So-called smart guns could become a $1 billion market—and make us safer.
Josh HarkinsonNov. 3, 2015 7:00 AM
The Armatix iP1 pistol
One success of gun-rights activists over the past decade has been their campaign to block the advent of smart guns, firearms that use biometric and other sensor technologies to prevent them from being fired by anyone other than their owners.Even though smart guns are widely available overseas, no American gun retailers sell them—in no small part due to threats and harassment aimed at any who have tried. But now, pending legislation could shake up that status quo.
The chill on smart guns in the United States is to some degree the unintended consequence of a 2002 New Jersey law that would phase out the sale of conventional guns in that state; the law requires New Jersey gun dealers to sell only smart guns once they become available in retail stores anywhere else in the country. The law was intended to spur the market for the technologically innovative weapons, whose backers believe they could enhance safety and help reduce certain types of gun violence, such as attacks with stolen firearms and the all too common accidental shootings deaths of children. But the law badly backfired by becoming fodder for gun-rights activists, who argued that smart guns are part of a government plot to track and ultimately ban all guns.
"This new law forces gun dealers to offer a smart gun, but still provides a choice for gun owners to buy whatever they want."
New Jersey legislators are now aiming to get, well, smarter about the issue. New Jersey state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who authored the 2002 law, announced on Sunday that she wants to scrap it. A replacement bill that she plans to introduce on Thursday would instead require all of the state's gun dealers to offer at least one model of smart gun for sale.Weinberg made the announcement Sunday night in a 60 Minutes story in which she accused the National Rifle Association of using the 2002 law as a tool to block smart guns nationwide.
"The whole problem with the mandate was that it forced buyers in New Jersey to buy a smart gun," says Ralph Fascitelli, the president of Washington CeaseFire, a prominent Seattle group working to reduce gun violence. "This new law forces gun dealers to offer a smart gun, but still provides a choice for gun owners to buy whatever they want." Fascitelli believes that within a decade smart guns could capture a third of the $3 billion US handgun market. A recent poll presented at a smart-gun conference in Seattle by the political consultancy Penn Schoen Berland found that 54 percent of gun owners under the age of 45 are willing to consider swapping out their conventional pistols for smart guns. And 83 percent of gun owners, it found, want gun dealers to be able to sell the weapons.
The palm-reading biometric gun that James Bond used in Skyfall represents the sexiest version, though the technology still is by no means bulletproof (think the iPhone 6's glitchy fingerprint reader). A more reliable version of the weapons will work only if activated by a radio frequency emitted by a device—typically a bracelet, watch, or ring—worn by the authorized user.
The biometric handgun used by James Bond in Skyfall MGM
In the 1990s, Colt's Manufacturing Co. built a prototype smart gun that could be fired only if the user wore a special ring. In 2000, rival Smith & Wesson promised to make all of its guns available with high-tech safety features. But both companies dropped the efforts after facing devastating boycotts led by gun-rights activists. Smith & Wesson was forced to lay off 15 percent of its staff. Ever since, the mainstream gun industry has steadfastly refused to pursue the technologies.
But some now see a lucrative US market for smart guns. Armatix engineer Ernst Mauch recently quit the company and visited the United States to explore creating a new start-up to build a lower-cost version of the gun for Americans. As the lead engineer at the German gunmaker Heckler & Koch, Mauch designed some of the world's most lethal weapons, including one that reportedly killed Osama bin Laden. "I still want people to understand that there is a huge potential for this technology," he told the Washington Post. "The technology was never in question."
In fact, some high profile Silicon Valley investors are betting that smart guns can disrupt the firearms industry. The billionaire angel investor Ron Conway formed the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation in 2013 to create "the Googles, the Facebooks, the Twitters of gun safety." Conway recently announced plans to fund the development of a biometric gun lock; a version of the technology may eventually be integrated into a gun.
For now, though, gun dealers remain wary. Several in New Jersey contacted by Mother Jones declined to comment on the proposed law, but one was less than enthusiastic. "You can't be required to carry anything in a store," said the person who answered the phone at Lou's Firearms in Raritan, NJ (he declined to give his name). "It's just like telling every shoe store that they have to sell a Nike. I believe they should be available, but the market has to decide what they want to use."
The Oakland A's exec is named and shamed for excessive water use.
Josh HarkinsonOct. 16, 2015 8:02 PM
One of the most frustrating things about the ongoing California drought is knowing that some people just don't give a damn. Letting your lawn die and your toilet bowl turn yellow can seem absurd when you know that a few water hogs are keeping their gardens as green as Costa Rican golf courses (like the mystery Bel Air resident who uses 12 million gallons per year).
Citing privacy concerns, every major California water district has refused to name their biggest users. Until today.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District just released a partial list of homeowners who have violated its new excessive-water-use rules. In this district encompassing the cities and hills east of San Francisco, scofflaws are defined as those whose daily usage exceeds 1,000 gallons—four times the residential average of 250 gallons a day.
The EBMUD's list of shame only covers customers who are billed in September, and excludes any who filed appeals. Yet it reveals many cases of egregious water use among the owners of massive properties in the East Bay hills. One of the largest violators is Oakland A's executive Billy Beane, whose team is known as one of the most eco-friendly in baseball.
Here are the top five water guzzlers on the water district's list—and aerial snapshots of their homes:
1. George Kirkland, former vice chairman of Chevron Daily water use: 12,579 gallons Location: Danville, California Property value: $3.5 million Mitigating factor: Kirkland told the San Jose Mercury News that there was a leak in a water line to the two acres of vineyards on his four-acre lot.
2. Mark Pine, venture capitalist Daily water use: 8,091 gallons Location: Alamo, California Property value: $6.9 million
3. Billy Beane, vice president of baseball operations and minority owner of the Oakland A's Daily water use: 5,996 gallons Location: Danville, California Property value: $4.8 million
4. Dane Bigham, software executive Daily water use: 5,747 gallons Location: Walnut Creek, California Property value: $891,000
5. Gene Yee, intellectual property attorney Daily water use: 5,659 gallons Location: San Leandro, California Property value: $269,000 Mitigating factor: Yee's water use is hard to explain given that he has very little landscaping. Perhaps he also has a leak?
"I believe that at least 80 percent of the creative or technical people in this room consume cannabis."
Josh HarkinsonSep. 23, 2015 6:00 AM
Snoop Dogg pitches his marijuana company.
At San Francisco's annual TechCrunch Disrupt conference on Monday, rapper Snoop Dogg unveiled a media company that will provide users with "all they need to know" about pot. "It gives me proud honor to say that Merry Jane will be the door to bring people out of the closet, because there's so many people in the closet right now," he told a standing-room-only crowd. "Just admit it. I'm a smoker. My name is Snoop Dogg and I'm a stoner."
TechCrunch reporter Jordan Crook, Snoop's interviewer, turned to the sea of attendees: "Who enjoys smoking, uh, marijuana?"
A few hands shot up.
"It's okay, it's okay," Snoop said. "We gonna figure out a way to get you out of that closet."
"The motto is: Don't ask for permission; ask for forgiveness. That is going to be no different with cannabis."
The geek gathering famously lampooned in Mike Judge's Silicon Valley might seem like a weird place for a rapper to unveil a pot business, especially one that isn't doing much of anything that's technologically innovative. But for pot and tech entrepreneurs alike, the relationship makes perfect sense. "Disrupt is really mostly for investors, and I think they can no longer ignore investors and their interest in cannabis," Brandon Davis, the host of the interview program Investing in Cannabis, told me when I ran into him on the conference floor.
In January, Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, best known for its early investments in Facebook and Airbnb, invested $75 million in Privateer Holdings, a holding company for pot businesses. The following month, Justin Tan, the founder of the $1 billion tech startup Twitch.TV, enthused about the cannabis sector during a marijuana investment conference at San Francisco's posh Fairmont Hotel. Tan's Y-Combinator fund has invested in Meadow, the Uber of medical cannabis delivery.
The allure of pot for tech investors is as much financial as cultural. As Stanford communications professor Fred Turner points out in his book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, the Bay Area's techie and hippie cultures have a long history of cross-fertilization—just consider geodesic domes, the Whole Earth Catalog, and Apple's countercultural marketing campaigns. Though marijuana isn't a tech product, pot-related businesses jibe with the Valley's love for outsiders and outlaws like Airbnb and Uber, both of which have succeeded by violating existing regulations. "The motto is: Don't ask for permission; ask for forgiveness," Davis points out. "That is going to be no different with cannabis."
And then there's the money factor. Investing in the pot sector helps angel investors hedge against a tech bust. And by positioning themselves as tech companies that provide services to pot growers without touching the plant, cannabis businesses can court investors who might be reluctant to invest more directly in a product that remains illegal in most of the United States.
"This year just seemed like a tipping point of sorts for marijuana companies, especially with regulation and legalization deadlocks showing signs of thawing."
Not to say it's an easy relationship. At the Disrupt NY conference in May, TechCruch interviewed Privateer's Brendan Kennedy onstage and featured the online "cannabis community" MassRoots in the exhibitor space known as Startup Alley. Businesses in the alley compete through votes from conference watchers for the right to become a "wild card" entry in the Startup Battlefield, where they can jockey for prize money and attention from brand-name investors. Although MassRoots, which is basically Facebook for stoners, won enough votes to put it in the running for the Battlefield, TechCruch's top editor, Matthew Panzarino, selected a different company. According to MassRoots CEO Isaac Dietrich, Panzarino told him that his company, which has 500,000 users, was "not significant." "I think they wanted to present a certain image of the cannabis community, a very scripted and polished image," Dietrich says, "whereas we're the true cannabis community."
Panzarino declined to comment on the incident but pointed out that, at this week's Disrupt event, two cannabis companies had already been selected to compete in the Startup Battlefield. "We do our best to include companies that represent nascent trends every year," he says. "This year just seemed like a tipping point of sorts for marijuana companies, especially with regulation and legalization deadlocks showing signs of thawing."
One of the two pot companies in the Battlefield, Leaf, manufactures a sleek, self-contained hydroponics system that looks like something from the Apple store. An accompanying smartphone app can select optimum light, water, and nutrient levels for particular pot strains at the touch of the button, streams live or time-lapse video of the grow from a built-in camera, and can even download and sync growing conditions employed by other users. Leaf CEO and cofounder Yoni Ofir envisions making money on the $1,500 device the same way Hewlett-Packard makes money on printers: by selling refill cartridges—but for plant nutrients instead of printer ink.
Ofir, who is based in Colorado and has a background in software and hardware, believes the interest in Leaf from people at the conference is more than merely professional. "I believe that at least 80 percent of the creative or technical people in this room consume cannabis," he told me as dorky-looking guys with oversized name tags milled past his booth. "But, you know, this is not a cannabis conference."
If anyone won Wednesday's GOP debate, it was probably former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who gained the most in Twitter followers, Google searches, and media chatter by positioning herself as a steadier, smarter, more mature alternative to Donald Trump. Fiorina's responses on everything from Russia to immigration and abortion seemed to project confidence and a knowledge of the issues. And she was the only candidate who managed to hit Trump with a solid punch, framing his comments about her looks as a subtle indictment of his attitude toward women.
But there's a problem with Fiorina's bid to become a Trump slayer: She and Trump may actually have too much in common.
To be sure, it doesn't matter (and may even help) that Fiorina is, like Trump, a wealthy businessperson with no experience in elected office—assuming she can position herself as a business leader with a real grasp of the issues. Yet that might be easier said than done.
Consider Fiorina's seemingly intelligent response to how she would get the Russians out of Syria:
What I would do, immediately, is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet. I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland, I would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states. I'd probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany. Vladimir Putin would get the message. By the way, the reason it is so critically important that every one of us know General Suleimani's name is because Russia is in Syria right now, because the head of the Quds Force traveled to Russia and talked Vladimir Putin into aligning themselves with Iran and Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad.
Contrasted with Trump's rambling, specifics-free answer to that question, her message was clear: I know what I'm talking about. But does she? Here's Ezra Klein's dissection on Vox:
The Sixth Fleet is already huge, and it's hard to say why adding to its capabilities would intimidate Putin—after all, America has enough nuclear weapons pointed at Russia to level the country thousands of times over. Her proposal for more military exercises in the Baltics seemed odd in light of the fact that President Obama is already conducting military exercises in the Baltics. And the US already has around 40,000 troops stationed in Germany, so it's hard to say what good "a few thousand" more would do. And pushing on a missile defense system in Poland is a very long-term solution to a very current problem. In total, Fiorina's laundry list of proposals sure sounded like a plan, but on inspection, it's hard to see why any of them would convince Putin to change course.
Klein found similar inconsistencies in Fiorina's discussion of immigration and Planned Parenthood.
So Fiorina is more stylistically than substantively a wonk, and maybe she can get away with that for a while. But given that she has called Trump an an "entertainer" and a "clown," it might not help that she is politically best known in California as, well, a bit of a laughingstock. During her 2010 bid to win California's GOP Senate primary and take on Sen. Barbara Boxer, she commissioned what may be the world's most bizarre campaign ad—viral for all the wrong reasons.
Even before her 2010 campaign against Boxer could get off the ground, it was poleaxed by the revelation that she had failed to cast a ballot in 75 percent of the California elections for which she was an eligible voter. She missed presidential primaries in 2000 and 2004, and the primary and general elections in 2006, including a Senate reelection run by Democrat Dianne Feinstein. She skipped the primary and general elections in 2002, a gubernatorial election year, as well as the historic recall vote that brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governor's seat.
At the time, Fiorina lamely explained that she had "felt disconnected from the decisions made in Washington" and "didn't think my vote mattered." Yet, as Hiltzik noted at the time, HP spent $4.7 million on Fiorina's watch to lobby Congress and made $390,000 in political donations. Fiorina clearly believes in the political system—just not the one regular people have to use.
And maybe that's okay, at least in the GOP primary. After all, Trump was unapologetic during the debate when Jeb Bush challenged him over his past donations to Democrats. It's just part of being a successful businessman, he insisted. Another CEO candidate could have thrown Trump's comments back at him by noting that he actually isn't very successful at all—as Kevin Drum has pointed out, Trump would have probably been wealthier than he is today had he simply taken his inheritance and put it in an index fund.
But Fiorina isn't the best person to land that punch. As David Corn notes, her track record at HP was only slightly better than pathetic:
In February 2005, she was pushed out of HP. The company's board, with which she had been battling for years, had had enough of her. The Compaq merger had not yielded the benefits—improved shareholder returns and greater profits—she had promised. At the time of her dismissal, Hewlett-Packard stock was trading at about the same price as when she first unveiled the Compaq deal. Eighty percent of the company's operating profits were coming from its old-line printing business. She had not succeeded in reviving HP as a computer-selling powerhouse. The day she was dumped, the company's stock price rose 7 percent. That was Wall Street exclaiming, Hooray. As Robert Cihra, an analyst with Fulcrum Global Partners toldMoney magazine, "The stock is up a bit on the fact that nobody liked Carly's leadership all that much. The Street had lost all faith in her and the market's hope is that anyone will be better."
None of this means that Fiorina wouldn't make a better president than Trump. But if she really is the best person to knock him off his pedestal, the GOP may be in real trouble.
"We were able to push things further in a year than we ever thought possible."
Josh HarkinsonSep. 16, 2015 6:00 AM
California just did it again. The state that in 1996 became the first in the nation to legalize medical marijuana has once more taken the lead in marijuana policy, this time by passing a groundbreaking set of bills that could make the Golden State's huge and largely unregulated pot industry a national model for environmental and social responsibility.
For nearly 20 years, California has been unique among states for its hands-off approach. While authorizing consumption and cultivation of medical cannabis, the state's medical marijuana ballot initiative, Proposition 215, had virtually nothing to say about how pot should be grown or by whom. The result was a boon to California's backwoods pot farmers. The small-time hippie growers in Northern California's "Emerald Triangle" could supply legitimate medical marijuana patients and use Prop 215 as cover to grow and export black-market weed to other states.
For a while, California's Wild West pot economy made nearly everyone but the feds pretty happy. It supplied high-grade pot to whomever wanted it, undermined the Mexican drug cartels, and lured a lot of redwood loggers into a more sustainable profession. But it turns out a state really can overdose on weed. What had been a cottage industry quickly became a "green rush" that has, as I've reported previously, decimated forests and salmon streams.
The legislation paves the way for Humboldt and Mendocino pot to be marketed in the same way as "Napa" and "Sonoma" wines.
The Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, which passed on Friday, promises to change that, but in a way that is uniquely Californian—which is to say, uniquely awesome. Whereas every other medical-marijuana state treats growing pot as a hazardous industrial activity, relegating it to warehouses or strictly guarded enclosures, California will basically regulate pot like any other crop, albeit with a few additional tracking and labeling requirements. That means the Emerald Triangle pretty much gets to keep doing its thing, while following the same environmental and safety rules that apply to growers of strawberries or pinot grapes.
"It's pretty groundbreaking," says Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, the region's pot-farming trade group. He's particularly stoked that the new bills outlaw vertically integrated marijuana conglomerates (opposite to the approach many states have taken). The legislation also caps cultivation permits at one acre for outdoor growers and half an acre for indoor growers—policies intended to ensure that the industry remains in the hands of small farmers.
But that's not all. The bills put California in the business of creating and regulating cannabis appellations, meaning that Humboldt and Mendocino pot could soon be marketed in the same way as "Napa" and "Sonoma" wines. They authorize the state to certify medical marijuana as organic (but only if the National Organic Program gives its blessing). And they require licensees with 20 or more employees to abide by a "labor peace agreement" that upholds the rights of workers to unionize.
"We did better than we expected, quite frankly," says Hezekiah Allen, director of the Emerald Growers Association.
Down the road, California's classification of pot as an agricultural product may open the door to marijuana sales at state-regulated farmers markets and marijuana research at state-funded agricultural universities like the University of California-Davis, whose scientists could use their expertise to breed new strains. "We did better than we expected, quite frankly," says Allen, who played a key role in negotiating the deal. "We were able to push things further in a year than we ever thought possible."
Pot growers, however, are decidedly mixed about all of this. For one, the state's regulatory and tracking system will likely crimp the black market by making it much harder for farmers to export their product. "There are going to be a lot of businesses that are not going to be able to make the transition," Allen says. "There are some that are violently lashing out against it. I certainly have taken my fair share of threats. This is the strongest possible structure to build on, but this transition isn't going to come easy."
Then again, when the changes are in place, people may finally be able to smoke pot without being paranoid about what it's been sprayed with or whether it's wiping out furry critters and making rivers run dry.