📞 Secret World No.5: Real Time

Growing up, I thought I wanted to be a 3D animator, to make the computer generated characters I saw in films and TV. I loved ReBoot and Toy Story — they were so different from the traditionally animated cartoons and movies I watched on evenings and weekend — and decided that I wanted to make animated shorts of my own. So I tried my best to learn. With the kind of naive confidence you have at the age of ten, I wrote a physical letter addressed to Steve Jobs asking for an iBook. I dreamed of owning one of the new, colourful clamshells, like the ones the school library had — the polar opposite of the staid, retired, corporate Compaq that could only barely run Windows at the time. I guess the Apple marketing worked, because I thought an iBook was what I needed to make my animation dreams come true (I never got the iBook, let alone a reply). Over the next few years, I would pirate copies of Maya and 3D Studio Max, tying up the phone lines while we slept. There was a brief period when I forced my Mom to use Linux — my FOSS phase — so I could learn Blender on the family PC. Obviously none of this stuck, and I eventually chose writing over computers, reasoning that I could write about computers, get the best of both worlds. So far, so good.

These days, with the world around me largely off limits and out of reach, I guess it makes sense I would choose to turn my attention back to the creation of virtual worlds. Amid this persistent, low-level thrum of dread, I’ve been watching a lot of stuff like this. It’s a short video, and there’s a turn that happens about 15 seconds in that just stopped me in my tracks. Trust me. Give it a watch, then come back. The best way I can describe it is…like filming in a holodeck. This is how people are making things now, making worlds. Really convincing worlds. Though I haven’t seen it yet, the same technique was used to film much of the Mandalorian — a good reason to bump it higher up my watch list. (If you’re interested, there’s a longer 12 minute video that goes behind the scenes…and an even longer 45 minute conference talk if you, like me, want the fine-grained details.) My sense is that film, television, video games, animation — all of it is converging, the skills, the tools, the techniques. I’m thinking a lot about that, and what it all means. It’s been a nice distraction. More on that…soon. 

I was curious to see how the Bon Appétit test kitchen would adapt to our new, remote reality. I am please to report the answer is: quite well

Making coffee is one of the many little daily rituals that’s keeping me sane right now. I mostly work from home, and used to look forward to my near-daily trips to the coffee shops in my neighbourhood. I know most of the baristas by name, and the cafes were always a welcome change of scenery — a way to reset my brain, a new source of stimulus for work. Of course, all of that’s gone for the foreseeable future, but I’ve tried to keep up a routine at home.

Making coffee with the Chemex is what I look forward to the most. There’s something meditative about the slow, circular motions needed to wet the grounds. It demands attention — to the amount of water, and when to pour. I’m also delighted by the Chemex’s flask-like design. The same vessel you use to make the coffee also becomes your carafe, and when it’s finally time to decant, you can feel the weight of all the coffee you’ve just brewed. Each day, I look forward to carrying that weight.

New music that’s been getting me through the stay-at-home doldrums: 

Riding high on a wave of recent Steely Dan appreciation, I sat down to learn “Do It Again” on my keyboard last week, which does a very authentic Rhodes. I’ve always learned better by listening than reading — much to the disappointment of my piano teachers, growing up — and so, for about half an hour, I played the song on loop. And I listened. Really listened. Even if you don’t play piano, or an instrument of any kind, I highly recommend trying this kind thing yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you notice, the little details you never previously heard. 

The main riff in “Do It Again” is played on a Wurlitzer electric piano, and it’s the thing I love most about the song — the gentle tremolo, that slight, amplified edge, the texture that holds everything else together. But it wasn’t until the third or fourth listen that I started to really hear Walter Becker’s bass. It’s always there, of course, the effortless groove driving the song forward. But about a minute into the song, Becker starts to mix things up. He switches octaves. He introduces variations on the initial theme — holding notes before the beat, adding notes, going on impossibly smooth-sounding 16th-note runs. Once you realize what’s happening, it makes the song that much better. Now it’s something I expect, and something I miss when I’m listening on speakers and car stereos without enough fidelty to carry Becker’s bass.

When I was younger — nostalgia seems to be a theme, this newsletter — I used to listen to music this way a lot. I’d click CDs into the clamshell of my Walkman before bed, and listen to albums start-to-finish in the dark. I got to know songs very intimately that way, in a way I rarely do today, listening while I work or making dinner. I suspect this is part of the reason why I love driving so much — especially road trips. It’s the perfect excuse to focus on almost nothing but music for hours on end. But why the excuse in the first place? There’s no reason it can’t be something we also do at home — especially now, the only place we can be.

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.

  1. A physician dressed in protective plague costume. Line engraving after J.J. Manget. (Wellcome Collection)

📞 Secret World No.4: Camcorders

I started writing this at my kitchen table, which is as much a makeshift office as it is a place to eat these days. It was just warm enough on Thursday that I cracked the sliding door to our patio to let some air in. I try to get out for a walk or a run most days, but it was still nice to feel the breeze, which breaks down the barrier between in and out. It’s a welcome, liminal feeling. I’m already looking forward to writing on the patio — something I did quite happily last summer, but in self-isolation the possibility now feels more like a lifeline. Workers-from-home can have a little outdoor time, as a treat. 

Directly across from us is another apartment building, and I’m seeing more people on their balconies these days, even though the temperature isn’t quite warm enough yet to stay out there for long. Inside, the plants are thriving — shedding old growth, sending up shoots, opening new leaves, flowers in bloom. The cats are, for the moment, fast asleep. This is the first time in two weeks I’ve actually felt able to write.

Like most people, I’ve found it hard to focus on much of anything (and it’s reassuring to know that I’m far from alone). I still have contract work, unrelated to writing, that’s giving some structure to my days, but “doomscrolling” is such a perfectly apt description for my state of mind. I’ve been growing out my beard. I’ve been video chatting with far-flung friends. I went to donate blood, which felt like a small but useful gesture at a time when I feel mostly useless. I’ve been making a playlist of funk, soul, and jazz-fusion for when I need something upbeat. I bought a new router (which I am still setting up, because buying a router is not so much a singular act as a lifelong commitment and ongoing struggle to keep the internet flowing at a reasonable clip). Anything but reading or writing, anything to distract myself from the news.

I know baking bread is practically cliche at this point, but it’s an act I find equal parts functional and fulfilling. The local grocery store has been out of our usual seed-filled loaf, so I’ve been making a homemade alternative as a way to fill the void. It’s also fun! I’ve been breaking bread for a few years now — a mix of sourdoughs and no-knead loaves, the latter I even wrote about two newsletters ago — and there’s always, inevitably, something that goes wrong. Or just not quite right. Maybe the dough is too hot or too cold during the rise. Maybe I let it rise for too long, or not long enough. I’ve learned, there’s not really a good replacement for plastic wrap to keep the dough moist during the rise, and why you really, really shouldn’t use terrycloth towels. It turns out that even active dry yeast can expire. Nurturing a sourdough starter is not a commitment to take on lightly, which is why I’ve been drawn to the no-knead variety as of late. At least for me, few other baking achievements compare to the feeling of a loaf well done — a loaf that’s light, airy and full of holes, that’s perfect for dipping in little more than olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I’m very happy for all the folks who are discovering how rewarding the process can be.

Animal Crossing has also been a nice escape. It’s a very wholesome Nintendo game where you build yourself a new life on a deserted island. The game is played in real-time, meaning progress can’t be rushed. Each day I wander around my little virtual island, collecting fruit, wood, seashells, supplies. I build furniture at my DIY workbench. I find new things for my house (a lawn flamingo, some flowers, an espresso machine, a tape deck, a writing desk). I invite friends to visit my island, and visit the islands of others — in some cases, people I barely know, people I rarely see in day-to-day-life, which is nice. On days when it feels like my brain is barely functioning, I can sit down somewhere comfy (portability, one of my absolute favourite things about the Nintendo Switch), and lose myself in the meditative acts of chopping wood, catching fish, and finding bugs. 

If this sounds a lot like what you’re doing, or what everyone else seems to be doing, I think that’s partly the point. It’s comforting to have collective experiences we can share with others in isolation. It makes me feel a little less lonely, to know that others are learning, struggling, and enjoying their breads and their virtual islands too.

One piece of writing that has successfully grabbed my attention in the past few weeks: Snow Science Against the Avalanche in the March 23 issue of The New Yorker. I am an absolute sucker for scientific investigations into all kinds of dangerous, environmental phenomena — earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, on and on — and this is a worthy entry in that canon. Reading this particular passage lit my brain right up:

“Trees are wonderful mechanical sensors,” Bartelt said. If an avalanche takes down a seventy-year-old stand of trees, you know that the avalanche has a return period of at least seventy years.

I also enjoyed Kyle Chayka’s writing on architect Philip Johnson’s Glass House — an 1,815 square foot bungalow in which Johnson lived, walls entirely made of glass — in Chayka’s recent book on minimalism, The Longing for Less. It was nice to see the impracticality of a living in a truly minimalist space laid bare:

“The Glass House appears to be functional, with its strict geometry and severe layout, but it was anything but efficient. Without interior air vents, the glass walls fogged and dripped with condensation. The roof leaked, so buckets had to be installed in each of the four corners when it rained. In the winter the floor had to be heated so much that visitors couldn’t walk around with bare feet. Without normal walls to enclose its infrastructure, electrical cables and plumbing were installed underneath the house to run to the opaque Brick House across the lawn, where they could be secreted away. The house’s transparency had a way of concealing as much as it revealed.”

And if you want to remember what life on the outside is like — or, more accurately, was like — Jamie Lauren Keiles reminded me of one of the great YouTube genres, “bygone subcultural type walking around old new york with camcorder.” My personal favourite is a bit more polished — HD test footage from 1993 — but I also have a soft spot for Night Walk, the hazy, jazzy, slow-motion, steadicam shots of Toronto in the 1980s. And don’t forget one of the all-time greats: 2:30am at a 7-11 near Disney World - 1987.

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.

  1. Furnishing fabric by Manchester’s Calico Printers’ Association, 1921. (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

📞 Secret World No.3: Gardens

I’m going to start this issue in the garden. Not the kind of garden that I usually think about this time of year, the one I’ll try to coax into being on my patio come May (you have to plan early, and I’m already behind). Instead, I want to take you to the corporate/academic/industrial gardens where farmers, scientists, and businesspeople are figuring out What Comes Next in vegetables and fruits. Here are five stories rattling around my brain lately:

I love stories like these. They all involve the long-game, because you can’t rush nature, and breeding the next big variety of Apple or strawberry takes time. It’s a science but also a business, and access to the global supply chain means that the biggest growers can get creative with what’s grown when and where, to ensure there’s always a fresh, quality supply of what consumers want, whenever they want it, wherever they are. This is also kind of terrifying, when you think about it — how we’ve managed to optimize and systematize the way we grow, distribute, and sell the most organic of things. It’s so far removed from the humble process of trial and error and failure that happens in my garden each year. It’s a world I find mysterious and foreign, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. 

It’s still early in the year, and I’m still figuring out what stories I want to dig into in the months ahead, but I already know this will be high on my list of obsessions. If you have anything you think I should add to my, ahem, growing bibliography, please, send it my way! 

I also started the year off with a pair of stories in The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national newspapers. The first was a lengthy essay on the messiness of our digital lives — how we have too many apps, messages, photos, and files, and no good way to manage it all. Our phones and laptops and online accounts are saddled with such a degree of organizational debt that even the thought of tackling it can feel overwhelming, paralyzing. I tried to make sense of how we got here, and what I’ve tried to do about it (often, without much success).

There was a time, as recently as the start of the past decade, when it felt like you could actually grasp the shape of your digital life, reasonably arranged on only a handful of disks and drives. You could run a command to list all the files and feel some degree of comfort seeing them all laid bare. Now, I’m not so sure.

There was a shift, an inflection point, when the balance between the things we stored physically and the things we stored digitally flipped. First, the cost of storage plummeted and storage capacity soared. Every year, it felt like you could save more for less. And that was a good thing, because around the turn of the century, we suddenly had a lot more to save – photos, music, videos, games, all of it accumulating and taking up more space than ever before, as the technology to help us create and consume improved. Things we never dreamed of digitizing, of rendering immaterial, now seemed like they could exist no other way – expense reports, tax returns, receipts, office memos. It was seductive to believe that, by digitizing everything, we would declutter our homes and offices. We could reclaim the space taken up by CDs and filing cabinets and printed things – out of sight, out of mind. A hard drive was small, sleek, the opposite of clutter. We associated logic and order with digital things.

The second was a review of author William Gibson’s new book, Agency. I liked it, for the most part — and if you were a fan of The Peripheral, I think you’ll like Agency too. The review is paywalled, but this was what struck me most while reading:

Agency is at its best when Gibson reflects our current reality back at us with startling clarity. Throughout the book, a rotating cast of interchangeable characters are told by Eunice the autonomous AI central to Agency’s plot where to go, who to meet and what to buy – and do so with a shocking degree of credulity (Eunice, at one point, finishes an order to her human extensions by saying “execute,” and it could go either way whether this was meant humorously or not). It’s not unlike the blind trust we already afford the directions given to us by a GPS app, or whatever products Amazon’s algorithms tell us are the best. Of course, the way that characters in Agency are nudged is considerably more extreme – and that they even follow Eunice’s directions is perhaps a testament to the AI’s human-passing autonomy – but it also forces us to confront just how much we’ve already been turned into extensions of the software running on our phones and distant server farms all the same, sometimes quite literally, in the case of apps such as Uber or TaskRabbit. As Netherton’s wife, Rainey, remarks of the prejackpot past: “We were in our real singularity all along. We just didn’t know it.”

Not a terrible way to start the year.

Two more books I want to draw your attention to (though I suspect they may already be on many of your radars):

  1. Kyle Chayka’s The Longing for Less

  2. Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley

Both are at the top of my read-next pile, and for good reason. Chayka often attempts to unpack the draw of minimalism and how the concept is marketed and sold, work that culiminates in this book. He’s written about why every coffee shop and Airbnb shares the same aesthetic — a phenomena he labelled AirSpace — and more recently, about monoculture in the algorithmic age. Wiener, meanwhile, has been a sharp and thoughtful critic of Silicon Valley for a number of years — I particularly enjoyed her efforts to plumb the early archives of Wired and the Whole Earth Catalog, foundational texts for many Bay Area techies — and having actually worked in the industry at its most ascendant, has a unique perspective on its inner workings

Every month, the great Jazz label Blue Note Records updates a playlist with a selection of tracks from its very extensive catalog. As fun as it can be to plumb the depths of an archive yourself, sometimes it’s nice to let others surface old gems — especially when it’s the people who know that archive best. I always end up discovering something new, and maybe you will 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.

  1. A rock garden. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

  2. Nothing beats the feeling of having a story in print. (Matthew Braga)

  3. Two books I’m looking forward to reading. (Matthew Braga)

📞 Secret World No.2: Reverse engineer

The temperature is finally dropping, which means it’s time to bake bread. I made my first loaf of the season earlier this week — just a simple, no-knead white flour recipe from The New York Times. I did sourdough for a year, and might try making another starter this month. It’s an extremely rewarding process: you’re literally making food from whatever unique yeast can be found in your home. Whether it’s no-knead or sourdough, one of the things I like most about this process is how it’s a little bit different every time. I’ll experiment with where I place the dough to rise (too hot? too cold?), the type of yeast I use (too old?), and how I shape the loaf (too much flour? too long of a rest?). I figure that, eventually, I’ll figure out a process that accounts for all the quirks of my apartment — its oven, its ambient temperature — and the quirks that come with baking something deceivingly simple as bread. In my head, I imagine the result of all this trial and error will eventually be a perfect loaf. But not this week! 

Like many of you, I’m sure, I’m a big fan of Bon Appetit’s Test Kitchen YouTube channel — particularly, the Claire Saffitz series Gourmet Makes. It’s a delight seeing Saffitz descend into madness as she tries to recreate Kit-Kat bars or pop-rocks — but it’s the mechanics of the process that I love the most, the process of of deconstruction and reconstruction. In one recent episode, Saffitz struggles to re-create a homemade hot pocket. The filling can’t be too moist. The dough has to be folded and pinched in just the right way so nothing seeps out the sides. The crust has to be flaky, but not too flaky, and also bready at the same time. I’m always floored at her ability to pick these qualities out just by looking at a thing, and tasting a few bites. But the amount of trial and error involved in actually replicating these qualities is incredible — and as an oft-struggling cook still coming to terms with the limits of my own abilities, I appreciate the very honest humanity on display, failure after failure, from people we’re supposed to look to as experts. 

A few years ago, I lived around the corner from a cafe that made one of the best breakfast sandwiches I’ve ever had: a perfectly fried egg, a thick piece of locally smoked bacon, and a thin slice of sharp cheddar between the halves of a fluffy egg bun. All of these ingredients were easy enough to identify based on taste alone, and I enjoyed how simply they were presented and perfectly they were prepared. But there was one more ingredient that remained elusive: a sweet, creamy spread that was so unexpected in the context of this sandwich of otherwise familiar ingredients that I was fiercely attuned to its presence with every bite. I loved it, and wanted desperately to know what it was.

I spent weeks trying to reverse engineer the spread at home. The cafe wouldn’t tell me what it was. I don’t blame them. The sandwich was so good that, when the cafe changed owners, just before I started coming by, the sandwich was part of the sale. I could tell immediately that mayonnaise was involved — the spread was off-white, but had all the creamy, fatty lightness of your typical jar of Hellman’s. But there was something else that gave it a salty sweetness, and a taste of dark, caramel umami. I was stumped. I worked through my kitchen, mixing soy sauce (nope) and balsamic vinegar (absolutely not) before reaching for a jar of store-bought hoisin. I adjusted the mix, first by sight, trying to match the colour, and then by taste. I dipped a hesitant finger into the spread and…success? But I had to be sure. I bought some egg buns from the grocery story, cheese from the deli, and few slices of smoked, thick cut bacon from the butcher down the street. I cooked, assembled, added the spread, and took my first bite. Hoisin and mayo! That was literally all it was. I still feel a bit silly even recounting this — a combination so simple, and yet I couldn’t pick it out by taste alone.

I’m in awe of the people for whom this kind of reverse engineering comes naturally. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about Gourmet Makes, and I watch them in the hope that some of that knowledge will eventually rub off on me, too. Last year I was gifted Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which has been hugely beneficial in a similar way. I’m not particularly good at throwing meals together without a plan. It’s a skill my partner excels at, and I envy. But for whatever reason, just knowing why we brown meat, or when to deploy acid, or how to balance a too-spicy dish has been revelatory. I’ve gone from merely following recipes, to understanding what I’m actually doing and why. Well, I’m starting to.

Cold weather is good for cozy baking, but it’s also perfect for soups, and stews. I have a few favourites I like to deploy around this time of year, some new and some old. I may share more throughout the season — if you like this, please let me know! — but for now, here are a few that are top of mind. 

  • This is basically a mushroom risotto with farro, and it is ridiculously tasty — rich, dark and nutty, and all the better for using a variety of fresh, local mushrooms. I think I overdid it with the rosemary, but it was a good excuse to get a good block of parm, the kind with the salt crystals that pop in your mouth. I made it for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and knew immediately it was going in the winter rotation. (This is a NYT Cooking link, so subscription required, but if you’re interested in this one let me know and I’ll send it along.)

  • A thing you may not know about Toronto, and the province of Ontario, is that we can’t just buy beer and liquor in corner stores. For that, we have provincially regulated LCBO stores. They put out a monthly food and drink magazine that has some legitimately good recipes. About five years ago I came across this recipe for chicken noodle soup. What makes it different is the healthy addition of lemongrass — which gives a bright, floral flavour — a rich umami from the soy, and a good sriracha kick right at the end. It’s a bit of a commitment, since you make the stock as you go, but well worth it, I promise.

  • This black bean chorizo stew is simple, but incredible delicious. Use the best, freshest chorizo you can find. We bought some from a farmer’s market butcher over the summer and it absolutely shined — though now that we’ve been eating meat less often, I’m curious to try a no-meat alternative, which commenters say works just as well. (Also a NYT Cooking link — I’m sorry!)

  • Finally: This recipe for spicy sofritas takes some effort, but it’s worth it — and the result is incredible versatile too. The author suggests serving it over bowls of rice, but I’ve also used it as a simple taco filling on fresh corn tortillas. You can use fresh poblanos, sure, but dried ancho chiles work just as well, and I always keep a few on hand to rehydrate just for this.

I was struggling with a writing project earlier this year — I’m still struggling, to be honest — and went to an editor friend for advice. It wasn’t so much the idea that was giving me trouble, but the structure. I had lots of threads, all related, but just different enough that I wasn’t sure how to make it all fit. 

He suggested I read Sam Anderson’s Boom Town, and I don’t know if I would have otherwise picked it up were it not for the glowing recommendation. It’s ostensibly about the Oklahoma City Thunder, the city’s NBA team, but it’s really a sprawling look at how the history of a place, and the psyche of the people who live there, can manifest in the long-awaited arrival of a professional basketball team. The pitch is basically: This city is far weirder and more interesting than you could ever imagine, and it’s because of this weirdness, or perhaps in spite of it, that the Thunder are here. From the city’s illegal founding, to its more absurd legal founding, it is a story of indigenous exploitation and racial segregation. It is a story of citizens tormented by the relentless sonic booms of supersonic aircraft, by life-upending hurricanes predicted by a celebrity wizard weatherman, by the systematic destruction of a once-vibrant downtown, by terrorism. It is a story of ambition, to be one of the best and biggest cities in America — a status that, naturally, requires a professional sports team. The city’s fortunes oscillate between boom and bust, a theme the book repeatedly returns as a way to unify all those disparate threads — from James Harden’s beard to the insanity of the land run, from the Flaming Lips to the chaos of Russell Westbrook. It all felt very revelatory. Somehow, Anderson makes it all work, and it’s given me lots to think about with my own writing. It’s the sort of book that, unprompted, I won’t stop telling my friends about. If you’re looking for ideas, dare I say, it might make a good gift. 

The book also caught me at a good time, because…I think I’m becoming a basketball fan? This is easy to say in the afterglow of a Toronto Raptors payoff championship win, but I’ve been watching more games over the past few years, and having a ton of fun. I think, for me, it scratches the same itch as cooking and writing and making music, but in a different kind of way; it’s another new thing to figure out and reverse engineer. It’s also just a nice excuse to go have a few drinks with friends.

I’m only going to link you one thing this week: AI Dungeon 2. Don’t let the name fool you. It’s a game, yes, but not the way you think. It involves AI, but in a way that’s more show than tell. You give AI Dungeon a scenario — any scenario you can imagine — and it will generate a totally unique text adventure game based on your initial prompt. The results are often weird, as most AI-generated text is, but more polished and impressive than anything I’ve seen to date. 

For example, I wrote:

You are city pop legend Tatsuro Yamashita. The year is 1982, and you've just released your sixth studio album, "For You" — an irresistably smooth blend of jazz fusion, disco, and rock. It hits number one on the Japanese popular music charts. In the wake of its massive success, you try to figure out what to do next.

And then AI Dungen 2 added:

The only problem? You're broke

And on it went:

> go to record company's office.

You decide that you need a new direction for your career. So you head to your record company's office, where you meet with the president of the company, Mr. Kondo. He tells you that he has some ideas about how to take your career in a different direction

> "what should my next album sound like?"

Mr. Kondo says "I don't know yet".

You ask him if he knows anything about funk music.

> "do you know anything about funk music?"

He says "Well I do know something about Motown and all its various subgenres"

You say "What are they?"

He says "They're all variations on the same theme".

> decide on a different genre

You decide that you want to move away from what you think is rock n' roll. You decide that you want to make a more experimental album. You decide that you want to try out a new type of instrumentation. You decide that you want to experiment with the use of synthesizers

> buy a synthesizer

You buy a synthesizer, which you immediately start using. It doesn't really work out as planned though...

> buy a different synthesizer.

You buy a different synthesizer, which you immediately start using. It works out much better than expected...

> write a song with a funky synthesizer bassline

You write a song with a funky synthesizer bassline. The song goes over well with the label people at the record company. They give it a good review.

A thing I like about newsletters — this is my third — is how a seemingly small, stray mention can send a lot of new people your way. Many thanks to the nice folks at Boing Boing — a stalwart fixture of the Old Internet still thriving today — for linking to my last dispatch, and sending many of you new subscribers my way. It’s still early days, but I hope you like what I’m doing here.

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.

  1. A loaf of bread I baked. (Matthew Braga)

  2. Oklahoma City. (Phillip Capper, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

📞 Secret World No.1: SOS

It was New Years Day when Doug Nidever blacked out. One moment, the 65-year old climber was about 100 feet up Yosemite’s frozen Chouinard Falls. The next, Nidever was plummeting down a wall of ice. He thinks he fell about 50 feet, with his fellow climbers lowering him the rest of the way. Sure, he had enjoyed a few drinks as the calendar flipped to 2018, but the party had stopped — and sobered up — long before reaching the falls.

Nidever has worked as a professional mountain guide for the past 35 years. He spent the 70s and 80s with Yosemite’s Mono County Rescue, responding to ice climbers, rock climbers, hikers, and skiiers in distress, and teaching others how to do the same. Now he was the one that needed saving, and as fate would have it, Mono County Rescue was on the way. “I told those guys, after all those decades of putting people in a chopper, it was kind of a treat to get a ride out,” Nidever told me with a laugh from his home in June Lake, California earlier this summer. When his rescuers arrived, Nidever was strapped to a litter and lifted away by helicopter. Low blood pressure was to blame for the blackout, he later learned. In spite of Nidever’s insistence he could walk 45 minutes to the nearest road, a fellow climber with a satellite phone had the foresight to call for help.

A few years ago, I was idly looking at GPS running watches — the kind that can track your pace and distance — and landed on Garmin’s website. The company makes a wide range of products, used by everyone from truckers to helicopter pilots, but its GPS emergency beacons caught my eye. My partner and I go camping a few times each year, and one of those trips is usually backcountry — sometimes canoeing, sometimes hiking, sometimes both. If you get into trouble where cell signals can’t reach you, you can hit the SOS button on one of these beacons to call for help and let search and rescue crews know where you are. I figured this was the sort of thing that would be coordinated by a regional 911 dispatch centre, but Garmin’s website said the emergency monitoring service was actually offered by a company called GEOS Worldwide. I made a mental note to follow up.

It turns out that, anytime someone calls 911 on a satellite phone, or presses the SOS button on a dedicated GPS tracker — anywhere in the world — those messages typically go to one place: The International Emergency Response Coordination Center, or IERCC, about an hour outside of Houston, Texas. The center has coordinated more than 10,000 rescues in 169 countries, and responds to anywhere from 30 to 60 requests each day. Whether you’re a hermit in the Scottish highlands in medical distress, or a kayaker in eastern Tajikistan with altitude sickness (true stories) the IERCC is your point of first contact. Every hour, every day of the year, a rotating team of six watchstanders determine the closest available search and rescue team and coordinate the response. In Nidever’s case, after his ice climbing fall, the IERCC pointed Mono County Rescue his way.

I filed the idea away, and was finally able to return to it this year. I wrote about this very strange, unique, important service for Bloomberg Businessweek. The story came out this month, in print and online. I’m very proud of it, and I think it’s a good indication of where my head is at these days. It’s the ideal start to Secret World.

Of course, there’s always stuff that never quite makes it into a piece — details that either get cut for space, or don’t really fit the tone or pace. In the story we published, there’s this brief line:

The IERCC’s headquarters are in a somewhat drab, four-story office built by a Cold War-era doomsday prepper, with unusually thick concrete, backup diesel generators, a helipad, five-layer bulletproof glass, and a 40,000-square-foot fallout shelter next door. (The shelter is now a data center.)

It’s a good line — tightly written and just tantalizing enough to keep you reading (thank you, editors!). But I don’t think it quite conveys how interesting this building actually is, the details I would tell people when explaining what I had been working on:

If you weren’t looking for the IERCC, you would never know it was there. It’s nestled off a state highway between a KOA Campground and plots of nearby homes. Signs warn approaching guests that they are now under surveillance, that the area is restricted, and their vehicles could be searched. You surrender your driver’s license at the gates. On the other side sits a four-story office, built in 1982 by Louis Kung, the founder of Westland Oil Development Corp. It boasts five-layer bulletproof glass, super-thick concrete, backup diesel generators, and a helipad out front. Kung lived with his wife, The Ten Commandments actress Debra Paget, on the top floor. But what few realized was that Kung, fearful of a nuclear or chemical attack, had also built an underground, self-contained 40,000 square foot fallout shelter next door. According to the current owners, it could accommodate 350 adults for up to three months, and featured decontamination showers, jail cells — with soundproof conjugal rooms — and a fully-kitted suite for surgical operations. The entrances were hidden within a pair of massive pagodas, with gunports for the armed guards to shoot at whoever who came near.

This is most likely the last major story I’ll publish for the year, but I have a handful of others in various states of research and reporting that you’ll hopefully see in the months ahead. They’re good.

Speaking of satellites: The last story I wrote for CBC News was about some work that researchers have been doing to teach drones to fly themselves when you couldn’t trust GPS. It was originally supposed to be a much larger piece, one that delved deeper into attempts to spoof, jam, and even hijack other vehicles by attacking our fragile GPS network. A key passage that didn’t make the cut:

The students sat in a small desert hut on New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range, armed with antennas and gear. A half a mile away, a drone the size of a dinner table buzzed in place, high above the ground. They aimed their tractor beam in its direction, and prepared to attack. “The drone was just minding its business, hovering in the air, and all of a sudden — boom — they had it, and they forced it to come down toward the desert floor,” recalls Todd Humphreys, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “If the safety pilot hadn’t activated the manual control, it would have crashed.” This was in 2012, and the incident was one of the first public demonstrations that a determined attacker could overpower the GPS signals that most commercial drones use to figure out where they are in the world — allowing the attacker to effectively take control. Today, drones are far more widely used, but GPS no less a weak link.

Naturally, I was extremely interested in this story from MIT Technology Review, about a related GPS spoofing mystery in the maritime port of Shanghai.

…data showed ships jumping every few minutes to different locations on rings on the eastern bank of the Huangpu [River]. On a visualization of the data spanning days and weeks, the ships appeared to congregate in large circles.


Todd Humphreys, director of the Radionavigation Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading authority on GPS hacking. Humphreys examined the data, but the closer he looked, the more confused he became. “To be able to spoof multiple ships simultaneously into a circle is extraordinary technology. It looks like magic,” he said.

In September, Humphreys showed a visualization of the data at the world’s largest conference of satellite navigation technology, ION GNSS+ in Florida. “People were slack-jawed when I showed them this pattern of spoofing,” he said. “They started to call it crop circles.”

The best part about all this? It might have something to do with sand.


  • When I decided to go back to freelancing, I made a pretty conscious decision that I would write less about tech, and more about some of the other subjects and industries that I find endlessly fascinating. One of those is, broadly speaking, the worlds of plant cultivation and agriculture, which is why I’m deeply impressed and also jealous of this story about the market for rare tropical houseplants.

  • Pitchfork has been reviewing Steely Dan’s most influential albums, and Alex Pappademas’ review of Gaucho is full of gems: “It’s their most obviously L.A. record, so of course they made it in New York, after spending years out West making music so steeped in New York iconography it practically sweated hot-dog-cart water.”

  • I’m totally enamoured with the folks dedicated to finding and testing high-quality headphones sold for cheap by no-name Chinese manufacturers.

  • A few years back I tried to write a story about the early days of computer animation, and while I don’t think I quite stuck the landing, I spent many weird hours learning about the Silicon Graphics computers that did all the rendering. This Twitter thread has the same energy.

Finally, this wouldn’t be one of my newsletters if I didn’t also include some music. Here’s a new song from one of my favourite artists, Destroyer’s “Crimson Tide.”

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.

  1. Chouinard Falls near Lee Vining canyon, Yosemite National Park. (Jonathan Fox, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

  2. The helicopter pad at the Westland Bunker, where the International Emergency Response Coordination Center is based (Matthew Braga)

  3. Remnants of the bunker. (Matthew Braga)

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