TPM Longform

On a chilly Sunday evening in early February, as tens of thousands of fans converged on the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, America’s first “Bong Bowl” began. The Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos—teams representing the only two states in the nation to have legalized recreational marijuana—were facing off to determine who would take home the coveted national football title. As they played, a static spectacle at the edge of the field raised eyebrows: massive advertisements slyly championing the merits of cannabis. Two billboards, one in the blue and green color scheme of the Seahawks, the other cloaked in Broncos’ orange and blue, read, “Marijuana is less harmful to our bodies than alcohol. Why does the league punish us for making the safer choice?”

Five months later the New York Times editorial board is asking the same question: why do we still prohibit marijuana? And the grey lady’s decision – to pit weed against alcohol – fits right up with some of the most vociferous advocates of repealing marijuana prohibition in America.

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Imagine: you’re on an uneventful final descent into your local metropolitan airport when suddenly the pilot makes a violent lurch to the left. The captain’s voice comes over the loudspeaker with an apology for the turbulence. “Sorry folks,” she says, “all OK up here, but we had to swerve to avoid an 'agricultural drone' that drifted off course from its assigned soy bean fields. We should be clear from here on out.”

Sound far-fetched? It’s not. On March 4, 2013, as an Alitalia pilot brought his plane into its final descent at New York’s busy John F. Kennedy Airport, a three-foot-long unmanned vehicle flew within two hundred feet of his Boeing 777. The small black drone appeared to be what the industry calls a quadcopter, a widely available remote controlled aircraft popular among hobbyists and law enforcement with the range of a conventional model aircraft on steroids and the capability to fly into a passenger jet's flight-path. The incident ended without much fanfare, but it was a hint of some of the nightmare scenarios that led Congress in 2012 to instruct the Federal Aviation Agency devise a plan to integrate commercial and governmental drones into US civilian airspace by 2015.

For the FAA, it is a very unenviable task. Deep-pocketed lobbyists for motion pictures, energy, and industrial agriculture want commercial drones legalized for their clients. Aerospace manufacturers and giant military-industrial complex companies like Raytheon and Northrop Grumman see civilian drones as a potential moneymaker. Their desires stand in contrast to the public, which is generally ambivalent about the idea of unmanned, camera-equipped aircraft flying above them—and to legislators, who see civilian drones as a hot-button election issue.

It hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t been fast. But there is no more time to wait. The technology behind unmanned drones has migrated from foreign battle zones to the shores of the United States, and is being adapted to civilian and domestic law enforcement uses. Whether they are called drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or unmanned aerial systems (UASes), camera-equipped unmanned aircraft are here to stay.

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Football fans threw smoke bombs on İstiklal Caddesi

The orange smoke billowed upwards, blocking out the buildings of Istanbul's grandest boulevard. Riot cops lined up in front of a water cannon. The protesters could not go forward. They would not go back.

Fans of Istanbul's three main football teams- Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, and Beşiktaş – have shared enmity nearly since the clubs were formed. But since the 2013 Gezi protests, which came to symbolize the battle against state authoritarianism, they've united. They share one enemy now, the police.

It’s April 20th, I'm with them on the streets of Turkey's largest city, as they protest a new e-ticketing system for games. Now, to buy a ticket, a fan must first purchase a special debit card displaying his or her photo and identifying information. If he chants political slogans, he can be tracked. Surveillance sold as convenience. Passolig, the company that came up with this gem, is owned by a friend of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Used to battling cops at games, football fans formed Gezi's frontlines. Now, the police are so afraid they plead with protestors to please disperse. “Children of whores,” the fans chant back. It's a sweet change from the last few years of New York demonstrations, where cops often forced demonstrators into pens, beat them, and arrested them like cattle. Next to hundreds of football fans spoiling for a fight, I finally feel safe from the police.

I dive to the front. Amidst the A.C.A.B. (All Cops Are Bastards) scarves and E-ticket fuck no graffiti spray-painted on the sidewalks, a masked boy holds up a flare. It burns neon. From Galatasaray gates, fans have hung a banner emblazoned with the words “There is no description for our love.” Flyers fluttered like ten thousand birds.

The riot cops advance. The fans flee, pursued by special sports police. In the smoke, a water-cannon rolls forward. It aims, fires, dripping water like a spent cock.

A street-cleaning vehicle follows, sucking up flyers. Except for the parked water cannon, within a half hour, not a trace of the protest remains.

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Driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, there is little to see across the flat expanse in the desert east of Barstow, California. Head to the state line and there are few gas stations and fewer towns. Most of the action happens underground: alongside I-15, near the Nevada border, in a tiny blink-and-you'll-miss-it town called Mountain Pass, more than 350 people work around the clock to mine and process the rare earth elements essential to the smartphones and computers which run our world.

Mountain Pass is operated by a company called Molycorp. It's part of an exclusive club - one that holds the key to a problem that vexes the tech industry, the military, and governments the world over: How to keep rare earth metals affordable.

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The February filibuster of Chuck Hagel was the last straw for Harry Reid.

In the eyes of the Democratic majority leader, Republicans had just shattered a mere three-weeks-old agreement to avoid a drastic change to the Senate rules. Not only was the Hagel vote the first time in U.S. history the Senate filibustered a nominee to be secretary of defense, but the minority party took an unprecedented step and rebuked one of their own: Hagel was a former red state Republican senator who also happened to be a decorated war veteran.

In the days that followed, a few things crystallized in the Nevada senator’s mind. The re-election of President Barack Obama and Republican promises of a "new day" in the Senate were all for naught. It became clear that the GOP was not going to change its practice of obstruction, which was rendering dysfunctional not only the legislative branch but also the executive and judicial branches by thwarting presidential nominations.

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This past July, the highest profile hacker conference in America - known as DEFCON - made a show of publicly disinviting all federal employees from attending. It was a shock, and a reversal: Last summer not only were the Feds in the audience, they were on the stage: National Security Agency chief General Keith Alexander was the keynote speaker; he had come, he said, to "solicit" support for cybersecurity. "You have the talent," he said, and called for more sharing between private companies and the government. (He also denied that the NSA keeps a file on every U.S. citizen.)

Only a few found outside of a paranoid fringe found Alexander's remarks terribly controversial at the time. That has now changed.

Gen. Alexander's appeal came from a deep understanding that the NSA cannot get very far without technologically savvy, innovative people designing secure systems, breaking encryption, and creating offensive cyberweapons. Some call them hackers: people who are obsessed with problem solving, and who love to take apart technology to see how it works and, if they're really good, how it can work better. The world of hackers - or coders, to use a softer term - can be difficult for outsiders to understand - an obsession with cryptography, Linux and homemade bespoke software, and a preference for cleverness over user-friendly design doesn't exactly endear them to mainstream America. There's another problem hackers have with the government - they tend to believe there is a right and a wrong way to do things, a mix of mindset and ideology, that doesn't fit well into Washington's or the Intelligence Community's very grey, sometimes dark, world.

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