apart electronics may very well one day lead him to actually invent something.
“This is a story about a kid with a creative and inventive mind,” he points out. “Inventors don't come up with new ideas by acting on emotional responses. They think long and hard about things, and sometimes take that risk to think differently than everyone who came before.
“That,” he adds, “is what innovation is.”
Photos by Getty Images