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.

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.


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:

Andrew Bacevich's Nonfiction Picks

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are The Limits of Power author Andrew Bacevich's answers:

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

Andrew Bacevich: Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of American History. Published in 1952, it remains the most insightful book ever written about US foreign policy, as relevant today as it was when it first appeared. There's a new paperback edition available from University of Chicago Press.

MJ: What's the nonfiction you've reread the most—and what's the allure?

AB: There's probably no single title. But my colleague David Fromkin's book on the origins of the modern Middle East, A Peace to End All Peace, is a book that I've returned to time and again. It provides readers a rich understanding of exactly where and how our problems with this region began and offers a powerful reminder regarding the folly to which statesmen are prone.

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

AB: I honestly can't. As a kid I was enamored with fiction, most of it utterly forgettable and long forgotten. 

MJ: What book would makes perfect companion reading to your own The Limits of Power?

AB: This will come across as completely shameless, but I have a book coming out in August that I hope will serve as a complement to Limits. The title is Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War.

MJ: Have you read anything recently that's made you more optimistic about America's future?

AB: Hope in a Scattering Time is a new biography of Christopher Lasch by Eric Miller. I don't know that it makes me optimistic exactly, but I can find some consolation in the fact that this society can from time to time produce people of Lasch's ruthless integrity. It's wonderfully well-written.

MJ: Any other great nonfiction books, particularly recent ones, that we shouldn't overlook?

AB: The Tragedy of American Diplomacy by William Appleman Williams first appeared in 1959, but W. W. Norton recently published a 50th anniversary edition. It remains a book well worth reading.

Die Antwoord's Zef-Rap Mystery World

Update: On the brink of their US tour and debut CD release, I interviewed Die Antwoord about their risque new video, South African culture, and why they well self-destruct after five albums: Part 1 here, and Part 2 there.

Have you heard Die Antwoord? You will. I don't know what to make of this crew, exactly, but I’m definitely intrigued. They're a trio of white-trash Afrikaners from southern South Africa, pumping a homegrown rave-hip-hop sound they alternatively call zef-rap or simply "next-level shit."

Leading lady (“Rich Bitch” Yo-Landi Vi$$er) is ultra-twee, a severe, unconventional beauty. Lead man (Watkin Tudor Jones, aka Ninja) is practically a caricature and yet somehow original; angry, inked, completely bonkers—and undaunted by anyone else's idea of cool. DJ Hi-Tek: inscrutable, but the beats are right. Yo-Landi and Ninja are vocally skilled and profane. (Afrikaans, after all, is said to be the best language for swearing.) Catchy. Absurd. Weird with a capped dubya. 51-50. It's hard to look the other way.

Here's Ninja talking to Vice magazine about the group's first album, $0$, coming out soon in the States.

Here in South Africa the taxis play rave music fokken loud my bru. You can hear it from the next city when the taxi comes through, you hear DOOM DOOM DOOM—they gooi the rap-rave megamixes pumping like a nightclub. So my main inspiration is the taxis. The whole album is based on the sound it’s gonna make when it’s pumping through a taxi—It’s that high energy shit you can’t compare.


Walmart Pledges $2 Billion to Feed Its Own Image

So Walmart Stores announced yesterday that it would give $2 billion worth of food and grants to America's food banks. Great, huh? The needy get fed—and Walmart gets a ton of positive press. Two billion is no chump change. Okay, true, it's less than one-half of 1 percent of Wal-Mart's sales—a staggering $405 billion for fiscal 2010. But still.

Giving to help the hungry is a smart marketing strategy for Walmart. Low-income people are among the retail king's biggest customers, after all, and feeding people during hard times is a fantastic image-booster. But as with Walmart's embracing of compact fluorescent light bulbs—part of a major push to green its image (and sell a shitload of product)—there's something duplicitous in all of this. I use that word because even as Walmart burnishes its image by unloading food it doesn't want (see below), it is contributing to hunger on the other end—and leaving taxpayers to bail out its undercompensated employees.

Will Congress Crack Down on Sleazy Car Dealers?

Will Congress finally take action to rein in the car dealers who target American soldiers—among others—with dirty sales tricks? Gary Rivlin, whose upcoming book on the poverty industry is titled Broke, USA, reports in yesterday's New York Times that consumer advocates are angling for better oversight:

Even the Pentagon has weighed in, insisting that automobile purchases and dealer-assisted financing should be part of any new financial legislation because low-income military people are victimized in large numbers by shady car dealers that set up shop just outside many bases.

Officials say distractions caused by these bad auto deals could affect the readiness of the armed forces.

In February, Clifford L. Stanley, the under secretary of defense responsible for troop readiness, wrote in a letter addressed to a Treasury official that the Pentagon would “welcome and encourage” increased protections against “unscrupulous automobile sales and financing practices.”

But car dealers have formidable clout in the halls of Congress. MoJo staff reporter Stephanie Mencimer notes in "I Love a Mark in Uniform," that the dealers gave some $9 million to candidates during the 2008 election cycle alone. And Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), Rivlin reports, is sponsoring an amendment that would exempt further regulation of car dealers, who, in Brownback's words, "are already struggling to get cars to market."

The people most often targeted by dealers are struggling just to make ends meet. Last year, Mencimer spent some quality time around Norfolk, Virginia, where a high concentration of naive young recruits has attracted all manner of unscrupulous salespeople. Here's a snapshot:

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