All posts tagged Published Writing

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

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

    Susan, Unbroken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    The Sleeper Autistic Hero Transforming Video Games 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Thought Police 

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

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

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

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

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

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

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

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

    Trips To Remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    To read the full story, visit Good Weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Teachable moments in virtual reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 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.

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

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    The Troll Taunter

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

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

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

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

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

    Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Weekend Australian book reviews, December 2016

    I reviewed 10 books for The Weekend Australian in 2016. Most of them were very good, but my review of the book I enjoyed most – published in August – is included in full below.

    Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

    In this outstanding book, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum decodes the relationship writers have had with word processing technology since the literary world began to shift from typewriters to the personal computer. If this subject matter sounds dry, happily it is anything but in the pages of Track Changes. Kirschenbaum, associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, takes on the topic with depth and an accessible prose style. The result should have broad appeal to a general readership and be of special interest to writers, for there is much here to excite the literary-minded.

    Kirschenbaum opens by referencing one of the pop cultural touchstones of our time: Game of Thrones — or, more specifically, A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy novels by American author George RR Martin on which the popular television series is based. As he told a talk show host in 2014, Martin chooses to write his books on a DOS-era computer with no internet connection, using an ancient program called WordStar. Describing this combination as his “secret weapon”, owing to its lack of distraction and isolation from any threat of a computer virus, the author also credits WordStar with his long-running productivity.

    By opening with the work habits of a megaselling author and then travelling back in time, chapter by chapter, to the emerging typewriter-based storage technology of the late 1960s, Kirschenbaum eases the reader into a dazzlingly rich and absorbing history. It is fascinating to note the reluctance with which computer-based word processing was first viewed by the publishing industry. Some writers were so wary of being outed as early adopters that they chose not to disclose their new toys to their employers, or even went to the lengths of having their finished manuscripts rewritten using typewriters before submission.

    Although screen size and small memory capacities caused early concerns and frustrations, it was not long before science-fiction writers, in particular, thrilled to the ability to gain greater control over their text, as well as being freed from the tedium of retyping work. Kirschenbaum quotes a Harvard physicist who came to a realisation in the early 80s: “We all knew computers were coming, but what astonishes us is it’s not the scientists but the word people who have taken them up first.”

    Once bestselling writers such as Stephen King, Isaac Asimov and Terry Pratchett adopted word processors and publicly noted the significant improvements in their productivity, it seemed there would be no turning back. As the technology matured, computers and their inner workings became a source of inspiration for writers, too: the likes of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which popularised the word ‘‘cyberspace’’, for example.

    Track Changes is based on five years of research and the author’s academic bent can be seen in the 80 pages of detailed notes that follow the narrative text, but never in the prose itself. This is a remarkable achievement. For a project that seems geared toward stuffiness, Kirschenbaum’s writing sparkles with well-chosen anecdotes and a keen sense of humour.

    His enthusiasm for the topic is palpable. After a section profiling thriller author James Patterson, whose occasional media nickname is ‘‘The Word Processor’’ — owing to his prodigious output, produced alongside a half-dozen close collaborators — he wonders what type of technology The Word Processor himself runs. “Surely it must be a mighty one!” Kirschenbaum suggests, before revealing the answer: “He works his stacks of manuscripts longhand. How perfect is that?”

    For the author, this subject is intertwined with his own experiences as a writer, naturally enough. It is dedicated to his parents, “who brought home an Apple”, and he notes in the preface that the book itself was written “mostly in [Microsoft] Word, on a couple of small, lightweight laptops”. The book is named for the incredibly helpful feature in Word that allows readers to see the revision history and minute variations between different versions of documents during the editing process. The origin of this feature is only addressed directly in the final chapter, where Kirschenbaum also writes:

    “Writers live with and within their word processors, and thus with and within the system’s logics and constraints — these themselves become part of the daily lived experience of the writers’ working hours, as predictable and proximate as the squeak of a chair or that certain shaft of sunlight that makes its way across the room.”

    As that illustrates, the author has a way with words, not just an appreciation for how they are processed. The final paragraph is a thing of immense beauty, too, and may bring a tear to the eye of anyone who has sat and watched as fingertip pressure applied to a keyboard instantly became words processed on a screen.

    I also reviewed the below books for The Weekend Australian in 2016. They are listed in chronological order, with the publication date noted in brackets.