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.

No, this is not the Nobel Prize-winning pandemics expert.

I had the pleasure, a while back, of lunching with Peter Doherty, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for research showing how the immune system recognizes virus-infected cells. He's a fascinating, charming guy who knows a heck of a lot about birds and pandemics, having written books about both. You can read the extended chat here, but with influenza season upon us, you'll be especially interested in these 10 highlights.

1. Drought is influenza's BFF: "It brings birds together on a limited water source, so there's much more of a chance of transmission. Interestingly, with West Nile [virus], 2012 was a very bad year, and that was a drought year—all the birds were coming very close together, and the insects were there, and were breeding down in the sewers in cities. It's paradoxical: In a wild situation where you get a lot of rain and a lot mosquitos you'd expect a lot of transmission. But in an urban environment, a drought situation can give you the ideal means of transmission."

2. These chickens have our back: "Sentinel chickens are the domestic chickens that public health people park around the countryside in small flocks. These are there to detect viruses and the spread of viruses that are transmitted by mosquitoes. West Nile is one of them. The chicken recovers and makes antibodies, and so, by regularly bleeding these chickens, you can say that that virus is spreading in that region. It's a long-used technique."

3. That sick first-class passenger probably won't spread it to coach: "You're at risk if you're two or three rows from someone who's coughing and spluttering flu, but it doesn't go through the plane's air-handling system, so it's not dangerous in that sense. But it gets around the world very, very fast. The terrible 1918-1919 pandemic that killed 50 million to 100 million people was killing people in the trenches in 1918 but didn't get to Australia till 1919 because everyone's traveling by ship. But the 2009 swine flu was probably in Australia before it was even detected in the United States—and that's air travel." [Editor's note: The heading for this item has been modified.]

4. A semi-deadly flu is scarier than a superdeadly one: "The more severe it is, in a way the less dangerous it is, because the public health people will drop on it in a big way. The really dangerous flu virus is the one that, like the 1918 virus, kills maybe 2 percent. Because it'll slip by much more readily."

5. Your cat can get the flu, but not to worry: "The H5N1 bird flu was causing a lot of disease in big cats like leopards that were fed infected chicken carcasses. It killed [zoo leopards and tigers in Taiwan(*)], for instance, before they realized what was happening," but "there's no known case that I know of where a cat has transmitted a flu virus to a human."

6. Pigs, on the other hand... "Pigs are our main worry. The flu virus genetic material is organized in eight quite separate bits. So if the one cell in, say, a pig lung, gets infected with two different flu viruses, they can just repackage so you get bits of the different packages in new viruses…That's what happed with the 2009 swine flu. There was an American swine flu virus and there was a Eurasian swine flu. Somehow they got together, and that repackaged virus was extremely infectious for humans. The 1968 Hong Kong flu came about when a virus circulating in humans called H2N2 reassorted with an H3N8 virus that was in ducks. And that we think probably happened in a pig…There's a picture of a kid kissing a pig that all the flu guys show. Don't kiss your pig! Keep your distance."

7. A flu pandemic will cost us a friggin' fortune: "People would stop flying, for a start. That means the hotel industry and the airline industry would go down the tube…Anything where people gather together. That's what happened with SARS—I think the loss is calculated at around $50 billion, and that only affected a few East Asian areas and Toronto. The calculated loss of a severe flu pandemic is $300 billion, something like that."

8. If you cook a bird-flu-infected chicken, you actually can eat it (not that you would): "It doesn't take much to kill flu. It's pretty labile. But it survives well in water. I don't know any case where anyone caught flu by water, though. As far as we all know, flu only spreads by respiratory routes, by hand and nose. My Pandemics book argues that one of the best things you can do in any situation is to wash your hands and not touch your hand to your face. We all touch our hands to our face an enormous amount and we don't realize it." (Author's note: This is totally true. Watch your co-workers at the next work meeting.)

9. Recurrence of a 1918-style pandemic is pretty unlikely: "We're incredibly better at monitoring it and reacting quickly. There's a great global network of influenza centers, and the technology is infinitely better. A lot of people in 1918 probably died from secondary bacterial infections. We've got antibiotics to deal with bacteria, and so we'd do better there."

10. Our primitive method of producing flu vaccine is on the outs: "They've got some of it working now in recombinant DNA technology, which means we can grow the proteins in bacteria—which means you can use every fermenter on the planet. At the moment we're growing them in hens' eggs. That's really limiting because there's a limited number of facilities. Our armamentarium is improving very fast. There's always a chance of some weird virus that comes in from nowhere, like the one in Contagion. But so far, no."

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Dr. Dougherty was quoted saying flu had killed leopards in a zoo in Singapore. It was actually Taiwan.

Noun Project icons by: Hayashi Fumihiro (drought), Adam Zubin (chicken and pig), Anuar Zumaev (airline passenger), OCHA Visual Information Unit (contagion), Lucie Parker (cat), Luis Prado (money), Creative Stall (roasted chicken), Michael Thompson (pandemic burial), Joel Looney (vaccine)

Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) addresses jurors in the 1962 film "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Update (5/23/2017): The Supreme Court has reversed the conviction of Timothy Foster on the basis that prosecutors violated the Constitution by removing black people from the jury on the basis of their race. There is "no doubt" this will mean Foster will get a new trial, said his lawyer, Stephen Bright, according to ABC News—but the decision did nothing to rein in the ability of lawyers to reject potential jurors without reason. Read on.

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The exclusion of black people from juries is a hot topic as the United States Supreme Court considers the case of Timothy Foster, a black man charged with murdering an elderly white woman in Georgia some three decades ago. In 1987, Foster was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury, after prosecution lawyers used their so-called peremptory strikes to disqualify all the blacks in the jury pool, citing "race-neutral" reasons.

Up until this point in the case, the courts had accepted those alternative rationales. But the prosecutors' notes from jury selection, which were finally revealed thanks to a Public Records Act request, suggest a deliberate exclusion strategy. On the list of prospective jurors, the black names were circled, highlighted in green, and marked with a "B." They were also ranked, as an investigator for the prosecution noted in an affidavit, in case "it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors." Ouch. (On Tuesday, Mother Jones reporter Stephanie Mencimer tracked down one of those rejected jurors, who recalled the prosecutors treating her "like I was a criminal.")

"Isn't this as clear a Batson violation as this court is likely to see?" asked Justice Elena Kagan.

"We have an arsenal of smoking guns," Foster's lawyer, the famed capital defender Stephen Bright, told the high court during Monday's oral arguments. Several justices seemed to agree. "Isn't this as clear a Batson violation as this court is likely to see?" asked Justice Elena Kagan.

She was referring to the 1986 case of Batson vs. Kentucky, in which the Supreme Court explicitly prohibited the striking of jurors based on ethnicity. But the legal profession has long looked the other way as prosecutors come to court armed with what, in the Foster case, was described as a "laundry list" of alternative explanations for a juror's removal. Things like, "Oh, this juror is about the defendant's age," or "They grew up in the same part of the city."

Among other things, Foster's lead prosecutor noted that several of the prospective black jurors he dismissed hadn't made sufficient eye contact when he questioned them. In any case, it's not hard to invent reasonable-sounding explanations for striking a juror, and therein lies the problem. Only when you run the numbers does the racist intent comes into sharp focus.

"I knew I would vote for the death penalty because that's what that n----- deserved."

For a little context, it's helpful to look at portions of Marc Bookman's recent essay about Kenneth Fults, another Georgia death row inmate. One of the jurors in that case, a white man, later made the following statement under oath: "That nigger got just what should have happened. Once he pled guilty, I knew I would vote for the death penalty because that's what that nigger deserved." The white lawyer assigned to defend Fults also used the N-word with abandon. But none of this was enough to convince skeptical courts to grant Fults a resentencing. In his essay, Bookman explains how the legal system is rigged against black defendants, and why, without an arsenal of smoking guns, arguing racial discrimination is usually a losing game:

Consider one of the most famous examples, the 1987 Supreme Court case of McCleskey v. Kemp, in which lawyers for Warren McCleskey, a black man sentenced to death for killing a white police officer, presented statistics from more than 2,000 Georgia murder cases. The data demonstrated a clear bias against black defendants whose victims were white: When both killer and victim were black, only 1 percent of the cases resulted in a death sentence. When the killer was black and the victim white, 22 percent were sentenced to death—more than seven times the rate for when the races were reversed.

Prosecutors sought execution for black defendants in 70 percent of murder cases with a white victim, but only 15 percent with a black victim.

It wasn't just jurors who were biased. Prosecutors sought the death penalty for black defendants in 70 percent of murder cases when the victim was white, but only 15 percent when the victim was black.

The Supreme Court was less than impressed with all of this. Justice Lewis Powell, in a 5-4 majority opinion he would later call his greatest regret on the bench, wrote that McCleskey could not prove that "the decisionmakers in his case acted with discriminatory purpose." In short, evidence of systemic racial bias had no relevance in individual cases…

Georgia executed McCleskey in 1991, but the McCleskey rationale—which the New York Times labeled the "impossible burden" of proving that racial animus motivated any particular prosecutor, judge, or jury—has been used by dozens of courts to reject statistical claims of discrimination in capital cases, even though today's numbers are not much better.

Bookman goes on to detail the sordid history of jury stacking:

The phrase "legal lynching" first appeared in the New York Times during the infamous 1931 Scottsboro Boys trials, in which nine black youths were charged with raping two white women in Alabama. Their lack of counsel, coupled with the explicit exclusion of black jurors, led the Supreme Court to intercede twice and reverse convictions.

It's hard to read those opinions today without feeling a sense of horror. Within two weeks of the alleged crime, eight of the nine young men had been sentenced to death in three separate trials by the same jury. Although there was no shortage of black men in Scottsboro County who were legally eligible to serve on juries, there was no record of any of them ever serving on one. Perhaps most remarkably, none of the defendants had a lawyer appointed to represent him until the morning of trial. In 2013, more than 80 years after the arrests, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles posthumously pardoned the three Scottsboro Boys whose convictions still stood.

"Question them at length," said one Philly prosecutor, referring to people of color. "Mark something down that you can articulate at a later time."

We have not come nearly as far from these outrages as you might think. People of color are still dramatically underrepresented (PDF) on juries and grand juries, even though excluding people based on race is illegal and undermines "public confidence in our system of justice," as the Supreme Court put it in 1986. Prospective black jurors are routinely dismissed at higher rates than whites. The law simply requires some rationale other than skin color.

"Question them at length," a prominent Philadelphia prosecutor suggested to his protégés after the Supreme Court banned race as a reason for striking jurors. "Mark something down that you can articulate at a later time." For instance, a lawyer might say, "Well, the woman had a kid about the same age as the defendant, and I thought she'd be sympathetic to him."

In 2005, a former prosecutor in Texas revealed that her superiors had instructed her that if she wanted to strike a black juror, she should falsely claim she'd seen the person sleeping. This was just a dressed-up version of the Dallas prosecution training manual from 1963, which directed assistant district attorneys to "not take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans, or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated."

The 1969 edition of the manual, used into the 1980s, promoted a more subtle brand of stereotyping, noting that it was "not advisable to select potential jurors with multiple gold chains around their necks." But it hardly mattered: Overt, covert, or in between—the result was the same.

A North Carolina court found that prosecutors were striking blacks at twice the rate of other jurors. The probability of that being a fluke, experts testified, was less than 1 in 10 trillion.

Virtually every state with a death penalty has dealt with accusations that black jurors have been improperly kept off juries. During the 1992 death penalty trial of a defendant named George Williams, for example, a California prosecutor dismissed the first five black women in the jury box. "Sometimes you get a feel for a person," he explained, "that you just know that they can't impose it based upon the nature of the way that they say something." The judge went even further, noting that "black women are very reluctant to impose the death penalty; they find it very difficult." In 2013, the California Supreme Court ruled that these jury strikes were not race-based, and deemed the judge's statement "isolated." Williams remains on death row.

After North Carolina passed its Racial Justice Act, a 2009 law that let inmates challenge death sentences based on racial bias, a state court determined that prosecutors were dismissing black jurors at twice the rate of other jurors. The probability of this being a race-neutral fluke, according to two professors from Michigan State University, was less than 1 in 10 trillion; even the state's expert agreed that the disparity was statistically significant. Based on these numbers, the court vacated the death sentences of three inmates and resentenced each to life without parole. Six months later, the state legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act.

Finally, in an earlier essay on the case of Andre Thomas, a death row inmate with a long and bizarre history of mental illness, Bookman described yet another ploy to keep black people off Texas juries:

It's called the "shuffle." The pool of potential jurors, known as a venire, are seated in a room, and with no information other than what the jurors look like, either side can request that they be shuffled—reseated in a different order.

After the 'shuffle"—which proceeded without any objection by the defense—there were no blacks in the first five rows.

The order of the venire, it turns out, is crucial to the jury's final makeup. That's because each juror is questioned in turn, and if lawyers from either side want to exercise their right to disqualify someone, they have to do it then and there. If it looks like one side is striking a juror based on race—which is not allowed—the other side can mount a challenge. Hence the shuffle: At Andre's trial, there were initially six African Americans seated in the first two rows. After the shuffle—which proceeded without any objection by the defense—there were no blacks in the first five rows. Ultimately, two black jurors were questioned and dismissed. When all was said and done, the entire jury—not to mention the judge and all of the lawyers—was white.

Smoking guns, people. Smoking guns.

Why Do I Like Reza Farazmand's Stupid Comics So Much?

Reza Farazmand

Does a man ever grow up? Apparently not. I'm a geezer, for Chrissake, and I can't stop laughing at Poorly Drawn Lines. That's the popular web comic by Reza Farazmand that, come October 6, you can acquire in the form of ink rolled onto processed and flattened dead trees. You know, a book.

Farazmand's gags are, if not poorly drawn, then simply drawn. They poke fun at technology, art, metaphysics, human (and creature) foibles, and the meaning of life. For the most part, they're kind of juvenile and super jaded, kind of like The Far Side meets Mad magazine, except with more swearing. Naturally, my 13-year-old loves 'em. And although they're hit or miss, like all comics, I love 'em, too.

The book's very first strip reads as follows:

Buffalo: Some buffalo can jump as high as 36 feet.

Man: That's not true.

Buffalo: Some buffalo are lonely and lie to gain attention.

[They pause to consider.]

Buffalo: Some buffalo would be down to get a drink later, or...

Man: I have a thing tonight.

Buffalo: Okay.

If I have to explain why that's funny, you don't deserve to get it. (Sorry, Mom.) But plenty of people do, judging from the strip's 650,000-plus Facebook fans. Here are some more examples from the book:

Reza Farazmand

 
Reza Farazmand
Tue Sep. 22, 2009 2:47 PM EDT
Mon Sep. 21, 2009 6:30 AM EDT
Thu Sep. 17, 2009 1:47 PM EDT
Thu Sep. 17, 2009 12:32 PM EDT
Fri Sep. 11, 2009 7:00 AM EDT
Tue Sep. 8, 2009 4:08 PM EDT
Wed Sep. 2, 2009 7:00 AM EDT
Mon Aug. 31, 2009 3:52 PM EDT
Mon Aug. 31, 2009 7:00 AM EDT
Fri Aug. 28, 2009 3:05 PM EDT
Thu Aug. 27, 2009 3:26 PM EDT
Wed Aug. 12, 2009 4:52 PM EDT
Fri Aug. 7, 2009 2:00 PM EDT
Thu Aug. 6, 2009 1:05 PM EDT
Wed Aug. 5, 2009 11:41 AM EDT
Tue Jul. 21, 2009 4:14 PM EDT
Tue Jul. 21, 2009 2:23 PM EDT
Fri Jul. 17, 2009 5:39 PM EDT
Thu Jul. 16, 2009 4:52 PM EDT
Mon Jul. 13, 2009 1:23 PM EDT
Mon Jul. 13, 2009 7:00 AM EDT
Mon Jul. 6, 2009 4:20 PM EDT
Fri Jun. 12, 2009 12:22 PM EDT
Fri Jun. 12, 2009 7:30 AM EDT
Mon Jun. 1, 2009 5:37 PM EDT
Thu May. 14, 2009 6:04 PM EDT
Mon May. 4, 2009 4:31 PM EDT
Thu Apr. 30, 2009 1:00 PM EDT
Thu Apr. 23, 2009 4:54 PM EDT
Tue Jan. 20, 2009 1:28 PM EST
Tue Dec. 2, 2008 6:40 PM EST
Thu Sep. 25, 2008 4:34 PM EDT
Thu Sep. 25, 2008 2:08 PM EDT
Wed Sep. 24, 2008 1:44 PM EDT
Tue Jan. 8, 2008 7:31 PM EST
Wed Nov. 21, 2007 5:13 PM EST
Wed Nov. 14, 2007 5:01 PM EST