📞 Secret World №. 10: Neighbourhood deepfake

Around this time last year, when the weather started to warm and working from home still felt liminal, I became better acquainted with the neighbourhood birds. They had always been there, of course. But with nowhere else to go, I was noticing them more — the way the pigeons would not stop trying to roost in my plants, and how the windows were covered in poop I was powerless to clean, but also our majestic neighbourhood hawk. The hawk I loved. Sometimes when my mind wandered, I could see the hawk outside — ducking and twisting between the apartment buildings before floating out over the park towards the lake. If I was lucky, I would see it dive into the trees, some unlucky prey locked in its sights. Mostly, though, I heard it; the hawk had a piercing cry that filled the sky, day after day. Time did not stand still for the hawk. Life went on, outside.

My partner also noticed the hawk — but she noticed something off. Its cry sounded too perfect, too real. I shrugged the observation off. I had seen the hawk! I had watched the pigeons scatter as it took to the air, seen its wings stretched taut and wide. Still, I wondered: could the hawk I saw and the hawk I heard be two different things? I didn’t want to believe it. I was comforted by the familiar cry, a reminder the hawk was present, nearby but out of sight. But one day my partner called me over. Her voice was solemn. She didn’t think the hawk we heard was real, and finally she had proof. Together, we watched the clock. And sure enough, every twenty minutes — precisely, without fail — we heard the hawk cry. The sound was the same, every time.

Notes

  • My friend Scaachi Koul wrote a really good profile of Dr. Phil, a person I’ve always been vaguely familar with, but never quite realized the extent to which his show exploits its guests under the guise of providing mental health advice.

  • WiFi, but make it art.

  • I’m working on a story that led me to this perfect artefact: a business case study for the MP3, back when there were still "MP3 entrepreneurs.” It’s remarkable, though, how the cost of an album or song is more or less the same today as it was then. (It’s an imperfect measure, but the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator says an $8.99 album should cost $13.58 today.)

  • The inevitable convergence of fashion, Fortnite skins, and RPG character creators.

  • The second issue of this newsletter was about my long-running love of breakfast sandwiches — and one particular sandwich, made with hoisin. I feel a kinship with Drew on this.

  • I assume the fake hawk is a pigeon deterrent, a simple recording that one of the nearby buildings plays from its roof. But I don’t know how effective it is.

  • This one’s for the birds.


Secret World is a newsletter from writer Matthew Braga. If you’re not familiar with me or my work, be sure to check out my website, and consider following me on Twitter.

📞 Secret World №. 9: Ping is in the air

First, a question: If you’re the sort of person who still listens to MP3s, FLACs, AACs — OGGs? — on your computer, what app do you use? I’m working on a story where this question is of some importance, and I’m curious to hear your replies.


The PlayStation has a remote play feature where, in theory, you can stream games to a laptop, tablet, or phone. There are also versions of this feature on Xbox and PC. I’ve never been able to get any of them to work reliably in the past. Okay, but why can’t you just sit in front of your TV or monitor or whatever and play the games there? This is a fair question! But consider: the Nintendo Switch. One of the things I love about the Nintendo Switch is its portability. I’ve spent a lot of time playing Stardew Valley or Breath of the Wild before bed. Back when we could travel, it was the perfect size to bring on the subway or a bus. I love that I can play Hades while curled up in a comfy armchair. I’ve even brought mine into the woods.

Remote Play is basically that, but with PlayStation games — games that I don’t always want to sit in front of a monitor or television to play. Of course, it’s all an illusion, a technological sleight of hand; your console is merely shuttling image, sound, and input back and forth. But it means I can, in theory, play things like Bugsnax or Hitman in bed (the latter, a friend aptly described as “Goose Game with guns”). It’s magical when it works…but difficult to diagnose when it doesn’t.

It’s okay if you don’t care about any of this. I mention it because I think it’s a microcosm of a much larger problem that the pandemic, with all its WFH-ness, has brought into sharper focus. No one seems to know how networks, well, work. I’ve been writing about technology for years and I still find networking impenetrable. It’s such a fundamental part of how we work and live and play, and yet remains impossibly arcane, one of the last true computing dark arts. In our present moment, especially, there is nothing more maddening than trying to diagnose a wireless connection gone wrong. I have spent a lot of money on routers and not a lot of money on routers. I’ve tried wired and wireless, installed the requisite firmware updates, done the 30-30-30 dance. I don’t think my router can get any more centrally located than it already is. Maybe I should start knocking down walls? Some days, everything is fine — and sometimes, for months at a time. Some days I feel like I would try crystals and incantations if someone told me they worked.

I think a lot about this story about printers from a few years back — why they’re so bad, why they still fail. You could easily write a similar story about routers and networking. Maybe, one day, I will?


Notes

  • A rough accounting of things I’ve played during the pandemic: Animal Crossing, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, Halo: Reach, Halo: CE, Halo 2, Halo 3, Titanfall 2, Doom (2016), Bioshock 2, Destiny 2, Hades, Warzone, Apex Legends, Astro’s Playroom, Bugsnax, Hitman III.

  • For years I told myself that I didn’t need a gaming headset — that I could make do with the flimsy, foldable headset I use to do interviews. Was I ever wrong! I got one of those fancy wireless models with the suspension-style headband, and it is extremely comfy. In fact, I may start doing interviews with it instead.

  • This butter mystery has been rattling around my brain all week. It’s a perfect little story of mystery, intrigue, food processing, and cow science.

  • I’m deeply curious about this new email service, Hey, from the folks behind Basecamp. It’s paid, but it means their business model isn’t mining my inbox for data and ads. I’m going to try it for a bit; if you reply to this newsletter, your email will go…there.

  • I’ve been doing a lot of writing to Numero 95.

  • What if we brought this aesthetic back too?


Secret World is a newsletter from writer Matthew Braga. If you’re not familiar with me or my work, be sure to check out my website, and consider following me on Twitter.

📞 Secret World №. 8: The best

Can you feel it? It’s that time of year where everything seems to slow down. It’s like walking in waist-deep water. There’s no use trying to go faster. I think we all could use a break.

The clementines are good — the perfect, punishing balance between tangy and sweet. I wedged a fir tree into the back of a hatchback and carted it up to my apartment. It smells sweetly of lemon and pine. I have more cookies and treats than I know what to do with (though we both know that’s a lie).

My last story of the year is in this weekend’s Globe and Mail. It’s about the internet-age anxiety of trying to buy The Best, and the realization that maybe you don’t always have to. “For pretty much any product imaginable — a phone, a pillow, a dutch oven, a camp chair — I know there’s probably a detailed, authoritative, definitive guide to tell me which brand, which model, is best,” I wrote. My expectations have been set so high that I’ve caught myself agonizing over the relative merits of soup ladles and litter boxes. So I asked myself, why?

It’s always hard to know how stories like these will land — will anyone relate? — so it was some relief when my editor said it spoke to him in “very unsettling, specific ways.” Maybe some of it will resonate with you too.

I didn’t write much this year, for reasons both obvious and personal. But I’m happy to report that a feature I wrote for The Verge — about a group of oceanographers building a self-driving ocean-mapping robot boat — was picked as one of Longreads’ best science and nature stories of the year. It was something to feel good about in a year where it was hard to get excited about much.

I’m taking next week off, but I’ll see you in the New Year. I hope you’re able to take a little bit of time off, too. 

Secret World is a newsletter from writer Matthew Braga. If you’re not familiar with me or my work, be sure to check out my website, and consider following me on Twitter.

📞 Secret World No.7: Lost notes

I haven’t listened a ton of music this year. But What I have been listening to are podcasts about music. I’ve really been enjoying the third season of KCRW’s Lost Notes, which focuses solely on the year in music in 1980. Episodes include The Sugarhill Gang, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, Ian Curtis, and Grace Jones, and give serious, much-deserved consideration to the kinds of stories that often shrink to the point of nothingness when you zoom out on the timeline of an artists’ life. I’m already hardwired to love niche, narrow narrative framing like this, but a big part of why it succeeds for me is host Hanif Abdurraqib. He’s a poet and a music writer, and listening to Hanif is exactly what it’s like to read him — lyrical, frank, and forceful (you should read his book on A Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain). I’m in awe of his ability to evoke a feeling, a mood. You can feel the shift from heaviness to tenderness in the tenor of his voice. When Abdurraqib describes the Sharpeville Massacre that drove Hugh Masakela from South African apartheid, I hung on his every word. He’s that good! Some podcasts merely give you information, but Abdurraqib tells a story.

I’ve also been enjoying the Prince podcast about the making of Sign O’ The Times. It’s full of memories and recollections from the people who were closest to Prince while he made one of his best albums. It can be tricky to do these kinds of podcasts without artist and label participation, so it helps that Prince’s estate is involved. The appeal for me is the process — how they created certain sounds, achieved certain effects, the evolution of a song from demo to album cut. And as someone who doesn’t always listen to music with an ear for lyrics — it’s the melody, the rhythm, the way a sound sounds that always grabs me first — I appreciated hearing the stories behind the songs, from the jealousy and possessiveness that drives “If I Was Your Girlfriend” to the newspaper headlines behind “Sign O’ The Times.”


As for new music, I’ll be spending some time during the back half of the month poring over the years’ best-ofs to catch up on what I missed (I love that Bandcamp is doing away with ranked lists). But here are some albums that I did get to, which you might also enjoy, too:

And in case you haven’t heard, How to With John Wilson has been renewed for a second season. And Nathan Fielder is making The Curse, a new Showtime series with the Sadfie Brothers and A24 starring Emma Stone: “a genre-bending scripted comedy that explores how an alleged curse disturbs the relationship of a newly married couple as they try to conceive a child while co-starring on their problematic new HGTV show.”

Secret World is a newsletter from writer Matthew Braga. If you’re not familiar with me or my work, be sure to check out my website, and consider following me on Twitter.

📞 Secret World No.6: How to write a newsletter

There’s a genre of video I think about a lot. The best example of it might be this 1993 HD television test footage. Or 2:30am at a 7-11 near Disney World in 1987. The writer Jamie Lauren Keiles once referred to these videos on Twitter as “bygone subcultural type walking around old new york with camcorder.” I first mentioned this a few newsletters ago, under different circumstances. But I mention it again because I think it’s key to what makes HBO’s How To with John Wilson so good.

The premise of the show is deceivingly simple. Documentary filmmaker John Wilson takes us around New York City and embarks on small missions of self-discovery. Episodes cover How To Make Small Talk, How To Improve Your Memory, and How To Make the Perfect Risotto. But these are not the slickly-produced how-to videos you might find on YouTube (it’s not until the last episode, How To Make Risotto, that Wilson finally skewers the genre). Rather, How To follows in the footsteps of shows like The Simpsons, where what seems like a simple, straightforward journey at the outset of each episode takes us into unexpected, delightful, frequently uncomfortable (and uncomfortably funny) directions. Wilson’s quest to prevent his cat from scratching his couch turns into a sober examination of defensive architecture and, uh, circumcision. An attempt to memorize a grocery list — featuring one of the show’s best sequences of visual gags — leads Wilson to conspiracy theorists and believers in the Mandela Effect. After Wilson tries to figure out the best way to split a restaurant bill, he’s lectured on income inequality by the owner of a neon sign shop, and ends up at a dinner for soccer referees in Long Island. But Wilson always, somehow, circles back to the initial premise, and in the process learns something about himself.

If that all sounds a bit too earnest, well, it is! But that endearing earnestness is one of the show’s greatest strengths. Each episode is quite literally told from Wilson’s perspective; other than the most fleeting mirrored glimpses, you almost never see Wilson on-screen. He remains behind the camera — and often to comedic effect, like when Wilson is reduced to opening a can of soda or cooking with his other free hand. He narrates, not necessarily what we see, but what he sees. We get to experience the world and all its mundane wonders through Wilson’s eyes. In fact, so many of the show’s best, funniest, most endearing moments hinge on how it’s shot — the slow, faceless, meandering magic of the early days of home video mixed with the virality, humour, and personality of the videos we upload to the internet today.

The slices of city life that Wilson captures feel like the sort of context-less shots you might see on TikTok, Instagram, on Twitter — short, weird, engrossing, unexpected, and often annotated with some witty remark or wordplay for comedic effect. A giant teddy bear lying forlornly on a sidewalk. A restaurant with a name that evokes Wilson’s mood. Pillows on a hotel bathroom floor. Paired with his anxious, and uncomfortable narration, the show is rife with visual gags — perfect, unexpected juxtapositions that can take a beat for the joke to land. It’s never quite clear what will happen next, or where everything is leading, to the point where I found the show’s pacing unsettling, almost frustrating, at first. But like any good how-to, you have to trust the process. You can’t skip steps. And you’re rewarded for your patience. Thanks to Wilson, I’ve been thinking about scaffolding all week.

The show is a love letter to New York City’s specific strain of weirdness, yes, but it’s also a reminder of city life at its best — of the things you see when you stop, slow down, look around. It evokes the feeling of aimless wandering, of the weekend stroll. You notice shops and people you never noticed before. You soak it all in. No one films video of this anymore! And if we do, it’s probably because you, a friend, or a loved one is in the shot. But the footage in How To often feels like it was shot in an era when cameras were still a novelty. People didn’t film with as much purpose, because the purpose was to film. And what you got was faceless, unremarkable. Boring, even. Test footage of funny restaurant signs. People going about their day. But in the ordinary of the everyday is where Wilson finds his magic.

The vibe of the show makes a lot more sense once you realize that comedian Nathan Fielder is an executive producer. But where Fielder’s own show Nathan For You forced its uncomfortable host onto unsuspecting marks, How To does the opposite. Often, it’s Wilson who has no idea what to do with the people he meets — people who talk calmly, openly, about deeply personal things, who willingly volunteer intimate details about their lives. Wilson rarely fills the inevitable silences, which only compels his subjects to talk more. In those moments of escalation, you will laugh and you will squirm. “How to cover furniture” captures this feeling at its peak. I won’t spoil it for you, if you haven’t already seen it, other than to quote Wilson: “I had never met a more passionate advocate for keeping a cover on.”

Even though he stays behind the camera, Wilson slowly opens up to us, too. We learn bits about his life. We see glimpses of his apartment. But although Wilson is a part of each episode, he never lingers on himself for long, preferring to turn the camera on others — until the series’ end when the arrival of the pandemic suddenly derails his efforts at self-improvement. I don’t leave my neighbourhood much these days. I haven’t been downtown in months. At times, it’s easy to forget why I live here, or what’s waiting on the other side. But as Wilson learns in isolation to make risotto for his elderly landlord — a gesture of thanks for all she’s done for him — it becomes obvious why so many of us continue to choose city life. Cities are full of weird, wonderful people, and people can teach us a lot.

Secret World is a newsletter from writer Matthew Braga. It’s been on a bit of a hiatus. If you’re not familiar with me or my work, be sure to check out my website, and consider following me on Twitter.

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