All posts tagged feature journalism

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Shock Tactics: Preventing trauma in Australian teenagers’, November 2016

    A feature story for Good Weekend, published in the November 19 issue. Excerpt below.

    Shock Tactics

    As Schoolies Week kicks off around the country, emergency specialists are using hard-core methods – graphic dashcam videos, horrific injury images, emergency-room simulations – to deter adolescents from risk-taking behaviour.

    Good Weekend story: 'Shock Tactics: Preventing trauma in Australian teenagers' by Brisbane freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, November 2016

    It looks like a classroom, but today there’ll be no maths, English or history. It is a Wednesday towards the end of 2016’s final term, and no ordinary school day. Today’s curriculum will be taken largely from life experience, and the lessons will revolve around confronting simulations of what these students’ lives might be like if they don’t think before they act.

    This group of about 30 year 10 students from St Peters Lutheran College, in the inner-west Brisbane suburb of Indooroopilly, has travelled across the city to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH), at Herston in the inner-north. All aged 15 or thereabouts, the boys wear short-sleeved white shirts with maroon ties, grey shorts and black shoes, while the girls wear long white dresses with vertical maroon stripes. Just like in any average high-school classroom, the front row of seats is empty – other than two teachers overseeing the group – and the back row is mostly occupied by boys, who provide a constant stream of whispered wisecracks to one another.

    Today, the hospital is hosting what’s known as the PARTY Program. The acronym stands for Prevent Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth. It’s a concept licensed from an initiative that began 30 years ago at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, Canada, and now operates out of 15 sites across Australia, including every state and territory besides the Northern Territory. PARTY began at the RBWH in 2010, and since then, 51 schools and more than 3000 students have participated in a day-long, intensive itinerary of hands-on activities and talks designed to open these bright young eyes to some of the difficult situations and decisions they’ll be exposed to as they edge from adolescence into young adulthood.

    “Some of the things that you see, hear, feel and smell today may give you some feelings you haven’t had before,” says statewide program coordinator Jodie Ross. “It’s quite normal that you might feel a bit off at points. If you feel a bit ill, or feel that you might faint, please let us know, and don’t run away to the toilet. We have had a young boy who fainted in there, and it was really hard to get him out.” At this, she is met with a few chuckles. “Today, we want you to learn from other peoples’ poor choices, because we want to see you come back here as doctors, nurses or allied health people – but definitely not as patients.”‘

    Ross has worked here as a nurse since 1996, and still puts in the occasional shift with the trauma team when needed, but coordinating this program at hospitals and schools across Queensland is her full-time job. Laidback in nature, the 41-year-old mother of two marries a warm presence with a wry sense of humour, yet some of what she has seen inside this building across two decades has informed her own parenting. “I have a 13-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, and they already know they’re never allowed to ride a motorbike, or even think about getting on one,” she says with a laugh. “I think I’ve scared them off, which is great.”

    The morning’s first guest speaker is Danielle Brown, a paramedic who has been with the Queensland Ambulance Service for more than a decade. She wears dark green cover-alls, pink lipstick and bright red fingernails. “I’m here to tell you about consequences,” she says, as the screen behind her flicks onto an image of a car wrapped around a pole, surrounded by emergency services workers. “If you ever do find yourself in a situation with us, please just know that we’re not here to make things worse for you, or get you in trouble. We’re here to look after you.”

    When she asks whether any of the students have visited the emergency department, a few of the boys raise their hands; all sporting injuries, as it turns out. Brown talks about alcohol and drug use, and about assault injuries. “Aggression isn’t cool,” she tells the group before she leaves. “For those guys out there trying to impress girls, can I just tell you – we’re really after the gentlemen, the funny guys. There’s no point in trying to impress someone by being ‘tough’.”

    Ross moves onto discussing sexually transmitted infections, and the kids crack up at how she frames the lifelong consequences that can come from a few minutes of fun, such as having to tell every sexual partner from that point on, “I’ve got a bit of herpes – hope you don’t mind!”

    Although none of these students have their learners’ licences yet, she dwells on the topic of road safety for some time – which makes sense, since the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads is the program’s primary funding source: in August, it provided an additional $1.54 million to keep the statewide initiative topped up for another three years. During this part of the presentation, the screen shows dashcam footage from cars where teenage drivers were distracted by their phones. These videos are horrifying to watch: the drivers’ eyes remain in their laps, even as the car veers outside the painted lines and towards needless trauma.

    To read the full story, visit Good Weekend‘s website, where you can also see a short film by photographer Paul Harris that was recorded on the day we attended the P.A.R.T.Y. program. For more about the program, visit its website.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Different Strokes: Anthony Lister’, April 2016

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the April 9-10 issue. Excerpt below.

    Different Strokes

    Renowned street artist Anthony Lister was paid to beautify public spaces – then he was arrested for it.The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Different Strokes: Anthony Lister' by Andrew McMillen, April 2016

    One of Australia’s great modern artists traipses up and down the inner-city streets of his home town wearing a high-visibility yellow vest atop a white polo shirt and shorts. His tool today is not charcoal, paintbrush or aerosol can but an extendable claw that he uses to pick up rubbish from the footpaths and gutters of Spring Hill, Brisbane. On this gloomy Saturday morning in mid-February, Anthony Lister is ­performing community service because two weeks earlier a magistrate found him guilty of ­wilful damage by graffiti in a case brought by Brisbane City Council – which first encouraged Lister to paint its traffic signal boxes in 1999.

    The irony of this situation is not lost on a man who rejects the label “artist” in favour of “adventure painter”. Lister donated his time for that council initiative, painting 120 boxes in total. In the years that followed he was paid to paint more of them by the Department of Main Roads, earning him enough to set out on the path to international renown. Yet in an abrupt about-face several years ago, BCC endeavoured to make an example of the artist whose work they once encouraged. This morning, a man whose artistic ethos is to beautify degraded ­public spaces with paint is now tasked with beautifying them by picking up rubbish.

    A middle-aged Queensland Government worker meets the crew, comprising Lister and three fellow ­community servants, at a Corrective Services building on Little Edward Street at 9am and chaperones them on a winding route through the neighbourhood. Had the government worker typed Lister’s name into Google, he would have found recent news articles which note that ­Lister’s bold, provocative works hang in the homes of Hugh Jackman, Geoffrey Rush and the musician Pink. He would have seen that Lister’s individual paintings can sell for up to $20,000, that Art Collector magazine has listed him as one of Australia’s most collectable artists, that ­Complex named him among the most influential street artists of all time and that luxury brand Hermès gave over its window in Collins Street, Melbourne, to a Lister installation last year.

    As the community servants pass the Australian Federal Police headquarters and St Andrew’s War Memorial hospital, their black plastic bags grow heavier with each squashed aluminium can and discarded plastic bottle they snatch with their extendable claws. Lister, a boyish 36-year-old and father of three, smiles often and ­presents an air of playful charisma that infects those around him. He speaks quickly, at a near-manic pace. He is an idealist and an optimist who, in recent years, has taken it upon himself to act as a mouthpiece for street artists.

    Past Brisbane Grammar School and the ­bustling Roma Street railyards they walk, noting the dearth of tagged graffiti that once coloured the walls neighbouring the carriages and train lines; they are now painted a uniform grey. The group tramps past six signal boxes that Lister painted around the turn of the century. They have since been refreshed with other artists’ work, but he remembers them well. There are around 1000 of these throughout Brisbane, and after painting 120 of them for BCC for free, an agreement with the Department of Main Roads allowed Lister to charge $250 a piece for 40 of these paintings, earning him his first $10,000 as an artist and setting him on the path to financial independence.

    “He did a tremendous job with the signal boxes and should be commended for it,” says David Hinchliffe, Brisbane’s former deputy mayor, who first commissioned Lister’s work on the BCC boxes in 1999. “He should be given the keys to the city in my opinion.” All up, Lister left his mark and his surname on about 160 signal boxes, turning drab, utilitarian electrical cabinets into unique canvases that added colour and personality to the days of thousands of drivers idling at red lights throughout the city.

    In court, Lister admitted that he painted two Fortitude Valley walls, a Paddington skateboard park wall, a city firehose box and a steel garage door in Elizabeth Street. He says that of the five sites, two were painted with the permission of the buildings’ owners, while two were additions to other artists’ works. The charge that stuck related to one of Lister’s iconic faces, drawn on a firehose box in January 2014 in black Sharpie and tagged with his name. The police complaint and restitution reports for each of the five incidents, recorded between 2010 and 2014, show that none was deemed offensive. “If I’d been more criminally minded, maybe I wouldn’t have written my name on the wall,” Lister notes.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: Jonathan Camí.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Freedom Thinkers: Brisbane Free University’, November 2015

    A story for the November 7-8 issue of Qweekend. The full story appears below.

    Freedom Thinkers

    In their underground “carparktopia”, the women of Brisbane Free University dispense knowledge to anyone within earshot.

    Qweekend story: 'Freedom Thinkers: Brisbane Free University' by Andrew McMillen, published in November 2015. Photo by Russell Shakespeare

    by Andrew McMillen / Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    ++

    About once a month, beneath a bank on Boundary Street in Brisbane’s inner-south West End, an enterprising trio of young women direct their energies toward setting up a classroom unlike any other you’ll find in the city. Under harsh fluorescent lights and between 13 Westpac customer car parks, dozens of plastic chairs are sat facing a white banner taped to the brick wall, covering the bank’s logo. A second banner is hung above the entrance, so that curious passersby might be drawn in by the impromptu gathering of education-minded locals.

    Since November 2012, a motley crew of passionate, engaged learners has been flocking to this initiative, dubbed Brisbane Free University. Pictured on the banner beside the name is the unmistakable image of an ibis taking flight, its wings outstretched. This bird was chosen for its antagonistic scavenger spirit, and illustrated by 26-year-old co-founder Anna Carlson. It wasn’t until much later that a happy accident was uncovered: the Egyptian god of knowledge, Thoth, was often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis. There’s a curious duality at play here, then: the inner city-dwelling ibis takes what it can from its surrounding environment to survive, while the women of Brisbane Free University enjoy nothing more than to share knowledge with whoever happens to be in earshot, free of charge, to enlighten the lives of those around them.

    Carlson and her two co-founders – Fern Thompsett, 28, and Briohny Walker, 30 – do not take an adversarial approach to the city’s existing tertiary education institutions. To do so would be a touch hypocritical, as the trio met while studying arts/law, anthropology and philosophy, respectively, at the University of Queensland, and a review of BFU’s past sessions show a strong presence of UQ, Queensland University of Technology and Griffith alumni. By 6.30pm on this particular Thursday, Walker steps forward and speaks into a microphone connected to a solar-powered PA system whose two speakers are positioned atop wheelie bins.

    “Thank you for coming down to carparktopia for BFU. It’s lovely to see you all,” she says, beaming. “Tonight is particularly special because it’s a meta-BFU: tonight at free university, we’re going to be talking about free universities. The acoustics here are a little bit weird, so can I check that everyone at the back can hear me?” After getting the thumbs-up from those in the back rows, she hands over the mic.

    Facing the audience are two chairs; one for Thompsett and one for the American guest speaker, Laura Nelson, a 26 year-old student of Harvard University who is studying a PhD on the history of free universities. Both are casually dressed and clearly comfortable with fronting this crowd of around 30 attendees, whose average age appears to be about 22. After acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we sit, Thompsett gives a brief overview of how the event came to be.

    “When Briohny, Anna and myself co-founded BFU, we didn’t realise that there were any other free universities in operation, even at this point in time, let alone in history – which is probably really politically naive of us,” she says with a smile. “It was just an idea that came out of the blue, and a bottle of wine, and then it took form in this very carpark approximately three years ago. It was only a couple of months into the project that we realised that what we’d tapped into was a global movement that stretched back in time, and right around the world.”

    Last year, Thompsett spent five months travelling throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico, visiting free universities and studying the interrelated concept of radical education.

    While spending time in Australia, Nelson has been researching this country’s founding movements. She reads aloud a quote to begin: “Training for the economy is the de facto centre of the university’s operations. Students flow in from the public examinations and flow out clutching tickets to membership in the occupational elite. Through the university, a semi-closed upper status perpetuates itself from one generation to the next, preserving the lines of privilege which universal secondary education was thought to destroy. Because their attention is on getting good jobs, the mass of students are insulated from the academic culture of the university and from the radical traditions of student life and thought.”

    As Nelson explains, this quote was first published in a Sydney University student newspaper in October 1967 and became the foundation manifesto of what became known as the Free U, which ran out of a rented house in Redfern and reached a peak of 300 students within two years. The Sydney experiment inspired similar movements in Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide, among others. As Nelson speaks, buses noisily accelerate out on the street, while occasional hecklers direct their voice toward the carpark, an action which is met with smiles by the organisers. The whole point of using this space is that there is no door between the public and private; instead, anyone interested may walk down and take a seat. That doesn’t happen tonight, perhaps because the audience is among the smallest in recent memory – possible a reflection of the meta theme – but previous discussions on sex and consent, the future of West End and women in media have each attracted healthy crowds.

    After chatting amicably for an hour, Thompsett opens the discussion up to questions and comments from the floor. A young guy in a suit and a flat cap raises his hand; he drones into the microphone for minutes on end about several tangentially-related concepts before attempting to form a question for the two women. I find myself quickly frustrated by his presence, and reflect on how this behaviour would not be tolerated in a mainstream university classroom; he would soon be drowned out by groans, and the lecturer, sensing the restlessness, would likely intervene. Here at BFU, he is indulged with silent patience by all in attendance, though a couple of young women in front of me start rolling their eyes at one another and quietly giggling to themselves.

    This young man is passed the microphone several more times during the group discussion. His barely coherent monologues fill the space, and each time Thompsett skilfully acknowledges his contribution before steering the conversation toward more productive pathways. I realise my frustration toward him is rooted in my own studies at UQ several years ago. I rarely enjoyed the Bachelor of Communication program, doing the bare minimum to scrape through with a pass while pouring my time into socialising and extracurricular activities. This is a fault of mine, not the university’s, yet even here, I found myself thinking in terms of exams and assessment criteria.

    Thoughts such as these are in direct opposition to what BFU represents: learning for learning’s sake, rather than simply chasing a piece of paper, an admirable grade point average or a high-paying job. It’s a beautiful, freeing approach to education, as it opens up avenues beyond the traditional classroom model. It rejects the notion that learning ends with high school, or university. Instead, it’s a lifelong process, and movements such as this acknowledge the universal human hunger for knowledge, discussion and understanding.

    An informal “tutorial” is scheduled to take place in the beer garden of the nearby Boundary Hotel once the organisers have reset the carpark and packed up the PA, but for now, says Thompsett, “I don’t have any conclusions, I just have more questions, which I think is probably the sign of a sound research project – at least for within this framework of anarchist learning spaces.”

    As the audience filters out onto Boundary St after helping to stack chairs, minds and mouths alive with inspiration, it’s clear that this has been another successful chapter not only for BFU’s three founders, but for a radical educational concept that first took root almost 50 years ago.

    brisbanefreeuniversity.org

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘The Bone Collector: Dr Carl Stephan’, October 2015

    A story for the October 24 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    The Bone Collector

    Carl Stephan is building Australia’s first modern skeleton library – with a little help from an army of flesh-eating bugs.

    'The Bone Collector: Dr Carl Stephan' by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian Magazine, October 2015. Photo by Eddie Safarik

    It is dark inside the skeletisation room, which is just how the hide beetles like it. It’s dark beneath the soil, too, which is where they are more commonly found. Down there, the purpose of their existence is to seek and consume the soft tissues attached to bones, which they do methodically, stripping off every last molecule of flesh while leaving the bones intact. Here in the laboratory it’s quiet, too, with only the gentle drone of a fume hood providing the soundtrack. This is their home, above a bed of coco peat and beneath layers of torn cardboard and paper towel that’s occasionally sprayed with water. Here, they are well-fed on the soft tissues of Queenslanders who have chosen to donate their bodies to science.

    These native beetles have a key role in an Australian-first project whose educational benefits will echo through these halls for generations. They’ve travelled 1700km via air freight to the University of Queensland, where a kindly forensic anthropologist named Dr Carl Stephan ensures they’re never hungry. Inside large plastic tubs in this secure, well-hidden room in the School of Biomedical Sciences, they are thriving in thousands-strong colonies.

    Stephan removes the lid of one tub and a new odour fills the room – not unpleasant, exactly, but certainly strange and distinct. Inside the tub on this Wednesday in early May are the tarsal bones of a human foot. Noticing my ­reaction, Stephan says, “That smell you’re ­getting – not very much of that is bone. Most of that is the natural smell the beetles have: it’s an ammonia-type smell, kind of like Windex, so it’s sharp on your nose.”

    While he’s here, Stephan has brought some fresh material for the beetles to feed on. He produces a few sealed plastic bags containing small bones from five digits of a right hand. Before proceeding, he looks me in the eye through his plastic goggles. “If you feel like you’re hot in the feet, and that heat grows up your legs, just let me know, so I can catch you before you hit the ground,” he says. I thank him for his concern, but this isn’t my first exposure to a cadaver: that happened a few months earlier, when I began observing first-year medical students while they dissected donor materials in anatomy classes.

    As he opens the first bag, out leaks an unmistakeable waft. “This material hasn’t been embalmed,” he says. “But it’s been dissected down as much as it needs to be.” The finger bones are cool, having been recently removed from a freezer. Their owner once used them for writing, waving, typing, texting and shaking hands; small, routine gestures that we take for granted, yet help define a life and make us human. “You can see that we have them labelled. There’s a reason for that, so that we know precisely which digit these bones come from, after they’re cleaned. That way, there’s no chance they can be mixed up.”

    He reaches into the tub and pulls back a layer of cardboard, revealing a few dozen adult beetles and some hairy juveniles attempting to hide from the light. “We try to keep them nice and healthy, and happy,” he says with a smile. He gently places the new bones beneath the cardboard and closes the lid.

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

  • The Saturday Paper story: ‘Sobering Proposals’, July 2015

    A news feature for The Saturday Paper – my first for that publication – published in the July 4 issue. Excerpt below.

    Sobering Proposals

    Proposed changes to liquor licensing laws in Queensland are ruffling the feathers of venue owners and drinkers alike, but data following strict changes in NSW correlate with a sharp fall in assault rates.

    ++

    For bouncers in pubs and nightclubs, the turn happens about 1am. After that, there is very little good to come.

    “Most of the positive interactions happen by then, in terms of people finding partners,” says Peter Miller. “After that point, the night starts to take a different direction: the later it gets, the uglier people get.”

    Miller knows a bit about this, having spent a decade working security in Melbourne and Geelong. Now a 50-year-old associate professor of psychology at Deakin University, he still spends a fair amount of time in bars, but he has traded his walkie-talkie for an iPhone app, which he and his team use to conduct in-the-field academic research in the form of “unobtrusive observations” of bar-room behaviour and interviews with pub patrons. “I’m not an ivory tower researcher,” he says with a chuckle. “I worked in the industry for a decade, and I’ve spent the last five years on the street.”

    The bouncers’ maxim Miller relays, that ugly behaviour sees a sharp rise after 1am, is particularly pertinent given that the Labor-led Queensland government plans to follow through with its pre-election commitment to curb alcohol-related violence by introducing a raft of statewide changes to liquor licensing. The laws follow similar regulation in New South Wales.

    “We will be bringing legislation before this house to stop pubs and clubs serving alcohol after 3am, and introducing a 1am lockout,” the Queensland attorney-general, Yvette D’Ath, said in state parliament on March 26. “We will be giving police the power to breathalyse drunk or disorderly patrons so they have the evidence they need to prosecute licensees, managers and patrons who breach the Liquor Act.” Also on the agenda was preventing the sale of “high-alcohol-content drinks” – including shots – after midnight.

    The thought of breathalysing patrons to prosecute venues seemed wild and open to police abuse. Drunkenness is not an unknown quantity in any bar at closing time. The Gold Coast Bulletin seized on the claims, running a front-page story headlined “D’Ath Vader”, complete with a Photoshopped image of the minister dressed as the Star Wars villain. The strapline: “Attorney-General using the force to keep the peace … and keep you sober”.

    “Allowing police to breathalyse drunken patrons will help them to build cases for prosecution for court,” D’Ath told the Bulletin. “For example, police consider a [blood-alcohol] reading of 0.15 to be highly intoxicated.” Strangely, D’Ath’s office issued a clarifying statement the same day, which noted, “There is no plan to random breath-test drinkers and there never has been.”

    To read the full story, visit The Saturday Paper.

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

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

    Tall Poppies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

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

    A feature story for BuzzFeed; excerpt below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    To read the full story, visit BuzzFeed.

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

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

    Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome

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

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

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

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

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

    A couple of audience members applaud loudly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

  • Qweekend story: ‘The Player: John Collins and The Triffid’, November 2014

    A story for the November 1-2 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears below.

    The Player

    Making it as a muso is a hard act to follow, but ex-Powderfinger bassist John Collins is rolling the dice with his new gig in venue management.

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David Kelly

    by Andrew McMillen / Photography by David Kelly

    ++

    For now, the only music heard in this room comes from a dust-coated radio audible in intermittent bursts between a dissonant symphony of hammering, grinding and sawing. Shortly, though, this formerly vacant hangar in Newstead, in Brisbane’s inner-north, will come alive with the sounds of live music. On this midweek morning in early October, John “JC” Collins wears a blue hard hat and bright yellow high-visibility vest atop a black dress shirt and blue jeans. Transforming this building from a forgotten shell into what Collins hopes will become a shining light in Brisbane’s sparkling live music scene has occupied much of the past two years of his life.

    Thick, black electrical cables snake down from the curved ceiling. At the far end of the hangar, a hip-high raised stage sits at the foot of a brick wall painted bright green. Its sizeable main hall and mezzanine will accommodate up to 800 guests. It will be the first significant venue to open in the inner city since West End’s 1200 capacity Hi-Fi debuted in 2009.

    Outside, in the beer garden, a temporary worksite office is stacked atop shipping containers that will function as bars and a kitchen. In the adjacent “band garden”, green astroturf leads through to a stage door being painted grey. As Collins tours the construction site while consulting with a squad of architects, acoustic engineers and insulation specialists, The Triffid’s distinctive look and feel is slowly taking shape all around him. What began as an aspiration is very nearly a live, loud reality.

    From the mezzanine vantage point, the team of hard-hats inspects the original rainwater-tank roof. It’s been kept intact, but perforated with thousands of finger-sized holes and stacked with several layers of insulation in order to absorb the venue’s maximum volume of 110 decibels – and, hopefully, to stop future nearby residents from complaining about the noise. The former industrial hub of Newstead is on the cusp of a property boom set to rival neighbouring Teneriffe and New Farm; across from the venue, five residential towers comprising 900 apartments will soon sprout.

    Tapping the 60-year-old ribbed roof, lead architect Mick Hellen says with a smile: “This was JC’s bright idea, but it’s the worst possible shape for a music venue.” Collins laughs, and shoots back: “It’s still better than a square box, though. Hey, it worked for The Beatles at the Cavern Club,” he says, referring to the Liverpool venue where Beatlemania was born. Who knows what The Triffid will mean in time to emerging Brisbane acts?

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David Kelly

    ++

    When The Triffid opens its steel doors next Saturday, it will be almost four years to the day since the former Powderfinger bassist joined his bandmates for their final public performance at Brisbane Riverstage. The intervening years have not been particularly relaxing for Collins, 44, a restless soul who searched high and low for a project in which to invest his energy. After a two-decade career in which his identity was synonymous with four fellow musicians united under what became a household name, Collins initially struggled to find his own way.

    In the two years following the band’s November 2010 finale, Collins hired a desk at a friend’s business in inner-north Bowen Hills with the intention of giving his days structure and purpose, and separating his work aspirations from his home life at Morningside, in the city’s east. There were protracted investigations into business ventures in race cars and printing companies, as well as extended travels with his wife of 14 years, Tara, and their children, 10-year-old twins Grace and Rosie and Scarlett, 7.

    Eventually, he threw his weight behind the idea of a live music venue and after months of location scouting in the surrounding suburbs, he found the empty hangar on Stratton Street. Collins met with its owner in February 2013 and spent almost a year working through proposals, budgets and designs. “It was a tough year, because I felt like we had a good idea between us,” he says now. “I felt really strongly about it; I hadn’t felt this strongly since the ‘Fingers started. It was a gut feeling.”

    Born in Murgon, 250km north-west of Brisbane, on April 27, 1970, Collins grew up in the town of Kerry near Beaudesert, 85km south of the capital. While attending boarding school at Brisbane Grammar in inner-city Spring Hill, he met fellow boarder Steven Bishop, with whom he shared a love for music. The pair began playing with another student, Ian Haug, after the budding guitarist noticed Collins wearing a handmade shirt that advertised Sydney band Sunnyboys. The trio formed the first iteration of Powderfinger in late 1988, and while Bishop vacated the drum kit in 1991, the three men occasionally play together in a band called the Predators, whose debut EP, Pick Up The Pace, was released in 2006.

    “Powderfinger was an awesome thing. I loved it,” says Collins. “I don’t expect it to ever happen again with music, but I’ve always wanted to do something else. That was part of the decision to stop [in 2010], because if we’d stopped in our fifties, things would have been tougher; we worked through half our working lives.” In the intervening four years, singer Bernard Fanning and guitarist Darren Middleton have proceeded with solo careers, drummer Jon Coghill has pursued a career in journalism, and Haug has been recording at his home studio and joined Australian rock institution The Church. “It’s taken me three years to get that next act going,” says Collins.

    ++

    Its name is rooted in both literary and musical references; not just John Wyndham’s 1951 science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids, but more appropriately, the Triffids were a seminal Australian band based in Perth during the 1980s. “A few people have said to me, ‘Why didn’t you call it The Hangar?’” says Collins, who is one of several partners in the venture. “But that sounds more like a beer barn to me. I wanted to make sure people understood it’s a creative space, not just a place to come and skol piss. If you’re in a band, and you ask ‘Where are we playing?’ and the manager says ‘There’s this new venue in Brisbane called ‘The Triffid’, automatically you’re more inclined to think, well, okay, they must be at least a bit creative…”

    Beside the bar on the mezzanine level is an office that overlooks the lobby through glass salvaged from Powderfinger’s rehearsal space in Albion, in the city’s inner north, which was flooded a few years ago. To complete the fit-out, Collins is in the process of sourcing historic gig posters that will illustrate Brisbane’s rich musical heritage. The venue will fill a gap between The Zoo (capacity 500) and The Tivoli (1500) in Fortitude Valley, as well as The Hi-Fi on the other side of the river. “We definitely didn’t want to come in and tread on anyone’s toes,” says Collins. “Places like The Zoo, The Hi-Fi and The Tivoli are really important. We want to make the pie bigger, not take somebody’s slice.”

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David KellyAs we walk downstairs, I ask Collins what’s at stake here. “My reputation,” he replies. “And a bit of money. I’ve willingly put my name and my hand up to back this project. If it doesn’t work, my partners can walk and do another one, whereas I’ll go down with the ship. Obviously I’ve put a lot of time, energy and passion in, and I’d like it to work financially, too.”

    Haug is confident his friend and bandmate has bet on the right horse, as it were. “We’ve played so many venues around the world; he knows how to do it, so the musicians will be happy with how it’s all set out,” says Haug of Collins. “He’s surrounded himself with the best people to do sound and lighting. He didn’t think it was going to be easy, but he probably didn’t realise it would be this hard to build it from the ground up.”

    With a laugh, Haug adds: “He’ll be glad when it’s open, that’s for sure.”

    The Triffid opens on Saturday, 8 November with a line-up that includes Saskwatch, The Creases and MT Warning. thetriffid.com.au

  • Qweekend story: ‘Think Inside The Box: Float therapy’, October 2014

    A story for the October 19-20 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears below.

    Think Inside The Box

    Solo enclosure in a dark tank of salty water isn’t everyone’s cup of calm, but converts to this niche form of stress management say there’s peace – and space for deep thought – to be found in the 60-year-old practice.

    Qweekend story: 'Think Inside The Box: Float therapy' by Andrew McMillen, October 2014

    by Andrew McMillen / Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    ++

    I’m floating naked with my hands behind my back in a warm, shallow pool. Calming music plays quietly. My ears are plugged and submerged. It’s so dark that I can’t see my feet; the only light comes from a lamp outside, which filters through tiny slivers in the sliding door on the ceiling. I close my eyes, and from time to time, feel the currents of this private ocean causing my relaxed body to gently bump the sides. With the merest flex of a toe, elbow or finger, I push myself back toward the centre. Outside of my mother’s womb and my eventual coffin, I’m unlikely to encounter such a closed, sense-deprived environment – which, plainly, is a claustrophobe’s nightmare.

    After ten minutes, the music fades out, and I’m left alone with the sound of my breathing and my thoughts. I’m in a flotation tank: a vehicle for introspection slightly bigger than a dodgem car, containing 350kg of Epsom salts – hence the ability to float, as this water has the same density as the Dead Sea. It sits inside a storefront called Brisbane Float & Massage in the south-western suburb of Sherwood, yet for the duration of my disconnected hour inside, I could be anywhere in the world.

    I’m here because of Joe Rogan. Sometimes alternative therapies need celebrity advocates to shift public opinion from a fruity-sounding way to spend one’s time to an attractive prospect. For many float converts, Rogan – popular American stand-up comedian, podcast host and television presenter – has been the canary in this particular coal mine. “The sensory deprivation chamber has been the most important tool I’ve ever used for developing my mind – for thinking, for evolving,” he says in a YouTube clip that’s had more than 750,000 views. “Everybody should do the tank. You will learn more about yourself than any other way.”

    My first session reveals the truly abstract notion of time, as in the silence, I quickly lose all sense of the clock. For someone who has zero experience with meditation and a similarly low desire to spend time alone without some sort of stimulus – music, book, notepad, video game, smartphone – I wasn’t sure how I’d handle this dark, quiet vacation from reality. After I got comfortable in the water – whose warmth mimics my body temperature – time seemed to stand still.

    Before long, though, I was so deep in thought that I was surprised to hear the music return, signalling that five minutes remained in the hour. In the tank, a wide range of topics crossed my mind – partner, family, health, work, music, self – and I was able to carefully grasp each of these and examine it with newfound clarity.

    British-born John Battersby, 56, is the owner of Brisbane Float & Massage, one of only a handful of tank operators in Queensland. He shows me around his simple premises. “I built this myself,” he says, gesturing at the surrounding walls. “It’s not high-quality, but it’s functional.” A qualified sports therapist and local soccer coach, he leads me into one of his two float rooms, which both contain showers to be used before and after each session. Battersby explains that he found this therapy after a car accident in Sydney in 1989 left him with whiplash, a neck brace and limited mobility. He was sceptical of this alternative therapy at first: “A Pom, lying in a big bath of water?” he jokes with a smile. During his first 90 minute float, he experienced extraordinary pain relief. After that, he floated every day for six months.

    The sensory deprivation tank was first explored in 1954 by American physician John C. Lilly, who sought to isolate the human mind from external stimulation. Flotation therapy has since become a niche form of stress management. After its initial popularisation in the 1980s, public interest in floating dried up following health concerns about AIDS and the transfer of bodily fluids. “Now we know that’s not possible,” says Battersby, “as the water is so sterile that you can’t grow bacteria in it.”

    Battersby, who lives with his wife Kerry in the Lockyer Valley town of Laidley, 85km west of Brisbane, has used the tank at least once a week over the past 25 years. “It’s such a simple process that anyone can do it,” he says. Anyone, that is, except most children, whose short attention spans tend to limit the appeal of sliding the lid closed on a small space for an hour or more.

    When I mention Joe Rogan, Battersby describes him as “a breath of fresh air”. “I don’t believe in his use of drugs, though,” he clarifies. “We don’t allow people to use drugs here. But he’s an experienced floater, and he does good things. We need more of him.” For Battersby, the tank represents “one of the most creative spaces I’ve ever found. There are no distractions – only what’s going on between your ears.”

    For some, that same space between the ears can be the source of seemingly endless darkness and despair. Michael Harding knows a bit about this. A former army infantryman, Harding was medically discharged from service in 2011 after developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) born out of an intense, prolonged firefight in Afghanistan during which he witnessed a fellow soldier shot and killed. He developed full-body twitches, was diagnosed with conversion disorder and sent home early. The two years that followed were a mess of prescription medications and alcohol abuse. He’d drink a bottle of spirits every day, while his partner was at work, and his junk-food diet saw his weight top out at 110kg.

    Qweekend story: 'Think Inside The Box: Float therapy' by Andrew McMillen, October 2014. Michael Harding and Rebecca Houghton photographed by Russell ShakespeareHarding discovered floating in March and in his first week completed three sessions. “The changes I’ve seen in him after floating are incredible,” says his partner, Rebecca Houghton, who left her office job to care for Harding full-time. Having since lost dozens of kilos, Harding now wears his brown hair in thick, curly locks that belie his military history. He’s sitting in shorts, thongs and a black cap in an armchair outside the two float rooms in Sherwood, with Houghton at his side. The pair [pictured right] met at primary school in Bracken Ridge, in Brisbane’s north-east, and reconnected just before Harding joined the army.

    As the Department of Veterans’ Affairs does not view flotation therapy as a valid form of rehabilitation for Harding’s PTSD, their visits to Battersby’s Sherwood premises were paid for out of their own pocket. Both 27, they live in Lawnton, on Brisbane’s northside, and found that the 100-minute round trip was adding to Harding’s stress, eroding some of the benefits gained by floating. The solution? Battersby recently installed a reconditioned tank in their home basement. “I was in the tank by 3.20am this morning, for a four-hour session,” Harding beams. “It’s been great for my positivity, and my motivation. It allows me to de-stress, and get out of my head. A lot of my mates prefer to drink, take meds and try to forget about it all.”

    It’s a little early in my own floating career to expect to see the remarkable improvement in mental health and clarity that Harding reports. “When you first start doing the isolation tank, it’s hard to completely let go who you are,” Joe Rogan cautions in that popular YouTube clip. “But as you get more and more comfortable with the experience, you get better at actually letting go.”

    Once the music stops in the tank, I slide back the door on its ceiling, stand up and allow the salty water to run off. I shower, dress, hand over my $50 and bid Battersby a fond, grateful farewell. I look forward to my next session, and the one after that, as I float in the quiet dark and allow my mind to venture deeper and deeper inward.