The Skeleton Crew

The Skeleton Crew

By Deborah Halber


Tent Girl. The Lady of the Dunes. The Head in the Bucket. These are just a few of the nicknames given to America's 40,000 unidentified corpses by amateur web sleuths. For decades, members of this thriving, heroic, and macabre internet subculture have been cracking cold cases that have long stumped law enforcement. But what motivates them to spend countless hours poring over police reports and autopsy photos? Deborah Halber replaces the classic whodunit with what you might call a whosolvesit. She discovers that many web sleuths throw themselves into their dark hobby to escape their own damaged lives. Some find their share of fame and fortune; others, only more demons.

This review originally appeared in our July/August issue of Mother Jones. 

Michael Bay's big, loud action movies sometimes have plot elements resembling political messages. The Rock (1996) depicts the blowback from illegal American covert operations overseas. In Armageddon (1998), the NASA-recruited team of deep-core drillers agree to embark on a dangerous mission to save the planet from an asteroid—on the condition that they never have to pay taxes again. In Bad Boys II (2003), the film's heroes illegally invade (and destroy large chunks of) Cuba, all in the name of fighting the drug war.

But could the 49-year-old director's latest film, Transformers: Age of Extinction (in theaters June 27), actually be an allegory for the plight of undocumented immigrants in modern-day USA? Well, the film is currently being marketed that way. As flagged by Entertainment Weekly earlier this week, the Paramount Pictures-associated website documents the (obviously purely fictional) rise of anti-Transformer sentiment in America. In the previous Transformers film, some of these alien robots killed a bunch of people and blew up a lot of stuff in Chicago, so the advent of a "KEEP EARTH HUMAN" movement isn't exactly stunning.

Much of the anti-Transformer/pro-human propaganda certainly resembles what you might expect from anti-immigration hardliners. Here are a couple posters from the website:

Transformers: Age of Extinction
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

And here's a fake PSA on the "fall of Chicago":

So will this dose of mindless, robots-battling-robots summer fun also double as Michael Bay's impassioned cry for immigration reform? Dunno. We'll have to wait until the end of June to find out. In the meantime, here's a trailer for the upcoming Transformers flick:

Here's actress/comedian Mindy Kaling speaking at this year's Harvard Law School Class Day on Wednesday:

With this diploma in hand, most of you will go on to the noblest of pursuits, like helping a cable company acquire a telecom company. You will defend BP from birds. You will spend hours arguing that the well water was contaminated well before the fracking occurred. One of you will sort out the details of my prenup. A dozen of you will help me with my acrimonious divorce.  And one of you will fall in love in the process.

Later, on a more serious note, Kaling urged graduates to "please just try to be the kind of people [who] give advice to celebrities, not the other way around." She continued: "You are entering a profession where no matter how bad the crime, or the criminal, you have to defend the alleged perpetrator. That's incredible to me."

You can check out other highlights from her speech here, and you should watch the whole thing above.

The various faces of Juliet Starling, the protagonist of Lollipop Chainsaw.

Hollywood movies, television, and video games are meant to entertain and transport us outside of our narrow realities, but what if our favorite escapes are perpetuating damaging stereotypes? In her video series, Feminist Frequency—which has garnered her some extreme hateful backlash—pop-culture critic Anita Sarkeesian tackles unflattering portrayals of women in media. You may recognize some of the following tropes. Quotes are from Sarkeesian.

1. The Damsel in Distress

A female character who is "placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must then be rescued by a male character." Examples: Zelda in The Legend of Zelda, Princess Peach in Super Mario Bros: The Great Mission to Save Princess Peach, Krystal in Star Fox Adventures for Gamecube.

2. The Ms. Male Character

"The female version of an already established or default male character," usually identified by long eyelashes, lipstick, hair ribbons, heels, or the color pink. Examples: Ms. Pac-Man, Amy Rose from Sonic the Hedgehog, Minnie Mouse, Peb and Pab from Bubble Bobble, and the pink boulder from Giant Boulder of Death.

3. Women in Refrigerators

A female character's rape, murder, or victimization is the impetus "to move the male character's story arc forward." Examples: The Green Lantern, whose protagonist finds his girlfriend's body in a fridge; the Max Payne games, wherein Max seeks revenge for his murdered wife and child; and Braveheart, whose Scottish protagonist (Mel Gibson) launches a revolution after the king executes his wife.

4. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

A bubbly, childlike muse who exists to help the troubled male protagonist escape "doom and gloom". Examples: Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer, Natalie Portman in Garden State.

5. The Evil Demon Seductress

"A supernatural creature, usually a demon, robot, alien, or vampire, most often disguised as a sexy human female." Examples: Isabel Lucas in Transformers 3, Laura Harris in The Faculty, Natasha Henstridge in Species, Poison Ivy in the Batman series, the fembots in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

6. The Straw Feminist

"A deliberately created, exaggerated characterization of a feminist that is used to undermine and ridicule the feminist movement." Examples: The villains in the last season of Veronica Mars, Marcy Darcy in Married with Children, Phil and Lil's mother in The Rugrats, Femme Fatale in The Powerpuff Girls.

7. The Mystical Pregnancy

A female character is impregnated by supernatural reproductive technology. Examples: Skully in The X-files, Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica, Deanna Troy from Star Trek, the Next Generation (who is impregnated by a ball of space energy).

8. Women as Decoration

"Female bodies exploited to infuse gritty or racy texture into game-worlds…These virtual women are often programmed as minimally interactive sex objects to be used and abused by the player." Examples: Popular franchises like Hitman, Need for Speed, Assassin's Creed, and Grand Theft Auto.

8. Women as Reward

Wherein the successful game player is rewarded for accomplishments with "unlockable hyper-sexualized costumes for female characters" or racy "cinematics and/or hidden items or artwork." Examples: Especially prevalent in combat-heavy series' like Dead or Alive, Tekken, and Soul Calibur.

9. The Fighting Fuck Toy

This "hyper-sexualized, hyper-violent female character presents the illusion of female empowerment but is designed as a sexual fantasy." Examples: Tomb Raider's Lara Croft, Juliet Starling from Lollipop Chainsaw, and the title character in the game Bayonetta.

Click here to read our chat with Sarkeesian.

You just watched a video of four-year-old Whisper, the world's first wingsuit-clad, BASE jumping dog. She was strapped to her owner—Adidas-sponsored, Santa Barbara-based free climber and BASE jumper Dean Potter—when she took a dive from a 13,000-foot mountain peak in the Swiss Alps. The footage was captured with a GoPro camera. The YouTube video, posted on Tuesday, currently has more than 450,000 views and has received enthusiastic coverage from USA Today, the Daily Beast, Glenn Beck's TheBlaze, The Today Show, and BuzzFeed, among other outlets. "So it looks like Whipser lives her life by the YOLO philosophy," Mashable reported.

"I got Whisper when she was a little puppy and I hated leaving her at home, because I would go on these six-to-eight-hour hikes—I would BASE jump every day, and I'd have to leave her behind," Potter tells Mother Jones. To solve this problem (at least for one jump), Potter got to work on a special backpack to safely hold Whisper on his back. "It took three times, and the first two prototypes, we didn't even get out of the shop," he says. "And we finally got it on the third try. We did some test runs with her favorite stuffed animal, her lion toy…And just to make sure she was okay with speed, I rode around with her on my bicycle and motorcycle, cruising at about 80 miles an hour…So I knew she liked speed."

The short video is sneak peek at When Dogs Fly, a 22-minute film starring Potter, his girlfriend Jen Rapp, and Whisper. (Potter and Rapp produced, and Potter directed.) According to Potter, various networks, including National Geographic Channel, Discovery, HBO, and CNN, have shown interest in purchasing and airing it.

The video has also provoked criticism from those who see Whisper's BASE jumping as animal abuse. "Although both the dog and owner land safely, being strapped to a person's back and dropped by parachute is likely to be a cause of significant stress and fear for the dog," a spokesperson for Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said, for instance.

Potter insists that he and Rapp had already taken this into consideration: "BASE jumping is dangerous, and it made me and Jen think a lot about whether we were doing the right thing," he says. "We're not stupid people, and we questioned if what we were doing was the right thing to do, just like any parent would."

Potter wrote in a recent blog post:

I want you all to know that I do not force Whisper to do anything she doesn't want to do. When we wake up in the morning, if Whisper wants to stay at home or camp, she is free to do so…Last summer when I was wingsuit BASE-jumping with Whisper she never once didn't want to come along. In fact, whenever I put on my wingsuit or pack my parachute, little Whisper nestles close and begs to come along.

In no way do I want others to try to emulate what I do with Whisper without proper knowledge and training!

So what's next for Potter? Along with selling When Dogs Fly, he says he is currently working with NASA scientists, finding new ways to trick out his wingsuit. "One of the fundamental dreams man has ever had is to truly fly the human body, so that's my biggest fascination right now," he says.

Now here are a couple pics of Whisper, courtesy of Potter's Instagram account:

Yesterday, as the sun was setting, hundreds of University of California-Santa Barbara students hopped on surfboards and inflatable rafts and paddled out into the Pacific to pay tribute to the six victims killed in last Friday night's Isla Vista rampage.

If you've lived in or around surfing communities, you might be familiar with the traditional "paddle out" memorial: mourners hold hands in a wide ring, and throw flowers into the water to commemorate a departed member of the community. This one—drenched in Californian sun and accompanied by Israel Kamakawiwo╩╗ole's haunting cover of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"—is sure to leave a lasting mark on your day, as it did mine.

LeVar Burton wants to revive his acclaimed educational show Reading Rainbow, and has started a Kickstarter campaign to do it. The 57-year-old actor and his team are looking to raise $1 million to launch an online version of the series, which originally aired on PBS from 1983 to 2006.

But here's the really cool part (via TheWrap):

Burton's "Reading Rainbow" campaign will create a new version of the show available to any child with access to the internet.

He also plans on offering a "classroom version" of the program for teachers and is spearheading a not-for-profit that will give copies of "Reading Rainbow" away to low-income schools for free. The campaign offers various rewards for donating, including potentially getting to wear his famous "Star Trek" visor.

"So lets do it this, y'all," Burton said. "Together we can create and deliver a proven tool for encouraging the love of reading to millions of children. We can genuinely change the world, one children's book at a time."

As of writing this, the campaign has 14,367 backers, and $652,622 has been pledged. There are 34 days left in the crowdfunding campaign.

"I believe that every child has a right, and a need, to be literate," Burton's Kickstarter page reads. "We have a responsibility to prepare our children… and right now, the numbers show that we, as a society, are failing in that responsibility."

Watch the Kickstarter video here:

(H/t Jeb Lund)

Around the world, the surprising thing is not who drinks alcohol, but what they make it from. In Central Asia, fermented horse milk has been a drink of choice for centuries. In Middle Ages Scotland, the local brew was aptly dubbed usquebaugh ("water of life"), before migrating south and becoming the whisky we know today. The art and alchemy of booze-making may vary considerably from place to place, but the underlying principles are universal. Out this week, Proof: The Science of Booze, by Wired Articles Editor Adam Rogers, is a brisk dive into the history and geekery of our favorite social lubricant. It gets under the cap and between the molecules to show what makes our favorite firewaters so irresistible and hard to replicate. I met with Rogers at 15 Romolo, an unassuming and dimly lit bar in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, to talk about how the stuff is made, and how a good stiff drink often doubles as a miracle of human ingenuity.

Mother Jones: What's that you're drinking?

Adam Rogers: It's called a Corpse Reviver #1. It has Calvados, a French-style apple brandy; armagnac, a wine-based brandy—you can make brandy anywhere but you can only make armagnac in Armagnac in the South of France—Carpano Antica, a very good vermouth; and orange bitters. Corpse revivers are a pick-me-up, developed for hangovers. There used to be a ton of these; now we don't drink very many of them. In the book I talk about the "bloody family"— bloody Mary; bloody Maria (with tequila); Caesar, which is a bloody Mary without the tomato juice; and a mimosa, I guess. It used to be, pre-prohibition and during prohibition, you were basically drunk all the time if you had the money. You'd cure the hangover by having another drink, and go to work.

There's a lot of novelty-seeking in my chase for drinks. I'll say to the bartender, "Give me the weirdest one you have," just to see what it is. Distilling is such a strange and arcane art, still. Not quite a science yet, but when someone's making something weird, I like to know about it.

MJ: Is there a secret to ordering a really good drink?

AR: Dave Arnold, who runs Booker and Dax in New York City, is an alchemist, one of the only bartenders I've met who's trying to do the science on mixed drinks as opposed to just making stuff. He told me this story: It used to be that when you went into a restaurant, there was no menu. The chef was just expected to make an array of stuff. I've actually been to a restaurant where they did this, an Italian place. "We got chicken, we got veal, we got short ribs. We could do a picatta, we could do a marinara." And you're kinda like, "Really? I don't know. Don't just make me imagine some dish."

But we still expect that from bars. We expect the bartender to make any of maybe 25 drinks. Sometimes we'll even play stump-the-bartender, like, "I will have a whatever" and the bartender says, "I don't know how to make that," and you look it up on your phone and you're like, "Make that."

Arnold said, "Don't do that! You wanna know what the chef's expertise is, and what the chef found at the farmer's market that morning, and what the chef thinks he or she can make. In the same way, if you go to a bar that's a considered bar, you wanna know what the bartender thinks he or she can make." So I've now started to order off the menu. This is a great bar because it has great ingredients, the bartender knows what he's doing, he's mixing them out to measurement, not just pouring a shot. There's fresh food on the bar. This is the kind of bar that went away for 100 years. Now you can find at least one in almost any city. The bartender is trying stuff, either because they've read it one of the old canonic texts or because they met another bartender who's making it, or they randomly started themselves. That's really new.

MJ: This kind of applies to beer as well. Was this how things used to be?

"St. George, they have a 'fist.' You taste something from St. George... you get the soul of the person making it."

AR: It used to be all regional beers, more like the British model where your town had a beer. Then that went away, and things turned into the Anheuser-Busch's of the world. Then, 20 years ago, when that got sort of reified, you could go anywhere and get the local. It's not always great, but it is always interesting. Now you can do the same thing with a distilled spirit.

MJ: One distillery featured prominently in the book is St. George Spirits in Alameda, California. What makes it special?

AR: A couple reasons. The formal one is that Jörg Rupf founded it as one of the first small distilleries in the country. At places like St. George and Clear Creek in Portland and Germain-Robin [in Ukiah, California], people were trying to create or re-create versions of what they saw in Europe in a small scale distillery. Clear Creek is the only place I've ever been where the distiller, Steve McCarthy [since retired], kept a cabinet of all of his influence distillates. He was like, "This is what I'm trying to recapture." They wanted to make something and they had a drive for it, and it took 20 years for others to catch up. There were no academic programs in the United States to teach people how to do it. You had to do it at home, and it was illegal. You could get into microbrewing and become a brewer, but becoming a home distiller was a lot harder.

From the early days of the telegraph, to be a telegrapher was a job, and there weren't many of those folks. They could recognize each other's style by their dots and dashes. They called that the "fist." St. George, they have a fist. You taste something from St. George, even across categories—the gin, the whisky—it tastes like something from St. George. It's the same as going to a great bar: You get the soul of the person making it.

MJ: Is this craft distillery renaissance going to continue?

AR: Probably the laws have to change. I suspect states are going to realize there's money to be made, and they'll start to change those laws so people can distil to sell. It happened with wine, it happened with beer.

MJ: Speaking of regions and laws, when the EU says champagne has to come from Champagne, or we say bourbon is only bourbon when it comes from Kentucky, is that bullshit, or does it actually matter where you make a beverage?

AR: The appellation controls are interesting because they create artificial scarcity, which can be good—a certain sociological terroir. Could you make this somewhere else? Yeah. But it's real in some metaphysical sense if it's made in a certain way and it comes from a place. I'm half into that.

There are stylistic things. In Champagne, the method you have to use has some quirks that are different than if you were making big, industrial sparkling wine. But I love prosecco. You can like these things in different ways.

Tequila is a controlled beverage [made in Mexico's Jalisco state]. I would say that's a category of spirit that's trying to make itself into something a little high-end, saying, "Here's the distillery that made us, here's the style." It's the same thing that single-malt whisky did. But if you don't get it from that region, you're getting a muscat, or a pechugo, or some weird agave distillate. They can be delicious and super strange.

You know what's a great bourbon? Wild Turkey. Those guys make an ocean every year. It's an industrial chemical processing plant designed to turn corn and other grain into brown liquid with alcohol in it. It's delicious.

"You know what's a great bourbon? Wild Turkey. Those guys make an ocean every year. It's delicious."

A fernet is an amaro, an herbal digestif. The only place anyone drinks these things is in San Francisco and Argentina. But Leopold Brothers in Colorado makes a fernet, and it doesn't take like the Eastern European fernet or other fernets. It tastes like his, but it tastes like fernet. That's just a guy who was interested in making some.

Another example is single-malt whiskeys out of Japan. A few years ago I went to a whisky store in San Francisco, and I was bemoaning the fact that I didn't have $150 to spend on a bottle. We looked at the Yamazaki 18-year-old. I said, "You know, it's delicious, but it feels very precise. I know that sounds racist, but it feels like it hits every note you would want out of a whisky, but it's actually composed to 105 percent." And the guy who worked there, who was in a kilt because it's that kind of store, looks at me and says, "You're crazy. It's delicious."

MJ: In the book, you write about the first known example of an intentionally fermented substance. It was found in Jiahu, China, in a clay pot, and dated to 100 AD. 

AR: There's something about when humanity goes from hoping they get lucky in finding something fermented to doing it on purpose. They don't understand what they've done until the late 1800s, but they know if they combine things in a certain way, they'll get something magic. They know it makes them feel good. They don't know why. It's a moment when humanity goes, "Wait one goddamn minute. There's a way we can do this that it doesn't work, and there's a way we can do it where it does, so how does that work?" And as soon as you're asking yourself that, you've become a scientist. That's what happened in Jiahu.

This is sort of the thesis of the book, that our relationship with alcohol is a hologram for how human beings relate to the natural world. When you get to that level of brown liquor—an age distillate of a fermented thing, grain that we learned how to plant and make grow—it is in some ways the best expression of what humans are able to do. Nobody else can make that! [Takes a sip.] And it's delicious.

In response to the mass shooting that took place near the University of California, Santa Barbara, on Friday night, Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday wrote that the killer's YouTube manifesto was a "sad reflection of the sexist stories we so often see on screen." While pointing to a broader "sexist movie monoculture" that can be "toxic for women and men alike," Hornaday specifically highlights Neighbors—a recently released, critically acclaimed comedy starring Seth Rogen—and Judd Apatow movies:

How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like "Neighbors" and feel, as [the shooter Elliot] Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of "sex and fun and pleasure"? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, "It's not fair"?

Movies may not reflect reality, but they powerfully condition what we desire, expect and feel we deserve from it. The myths that movies have been selling us become even more palpable at a time when spectators become their own auteurs and stars on YouTube, Instagram and Vine. If our cinematic grammar is one of violence, sexual conquest and macho swagger — thanks to male studio executives who green-light projects according to their own pathetic predilections — no one should be surprised when those impulses take luridly literal form in the culture at large.

Part of what makes cinema so potent is the way even its most outlandish characters and narratives burrow into and fuse with our own stories and identities. When the dominant medium of our age — both as art form and industrial practice — is in the hands of one gender, what may start out as harmless escapist fantasies can, through repetition and amplification, become distortions and dangerous lies.

Hornaday goes on to discuss the important issue of the state of women in Hollywood. But her Apatow and Rogen-related commentary is what caught the very public attention of, well, Apatow and Rogen.

Here's Rogen, responding on Twitter on Monday:



Apatow weighed in more heavily, and shared his thoughts on how he believes American media outlets profit from mass murder:





Hornaday did not immediately respond to Mother Jones' request for comment.

UPDATE, May 27, 2014, 3:04 p.m. EST: Hornaday responded to Rogen, Apatow, and her other critics in the following Washington Post video:

Hank Williams
The Garden Spot Recordings, 1950

For someone who passed away in 1953, country-music giant Hank Williams has been awfully productive recently. In 2011, a massive 15-CD set of his radio recordings for Mother's Best Flour expanded the canon in a major way. Now, here’s a single-disc collection of four radio shows sponsored by Naughton Farms plant nurseries, and it's a delight. Along with Williams classics like "Lovesick Blues," "Wedding Bells" and "Mind Your Own Business," The Garden Spot Recordings, 1950 also features lesser-known gems such as "I'll Be a Bachelor 'Til I Die" and "I Don't Care (If Tomorrow Never Comes)." Add a dash of folksy chatter, a consistently hot band, and amazingly good sound given that the source material is ancient transcription discs, and the result is a must for fans of the "Hillbilly Shakespeare."