All posts tagged journalist

  • 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. 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.

  • The Walkley Magazine story: ‘Weekly Email Dispatches From A Freelancer’s Lonely Desk’, April 2017

    A story for issue 88 of The Walkley Magazine, the quarterly publication for Australian media professionals. Excerpt below.

    Weekly Email Dispatches From A Freelancer’s Lonely Desk

    Newsletter as lifeline.

    The Walkley Magazine story by Andrew McMillen: 'Weekly Email Dispatches From A Freelancer’s Lonely Desk', April 2017. Illustration by Tom Jellett

    The email subject line in edition #139 was “Clown doctors, giant pigs and public shaming”, while #99 was titled “Gay twins, shot elephants and friendly magpies”. The intention is always to pique the reader’s interest, so that if they see Dispatches among a few dozen emails in their inbox, mine is the one they’ll want to open first, because they are curious about these three unique phrases—taken from the recommendations contained within—and want to know more.

    Every week, you see, I spend an hour or two compiling an email newsletter that is sent to people around the world. Some of them are my friends and family; others I have never met before, and have no idea how they came across my work. Since starting with zero subscribers in March 2014, I have now delivered more than 140 editions. The newsletter is called Dispatches, after the Michael Herr book of the same name. It is a space where I recommend excellent feature articles and books I have read and enjoyed, as well as podcasts, music, and my own recently published writing.

    Its format has remained unchanged in the three years since I started. There are three sections: Words, Sounds and Reads. I choose a relevant image to announce each section, because I know that an email newsletter consisting only of text can be a little overwhelming.

    Since the beginning, I have sent the newsletter on Thursday mornings. This was a deliberate choice: as Friday tends to be the busiest day for office workers scrambling to meet deadlines before clocking off for the weekend, I figured that seeing a long, considered email from me a couple of mornings before the workweek ends might offer a welcome reprieve. Setting an expectation around a weekly publication schedule might help to give others some structure in their work lives, too. (Perhaps I am projecting.)

    For the first couple of years, I would compile the recommendations on Wednesday, and then wait until waking the following morning to manually press “send” using a free online service called TinyLetter. Now, I publish it just after midnight, in the wee hours of Thursday morning—which suits me better as a night owl, anyway. It’s the last thing I do before going to bed, and it pleases me to know that, by the time I’m back at the desk the following morning, more than a hundred people will have already opened the latest edition.

    To read the full story, visit The Walkley Magazine on Medium. Above illustration credit: Tom Jellett.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Higher Calling: Lachlan Smart’, June 2016

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the June 25-26 issue. Excerpt below.

    Higher Calling

    A small aircraft, a 45,000km journey, a dream to be the youngest person to circle the globe solo. Talk about ambition.

    twam_lachlan

    Visibility is zero inside this dense body of rain clouds as the four-seater plane tracks away from Sunshine Coast Airport and over coastal waters. Pockets of air within the grey mass buffet the plane unpredictably, as if a higher power is shaking the Cirrus SR22 like dice inside a giant fist. It’s the sort of uncomfortable ascent that would make the pilot’s mother worry.

    But on this Thursday afternoon in early June the fresh-faced, blue-eyed young man in the cockpit has absolute faith in the technology that powers his plane through this brief moment of turbulence and into clear air. He has faith in a higher purpose, too, and it has driven him to attempt to achieve something remarkable.

    Lachlan Smart, 18, is leaving home behind and striking out on his own. Next month, he will set off from this same airport towards Nadi, Fiji, a 10-hour trip. From there, it’s on to Christmas Island, then Hawaii, Iceland and France, followed by Egypt, Sri Lanka and Indonesia; 24 legs in all, on a journey that will circumnavigate the planet and – all going well – claim a world record.

    Smart’s only companion throughout the trip, covering almost 45,000km on five continents across seven weeks, will be Freddy the Teddy. The handsome bear wears a brown aviator’s jacket and goggles and sits on the dashboard facing the pilot, his mouth a single black line fixed in a smile. Underneath Freddy’s furry feet is an array of screens and instruments that all make perfect sense to this adventurous teenager.

    A fortnight ago, Smart clocked up 40 hours while heading west to Alice Springs, then southeast to Launceston before returning home. All up he has logged 210 flight hours, more than half of which were solo. If all goes to plan, his around-the world trip will roughly double that number by the time his wheels hit the tarmac in late August.

    ++

    Through gaps in the clouds, Smart can see the endless swell of the ocean and streaks in the aqua indicating sand bars off Stradbroke Island. Sometimes he can spot dugongs, but not today. There is, however, a full rainbow. To his right he can see the built-up areas of his home on the Sunshine Coast, then the state capital, and then the high-rises of Surfers Paradise bordered by white caps and a long, unbroken line of yellow sand.

    Through his headset, he hears the air-traffic controller at Gold Coast Airport tell another pilot there’s a Cirrus in the queue ahead of him. “He’s done pretty well,” says the fast-talking male voice, offering a rare compliment amid the businesslike call-and-response. Hearing this, Smart can’t help but crack a smile. “Thanks, mate,” he says.

    After touching down flawlessly in the wet conditions, he taxis his leased aircraft to a nearby hangar, where he drops into technical support centre Complete Avionics and banters with the owner about a minor issue with an instrument that appears to be malfunctioning, emitting a series of loud beeps whenever autopilot is disengaged. Service notes duly logged for the technicians’ attention, Smart heads back to the airstrip towards another Cirrus SR22 that’s almost identical to the one he flew. Its white-haired owner, Rodney Peachey, 69, offers the pilot’s seat to his young friend, who powers up the aircraft, submits a flight plan, gains clearance and takes off into what has become a beautiful early winter afternoon.

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

  • 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.

  • GQ Australia columns, December 2015: Fear, climate, guns, suicide and cannabis

    In July 2015, I was invited to write occasional online columns for GQ Australia. I’ve collected these five columns as excerpts below, with the publication date noted in brackets beside the title.

    Are We Living In An Australia Led By Fear? (July)

    An increase in national surveillance powers has an equal and opposite reaction of a decline in civil liberties – writes Andrew McMillen

    'Are We Living In An Australia Led By Fear?' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    One particular sentence on nationalsecurity.gov.au catches the eye: “Protecting all Australians from terrorism and violent extremism is the Australian Government’s top priority,” it reads.

    This sentence appears on a website which is home to the National Terrorism Public Alert System, among other cracking reads such as a list of ‘foiled Australian attacks’ (four incidents) and ‘overseas terrorist attacks’ (six).

    The National Terrorism Public Alert System informs us that the nation is currently at a ‘high’ level of alert, indicating that a terrorist attack “is likely”. This is just one step down from ‘extreme’ – where a terrorist attack “is imminent or has occurred” – but a step above the previous ranking of ‘medium’, which warned that a terrorist attack “could occur”.

    It was in mid-September 2014 that the alert rating changed from ‘medium’ to ‘high’. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine captured the change, between September 12 and September 18.

    The switch-over itself was pretty simple stuff, really: the web copy is practically identical, and a blue map of Australia with an ugly black font in the centre was replaced by a white diagram ringed by blue.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Australia Is Headed For An Avoidable Climate Calamity (August)

    Climate change is the iceberg of our times and Australia is steering straight into it – writes Andrew McMillen.

    'Why Australia Is Headed For An Avoidable Climate Calamity' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    One of mankind’s greatest achievements is the discovery that the energy from coal – ancient sunlight buried in the ground – could be used to drive our technological progress.

    In 2015, we continue to reap the rewards of that discovery, yet most of us acknowledge that coal, like oil and gas, is a finite resource: there’s only so much of it beneath our feet, and sooner or later, the supply will be exhausted.

    There is a simple logic behind this problem. When one generation selfishly chooses to use as much coal, oil and gas as humanly possible, the next generation will suffer the supply shocks, as well as the environmental effects: burning these fossil fuels adds a toxic combination of pollutants to the atmosphere, increasing the speed at which the planet warms.

    Intelligent governance acknowledges this as a fact, and a problem to be solved swiftly, lest future generations suffer for our inaction. For a time, Australia led the developed world in this regard, when then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced in 2007 that climate change was “the great moral, environmental and economic challenge of our age”.

    These were sage words from a leader who ultimately failed to install an effective mechanism to solve that challenge. Politics got in the way of true progress, cruelling an admirable long-term vision.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Encouraging More Guns Into Australia Is A Terrible Idea (August)

    In the wake of the Martin Place siege, Australia’s relationship with its long-standing gun laws might be about to change and that’s a very scary thought – writes Andrew McMillen.

    'Why Encouraging More Guns Into Australia Is A Terrible Idea' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    A gunman named Martin Bryant forever changed Australia on 28 April 1996, when he used a semi-automatic rifle to kill 35 people at a cafe in the Tasmanian town of Port Arthur.

    Within twelve weeks, John Howard’s government had devised, drafted, debated and implemented legislation which saw the banning of semi-automatic weapons and shotguns, and triggered a compulsory gun buyback scheme. As a result, the ownership and storage of other firearms were tightly restricted, too.

    The Australian approach to gun control was shown in stark contrast to the United States in September 2013, when John Oliver’s brilliant threepart series on The Daily Show neatly skewered gun-mad Americans who mindlessly oppose any change to gun laws.

    “Obviously, gun control doesn’t work. It can’t work. It will never work. So how was your scheme a failure?” Oliver asked a bemused John Howard, who replied, “Well, my scheme was not a failure. We had a massacre at a place called Port Arthur 17 years ago, and there have been none since.” Australia’s rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people was 1.03, compared with 10.69 in the U.S., according to 2012 figures from gunpolicy.org.

    In the 18 years prior to the Port Arthur massacre, there had been 13 mass shooting incidents , where five or more people were killed by a firearm. The gunman’s destructive actions so shocked and appalled the electorate that Howard’s sweeping changes to gun ownership laws were widely supported in the community.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Australian Men Need To Talk More About Suicide (September)

    Too many Australians die of suicide – around 2,500 per year, or 48 per week – and too few talk about it, or its surrounding issues – writes Andrew McMillen

    'Why Australian Men Need To Talk More About Suicide' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    The numbers are shockingly high: suicide is the leading cause of death for Australian men and woman aged between 15 and 44.

    I’m a member of this demographic, but stating sad facts such as these in plain black-and-white can have a numbing effect. Though mentally healthy myself, I have seen the devastating effects of severe depression up close with someone I love, which is one of the reasons why I’ve made a few attempts as a journalist to uncover stories about Australians who have faced mental illness with courage and openness.

    The first was an article for Australian Penthouse in 2012, The Low Down, about an online campaign named Soften The Fuck Up, which seeks to challenge the low levels of mental health literacy recognised by its founder, Ehon Chan, after he moved to Australia from Malaysia.

    “What’s the most common thing that Australian men get when they talk about any kind of weaknesses?” he asked me during our interview. “The response is generally, ‘Harden the fuck up.’ There’s no equivalent phrase for that in Malaysian!” he said with a laugh. Soften The Fuck Up aims to encourage offline conversations, by equipping young people – in particular, men – with ideas of how to recognise signs and symptoms of mental health issues among their peers.

    My most recent story on this topic, Over Troubled Water, was published in The Weekend Australian Magazine in early September 2015, ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. This article explored the topic of suicide prevention at an iconic location in inner-city Brisbane: the Story Bridge, which is the site of at least four suicides per year, on average. Counterintuitive though it might seem, installing anti-jump barriers on high bridges has been shown to greatly reduce the incidence of suicide, and the problem is not simply shifted to another location.

    To read the full column, click here.

    How We Could All Benefit From Cannabis Regulation (October)

    The potential benefit of legalising cannabis means drug reform in Australia should be taken seriously – argues Andrew McMillen.

    'How We Could All Benefit From Cannabis Regulation' by Andrew McMillen for GQ Australia, 2015

    A few years from today, once other Australian states have followed the lead set by Victoriain early October 2015 to move toward the legalisation of cultivating cannabis for medicinal purposes, the nation might finally be ready to have a conversation that needs to be had. Namely: why don’t we regulate and tax the recreational use of cannabis, our most popular illicit drug?

    At least 1.9 million Australians use cannabis each year, according to the most recent data from the United Nations 2014 World Drug Report. This is a huge proportion of Australians, and it’s significant for a couple of reasons. First, that’s a lot of adults of voting age, who’d probably be keen to support political parties that provide reasonable alternatives to the tired, ineffective tough-on-drugs approach we’ve seen in this country for generations.

    And second, this number represents an enormous amount of disposable income that’s leaking from the national economy into an unregulated market, far beyond the reach of the Australian Taxation Office.

    Given that recreational cannabis use is illegal, the only way to obtain the drug in 2015 is to associate with people who are, by definition, criminals. Once that transaction has been made, and you hand over your cash in exchange for the product, you’ve become a criminal, too. If caught by police, you will face charges of possession which may result in fines or, at the extreme end of the spectrum, imprisonment.

    This reality is known, understood and accepted by most Australians who choose to interface with illicit drug use. Perhaps a small minority of particularly inflammatory cannabis users get a kick out of breaking the law in this way, but most would probably much rather avoid the hassle of potentially being exposed to the criminal justice system purely because of their desire to use a drug that’s increasingly being legalised by state and federal governments throughout the world.

    To read the full column, click here.

  • Introducing ‘Dispatches’: a weekly email newsletter, March 2014

    In March 2014 I started Dispatches, a weekly newsletter about my three passions: writing, music and reading. A screenshot of the first dispatch, Bikies, suicide contagion and drug wars, is included below.

    'Dispatches #1: Bikies, suicide contagion and drug wars', a weekly email newsletter by Australian freelance journalist Andrew McMillen

    I named it Dispatches after one of my favourite books: Michael Herr’s classic ‘new journalism’ narrative, first published in 1977, which placed the author near the centre of the Vietnam War while reporting for Esquire. I first read it in March 2012 and even writing about it here is almost enough to send me running to my bookshelf to tear through it again. Herr has a remarkable command of language. Clearly, the book comes highly recommended.

    The format will no doubt change over time, but for now I’ve split it into thirds:

    Words – highlighting my newly published writing, when applicable
    Sounds – music and podcast recommendations
    Reads – a selection of the best longform journalism and books I read in the past week

    If you like any of those three things, you might consider subscribing via TinyLetter here. If, like me, you spend too many hours each week immersed in your inbox, you can ‘try before you buy’ by viewing an archive of past mailouts here and deciding whether it’s worth your time. I hope it is.

    Besides offering a more regular way of keeping in touch with my readers than through this rather static blog or my cautious public engagement on social media, Dispatches is intended to be an interactive experiment-in-progress. At 26, I’ve done a reasonable amount of work of developing my own tastes, but I’m certainly open to your suggestions when it comes to reading and music.

    Finally: I’d like to note that Dispatches is inspired by Ryan Holiday’s fantastic monthly reading recommendation newsletter, and by the weekly emails sent by journalism hubs Longform and Longreads. I’m not aiming to compete with any of those mailouts – in part, because all three are so fucking good that I’d be setting myself up to fail. Instead, I’m offering a personalised take on the words and sounds that enter my skull each week and influence the way I interpret the world and write about it.

    Welcome to Dispatches.

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘High Sobriety’ by Jill Stark, March 2013

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

    Frank memoir explores the cost of our drinking culture

    'High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze' book cover by Jill Stark, reviewed by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian, March 2013Scottish-born journalist Jill Stark was a health reporter with a blind spot: despite writing about Australia’s binge-drinking culture for The Age newspaper, she would regularly drink to excess, as she’d done since her teens.

    One too many hangovers, however – the last on New Year’s Day, 2011 – set her, at age 35, on the path of alcohol abstinence for the first time in her adult life. The result is High Sobriety, her first book.

    As the subtitle indicates, this is an account of Stark’s sober 2011, one month per chapter. It’s part memoir, part sociological examination of our national drinking habits, and both aspects work well.

    “Just like Scotland, Australia’s default bonding-ritual is drinking,” she writes near the beginning, noting that her homeland is “a place where whisky outsells milk, and teetotalism is a crime punishable by death”. Stark is being melodramatic, of course, but the narrative makes it clear: to cut booze out of her life is almost as serious as excising a limb.

    On announcing her first period of sobriety – three months, as part of a youth-led health program called Hello Sunday Morning – Stark captures her social isolation vividly. When confronted by her peers about her decision not to drink or smoke, she notes that “my identity was suddenly reduced to the sum of the substances I’d chosen not to ingest”. Her transformation from centre-of-party to self-conscious fringe-dweller makes for a compelling contrast.

    Every aspect of Stark’s life is laid bare: her suspicions that she drinks to dampen the fear of being alone; her troubled love life (she realises in March that she hasn’t been sober during sex in years); her depression and anxiety, perhaps exacerbated by booze; her family’s history of alcoholism, including a grandfather who drank heavily until the day he died. “At the heart of that tragedy: alcohol,” she writes after her mother tells this story for the first time. “A drug I have enjoyed with cavalier abandon simply because it’s legal.”

    Her initial three-month commitment soon turns into 12, thanks in part to a popular feature article about her experience in The Age (and resultant book offers).

    Stark is at pains to point out how difficult not drinking is: she wonders if she’ll be able to navigate various events without booze: her birthday, a return to Scotland, the AFL finals series, a friend’s wedding, Christmas parties and so on. These too-regular instances of self-doubt are the only aspect of her writing that grates a little.

    Wedged between her own confessions are historical passages charting Australia’s history with alcohol, with a focus on the relatively recent, media-defined trend of youth binge drinking; a discussion about journalism’s long, slow dance with alcohol on the job, including war stories from older Fairfax scribes; the role of advertising in the liquor industry; and interviews with public health professionals regarding the effects this drug can have on human brains if consumption is not kept in check. Pertinent observations are plentiful and the author’s tone is never condescending.

    Stark makes it through the year, of course, with more than a few self-discoveries along the way. There is a devastating, unexpected personal tragedy near the end, which pulls the book’s premise into sharp focus. As she puts it: “Life’s too short to be wasted.” This is a conclusion reached without moralising, without judging others. It’s a refreshing approach to the oft-loaded discussion surrounding drug use of all kinds. Near the end, Stark writes:

    As rewarding as my year without booze has been, swimming against the tide has been bloody hard, and at times exhausting. It could be even harder for the next generation of drinkers. As long as laying off the booze leads to claims that you’re a boring, un-Australian loser in an environment set up to convince you alcohol makes you cool and socially functional, young people will continue to get pissed for confidence, comfort, and belonging.

    This isn’t a guide to abstinence, nor is it intended to induce fear in those who drink, to excess or otherwise – though some of the statistics quoted are certainly enough to make any reader consider their consumption. Ultimately, it’s hard not to recommend this book: from teenagers experimenting with their first taste, to those who’ve been imbibing for decades, many will find Stark’s story illuminating, touching, and memorable.

    High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze 
    By Jill Stark
    Scribe, 320pp, $29.95

    Elsewhere: I wrote about the founder of Hello Sunday Morning, Chris Raine, for Qweekend in June 2011

  • Rolling Stone story: ‘Building A Better Brain: Wired on Nootropics’, November 2012

    A 4,000 word feature story published in the November 2012 edition of Rolling Stone Australia; my first non-music feature for the magazine. Click the below image to view a PDF version, or scroll down to read the article text.

    Building A Better Brain: Wired on Nootropics
    By Andrew McMillen / Illustration by Amanda Upton

    A new generation of “smart drugs” that promise to enhance cognitive ability are now available, but are they the key to the human race’s next evolutionary leap or merely 21st century snake oil? Rolling Stone finds out…

    Before he swallowed the designer drug NZT, Bradley Cooper was having a shitty day. Scratch that; he was having a shitty life. Cooper was an unproductive, depressed writer with few prospects and fewer friends. His long-suffering girlfriend had recently left him. His unkempt appearance implied that his deep apathy extended to his body image. Here was a man broken by the accrued stress and malaise of living a seemingly pointless, joyless existence in modern day New York City.

    Moments after taking the transparent, odourless NZT pill, though, Cooper’s world changed dramatically. His visual and auditory perceptions sharpened significantly. His brain could instantly summon previously forgotten snatches of glanced-at facts and figures. His empathy and charm were suddenly amplified to the point where he was able to bed a woman who previously loathed him. A burst of inspiration saw him cleaning his apartment for the first time in years while forgoing both food and his usual addiction to nicotine. Within a few hours, Cooper produced a hundred pages of brilliant writing, which pleased his editor like never before.

    As his interior monologue put it, “I was blind; now I see. I wasn’t high, wasn’t wired; just clear. I knew what I needed to do, and how to do it.”

    This isn’t a scene from Bradley Cooper’s actual life, of course. It’s the life of a fictional character named Eddie Morra, which Cooper portrayed in the 2011 thriller Limitless. Right now, I’m psyching myself up for a Bradley Cooper moment of my own. My version of the make-believe NZT is a little, white, very real pill named Modalert. Produced by Indian manufacturer Sun Pharmaceuticals, the drug’s generic name is modafinil and it costs around $2 per 200mg dose. In Australia, it’s only prescribed to narcoleptics and shift workers who have difficulty staying awake. I’ve acquired some through an online retailer and at 5pm on a Monday, I take the drug for the first time.

    By 10pm I’m wide awake, and aware that my resting heart-rate is higher than normal. By midnight my mind is racing around like an agitated puppy: “Hey! Here I am! Play with me!” I occupy myself with the normally tedious task of transcribing interviews; when I next look at the clock, it’s 3.30am and I’m finished. I’m washing dishes to take a break from work, when I realise that my randomly chosen soundtrack has taken on an eerie parallel to real life. In the classic Nas track ‘N.Y. State of Mind’, he raps: “I never sleep / ‘Cuz sleep is the cousin of death.”

    For as long as I can remember, my answer to that age-old ‘just one wish’ hypothetical has been ‘to never fatigue’. To never need to sleep. To be able to learn, create and achieve more than any regular human being because I’m no longer confined by the boring necessity of a good night’s sleep.

    Thanks to modafinil, I’m closer to this long-held dream than ever before. And I feel incredible. Not high, not wired; just clear. The computer in my skull is crunching ones and zeroes while the rest of the world sleeps. I yawn occasionally, but my mind feels focused, at capacity, even as 5am approaches.

    It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance I’ve never experienced before; I know I should be feeling fatigued by now, but everything’s still working well. At 8.30am – roughly fifteen hours after taking the drug, which corresponds with its stated half-life – its effects wear off, and fatigue sets in. I take a three-hour nap, then pop another modafinil upon waking. I’m back on the merry-go-round of sleeplessness, and loving it.

    Giddy at the near-endless productivity possibilities that I’ve suddenly unlocked, I confess my off-label use of Modalert to a Sun Pharma spokesperson via email in a moment of clarity (or, perhaps, over-earnest honesty). The reply arrives in my inbox a short time later, and I’m briefly quietened by its ominous tone.

    “You’ve seen Limitless?” the Indian drug rep replies. “The cost is too much. Please evaluate what you are doing, even for test purposes. Neuronal circuitry is not to be messed with.”

    ++

    Modafinil is the brightest star in a galaxy of drugs and supplements called ‘nootropics’. The word was coined by a Romanian doctor in 1972; in Greek, its definition refers to ‘turning the mind’. More commonly known as ‘smart drugs’ or ‘cognitive enhancers’, nootropics work in one of three ways: by altering the availability of the brain’s supply of neurochemicals; by improving the brain’s oxygen supply; or by stimulating nerve growth.

    Smart drugs are not a new concept. Last century, both cocaine and amphetamine were considered to have enhancement potential. As researchers at the University of Queensland wrote in a 2012 paper, “…their use for this purpose was regarded in a wholly positive light. [Cocaine and amphetamine] were seen as safe and effective ‘wonder drugs’ that increased alertness and mental capabilities, thereby allowing users to cope better with the increasing demands of modern life.” These views became unpopular once both substances were found to be addictive: cocaine became a prohibited substance, though amphetamine is still widely prescribed as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) under the brand name Adderall.

    The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), Australian drug regulation authority, does not yet recognise nootropics as a class of drug, as “the information available on nootropic products provides a very broad definition.” A TGA spokesperson tells Rolling Stone that they are unable to comment on the matter, as “the issue here is that the definition of nootropics goes from nutritional supplements all the way through to prescription medicines, so depending on what the product is and its claims, it might be considered as listable, a registered complementary medicine, or a registered prescription medicine.”

    So regulation is a murky topic, then. But nootropics aren’t illegal, either. Admittedly, taking modafinil off-label is not a smart thing to do. I am not a narcoleptic. I sleep just fine, if begrudgingly. I am a healthy 24 year-old male who exercises regularly and eats well. My recreational drug use is occasional. I’ve never been addicted to anything, and I intend to keep that clean sheet. I would like to be able to concentrate for long periods during the work week, though. I’d like to be able to instantly summon previously forgotten snatches of glanced-at facts. In short, I’d like to be smarter. Who wouldn’t?

    In the fictional account of Limitless and its inspiration, a 2001 techno-thriller by Irish author Alan Glynn named The Dark Fields, the universally appealing idea of self-improvement through minimal effort is explored by a guy taking a designer drug to boost his brainpower to superhuman levels. In reality, nootropic enthusiasts claim significant cognitive benefits with few, if any, side effects from taking these supposedly non-addictive, non-toxic substances.

    Sounds too good to be true? You bet. With my bullshit detector cranked up to eleven, I’m wading into this contentious field with the goal of separating science from fiction. Are smart drugs the snake oil of the 21st century? Or am I about to become a better man just by taking a bunch of coloured pills?

    ++

    After Eddie Morra tires of writing while under the influence of NZT, he turns his attention to the far more lucrative stock market. When I tire of writing on modafinil, I waste away the night-time hours by shooting terrorists in Counter-Strike: Source online, trawling internet forums, and reading about nootropics.

    With a newfound surplus of time arises an interesting dilemma: how to spend it? I chose to alternately work, read, and play games. What if every night was like that, though? What if I had all that time? How soon would I become accustomed to operating on little, or zero, sleep? What would be the side-effects of this for my health, my relationships, my career? Would I become a kinder person? Would parts of my personality become amplified, or atrophy? Obvious productivity gains – or productivity opportunity gains – aside, would less sleep make me a better person?

    All Tuesday night, I’m keyed into a writing task with laser-like focus. By sunrise, I’ve produced an article which, at the time, feels like some of my best work yet. (When it’s published online, weeks later, I read it with fresh eyes and I’m pleasantly surprised to find that I still feel the same way.) On Wednesday, I choose to take a break from the drug, but I’m still up until 4am. My sleep cycle has been totally disrupted.

    Thursday just feels like a regular day. I’m yawning more than usual, probably due to the sleep debt I’ve incurred this week. But it does feel a little… boring to be operating at this level, rather than on modafinil, where I feel like I’m connecting all of the dots all of the time. I suddenly find myself weighing up the costs and benefits of taking a pill right now. I have nothing in particular that needs to be completed for the remainder of the week, but there’s an internal argument happening: “Being awake is so much more enjoyable than sleeping. Who needs sleep, honestly?”

    I dose another 200mg, and within the hour, I again find myself making connections in music that I’d never previously noticed. The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club song ‘Stop’ aligns with my current mindset: “We don’t know where to stop / I try and I try but I can’t get enough…

    I feel like an outlaw; as though I’m in on a secret to which everyone else is oblivious. I know how to subvert sleep; that knowledge is in the shape of a small white disc containing 200mg of modafinil. I feel as though taking this drug might be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I want everyone around me to take it, too, so that we can share our experiences and revel in the euphoria of the unclouded mind.

    That night, I drive to and from a rock show. I meet friends and strangers at the venue; as I talk, I feel as though I’m not making sense, and that those around me are acutely aware of this. I feel in control, but my mind is racing faster than my mouth can keep up. I buy one beer and feel a little drunk, but I don’t come close to crashing my car on the drive home. Around 2am, I note that I’ve got an impending feeling of doom going on. Like I’m riding this too far, and it’s about to start doing some serious damage. I turn in at 3.30am on Friday.

    My first nootropic odyssey whimpers to a close, after beginning with a giddy bang at 10am on Monday morning. I’ve taken three 200mg doses of modafinil during that time – 5pm Monday, 1pm Tuesday, 2.30pm Thursday – and napped for around 11 hours total. In all, I’ve been awake for 79 out of the last 90 hours.

    I arise at midday, refreshed, having effectively reset my debt with one normal sleep. I reflect on how my views toward modafinil have veered between utter devotion to, now, in the cold light of day, a realisation that it’s probably not a good idea to be taking that shit on consecutive days. I was feeling so fucking average the night before. I couldn’t bear the thought of continuing to stay awake. The body and the mind aren’t made for it.

    ++

    Next, I purchase some homemade nootropics from a vendor named Tryptamine on Silk Road (SR), an anonymous online market where illicit drugs are purchased with virtual currency and sent through the international postal system. Tryptamine’s vendor profile states, “I am a biologist who develops nutritional supplements to improve your health, sleep, and cognition. I use only natural or orthomolecular ingredients, and no adverse effects have been reported from my products.”

    Tryptamine makes and sells three nootropics. I order two 24-pill bottles of MindFood (“designed to optimize brain function, protect against stress- and drug-induced neurotoxicity, prevent/alleviate hangovers, and reverse brain aging,” among other alleged effects), and ChillPill (“designed to promote relaxation, attenuate stress, calm excess brain activity, enhance mood, and promote dreaming”). The seller kindly includes a bonus five-pill sampler of ThinkDeep (“designed to stimulate brain metabolism and glucose uptake, improve memory formation/recall, expand attention span, prevent mental fatigue and enhance blood flow”), too.

    The total cost is around AUD$100. As I pay this seemingly exorbitant amount, I’m reminded of that old aphorism about fools and their money. The package lands in my mailbox via the state of New York around two weeks later. The pills are brightly coloured and strong-smelling. I try all three nootropics in isolation, one or two at a time, on different days.

    After swallowing a ThinkDeep for the first time, I realise that I just took an anonymous black and red pill created by an anonymous internet seller who claims to be a biologist. They’ve got a 100% feedback record from over 400 transactions on SR, which counts as a sort of social proof, but still: bad things could happen to me after taking this pill, and the person responsible would never be caught out. (Tryptamine denied Rolling Stone’s request to verify his/her identity, or scientific credentials. “Whatever image you have in your mind’s eye from reading this, that’s how I look,” the seller wrote.)

    “Silk Road allows me to sell my products anonymously, and provides me with hundreds of thousands of potential customers who already take pills that aren’t made by pharmaceutical companies,” Tryptamine tells me. “On the other hand, it is a bit off-putting to see my products listed beside bags of heroin.”

    As it turns out, ThinkDeep doesn’t do much for me, even on another day when I double-dose. In fact, the only significant effect I notice from these three products is when one dose of MindFood eradicates a hangover much faster than my regular methods of paracetamol and/or ibuprofen. Perhaps ThinkDeep and ChillPill are so subtle that I don’t notice their effects; perhaps they don’t work at all. Potential hangover cure aside, it’s difficult to recommend these products for cognitive enhancement purposes.

    At the other end of the nootropic spectrum, far from secretive biologists and solo recipe-tweaking, is an Austin, Texas-based company named Onnit. Their flagship product is named Alpha Brain, which is slickly marketed as a “complete balanced nootropic”. Their biggest public advocate is the comedian, podcaster and former host of Fear Factor, Joe Rogan; they also have a few World Series of Poker players hyping the product on their website. I ordered a 30-pill bottle of Alpha Brain for around $40.

    Each green pill includes small amounts of eleven impressive-sounding substances, from vitamin B6 and vinpocetine, to L-theanine and oat straw. The serving size on the label suggests two pills at a time; as I discover, taking one does nothing. With two Alpha Brain pills circulating in my system, though, I feel an overall mood elevation and a heightened ability to concentrate on tasks at hand: reading, writing, researching. These effects last for between four to six hours.

    Alpha Brain worked for me, but it also feels like a triumph of marketing, too. As there are no clear estimates about the financial side of the nootropics industry, I ask Onnit CEO Aubrey Marcus whether it’s a lucrative field. “Absolutely,” he replies, though he won’t comment on Onnit’s annual turnover. “It’s something that everybody can benefit from. Whenever you tap into something [like that], there’s ample opportunity to make good money.” Marcus says that Alpha Brain has been purchased by around 45,000 customers across the world since launching last year. The company currently employs 13 full-time staff.

    He acknowledges that nutritional supplement manufacturers are met with their fair share of critics. “The pharmaceutical industry has done a good job of telling people that synthetic drugs are the only things that have an effect on the body. There are plenty who’ve never tried our products who’ll swear that they’re snake oil,” Marcus laughs. “We encounter that, and we just do our best to show as much research behind all the ingredients that we have.” He mentions that Onnit are intending to commission a double-blind clinical study on the effects of Alpha Brain, which he believes “will go a long way to silence the critics.”

    ++

    Perhaps nootropics aren’t a mainstream concept yet because the people most enthusiastic about their potential benefits are all scientists, marketers out to make a buck, ‘body hackers’, and other weirdoes. There are few ‘normals’ taking these drugs and supplements on a daily basis, so it all looks too strange and confronting for outsiders to try. As a society, we’re taught by our peers and the media that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

    There’s also the possibility that nootropics will never become mainstream because their effectiveness is difficult to qualitatively measure, or alternatively, they don’t work at all. In this regard, Australian researchers are world-class sceptics of cognitive enhancement. When I visit the University Of Queensland’s Centre for Clinical Research (UQCCR) in Brisbane, I’m greeted by Professor Wayne Hall, who was first published on this topic in 2004. His essay, which appeared in a European biology journal, was entitled “Feeling ‘better than well’: Can our experiences with psychoactive drugs help us to meet the challenges of neuroenhancement methods?”

    Hall has studied addiction and drug use for over 20 years. “There’s been a fair amount of enthusiasm for cognitive enhancement [in scientific circles], but it hasn’t looked critically at the evidence on how common this behaviour is,” he says. The professor and his peers argue for “taking a step back, and not getting too excited or encourage unwittingly lots of people to experiment with stimulant drugs for the wrong sorts of reasons”.

    “If you look at the lab studies that have been done on whether these drugs [work], the effects – insofar as there are some – are fairly modest and short-lived,” Hall says. “To be jumping from that, to saying it’s good idea for people to be using these drugs regularly to enhance their cognitive performance, is a bit of a long bow.”

    Dr Bradley Partridge is another UQCCR academic who specialises in investigating “the use of pharmaceuticals by healthy people to enhance their cognition”. I bring along my bottles of Alpha Brain and Tryptamine’s homemade nootropics for him to cast a critical eye over. “I have never used any of these things,” Partridge says. He peers at the labels with bemusement. “And I’ve never heard of most of these ingredients.”

    He places the bottles back on the table. “The thing is, a lot of these supplements are touted as being ‘all natural’, and for some people, that implies that they’re perhaps safe. But it’s very hard to evaluate exactly what’s in it. Aside from safety, where’s the evidence that they actually work for their stated purpose?”

    “There’s no scientific literature on some of this stuff; for others, the results are very mixed. Also, there might be a really strong placebo effect.” He holds up the Alpha Brain bottle, which mentions ‘enhancing mental performance’ in its marketing copy. “You take this and you do an exam; maybe simply taking something makes you feel like you ought to be doing better, and maybe you convince yourself that you’re getting some effect.”

    Hall and Partridge co-authored a study which analysed media reports on “smart drugs”. They found that 95 per cent of media reports mentioned some benefit of taking a drug like Adderall, Ritalin or modafinil, while only 58 per cent mentioned side effects. “I tend to be very cautious about this stuff,” Partridge says. “I don’t like to see this getting portrayed as a widespread phenomenon, as a fantastic thing, that it works, that there are no side effects. That runs the risk of encouraging people who hadn’t thought about it to take it up, which could cause problems for people.”

    I offer to leave some of my nootropics with Dr Partridge for him to conduct his own research; he laughs, and politely declines.

    ++

    Underscoring this entire discussion is the threat of one-upmanship. If I’m taking these drugs and they markedly improve my performance, am I nothing but a filthy nootropic cheater? To address this question, I spoke with Dave Asprey, who has used modafinil constantly for eight years and describes himself on Twitter as a “New York Times-published Silicon Valley entrepreneur/executive/angel who hacked his own biology to gain an unfair advantage in business and life.”

    Asprey has a prescription for the drug, after a brain scan showed a lack of blood flow at the front of his brain – a common symptom of attention deficit disorder (ADD), he says. “Modafinil is actually used commonly as a treatment for ADD,” he tells me. “It’s an off-label use, but it’s accepted; it’s even reimbursable by some insurance companies.”

    Asprey takes modafinil most workdays, upon waking. “It’s not like it’s a great secret out there, it’s just that people don’t talk about it because there’s some feel as though it’s ‘cheating’,” he says. “My perspective is different: if you eat healthy food, then you’re also ‘cheating’, because that impacts brain function. Surprisingly, the only people who’ve ever given me shit about taking modafinil are like, ‘but how do you know it’s not hurting you?’ I’m a bio-hacker; I’ve done all sorts of strange things to my body and mind in the interests of anti-aging, health and performance. I look at my body as part of my support system.’”

    Asprey says that he considers modafinil to be on the healthier spectrum of drugs. He’s also a fan of aniracetam, a fat soluble version of piracetam, which itself was the first-ever nootropic discovered in 1964. “It’s longer lasting [than piracetam],” Asprey says. “I recommend it as a basic biohack. I’ve been using it for a very long time.”

    Though Asprey has never met anyone who bluntly considers nootropics to be bullshit, he hears another argument reasonably often – and he has a clever rebuttal ready. “People say, ‘[nootropics] are evil, because if you take them, then everyone else will have to take them!’ I don’t think that’s a very fair argument, because from that perspective, fire is evil. Back when there were two cavemen, and one had a fire, the other said, ‘you can’t use fire, that’s unfair!’ Well, we know who evolved.”

    ++

    Whether or not I’m qualitatively smarter after experimenting with nootropics for this story is difficult to measure. I feel slightly wiser, and more aware of the limitations of both mind and body after that week of bingeing on modafinil. I certainly appreciate the restorative value of sleep better than ever before, after staying awake for the best part of a full work-week. I found that Alpha Brain is useful for focusing for a few hours, but considering that a two-week supply costs $40, it seems a touch on the expensive side.

    I did order a few dozen additional pills of modafinil, but I intend to use these only when emergency deadlines necessitate long hours. (I’ve read it’s good for combating the effects of jet lag, though, so perhaps I’ll try it on my next international flight.) Ultimately, the nootropic I found most useful – and intend to continue using regularly – is aniracetam, which Dave Asprey told me about. Its mind-sharpening effects are subtler than Alpha Brain, but it’s much cheaper – around $40 for a month’s supply if purchased online – and its effects taper off much more pleasantly than Alpha Brain’s comparatively sudden drop-off in concentration and energy levels.

    Late one night while researching this story, modafinil coursing through my body, I watched Limitless for the second time. It’s not a brilliant film, but it’s entertaining and thought-provoking enough to make the viewer consider seeking out smart pills of their own. It’s easy to see why the nootropic industry’s shadier sellers have attempted to draw parallels between their products and the fictional substance of NZT. After viewing the film, I contacted Alan Glynn, the author behind the 2001 techno-thriller The Dark Fields, which Limitless was based on, via email.

    “The original idea of NZT – called MDT-48 in my book – came from the idea of human perfectibility, of ‘the three wishes’, of the chance to re-invent yourself, of the shortcut to health and happiness,” Glynn tells me. “This is why the diet and self-help industries are so huge. Hold out a promise like that and people will respond. The fact that most of these products and therapies don’t work, or are bogus, doesn’t seem to matter. The real magic here, the real dark art, is marketing. I think that if nootropics ever go mainstream, they’ll be fodder for the marketing industry.”

    I send Glynn a link to the Alpha Brain website and mention that I’ve been taking it while researching this story. “Look, I’m just as much of a sucker as anyone else and when I look at that website, I’m going like, ‘Woah, gimme some of THAT!’” he replies. “And I’m actually seriously considering ordering some. So, from a marketing point of view, I’d say it’s a total success. It’s shiny, professional-looking and stuffed full of ‘the science bit’.”

    “But it’s the massaging of the science bit that is the marketer’s real dark art. The truth is, I couldn’t argue with someone who can talk about ‘GPC choline’ and ‘neurotransmitter precursors’. My instinct is that it’s all bullshit… On the other hand. I don’t know. Have you taken Alpha Brain? Does it work?”

    I reply in the affirmative, and describe my findings in some detail. Alan Glynn, author of the book that inspired the movie that inspired me to write this story in the first place, writes me back immediately: “That’s interesting indeed. I’ve ordered some Alpha Brain, and I’ve just got an email to say it’s been dispatched. I’ll report back to you – in the interests of science, of course.”

    Note: At no point should any of the products mentioned in this article be ingested without first consulting a health professional. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ritalin as an amphetamine; it belongs to the methylphenidate class of stimulants.

    To read more on nootropics, I recommend that you continue your research at Smarter Nootropics. Good luck!

  • Kotaku story: ‘What Went Wrong With Silicon Knights’ X-Men: Destiny?’, October 2012

    A 6,000 word feature story published on Kotaku in October; excerpt below. This is the result of 15 months’ investigative work.

    What Went Wrong With Silicon Knights’ X-Men: Destiny?
    by Andrew McMillen

    Bad video games are released all the time. A raft of factors conspire to influence the quality of the outcome. Maybe tight deadlines are to blame. Or maybe the problems include inexperienced developers, incompetent project management, impossible publisher requests, funding concerns. It’s a seemingly unavoidable fact that not every game can be great, or good, or even average.

    So how does a game, one made by a celebrated studio and backed by one of the richest game publishers in the world, turn out to be a bad video game? This is a story about exactly that. It’s about Silicon Knights the studio behind the great Eternal Darkness, the miserable X-Men: Destiny. It’s about a proud leader, frustrated ex-employees, many internal clashes and a secret sequel everyone hoped would be great.

    To an extent, it’s the role of the gaming media to warn potential buyers away from these inferior gaming experiences, and encourage them to spend time with well-designed games developed by skilled teams, led by sound project management, and unhurried by unrealistic demands. The conventional wisdom is that life’s too short to play every game — or read every book, or listen to every album, or see every film — and as a result, we tend to only want to invest our time and money into the very best.

    X-Men: Destiny — developed by Canadian studio Silicon Knights for Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii — could have gone either way. Sure, previous X-Men titles didn’t exactly set the world on fire: 2006?s X-Men: The Official Game, averaged a score of 52 out of 100 on Metacritic across seven platforms, while 2009?s character-focused X-Men Origins: Wolverine averaged a 65 across six platforms.

    But X-Men: Destiny (XMD), released September 27, 2011, underperformed them both with a dramatically low Metacritic score of just 41 across four platforms. (The DS version, developed by Canadian studio Other Ocean Interactive, registered a 33 on the site, making it the single worst-reviewed X-Men title in Metacritic’s records.)

    There are plenty of possible explanations for the poor result. Maybe the game’s publisher, Activision, rushed the release in an attempt to hit a quarterly revenue goal. Maybe it was just dragged down by the weight of a crappy, overdone superhero licence, as so many games before it. Maybe the title just didn’t come together in the end, or simply failed to resonate with reviewers.

    These are all possible, but discussions with former employees of XMD developer Silicon Knights suggest that the game’s fate was sealed long before Activision gave the project a green light back in 2009. The following story excerpts extensive interviews with former Silicon Knights employees who describe their experiences at what they say was a disorganized, unfocused company that squandered ample time and resources before being forced to release a game it was far from proud of.

    Management at Silicon Knights refused to be interviewed on the record for this story, despite repeated requests over many months. A spokesperson for the game’s publisher, Activision, also declined requests for comment. Accordingly, keep in mind that what follows is but one side of a very complex story. When first confronted with wide-ranging allegations of XMD‘s tumultuous development in mid-January 2012, company president Denis Dyack gave the following statement:

    “Silicon Knights is obligated to its partners (in the case of X-Men: Destiny — Activision and Marvel) to not disclose the development process of any project they work on. These obligations also apply to all the people who worked on X-Men: Destiny. Silicon Knights appreciated the opportunity to work on the game and we hope to get an opportunity to work together with Activision and Marvel again.”

    This statement remains the only comment that Kotaku can attribute to the man behind the biggest failure in the studio’s 20-year history.

    Enter: “SK Whistleblower”

    It’s not as if Silicon Knights was some untested, fly-by-night developer brought on to quickly crank out just another licensed title. Founded in 1992 by current company president Denis Dyack, the St. Catharines, Ontario-based company is best known for their 2002 GameCube hit Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, which scored a “universal acclaim” score of 92 on Metacritic, based on 41 reviews. The company’s 2004 Metal Gear Solid remake, The Twin Snakes, scored 85 across 54 reviews. And while Silicon Knights’ 2008 Xbox 360 release Too Human averaged a sub-par score of 65, the company’s history still suggested it could produce good games.

    But X-Men: Destiny stands alone as the worst game that Silicon Knights has released since it was founded. How did a company that was once known for compelling, original, quality video games come to release a title best described as “mediocre,” “mindless,” “generic” and “an absolute mess”?

    (1UP gave the X360 version a D+, concluding that the game is “is an absolute mess that isn’t worth your time.” IGN gave the PS3 version 5.5 points out of 10 — “mediocre” — and remarked that “even for an action brawler, this one is as mindless as they come.”GameSpot reviewed the same version and awarded the game 4 out of 10, noting that XMD “does the incredible: it makes being a genetic marvel a generic bore.”)

    “I am writing to you in regards to Silicon Knights’ upcoming title X-Men: Destiny,” read the July 21, 2011 email from a mysterious, throwaway Hotmail account with the handle SK Whistleblower. “Silicon Knights’ executive team has just recently implemented a new policy to discredit all employees who have recently resigned. This includes employees who have worked on it for between six months and three years. Between 35 to 45 former employees will fail to have their credits appear in the game.”

    I knew firsthand how to deal with such serious allegations. At the time, IGN had recently published my 4,500 word feature story based on interviews with 11 anonymous former employees of the Australian studio Team Bondi, in which those developers detailed seven troubled years of work on L.A. Noire; years that culminated with many of those employees failing to receive the credit they believed they deserved for their work. Now, someone was suggesting that Silicon Knights was having similar problems with its latest title.

    “Much of what was written about Team Bondi’s situation can be said about Silicon Knights as well,” SK Whistleblower continued. “I am certain that if you contacted former and current Silicon Knights employees and offered them anonymity, you would receive evidence of an appalling antipathy from management towards the employees, publishers, and the quality of their games.”

    Anonymous allegations are easy to make; verifying them is much tougher. I spent the next couple of months reaching out to dozens of former Silicon Knights employees, including a list of 32 allegedly omitted names supplied by SK Whistleblower. Many of those who responded confirmed that they, too, had heard the rumours of their names being removed from the credits of XMD. Some refused to speculate (“I can’t confirm who made it into the credits or not until the game is released, so I’m unable to comment”); some expressed concern for their former colleagues (“I feel that any information I give you will only hurt the current employees at SK”); others feared the ramifications of their involvement in this investigation (“any other information possibly leaking would not look good towards my professionalism and possible future opportunities”).

    Ultimately, I secured interviews with eight former SK employees who worked on XMD, including the initial whistleblower. Between them, these former staffers represented over 45 years of service to the Canadian game development studio. All of them spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, for obvious reasons. Interviewees suggest that the company has been plagued by a complex set of internal problems for years. It soon became clear that this story was about much more than a minor grievance with SK’s crediting standards.

    To read the full story, visit Kotaku.