All posts in Published Writing

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Mind The Gap: Training Queensland Rail train drivers’, November 2017

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the November 11-12 issue. Excerpt below.

    Mind The Gap

    It took a “rail fail” to realise the network needed more train drivers. So what does it take to be one?

    'Mind The Gap: Training Queensland Rail train drivers' story by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian Magazine, November 2017. Photo by Justine Walpole

    The passenger train slows as it approaches Grovely Station, 11 stops north of Brisbane Central, on a lovely winter’s Friday. At precisely 10.10am it comes to a stop and a bloke alights, pulls out a can of bourbon and cola and takes a swig as he passes the train driver’s cabin, occupied by tutor Chris Haag and his trainee, Matau Hohaia. They pay no heed. Hohaia pauses for a few moments and then presses a button on the console, triggering an automated announcement that’s heard throughout the carriages behind his ­comfortable seat. “Doors closing,” says a calm male voice. “Please stand clear.”

    At the end of the platform a few metres from the driver’s seat is a silver pole topped by a single yellow light. “Restricted signal,” says Hohaia, thinking aloud in a coded shorthand for the ­benefit of his tutor. “So our red will be the red starter at Keperra. We’re going to be taking the 60 for the 80 straight track sign, then 20 over the magnet, stopping at the six-car stop.”

    Hohaia reaches a top speed of 60km/h and slows to ease into Keperra Station, bringing the front cabin to a stop beside a mark on the platform that’s no bigger than a dinner plate. This black ­circle inside a yellow square denotes the proper finishing point for a six-car carriage, part of the Queensland Rail Citytrain service. “Beautiful. It’s surprising just how difficult that is — it takes a lot of practice,” says Haag. “Why thank you,” replies Hohaia with a grin. “I’ve been working on that!”

    “And I owe you a jelly bean,” says Haag, referring to the unofficial reward system for trainees who stick the landing at each platform. “You’ll make me a poor man from all those jelly beans!” At 29, Haag is eight years Hohaia’s junior, but the older apprentice has a great respect for the keen eyes and observations of the younger master, who is helping him to finish his training and become one of Queensland’s most precious resources: a qualified train driver.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: Justine Walpole.

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Social Network Doling Out Millions in Ephemeral Money: Steemit’, October 2017

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    The Social Network Doling Out Millions in Ephemeral Money

    Steemit is a social network with the radical idea of paying users for their contributions. But in the crypto gold rush, it’s unclear who stands to profit.

    Backchannel story: 'The Social Network Doling Out Millions in Ephemeral Money: Steemit' by Andrew McMillen, October 2017. Illustration credit: Lauren Cierzan.

    Every time you log onto Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to share a photo or post an article, you give up a piece of yourself in exchange for entertainment. This is the way of the modern world: Smart companies build apps and websites that keep our eyeballs engaged, and we reward them with our data and attention, which benefit their bottom line.

    Steemit, a nascent social media platform, is trying to change all that by rewarding its users with cold, hard cash in the form of a cryptocurrency. Everything that you do on Steemit—every post, every comment, and every like—translates to a fraction of a digital currency called Steem. Over time, as Steem accumulates, it can be cashed out for normal currency. (Or held, if you think Steem is headed for a bright future.)

    The idea for Steemit began with a white paper, which quietly spread among a small community of techies when it was released in March 2016. The exhaustive 44-page overview wasn’t intended for a general audience, but the document contained a powerful message. User-generated content, the authors argued, had created billions of dollars of value for the shareholders of social media companies. Yet while moguls like Mark Zuckerberg got rich, the content creators who fueled networks like Facebook got nothing. Steemit’s creators outlined their intention to challenge that power imbalance by putting a value on contributions: “Steem is the first cryptocurrency that attempts to accurately and transparently reward…[the] individuals who make subjective contributions to its community.”

    A minuscule but dedicated audience rallied around Steemit, posting stories and experimenting with the form to discover what posts attracted the most votes and comments. When Steemit released its first payouts that July, three months after launch, things got serious.

    Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are only worth whatever value people ascribe to them, so there was no guarantee that the tokens dropping into Steemit accounts would ever be worth anything. Yet the Steem that rolled out to users translated to more than $1.2 million in American dollars. Overnight, the little-known currency spiked to a $350 million market capitalization—momentarily rocketing it into the rare company of Bitcoin and Ethereum, the world’s highest-valued cryptocurrencies.

    Today, Steem’s market capitalization has settled in the vicinity of $294 million. One Steem is worth slightly more than one United States Dollar, and the currency remains a regular presence at the edge of the top 20 most traded digital currencies.

    It’s a precipitous rise for a company that just 18 months ago existed only as an idea in the minds of its founders. More than $30 million worth of Steem has been distributed to over 50,000 users since its launch, according to company reports. It’s too early to know whether Steemit can hold onto its users’ interest and its market value. But its goal—upending a model built by social media giants over decades of use in favor of a more populist system—is significant in itself. By removing the middlemen and allowing users to profit directly from the networks they participate in, Steemit could provide a roadmap to a more equitable social network.

    Or users could get bored or distracted by something newer and shinier and abandon it. The possibility of a popped bubble looms over every cryptocurrency, and the bubbles are filled with both attention and speculative investment. Steemit’s value is based on money that its founders have virtually willed into existence. Fortunes could vanish at any moment, but someone stands to get rich in the process.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel. Above illustration credit: Lauren Cierzan.

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Risky Business: How a bad LSD trip taught one Sydney teenager to think twice about experimenting with drugs’, September 2017

    A feature story for Good Weekend, published in the September 30 issue. Excerpt below.

    Risky Business

    How a bad LSD trip taught one Sydney teenager to think twice about experimenting with drugs

    'Risky Business: How a bad LSD trip taught one Sydney teenager to think twice about experimenting with drugs' story by Andrew McMillen in Good Weekend, September 2017

    Tom* closes his eyes, settles back on his bed, breathes in the aromatherapy oil he’s burning and listens to psychedelic trance while waiting for the onset of the trip from the LSD he’s just swallowed. It’s 8pm on a Friday night this year, he’s home alone in the sanctuary of his bedroom and he tells himself that this is his reward for finishing his exams (except for business studies, which he doesn’t care about). Within moments, the 17-year-old’s heart rate goes up, butterflies flutter in his stomach and waves of colour dance across his field of vision, regardless of whether he closes or opens his eyes. This is the fifth time he’s taken the hallucinogen, the first four with no unpleasant side effects, so he’s trying a double dose to see whether the sensations become more intense.

    Tom takes precautions: he uses a drug-testing kit he bought from a “hippie store” near his house to make sure the drug is LSD rather than a more risky synthetic alternative. He cuts a tiny sliver from one of the tabs and drops it into a glass tube containing a small amount of liquid. He watches as the sample reacts to the chemicals, turning dark purple, indicating its purity. Satisfied, Tom eats four tiny pieces of LSD-soaked blotting paper known as “tabs”.

    The trip starts well, reaching an idyllic plateau, but the come-up keeps climbing – and with it, his anxiety. He doesn’t hear his dad Karl* unexpectedly arrive home and climb the stairs. Sitting at his desk, Tom is so shocked when his dad opens his bedroom door that he can barely speak and doesn’t make eye contact. So odd is his behaviour that his father imagines he’s walked in on his son masturbating. Embarrassed, he bids his son good night – he’s off to meet Tom’s mum Jasmine* at a fund-raising dinner across town – and closes the door.

    Tom is alone again, and the drug’s effects continue to intensify. Trying to counteract the restlessness he’s feeling, he walks onto the second-floor balcony off his bedroom and paces up and down. By now losing his sense of reality, Tom tries talking to himself in a bid to sort out the strange thoughts invading his mind. “Who’s doing this to you?” he asks, raising his voice. “Who’s doing this?”

    Neighbours hear this bizarre phrase ringing out from the balcony. At first, they don’t associate the deep voice with Tom: it sounds almost Satanic. In the darkness, they can faintly see a figure pacing back and forth. They call out, asking if he’s all right. Well-known as an early morning runner, and well-liked as a trusted babysitter to several families in this quiet, affluent neighbourhood in Sydney’s north where he’s spent most of his life, Tom is clearly not himself. The family cats are howling, too, apparently as disturbed by his behaviour as the onlookers.

    From the balcony, Tom scampers up onto the tiled roof, but loses his footing. A round, wooden table in the front yard breaks his fall not far from the edge of the swimming pool. The force of his weight smashes the furniture to pieces but he miraculously avoids serious injury. A concerned neighbour rings 000. Tom may be bleeding, but he’s still got the speed of a cross-country athlete and seemingly superhuman strength, despite his reed-thin frame. He rushes back inside his house, tracking blood through different rooms, before smashing a back fence then running onto the street again, tearing off his clothes.

    What happens over the next hour or so – Tom breaking a window of a neighbour’s house, neighbours chasing him, making him even more paranoid and fearful – is a blur. He winds up several streets from home, lying naked in the middle of the road, surrounded by people looking down at him, including two female police officers and paramedics. It takes a few of them to handcuff him.

    Hovering not far away is a television news crew, which has received a tip-off about the disturbance. Tom is at risk of having the worst moment of his life spread over the news, but the police are able to keep the media at bay because he’s a minor. All the while, Tom continues to ramble incoherently: “The universe is against us! The universe is against us!”

    At the fund-raising dinner which his parents are attending, Karl is perplexed when his phone begins to vibrate during a speech. Jasmine also grabs her phone, which is lighting up with messages from five different neighbours asking her to call them immediately. The couple hurriedly excuse themselves before Jasmine calls a trusted friend. “Tom’s all right,” she’s told. “But you need to go straight to the hospital.” On arrival around midnight, they’re greeted by a sight that haunts all parents: their teenage son unconscious in a hospital bed, covered in dried blood, with plastic tubes snaking out of his mouth and nose.

    To read the full story, visit Good Weekend. Above illustration credit: Clemens Habicht.

  • Bite Magazine story: ‘Here To Help: Refugee dentist Dr Hooman Baghaie’, September 2017

    A cover story for the September 2017 issue of Bite, a magazine for Australian dentists. Excerpt below.

    Here To Help

    In high-achieving refugee dentist Dr Hooman Baghaie, Iran’s loss is Australia’s gain

    'Here To Help: In high-achieving refugee dentist Dr Hooman Baghaie, Iran’s loss is Australia’s gain' story by Andrew McMillen for Bite Magazine, September 2017. Photo by Richard Whitfield

    When he was 12 years old, Dr Hooman Baghaie’s family left their comfortable, middle-class life in Iran behind. This decision by his parents was made out of love and sacrifice: as members of a religious minority, they had experienced discrimination and persecution. The last slight was when their eldest son was denied entry to a college for gifted children after his father, Zia, had volunteered to the school’s administration that the family were followers of the Bahá’í faith. Suddenly, Hooman’s academic gifts were seen in a different light.

    There was no place for Hooman there, his parents were told, despite his excellent results on the entry exam. Nor was there a place in Iran for the Baghaie family, who had tired of this persecution. They knew there would only be more hurdles for their bright children in Iran, and they knew that other Bahá’ís had been jailed because of their religious affiliations. The eldest son’s rejection mirrored an earlier disappointment experienced by his mother, Betsy, who was expelled from medical school in 1988 on the basis of her faith. Like mother, like son.

    Yet it was in thumbing through her copy of Gray’s Anatomy that the seed for Hooman’s career was planted. Within a decade, the Iranian-born refugee would be safe and secure in Australia while immersed in studying oral health, and later dentistry, while on a path to fulfil the inclusive, community-minded spirit on which his faith was based.

    The family’s path to Australia was not simple or easy. They left behind two houses, two cars and his father’s well-established career in refrigeration engineering. The five of them—Zia, Betsy, Hooman and his two younger sisters, Helya and Hasti—spent nine months in limbo at an apartment in Kayseri, Turkey. They were asylum seekers, and on arrival, Zia went to the United Nations office to explain their situation. After carefully reviewing their case and confirming the truth of their allegations, the Baghaie family were awarded humanitarian visas to Australia, since Betsy had family members who lived in Geelong.

    Now 26 and living on the Gold Coast, Hooman Baghaie tells this story over cups of Persian tea and a plate of walnut biscuits. He lives in a high-rise apartment building in Southport that overlooks the ocean, and each morning, his bedroom is lit by a spectacular sunrise. Two days per week, he works as a dentist at a small clinic in Helensvale; during the remaining weekdays, he attends nearby Griffith University while studying his first year of a degree in medicine.

    His interest in the oral cavity has widened since he completed a Bachelor of Oral Health at the University of Melbourne in 2011, then moved north to dedicate himself to a Bachelor of Dental Science, which he completed in 2016 as a valedictorian at the University of Queensland. After medicine, he plans to specialise in maxillofacial surgery.

    Newly married in 2017, Hooman shares the Southport apartment with his wife, Maya, who works as a nutritionist. The pair share their Bahá’í faith and are devoted to fulfilling its tenet of improving the lives of others: she by advising people on their diet, and he by tending to their oral health needs. Theirs is a service-oriented partnership that looks outward, and asks: how can we help?

    To read the full story, visit Bite Magazine. Above photo credit: Richard Whitfield.

  • The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘Sight Unseen: Audio description for blind theatregoers’, September 2017

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Review. Excerpt below.

    Sight Unseen

    For theatregoers with impaired vision, audio description services help to make sense of what’s happening on stage.

    'Sight Unseen: Audio description for blind Australian theatregoers' story in The Weekend Australian Review by Andrew McMillen, September 2017

    You are sitting in the front row of a theatre when a calm, male voice begins­ to speak into your ear, welcoming­ you and setting out key details about the play you are here to see. “The Merlyn theatre is a flexible, black-box theatre space,” says the voice. “For Elephant Man, the audience sits in a rectangular seating bank opposite to the stage. The stage is raised about 40cm off the ground, and takes up the full width of the Merlyn, about 10m wide.”

    You are listening intently to the voice because­ you cannot see what it is describing. You are blind, but you love going to the theatre, and you want to better understand the performance beyond the dialogue that all attendees can hear from the stage. This is why you are at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne’s inner city on a rainy Friday night, listening as the shape and layout of the stage begins to take shape in your mind’s eye.

    “A black proscenium arch frames the playing area, about 5m tall, creating a wide rectangul­ar space,” continues the voice. “A ­curtain of black gauze covers the entire width of the stage at its front edge, separating us from the playing area. We can see through the sheer material, but it softens the edges of everything behind it.”

    You are hearing the voice because your earphones are connected to a wireless radio receive­r that sits inside the palm of your hand. Later, this wonderful technology will allow you to follow the action you can’t follow with your eyes.

    While the boisterous audience take their seats behind you in the minutes before a performan­ce of The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man begins, you are listening to pre-show notes that are being broadcast into your ears from the green room on the building’s third floor. There, a bespectacled 26-year-old named Will McRostie sits before a computer, a live video feed of the stage, and some audio equipment that allows him to speak into the ears of theatregoers who have registered for audio description services this evening.

    “The play makes extensive use of smoke and haze effects,” says McRostie’s voice. “Nozzles emitting smoke are hidden in the walls of the set, sometimes leaking heavy mist that tracks along the ground, and sometimes blasting plumes of light smoke that billows to fill the space. Two powerful fans set into the floor of the space are sometimes activated to catch this smoke and propel it toward the ceiling. On occasion, the smoke is so heavy it becomes difficult to see the performers.”

    Difficulty in seeing the performers is the entire­ purpose of audio description, a niche and little-known service that is sometimes — but not often — available for people with low vision who attend theatres and cinemas. Because of its exclusivity and the resources required to produce­ the service, it is usually available only in Australia’s capital cities, and only for the bigges­t productions on the annual theatre and cinema calendars.

    To date, audio description has largely been provided in an ad hoc manner by volunteers and, as a result, the quality of the service exper­ienced by blind patrons can vary wildly. McRostie is at the forefront of a movement to professionalise it, however, which is why he founded an arts start-up named Description Victoria in March this year.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: David Geraghty.

  • Guardian Australia story: ‘”His Death Still Hurts”: Pfizer anti-smoking drug Champix ruled to have contributed to suicide’, September 2017

    A feature story for Guardian Australia. Excerpt below.

    ‘His Death Still Hurts’: the Pfizer anti-smoking drug ruled to have contributed to suicide

    An Australian coroner says Champix had a role in Timothy John’s death, which occurred after only eight days on the drug

    '"His Death Still Hurts": the Pfizer anti-smoking drug ruled to have contributed to suicide" by Andrew McMillen on Guardian Australia, September 2017

    When the retired Queensland schoolteacher Phoebe Morwood-Oldham started an online petition following her son’s suicide in April 2013, she could not have known that her insistence on asking hard questions of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies would lead to an Australian-first finding by a state coroner.

    On Thursday in Brisbane magistrates court, coroner John Hutton found that a commonly prescribed drug named Champix – manufactured by Pfizer and sold internationally under the name Chantix – contributed to the death of a 22-year-old Brisbane man, Timothy John, who died by suicide soon after he began taking a medication that he had hoped would cut his smoking habit from eight cigarettes a day down to zero.

    For Morwood-Oldham, the finding was a satisfying outcome for a lengthy process that began with a Change.org petition that she started four years ago, which asked for on-the-box warning labels on Champix packaging. It has been signed by 49,000 people. “His death still hurts so deep,” she wrote at the top of the petition. “After taking the anti-smoking drug marketed as ‘Champix’ for just 8 days, my beautiful boy hung himself. But despite reports of 25 suicides linked to Champix in seven years – there still aren’t proper side-effect warnings.”

    Every Sunday for four years Morwood-Oldham and her older son, Peter, have visited Timothy’s grave at Cleveland cemetery. The weekly routine involves the laying of lillies and turning their minds toward a young man who was, as his headstone says, “much wanted and loved”. Morwood-Oldham tells Guardian Australia that Timothy’s death “was so sudden” and it affected her deeply.

    “I lost the person I love the most in the world, in eight days. I never expected it.”

    Talking about Timothy, Morwood-Oldham warns that her emotions are “all over the place”. He is never far from his mother’s mind, nor her gaze: when she opens her laptop to share some photographs, there he is, her screensaver. A cute, blond boy aged six, aiming a cheeky smile at the lens.

    Timothy had suffered mental health issues, something his mother speaks of in terms of grades out of 10. He had for a time been a 4/10, then, after cognitive behaviour therapy, he was back to 9/10.

    “How did he go from a 9/10 to a 1/10 in eight days on Champix?” she said. “The autopsy showed there were no alcohol or drugs in his system other than Champix and Ibuprofen.”

    The inquest heard that, on a drive back from the Gold Coast just hours before his death, Timothy asked, “Mum, do you think I should give up the Champix? It’s making me feel strange.” Morwood-Oldham told the original two-day inquest in November last year: “I said to him, ‘Timothy, if it’s helping you to give up smoking maybe you keep it up’.” She had not been part of the consultations with her son’s GP when he was prescribed the drug and the Champix packaging did not contain warnings for any potential adverse effects.

    To read the full story, visit Guardian Australia.

    For help if you are in Australia: Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; ­Lifeline 13 11 14, Survivors of Suicide Bereavement ­Support 1300 767 022. For help if you are outside of Australia, visit suicide.org’s list of international hotlines.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Susan, Unbroken: After Dr Andrew Bryant’s suicide’, September 2017

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the September 2-3 issue. Excerpt below.

    Susan, Unbroken

    Her husband’s suicide was devastating. But Susan Bryant was determined to call it out.

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Susan, Unbroken: After Dr Andrew Bryant's suicide' by Andrew McMillen, September 2017. Photograph by Justine Walpole

    The last few days had been nightmarish and Susan Bryant was tired of explaining. She decided to write an email to try to explain the inexplicable. The words came to her in a rush, powered by grief, anger and frustration, as well as a desire for the cause of her husband’s death to be known, not covered up. It was a Saturday evening in early May and before she travelled across town for a family dinner, she sat in the study inside the beautiful home on the hill she had shared for 25 years with a brilliant gastroenterologist named Dr Andrew Bryant. Her first instinct was to say sorry.

    “I apologise for the group email but I wanted to thank those of you who have been so kind with your messages and thoughts over the last three days,” she typed. “Apologies also for the length of this email but it’s important to me to let you know the circumstances of Andrew’s death. Some of you may not yet know that Andrew took his own life, in his office, on Thursday morning.”

    The family’s beloved white dog lay on the floor beside her in the study, while a cat was curled near her feet. Andrew had not suffered from depression before, she wrote, but his mood had been flat during Easter and he had been sleeping poorly because he had been called in to see public hospital patients every night of the previous week. She wrote that because of these long hours — not unusual for an on-call specialist — he had missed every dinner at home that week, including one to celebrate his son’s birthday. “In retrospect, the signs were all there,” she wrote, then chided herself. “But I didn’t see it coming. He was a doctor; he was surrounded by health professionals every day; both his parents were psychiatrists; two of his brothers are doctors; his sister is a psychiatric nurse — and none of them saw it coming either.”

    Susan addressed the email to 15 colleagues at the law firm where she works in central Brisbane, and she hoped that it would help them understand why her daughter had phoned on Thursday morning to briefly explain why her mother would need some time off. “I don’t want it to be a secret that Andrew committed suicide,” she wrote. “If more people talked about what leads to suicide, if people didn’t talk about it as if it was shameful, if people understood how easily and quickly depression can take over, then there might be fewer deaths.”

    Together, they brought four children into this world and they all still live under the same roof. “His four children and I are not ashamed of how he died,” she wrote. Susan knew that her children felt this way, but she double-checked with them before she sent the email, and before the five of them left the family home to visit the Bryants in Paddington, a few ­suburbs over. One by one, her children came into the study and read the email over her shoulder. They saw no problem with it. She ended her letter with the spark of an idea; a glimmer of hope. “So please, forward this email on to anyone in the ­Wilston community who has asked how he died, anyone at all who might want to know, or anyone you think it may help.” It took her about five minutes to write. She sent it at 5.45pm on Saturday, May 6, and then she went to be with Andrew’s family.

    The next afternoon, Susan thought that a few of her close friends and neighbours might like to read the message. And so, at 2pm on the Sunday, she passed it on to another five people who live in the inner north suburb of Wilston. When two of her children asked if they could share the email on Facebook, she said yes, because she thought that it might help their friends understand what had happened, too.

    Within a few days, her words had been read by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Her email was republished and discussed online and off; both inside and outside the medical profession. It was as though she had shot a flare skyward on a dark night, and suddenly, she found herself surrounded by strangers who were drawn to the distress signal.

    People responded to her honesty with their own. They wrote to her with deep, dark secrets and confessions, some of which they dared not speak aloud. She gathered their letters and cards in a large basket that sits in the centre of her kitchen bench, while hundreds more notes piled into her email inbox. Writing to her helped them. She did not know it when she wrote the email, but they needed Susan Bryant then, and they need her now.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: Justine Walpole.

    For help if you are in Australia: Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; ­Lifeline 13 11 14, Survivors of Suicide Bereavement ­Support 1300 767 022.

    For help if you are outside of Australia, visit suicide.org’s list of international hotlines.

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Sleeper Autistic Hero Transforming Video Games: Symmetra and Overwatch’, July 2017

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    The Sleeper Autistic Hero Transforming Video Games 

    With Symmetra, Overwatch is quietly taking on the stigma of autism – and for the fans, effort means everything.

    Backchannel story: 'The Sleeper Autistic Hero Transforming Video Games: Symmetra and Overwatch' by Andrew McMillen, July 2017

    For Samuel Hookham and his younger brother, Overwatch was an obsession that took root last spring. They played the fast-paced shooter video game almost every day, passing the PlayStation 4 controller back and forth across the couch in their family’s California home.

    Samuel was surprised to find himself selecting a female avatar. Overwatch offers two dozen characters of different genders and races, each with a richly drawn personality. But when Samuel played, he was almost always Symmetra, a slight but potent warrior. Her weapon of choice, a photon projector, locks onto enemies and swiftly depletes their energy. In the hands of a skilled player, she could be one of the most devious and deadly characters.

    As he played, Samuel began to notice that Symmetra’s behavior was sometimes strange. She often misunderstood social cues. When her teammate, Torbjörn, cracked a joke—“Hehe, there’s something on your dress!”—Symmetra would respond literally: “No, there isn’t.” She craved structure and got overwhelmed with too much stimulation. In the middle of tense battles, she would turn her back on the action in order to, say, rebuild defensive sentry turrets. In a voice clip, she told her teammates that she believed “the true enemy of humanity is disorder.”

    It was all a bit odd. But in Symmetra’s strangeness, Samuel saw himself. Near the end of 2016, he had been diagnosed with autism, and the label was helping him understand the ways his behavior was different. Like Symmetra, Samuel tended to take jokes literally and could get confused by social cues that others navigated with ease. Samuel began to wonder if his favorite Overwatch hero was autistic, too.

    So when his English teacher asked the class to write letters to public figures they admired, he saw an opening. While his peers sent dispatches to the Nintendo headquarters in Japan, In-N-Out Burger, and Prince William, Samuel wrote to Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s director and a well-known personality thanks to regular YouTube updates. It was a short note—just a dozen sentences— focused on the question that had been bugging him.

    “Dear Mr. Kaplan,” Samuel began, “My main question is about Symmetra. She’s my favorite character, hands down. I just wanted to clarify: Is Symmetra autistic? As an autistic person myself, I’d love to know.”

    He addressed the letter to Blizzard Entertainment’s offices in Irvine, California, expecting not to hear back. A month later, a letter arrived.

    “Dear Samuel,” wrote Kaplan, “I’m glad you asked about Symmetra. Symmetra is autistic. She is one of our most beloved heroes and we think she does a great job of representing just how awesome someone with autism can be.”

    With 30 million players, Overwatch is among the world’s most popular video games. Kids like Samuel spend hours immersed in games, even though the avatars they control rarely reflect themselves. Characters with disabilities, characters of different races, characters with different sexual orientations, characters with autism—all are rare in video games. That means that when kids are building their conceptions of what heroes look like, they are almost never people with autism.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel at its new home on wired.com.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Thought Police: Patents, ideas and IP Australia’, June 2017

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the June 10-11 issue. Excerpt below.

    Thought Police 

    Got a great, original idea? Australia’s patent examiners will be the judge of that…

    Each weekday for the past 25 years, Colin Fitzgibbon has gone fishing. His intended daily catch is old ideas that will disprove the originality of supposedly new ideas. It is a subtle and cerebral way to spend one’s time, but as a patent examiner at IP Australia in the nation’s capital, he is tasked with ensuring that only unique and useful inventions are awarded an Australian patent. Fitzgibbon must be meticulous in his research and documentation, and sure of his arguments. Not only will much of his written work end up on the public record, but more importantly, those who are granted an ­Australian patent get the exclusive right to exploit and market their invention for up to two decades.

    The fisherman wears a blue checked shirt and black trousers. He has silver hair and blue eyes that dance back and forth across two computer monitors as he trawls international patent databases. If an applicant is attempting to claim an existing idea as their own, Fitzgibbon is tasked with reeling in the evidence. “We talk about the ocean of patent applications,” he says. “There’s lots of fish out there. How are we going to find that fish?”

    This is not to say he enjoys discovering old ideas that disprove new ones, or delights in dashing the dreams of backyard inventors — a diminishing pool. One notable side-effect of globalisation is that Australian patents now comprise a distinct minority of the ideas assessed by Fitzgibbon and his colleagues. In 2016, IP Australia received 28,394 standard patent applications; 91 per cent of those were filed by non-residents, with US nationals accounting for almost half of the total. Just 2620 applications were submitted by people living in Australia, with the CSIRO, universities and poker machine company Aristocrat among the most frequent domestic hopefuls.

    Fitzgibbon, 55, examines mechanical engineering inventions — his areas of expertise are ­agriculture and lifesaving — but refuses to deal with patent applications that involve weapons or ammunitions on moral grounds. “It’s a good job,” he says as he leans back in his chair. “It’s all about being meticulous, to make sure the applicant gets a patent that nobody else can challenge.” (If somebody disagrees with a patent being granted, they must file a notice of opposition within three months.) “Sometimes you’ll spend a week searching, at the computer seven hours a day, and you can’t find it.” At that point, a patent examiner has to wonder: “Is there something I missed the first time? Is that fish still out there, laughing at me?” says Fitzgibbon. “We’ve got tools, but we’re not perfect. There might be other fish out in the sea, but I’m guessing they’re out in the Indian, not the Pacific — or they’re hiding in the [Mariana] Trench.”

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Trips To Remember: Psychedelic drug use and bad trips’, June 2017

    A story for Good Weekend magazine, published in the June 3 issue. Excerpt below.

    Trips To Remember

    They call themselves “psychonauts” – people who use drugs like LSD to embark on journeys of self-discovery and creativity. But how wise is it to go on a trip after life has taken a bad turn?

    Good Weekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'Trips To Remember: Psychedelic drug use and self-improvement', June 2017

    A few days before Christmas last year, two friends and I planned to take LSD together. We set a date and location: 10am Saturday morning, in a comfortable home, with a sober friend to keep a wary eye on us. The three of us are fit, healthy men in our late 20s; we are university graduates now employed in our respective fields. We have stable relationships, strong senses of self and a shared interest in occasionally ingesting substances that we know will twist our perceptions of the world in strange and fascinating ways.

    It would be a trip to remember. In my mind, I had already started rehearsing the day. The tiny cardboard squares of “blotter acid” would be removed from the freezer, carefully cut with scissors and placed beneath our tongues. The chemicals on the cardboard would be gradually metabolised by our bodies, before the pieces were chewed up and swallowed.

    For eight to 12 hours, the shared experience would further solidify our friendships. The LSD’s visual effects would make the walls and ceiling seem to bend and swoon. Colours would become intensified. It would inhibit our need to eat and drink and impair our sense of time.

    In conversation, our minds would make unexpected leaps between subjects, drawing inferences and relations that we might not have ordinarily seen. These leaps might make little sense to our sober friend, but perfect sense to us. In quieter moments, we would query the order and routine of our lives. Were there efficiencies to be made, or changes necessary?

    We would also laugh a lot – no doubt about that – and we would hear our favourite songs with ears attuned to different frequencies.

    Just a few days before the scheduled Saturday, however, I experienced a major professional disappointment. A writing project to which I had devoted more than a year of work would not be published. My self-confidence was shaken to its core, and despite unerringly good advice and support from those closest to me, I entered a period of mourning wherein I found myself questioning everything, even the wisdom of taking drugs that had been helpful before.

    To read the full story, visit Good Weekend.