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, after years of classical and blues piano and punk-rock drumming, he now sits on his front porch and attempts to play the fiddle.

The Coolest CD Ever, and Less Than Two Bits!

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 7:10 AM EDT

Hey, look what arrived in the mail!

Look closely: This isn't a CD. It's actual circuitry embedded in a jewel case. Awesome! If you're a musical artist struggling to grab the notice of busy reviewers, here's one way to do it—so long as the postal authorities don't mistake your thing for a bomb.

Now I must admit to having a small issue—literally—with the actual music. There are severe limitations when you're composing 1-bit ditties. By necessity, it's pretty cold, spare stuff: nitrous music for robot videos. (What's nitrous music? It's what I call stuff like this.)

Sure, 1-bit is kinda neat—even nostalgic for those of us who once ran out and bought the 8-bit Casiotone-VL1. (Here's a blurry 15-year-old me holding one—wish I still had it.) But despite the brief success of German band Trio, even 8-bit doesn't encourage repeat listening—and 1-bit can be downright harsh. Just compare Fischerspooner's original "Just Let Go" with Tristan Perich's 1-bit rendition. (You might want to lower the volume just a tad.)

I do love the concept, though. Perich has been experimenting with the form for a number of years now. This particular—uh, what to call it?—circuit is billed "1-bit Symphony." It will be offered in August by Cantaloupe Music, a New York label that puts out what was once called "experimental" and has been rebranded "new music": acts like Matmos, which plays on found objects including—wow—cow uteruses. (Where does one even find a cow uterus?)

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How Much of the Gulf is Leased?

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 5:34 PM EDT

A BoingBoing commenter on my "Who Really Owns the Gulf of Mexico" post points out that there are plenty of non-leased cells in the map highlighted in that piece, and suggests that people check out the following map, too. This is just a detail; you can download the larger version here. But I think it just further underscores the notion of a corporate feeding frenzy around our Gulf resources. The leased areas are denoted in green. There are 6,652 of them, covering 35,637,392 acres--more than 22 percent of the leaseable Gulf.

Most active parts of the Gulf: Leased areas are green.Most active parts of the Gulf: Leased areas are green.

Quiz: What Do BP and Kurt Cobain Have in Common?

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 3:34 PM EDT

Fossil-fuel extraction is pretty much a boy's club. As such, it can be tough to distinguish the names of oil or gas fields from those of, say, downhill ski runs, weapons, and rock bands. BP, for instance, has Gulf fields named Nirvana, Stones, and Supertramp.

Browsing Offshore magazine's 2009 survey of Gulf deepwater discoveries, you'll also find Greek mythology (Atlas, Cyclops, Dionysius, Mars, Medusa, Triton), mountains (Matterhorn, Fuji, K2), Bond references (Q, Goldfinger), royal titles (King, Prince, Princess), Biblical stuff (Genesis, Lost Ark), now-doomed animals (Manatee, Marlin, Swordfish, Tortuga), and cartoon characters (Spiderman, Bullwinkle). The long list of whimsical names feel somewhat jarring in the spill context—a reminder, perhaps, that the energy industry is like a bunch of overgrown boys playing with matches. And, at least most of the time, they don't burn the house down.

So, just for the hell of it—and I do mean the hell of it—take this little quiz. Some items have more than one answer. Answers below the jump.

For each of the following, indicate whether it's a…
A.    downhill ski run
B.    hard rock/heavy metal band
C.    weapon
D.    oil/gas field in the Gulf of Mexico
E.    all of the above

(Extra credit: Identify the two BP fields.)

1. Bermuda Triangle
2. Black Widow
3. The Blow Hole
4. Brutus
5. Claymore
6. Devil's Island
7. Fastball
8. Firebird
9. Gunflint
10. Genghis Kahn
11. Great White
12. Hornet
13. King Kong
14. Longhorn
15. Mad Dog
16. Morgus
17. Morpeth
18. Mother In Law
19. Orion
20. Raptor
21. Red Hawk
22. Shale Slope
23. Tomahawk
24. Thor
25. Vortex

Who Really Owns the Gulf of Mexico?

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 3:34 PM EDT

Who owns the Gulf of Mexico? That's a question you have to ask while perusing Offshore magazine's 2010 poster of the Gulf—downloadable here as a large PDF, but well worth checking out. Where most people look at the Gulf, they see a vast marine ecosystem, wetlands, and, until recently, gorgeous beaches.

What energy executives see is a massive grid, tangled with scores of oil and gas pipelines and rival fields with macho names that sound like heavy metal bands, black-diamond ski runs, and weapons systems. (See "Quiz: What Do BP and Kurt Cobain Have in Common?") Here's a small detail, slightly blurry, but you get the point. (Red lines are gas pipelines and pink are gas fields, green lines are oil pipelines and green blurbs are oil fields.)

How Oil Execs See the Gulf—Map Detail: Black dots are Fourchon (left), and Grand Isle, LouisianaHow energy execs view the Gulf: Black dots are Fourchon (left), and Grand Isle, Louisiana

Next, here's another map detail from farther offshore. I circled the site of the ongoing BP Deepwater Horizon spill in yellow.


Map detail: Mississippi Canyon; BP spill site circled.Map detail: Mississippi Canyon; BP spill site circled.

23andMe DNA Snafu: "I Started Screaming"

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 1:52 PM EDT

ScienceBlogs' Genetic Future reports on a mixup of DNA samples by the Google-affiliated personal genomics company 23andMe, one of a host of companies that scrutinize customers' genetic material and analyze their likelihood of bearing various traits and disease risks. This, as we've reported previously, is far from perfect science; despite the touchy-feely marketing, such tests provide little beyond genetic navelgazing.

The timing wasn't so great for 23andMe, which recently came under the scrutiny of Rep. Henry Waxman's oversight subcommittee. And, while mistakes happen, you can run into real customer-service problems when you screw up. 23andMe, which uses a contract lab, explained the mishap in an announcement visible only to customers who logged in (see full announcement at bottom):

Up to 96 customers may have received and viewed data that was not their own. Upon learning of the mix-ups, we immediately identified all customers potentially affected, notified them of the problem and removed the data from their accounts. The lab is now concurrently conducting an investigation and re-processing the samples of the affected customers and their accurate results will be posted early next week. We expect the investigation will be complete over the next several days and we will provide further details when we have them.

Dan MacArthur notes in his Genetic Future post that customers were griping on the announcement's comments thread about how long it took 23andMe to provide feedback on their baffling data, not to mention the poor quality control—23andMe could easily cross-check a few known traits, like gender. One mother became rather anxious, to say the least, after her family's test results suggested that her son wasn't a blood relation:

He was not a match for any of us. I checked his haplogroups and they were different from ours. I started screaming. A month before my son was born two local hospitals had baby switches. I panicked and I checked over and over. My kids were sitting at the computer because we all wanted to see the results. My son laughed but he looked upset. I called my sister in tears.

So it's buyer beware, says MacArthur, reminding customers not to take their results for granted:

The process between spitting into a cup and viewing your genetic results online involves multiple steps where things can go wrong, ranging from errors in sample tracking (the most pernicious and difficult to correct), through genotyping problems (usually much easier to spot), to errors in data analysis and display.

The best advice, however, might be to take your results with a grain of salt, errors or no errors. Until the loose genetic correlations these tests are based upon are supported by controlled clinical trials involving large numbers of people (identifying candidates for such trials is a quiet part of 23andMe's business model), personal genomics will amount to little more than personal entertainment.


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