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.

Buzzkill: Seven-Buck Chuck?

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 6:10 PM EDT

Seven-buck Chuck! Fourteen-buck six-packs! To the barricades!

I thought this was an April Fool's prank when I first saw it on LAist, but it's quite legit. People are always proposing nutty initiatives here in California—because they can. This round Josie and Kent Whitney, ostensibly a temperate San Diego couple, have introduced a state ballot initiative that reeks of Prohibition.

Citing alcohol's many ills—and there are plenty—they want to slap taxes on drinking that are high enough to render you stone cold sober. The current 6-cent excise tax on a sixer of beer? Make that $6.08! You'll likely be paying an extra $5.07 in taxes for a 750-milliliter bottle of wine. And the hard stuff? Hell, you won't be affording cocktails anymore. The Whitney proposal (title: Alcohol-Related Harm and Damage Services Act of 2010) would pump up the excise tax on a bottle of distilled spirits from 65 cents to $17.57. 

That's no typo. Okay, sure, the Whitneys have some perfectly valid points: Alcohol is indeed a drug. It can contribute to people being raped. And it adds significantly to crime and health care costs. Meanwhile, California is in the shitter, so a sin tax doesn't sound unreasonable. But $6.08 on a sixer—Christ almighty! The proposed initiative states that alcohol costs California taxpayers $38.4 billion a year, due to everything from crime to illness to lost productivity to increased welfare.

Let's assume that's accurate...But how much does alcohol net us? And with the state wine industry and high-end eateries hurting from the recession, how many waiters, bartenders, farmers, grape-pickers, vintners, brewers, distillers, scientists, shop owners, and restaurateurs would be devastated by such a draconian tax?

An analysis by the state Legislative Analyst's Office focuses on the direct impacts: The proposed law would likely raise $7 to $9 billion for the state, it says, with unknown state and local sales-tax losses (because you and I would be buying less hooch). But the analyst kind of buried the likely employment ripple effect:  

Indirect Economic Effects. If the measure were to result in declines in overall economic activity in California, it could produce indirect state and local revenue losses. Such effects could occur, for example, if businesses were to close because they could no longer remain profitable as the overall economy adjusted to a lower demand for alcohol in the long run. If these lost resources were not redirected back to California's economy into equal or more productive activities, then it would likely lead to a net loss in taxable income and spending for state and local governments. The magnitude of these potential revenue losses is unknown.

Here's my favorite part: Bootleggers! Smugglers! Hello, Al Capone.

Potential Costs and Savings for Law Enforcement. An increase in the tax rate on alcohol would increase the incentive for persons to illegally produce alcohol, smuggle alcoholic beverages into the state, or avoid the tax by other means. Law enforcement officials have some discretion as to how to allocate their resources. To the extent that illegal activities related to the production or procurement of alcoholic beverages increased, and law enforcement officials allocated additional resources to combat it, state and local law enforcement costs would increase.

Short answer: They need about 434,000 signatures by August to get this on the November ballot. I figure anyone who signs has got to be high! Then again, getting high could soon be legal in California.

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Tee Purtiers Knead Spelchek

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 5:55 PM EDT

Our friends over at BoingBoing turned us on to this wonderful Flickr slideshow of misspelled Tea Party signs. (Catchy headline, too: Teabonics!)

As MoJo intern Tim Murphy learned in Searchlight, Nevada, recently, the Tea Partiers are folksy enough—and I'm sure that plenty of them can spell well enough, too. But if you truly care about your cause, and your cause is that Americans should speak English only, then get it right, for Chrissake!

 

 

Climate Hacking 101

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 2:05 PM EDT

Can the climate be hacked to keep the Earth's surface temperatures manageable? Can we get away with hijacking natural cycles (emulating volcanoes, pumping nutrients into the oceans, tinkering with the solar reflectivity of clouds) without radically screwing up weather patterns—or starting a war? Or is it a cop-out even to talk about this, rather than focus on kicking ass and taking names on the carbon emissions front?

Huh? Did he say "war"? Well, since climate heeds no human boundaries, any serious intervention by scientists could require a level of global cooperation that makes Copenhagen look like a cakewalk—and we all know how that turned out. If any country were to start testing this stuff unilaterally on a big scale, let's just say it would not be terribly popular.

But all the technical, cultural, and political roadblocks didn't dissuade leading geoengineering researchers from attending last week's big powwow at the Asilomar Conference Center—a longtime science haven and site of a similar meeting on genetic engineering back in 1975. Like that historic meeting, this one's ostensible purpose (activists envision something more nefarious) was for the scientists to discuss possible ground rules for future experimentation and for navigating, well, the technical, cultural, and political roadblocks. And like that meeting, this one has been criticized as an attempt to legitimize a potentially dangerous area of science.

Not to say the attendees were all gung-ho to put their ideas into practice. As climate scientists deeply concerned about human contributions to global warming, most were somewhat wary about the implications of climate hacking. That's one thing reporter Jim Rendon learned when we sent him to Asilomar to check out the scene. His dispatches below, and their links to our past geoengineering coverage, will give you a sort of Climate Hacking 101. Considering the world's inaction on addressing the most pressing problem of our time, you'll need it. We're all going to be hearing a lot more about human volcanoes and so on in the not too distant future.

Dispatch 1: Geoengineering Bad Fixes for Worse Problems
As climate-intervention scientists meet, fans see a Plan B where critics see a delay tactic.
Dispatch 2: Who Eats Geoengineering Risk?
Any large-scale test would require true international cooperation.
Dispatch 3: Do We Test Geoengineering?
Any meaningful field run would be a contentious, high-risk venture.
Dispatch 4: Geoengineering for Fun and Profit
Should scientists—or anyone—be allowed to cash in on high-risk climate fixes?

Kiddie Scarface Producer Outed

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 6:46 PM EDT

Guess who's behind this sick and twisted little performance?

Hint: It's not a schoolteacher about to be fired. Or a principal about to be fired.

And he won't care if you're offended.

He's also responsible for works your tween children could name-check.

Okay, give up? The LA Times reveals.

RNC "Investigating" Sex Club Romp

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 3:49 PM EDT

The Daily Caller, as we like to say in this business, buried the lede. I mean, so what if higher-ups in the Republican National Committee may or may not have been talking about arranging for a private jet for RNC chair Michael Steele. Who would be surprised? The Tea Partiers? They already think the mainstream GOP is out of touch.

Equally unsurprising but a lot more fun was the revelation of FEC expense reports showing that the RNC had dropped cash on a bondage club where the strippers simulate real live lesbians! And this for the Party of No Gay Sex, of no gay marriage, of no gays in the military, of no sex of any kind outside marriage.

The Caller mentioned it in passing:

Once on the ground, FEC filings suggest, Steele travels in style. A February RNC trip to California, for example, included a $9,099 stop at the Beverly Hills Hotel, $6,596 dropped at the nearby Four Seasons, and $1,620.71 spent [update: the amount is actually $1,946.25] at Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex.

Details, man! We need details.

The Daily Beast had a few: "The RNC denies that Steele himself visited the club, saying that it was "a reimbursement made to a non-committee staffer. The RNC is also investigating the claim."

I'll bet they're investigating. In any case, the Beast also mentioned that the expense report was filed by one Erik Brown—who is about to become a little less obscure—for a couple of weeks at least.

The DNC is loving it, according to the Baltimore Sun's Maryland Politics blog:

The Democratic National Committee is having a field day Monday at the expense of its cross-town rivals at the RNC—or the "Risque National Committee," as the Dems put it in one of the blizzard of e-mailed releases they are sending out.

The RNC also claimed the Daily Caller piece was "riddled with misleading information and inaccuracies." But Steele & Co. didn't deny reimbursing the expense for "meals" at Voyeur West Hollywood. In fact, according to a Washington Post blogger, the RNC now wants its money back.

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