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.

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Afghanistan's Boy Sex Slaves

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 5:49 PM EDT

Say what you will about the Taliban. They're small-minded, repressive, religious zealots who exert their power through fear and intimidation. But certain aspects of Afghan society can make the black turbans look downright righteous. Consider the ancient tradition of Bacha Bazi, which means "boy play." Banned by the Taliban, this illicit activity is on the upswing across Afghanistan. The Guardian reported on it last fall, and on April 20, Frontline is airing a special report with the same title: The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan.

Here's how the Frontline producers describe it:

Hundreds of boys, some as young as eleven, street orphans or boys bought from poor families by former warlords and powerful businessmen, are dressed in woman's clothes, taught to sing and dance for the entertainment of male audiences, and then sold to the highest bidder or traded among the men for sex.

With remarkable access inside a Bacha Bazi ring operating in Northern Afghanistan, Najibullah Quraishi, an Afghan journalist, investigates this practice, still illegal under Afghan law, talking with the boys, their families, and their masters, exposing the sexual abuse and even murders of the boys, and documenting how Afghan authorities responsible for stopping these crimes are sometimes themselves complicit in the practice.

A Setback for Geoengineering?

| Wed Mar. 17, 2010 6:07 PM EDT

Bad news this week for the cheerleaders of a carbon-capture technique known as iron fertilization. That's where you spread tiny bits of the nutritious metal over the sea surface, encouraging the birth of phytoplankton blooms. As they grow, these single-celled creatures—the bottom link in the ocean food chain—suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and incorporate it into their tiny little selves. When they die, the theory goes, they sink to the frigid ocean depths where they are trapped, taking the carbon out of circulation. Presto!

But that last bit is pretty speculative, and iron fertilization comes with unintended consequences. In her MoJo report on the unproven technique—which has raised the ire of, among others, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (a group best known for its salty founder and its standoffs with whaling vessels)—Melanie Haiken spoke with a number of scientists who were concerned about potential side effects:

Some computer models predict that iron fertilization could bring about the production of greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and methane. Other concerns: Seeding may stimulate growth of toxic species, alter the marine food chain, and lead to the depletion of deep-water oxygen. In short, toying with the world's largest ecosystem would affect the natural balance upon which larger species, including humans, depend.

Funny about those toxic species, because a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences notes that a major species of poisonous phytoplankton—one whose toxin is dangerous to fish, birds, ocean mammals, and humans (think tainted shellfish)—produces far more of its nasty stuff after it is exposed to iron. The results are "an indication that we are not masters of nature," one of the authors told San Francisco Chronicle science reporter David Perlman.

Don't Call Me Madoff!

| Thu Feb. 25, 2010 2:30 PM EST

Citing safety concerns, Bernie Madoff's daughter-in-law Stephanie has legally petitioned to change her name—and those of her young children—to "Morgan," the New York Post reports. It's unlikely, of course, that anyone would hurt a couple of toddlers (the children are one and three). But more than a few who lost their life savings to history's biggest swindler probably fantasize about taking a broken bottle to Stephanie's husband, Mark Madoff, who filed an affadavit in support of the name change.

In our January/February issue, reporter Erin Arvedlund, the first non-trade journalist to question Madoff's unusually consistent returns, provided a still-current update on the status—legally and otherwise—of Madoff's inner circle, including his two boys, Mark and Andrew. Here's one snippet from our report, "Meet the Madoff Minions." (Picard is Irving Picard, the court-appointed trustee in the Madoff bankruptcy case.)

Papa Madoff claimed his boys, who codirected trading at the firm, learned of the fraud only when he told them, days before his arrest. Alternate theory: Madoff knew the jig was up and took the fall to protect his family. Mark Madoff withdrew nearly $67 million from company accounts over the years, trustee Picard alleges, and divides his time between a $5.6 million Manhattan apartment, a $6.6 million Nantucket home, and a $2.2 million pad in Greenwich, Connecticut. All told, Mark got more than $29 million in salary and bonuses, and racked up $797,000 in personal expenses on the corporate AmEx. Andrew Madoff received more than $31 million in compensation, Picard claims, and used another $32 mil to cover expenses such as a $300,000 investment in Blow Styling Salon, LLC, and a $75,000 payment to Lock and Hackle, a members-only fly-fishing and hunting club. And waiter beware: After dropping more than a grand on the corporate card at Manhattan's swank Per Se, Andrew left a miserly $60 tip. Picard is suing Mark and Andrew, along with Bernie's brother Peter and his niece Shana, to recover some $199 million. But their assets are not frozen, and none of them has yet been charged with any crime.

Arvedlund, whose book about the Madoff affair is titled, Too Good to Be True, similarly details the exploits of Bernie's wife, older brother, niece, right-hand man, and key enablers—including the keystone cops at the SEC who ignored enough red flags to supply a Soviet political rally. As for the grandchildren, the Madoff name isn't so much a safety issue as one of shameful notoriety. If you happen to live in New York City and your name happens to be Madoff, well, best of luck in your future prospects.

Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit's Sweet William EP

| Mon Feb. 15, 2010 9:00 AM EST

Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit
Sweet William EP

Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit will never again end up in the MoJo Dog Pile.

That’s what I call the cache of unsolicited media that for one reason or another never caught the attention of our reviewers. It's also where I discovered Flynn's debut CD, A Larum, and by the time I managed to listen to it and get myself hooked—I mean, I pretty much played it to death—it felt too late for a review. So last Thanksgiving I included A Larum in our (partial) staff list of Music We’re Thankful For, and moved on.

That very month, as if to extend my addiction, singer-guitarist Flynn released Sweet William, a stand-alone EP recorded at his home in London—he emigrated to the UK from South Africa at an early age. It's a sweet little four-song effort complete with more lush instrumentation from the Sussex Wit (horns, cello, piano, percussion), complementing Flynn’s Appalachian-tinged flat picking and adding depth to his timeless sound. (Flynn is also handy with a fiddle and a banjo.) The EP is also a friggin’ tease for the group’s second full-length, due out this spring. That record will be produced by Ryan Hadlock, who worked on A Larum and has assisted the likes of Blonde Redhead, the Strokes, and former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus. (Permanent reunion, please?)

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