Weekly output: satellite laser links, Twitter’s tech-policy outline, Facebook blacklists, Mark Vena podcast, algorithmic accountability

In addition to affording me two days together with my fellow pixel-stained wretches of the Online News Association, this week had me writing and speaking at the following places.

Screenshot of the story as seen on Safari on an iPad mini10/11/2021: Why Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites are beaming data by laser, Fast Company

This story is a belated result of my brief attendance at the Satellite 2021 conference last month.

10/13/2021: Twitter Has Some Ideas on How Congress Should Overhaul Social Media, PCMag

Twitter posted a short list of principles it wants to see inform any rewrite of laws governing social-media networks, and I had to read part of it as a subtweet of Facebook’s ongoing campaign for “updated Internet regulations.”

10/13/2021: Facebook blacklist, Al Araby

This Arabic-language news network had me on, overdubbed live, to discuss Sam Biddle’s reporting in The Intercept about an extensive list of “dangerous” individuals and organizations.

10/13/2021: S01 E13 – SmartTechCheck PodcastS01 E13, Mark Vena

I was on this industry analyst’s podcast once again; my contribution to the discussion was to note the amazingly low-key arrival of Windows 11.

10/14/2021: Lawmakers Want to Hold Social Networks Responsible for ‘Malicious Algorithms’, PCMag

I wrote up a brief bill that would make yet another revision to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, in this case lifting that law’s limited immunity for social forums if their algorithms amplify content that contributes to “physical or severe emotional injury.”

More pandemic-recovery milestones: Northeast Corridor travel, a journalism conference

This week brought me back to two things I’ve missed badly since February of 2020: hanging out with other journalists at a conference in another city, and taking the train to and from that destination.

The Online News Assocation’s decision to host its first IRL gathering since 2019 in Philadelphia made those things possible. And by scheduling Insights as a two-day event, it also made it surprisingly affordable compared to this journalism group’s other events–aside from the 2017 conference in D.C., at which even my badge was free courtesy of my panel proposal getting accepted.

Photo shows the footings of the footings railroad bridge in the Susquehanna River as seen from the current bridge, with the sun obscured by fog and part of the overhead catenary visible.

There was no question I was going to take Amtrak to Philly and back, only one of which trains to book. I decided to head up Thursday morning, at the cost of having to wake up early and miss any day-before networking but with the advantage of only needing to take my messenger bag, with a change of clothes stuffed into it alongside my laptop. That then led me to realize that the fees tacked on to every Airbnb reservation nearby would make my usual money-saving business-travel tactic more expensive than just staying at the conference hotel.

That worked out even better than I expected after my productive ride on the 7:05 a.m. Northeast Regional out of Union Station–in the Quiet Car, of course, with the only distraction being looking at scenery I hadn’t glimpsed in 18 months. I got to the hotel before 9:30 a.m., and it had a room ready when I checked in. So not only could I unpack immediately, the 11 a.m. video podcast that I hadn’t been able to schedule for another day could take place in a quiet spot with good lighting.

The conference itself was great. I learned a bunch of things about my job and how to do it better, and being in the room (even if some speakers were not) allowed me to focus on the talks instead of having every other browser tab and app on my screen ready to divert my attention. I took copious notes–which I wrote up for my Patreon readers, since their contributions covered my conference costs–and live-tweeted panels like in the Before Times. And Insights had enough breaks for me to file two stories, one that I’d mostly finished on the train up and another I banged out in an hour.

And yes, it was lovely if at times weird to commune with fellow journalists. The organizers had color-coded wristbands at the registration table that we could wear to signal our openness to face-to-face interaction: the green one I picked meant I was okay with handshakes and hugs, red would signal no touching, and yellow would mean no more than elbow bumps, if I remember correctly.

Insights required everybody to submit proof of vaccination and wear masks anyway… except that the reception Friday evening took place indoors, and quite a few attendees visited one bar or another Thursday night. I think my risk was about as low as imaginable for any gathering–certainly lower than at other events I’ve attended over the last few months–but it does exist.

The conference ended with enough free time for me to wander around Center City for a bit before boarding the 7:10 p.m. Acela back to D.C. I had to look up how long it had been since I’d last taken the Amtrak train that’s become a label for a certain Northeast Corridor demographic, and the answer was 616 days.

Weekly output: standalone 5G, Facebook’s outage (x2), cruise-industry information security, Instagram and teens, Mark Vena podcast, startup sustainability, Microsoft report on digital attacks, NSO whitelists U.K. phone numbers

I’ll be spending two days in Philadelphia at the end of this week to attend the Online News Association’s Insights conference there. It’s been more than two years since I’ve met most of my ONA pals, but it’s also somehow been more than 10 years since I last set foot in Philly–and that previous visit only consisted of a connection in PHL on my way home from my final business trip for the Post.

Screenshot of the article as seen in Chrome on an Pixel 3a phone10/4/2021: In a slow race to launch standalone 5G, T-Mobile stands alone for now, Light Reading

My editor suggested I take a closer look at the big three carriers’ plans to deploy standalone 5G–meaning connectivity that doesn’t lean on a carrier’s 4G signal to set up the connection–and that proved to be an excellent suggestion.

10/4/2021: Facebook’s giant outage, Al Jazeera

This happened on sufficiently short notice that I not only didn’t have time to set up my tripod, I also didn’t have time to shoo my cat out of his spot in my office lounge chair. I hope Abel appreciates the exposure.

10/5/2021: Facebook’s Outage Was No Laughing Matter Outside the US, PCMag

In much of the rest of the world, Monday’s Facebook outage would be more accurately described as “Monday’s WhatsApp outage.” I used this post to recap how aggressively Facebook has worked to cement WhatsApp as an e-commerce foundation in markets like India–sort of like WeChat, but not operating subject to the Chinese Communist Party.

10/5/2021: Tabletop exercises with cruise execs needed to tackle data breaches, Seatrade Cruise News

Seatrade’s Holly Payne wrote up the second panel I moderated last week at their conference in Miami Beach.

10/6/2021: Instagram and teens, Al Jazeera

AJ apparently was not tired of my insights about Facebook, so they had me on a second time to discuss the Wall Street Journal’s recent reporting about Facebook studies that found Instagram left a dent in the self-image of about a third of teenage girls.

10/7/2021: S01 E12 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I rejoined my industry-analyst friend’s podcast to discuss, among other things, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony on 60 Minutes and before the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

10/7/2021: How Not to Fail at Scale, Ascent

I returned to the conference at which I spoke IRL in 2019 and virtually in 2020 to interview Chargebee CEO and co-founder Krish Subramanian about how to run a startup for the long term.

10/8/2021: Microsoft: Digital Attacks Are Getting Worse, Russia Bears Much of the Blame, PCMag

More pass-the-vodka bad news about information security.

10/9/2021: NSO spyware no longer targeting U.K. phone numbers, Al Jazeera

AJ called upon me yet again to discuss the Guardian’s report that the Israeli spyware firm NSO blocked its Pegasus software from targeting the U.K.’s 44 country code, an apparent response to Dubai’s ruling sheikh using NSO’s tools to go after his ex-wife and her lawyer in Great Britain. My responses were heavily informed by a Washington Post investigation published in July that showed NSO had no hangups over selling its services to such repellent customers as Hungary’s authoritarian regime.

A customer-service journey: upgrading my mom’s Fios TV boxes

No family visit can be that complete for somebody in my line of work without some tech support for relatives, and this week that took the form of getting my mom’s Fios TV boxes replaced so she could get on a cheaper TV plan. I thought that would be a simple errand, but it was not.

Step one was to call Verizon to put in the order, dumping her old “More Fios TV” plan for a cheaper “Your Fios TV” bundle with fewer channels and a little more customization possibilities. To complete that switch, I’d also have to drop off her two old TV boxes and pick up two newer Fios TV One models compatible with this offering Verizon introduced in January of 2020.

(My Patreon readers may recall reading about the first part of this customer-service interaction, back in July; for a variety of reasons, nobody had gotten around to doing the box exchange, leaving only Mom’s Internet service changed.)

I lucked out by having an extraordinarily patient and helpful rep named King answer my call. He walked me through the ordering process, explaining the various options available, then called the nearest Fios service location (a third-party shop) to verify that they had two of these new boxes. He also said the $50 hardware-upgrade fee we’d been quoted before would no longer apply, and we promptly got an e-mail confirmation of the order he’d put in. Great!

My brother and I drove to that location, barely 10 minutes away, and then things started going sideways. After waiting on line at this store as people ahead of me had various issues with their phones addressed, I sat down before a rep and showed the boxes and the order number we’d just gotten. He looked that up and showed me a screen indicating we’d need a technician to install the boxes. I replied that we’d had a lengthy phone conversation informing us otherwise and asked if he could double-check that, after which he did some more investigation and then said the store didn’t have any of these new boxes anyway. Not great!

The rep did look up which other authorized service locations might have them, called one to confirm, and gave me the address–about a 25-minute drive away. My brother had to get back to work, so I endured traffic crawling along some of the less scenic parts of U.S. 1 solo. At the second place, I barely waited for a rep to look up my order, collect the old boxes, hand me two new ones–a larger one for the primary TV in the living room, a smaller one for the bedroom TV–along with a printed receipt and a second printout listing a tech-support number in case of trouble.

On the drive home, King called me to verify that I’d gotten the boxes; I said I had but it had taken much longer than expected, so he couldn’t switch out the old TV plan just yet.

And then when I plugged the larger box into the living-room TV, its setup stalled at a screen saying it couldn’t download required data because it needed an activation number that should have been on the receipt but was not.

I called Verizon yet again and lucked out a second time when another incredibly helpful and patient rep pick up, and I wish I’d jotted down her name. She asked me to read out the serial number on that new box, then plugged that into the system to get the box activated. This took her a good 30 minutes, most of which I occupied by rearranging wires and boxes under the TV to tidy up the layout. 

Finally, the remote activation worked. We repeated the process on the second box in much less time, with the only hiccup coming when I had to power-cycle it after it stalled out in the setup.

The next morning, King called yet again to confirm that the new boxes were working fine, then completed the plan changeout. Verizon executives, please look up this gentleman and give him a raise. I’d also like to see the same recognition given to the second phone rep.

After all of this, my mom has a cheaper TV bill, two boxes that take up less space, an onscreen interface that’s much faster and a good deal cleaner (see after the jump for the settings I changed), and compact voice-controlled remotes that don’t look like their hardware designers got paid by the button.

I’m glad I was able to do that for my mom. And I’m glad I only have Fios Internet and so am at no danger of repeating this particular experience at home.

Weekly output: shipboard IoT, ransomware versus cruise lines, CNN blocks Australia from its Facebook pages

Hello, fourth quarter of 2021; goodbye, Washington Nationals 2021 baseball season.

Photo of a monitor showing the participants of the first panel I moderated at the Seatrade Cruise Global convention in Miami Beach.9/29/2021: IoT: The Future of Operational Efficiency, Seatrade Cruise Global

This hybrid panel–I’m pretty sure it’s the first one I’ve ever done–had Stanislaw Schmal, director of data analytics and AI at Lufthansa Industry Solutions, sitting alongside me on the stage in a room at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Two other cruise-industry executives participated via streaming video: Matthew Denesuk, senior vice president for data analytics & artificial intelligence at Royal Caribbean Group, and Francesco Pugliese, corporate business innovation director for MSC Cruises. We covered many different topics, but as a repeat data-breach victim I most appreciated Schmal’s plea for more companies to practice data minimization.

9/29/2021: Ransomware and Maritime Cyber Security in the Post-Pandemic World, Seatrade Cruise Global

For my second panel at this cruise-industry convention, Mandiant director Pat McCoy spoke in person while Georgios Mortakis, vice president for enterprise technology operations and chief information security officer at NCLH, joined via video. Jairo Orea, global chief information security officer at Royal Caribbean Group, was a last-minute scratch; having enjoyed a prep call with him beforehand, I’m sorry he couldn’t make it.

9/29/2021: CNN Blocks Aussies From Its Facebook Pages, Citing New Liability Ruling, PCMag

I wrote most of this from the speaker room at Seatrade before my two panels, then finished and filed it afterwards before getting lunch. Once again, telling myself “no eating until filing” motivated me to get copy from my screen to an editor’s.

At last, a little taste of Conference Life

This week featured a number of items that last all figured in my routine in early February of 2020: a hotel key, a conference badge, a wireless microphone, a stage, and other people’s business cards.

My brief stay in Miami Beach to moderate two panels at the Seatrade Cruise Global conference–one on the shipboard potential of connected gadgets, the other on risks of ransomware–was one of my shorter business trips ever. But as the first work travel I’d done to speak at a conference since an equally short visit to New York two winters ago, it was still a big deal.

After more than a year of speaking only through my webcam and seeing fellow panelists only as moving pixels on a screen, I loved having a live audience to read. I loved being able to interact like a normal human being with another person on the same stage–even if both panels also featured at least one remote panelist who was only visible as moving pixels on the monitors placed in front of us.

(I had not done a hybrid panel before at all, and I quickly realized that in a discussion with two remote participants, they could not tell which one I had in mind when I gestured to one of their feeds on that screen below me.)

And after each panel, having my fellow in-person speaker shake my hand and offer their congratulations on my job as moderator felt so much better than hearing congrats via Zoom or seeing them in a conference’s Slack channel. Likewise, networking IRL was so much more engaging than the stilted experience you get in well-meaning apps like Remo.

That said, as much as I appreciated getting this speaking invitation and having it include the conference covering my travel costs, I did not accept the offer lightly. I watched the pandemic numbers in Miami-Dade County intently and was relieved to see them drop dramatically in recent weeks. I was much more more relieved to see Seatrade require participants to upload either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test taken within 24 hours prior to arrival–not that I’d expect to find many vaccine skeptics among travel-industry professionals.

And then I saw that almost everybody on the lightly-populated trade-show floor wore a mask–except at the various receptions there Wednesday afternoon. All of the other social events I enjoyed took place outdoors at one venue or another, such as the rooftop bar at which I took the photo above. Having that option be as pleasant as it was in the evenings (as opposed to what outdoor gatherings would have been like at Black Hat in the blast-furnace heat of August in Las Vegas) represented a big point in Miami Beach’s favor.

(If you were going to ask: Although I came home Thursday exceptionally tired from sleeping so badly in a strange bed, I never felt any symptoms. And I just self-administered the BinaxNow antigen test left over from the pair I bought after coming home from Estonia in August; the result was once again negative.)

So I think I found a good excuse to get out of town for a couple of days. One with a small extra bit of personal significance: My American Airlines DCA-MIA flight Tuesday finally introduced me to Miami International Airport exactly 20 years after that was supposed to happen on a Sept. 28, 2001 DCA-MIA flight on American that got cancelled within days after 9/11. Thanks for not minding my late arrival, Miami.

Weekly output: Starlink to exit beta, Mark Vena podcast, Texas social-media law challenged, iOS 15/iPadOS 15 help

This coming week has something unusual on it: business travel to a conference. I’m flying to Miami to moderate two panels at Seatrade Cruise Global, a cruise-industry gathering at which I was supposed to speak last spring before the pandemic forced its cancellation. Then I led one video panel at Seatrade’s virtual gathering in April, which went well enough for the organizers to bring me to Florida.

9/20/2021: Elon Musk says his Starlink satellite internet is coming out of beta, Fast Company

Since pretty much every other tech-news site was also covering SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announcing (in a reply to somebody else’s tweet) that Starlink would exit its beta status in October, I took some time in this piece to compare this broadband satellite constellation’s progress to the slower pace of OneWeb and Amazon’s yet-to-launch Project Kuiper.

9/22/2021: S01 E10 – SmartTechCheck Podcast by Parks Associates, Mark Vena

I rejoined this industry analyst’s podcast with fellow tech journalists Stewart Wolpin and John Quain to talk about Apple and Google knuckling under to Russia by removing the “smart voting” app of dissident Alexei Navalny’s party, Starlink’s service, commercial space travel, and Apple’s iOS 15 and iPadOS 15.

Screenshot of the story as seen in Safari on an iPad mini 5.9/23/2021: Tech Policy Groups Mess With Texas, Sue Over ‘Unconstitutional’ Social Media Law, PCMag

This is the first thing I’ve written for PCMag in several years, but you won’t have to wait nearly as long to read my next piece there. I’m now going to be writing short explainers about tech-policy news at that site. Yes, this debut item on two tech-policy groups suing to overturn the blatantly-unconstitutional Texas law banning large social media platforms from most forms of content moderation runs about 700 words, which is not exactly short even if a lot of it consists of extended quotations from the law and the lawsuit filed by the Computer & Communications Industry Association and NetChoice. I’ll try to be more economical with my prose the next time.

9/25/2021: How to fix some foibles of iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, USA Today

After seeing the reaction to my cranky tweet about iPadOS 15 wrecking my carefully tended arrangement of app icons (even before the Verge’s Chris Welch lent it some extra publicity by embedding it in a story), I pitched my editors at USAT about a column offering advice to people irked by some of the changes in this release. One angle I had to cut from the piece: how the iPhone and iPad versions of Safari are in some ways catching up to mobile browsers like Firefox (which moved its controls to the bottom last August) and Chrome (which added tab groups last May).

Keeping a Facebook page would be less work if Facebook were less tolerant of scammers tagging my Facebook page with other Facebook pages impersonating Facebook

Living a public work life on social media can be tiresome under many conditions, but my occupational outpost on Facebook–facebook.com/robpegoraro–has been feeling especially tedious lately.

And I can’t even blame random Facebook commenters for that! Instead, it’s the random Facebook scammers that have been nibbling away at my social-media attention span by staking out fake Facebook pages that impersonate Facebook itself, and which then tag my page with grammatically-iffy posts threatening to have my page suspended (for example, “someone has reported you with non-compliance with the terms of service”) if I don’t click/tap to verify my page ownership at a site that is obviously not at Facebook.

(Pro tip: Facebook is an American company and, AFAIK, does not have any substantial presence in Vanuatu that would require it to point users to a .vu domain name for terms-of-service compliance.)

I resent being treated like an idiot and I resent having my time wasted, but I also resent seeing a gigantic social network with country-sized resources fail so badly at stopping its own tenants from impersonating it. Every single time, the scam page has a big blue “f” icon matching Facebook’s and calls itself something like “Pages Identity Policy Issue,” which combined should seem like easy bait for a company with Facebook’s machine-learning capacity to quash or at least quarantine.

Instead, I get to play Whac-a-Mole with these idiotic impostors, and Facebook doesn’t even make that efficient.

Here’s the workflow on my iPad if I want to report the tagging post itself: Tap the ellipsis menu at the top right, select “Find support or report post,” select “False information” from the menu (“impersonation” isn’t an option), select “Social Issue,” (other choices being “Health,” “Politics,” “Something Else”), confirm that the post goes against community standards, then tap “Submit.” That last step doesn’t remove the tag, which takes another tap or two to zap.

If, however, I tap the fake page itself (which, in the most recent incident, had been set up for a construction firm in 2013 and then renamed this week, presumably after a hack), I tap the ellipsis menu at the top right, select “Find Support or Report Page,” select “Scams and Fake Pages,” then choose “Misleading Page Name Change” (had I not seen that switcheroo, I would have picked “Pretending to be Another Business” or “Fake Page”). Then it took another tap to block the page’s tag from my own page.

My gripe here isn’t so much with the number of clicks Facebook required but with the gap between its apathetic enforcement against con artists ripping off its own identity and its aggressive and punitive reaction against the New York University researchers who invited readers to install a browser extension that would track which ads Facebook served them, so that we might learn a little more about how that advertising gets targeted. What’s the priority at Facebook?

It’s yet another reason–on top of of the recurring nags to spend money on Facebook ads–to make me wonder why I keep up that Facebook marketing output when it’s so much more work than my other social-media presences. And yet if I want to see how the advertising machinery works, I feel like I have to stick around, scammers and all.

How I took to the skies on Sept. 11 in an antique airplane

One of the ways I’ve come to mark the anniversary of Sept. 11 is to do what I could not in the days after that horrific Tuesday: fly. In 2011, 2014, 2017, and 2019, conferences provided reasons to get on planes, while last year, I booked a miniature mileage run starting at National Airport and ending at Dulles. This year, there was no way I would mark 20 years since that brutal day by staying on the ground.

How, then? I started looking up United fares from DCA to EWR and back, but I also recalled a friend’s post this summer from an airshow in Pennsylvania that offered rides in World War II-vintage airplanes. Searching online for more such opportunities revealed one airshow taking place in Hagerstown, Md., on Sept. 11… at which I could spend $450 for a roughly 30-minute hop in a B-25 Mitchell bomber named “Panchito,” maintained by the Delaware Aviation Museum Foundation and restored after a similar model that flew combat missions from Okinawa in the summer of 1945.

How could I not? Well, first I asked an avgeek friend if he could look up the maintenance history of this 1945-vintage B-25J (after checking the records, he commented, “this aircraft looks pretty clean to me”), and then I called the foundation to inquire about their policies if weather or mechanical issues forced a cancellation (they would either refund the money or rebook me on a future flight). And then I put down my reservation for a seat at one of the waist gun positions and hoped for good flying weather.

Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 obliged, arriving as clear and sunny as a certain Tuesday two decades ago.

I met no traffic on the way to Hagerstown and got to the airport in time to take the first of some 200 pictures (a slideshow of my Flickr album featuring 50 or so of them awaits below) before the preflight briefing. To sum up its instructions: Keep your seat belt and shoulder harness fastened until a crew member signals you can get up, then fasten them again when instructed; don’t play with the plane’s mounted, inert guns; don’t stick anything out the porthole on the right side of the plane; if you have to exit quickly after a landing, use the yellow handles before touching the red ones; if no emergency exits open, take the crash axe to a window.

Boarding required climbing nearly-vertical stairs dropped out of the belly of this B-25 and not bonking my head on any metal surfaces. Then I–enough of an avgeek to own a messenger bag that includes a recycled airplane seatbelt buckle–needed coaching on how to strap myself into 1940s-era lap and shoulder harnesses.

Panchito came to visceral life as her two 14-cylinder piston engines spun up, shaking the cabin around me as the scent of gasoline wafted in. They rumbled as we taxied to the end of the runway and held several minutes for a takeoff slot, then roared to pull us down the runway and pitch us into the air after a surprisingly short takeoff roll.

(Seeing this plane jump like that reminded me of the Doolittle Raid, in which American pilots flew 16 B-25s, loaded much more heavily than ours, off the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and bombed Japanese cities less than six months after Pearl Harbor.)

No other airplane I’ve boarded has felt as alive as this 76-year-old airframe. Beyond the deafening racket of her Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclones–ear protection was mandatory and hearing anybody else on board was hopeless outside of the intercom–I could literally see Panchito’s nervous system at work, in the form of the cables linking cockpit controls to flight surfaces that slid back and forth and bounced against pulleys.

Once we were free to move about the cabin, I realized how little that meant in the cramped confines of a WWII medium bomber. I could wriggle my way to the tail-gun position by crawling down a tunnel, but only after the occupant of that spot had returned to a position by the waist guns.

The sights awaiting from that perch–a perspective I’ve never had on any aircraft before–were worth the exertion. That miniature glass greenhouse provided almost a 360-degree view of the B-25’s twin tails and the rest of the plane as well as such surrounding scenery as local skiing favorite Whitetail, the Potomac River, and a green-and-brown quilt of farm fields.

Worming my way back to the waist-gun spot allowed me to soak in the feeling of a cold 175-mph wind blasting through the porthole. I kept thinking: This plane is a beast.

I could peek somewhat enviously at the cockpit through a passageway running over the bomb bay, but that cramped tunnel was not open for people to go through in flight. The bomb bay appeared completely inaccessible, in case any Dr. Strangelove fans are wondering about that.

Soon enough, a crew member flashed the buckle-up sign, two thumbs pointed towards each other, and it was time to strap in. The pilots extended flaps, deployed the landing gear, and landed smoothly after 22 minutes in the air. Back at the ramp, a crowd of spectators awaited us–another thing you don’t get in a 737 or an A320. I lingered around Panchito, poking my head around the cockpit and the bombardier’s station; that, too, is no part of the standard airline experience.

Unlike most commercial aviation, this flight earned me zero frequent-flyer miles and did zero to help me retain any elite status. My concern over those things: also zero.

Continue reading