• The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Tall Poppies: Tasmanian opiates’, March 2015

    A story for the March 7 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    Tall Poppies

    It supplies up to half the world’s legal opiates, but Tasmania’s poppy industry sees danger ahead.

     The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Tall Poppies: Tasmanian opiates' by Andrew McMillen, March 2015

    Perched in a corner of Keith Rice’s office, atop a cupboard and behind a bright yellow hard-hat, sits an old white sign that warns of grave peril.DANGER. Prohibited area. KEEP OUT. Trespassers ­prosecuted.

    In front of it, an updated version includes a skull-and-crossbones captioned POISON. In bold red text, the bottom of the new sign reads: ILLEGAL use of crop has caused DEATH. This recent shift in tense — “may cause” to “has caused” — came after three deaths from poppy misuse in the last three years here in Tasmania. Clearly, something had to change, beginning with the signage that borders roadside poppy crops.

    Rice, chief executive of Poppy Growers ­Tasmania, keeps glancing at the sign as we chat over coffee on a cool Launceston morning. A tall 66-year-old with tanned features and thinning white hair, he’s talking me through the complex web of politics, painkillers and, more recently, protectionism in which he has been involved for nearly 30 years.

    Above Rice’s desk hangs a wall calendar ­bearing a colour photograph of green countryside flanked by snowy mountaintops, as well as the name of Tasmanian Alkaloids, one of two pharmaceutical companies to have invested heavily in the poppy industry. It has been a big earner for the state, which grows up to 50 per cent of the planet’s legal ­opiates — from which morphine, codeine and thebaine can be extracted — that relieve the pain of humans throughout the world in the form of medicines such as OxyContin and Nurofen Plus. The warning signs are required by law to be displayed on all ­roadside paddocks to deter would-be drug experimenters from picking poppy heads and brewing the ill-gotten plants into a tea. “It’s a dangerous crop because you don’t know the alkaloid content,” says Rice. “Thebaine is like strychnine in your system.”

    Tasmania produces around 90 per cent of the world’s thebaine, which causes convulsions in humans at high doses. In the past two decades thebaine production has eclipsed the old fav­ourite, morphine. A more effective painkiller, ­thebaine is also much more dangerous, as two Danish backpackers found last February after stealing 40 poppy heads from a farm near ­Oatlands, in the centre of the state. The pair brewed the plant into a tea; one of the drinkers, a 26-year-old male, fell asleep and never awoke. In November 2012, morphine toxicity also killed a 17-year-old who stole five kilograms of poppy capsules from a farm at Lewisham, near Hobart, and consumed a poppy tea. In February 2011, a 50-year old man died in similar circumstances in the Launceston suburb of Ravenswood.

    Tasmania’s $100 million dollar poppy ­industry is hidden in plain sight: drive north from Hobart towards Launceston in the ­summer and rolling fields of white, pink and purple flowers dot the landscape. At its peak a few years ago, 30,000ha of poppies were planted in a season; that number is now closer to 20,000ha per year due to a dip in world demand following changes in US prescription policies arising from drug abuse.

    The pharmaceutical companies who pay farmers to grow their products have a long ­history on the island, but mainland state ­governments have been paying attention to the economic consistency of Tasmania’s poppy crop, too. Last September, then federal health minister Peter Dutton wrote to his state and ­territory counterparts asking them to revise a 43-year-old agreement that has restricted poppy production to the island. Soon after, legislation was passed in Victoria and the Northern ­Territory that allowed the narcotics to be grown under strict licensing conditions following small-scale commercial trials during the 2013-14 season.

    It’s a worrying development for Tasmanian farmers who for more than four decades had cornered a secure and lucrative market. The path of Tasmania’s poppy industry so far has been one of prosperity and productivity, with the occasional pothole when misuse of the crop has caused death, or when heavy rains have ruined crops or a mildew outbreak occurs, as it did last November. The great unknown is how big a pothole the mainland expansion will be in the state’s proud history of painkiller production.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

  • Backchannel story: ‘How I Snuck Through Wikipedia’s Notability Test’, March 2015

    A story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    How I Snuck Through Wikipedia’s Notability Test

    I’m not famous. But judging by my expansive Wikipedia entry, I’m a star!

    Backchannel story: 'How I Snuck Through Wikipedia's Notability Test' by Andrew McMillen, March 2015

    The English-language edition of Wikipedia is composed of 4,735,036 articles at the time I write this sentence. One of those articles is a ridiculously detailed biographical summary of my career as a journalist and author. At 1,905 words in length, excluding references, it is shorter than the entries onThe Simpsons’ family dog, Santa’s Little Helper (2,908 words), spontaneous human combustion (2,347), the internet meme Rickrolling (2,307) and Barack Obama (10,302).

    The article in my name is longer, however, than the ones devoted to the Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand (1,880), The Simpsons character Barney Gumble (1,848), screenwriter and director Lena Dunham (1,480) or stand-up comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan (1,029).

    I’m not well-known by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not that journalists get some kind of special treatment on Wikipedia, either. Take Jon Ronson, a journalist who is two decades and several global bestsellers ahead of me. Casual readers of nonfiction may know him as the author of The Men Who Stare At Goats and The Psychopath Test. His latest title is So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, an excerpt of which appeared in The New York Times Magazine in February 2015.

    In a 2012 story he wrote for GQ on income inequality, Ronson, 47, declared his annual income to be in the range of $250,000, a figure that I can assure you is much greater than my own. He also co-wrote the screenplay for a 2014 feature film, Frank, starring Michael Fassbender. Yet by some strange quirk of the web, the Wikipedia summary of Ronson’s remarkable career is 1,223 words in length—precisely 682 words shorter than my article.

    The story of how my entry came to be reveals the quirks of Wikipedia’s process for determining what to keep, and what to jettison, on the encyclopedia’s servers. There’s a name for this: the ‘notability test.’ I had the rare opportunity to observe this process up close, in real time.

    As a frequent Wikipedia reader, I had long wondered about the people who studiously edit its content, writing paragraphs, creating links, sourcing citations and tweaking code behind the scenes to keep it running smoothly. As a professional writer, I’ve been particularly intrigued by the unpaid nature of this work, as I abhor the notion of writing for free.

    I wanted to know what compels a person to create—from scratch—an article on some esoteric subject, landmark or person. I needed a case study. Purely by chance, that esoteric subject turned out to be none other than me.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

    Note: since the publication of this story in March 2015, the ‘Andrew McMillen‘ article on Wikipedia has been trimmed considerably, having survived a deletion debate.

  • The Monthly story: ‘Dogs On The Inside’, March 2015

    A story for the March 2015 issue of The Monthly. An excerpt appears below.

    Dogs On The Inside

    The BARK program at Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre sees prisoners taking care of dogs

    The Monthly story: 'Dogs On The Inside' by Andrew McMillen, March 2015. Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

    A handful of inmates are gathered in the library of the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre in Wacol, 20 kilometres south-west of Brisbane. The centre of attention is Kia, a boisterous young Staffordshire bull terrier. As the dark-brown dog does laps of the group, sniffing at thong-shod feet, gratefully receiving rough pats and gulping water from a plastic bowl on the carpet, the four men follow her with their eyes.

    “There’s a lot of bravado in here,” says Ricky, a muscular, tattooed man with a shaved head. “When we have a dog, it tones the unit down. To pat a dog, you’ve gotta soften your heart. You can’t be looking tough when you go, ‘Hello, good girl! Why’s your tail like that for?’” His voice rises an octave as he addresses this last part to Kia and forcefully pats her flank. The dog looks up at him, confused.

    “It’s good responsibility for us as well,” says the big, bearded Alex. “Cleaning up after poo and wee, picking up rubbish lying around. People throwing stuff in the unit – you’ve gotta stop that when there’s an animal around.” On the outside, Alex bred Shar Peis, a breed known for their wrinkled features. In here, his favourite is Pippy, a fluffy, white Maltese aged three. “She’s lovely all round.” He grins at the anxious animal as she’s led into the room on a leash, warily eyeing off Kia. “She’s perfect.”

    Pippy was donated to RSPCA Queensland through the Pets in Crisis program, indicating that she and her owner were fleeing domestic violence. Since early 2013, the RSPCA’s Wacol campus has teamed up with staff and inmates at Arthur Gorrie to run the Bars and Rehabilitation Kanine (BARK) program. During that time, 54 abandoned or surrendered dogs, some with behavioural or medical problems, have been placed in prison units of up to 70 men, who act as foster carers for the animals until they’re adopted in the community or can be returned to their owners. A similar program at the nearby Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre partners cats with female inmates.

    In the prison library, Ricky is the only one not wearing a uniform of green shirt and shorts; a red shirt denotes his role as a mentor for inmates struggling to adapt to their new environment. “There’s a lot of mental illness in here, believe me,” he says. “And most of us guys have trust issues.” He raises his hand. “I, for one. This program does help instil that little bit of trust again. It may be with an animal, but it’s a start.”

    To read the full story, visit The Monthly. Above illustration credit: Jeff Fisher.

  • BuzzFeed story: ‘Come Not Fly With Me: Planespotting’, February 2015

    A feature story for BuzzFeed; excerpt below.

    Things Are Looking Up For Planespotters, The World’s Most Obsessive Aviation Geeks

    Nearly 8 million people have watched a single YouTube video of airplanes taking off and landing. Welcome to the world of planespotters — or “jetrosexuals,” or “cloud bunnies” — air travel’s biggest fans.

    BuzzFeed story: 'Come Not Fly With Me: Planespotting' by Andrew McMillen, February 2015

    “We couldn’t give a fuck about Obama,” Luke Amundsen says as he stares through a car windshield toward a taxiing Qantas jet. “We just want to take photos of his airplane.”

    It’s a horribly windy Friday morning in mid-July at Brisbane Airport, situated 10 miles northeast from the third biggest city in Australia. Amundsen and Simon Coates are sitting in the cabin of a silver Holden Commodore while commercial aircraft alternately take off and touch down. “If there was a private jet due in, we’d come out here just for that,” says Coates. “We don’t care who’s on it — we just want the jet.”

    He switches on a dashboard radio unit, which picks up staccato blasts of aviation jargon from the nearby control tower. “…Qantas 950 two-five-zero degrees, three-zero knots — cleared to land,” says a calm male voice. Amundsen exhales, impressed. “Three-zero knots!” he says. “That’s a decent wind.”

    Amundsen is a tall 28-year-old, with facial stubble and short, spiked brown hair. He’s the more enthusiastic of the pair. Coates, also 28, plays it much cooler: His eyes are hidden behind sunglasses, and his responses are more measured. He maintains the Brisbane Airport Movements blog, while Amundsen helps run a Facebook page, Brisbane Aircraft Spotting, which has around 6,000 fans. Together, the two have also invested tens of thousands of dollars and a year of their lives in the development of a new website, Global Aircraft Images, which seeks to challenge established spotter-friendly communities such as Airliners.net and Planespotters.net.

    While we sit facing the tarmac — the second busiest single airport runway in the world, after London’s Gatwick — a news van glides past. “They must be out here for the Malaysian thing,” says Coates, before turning to me. “Did you hear about the Malaysian that went down?” It’s July 18, 2014, the day that news breaks of MH17’s wreckage being scattered across the Ukrainian countryside. Amundsen reveals that he has flown on that destroyed Malaysia Airlines plane, while Coates has flown on MH370, the one that went missing in March. They know this because they both keep records of every flight they’ve ever taken.

    “We’re pretty serious about it,” Amundsen continues. “At home, Simon and I have got ADS-B receivers; with those, on our computer screens at home, we can virtually see exactly what the air traffic controllers can see. If something unusual pops up on our radar screen, that’ll usually give us half an hour to get out here and catch it.” (Neither of them can recall what ADS-B stands for, so Coates googles it: Automatic Dependent Surveillance — Broadcast.) A plane-tracking website named FlightRadar24 feeds off these receivers. Coates opens the app on his phone, which shows a bunch of tiny yellow icons overlaid on a map. “You can see all the planes buzzing around,” he says.

    “This app runs off people’s home feeds,” Admundsen explains.

    We meet at what’s known as “The Loop” — one end of Acacia Street, which borders Brisbane Airport and offers the best runway-side sight lines for spotters, including a raised concrete viewing platform. At age 15, Amundsen began learning to fly at flight school; a year later, he was flying a skydiving plane for fun and profit, and by 19 he had obtained his commercial pilot license. He has clocked over 3,000 hours in the cockpits of airplanes and helicopters. Coates is employed by the Qantas Group too, as a ground handling agent here at Brisbane Airport — a job that, he says with a smile, involves “passenger marshaling, boarding flights, standing out on the apron, getting high on aviation fuel every day.” He jokes that he has logged over 800 “backseat hours” on commercial flights.

    Through the windshield, we watch a red-tailed Boeing 747 take off. “See, there we go, he’s off to Singapore,” says Amundsen, pointing. “He’s up nice and early.”

    “Very early variation,” says Coates, admiring the steep ascent.

    “That’s, like, a QF8 rotation. He’s got awesome headwind. The wind’s coming from the south, and going over the wing.”

    They know the Qantas jet is heading to Singapore because it ascended so sharply. “There’s two [Qantas] 747s,” says Amundsen. “One goes to L.A., one goes to Singapore. The L.A. one goes out a hell of a lot heavier; it would have over 100 tons of fuel on board. That would only have about 60,” he says, pointing again at the now-distant aircraft, growing smaller by the second.

    Amundsen knows these routes and schedules particularly well, as he lives nearby. “If I could live closer, I would,” he says. “I can be lying in bed at midnight and hear the Emirates 777 come over, and know exactly what it is, straightaway. I don’t even have to look up.”

    Amundsen’s comment about the presidential plane arises as the pair discuss the upcoming G20 summit in November. These two will be among the crowd attempting to gather somewhere near this airport, cameras in hand, searching the skies for Air Force One in the hope of capturing a once-in-a-lifetime event: the president of the United States of America landing at their home airport. An intense Australian Federal Police presence surrounding the miles of wire fences day and night for the duration of the summit mean that shooting Air Force One is an unlikely event indeed. But still, the possibility is there.

    And possibility is what drives planespotters — otherwise known as “jetrosexuals,” “aerosexuals,” and “cloud bunnies” — a niche group of obsessives whose intense interest in flight paths, travel schedules, and colorful jet livery occasionally overlaps with the concerns of the general population.

    To read the full story, visit BuzzFeed.

  • The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘Clarke & Dawe: In The Line of Satire’, February 2015

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Review that appeared on the cover of the February 14 2015 issue. An excerpt appears below.

    Clarke & Dawe: In The Line of Satire

    Andrew McMillen delves into Clarke & Dawe, the sharpest two-and-a-half minutes on television.

    The Weekend Australian Review story: 'Clarke & Dawe: In The Line of Satire' by Andrew McMillen, February 2015. Photo credit: Luis Enrique Ascui

    On a Wednesday morning in mid-November, a man picks up that day’s edition of The Age from a neighbouring table in a cafe in Melbourne’s Fitzroy. He skims the headlines and sips a flat white between turning the pages. What is he looking for? “Something I haven’t seen before,” he says. The 66-year-old is a picture of unhurried composure. To outward appearances, he’s an inner-city retiree happily fulfilling a daily routine of caffeine consumed alongside current affairs. On closer examination, however, this man is engaged in the serious, difficult business of turning news into satire, so that his work may make us laugh while also making us think.

    When a girl of about three pauses by his table after spilling sultanas on the floor, John Clarke looks up and greets her with a sonorous hello. The young girl is momentarily entranced by one of the most familiar faces on Australian television. She clocks his bald dome, the unkempt patch of white hair that circles behind his ears, the slight smile and the handsome black overcoat with matching slacks topped by a black bowler hat. Most of all, though, she’s drawn in by a pair of bright blue eyes that sparkle with a tangible sense of knowingness, as if their owner lives in a state of perpetual amusement at life itself.

    His task today is much the same as it has been for the past 25 years. Once a week, he writes and records a short television program that distils newsworthy issues into a satirical dialogue between two men: Bryan Dawe and himself. On camera, Clarke adopts the guise of a public figure in name alone. Dawe queries his guest in the public interest, while Clarke’s character — anyone from the prime minister or a premier, down to a lowly economic consultant — alternately answers and evades questions. The resulting two-and-a-half minute program, Clarke & Dawe, airs nationally at 6.57pm every Thursday, immediately before the ABC’s nightly news bulletin. More often than not, it is the among the week’s sharpest commentary on up-to-the-minute matters relating to Australian politics and public life.

    The Weekend Australian Review story: 'Clarke & Dawe: In The Line of Satire' by Andrew McMillen, February 2015Pages of The Age keep turning while mid-morning traffic streams by on Gertrude Street. On today’s agenda are several competing topics, which Clarke discusses casually while continuing to take in the newsprint. Throughout the week, he says, “I take notes subconsciously, but I don’t have a piece of paper.” This is how his writing days always begin: with a blank page, as it were, but not with a blank mind. “There’s been quite a lot of that in the media [with regard to the G20]. There are some very big things being discussed. That huge China trade deal, that was a nine-year job. The complexities in that must be colossal, and it’s a bit ridiculous to have it discussed at the level of ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’.”

    With this, Clarke smiles wryly, as he so often does when he knows he has delivered a funny line. “So there’s that,” he continues. “Domestic politics hasn’t much changed lately because they’ve still not got the budget through, and aspects of that have come apart in their hands a little bit. And then the global economy is always quite interesting, because when I was a kid you could not spend more than you had. Now you can spend whatever you like. Governments have started doing that in order to create what they call growth, which has not been an unalloyed success in parts of Europe” — the corners of his mouth curl upward — “because growth can just as easily go backwards as forwards.”

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

  • CNET story: ‘Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth’, February 2015

    A feature story for CNET; excerpt below.

    Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth

    We embed in the field and go behind the scenes of Google’s augmented reality game, Ingress. Is walking through the streets of hundreds of countries the future of gaming?

    CNET story: 'Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth' by Andrew McMillen, February 2015

    Eleven of us gather deep in the enemy heartland on a balmy Sunday evening to partake in Operation: Green Court. Meeting in secret, we are agents of the Enlightened, a faction which seeks to advance society through our actions. The enemy will be unaware of our presence until we begin attacking and capturing a long corridor of their prized portals, flipping them from blue to green while figuratively flipping them the bird. Our movements must be coordinated and efficient, as it won’t be long before we attract the attention of the Resistance, the opposing faction which fears change and seeks to crush our idealism and progress.

    In actuality, we are 10 adults and one child meeting on a street corner to bond over our smartphones — specifically, an app called Ingress, a free-to-play augmented reality game that has been downloaded over 8 million times and is being played in more than 200 countries.

    The massively multiplayer mobile game encourages its players to walk around the real world, using data overlaid atop Google Maps to attack and defend real-world public locations known as “portals”. Our common goal for this operation is to turn the suburb green — the colour of the Enlightened, and the colour of the shirt of Aladrin, the 39 year-old agent who arranged this operation via Google+ earlier in the week.

    Milton — an inner-city suburb of Brisbane, Australia — is usually coated in blue, thanks to the dedicated efforts of its Resistance population, many of whom work at nearby IT firms. Our own neighbourhood, just across the Brisbane River, is firmly green-held, but on this Sunday night we’ve set out to ruffle a few blue feathers. Owing to their team colour, Resistance players are commonly referred to as “Smurfs”. The Enlightened tend to self-identify as “frogs”.

    Among the eleven of us is Apocs85, a dedicated level 15 agent who is widely known and respected as the unofficial guardian of Brisbane’s West End. The 29-year-old loves his day job of testing video games, and his Ingress statistics show that he has walked 118 kilometres (73 miles) in the last week while defending and rebuilding portals throughout the inner-city.

    Niantic’s ‘success failure’

    In-game action is shown on our smartphone screens, which act as “scanners” to reveal the portals located all around us. They’re invisible to the naked eye, but with Ingress loaded on our Android or iOS devices, we’re able to see portals attached to structures, artwork, historic locations and buildings of cultural significance — train stations, public parks and post offices are three common examples.

    The portal locations are user-submitted and manually checked by staff at Niantic Labs, the game’s Google-owned developer, to ensure their accuracy and suitability. Globally, more than 3 million such locations have been approved so far, in numbers far greater than expected when the game was first released as a public beta version in November 2012.

    “At Google, we call that a ‘success failure’,” says Niantic Labs founder John Hanke with a chuckle. “It’s a failure because it’s so successful: lots of people submitted portals, which is great, but now it’s more than we can really handle to keep the response time down.”

    To read the full story, visit CNET.

  • The Weekend Australian album review, February 2015: Pearls

    A review published in The Weekend Australian in February 2015.

    Pearls – Pretend You’re Mine

    Pearls – 'Pretend You're Mine' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, February 2015The best moment of Pretend You’re Mine is a lead guitar break that appears towards the end of track seven, ‘Baby’. It’s an extraordinary 30-second passage that breaks the song wide open, changing keys while also providing crystal-clear context to what this Melbourne-based trio attempts to achieve on its debut album.

    Pearls trades in glam rock, according to publicity materials accrued since forming in 2011, yet that loaded term arrives with significant baggage attached and should be shelved in favour of keeping a few distinctive traits in mind: shared male-female vocals, uniformly sharp songwriting and a refined aesthetic best exemplified by the album cover, which features two-thirds of the band in soft focus beneath artful fonts.

    Pretend You’re Mine is a self-assured collection. The aforementioned ‘Baby’ is an instant classic pop song built around clattering percussion, lock-step guitars, lovestruck vocals and a few root keyboard chords that burble away, low in the mix. It’s breathtaking in its simplicity and efficacy and, like all great music, it belies the difficulties of the craft itself.

    Elsewhere, ‘Dirty Water’ is stalked by an unhinged, distorted lead guitar tone that’s indebted to a generation of shoegaze practitioners, and opener ‘Big Shot’ pivots on a strutting bassline and menacing gang vocals that mimic the guitar melody. It all ends with the propulsive title track, which slowly fades out and begs for the entire experience to be repeated. Debut albums as great as Pretend You’re Mine are rare; they deserve to be applauded and savoured.

  • Backchannel story: ‘Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome’, February 2015

    My first story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome

    One Man’s Quest to Rid Wikipedia of Exactly One Grammatical Mistake

    'Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome: One Man’s Quest to Rid Wikipedia of Exactly One Grammatical Mistake' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, February 2015

    On a Friday in July 2012, two employees of the Wikimedia Foundation gave a talk at Wikimania, their organization’s annual conference. Maryana Pinchuk and Steven Walling addressed a packed room as they answered a question that has likely popped into the minds of even the most casual users of Wikipedia: who the hell edits the site, and why do they do it?

    Pinchuk and Walling conducted hundreds of interviews to find out. They learned that many serious contributors have an independent streak and thrive off the opportunity to work on any topic they like. Other prolific editors highlight the encyclopedia’s huge global audience or say they derive satisfaction from feeling that their work is of use to someone, no matter how arcane their interests. Then Walling lands on a slide entitled, ‘perfectionism.’ The bespectacled young man pauses, frowning.

    “I feel sometimes that this motivation feels a little bit fuzzy, or a little bit negative in some ways… Like, one of my favorite Wikipedians of all time is this user called Giraffedata,” he says. “He has, like, 15,000 edits, and he’s done almost nothing except fix the incorrect use of ‘comprised of’ in articles.”

    A couple of audience members applaud loudly.

    “By hand, manually. No tools!” interjects Pinchuk, her green-painted fingernails fluttering as she gestures for emphasis.

    “It’s not a bot!” adds Walling. “It’s totally contextual in every article. He’s, like, my hero!”

    “If anybody knows him, get him to come to our office. We’ll give him a Barnstar in person,” says Pinchuk, referring to the coveted virtual medallion that Wikipedia editors award one another.

    Walling continues: “I don’t think he wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m gonna serve widows in Africa with the sum of all human knowledge.’” He begins shaking his hands in mock frustration. “He wakes up and says, ‘Those fuckers—they messed it up again!’”

    Giraffedata is something of a superstar among the tiny circle of people who closely monitor Wikipedia, one of the most popular websites in the English-speaking world. About 8 million English Wikipedia articles are visited every hour, yet only a tiny fraction of readers click the ‘edit’ button in the top right corner of every page. And only 30,000 or so people make at least five edits per month to the quickly growing site.

    Giraffedata—a 51-year-old software engineer named Bryan Henderson—is among the most prolific contributors, ranking in the top 1,000 most active editors. While some Wikipedia editors focus on adding content or vetting its accuracy, and others work to streamline the site’s grammar and style, generally few, if any, adopt Giraffedata’s approach to editing: an unrelenting, multi-year project to fix exactly one grammatical error.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘Something Quite Peculiar’ by Steve Kilbey, January 2015

    A book review for The Weekend Australian in January 2015, republished below in its entirety.

    Steve Kilbey’s rock memoir offers juicy details of The Church days

    'Something Quite Peculiar' by Steve Kilbey book cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, January 2015Steve Kilbey’s rock ’n’ roll memoir Something Quite Peculiar is a book best described using the adjective of its title, as the abrupt and unfulfilling closing chapters are completely out of sync with the generous story that comes before. What starts as an entertaining and informative autobiography by one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic musicians peters out and leaves the reader frustrated by what could have been.

    Surely this can’t have been a stylistic decision on the author’s part, as much of the 1980s, the most commercially successful period of Kilbey’s band The Church, are coloured in vivid ­detail and powered by strong narrative momentum. Rather the book’s incomplete nature suggests a writer up against a hard deadline. Fans are sure to be disappointed that the more recent years of Kilbey’s life flash by in too few pages.

    The positives of this book are many, most notably the author’s wry self-awareness and his ability to tell stories. From the opening pages it’s clear we’re in safe hands. Born in Hertfordshire, England, Kilbey was three when his family moved to Australia.

    They settled in Wollongong, where his ­father was a foreman and his mother worked in an insurance office. Their eldest son soon found a taste for attention-seeking — or, as he puts it, “an incredibly precocious pretentiousness was beginning to manifest in spades: an intrinsic desire to perform and be rewarded”.

    In early high school, in the Canberra suburb of Lyneham, he saw a live band for the first time at a school social and saw his future: “I felt implicitly that my place was up on the stage making the music, not down there dancing around.”

    Kilbey’s vast musical IQ thus began developing at age 16, when he opted for a bass guitar instead of its more popular six-string cousin, and began learning his favourite songs by ear. Soon he joined a popular local covers band named Saga. This plum gig earned him almost as much as his father was making, but more importantly Kilbey could play close to 1000 songs by the end of his 18-month tenure.

    These scenes from Kilbey’s youth are written in an easy, conversational style. Richly drawn and compelling, his story is buttressed by plenty of comic self-deprecation and wry foreshadowing for the international rock star he’d become.

    Over the years, much has been made in the music press of the fractious, fraught relationship between members of the Church, a band that has achieved much in its 34-year career and is still recording. Things didn’t begin well when Kilbey enlisted a former schoolyard bully to play drums in the band’s first incarnation. Nor, decades later, when the tedious nature of months-long world tours spent in close confines with the same handful of men would eventually lead to tantrums, sabotaged gigs and mid-tour walkouts.

    Kilbey identifies himself as the ultimate self-saboteur, however, when he tries heroin for the first time in 1991, at age 37, and subsequently loses the next 11 years of his life to addiction. Fittingly, these final chapters take a dark turn, and the frivolous, funny narrator is replaced by a man filled with pain and regret. “It’s quite an upheaval to write much of the story from here on in,” he notes on page 250. “It doesn’t come lightly or pleasantly like the earlier chapters: each memory fills me with shame and revulsion and sadness in differing amounts.”

    Fair enough. The book’s final 20 pages are some of its most interesting and insightful, devoted as they are to describing and analysing this period of Kilbey’s life. However, it’s a cop-out that the third-last paragraph in the book begins, “So I left Sweden in 2000 for a couple of years in America after having met an American girl on tour in 1999, and had another pair of twins.” What? It is bizarre that these seemingly key moments in his life are reduced to a flippant sentence in the closing pages. (We learn in the outro that Kilbey’s first pair of twin daughters, Elektra and Miranda, are musicians in a Swedish pop duo named Say Lou Lou — another interesting admission left way too late.)

    Perhaps cursory dismissals such as these are intended to highlight the egocentric and self-obsessed nature of the author, traits which Kilbey readily acknowledges. But the absence of any detail of his more recent years — besides a brief opening scene at the 2010 ARIA Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and a closing scene at a 2011 Sydney Opera House show — leaves a sour taste. For all the space devoted to discussing songwriting techniques, killer live shows and the importance of strong encores, what’s most peculiar of all is that this fascinating story ends on such a weak note.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    Something Quite Peculiar: Man of The Church. The Music. The Mayhem.
    By Steve Kilbey.
    Hardie Grant, 272pp, $29.95

    Further reading: an extract from my book Talking Smack featuring Steve Kilbey.

  • Australian Book Review: ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ by Bob Stanley, December 2014

    A piece for Australian Book Review published in December 2014, republished below in its entirety.

    Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley

    'Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop' book cover by Bob Stanley, reviewed in Australian Book Review by Andrew McMillen, December 2014It is difficult to imagine a more satisfying long-form narrative about pop music than Yeah Yeah Yeah. Although the book runs to almost 800 pages, British author Bob Stanley writes with such authority and infectious passion that the momentum never skips a beat. Beginning with the first British hit parade and the popularisation of the electric guitar, Stanley traces the arc through to modern forms such as dance and hip-hop while fulfilling the role of tour guide. He takes the reader through a museum of pop music, pausing before significant artefacts to offer erudite commentary, and encouraging the reader to don headphones and experience the sounds of each era.

    In the introduction, Stanley states his intention of drawing a straight line – ‘with the odd wiggle and personal diversion’ – from the birth of the seven-inch single to the recent decline of pop music as a physical thing. Stanley selects 1952 as the art form’s beginning, and charts its next fifty years through five parts and sixty-five distinct chapters, which intelligently group together artists, labels, scenes, and genres. Footnotes are included on almost every second page, a stylistic trait which the author never abuses; each aside and knowing reference contributes to the wider story being told. The purpose of Yeah Yeah Yeah is to tell pop’s story, and since the vast majority of the most influential pop acts began in either England or the United States, it is in these two engine rooms that much of the narrative is situated. Only a couple of Australia’s contributions are mentioned in passing, most notably AC/DC and The Saints, two seminal rock bands.

    From the outset, Stanley makes clear his unabashed enthusiasm for pop music. Covering five decades of human expression through sound would be a tedious and dreary task if the writer had not been fascinated by records since before he could walk. Fittingly, Stanley is unafraid to wear his own preferences on his sleeve; certainly, the presence or absence of particular artists can be attributed to the author’s tastes, but he never lowers himself into outright sneering élitism. When writing about American rock band Steely Dan, for example, he admits to trying hard to love the band as so many others do, before concluding, ‘I think, as with ninety per cent of jazz, I might like them a lot more one day.’ Regardless of his own response to musical genres, Stanley is willing to engage with the source material and to contextualise these artistic achievements on a grand scale.

    It takes considerable restraint on the reader’s part not to pause every few pages and seek out the music that Stanley writes about. Indeed, much of the fun of reading this excellent book is hearing chorus hooks and key changes play in your mind. We are lucky enough to be living in an age where most of the music discussed in Yeah Yeah Yeah can be heard on YouTube, if not a streaming service like Rdio or Spotify. This technological endpoint is flagged in his introduction, and, thankfully, our forty-nine-year-old narrator is not another Luddite trapped in the past, feebly shaking his fist at the demise of vinyl, cassettes, and compact discs. Stanley does not fetishise the physical product, as so many of his peers do; instead, it is clear throughout that the music itself is what’s important, rather than the medium of delivery.

    Stanley maintains a wry tone throughout Yeah Yeah Yeah, and never slips into navel-gazing academia. The book is all the stronger for this consistent voice. Personal anecdotes are frequent: midway through the book, after pointing out possibly his favourite lyric ever – ‘If I could get a job with that cool rockin’ band / you’d notice me with that red guitar in my hand,’ by British glam-rockers Wizzard – Stanley notes, ‘There it is. The entire pop myth in one couplet.’

    Soon after, in a chapter dedicated to country and western, Stanley points out ‘the most beautiful line in the whole pop canon’, which appears in ‘Wichita Lineman’ by Glen Campbell: ‘I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.’ It is a line, writes Stanley, ‘that makes me stop whatever I’m doing’. Moments like these enhance the book’s credibility. Another favourite example appears in a chapter concerning New York rock act the Velvet Underground. In one particular section on the track ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’, the band, Stanley writes, ‘had somehow created a noise so brand new that it tore a hole in pop’s natural state of progression, so sharp and freakish and heart-piercing that it makes me burst out laughing every time I hear it’.

    Importantly, the author is not just an excitable tour guide but a practitioner, too. In 1990, Bob Stanley founded a pop group named Saint Etienne. While he is modest enough to leave his own musical contributions out of the book’s main narrative, his understanding of songwriting mechanics, tricks, and techniques is on constant display. While Saint Etienne’s contribution to pop is admirable, and not easily forgotten, Stanley’s written work will last even longer. The book’s subtitle is ambitious, yet there can be no doubt that, with Yeah Yeah Yeah, the author has achieved his storytelling goal.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop
    by Bob Stanley
    Faber, $39.95 pb, 776 pp, 9780571281978