Weekly output: LinkNYC, Google renews RCS plea, Chris Krebs at Black Hat, 5G explainer, Cyber Safety Review Board, Web3 security

After a week on the West Coast, including four days in Las Vegas for the Black Hat security conference, I now have two weeks of not going anywhere. Which is good!

8/8/2022: LinkNYC begins deploying 5G kiosks – but not yet with 5G inside, Light Reading

After too many months of not writing for this telecom trade-pub client, I filed this update on New York rebooting its LinkNYC effort to bring free WiFi and digital city services to individual blocks.

8/9/2022: Google Posts Yet Another Plea for Apple to Support RCS Messaging in iMessage, PCMag

Google makes fair points when it calls out Apple for hindering the quality and privacy of cross-platform text messaging by not supporting the RCS messaging standard in iMessage. But Google hurts its cause by not supporting RCS in Google Voice–or even explaining that hangup. Also unhelpful: Google has yet to ship an API that would let the developers of Signal and other third-party messaging apps support RCS.

Screenshot of PCMag post as seen in Chrome on a Pixel 5a, with a VPN service active.8/10/2022: Ex-CISA Chief’s Advice at Black Hat: Make Security Valuable and Attacks Costly, PCMag

I covered the keynote by former Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency head Chris Krebs that opened Black Hat. His talk ended on a self-help note, as he advised his audience: “Life’s too short to work for assholes. So don’t.” And yet Krebs worked for President Trump from 2018 through 2020, when Trump fired him for correctly confirming that the 2020 election was run fairly and securely; that could not have been easy for him.

8/11/2022: What Is 5G, and Does It Actually Make a Difference?, Wirecutter

I wrote yet another 5G explainer, this time for the New York Times’ Wirecutter site.

8/11/2022: How a US Govt Board Helped the Open-Source Community Leap to Patch Log4j, PCMag

As the token Washingtonian among PCMag’s crew of writers, I had to write up this very Washington panel about the first test of the Cyber Safety Review Board–an organization set up as an infosec version of the National Transportation Safety Board.

8/12/2022: Why Is Web3 Security Such a Garbage Fire? Let Us Count the Ways, PCMag

This talk about a series of security meltdowns at blockchain-based sites and services had more than a few unintentional-comedy moments.

Conference VOD: one half-decent thing we’ve gotten out of the pandemic

LAS VEGAS

The Black Hat security conference that wrapped up here once again left me wishing I could clone myself for a few days. Its info-dense schedule put as many as nine briefings in the same timeslot, requiring me to make some tough choices and hope that I’d picked a presentation that would yield enough news and insights to turn into an article.

(Spoiler alert: I did not always choose wisely.)

In the Before Times, the panels that I had to skip would have been lost to me until the event organizers uploaded video of them to Black Hat’s YouTube channel, often months later. But this year’s conference, run like last year’s as a hybrid in-person/online event, came with both streaming access to panels as they happened and video-on-demand playback 48 hours later for attendees.

This conference, unlike too many I’ve attended, also continues to post the presentations of speakers, so attendees don’t need to take pictures of every statistic-filled slide for posterity.

So I can treat my conference FOMO and see what I missed much sooner than I could have before. That’s one small side benefit of conferences having to make themselves open to remote attendees, a welcome democratization of events that in a better world would have happened without the pressure of a worldwide pandemic. It’s also personally convenient today because I’m already getting asked on Twitter about Black Hat briefings that I did not get to.

I do, however, still need to remember to catch up on these briefings before the 30-day window to watch them expires–the mistake I made last summer, when I had a much less busy schedule.

8/14/2022: I updated this to add a compliment to the Black Hat organizers for posting speakers’ presenations.

Weekly output: Starlink, spectrum coordination, flight delays (x2), T-Mobile and Verizon 5G home broadband, Mark Vena podcast

About one year later than I’d planned, I’m flying to Las Vegas Tuesday to cover the Black Hat information-security conference. Two big factors in my deciding to go ahead with that trip this year: My kid is now vaccinated and boosted, while I had Covid barely seven weeks ago.

8/2/2022: SpaceX’s Starlink has soared, but a course correction may be on the horizon, Fast Company

More weeks ago than I’d like to admit, one of my editors asked if I could do a more in-depth look at the progress of SpaceX’s Starlink low-Earth-orbit broadband constellation. A day after this piece ran, Reddit’s ever-informative r/starlink served up new evidence of capacity issues at this service: a new rate plan in France that cuts the monthly rate in half but imposes a 250 GB threshold for possible speed deprioritization.

8/2/2022: 2 Key Federal Telecom Agencies Promise to Play Nice With Wireless Spectrum, PCMag

Two federal offices about two miles apart in D.C. pledged to work better together in spectrum planning. That might seem like an obvious thing to do, but the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration last updated this memorandum of understanding in 2003.

Story as seen in Chrome on a Pixel 5a phone, showing its lead illustration: a photo of people waiting on line at an airport.8/3/2022: Don’t Get Stranded: How to Watch for Flight Delays and Get Around Them, PCMag

A discussion on PCMag’s Slack workspace about coping with travel hiccups led to me asking if I could write this story, and not just because I’d like to recoup my added travel costs from my unplanned extra night in Toronto in June.

8/3/2022: How Verizon ‘fixed wireless’ and T-Mobile home broadband is converting cable customers, USA Today

After a reality-check interview with an analyst who reminded me that fiber scales so much better to meet demand than fixed wireless can, this column on the progress of T-Mobile and Verizon’s 5G-based home broadband got a bit less enthusiastic about its potential.

8/4/2022: S02 E32 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

My main contribution to this discussion was talking about my Starlink story, but if you watch the video of the podcast you can also see me scowl at a Lightning cable.

8/5/2022: DOT Moves to Strengthen Rules on Refunds for Flight Changes, Cancellations, PCMag

Speaking of travel delays, I returned to the subject to cover a set of proposed Department of Transportation rules that would clarify what counts as a significant schedule change and a cancelled flight–and require either non-expiring trip credits or straight-up refunds for travel canceled because of a future pandemic.

Rooting for laundry, yet again

The worst team in baseball traded one of the best players in baseball for the hope of better seasons to come, and Nats fans should have seen that coming. Because we saw this movie last year.

Tuesday’s trade by the Washington Nationals that sent outfielder Juan Soto as well as first baseman Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres in return for a cast of prospects (first baseman/designated hitter Luke Voit, shortstop C.J. Abrams, outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood, and pitchers MacKenzie Gore and Jarlin Susana) evoked last year’s trade of pitcher Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner to Los Angeles, although with a higher long-term potential upside. It essentially completes the sell-off of our 2019 World Series team for a cloud of baseball probability.

And yet seeing a generational talent like Soto go feels like less of a gut punch than last year’s trade-deadline move.

First, last year we could pretend that the team had been in a 2021 equivalent of 2019’s 19-31 start. Yes, the Nats were also terrible in 2020, but that season started late and didn’t feature fans in the stands at Nationals Park, so it was just weird even before all of the injuries among an aging team.

This year, however, we have been objectively bad from Opening Day onwards. Soto gave those of us in the stands exciting moments, but if he wanted to win a lot of games soon, Nats Park was not going to be his home field of choice.

Second, the team made a good-faith offer even though current ownership is now exploring selling the team. You can say that management should have worked harder to keep homegrown prospects around over the past few years, but you cannot say that $440 million over 15 years was not a legitimate deal to put on the table.

Soto turning that down only made it a question of what we’d get in a trade before the 2024 expiration of his contract–unless you were thinking that new ownership would swoop in first, back up an even larger bank truck and get a different answer. But what about the star-crossed history of baseball in D.C. would lead any Nats fan who had been in the stands for the 2012 NLDS to pin their hopes on that outcome?

So I feel less gutted about the thought of Soto in a Padres uniform than I might have expected. It helps that he won’t be wearing a Yankees, Braves or Phillies jersey; it will not help if, years from now, the cap on Soto’s likely portrait on a plaque in Cooperstown represents a team that isn’t the Washington Nationals.

Meanwhile, I live in the same place that I’ve called home for the last three decades and counting, the players who run out of the dugout on the first-base side of Nats Park at the start of a game wear jerseys with a curly W for my city, and a pennant above the scoreboard reminds me that I saw D.C. win a World Series championship and redeem all the pain of previous postseasons. And the next time I see a game in some other ballpark, of course I’m going to wear a Nats cap. I love baseball and I love having it here, even if the daily reality of this business may sometimes make me feel like a chump.

Weekly output: slumping social-media satisfaction, Russia threatens to leave ISS, CHIPS Act, IRS direct e-filing, net-neutrality bill

My workweek ended with a streak of only-in-Washington posts.

7/26/2022: Customer Satisfaction With Social Media Platforms Is Slumping, PCMag

I got an advance look at the latest results from the American Customer Satisfaction Index, an ongoing survey project that’s been a source of story ideas since I worked at the Post.

Article as seen in the iPadOS Flipboard app7/27/2022: A Russian ISS exit could give NASA a hangover—then leave cosmonauts grounded, Fast Company

I could have written this explainer at twice its length and detail, but I’m also the guy who has a Lego model of the ISS rounding out my home-office decor. I’m glad that I ended this piece with some skepticism about Russia’s ability to walk away from the station after 2024, because by the end of the week Russia had clarified that it would not leave the ISS until launching its own space station in 2028–a goal that no serious observer seems to think within that country’s grasp.

7/29/2022: House OKs CHIPS Act to Boost US Semiconductor Manufacturing, PCMag

It’s easier to sell a bill in Congress with a clever acronym; this one’s title stands for “Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors.”

7/29/2022: IRS Asked to Consider Free, Direct E-File Tax Returns, PCMag

The “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022” doesn’t have much in common with the “Build Back Better” bill, but it does retain that larger measure’s provision calling for the IRS to report back to Congress on the feasibility of providing its own direct e-filing site. As in, what Virginia had 12 years ago before a gullible General Assembly and governor fell for Intuit’s “Free File” bait and switch.

7/29/2022: Dems Look to Restore Net-Neutrality Regulations on Internet Providers, PCMag

I don’t get this bill. If Senate Dems can’t even muster 50 votes for Biden’s stalled pro-net-neutrality Federal Communications Commission nominee Gigi Sohn, what makes them think they can get 60 votes for this sweeping expansion of the FCC’s regulatory authority?

Indie-rock rainouts are a less-obvious D.C. summer tradition

My first Fort Reno concert in three years lasted maybe 30 minutes. And in retrospect, I should have seen that coming–as in, I should have consulted the weather apps on my phone or iPad before heading out.

Thursday evening’s weather-interrupted free outdoor show in the Tenleytown park named after the Civil War fort limited me to watching most of an entertaining set by opening act Sparklebot. After that performance, I walked around the park to see how it had changed since 2019 (for example, the gravel path bisecting the field had been paved and lined with solar-powered lights), returned to my picnic blanket and started tucking into the dinner I’d brought from home.

And then rain set in, rapidly.

I hurriedly shoved the lid back on my meal and tossed that container into the bag I’d brought (of course, that lid popped off later to leave me with a mess), folded up my lawn chair, and tossed my picnic blanket over my head to avoid getting completely soaked. Then I retreated under a tree to wait for the downpour to ease.

After 20 minutes, it was obvious that the next set was not going to happen, so I walked a little more around the park as the rain faded to take a photo or two. Then I walked back to my car. My four idle thoughts on the drive home:

  1. At least I resumed what used to be one of my favorite D.C.-summer rituals–after shamefully missing all of last year’s Fort Reno shows.
  2. Since this show got suddenly rained out after Monday’s Fort Reno concert had been preemptively canceled because of rain showers that had then stopped before 7 p.m., what kind of beef does D.C. weather have with indie rock?
  3. Knowing what we know now about how effectively ventilation, especially a breeze outdoors, can prevent the pandemic, the show could have gone on at 40th and Chesapeake Streets NW in 2020. It could have been one little thing to bring my city slightly closer together during one of the tougher years we’ve ever had.
  4. The next show is Monday, and my calendar looks clear that evening. Could we please have clear skies then as well?

Weekly output: Boom Overture design update, Google offers tiny Play Store concession in EU, Facebook announces Home and Feeds views (x2), Verizon dumps OANN, Mark Vena podcast

I only had a four-day workweek, thanks to some badly-needed poolside time with friends that wrapped up Monday. FYI: If you wear a Nats cap in the Dominican Republic, you will probably get “Juan Soto!” shout-outs. At least for now

Screenshot of story as seen in Safari on an iPad, illustrated with a Boom-provided rendering of Overture soaring above the clouds7/19/2022: Boom Supersonic reveals a new design for its ultrafast passenger jet—with more engines, Fast Company

I was hoping this redesign of Boom’s Mach 1.7 airliner would include details about its engines. But Boom Supersonic has yet to announce a design and manufacturer, which is a very large TK in any new-airplane story and has been met with understandable skepticism.

7/19/2022: Google to Offer Many EU App Developers a Tiny Break on In-App Payment Fees, PCMag

I can’t imagine that the European Union’s regulators will be amused, much less content, with the meager concession Google is offering here.

7/21/2022: Facebook Finally Offers Chronological, Suggestion-Free News Feed, PCMag

Facebook PR gave me an advance on this upcoming interface rearrangement, and I elected to focus on the social network finally giving people a chronological-order, suggestion-free news feed. Other outlets focused on the suggestion-driven Home view that will now greet people, as seen in this Washington Post headline: “Facebook forsakes friends and family to compete with TikTok.”

7/22/2022: OANN Loses Last Lifeline as Verizon Ends Carriage Deal, PCMag

The insult to journalism that is One America News Network lost its last major carriage deal. One early upside: Effective July 31, my mom will no longer be underwriting these frauds with her Fios TV subscription.

7/22/2022: Facebook interface redesign, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me to discuss Facebook’s UI rework, and most of the questions covered how much Facebook might be scared of TikTok.

7/22/2022: S02 E30 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

My contribution to this discussion–also available in video–was talking about Boom’s supersonic ambitions.

Black Hat pitches increasingly rememble CES pitches

When I’m spending a sunny Saturday in front of my computer, the usual reason is that it’s beastly hot outside. But today I have an additional, also seasonally-specific reason: I’m overdue to look over and make some decisions about all of the Black Hat meeting requests that have been piling up in my inbox.

A view of the Las Vegas Strip from the Foundation Room atop the Mandalay Bay hotel--a common event venue for both CES and Black Hat receptions.

Unlike last summer, I actually am going to this information-security conference in Las Vegas. And many more infosec companies seem to have made the same decision, leading to a flood of e-mails from their publicists asking if I’d like to set up a meeting while I’m in Vegas. How many? Over the last month, I’ve received 134 messages mentioning Black Hat, a number that makes me think of the annual deluge of CES PR pitches.

(Sorry, the total is now 135.)

Just like at CES, accepting even half of these invitations would leave me almost no time to do anything else at the conference. But where at CES I need to save time to gawk at gadgets on and off the show floor–and to get from venue to venue at that sprawling event–at Black Hat I want to save time to watch this conference’s briefings.

In the two prior years I’ve gone to Black Hat, I’ve found that the talks there have an exceptionally high signal-to-noise ratio. And since a coherent and entertaining explanation of a vulnerability in a widely used app, service or device is something that’s relatively easy to sell as a story, I also have an economic incentive to hold off on taking any meeting requests until the organizers post the briefings schedule–which this year only happened barely two weeks ago.

In other words, now I’m out of excuses to deal with these pitches. Which I could have done this afternoon had I not waited until this afternoon to write this post…

Weekly output: Twitter unmentioning, Verizon Welcome Unlimited, old iPhone values, fiber-optic house hunting, Mark Vena podcast

I had an unusually short workweek, with most of Monday taken up by a colonoscopy and then Friday filled by travel for fun instead of for work.

7/11/2022: Twitter Adds ‘Unmentioning’ Feature to Bail Out of Toxic, Pointless Conversations, PCMag

I felt sufficiently recovered from post-anesthesia wooziness Monday afternoon to write this quick post about a new and useful Twitter option.

7/12/2022: Verizon Adds ‘Welcome Unlimited’ to Its 4 Other Unlimited-on-Phone Plans, PCMag

Four unlimited-on-phone plans were apparently not enough for Verizon Wireless, so it added a fifth that amounts to the company’s version of Basic Economy.

Screenshot of USAT column as seen in Apple News on an iPad7/13/2022: Are old iPhones worth anything? Trade-in values drop depending on software, C-band frequency, USA Today

While Apple trimming the trade-in values it advertises on older iPhones didn’t strike me as headline material, the steep drop in the iPhone 11’s estimated worth got my interest.

7/14/2022: House Hunting? This Site Touts Real-Estate Listings With Verified Broadband, PCMag

I got an early pitch for this Fiber Homes site after the piece I did for the Washington Post in February about the difficulty of getting reliable information about broadband service at a possible new home. I told the people involved to let me know when the site was about to launch, so that I could assess how well it worked.

7/14/2022: S02 E29 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

We spent much of this episode of my tech-industry analyst pal’s podcast (also available in video form) talking about Elon Musk’s hamhanded attempt to back out of buying Twitter.

A new adventure in digital imaging

I started my week by concluding a day and a half of not eating any solid food, then getting knocked out and having a camera boldly go where no camera had gone before. By which I mean I finally had a colonoscopy–a medical procedure that was a mystery to me until a few months ago.

I don’t want it to be a mystery to you, so I’ll try to explain it here.

The reason to go through this ritual is because colorectal cancer is both common–the fourth most common kind of cancer in the U.S., and have I mentioned how much I hate cancer?–and relatively easy to prevent with proper screening.

An overdue physical exam last year reminded me that I was overdue for this check-up. After an unproductive round of phone calls (the first office suggested proved itself incapable of returning a call), I had a screening scheduled. For several months later.

Fortunately, that screening yielded a colonoscopy date just two weeks away. Which, after a health-insurance glitch that briefly saw the insurance company appear to question my existence, led me to boarding the gastrointestinal roller coaster of colonoscopy prep.

“Prep” here means preparing your colon for its close-up: The camera that a doctor will send into your large intestine by the shortest possible path–that’s right, up your butt–works best with a view devoid of any food remnants. Prep routines vary, but the people at this office instructed me to have a light dinner Saturday and then stick to a clear liquid diet Sunday.

The directions for that fasting diet had some inequities: Black coffee, tea without milk, non-red Gatorade and ginger ale were fine, but vodka was not. I made do with a cup of coffee in the morning, a ginger ale in mid-afternoon, and then nothing but water. Somehow, the hunger stopped bothering me as much halfway through the day.

The fun really started in the afternoon, when I had to start drinking the diarrhea-inducing prescription medicine that would leave that part of my innards unobstructed. In my case, the beverage was something called Clenpiq, which made me think of “clean pig,” which made me think of the “cleaning pig” machines used to clean pipelines–as in, the task of this concoction.

The two roughly 6-oz. bottles I got were labeled as “cranberry flavor,” and I think the American Cranberry Growers Association might have grounds for a lawsuit here. A bit under two hours after making my way through the first bottle, I made the first of a great many visits to a bathroom. I won’t get into the details, but I will confirm that the descriptions offered by Anne Helen Petersen and Dave Barry aren’t that far off.

The second bottle was harder to get through, mainly because I knew what was coming. But after additional bathroom time, drinking a lot of water, and much more Sunday-newspaper reading than usual, I finally went to bed.

The rest was easy. After my wife dropped me off at the hospital Monday morning, I got checked in, changed into a dressing gown, had my vitals taken and saline administered to counteract my dehydration, waited a bit, and got wheeled into the room where it would happen. I wondered which beeps I heard corresponded to which of my vital signs, was told to turn on my side, and the anesthesia started.

As I was trying to decide if I felt anything from that drug, I clicked out. I woke up feeling like nothing had happened, then had my first solid food since Saturday night: graham crackers.

The report I got afterward informed me that they’d found and removed one benign polyp–good for coral but not for colons–and removed it for later examination, the important part being the removal ensuring that it could not grow into a tumor. I also got a printout of the images taken inside the tail end of my digestive tract, some of which evoked Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io and others that suggested I was pregnant with some alien life form.

The last chapter of this medical adventure was one I hadn’t quite been read into: not being able to poop for two days, then having trouble doing just that before the plumbing involved gradually resumed its usual operation.

And now I know what to expect the next time I go through this. In addition to hoping the next colonoscopy also finds nothing serious, I hope somebody can come up with a prep drink that’s a little less gag-inducing.