Archive for September, 2011

Watching the Feds Watch Me

I recently showed my Defusable Clock project on this blog. It got a lot of attention on the usual techie/hacker blogs, and the reaction was generally positive. I plan on selling an electronics kit so people can build their own, but I had reservations about doing so because some people might do something stupid with it. Writing about the project allowed me to get feedback about whether it was a good or bad idea. I concluded it was probably not a bad idea as long as I didn’t sell it pre-assembled, and didn’t sell anything that looked like explosives. I really don’t want to do anything wrong or enable anyone to do anything wrong. Just electronics fun.

A few days later, on Friday September 9, I noticed an interesting lurker in my online store. The domain name of the potential customer caught my eye: Was this someone at the Department of Homeland Security? Specifically, the Transportation Security Administration?

Who's this shopping in my store?

I used an IP lookup tool to check the IP address for Sure enough, it was Homeland Security. That was easy.

IP address lookup confirms that the shopper is from DHS

This isn’t the kind of attention I want. I decided to check my Google Analytics console to see if I could learn anything about who was visiting my site that day. One of the things you can look at is the service providers that your visitors are coming from. This isn’t usually very interesting, because it’s just Comcast, Verizon, etc. But this day was different. I was absolutely shocked to find that over 5% of my traffic was coming from one location.

Over 5% of my visitors on Sept. 9 were from Department of Homeland Security

That’s right — dozens of distinct visitors were from Homeland Security, and the number was rising steadily. By mid-day over 100 people at Homeland Security had hit my site.

Uh oh.

I had not done anything wrong, but I really didn’t want a personal visit from Homeland Security, the FBI, or SEAL Team Six. In late morning, my wife called me at the office from home — I was sure that gentlemen in dark suits were at the door, but it was a false alarm. I was feeling paranoid.

Could the government really be that interested in me? Maybe looking at a map of my U.S. visitors would make me feel better…


The statistics indicated that the visitors were not spending more than a minute on average on the site. They were taking a quick look, then leaving. My theory is that maybe a link to my Defusable Clock was included in some morning briefing or something, and a bunch of people checked it out. What do you think?

Nonetheless, I felt compelled to add this paragraph to the clock project post, hoping it might defuse the situation (pun intended):

Dear friends at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security:
I can see from my logs that you are very interested in my project, but I assure you that this is just a clock. There is nothing dangerous in these photographs; just wooden dowels and clay. I sell DIY electronic kits for customers to assemble themselves, and plan to sell the electronic components for this clock as a kit. It is no more dangerous than any other alarm clock. I would never sell or ship anything that looks like a dangerous substance or device as shown in the photos below. I’m on your side. So, we’re cool, right?

The hits from DHS came to a stop around 4:30pm EDT as government employees headed home for the weekend, so I started to feel better. Their visits declined over the 9/11 weekend and were a mere trickle this week. I successfully flew to NYC yesterday (Thursday the 15th) to attend World Maker Faire this weekend. If you see me at Maker Faire, make sure to come up and say “glad you made it!”. I’ll be wearing this shirt with an image of my Video Experimenter board design. See you there (hopefully)!

Published by Michael, on September 16th, 2011 at 7:17 am. Filed under: Uncategorized. | 5 Comments |

Defusable Clock

The Defusable Clock kit is NOW AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE!

This may look like a dangerous device, but it’s really just an ordinary alarm clock — with a twist.


I thought it would be fun to build an alarm clock that looks just like the type of bomb that we always see in Hollywood movies. I certainly don’t know anything about how a real bomb might look, but in the movies they always have sticks of dynamite strapped together, a red digital readout, and a bunch of curly wires. Instead of just building an ordinary clock, I thought it should have a detonation sequence with a scary countdown just like in the movies. And why not make it “defusable” so I an try to stop the countdown by cutting the correct wire?

The Defusable Clock is a fully-functional alarm clock just like you’d expect (a normal beeping alarm, snooze alarm, etc.). But at any time you can press the big red button to start a scary countdown sequence exactly like bombs in Hollywood movies. There are 4 wires across the top of the clock. You have 10 seconds to choose the correct wire to cut: one wire stops the countdown and saves the day, two have no effect, and one will “detonate” the device immediately. These role of each wire is randomly assigned when the detonate button is pressed, so it’s a new challenge every time. Also, the wires are attached with screw terminals, so you can replace them easily. If you don’t want to actually cut the wires, you can just pull them out of the screw terminals if you keep the screws a little loose.

The microcontroller is an ATmega328 with the Arduino bootloader, so this clock is programmable with the Arduino IDE. The ATmega328 is certainly more powerful than needed for a clock, but this device has lots of inputs/outputs, and ATmega328 chips are now about the same price as the older ATmega168. It keeps very accurate time and requires a simple 9V “wall wart” power adapter. A special alarm mode lets you even use the countdown sequence as the alarm and require it to be defused when you wake up in the morning. What a stressful way to start the day!

We are going to offer this as an electronics kit later this fall. Only the electronics will be in the kit — nothing that looks like dangerous explosives! With some imagination, I’m sure you can make a great looking Defusable Clock for yourself, but don’t go scaring anyone with it, and don’t bring it anywhere near an airport, ok? The product page will have plenty of warnings not to use this kit for any evil purposes or get into trouble with your school, employer, or local law enforcement! There will also be a picture gallery where you can submit a picture of your clock after you build it.

UPDATE: the Defusable Clock kit is NOW AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE!

I’m sure some of you will have some ideas and comments, so please leave them below. Keep in mind that this is no more dangerous than any other alarm clock, and yes, we have already spoken to a lawyer about all of this.

Here’s one more version I made using clay for plastic explosives:

Clay used to simulate C4

Published by Michael, on September 5th, 2011 at 7:06 am. Filed under: Arduino,Art. | 105 Comments |