All posts tagged Technology

  • 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.

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

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Roll On, Robot

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Heroin Heroine of Reddit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

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

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

    This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

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

  • Backchannel story: ‘How I Snuck Through Wikipedia’s Notability Test’, March 2015

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

    How I Snuck Through Wikipedia’s Notability Test

    I’m not famous. But judging by my expansive Wikipedia entry, I’m a star!

    Backchannel story: 'How I Snuck Through Wikipedia's Notability Test' by Andrew McMillen, March 2015

    The English-language edition of Wikipedia is composed of 4,735,036 articles at the time I write this sentence. One of those articles is a ridiculously detailed biographical summary of my career as a journalist and author. At 1,905 words in length, excluding references, it is shorter than the entries onThe Simpsons’ family dog, Santa’s Little Helper (2,908 words), spontaneous human combustion (2,347), the internet meme Rickrolling (2,307) and Barack Obama (10,302).

    The article in my name is longer, however, than the ones devoted to the Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand (1,880), The Simpsons character Barney Gumble (1,848), screenwriter and director Lena Dunham (1,480) or stand-up comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan (1,029).

    I’m not well-known by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not that journalists get some kind of special treatment on Wikipedia, either. Take Jon Ronson, a journalist who is two decades and several global bestsellers ahead of me. Casual readers of nonfiction may know him as the author of The Men Who Stare At Goats and The Psychopath Test. His latest title is So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, an excerpt of which appeared in The New York Times Magazine in February 2015.

    In a 2012 story he wrote for GQ on income inequality, Ronson, 47, declared his annual income to be in the range of $250,000, a figure that I can assure you is much greater than my own. He also co-wrote the screenplay for a 2014 feature film, Frank, starring Michael Fassbender. Yet by some strange quirk of the web, the Wikipedia summary of Ronson’s remarkable career is 1,223 words in length—precisely 682 words shorter than my article.

    The story of how my entry came to be reveals the quirks of Wikipedia’s process for determining what to keep, and what to jettison, on the encyclopedia’s servers. There’s a name for this: the ‘notability test.’ I had the rare opportunity to observe this process up close, in real time.

    As a frequent Wikipedia reader, I had long wondered about the people who studiously edit its content, writing paragraphs, creating links, sourcing citations and tweaking code behind the scenes to keep it running smoothly. As a professional writer, I’ve been particularly intrigued by the unpaid nature of this work, as I abhor the notion of writing for free.

    I wanted to know what compels a person to create—from scratch—an article on some esoteric subject, landmark or person. I needed a case study. Purely by chance, that esoteric subject turned out to be none other than me.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

    Note: since the publication of this story in March 2015, the ‘Andrew McMillen‘ article on Wikipedia has been trimmed considerably, having survived a deletion debate.

  • CNET story: ‘Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth’, February 2015

    A feature story for CNET; excerpt below.

    Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth

    We embed in the field and go behind the scenes of Google’s augmented reality game, Ingress. Is walking through the streets of hundreds of countries the future of gaming?

    CNET story: 'Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth' by Andrew McMillen, February 2015

    Eleven of us gather deep in the enemy heartland on a balmy Sunday evening to partake in Operation: Green Court. Meeting in secret, we are agents of the Enlightened, a faction which seeks to advance society through our actions. The enemy will be unaware of our presence until we begin attacking and capturing a long corridor of their prized portals, flipping them from blue to green while figuratively flipping them the bird. Our movements must be coordinated and efficient, as it won’t be long before we attract the attention of the Resistance, the opposing faction which fears change and seeks to crush our idealism and progress.

    In actuality, we are 10 adults and one child meeting on a street corner to bond over our smartphones — specifically, an app called Ingress, a free-to-play augmented reality game that has been downloaded over 8 million times and is being played in more than 200 countries.

    The massively multiplayer mobile game encourages its players to walk around the real world, using data overlaid atop Google Maps to attack and defend real-world public locations known as “portals”. Our common goal for this operation is to turn the suburb green — the colour of the Enlightened, and the colour of the shirt of Aladrin, the 39 year-old agent who arranged this operation via Google+ earlier in the week.

    Milton — an inner-city suburb of Brisbane, Australia — is usually coated in blue, thanks to the dedicated efforts of its Resistance population, many of whom work at nearby IT firms. Our own neighbourhood, just across the Brisbane River, is firmly green-held, but on this Sunday night we’ve set out to ruffle a few blue feathers. Owing to their team colour, Resistance players are commonly referred to as “Smurfs”. The Enlightened tend to self-identify as “frogs”.

    Among the eleven of us is Apocs85, a dedicated level 15 agent who is widely known and respected as the unofficial guardian of Brisbane’s West End. The 29-year-old loves his day job of testing video games, and his Ingress statistics show that he has walked 118 kilometres (73 miles) in the last week while defending and rebuilding portals throughout the inner-city.

    Niantic’s ‘success failure’

    In-game action is shown on our smartphone screens, which act as “scanners” to reveal the portals located all around us. They’re invisible to the naked eye, but with Ingress loaded on our Android or iOS devices, we’re able to see portals attached to structures, artwork, historic locations and buildings of cultural significance — train stations, public parks and post offices are three common examples.

    The portal locations are user-submitted and manually checked by staff at Niantic Labs, the game’s Google-owned developer, to ensure their accuracy and suitability. Globally, more than 3 million such locations have been approved so far, in numbers far greater than expected when the game was first released as a public beta version in November 2012.

    “At Google, we call that a ‘success failure’,” says Niantic Labs founder John Hanke with a chuckle. “It’s a failure because it’s so successful: lots of people submitted portals, which is great, but now it’s more than we can really handle to keep the response time down.”

    To read the full story, visit CNET.

  • The Ascender story: ‘Digital Delta’, November 2013

    A story for the debut issue of online magazine The Ascender. Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story.

    Digital Delta

    Two men from different fields are teaming up to create the future of mapping in one of most biologically diverse wildernesses on Earth.

    The Ascender story: 'Digital Delta: Into The Okavango', by Australian freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, November 2013

    Deep in the heart of the remote African wilderness, ten men laboriously drag canoes across the high grass of a dry floodplain. Living representations of the idiom ‘fish out of water’, their companions include wild hippopotamuses, crocodiles, birds and elephants unused to seeing humans in their midst this time of year. To make the scene seem even more out place, inside one of the makoros – a traditional Bayei dug-out canoe – sits a gigantic blue-and-white solar panel, its heft manifested on the strained, sweat-strewn faces of the men as they slowly traverse the rugged terrain.

    For three days, the explorers have been confined to land, pushing through the harsh conditions under a scorching sun, burdened by the weight of their equipment that besides the panel includes batteries, computers, cameras and other gear for surviving the trying, 18-day expedition.

    If viewed from space, the humans’ circuitous path would look rather random as though this band of travelers had absolutely no idea where they were going. The men climb trees and scramble to the top of termite mounds in an effort to spy a more efficient route and get to the place they’d much rather be: on the water.

    What, then, are these men doing here?

    This is the annual flood time in the Okavango Delta, one of Africa’s last remaining wetland wildernesses in northern Botswana, and Dr. Steve Boyes and his team of wildlife researchers and local Bayei river bushmen are attempting a world-first: to record wetland bird and wildlife sightings in September, a month for which no data previously exists.

    It is ironic then, that this expedition, set against the backdrop of this remote wilderness, is on the cutting edge of location-based innovation and real-time mapping. Boyes and his team are instruments of data transmission, the hefty, solar panel offering the efficient, silent power necessary to conduct their all-important research. Every twenty minutes, the team uses a global positioning system (GPS) to sync their location onto a live map hosted at a dedicated website, IntoTheOkavango.org with evenings spent packaging the days’ captured data using watches and tablet computers – bird and wildlife sightings, photographs, text messages, body temperatures, and their heart rates – and transmitting the precious digital cargo by satellite to a team located on the U.S. east coast.

    “The whole point of the Into The Okavango campaign is to inspire,” says Boyes. “Our research is obviously the primary task out there; first we backed up and uploaded to our server all of the research data, but right after that came the campaign stuff: all of the sharing, tweeting and blogging. We were on a research expedition, but we’ll stay up later and push ourselves harder to be able to share that experience. There are certain sacrifices in this world if you really want to inspire people to be different.”

    To read the full story, visit The Ascender. The above image is titled ‘Sunset on the Hippo Pool‘, by Lawrence Murray.

  • The Vine story: ‘What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution’, October 2013

    A story for TheVine.com.au. The full story appears below.

    What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution

    The Vine story: 'What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution' by Andrew McMillen, October 2013

    Prior to its seizure by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the early hours of Wednesday, October 3, Australian time, a website named Silk Road was the holy grail for illicit drug users of all stripes. Since mid-2011, dealers and consumers had been drawn to the site like iron filings to a magnet. Their reasons for downloading a Tor browser and copy-pasting the complex URL that housed Silk Road (SR) can be reduced to two key motivating factors: cash and product.

    For drug dealers – or, in SR-preferred parlance, ‘vendors’ – the lure of a steady supply of international buyers was enough to motivate the investigation of innovative, stealthy shipping techniques that would see their packages of powders, crystals and pills delivered to intended addresses without raising the alarms of border security. This quickly became a point of pride among the most dedicated vendors, some of whom marketed their packaging options as ‘undetectable’ and cherished buyer feedback that praised innocuous, ingenious delivery methods. Subterfuge was the name of the game.

    It helped, too, that SR offered vendors the opportunity to turn the risky, dangerous job of face-to-face dealing into the ultimate work-from-home gig. When I began poking around the site in late 2011, while researching a feature story for Australian Penthouse, I interviewed several vendors via SR’s plain-text messaging system. One told me that SR was “better and cleaner” than dealing drugs offline. “Customers are more educated and nice, and it leaves you more spare time to study, play with the kids, and clean the house,” I was told. “It’s telecommuting at its finest.”

    This was the defining image of Silk Road: a mild-mannered, sober, white collar professional who casually fielded an order for a gram or two of cocaine, printed the buyer’s address and applied it onto an anonymous envelope, vacuum sealed the illicit product inside and dropped the package into a random mailbox – with the correct amount of postage stamps attached, naturally.

    That image clashed violently with that of the stereotypical drug dealer, who stands on a street corner and controls his territory and product distribution through coercion, extortion and violence. Both operate outside of the law through necessity, since the supply, traffic and use of many drugs remains illegal in all but a handful of countries, most notably Portugal.

    Where once small-time dealers were confined to a few inner-city blocks, or their regular clients within nightclubs on Saturday nights, enterprising Silk Road vendors were limited only by their own ingenuity and imagination. Both online and off, intelligence is what set apart savvy dealers from those behind bars. In February, a 32 year-old Victorian – SR username ‘shadh1’ – was sentenced to three and a half years in jail for importing and reselling drugs purchased on the site, with reckless disregard for anything resembling security, self-preservation or stealth, three of the essential values on which SR was founded.

    It is telling and troubling for long-time SR users, too, that even the man alleged to have established the site was not above careless security slip-ups; he advertised his personal Gmail address on public forums requesting an “IT pro in the Bitcoin community” to assist with the site’s early growth, according to an FBI affidavit.

    Cash aside, the motivating factor for users was always the product. Cocaine, heroin, LSD, MDMA, cannabis, methamphetamine, psilocybin; Silk Road did not synthesise any of these compounds, nor discover the natural substances. It simply revolutionalised their distribution. My interview with a newbie SR buyer for Australian Penthouse was emblematic of what the site offered buyers.

    “I’m interested in taking drugs casually, but I hate the process,” the 24 year-old Brisbane resident told me. “I don’t know any dealers. Even if I want to get weed, I don’t know anyone, so it always becomes this drawn out process of finding someone who knows someone who knows someone. It’s a real pain in the arse. Whereas this way, it’s so direct and private. I didn’t leave my room, and then nine days later there was something in the mailbox that was for me. It’s discreet and exciting. Imagine the fun of shopping on eBay, but then you can also get high.”

    While Silk Road’s days are numbered, and its founder seems set for a long prison sentence, the cat is certainly out of the bag. The site was a brilliant intermediary between drug dealers and users right up until it wasn’t. But to imagine that humans will suddenly cease synthesising, cultivating, pursuing, distributing and ingesting substances that alter mind and mood is at least wishful thinking; at worst, high folly.

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Homeland Security and associated organisations can today congratulate themselves for a job well done in seizing Silk Road and its significant stockpile of assets and intelligence. It is their job to catch criminals. Although the plug has been pulled on the most open illicit drug marketplace that the world has ever seen, tomorrow is a new day.

    The seemingly infallible Silk Road has been beheaded, but two heads will appear in its place, hydra-like. Right now, its competitors will be quadruple-checking their security practices and managing server loads, while new registrations and orders pour in. The mail won’t stop. At the heart of this conversation is the fact that humans like to get high, and they’re willing to pay for that privilege. This is but a stumble on a very long walk. Absolutely nothing has changed.

    Further reading: Australian Penthouse story: ‘The High Road: Silk Road, an online marketplace like no other’, February 2012