All posts in Tech Journalism

  • IGN Australia story: ‘This Vertigo-Inducing VR Game Will Scare The Crap Out Of You’, May 2017

    A feature story for IGN Australia that was published on May 28. Excerpt below.

    This Vertigo-Inducing VR Game Will Scare The Crap Out Of You

    Meet the Australian couple behind ‘Richie’s Plank Experience’, a hit indie VR title unlike any other.

    IGN Australia story: 'This Vertigo-Inducing VR Game Will Scare The Crap Out Of You' by Andrew McMillen, May 2017. Photo by Scott Patterson

    I hear a bright tone – ding! – and then the elevator doors open to reveal a vast cityscape stretching out before my eyes. Protruding in front of me is a wooden board, about three metres long and thirty centimetres wide – just thick enough to accommodate both of my feet, side-by-side. The task here is straightforward: just like the maritime method of execution, I’m meant to walk the plank.

    First, I must step up onto the board. I tentatively put my left foot forward, seeking the raised edge. I shift my weight and bring my right foot up to the timber. What’s most surprising is the immediate physical response that I encounter: my heart beats noticeably faster beneath my ribcage, and I begin sweating. My brain has suddenly thrown my balance into question, because never before in my regular life have I found it so hard to put one foot in front of the other.

    Heights have been problematic for me in the past: when I moved into a seventh-floor apartment in 2015, it took weeks for me to be able to stand by the edge of the balcony without gripping the railing or leaning backwards, away from the void. I had supposed this was an inherent self-preservation instinct retained from my ancient ancestors, who were smart enough to stay away from high places in favour of keeping contact with the earth. In the parlance of software development, I rationalised that this inbuilt aversion to heights was a feature, not a bug.

    A helicopter passes overhead, not far from where I’m standing. Out on the plank, eighty storeys in the air, I’m holding the two wireless controllers up above my waist, like ski poles. This is mostly for balance, I suppose, but also because my mind has been gripped by a set of emotions that I’ve yet to encounter in any other form of visual entertainment. It’s a cocktail of fear, exhilaration and anxiety, and it’s because my eyes and ears are taking in sensations which I know intellectually to be false. This is virtual reality, after all, and I’m playing a game named Richie’s Plank Experience. Yet out here, on the plank, real and fake are all but indistinguishable. All my brain is concerned with is survival.

    I only manage to shuffle about halfway across the length of the plank before giving in to the fear. My heart pounds, my skin prickles with sweat, and I’m completely out of my comfort zone. Before I put on the headset and headphones, I was just another guy standing in a building near the Brisbane River, watching a bunch of strangers attempt to walk a board that sits just a few centimetres off the ground, held aloft at one end by a hardcover copy of Steve Jobs, and a few stacked kitchen sponges at the other. Yet even after having watched these interactions and reactions play out on the faces of strangers, I was completely unprepared for the sensory overload that comes wrapped in the immersion. It’s simply too real.

    With careful consideration, I remove my right foot from the timber and reach out into space. For a moment, this act sends my mind reeling once again, and I give a clumsy shimmy from my hip before moving my left foot off the edge, too. For about four seconds, I fall toward the hard bitumen and slow-moving inner-city traffic. I turn my head to take in the last sights I’ll ever see. When I hit the ground, everything turns white.

    To read the full story, visit IGN Australia. Above photo credit: Scott Patterson.

  • The New York Times story: ‘How Australia Bungled Its $36 Billion High-Speed Internet Rollout’, May 2017

    My first story for The New York Times was published on May 11. Excerpt below.

    How Australia Bungled Its $36 Billion High-Speed Internet Rollout

    Its businesses and consumers burdened with some of developed world’s slowest speeds, the country is a cautionary tale about big-money ambitions.

    The New York Times story by Andrew McMillen: 'How Australia Bungled Its $36 Billion High-Speed Internet Rollout', May 2017

    BRISBANE, Australia — Fed up with Australian internet speeds that trail those in most of the developed world, Morgan Jaffit turned to a more reliable method of data transfer: the postal system.

    Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world have downloaded Hand of Fate, an action video game made by his studio in Brisbane, Defiant Development. But when Defiant worked with an audio designer in Melbourne, more than 1,000 miles away, Mr. Jaffit knew it would be quicker to send a hard drive by road than to upload the files, which could take several days.

    “It’s really the big file sizes that kill us,” said Mr. Jaffit, the company’s co-founder and creative director. “When we release an update and there’s a small bug, that can kill us by three or four days.”

    Australia, a wealthy nation with a widely envied quality of life, lags in one essential area of modern life: its internet speed. Eight years after the country began an unprecedented broadband modernization effort that will cost at least 49 billion Australian dollars, or $36 billion, its average internet speed lags that of the United States, most of Western Europe, Japan and South Korea. In the most recent ranking of internet speeds by Akamai, a networking company, Australia came in at an embarrassing No. 51, trailing developing economies like Thailand and Kenya.

    For many here, slow broadband connections are a source of frustration and an inspiration for gallows humor. One parody video ponders what would happen if an American with a passion for Instagram and streaming “Scandal” were to switch places with an Australian resigned to taking bathroom breaks as her shows buffer.

    But the problem goes beyond sluggish Netflix streams and slurred Skype calls. Businesses complain that slow speeds hobble their effectiveness and add to their costs. More broadly, Australia risks being left behind at a time when countries like China and India are looking to nurture their own start-up cultures to match the success of Silicon Valley and keep their economies on the cutting edge.

    “Poor broadband speeds will hold back Australia and its competitive advantage,” said John O’Mahony, an economist at Deloitte Access Economics. A 2015 report by Deloitte valued the nation’s digital economy at $58 billion and estimated that it could be worth 50 percent more by 2020. “The speed of that growth is at risk if we don’t have the broadband to support it,” he said.

    The story of Australia’s costly internet bungle illustrates the hazards of mingling telecommunication infrastructure with the impatience of modern politics. The internet modernization plan has been hobbled by cost overruns, partisan maneuvering and a major technical compromise that put 19th-century technology between the country’s 21st-century digital backbone and many of its homes and businesses.

    For the full story, visit The New York Times. Above photo credit: Jason Reed for Reuters.

  • Griffith Review essay: ‘Worlds Beyond: Teachable moments in virtual reality’, May 2017

    An essay for edition 56 of quarterly print publication Griffith Review, which is titled Millennials Strike Back. Excerpt below.

    'Worlds Beyond: Teachable moments in virtual reality' essay in Griffith Review by Andrew McMillen, May 2017Worlds Beyond

    Teachable moments in virtual reality

    The blue whale is only a metre or two away from me, and its huge right eyeball is level with mine. I have never seen the largest creature on Earth from this angle, at this depth, in these dimensions. Its body mass fills my vision, and I have to turn my head 180-degrees to take it all in. I’m standing on the bow of a sunken ship, and I have watched, enthralled, as this dweller of the deep sea approached from the dark-blue distance on my left. The surrounding schools of fish and graceful manta rays take little notice of the giant: for them, its presence deserves the equivalent of a submerged shrug; it’s something they see every day. But for myself, standing here on the ship, rooted in place in wonder, it is an extraordinary encounter.

    As it hovers before me, the beast blinks and emits a few curious groans before tiring of this underwater interloper. Just another human being. Boring. When it swims to my right in search something more interesting to look at, its tail-flukes almost lash me on the way past. In sum, I’ve spent only a minute in its company, but I feel as though quite a few things have changed. This is a fork in the road: my life can now be categorised as ‘Before Whale’ and ‘After Whale’. But perhaps the most astounding part of this experience is that it is running entirely on computer code. Even though every aspect of this scene feels real, it is not.

    After I watch the whale disappearing into the dark-blue distance, I turn around to see white text projected on the back of the sunken ship. It is a list of credits for the team of people who worked on this convincing simulation. It’s named ‘Whale Encounter’, and it’s part of a virtual-reality game called theBlu. In reality, you see, I’m standing in a tiled living room in New Farm, in inner-city Brisbane, wearing a headset that is attached to a powerful computer by a thick, black cord. The view from the balcony outside is filled by the Story Bridge. Beneath the steel structure runs the Brisbane River, where there are no blue whales, as far as I’m aware.

    Next, I use one of the wireless controllers in my hands to point and select ‘Turtle Encounter’. This is just as impressive as the previous immersion – and several minutes longer, too. In startlingly clear water, with the sun shining through the surface above me, I stand at the edge of a coral reef. A loggerhead turtle cuts a lazy circle above me, just out of reach. On my right, I’m approached by hundreds of football-sized bright orange jellyfish. Before long, these small creatures are accompanied by several enormous, man-sized giants whose tentacles trail behind them like windblown dreadlocks. Using the controllers, I can prod the jellyfish to affect their trajectory. It is simply gorgeous, and like the whale, it inspires a sense of awe unlike anything I’ve experienced while playing a traditional video game.

    When it comes to eliciting emotions, it appears that virtual reality is streets ahead of everything that’s come before. Moreover, it strikes me that this sort of experience could foster new understanding for children who struggle to process information that’s delivered verbally, or presented on a printed page. Any child can strap on a headset, fire up theBlu and take something away from the experience of feeling as though they are immersed underwater, inside a potentially dangerous and hard-to-reach part of the planet, while still engaging their minds in a way that a textbook, or even the most fervent educator, might fail to achieve.

    To read the full essay, visit Griffith Review‘s website and purchase edition 56, Millennials Strike Back. The image on the book’s cover above is credited to illustrator Laura Callaghan.

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Troll Taunter: Emily Temple-Wood’, February 2017

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    The Troll Taunter

    A young Wikipedia editor withstood a decade of online abuse. Now she’s fighting back — on Wikipedia itself.

    Backchannel story: 'The Troll Taunter: Emily Temple-Wood' by Andrew McMillen, February 2017. Illustration by Laurent Hrybyk

    The “fuck you” project crystallized one Friday night last year. As Emily Temple-Wood video-chatted with friends, an email pinged in her inbox:

    “There are alternate realities where I raped you and got away with it,” it read. “In those realities it’s legal for me to rape you as long as I want and as hard as I want. I am dead serious.”

    The note came from someone with a history of harassing the 22-year-old medical student. This man hates women, Temple-Wood thought to herself. Then she had another thought. What do misogynists hate more than successful women?

    Nothing.

    She’d been receiving vicious emails for a decade. Sometimes she sought solace by commiserating with friends, or by stomping off to do something else, or occasionally—after the cruelest messages—by lying on her bed and crying. Temple-Wood became a frequent target of abuse merely because she is the rare female Wikipedia editor who has been active on the site for years. She manages to let much of the harassment slide off her. But many women eventually find the bullying to be too much, and leave the site.

    Across the internet, trolls disproportionately target women and members of other underrepresented groups. On Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Wikipedia, and other open platforms, victims of harassment are forced to make a difficult choice—go silent and preserve their mental health, or try to ignore the abuse and continue expressing themselves openly online. As the wounds deepen, that latter choice becomes harder and harder to justify.

    When people get forced off the web, their voices disappear from the internet’s public squares. The ideas and memes that dominate skew even further toward a white male perspective. The web becomes less interesting, less representative, less valuable. We all lose.

    But on that Friday night, Temple-Wood had an idea. For every harassing email, death threat, or request for nude photos that she received, she resolved to create a Wikipedia biography on a notable woman scientist who was previously unknown to the free online encyclopedia. She thought of it as a giant “fuck you” to the anonymous idiots seeking to silence her.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel. Above illustration by Laurent Hrybyk.

  • The Saturday Paper story: ‘The Other Worlds Game: League of Legends and eSports’, October 2016

    A feature story for The Saturday Paper, published in the October 29 2016 issue. Excerpt below.

    The Other Worlds Game

    With hundreds of millions of players, online gaming now has professional ‘eSport’ competitions watched by huge global crowds.

    The Saturday Paper story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Other Worlds Game: League of Legends and eSports', October 2016. Photo by Dylan Esguerra

    Ten young men sit on a stage behind computer monitors deftly manoeuvring mouses and frantically stabbing at keyboards. These two teams of five are the best in Australia at a game called League of Legends, and it is their full-time job to stare at screens while attempting to outsmart their opposition. On a pedestal between them sits the winner’s prize: the Oceanic Pro League (OPL) cup, a gleaming silver trophy lit at all times by an overhead spotlight. Facing the stage is a raucous crowd of 2000 fans who have each paid $26 to sit on a hard plastic seat at the South Bank Piazza, in Brisbane’s inner city, and cheer on their favourite team.

    Hundreds have dressed in custom-made costumes based on their favourite game characters. Two commentators provide a running dialogue of the action, which is displayed on three enormous screens above the players and their machines. Wearing headphones to block external sound, the players communicate with each other via headsets. A battery of green and blue LED lights flashes overhead, while at the front edge of the stage live webcams capture the gamers’ facial expressions above their gaming nicknames: among them Swip3rR, Tally, k1ng and Raes.

    There are also tens of thousands of fans watching the OPL grand final at home on Fox Sports, at several cinemas around the country, and streaming the footage online around the world. Welcome to eSports, short for “electronic sports”. Such competitions have been enormously popular overseas for years, particularly in South Korea, where strategy games such as StarCraft and Defense of the Ancients – or DoTA in the online world’s abbreviated fashion – are watched and played by millions. The OPL 2016 grand final is Brisbane’s best-attended live eSports event to date, and one of the biggest yet held in Australia.

    League of Legends is the world’s most popular online game – the most recent figures this year show that 100 million players log on to its servers each month. LoL is a multiplayer online battle game, where each player controls a “champion” with its own strengths, weaknesses and special moves.

    Leading the Legacy eSports club is Tim “Carbon” Wendel, a 24-year-old health sciences graduate whose boyish features offset a lanky athlete’s body. “It’s kind of a mix between basketball and chess,” he explains. “It’s five-a-side, every person has an individual role, in the same way you’ll only have one centre or point guard, and you’re always moving. It’s obviously a lot less physical, and very strategic like chess, but the difference there is that it’s in real time.”

    Beside him sits Aaron “ChuChuZ” Bland, Legacy’s second-longest-serving member, a 19-year-old in a black hoodie and dark-rimmed glasses. The five members of this minor-premiership-winning team live in a share house in Sydney’s western suburbs with their coach, An “Minkywhale” Trinh. They spend about six hours a day training together by playing friendly matches with other teams. There are also regular video reviews of their performances, and individual practice is expected on top of that. Heading into events such as this, the players will spend up to 12 hours a day in front of a screen.

    To read the full story, visit The Saturday Paper. Above photo credit: Dylan Esguerra.

  • Backchannel story: ‘Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!’, August 2016

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!

    How the online encyclopedia manages mental illness and suicide threats in its volunteer community.

    'Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!' by Andrew McMillen for Backchannel, August 2016. Illustration by Laurent Hrybyk

    One recent Tuesday night in the suburbs of Sydney, Elliott* was sitting in front of his home computer, editing Wikipedia and debating with a fellow volunteer who was continually undoing his hard work. He was devoting his weeknight hours to developing an article about Salim Mehajer, a former deputy mayor of a Sydney city council who had attracted national headlines for a variety of indiscretions, including shutting down a public street without authorization in order to film his own wedding. But as Elliott typed, his eyes intent on the screen, his mental state was deteriorating.

    Elliott, 37, knew the inner workings of the online encyclopedia better than just about anyone. Since his first edit in 2004, he had invented the popular ‘citation needed’ tag, used by editors to indicate when a statement requires more evidence. He had started the administrator’s noticeboard,where the site’s volunteer leadership could discuss inflammatory incidents. And he wrote ‘exploding whale,’ a quirky article that remains emblematic of the sparkling brilliance for which the crowdsourced encyclopedia is widely beloved. For the latter creation, which summarized how the Oregon Highway Division attached half a ton of dynamite to a beached sperm whale carcass in 1970, he was awarded Wikipedia’s first ‘oddball barnstar,’ and so another user pinned a bright green badge to his userpage to acknowledge his enterprising work.

    But on this particular night, his virtual achievements were far from his mind. With his wife and two young children occupied in another room, Elliott was locked in what’s known as an edit war, while using a different account than the one that had earned him his earlier plaudits. Elliott was convinced that his detailed account of Salim Mehajer’s traffic violations, including an occasion in 2012 when he ran over two women in his car, belonged on the site. His interlocutor, another Australian editor of prominent standing within the community, remained unconvinced. “I don’t like the guy either, but Wikipedia’s policies on undue weight, original research and biographies of living people don’t not apply because you don’t like someone,” the second editor wrote, mistaking Elliott’s industrious research for bias against Mehajer. On several occasions, this second editor had reverted these lengthy additions, before using one particular adjective to describe Elliott’s work: obsessive.

    Their bickering had been brewing for several days. The pair went back and forth in the article’s ‘talk’ page, which is linked in the top left corner of every entry on the site. Elliott argued passionately for his cause, and at one point logged out of his account to back up his own argument anonymously; these contributions were tagged with his IP address. Two days earlier, he had responded anonymously to another editor, writing, “I fart in your general direction, which is a hell of a lot more pleasant than editing Wikipedia, I can tell you!” After reviewing the conflict, a site administrator decided to ban Elliott on that Tuesday night. “Given the seriousness of this conduct, I’ve set the block duration to indefinite,” noted the admin.

    Elliott’s mind was on fire. Already short-fused from several months of unemployment and recent health and financial woes, he felt overwhelmed with stress. As he sat fuming in front of the screen, his wife approached and asked him to help put their children to bed. The request startled him, and he reacted with a flash of fury. Elliott immediately regretted his anger. Stunned and embarrassed, he grabbed his phone and keys, hopped into a white Hyundai, and sped off.

    After driving for a while, he parked outside a local school and switched off the engine. He pulled out his iPhone and started typing a lengthy email. Titled “The End” and sent to a public Wikipedia mailing list watched by thousands of people around the world, late on the evening of Tuesday, May 17, Elliott’s email begins, “I’ve just been blocked forever. I’ve been bullied, and I’m having suicidal thoughts.”

    More than 2,000 words later, after recounting the events surrounding his ban in the exhaustive manner of a man well-versed in defending his position to nitpicking online strangers, he wrote, “I know I’m not well. I have fought this feeling for a decade.” Elliott ended with this: “I sit here in my car and contemplate suicide. My despair is total. There is not a kind one amongst you.You have taken my right of appeal, my ability to protest and my dignity. You have let others mock me, and I have failed to contribute to Wikipedia’s great mission—one I feel so keenly. I failed. I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I will drive, I don’t know where. I pray my family forgives me.”

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel. Above illustration by Laurent Hrybyk.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Roll On, Robot: Self-driving cars’, June 2016

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the June 18-19 issue. Excerpt below.

    Roll On, Robot

    Self-driving cars are fun, and they might improve safety, but are the regulators ready for them?

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Roll On, Robot: Self-driving cars' by Andrew McMillen, June 2016. Photo by Eddie Safarik

    On a midweek afternoon I’m standing on a busy street in inner-city Brisbane, watching traffic. The clock has just struck three, which means that school pick-ups are coinciding with tradies knocking off for the day from nearby construction sites. In a few minutes I’m passed by dust-flecked utes, sedans with baby boosters in the backseat, four-wheel drives, council buses, vans, motorcycles and hatchbacks. In control of each vehicle is a regular human driver – a fallible, distraction-prone entity with a limited field of vision.

    It could be any day, anywhere in Australia. But then a sleek grey car glides up to where I’m standing. If I wasn’t expecting it, I wouldn’t have heard it: the Tesla Model S is practically silent, powered by electricity stored in lithium-ion batteries rather than petrol. Its best trick, however, is hidden within the array of computer systems behind the dashboard, and it’s a feature that’s likely to change the nature of personal transport. In contrast to the other vehicles that have passed me this afternoon, this one has the ability to drive itself.

    The car’s owner, Jon Atherton, loves Tesla’s Autopilot feature. He recently engaged it at 4am one Saturday, soon after leaving his inner Brisbane home and merging onto the near-empty M1 motorway. For 75km or so, all the way to the Gold Coast, the car drove itself and its human cargo – Atherton and his 16-year old daughter, Minna – to swimming practice. From the driver’s seat he recorded a short video of the trip showing the car holding firm in a central lane and taking a slight corner at a steady speed of 103km/h. The steering wheel turns without Atherton’s touch. The footage, posted on Facebook, is at once eerie, futuristic and hair-raising.

    This technological shift towards automation presents a raft of challenging and complex issues for state and federal regulators. Adding to the complexity is the fact that Atherton woke up one morning late last year to find that the software system had automatically updated itself. Suddenly, Autopilot became a standard feature for tens of thousands of Tesla Model S owners across the world. How can state and federal governments regulate that kind of overnight innovation?

    ++

    I hop in the Tesla with Atherton that midweek afternoon and as we head north towards the airport he engages Autopilot with a subtle double-pull of the cruise control stalk located behind the wheel. In that moment, the trip shifts from test drive to joyride. It’s not until I witness his car driving itself, with my own fallible optical sensors, that the possibilities of this technology unlock in my mind.

    As we pass through the AirportLink tunnel at 80km/h, Atherton says, “It’s doing a pretty good job of keeping us safe, and balancing the distance between all of the things around us.” Just as a human would, I note. “The thing is, this computer is not distracted, or distractible,” he replies, looking me in the eye, hands off the wheel. “Even if somebody comes screaming up beside us, it’ll try to keep us out of trouble. If you started to show me a message on your phone, I could get distracted and veer off the road. But the car’s less likely to do that.”

    When Autopilot was first released, Atherton – a tanned, 50-year-old mobile app developer and entrepreneur – compared the feeling of handing over control to the software to relinquishing the driver’s seat to a learner driver. “I didn’t feel 100 per cent comfortable with something else being in charge,” he says. His anxiety soon passed when he saw how well the technology worked. That 4am trip to the Gold Coast in January is a perfect example. “It drove the whole way, and I didn’t touch the steering wheel or change the speed,” he says. “A couple of times cars pulled in front of us and it just slowed down, sat in the middle lane and cruised along.”

    At this stage, Tesla’s Autopilot cannot wholly replace a human driver: it requires well-painted line markings to locate the lane, its cameras can’t tell the difference between green and red traffic lights and it won’t obey stop signs – that’s still up to the human behind the wheel. Tesla advises against total hands-free driving and if a driver removes their hands, a display near the dash shows the message: “Please keep your hands on the wheel”. But essentially, the responsibility lies with the driver as to whether or not they do so.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: Eddie Safarik.

  • The Kernel story: ‘The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer, Brett Christensen’, May 2016

    A story for The Kernel, published in May 2016. Excerpt below.

    The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer

    Thirteen years ago, Brett Christensen was the victim of an email hoax. Since then, he’s dedicated himself to preventing the same fate for others.

    The Kernel story: 'The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer' by Andrew McMillen, May 2016. Illustration by J. Longo

    For 13 years, Brett Christensen has been a committed professional debunker. This balding, bearded, soft-spoken, and serious man of 53 years has devoted himself to fighting the tide of online misinformation—the kind of scams, frauds, and hoaxes that used to spread from one inbox to the next but today move with alarming speed across social media. He assures readers that no, Mr. T is not dead (actually a like-farming scam); combining Mentos and Pepsi won’t lead to cyanide poisoning; and the sun won’t be going dark for eight days in June, no matter what that Facebook post quotes NASA as saying.

    In short, Christensen tries to bring his readers the facts, even as lies and mistruth swirl all around him. Way back in 2003, when he began his quest, he gave his website the suitably ambitious name, Hoax-Slayer. Its white, red, and black design favors practicality over aesthetics; while not particularly pretty to look at, the site is one of the Web’s largest archives of falsehoods. Christensen claims around 1 million visits per month, three-quarters of which arrive from search engines.

    The Hoax Slayer himself lives in a house hidden by trees on a busy street in Bundaberg, Australia, a city of about 55,000 people situated in Queensland, the country’s third most populous state. His home office is a minimally appointed room with an adjustable desk, a copy machine, a single computer monitor, and plenty of unused space. One of the walls is painted blue, and on either side of the monitor hangs a calendar and a framed assortment of Christensen family photos.

    As we talk, Christensen clicks onto Google Analytics, showing 50 people from around the world are currently browsing the site. Its social media presence is significant, too, with more than 202,000 Facebook fans and 5,300 Twitter followers.

    For a time, the site operated as a family business: At the peak of online advertising revenue a few years ago, he could afford to hire two sons from his previous marriage to help him with Web development and maintenance. “If you’d told me back in 2004 that I’d been making a living out of it, I would’ve laughed at you,” he says.

    Christensen’s wife, Deborah, also joined her husband in working on the site full-time for a few years but recently decided to return to her job as a probation and parole officer, managing the cases of criminal offenders. Today, about 80 percent of Christensen’s workweek is spent on managing Hoax Slayer, a site whose mission statement is “to help make the Internet a safer, more pleasant and more productive environment.”

    It’s a quest that started with a hoax. Nothing too terrible; in fact, just a bit of mild embarrassment. Back in the early 2000s, when Christensen was still new to the World Wide Web, he received an email informing him not to download a Budweiser Frogs screensaver, as it contained a dangerous computer virus. He hurriedly forwarded it to his contacts. He thought he’d done the right thing by warning his friends and family away from harm—until he received a reply that it was a hoax. Stunned and chastened, he was also intrigued by how he’d become a victim. Rather than simply chalking it up to experience and moving on, he burrowed in.

    To read the full story, visit The Kernel. Above illustration credit: J. Longo.

  • The Kernel story: ‘How The World’s Greatest Hand-Fart Musician Captivated Millions On YouTube’, October 2015

    A story for The Kernel, published in October 2015. Excerpt below.

    How The World’s Greatest Hand-Fart Musician Captivated Millions On YouTube

    Gerry Phillips got to travel the world making noises with his hands, and Iron Maiden loves him.

    The Kernel story: 'How The World’s Greatest Hand-fart Musician Captivated Millions On YouTube' by Andrew McMillen, October 2015. Illustration by J. Longo

    Beneath a tin shed during a hot summer in Melbourne, Australia, a bespectacled, middle-aged man sits on a stool before a small crowd. He pairs a white shirt and shoes with black slacks, looking every inch the kind of unremarkable guy you’d pass on the street without giving him a second glance. Today, though, the cameras are trained on him, as are the eyes of the 20-strong production crew. He’s here to play music, and he’s traveled thousands of miles to do so. His name is Gerry Phillips, and his music follows him wherever he goes, because his instruments are a part of him.

    His task on this December morning in 2007 is to perform the “Infernal Galop” from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, a rousing, bouncy number most associated with images of high-kicking can-can girls. To complicate matters, however, he has been asked to play a different version—one he hears for the first time only a few minutes before filming begins.

    The cameras roll, and as the string introduction plays out for a few bars, he applies a touch of baby powder to his hands before passing the tiny bottle off to a stagehand. Three times he squeezes his hands together, smiling slightly when they produce a sound best described as flatulent.

    And then he’s off, the muscles and tendons in his mighty hands rapidly contracting and relaxing with a dexterity that approaches the sublime. A microphone underneath his shirt captures the space between his palms filling with air and being emptied just as quickly. Against a kitsch living room backdrop, this unlikely musician works that temporary vacuum to deftly perform the “Infernal Galop” in a style few have ever heard. The music that he makes is so surprising, so breathtaking, that some in attendance cannot stop themselves from laughing. Nobody plays music like Gerry Phillips, a man whose hands have been heard around the world.

    After one final, triumphant note, the crowd breaks into applause, and even Phillips seems surprised to nail it on his first attempt. “Wow,” he says softly, returning his instruments to his lap. Off-camera, someone says, “All right!” An onscreen tagline appears: “Exceptionally average.”

    Even eight years later, Kristian Jamieson remembers this day well, because he’s the one who booked Phillips to fly around the world and appear in an advertising campaign. Jamieson, now 41, is creative director at a communications agency named Marilyn & Sons. His client was Pacific Brands, and the product was Dunlop Volley, a popular but unremarkable brand of Australian footwear. “We wrote the line ‘exceptionally average’ because the campaign was based on being brutally honest about the product,” Jamieson recalls. “But at the time, everyone was wearing them, from hipsters to tradesmen.”

    The original concept developed by Marilyn & Sons was for the camera to slowly pan from someone’s head to their feet in a single shot. “But halfway down, we wanted them to be doing something amazing,” Jamieson says. “So we started Googling people who can do crazy things with their hands, and we came across Gerry playing this ridiculous music.” At that point Phillips had been posting videos for a year. To date, his YouTube account has amassed 24 million views across more than 170 videos. Impressively, virtually all of his videos are shot in a single take: There are no edits, and if he flubs a note, he starts over. And he’s covered a broad range of musical styles, from the classic heavy metal of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” (3.4 million views) and the Super Mario Bros. theme (2.6 million views) to ’80s pop hits like A-ha’s “Take On Me” (947,000 views) and the tricky instrumental piece “Classical Gas” (153,000 views).

    To read the full story, visit The Kernel. Above illustration credit: J. Longo.

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Heroin Heroine of Reddit’, July 2015

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

    The Heroin Heroine of Reddit

    How a former addict uses the internet to save drug users’ lives

    'The Heroin Heroine of Reddit' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, July 2015

    On a quiet night in late April, Brad Treseler slipped off to his bedroom at his family’s home in Cumberland, Virginia. His friends kept on chatting in the living room, but after a few minutes they began to wonder what Brad was up to. They found the 25-year-old slumped on the floor of his room, blue and unresponsive. He had overdosed on heroin and benzodiazepine.

    Brad’s friends cycled through the options. They could call 911, but the responders might not arrive in time and might tip off the police. Or they could run to the apartment next door and wake Treseler’s older brother, Bill. They knew that Bill had a small vial containing a clear liquid called naloxone, which can counteract the effects of an opiate overdose. In a panic, they opted to make the short sprint and bang on Bill’s door.

    Together, they carried Brad into the bathtub and cranked on the shower. Bill dipped a syringe into the vial and drew in the naloxone, then injected the the liquid into the fatty part of Brad’s thigh. Nothing happened, so Bill refilled the syringe and injected him again. Brad stirred, and opened his eyes to see his brother and terrified friends peering down at him. As he came to, he thought: This is what being dead is like.

    Brad had acquired two vials of the naloxone months earlier. Some states—including New Mexico, Washington, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and California—allow it to be sold over the counter. But it is illegal in Virginia, so Brad received his shipment in the mail from an unlikely source: the online forum Reddit.

    Brad is an active member of the Opiates subreddit, a lively forum where queries about safe injection practices and rehabilitation are posted alongside tactics for hustling cash and coping with constipation, an unwelcome side effect of frequent opioid use. He saw a thread where a moderator known as the “mother of r/opiates,” named Tracey Helton, was offering to send clean needles to fellow Redditors. When he reached out to Tracey about the free needles, which were rare in his scene, she told him that the package included naloxone. Brad replied, “Oh man, that’s awesome! That’s a great idea!”

    Five days later, a yellow padded envelope arrived from San Francisco, where Tracey lives. Inside was a bag of clean syringes, two vials of naloxone and a post-it note with a hand-drawn smiley face. “I thought, ‘Holy crap!’ I didn’t send her any money. All I did was send her one little message,” Brad says. “Somebody out there cares that much.”

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.