Michael Mechanic

Michael Mechanic

Senior Editor

Michael landed at MoJo after six years as an award-winning features editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He's written for numerous publications, including The Industry Standard, the Los Angeles Times, and Wired. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two kids, four chickens, striped cat, and way too many musical instruments to master.

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Michael landed at MoJo after six years as an award-winning feature editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He's written for numerous publications, including The Industry Standard, the Los Angeles Times, and Wired. He 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 natural poisons found in the skin of certain tropical frogs. He later earned a masters degree in cellular and developmental biology from Harvard University and a second masters in journalism from UC-Berkeley. In 2009, he was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for public service, as one of five writers in MoJo's "Torture Hits Home" package. The father of two mostly charming kids and an only occasionally charming striped cat named Phelps, Michael lives in Oakland, California, where, after years of classical piano and raucous punk-rock drumming (and putting out more than a dozen CDs on his former DIY label, Bad Monkey Records), he has retired to old-time and traditional music, guitar finger-picking, and more recently fiddle and mandolin. He has four chickens—Lucia, Podge, Cat, and Weed Whacker—but what he really covets is a hedgehog.

And You Wonder Why We're Broke? (Chart)

| Mon Mar. 19, 2012 11:02 AM PDT

military spending charts

The International Institute for Strategic Studies

This chart from the International Institute for Strategic Studies—part of the think tank's recent report, "Military Balance 2012," more or less speaks for itself. Supporters of American militarism will look at this and say, "Well, we're spending a smaller proportion of our GDP on warfare than some of these other countries." But look at those countries: They're tiny, and they also happen to reside in a less-than-stable Middle East.

Even if they weren't, I don't buy the whole GDP thing. So we're rich. Does that really mean our military needs to be completely out of proportion with the rest of the world's armies? Would someone care to explain the logic on that? Because this is military imbalance.

To quote the soldier-scholar Andrew Bacevich from an interview I did with him in 2008: "Rather than becoming better at waging imperial wars, we need to move to a nonimperial foreign policy. That argument is not a moral argument—although you could make a moral argument—but a pragmatic one, that the prospect of more such wars is gonna bankrupt us."

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Book Review: Jonah Lehrer's "Imagine: How Creativity Works"

| Mon Mar. 12, 2012 4:00 AM PDT

Imagine: How Creativity Works

By Jonah Lehrer

HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT

Flummoxed by an intractable problem? You probably just need to work harder, right? Actually, try taking a walk instead. Thanks to how we're hardwired, insight tends to strike suddenly—after we've stopped looking. In this entertaining Gladwellesque plunge into the science of creativity, Jonah Lehrer mingles with a wide cast of characters—inventors, educators, scientists, a Pixar cofounder, an autistic surfing savant—to deconstruct how we accomplish our great feats of imagination. Notable themes emerge: Failure is necessary. The more people you casually rub shoulders with—on and off the job—the more good ideas you'll have. And societies that unduly restrict citizens' ability to borrow from the ideas of others—see our broken patent system—do so at their peril.

Review: Carolina Chocolate Drops' "Leaving Eden"

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 4:00 AM PST
From left: Matta, Flemons, Giddens, Jenkins

Carolina Chocolate Drops
Leaving Eden
Nonesuch

The Carolina Chocolate Drops third album, Leaving Eden, begins with a bang, a rousing fiddle tune ("Riro's House") whose driving beat promptly had me bobbing my head and squinching up my face and generally looking rather stupid. But I didn't care. After a brief instrumental chillout—a sparse minor traditional called "Kerr's Negro Jig"—it regains momentum with a percussive rendition of an old Cousin Emmy tune, "Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man," a fine platform for the soulful, classically trained Rhiannon Giddens to let loose a bit with her powerful pipes.

In case you're not yet familiar with the Chocolate Drops, much of their repertoire harks back to a time early in the last century when there were quite a number of uncelebrated black string bands—including their namesake, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops—playing and composing this type of music. When I checked in with her a while back, Giddens talked a bit about being inspired by the TCD's leading man, Howard Armstrong. Fiddler Joe Thompson, who died on February 20, at age 93, was a personal mentor for the band, according to the Drop' official bio

Chart: Why the GOP's Gas Price Attack on Obama Is BS

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 4:00 AM PST

Was George W. Bush to blame for this summer 2008 peak? Source: EIA 

Driving back from the mountains this past weekend, I commented to my wife how unusual it seemed that we weren't hearing too much public bitching about $4-a-gallon gasoline, because that's what it costs right now in California. But I spoke too soon. When we returned home, there was the Sunday New York Times with an A1 story on exactly that, describing how the GOP leadership planned to attack Obama on the issue, blaming him for high gasoline prices. 

This is the sort of well-worn populist trick that gets people riled up even when there's no substance to it. I created the chart above using an Energy Information Administration data set on weekly retail gasoline prices (excluding taxes) in selected countries. I used premium unleaded because the numbers were more complete. (Click on the chart to find the raw data.*)

Okay, so what do we see here? Does it look like domestic gas prices (black line) are responding to the policies of one American president or another? Note the peak toward the right: That's the summer of 2008, when George W. Bush was in office. The price crash that follows bottoms out in late-December 2008/early-January 2009, shortly before Obama took over. 

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