Michael Mechanic

Michael Mechanic

Senior Editor

Michael has been a senior editor at Mother Jones for eight years, after spending the previous six as an award-winning features editor at the weekly East Bay Express. In addition to editing stories for print and web, he is in charge of the magazine's Mixed Media section. His writing has appeared in a range of newspapers and magazines including Wired, The Industry Standard, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two kids, three chickens, striped cat, and too many musical instruments to master.

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Michael has been a senior editor at Mother Jones for eight years, after spending the previous six as an award-winning features editor at the weekly East Bay Express. In addition to editing stories for print and web, he is in charge of the magazine's Mixed Media section. His writing has appeared in a range of newspapers and magazines including Wired, The Industry Standard, and the Los Angeles Times. He originally set out to be a scientist, and as an undergrad spent a year in an organic chemistry lab at UC-Berkeley, where he was a biochemistry major, trying to synthesize tropical frog poisons. He also earned a masters degree in cellular and developmental biology from Harvard University and a masters in journalism from Cal. In 2009, he was named a finalist for a National Magazine Award for his contribution to MoJo's "Torture Hits Home" package. (His contribution, "Voluntary Confinement," involved a reality TV show that held contestants in isolation.) He also won a 2014 Society for Professional Journalists award for "It Was Kind of Like Slavery," a photoessay with photographer Nina Berman. Michael lives with his family in Oakland, California, where he sits on his front porch and attempts to play the fiddle.

Stop Using Science to Justify Your Boozing

Reddit, via Giphy

Drinking a little bit of alcohol is good for you, right? That, at least, is the conventional wisdom lurking in the back of your mind as you nurse your second glass of wine on a Tuesday night. And it's indeed true that dozens of studies have reported health benefits from consuming a moderate amount of booze. They suggest, for example, that it can actually lower your risk of dying. (Which is weird, since...drunk driving.)

Now some Canadian researchers (curse them) have given all this mortality data a closer look. And since I know you're tipsy and can't handle too many words, let's use these images the scientists kindly provided...

I do not like where this is headed. The next chart depicts what those 87 studies appeared to demonstrate: that downing one to four drinks a day lowers your risk of dying compared with either (a) heavy drinkers or (b) "abstainers" who don't drink at all.

But does this really make sense? I mean, apart from the fact that "occasional" drinkers should be way closer to the Y axis, why would having less than one drink a week bring roughly the same benefit as downing one or two per day? Something doesn't quite add up here, and that's what these horrid researchers have discovered as well. "A fundamental question is, who are these moderate drinkers being compared against?" lead author Tim Stockwell, director of the University of Victoria's Centre for Addictions Research in British Columbia, noted in a statement.

The problem here has to do with something Stockwell calls "abstainer bias." Because there's a difference between just not drinking and not drinking because you have serious health problems, or it's killing your marriage, or whatever.

So what happens when you account for this abstainer bias? Well, things aren't looking so good for you now, are they, lush?

It now appears that light drinking is a wash at best—at least according to Stockwell et al, whose paper appears in the March issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, a title so literal it makes you crave a couple cold ones. The journal also hides the full text of its papers behind a paywall, an affront to scientific advancement—but that's a topic for another article.

Stockwell and his colleagues did have one other key observation: The vast majority of the studies linking alcohol and mortality were just not very good.

As for you "medium volume" drinkers, it now appears you're only slightly better off than those people who quit drinking because of their myriad problems. "High volume" drinkers? You are done for, lad. Five or more drinks a day is just a stupid, Mad Men level of boozing. Join AA or perish. But perhaps your spirits will be lifted by the following message, via SadAndUseless.com:

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Castille with fellow Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices in September 2011

The US Supreme Court heard arguments last week as to whether Ronald D. Castille, a former chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, should have stepped aside from considering the appeal of a death penalty case he personally greenlighted when he was Philadelphia's district attorney.

It seems pretty obvious, doesn't it? "He made the most important decision that could be made in this case," Justice Elena Kagan commented during oral arguments.

Castille didn't think so. Back in 2012, public defenders for Terrence Williams—who was convicted and sentenced to death at age 18 for murdering a 56-year-old named Amos Norwood—asked Castille to step aside because he oversaw the prosecutors who handled the case. The judge explained to the New York Times that he was merely functioning as an administrator. "I didn't try the case," he said, according to the paper. "I wasn't really involved in the case except as the leader of the office."

But Castille had additional baggage that raise questions about his involvement.

An appeals judge found that Andrea Foulkes, the prosecutor who tried Williams on Castille's watch, had deliberately withheld key evidence from the defense—and thereby the jury. Norwood, the victim, had started a relationship with Williams when the boy was 13 and abused him, sexually and otherwise, for years. Although the details weren't known at the time, the prosecution suppressed trial evidence suggesting Norwood had an unnatural interest in underage boys.

Williams had previously killed another older man he'd been having sex with—51-year-old Herbert Hamilton. (Williams was 17 at the time of the crime.) The jury in that case, presented with evidence of their relationship, voted against the death penalty and convicted Williams of third-degree murder, a lesser charge. But Foulkes, who prosecuted both cases, told the Norwood jury that Williams had killed Norwood "for no other reason but that a kind man offered him a ride home."

So there's that. And then, as death penalty appeals lawyer Marc Bookman points out in an in-depth examination of the Williams prosecutions for Mother Jones, Castille was a big fan of the death penalty:

In the five years before the Williams case came onto its docket, the court, led by Chief Justice Ronald Castille, had ruled in favor of the death penalty 90 percent of the time. This wasn't too surprising, given that Castille had been elected to his judgeship in 1993 as the law-and-order alternative to a candidate he labeled soft on crime…

"Castille and his prosecutors sent 45 people to death row during their tenure, accounting for more than a quarter of the state's death row population," the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted in 1993. "Castille wears the statistic as a badge. And he is running for the high court as if it were exclusively the state's chief criminal court rather than a forum for a broad range of legal issues." Castille was pretty clear about where he stood: "You ask people to vote for you, they want to know where you stand on the death penalty," he told the Legal Intelligencer, a law journal. "I can certainly say I sent 45 people to death row as District Attorney of Philadelphia. They sort of get the hint."

Castille also had it out for Williams' defenders, with whom his old office was at odds. Bookman again:

Castille had a fraught relationship with the Federal Community Defender Office, a group of lawyers who represent numerous death row inmates, including Williams. Castille claimed that federal lawyers had no business appearing in state courts. He complained bitterly over the years about their "prolix and abusive pleadings" and about all the resources they dedicated to defending death row inmates—"something one would expect in major litigation involving large law firms."

The defenders, for their part, routinely filed motions arguing that Castille had no business ruling on the appeals of prisoners whose prosecutions he had approved—particularly not in a case in which his office was found to have suppressed evidence helpful to the defense. But as chief justice, Castille had the last word. He denied all such motions, and accused the federal defenders of writing "scurrilously," making "scandalous misrepresentations," and having a "perverse worldview."

It's not too hard to predict which way the Supreme Court will rule—although whether their decision helps Williams get a resentencing is another matter. America's justice system makes it unbelievably hard to get a second chance once you are convicted of a serious crime.

But all of this brings up a broader, question: Prosecutors like Castille are appointed to the bench in far greater numbers than former defenders—even President Barack Obama has perpetuated this trend. Which is why it was so worthy of note that California Gov. Jerry Brown, under federal pressure to reduce incarceration in the Golden State, has broken with his predecessors and moved in the other direction. Northern California public station KQED recently pointed out that more than a quarter of Brown's 309 judicial appointments have been former public defenders, whereas only 14 percent were once DAs. (31 percent had some prosecutorial experience.) From that report:

"We never had a tradition that said to be a judge you had to be a district attorney. That developed probably in the '90s," Brown said. "The judges are supposed to be independent. You want judges that have a commercial background, you want judges that have a prosecutorial background, city attorneys, or county counsel, or small practice, plaintiffs' practice—you want a diversity, instead of kind of a one note fits all."

When it comes down to it, politicians are still eager to appear tough on crime. But is it really good policy—financially or ethically—to stack the bench with judges who are accustomed to being rated according to the number of people they lock away?

"Most district attorney judges that I've experienced are unable to divorce themselves from their background once they become a judge," Michael Ogul, president of the California Public Defenders Association, told KQED. "They are still trying to help the prosecution, they are still trying to move the case toward conviction or toward a harsher punishment." 

Ted Cruz celebrates his Iowa victory.

Craig Mazin is on a Twitter roll.

His antipathy for his former Princeton roommate, Ted Cruz, has made him a public sounding board for Cruz haters and fun seekers, and a target for the senator's supporters. "I would rather have anybody else be the president of the United States," Mazin told the Daily Beast. "Anyone. I would rather pick somebody from the phone book."

Plenty of Cruz fans tweet at Mazin to take issue with his mini-diatribes or, since Monday, to gloat over their candidate's victory in Iowa. But Mazin politely gives as good as he gets. Here are his relevant exchanges from the past 48 hours or so. (Click the links for more context.)

Wed Jan. 25, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Mon Dec. 5, 2011 6:00 AM EST
Thu Dec. 1, 2011 7:30 PM EST
Tue Nov. 22, 2011 6:10 PM EST
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Mon Dec. 20, 2010 7:25 AM EST
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Wed Oct. 27, 2010 6:37 AM EDT
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Tue Jul. 13, 2010 3:51 PM EDT
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Thu Jun. 10, 2010 5:34 PM EDT