All posts tagged feature-journalism

  • 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 Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Over Troubled Water: Suicide at Brisbane’s Story Bridge’, September 2015

    A story for the September 5 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    Over Troubled Water

    The Story Bridge is a beautiful Brisbane landmark – but it’s also a site of untold misery

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Over Troubled Water: Suicide at Brisbane's Story Bridge' by Andrew McMillen, September 2015

    It was raining on the morning that Troy Aggett decided to end his life. Shirtless and ­shoeless, the 39-year-old drove from Logan, 25km south of Brisbane, to the Story Bridge, the city’s key visual icon linking the suburbs of Fortitude Valley and Kangaroo Point. He obeyed the speed limit and all traffic signals on the way there. “There was no urgency to what I was doing,” he says. “There was no rush.” He hadn’t slept the night before. It was March 22, 2012, a Thursday, when he parked near the bridge at around 6.30am and hastily wrote an apology note to a long-lost friend: “Sorry I couldn’t catch up.” Helpfully, he placed his driver’s licence inside the note, so that police could identify him.

    While the rain fell steadily, Aggett strolled up to the 1072m-long bridge, which is traversed by 30 million vehicles annually. Though scared of heights, he paused every now and then to look over the edge. When he found the highest point over a pathway in Captain Burke Park below, he stopped and checked out the drop: 30m onto a hard surface. He didn’t want to land in the ­Brisbane River, as people have been known to survive the watery impact. All that stood between his troubled life and his certain death that morning was a 138cm-high fence.

    Aggett had reached this point of despair after 19 months of sick leave from his job as an ­Australian Federal Police officer, where he had turned whistleblower against what he perceived to be a poisonous and corrupt culture, triggering a drawn-out court action which he ultimately won. He was near rock bottom, having lost everything he cared about. “It was just a private moment; I wasn’t trying to cause a scene, I wasn’t trying to get people involved,” he says. What he didn’t count on was that a passerby – an off-duty member of the Royal Australian Air Force – was quick enough to grab his arm as he swung over the barrier, locked elbows so that Aggett couldn’t drop, and began a conversation. Soon, two police officers were on the scene to hear his final wish: “Just bury me when I’m done. A pauper’s funeral; I don’t care. Just scrape me up nicely, and put me in a box. That’s enough.”

    This story has a happy ending. After three hours of negotiation – most of which took place while Aggett stood holding on to the outside of the railing with three fingers of his right hand, near-naked and shivering – he gave permission to be strapped into a bright red firefighter’s ­harness and brought back over the railing. Within moments he was covered with a fluorescent yellow raincoat to shield him from the cold. Spent from the exertion of holding himself in a precarious position all that time, he dropped to the bitumen. A policeman leaned down and pressed his head against Aggett’s, while nearby officers comforted him with pats on the back. A female officer lent over the barrier and gave the thumbs-up signal to paramedics who had gathered beneath a tree in the park below to shelter from the steady rainfall, stretcher at the ready. A fire engine with its cherry picker ladder extension that had been waiting out of sight, in the shadow of the Story Bridge, was no longer needed. Raincoat-clad police officers waiting nearby were at last able to breathe a sigh of relief.

    On that morning, some two dozen emergency services staff were focused solely on bringing Aggett back from the brink. His life was all that mattered. What’s remarkable about the scene, however, is that its final minutes were captured by a member of the public who happened to be filming from a high-rise apartment across the Brisbane River, on the outskirts of the CBD. A zoom lens framed the scene in extraordinary detail as the amateur director shakily panned to ensure that every emotion was writ in high definition. The care and compassion on display in the four-minute video is humbling. It was uploaded to YouTube on the day of the incident, tagged: “Australian trying to commit suicide”.

    Aggett found the footage around two years later. He has watched the video of this low moment in his life several times, enthralled and a little embarrassed. Today he’s 43, healthy, married, running his own flooring business, and able to speak frankly about that day on the bridge. “I keep an eye out for people who do jump: where they jumped, how many jumped, whether it was successful or not,” he says between sips of a cool drink at a Brisbane cafe, his wife by his side. “It’s just curiosity, I think. It’s hard to explain, but it feels like I’ve got a connection to these people now. I know what they’re going through, inside.”

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

    World Suicide Prevention Day coincided with RUOK? Day on September 10 2015; details at wspd.org.au. For help, contact: Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467, Lifeline 13 11 14, Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, Headspace 1800 650 890, Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636, Survivors of Suicide Bereavement Support 1300 767 022.

  • 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.

  • Backchannel story: ‘This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar’, May 2015

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

    This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar

    I tried taking lessons. I tried reading guitar tabs online. The only thing that worked was Rocksmith.

    'This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, Medium.com, May 2015

    Music has long struck me as a kind of magic. In terms of my life essentials, it ranks only just below oxygen, food, water, shelter and love. For 11 years I have been attempting to conjure some of that magic myself by learning to play guitar.

    Yet for most of those years I practiced fitfully, and at some point I stopped improving. When my progress plateaued, so did my enthusiasm. Despite the pleasure I derive from watching a person with a six-string plugged into an amplifier, plucking and strumming to elicit beautiful noise, I seemed destined to never fully master this iconic instrument.

    But then I discovered a video game that rekindled my obsession. It’s calledRocksmith, and it is designed specifically to teach people to play guitar. Earlier games, namely Guitar Hero and Rock Band, had shown that tens of millions of people could become hooked on playing fake, simplified instruments while fake, simplified musical scores scrolled down their televisions. After clocking in several jam sessions, many players even began to sound competent. But that expertise evaporated the second the game shut off.

    Laurent Detoc, the North America president of Ubisoft, a game development studio, hated the gulf that separated actual and simulated musicianship. In 2011 he told the San Francisco Business Times, “I just could not believe the amount of waste that had gone in people spending so much time with plastic guitars.” His company had assigned some designers to figuring out how to make playing real guitars just as fun for gamers as jamming on a plastic replica. What they came up with is, to my mind, the purest demonstration of the power of gamification—using the principles of game play to make actual learning feel addictive. Case in point: I’ve learned to play more songs in two and a half years with Rocksmith than in the previous eight years of lackluster progress combined.

    My attempts to learn guitar followed a path familiar to many teenage rock enthusiasts. They began with an acoustic guitar my parents gave me in 2004, for my sixteenth birthday, and weekly lessons with a tutor. My teacher—a bookish, chubby, middle-aged man who looked nothing like Jimi Hendrix—was prescriptive in his instruction. He told me that my left thumb mustremain pointing skyward against the back of the neck, regardless of the notes or chord shape required. This dictum puzzled and infuriated me, as none of the popular musicians I’d seen in music videos were so staid in their playing; rather, they were fluid and catlike. I wanted to be like them.

    Learning to read music was an unwelcome chore, too, especially when my setlist consisted of nursery rhymes to be wrung out one note at a time. I wanted to learn guitar because an expert player sounded and looked cool, yet there wasn’t much that was cool about my tutor’s dry approach. So I quit lessons.

    Many of my favorite songs—from bands such as Tool, Led Zeppelin, Metallica and Rage Against The Machine—sounded thin and bloodless when ineptly fretted on an acoustic guitar. Eventually, my wallet lined with money saved from my first job as a dishwasher at a Sizzler restaurant, I acquired the desired technological upgrade: an electric guitar—a handsome, dark blue copy of the classic Fender Stratocaster—and a 30-watt amp.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

    Note: I also published two outtakes from this story on Medium.com, which are essentially ‘deleted scenes’ from the longer story. The first is about Rocksmith’s origins, and the second is about the process through which Ubisoft licenses popular music to appear in Rocksmith.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Orange Crush: Thomas Broich’, April 2014

    A story for Qweekend, published in the April 5-6 issue of the magazine: a profile of Brisbane Roar footballer Thomas Broich. An excerpt appears underneath; click the image below to view a PDF version.

    Orange Crush

    His sublime skills made Thomas Broich one of Queensland’s most welcome sports imports. And his move from Germany not only revived his passion for football but gave Brisbane Roar a man for all seasons.

    Qweekend story: 'Orange Crush: Thomas Broich' by Andrew McMillen, April 2014

    Story by Andrew McMillen / Photography by Russell Shakespeare

    The Saturday morning sun warms the lawn as 20 or so men in orange shirts follow the path of a round ball. Players yelp after bone-shaking tackles and groan at the sight of missed shots skirting the crossbar. Complimentary coffee and bacon-and-egg burgers are on offer for the crowd that has gathered outside Ballymore Stadium in Brisbane’s inner-north Herston for this open members’ training session.

    Wendy Shaw stands with arms crossed beside a sign that reads Beware: flying footballs. The 55-year-old supermarket manager hasn’t missed a Roar home game since the club’s inception nine years ago. She stares intently at number 22, a tall, tanned man with dark hair and green boots.

    “He’s had a shave, that’s always a good thing,” she laughs. “That’s one of our superstitions – if Thomas has a shave, it means we’re going to win!”

    Just out of earshot, attacking midfielder Thomas Broich is delivering cross after cross to the team’s strikers, who attempt to put the ball past goalkeeper Michael Theo. The 33-year-old Broich – who earlier this year played his 100th game for the club – has been a professional footballer for nearly half his life, and has been subject to intense media and fan scrutiny.

    After a rollercoaster ride of a career throughout the 2000s in the German premier league, the Bundesliga – the world’s most attended football competition – Broich was near the end of his tether, and considering quitting. It took a timely transfer to a club halfway around the world to reignite his passion.

    Since he first wore the orange jersey in the 2010-11 season, Brisbane Roar has been a consistent presence at the pointy end of the A-League, winning two of the past three championships.

    A home game on March 22 saw the team secure its second premiership in four years; the match-winner arrived in the 92nd minute, when Broich attracted the close attention of four Melbourne Victory defenders before he passed to midfielder Luke Brattan, whose pinpoint strike sealed the game 1-0. The team heads into the finals series as favourites to take its third championship.

    ++

    So deafening was the buzz surrounding the young midfielder in the seasons leading up to his Bundesliga debut that a television journalist named Aljoscha Pause approached him in 2003 with a tempting offer: to be the subject of a feature-length documentary, the first such film portrait of a German footballer.

    “I wanted to find somebody who would be charismatic enough to carry a whole film, and intelligent enough to reflect the business from inside – not an easy task,” Pause tells Qweekend. At the time, Broich was 22 and playing in the second-division Bundesliga; the project was initially scheduled for two years.

    “It was meant to show me break through into a big club, or the national team,” says Broich. “Then it just turned to shit. Excuse my language!” He gives a sheepish grin, momentarily forgetting his well-practised media manners. “It went the complete other way. That’s when the project became interesting for completely different reasons – it wasn’t about the rise of a footballer any more, it was more about the fall of a footballer.”

    Pause estimates that the pair spent about 400 hours filming together, over the course of eight years and several club transfers, first with Borussia Mönchengladbach (2003-06); later, FC Köln (’06-’09); and finally, with FC Nürnberg (’09-10). The pair became close during the process, which made Pause’s job more difficult; the line between filmmaker and friend became blurred. The result, Tom Meets Zizou, was released in 2011 and charts Broich’s youthful naivety.

    Early on, the football press picked up on his preferences for classical music and philosophy, dubbing him “Mozart”. The youngster was eager to please, and played up to the caricature by posing for photographs while engaged in intellectual activities such as reading, chess, and playing piano. These points of difference weren’t particularly well received in the hyper-masculine world of professional football. Says Broich with a grimace in 2014: “I look at the young guy in the film and think, oh my god, you’re so stupid. Who do you think you are?”

    Ultimately, the film chronicles an optimistic, skilled young player being gradually worn down by a ruthless industry. It was only when then-Brisbane Roar coach Ange Postecoglou travelled to Germany to offer Broich a lifeline that a fitting dénouement became clear.

    “When I hit rock bottom, I made the decision to come to Australia, and that’s where the fairytale started for me,” says Broich. “For the first time in years, I was able to enjoy my football again.”

    The film ends with the Roar’s spectacular first grand final in March 2011. Before a record home crowd of more than 50,000, Brisbane was down 2-0 to the Central Coast Mariners with just three minutes of extra time remaining. It would take something remarkable to claw back the scoreline. In response, Broich made a casual assist in front of goal to the Brazilian striker Henrique, who netted the chance and made it 2-1. Then, in the 120th minute, Broich sent a corner kick onto the head of fellow midfielder Erik Paartalu, who tied the game, resulting in a penalty shoot-out won by the home team. It was Broich’s first championship trophy. He was 30 years old.

    To read the full story, visit The Courier-Mail.

     

  • CNET story: ‘Josephmark: the Australian architects of the new Myspace’, January 2013

    A feature for CNET Australia; my first story for the site. Excerpt below.

    Josephmark: the Australian architects of the new Myspace

    The Brisbane design studio tasked with rebuilding Myspace tells CNET Australia about its vision for bringing Myspace its sexy back.

    "Josephmark: the Australian architects of the new Myspace" story for CNET Australia by Andrew McMillen, January 2013

    Picture a racehorse wearing blinkers, galloping across the turf, completely oblivious to its competitors. The animal runs its own race, at its own pace, never for a moment considering whether it’s leading or whether it might ultimately win. This is the image used by Ben Johnston, co-founder of Brisbane-based digital design studio Josephmark, when describing the ethos of a unique Australian team that has just put the finishing touches on a refreshed version of Myspace.

    Speaking exclusively to CNET Australia, studio director Johnston was enjoying a rare opportunity to touch base in Brisbane with Josephmark’s general manager Carl Watney and creative director Jess Huddart. The studio’s 21-strong team has scarcely been in the same room in the last year, when Josephmark [pictured above] landed a contract to retool the world’s first truly global social network.

    Johnston prefers the racehorse-with-blinkers analogy because he lives by the same mantra in his personal life. “[The point is] not to win a race, but to not get distracted by what’s on either side of you,” the 29-year-old said. “You set your own benchmarks, I guess. That, joined with a sense of curiosity, is what drives us to work, to go beyond a brief — to invest heavily in our own learning.”

    The blinkers are evidently helping. All three Josephmark leaders told CNET Australia that they can’t name any other company in the design sector that they aspire to emulate. “There are aspects of other companies [that appeal], but I think we inherently live those traits,” said Johnston. “It feels good, because it means that as a company, we’re leading — even if we’re going in the wrong direction!” he laughed.

    Though Josephmark has driven unique web design projects in recent years — including real-time music chart We Are Hunted and Australian independent journalism hub The Global Mail — this is the first time it is competing on the world’s stage as Myspace’s design and vision partners.

    The pitch

    Five design studios were invited to tender for the Myspace partnership; four of those were based in North America. The invitation arrived at just the right time for Josephmark. “Past clients helped firm up our resolve about what we know, and how we know things can work, too,” said general manager Watney. “If you’re going to do something bold and radical, and it’s design-led, the design has to overcome bureaucracy and egos and whatever else might be involved, and actually push through it. We have to stick to our guns if we’re committing to something of this size.”

    Josephmark’s approach to the Myspace tender was straightforward. They simply asked themselves, “If Myspace was ours, what would we do with it?” Though the brief was “quite thorough”, creative director Jess Huddart said that the team soon decided to ignore it.

    “We looked at it and went, ‘if you do what you think you want, then we’re just going to end up creating what you already have. That’s not going to solve this massive problem that’s ahead of you’,” Huddart recalled. “Then we took ownership of it, and I think that’s a massive difference between us and perhaps other studios in their responses. Rather than just simply doing what the client’s asking you to do, we actually own it as if it’s our own project.”

    “There’s a certain boldness in that [approach],” admitted Johnston, “but effectively, it comes back to how we value our own time.” Josephmark didn’t approach the project with a pay cheque in mind. The studio saw this as an opportunity to make a real difference to an ailing, yet historic online media brand. “Obviously, there were certain things in the back of our minds, like, ‘it’s f***ing Myspace! Is there a chance for this thing to turn around?” And what would it take to turn it around?'” Johnston said.

    The solution developed by Josephmark was delivered as a video pitch — which Johnston described as a “two and a half minute narrative capsule with a voiceover that painted a picture of what Myspace could be” — accompanied by a more traditional pitch document. “Unbeknown to us, the video went down extremely well, to the point where [Myspace executives] called everyone in and showed the whole company, saying ‘this is where we’re going!’ This is before they even engaged with us.” That video then went on to be used in the company’s sales pitches as they sought potential partners.

    Josephmark’s pitch became the company’s decisive flag in the ground, allowing the company to state proudly: “This is what we’re doing.”

    For the full story, visit CNET Australia. More on Josephmark here.