Michael Mechanic

Michael Mechanic

Senior Editor

Michael has been a senior editor at MoJo for eight years, after spending the previous six as an award-winning features editor at the alt-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 alt-weeklies, newspapers, and magazines including Wired, The Industry Standard, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two kids, four chickens, striped cat, and too many musical instruments to master.

Full Bio | Get my RSS |

Michael has been a senior editor at MoJo for eight years, after spending the previous six as an award-winning features editor at the alt-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 alt-weeklies, 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 later 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 he wrote with photographer Nina Berman. Michael lives with his family in Oakland, California, where, after years of classical piano and punk-rock drumming, he now sits on his front porch and tries to play the fiddle.

Another Affordable Housing Default

| Thu May 27, 2010 5:06 PM EDT

In yet another blow to the nation's affordable-housing stock, Stellar Management, star of our July/August 2009 story "Mortage Default: Landlord Edition," announced that it will go into default on Parkmerced, a 3,000-unit San Francisco housing project that Stellar purchased a few years back with the goal of remodeling and building new market-rate units.

Earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, Stellar's management presented a $1.3 billion long-term proposal to triple the number of units at Parkmerced—but the company also faces October debt payments estimated at more than $500 million.

"We will be facing challenges in the next couple of months," Stellar spokesman PJ Johnston told the Chron. "This may cause some anxiety to some residents. But we are reassuring them this will not impact their daily lives here. We're still committed to this project."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Nick Hornby's Nonfiction Picks

| Tue May 25, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are novelist and essayist Nick Hornby's answers:

Mother Jones: What nonfiction book do you foist on friends and relatives?

Nick Hornby: Historically: Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life. It was one of the books that taught me how to write—not that this should be of any interest to friends and relatives. I give it to them because it's beautiful, funny, and tough. More recently: Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution, which is the best, and most enjoyable, book about movies I've read for years, and maybe ever.

MJ: What work of nonfiction have you reread the most, and what's the allure.

NH: I'm really not a big rereader—I'm too aware of my own ignorance. I've read Greil Marcus' chapter on The Band in Mystery Train more than twice, however. It's one of the pieces of writing that made me such an Americophile—and it's just so smart and fizzy.

MJ: Can you think of a nonfiction book someone handed you as a kid that left a lasting impression?

NH: I can only recall being given dictionaries and encyclopedias. I can remember my father gave me a huge history of football for my 12th birthday—I used to read that a lot. I can remember thinking it was cool that something I was interested in even had a history. Most things I loved didn't.

MJ: What are the best music-related memoirs you've ever read?

NH: Dylan's Chronicles is easily the best rock 'n' roll memoir ever written, as far as I'm concerned. There aren't many stories in there, but if you want to know where an artist came from, and why he thinks the way he does, then that's the one. For stories you need The Dirt, the book about Motley Crue.

MJ: Who's your Tucker Crowe? Not trying to suggest that you're an obsessive, pathetic music nerd, but is there any (obscure?) musical figure you find endlessly intriguing? [In Hornby's latest novel—Juliet, Naked—a key character is unhealthily obsessed with Crowe, a reclusive ex-musician.]

NH: I'm not even sure I was writing about music—I was thinking about writers as much as I was thinking about musicians, but more people are interested in music than they are in literature. Salinger was still alive then.

MJ: Which living nonfiction writer would you most like to share a pint with? What would you most like to ask them? Ditto for living musician.

NH: David Kynaston, author of the recent, and astoundingly good, Austerity Britain and Family Britain. He's writing a sequence of books that will
take us up to 1979, and it seems to me that he knows more about the recent history of this country than anyone alive. I'd like to ask him where we're going. Living musicians: Bobby Womack must have some stories. He embodies almost the entire history of R&B.

Follow Michael Mechanic on Twitter.

MetaFilter Saved My Pals From Sex Traffickers—Exclusive Interview

| Fri May 21, 2010 8:54 PM EDT

The message thread reads like the play-by-play from an alternate reality game, wherein complete strangers work together to solve a complex mystery. But the drama that played out on MetaFilter this week was no game. If not for the intrepid members of this 11-year-old digital forum, a couple of young Russian women might possibly have fallen prey to sexual slavery.

Dan Reetz's post appeared Wednesday evening at Ask MetaFilter, a portion of the site where people seek help from the crowd. Mostly it's mundane—someone needs suggestions for a good pet store in their area, that kind of thing.

But this post stood out: "A Russian friend of mine may be in a dangerous situation in Washington, DC," it began.

Reetz, a 28-year-old who goes by the online handle Fake, joined MetaFilter in 2004 and is a trusted user, according to Jessamyn West, the site's community manager. In 2006, he spent a year teaching English in Russia, and became close friends with one of his students, whom we'll call "K." "We used to walk around and talk about music and everything," Reetz told me. "I learned most of my Russian from her, so I have bad street Russian—and she learned most of her English from me, so she knows all the English swear words! We've been in touch ever since."

Breaking: Oil Makes Landfall, Cops Blocking Beaches, MoJo on the Scene [Video and Photos]

| Thu May 20, 2010 4:34 PM EDT

MoJo reporter Mac McClelland is getting one hell of a chilling story in Louisiana right now. This morning she headed down to the area where, according to online maps, oil from the BP fiasco was headed. Wherever she turned, she found sheriff's deputies blocking the beach access roads—until she hit a beach at Grand Isle, and literally stepped into the mess. (Follow Mac on Twitter here.)

Here's what unfolded in her tweetstream:

Has oil made landfall in port fourchon, LA? Can't look, bc cops turned us around at bridge to beach. about 3 hours ago

Oil just hit land in grand isle. Blobs completely covering this shore. about 2 hours ago

Governor's helicopters are flying overhead. about 1 hour ago

All these spots are blobs of oil. about 1 hour ago

All these spots are blobs of oil.  on Twitpic

Crude all over my fingers. about 1 hour ago

Crude all over my fingers. on Twitpic

These vacationers say there was no oil earlier today; this shit all just started washing up, and it's already everywhere. about 1 hour ago

This was when I realized oil arrived; when I stepped in crude. 42 minutes ago

This was when I realized oil arrived; when I stepped in crude. on Twitpic

5 sheriff's cars have arrived. No pics allowed, no more access to elmer's island. 27 minutes ago

The gov's office has arrived. 10 minutes ago

The gov's office has arrived on Twitpic

Mac says the sheriff's deputies who arrived at Grand Isle told her she couldn't take pictures of them, but didn't keep her away from the beach—yet. She's headed back to New Orleans as we write, but will be back in Grand Isle later tonight. (Here's some more background from the local media, and more pix.) UPDATE: Mac just called and noted that there are still kids on the beach, "splashing around in this huge sheen."

Yesterday families vacayed among oil blobs (see all those bro... on Twitpic

This begs many questions, such as:

Why is law enforcement trying to stifle coverage of this horror? And, as our own Kate Sheppard (follow her on Twitter here) asks: Why is BP still in charge? Kate has also been following developments intensely, live tweeting the BP hearings, and breaking the latest news—ranging from concerns over these so-called chemical dispersants to the rig owner's efforts to weasel out of responsibility. She's covered BP's fumbling containment efforts, its second Gulf rig, and its shameless attempts to downplay the problem: 5,000 barrels a day indeed! That's how much BP says it is now recovering, and this thing is so far from being over.

You can keep on top of Kate's and Mac's dispatches on our home page, Facebook page, and by following their Twitter streams.

UPDATE: Here's a video showing how sticky the stuff really is:

UPDATE 2: Check out these photos from Gov. Bobby Jindal's tour of the fouled marshes.

(If you appreciate our ongoing BP coverage, please consider making a
tax-deductible donation.)

Follow Michael Mechanic on Twitter.

What's 23andMe Really Selling? (Cuz the Feds Are Asking.)

| Thu May 20, 2010 1:59 PM EDT

A congressional committee is looking closely at direct-to-consumer genetic tests of the sort that purportedly tell you your predisposition to various diseases and likely responses to drugs—and which you may have seen advertised on the sides of blimps and such. Indeed, 23andMe, which is partly owned by Google and markets its services via dirigible (among other platforms) is one of the three California personal-genomics firms now under federal scrutiny. (The others are Pathway Genomics and Navigenetics, Inc.)

Yesterday, Rep. Henry Waxman sent letters (download here) to the three firms on behalf of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The move was prompted by news reports that Pathway plans to sell its kits—previously unavailable from retail stores—at Walgreen's, the nation's largest drugstore chain. The companies have about two weeks to produce, among other things, the following:

All documents relating to the ability of your genetic testing products to accurately
identify consumer risk, including:
a. internal and external communications regarding the accuracy of your testing;
b. documents describing how your analysis of individual test results controls for
scientific factors such as age, race, gender, and geographic location;
c. third party communications validating the association between the scientific data
your company uses for analyzing test results and the consumer's risk for each
condition, disease, drug response, or adverse reaction as identified by the results
of an individual test; and
d. documents relating to proficiency testing conducted by your clinical laboratories.

Ruh-oh!

Sounds like the feds are finally catching on to the sorts of concerns MoJo contributor and medical writer Shannon Brownlee covered in our November/December 2009 issue. (See "Google's Guinea Pigs.") The gist was that most of these kits should be labeled with that timeless disclaimer "For Novelty Use Only" given how little they actually tell us about our health. Truly useful genetic associations with disease, as opposed to navel-gazing fodder, require that you conduct serious, clinically controlled testing of hundreds of thousands of people. Brownlee writes:

Knowing how genes affect people's response to medicines could help drugmakers determine proper dosages. And tailoring products to patients with specific gene profiles may allow Big Pharma to revive once marginal drugs, extend patents, and reduce side effects—and thus lawsuits. Doctors can already use genes to determine, for example, which of their breast cancer patients will most likely benefit from the drug Herceptin.

But there's a rub: It will be years, even decades, before this new research produces many tangible benefits. For the time being, SNPs [the DNA fragments most companies use as the basis for their testing] won't tell you much. My 23andMe profile suggests I'm prone to having underweight babies. (My boy was nine pounds, six ounces.) I should have an average number of freckles. (I'm covered.) Blue eyes. (Bzzzt! Green.) Poor performance on nonverbal tests of intelligence. (I aced my SATs.) If science can't get the trivial stuff right, why should I worry when a company says I have an elevated risk for heart disease or macular degeneration? My profile also says my SNPs should make me sensitive to the anti-clotting drug warfarin. What it can't tell me is how my doctor is supposed to use this information. Should she not prescribe it, and leave me vulnerable to blood clots? Or give me a low, perhaps ineffective dose? The drug susceptibility info these companies provide is the roughest sort of guide.

In fact, for 23andMe, the tests themselves are a loss leader. Despite touchy-feely marketing that uses terms like "empowered" and "live strong," the real business model isn't about telling you your predisposition to Crohn's disease and such. As Brownlee puts it:

Sat Apr. 18, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Fri Nov. 14, 2014 6:30 AM EST
Wed Sep. 17, 2014 5:30 AM EDT
Mon Apr. 21, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Mon Feb. 10, 2014 7:00 AM EST
Thu Jan. 24, 2013 7:06 AM EST
Mon Dec. 31, 2012 3:22 PM EST
Fri Dec. 14, 2012 11:03 PM EST
Fri Nov. 16, 2012 4:56 PM EST
Thu Nov. 1, 2012 4:31 PM EDT
Thu Sep. 27, 2012 2:07 PM EDT
Thu Mar. 22, 2012 3:05 PM EDT
Tue Mar. 20, 2012 6:30 AM EDT
Mon Mar. 19, 2012 2:02 PM EDT
Mon Feb. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EST
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
Fri Oct. 21, 2011 6:30 AM EDT