About robpegoraro

Freelance journalist who covers (and is often vexed by) computers, gadgets and other things that beep.

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.

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Weekly output: how states are working to expand broadband availability, lessons learned from Estonia’s digital society

This week saw two minor personal milestones: my first in-person attendance at a conference since last March (appropriately enough, it was the Satellite trade show then and now; sadly enough, Richard Branson didn’t say anything nearly as quotable as Elon Musk did last spring), followed by my first reception around town since then (an event at a Rosslyn rooftop with breathtaking views of the city).

Photo of first two pages of the story, held in front of a loop of fiber-optic cable hanging off a utility pole.9/9/2021: How States are Bridging the Digital Divide, Trust

This feature for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ quarterly magazine provided my first print appearance in a while. If you get the mag in paper form yourself, you may have seen it before Thursday–my own comp copies showed up two weeks ago–but the date above reflects the piece’s appearance on Pew’s site.

9/10/2021: This country moved its government online. Here’s why that wouldn’t fly in the U.S., Fast Company

More than three weeks after I set out on my transatlantic journey to Tallinn, this recap of what I learned on that Estonian-government-hosted trip week ran. I used the time after coming home to check in with a few U.S. experts in election security and digital government to get second opinions about Estonia’s digital-society project.

9/11 + 20

Photo taken from a Rosslyn rooftop Sept. 8 shows the "tower of light" tribute shining into the night sky from the Pentagon, with the river, Memorial Bridge and the Washington Monument to its left.

Twenty years ago today, I woke up and then the nightmare began. First as heard through the calm voice of NPR’s Bob Edwards, then as seen in increasingly horrific images and video clips on TV and online that revealed the United States was in for one of the most painful days of its existence.

As I wrote to fellow tech journalists on a mailing list that night: “I just had to turn off the TV. I can’t stand to watch the clips of the plane crashing into the building anymore–I keep hoping the jet will miss, but it never does.”

The moments of September 11, 2001 that have stayed with me the most, however, aren’t in any photo or video I can inspect today. Biking to the Washington Post as D.C. was rapidly emptying of its daytime population, with the gigantic plume of smoke at the Pentagon rising into a sky of fear… anxious back-and-forth with friends in New York via AOL Instant Messenger when other means of communication failed… seeing a colleague burst into tears at the thought of all the financial-industry voices she had known who were silenced… the ride home through a grief-stricken city with troops on street corners and a quiet sky.

It was all a stunning realization of our own vulnerability. But today, 9/11 also strikes me as the day when any wishful thinking that the 21st century had freed us from the mistakes of the 20th got crushed, conclusively and cruelly.

The 20 years since haven’t been much kinder with their lessons about thinking we have escaped history. We started a war in Afghanistan that we mission-creeped into a doomed exercise into propping up a corrupt government, then launched a war in Iraq with no connection to 9/11 or even a reality-based assessment of our national interest. We did find and kill the author of the 9/11 attacks, but terminating Osama bin Laden’s crimes against humanity did not make us that much quicker to end the atrocities of the Daesh death cult that has no right to call itself “Islamic.”

At home, the body counts from gun deaths and opioid abuse grotesquely exceed those of 9/11 but invoke no somber anniversary commemorations or giant American flags draped from office buildings. And then we decided the way out of these turbulent times was to give the most powerful job in America to Donald Trump, who could never be accused of being too subtle or mild-mannered like his predecessor and instead inflicted a four-year reign of lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence that culminated in a violent attempt to overturn the election. Jan. 6, 2021 scared me as a neighbor of the federal government in a way no other day had since Sept. 11, 2001.

As I type this, the pandemic that has now killed nearly one in every 500 Americans grinds on, even as many refuse to take the vaccines that can do more than anything else we know to free us from this plague. The more I think about 9/11-conspiracy lies, the more I see them as the extended beta test for the anti-vax delusions now afflicting my country.

Yet despite all that, we have made it a fifth of the way into this century, and at least many of us see the broken things we need to fix more clearly than we did 20 years ago. Today, I don’t want to think about the crimes committed then as much as the bravery, sacrifice and persistence we saw afterwards. And which endure today.

Weekly output: 5G leaders, Mr. Antenna, streaming study, Desi Bundle, Disney’s Star+, Seinfeld coming to Netflix, two-factor authentication, HBO Max on Vizio, Locast logs off, Apple loosens App Store rules for “reader” apps, Nielsen nixed, checking wireless coverage, WhatsApp privacy fine

I worked a volunteer shift at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic Friday, the fourth time I’ve done so. On this occasion, we had far fewer customers than before, most coming for their second round of Pfizer or Moderna. But a few had yet to get any dose, which meant that they got to choose between those two vaccines or Johnson & Johnson’s; the latter needing a single jab made the difference for one man who said he was only getting vaccinated because his job required it. We also had a few under-18 kids who were limited to Pfizer–and one whom had been brought by her mom on her 12th birthday, so we had to take a minute to sing “Happy Birthday” to her.

8/30/2021: The 5G 50 to Watch Top Ten List, Light Reading

I helped write the bios for this list of top telecom industry executives put together by my trade-pub client. Yes, my last name is spelled wrong at the end of the piece.

8/31/2021: OTA antenna service alleges Vegas station refused to air its ads, FierceVideo

I spent most of this week filling in at my other big trade-pub client. I started by covering an allegation by a broadcast-antenna vendor named Mr. Antenna that a Las Vegas station had quit airing its ads because increased broadcast viewing would undercut its cable-TV income.

8/31/2021: New study finds more Americans splitting their streaming budget, FierceVideo

I wrote up a Leichtman Research Group study finding more Americans signing up for at least three streaming services.

8/31/2021: DistroScale streaming bundle serves up free South Asian channels, FierceVideo

If you didn’t know that “desi” is a term for people of South Asian descent before reading this post, you did after.

9/1/2021: Disney debuts Star+ in Latin America, FierceVideo

Writing this led me to dust off my VPN service for the first time in months to see what pricing this new Disney streaming service would show to a viewer in its target Latin American markets–the press releases I saw didn’t list any.

9/1/2021: Seinfeld coming to Netflix Oct. 1—and in 4K, FierceVideo

I only referenced one Seinfeld catch phrase in this piece, which I thought showed remarkable restraint.

Screengrab of column as seen in USAT's iPad app9/1/2021: Why you shouldn’t rely on texts when using two-factor authentication to sign into accounts, USA Today

I could have written this column at any time in the previous two years, but T-Mobile’s latest data breach made it newly relevant.

9/2/2021: HBO Max app comes to Vizio connected TVs, FierceVideo

This post reminded me how much of HBO Max’s early struggles with getting its apps on streaming platforms.

9/2/2021: After hostile court ruling, Locast logs off, FierceVideo

As I tweeted after this story ran, the broadcasters who succeeded in suing Locast offline might not want to gloat too much. Viewers aren’t getting any less weary of endless pay-TV rate hikes, and telling people without good over-the-air reception to stick with cable will only get less persuasive every year.

9/2/2021: Apple to let video apps point users away from its payment system, FierceVideo

Apple deigning to allow “reader” apps to include one link to their own site shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is in the context of that company’s history of App Store control-freakery.

9/3/2021: Media Rating Council suspends Nielsen accreditations, FierceVideo

My last post for Fierce this week covered an industry group snubbing Nielsen’s audience-tracking work.

9/3/2021: Which wireless carrier has the best coverage where you’re going? Here’s how to find out, USA Today

A friend’s query about ways to see if T-Mobile or Verizon would offer better service than AT&T at his home was followed by my realizing that USAT had yet to cover the FCC’s release of a new and surprisingly helpful map of predicted LTE coverage from the major carriers.

9/3/2021: WhatsApp fined under GDPR, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language channel had me on to discuss WhatsApp getting hit with a €225 million fine for violations of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. The European Data Protection Board’s ruling in this case calls those failures of transparency, but I see the underlying problem as WhatsApp insisting on access to your phone’s contacts list to place a call or send a message to anybody who hasn’t already contacted you in the app.

A mediocre experience with Apple’s Migration Assistant

This post is coming to you from a Mac manufactured in this decade, but it took far more fiddling with software and cables and more swearing at them than I ever expected to make that possible.

The fault here was Apple’s Migration Assistant, a tool to move your apps, files and settings from one Mac to another that I’d found so faultless in the past that in 2010 I touted it to Washington Post readers as “fantastically helpful.” I expected the same seamless experience this time, but after connecting my old iMac to my new M1 Mac mini via Ethernet (weirdly enough, Apple’s instructions only mentioned WiFi), launching Migration Assistant on each computer, having it add up all of the hundreds of gigabytes of data to be moved, and beginning that process… that progress stopped after about three hours without explanation.

After further fruitless trial and error, I settled on plan B in Migration Assistant: Transferring my data from a Time Machine backup. After a strange wait for it to see the backup volume, Migration Assistant informed me that it was “Starting up…”

Two hours later, it was still “Starting up…”

Nine hours later: still “Starting up…”

(Memo to Apple: This is one fantastically uncommunicative app here. Can’t you hire some underemployed English majors to write more informative status messages for it?)

Then I remembered that Migration Assistant can also restore from a disk image. And that I could create a new clone of the old iMac’s SSD using the same tool I’d downloaded three years ago when I transplanted the SSD into that aging computer.

I launched Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper for the first time since 2018, had it create a new disk image in a partition on my backup drive, and then plugged that drive into the new Mac mini. I set Migration Assistant to transfer from that, it once again added up all of the files to be moved. And this time, it not only started the job but finished it, rewarding me with a “Migration Complete” message the next morning.

Weekly output: Fastest Mobile Networks, Mark Vena podcast, streaming-video deals

The first item on this list doesn’t contain a single word written by me.

Screenshot of the Fastest Mobile Networks package as seen in Firefox on a Windows 10 laptop 8/24/2021: Fastest Mobile Networks 2021, PCMag

After years of citing PCMag’s drive testing in my work at Wirecutter and elsewhere, I contributed to it. I picked the test locations and did the driving for half of Baltimore, all of D.C., Raleigh, and Charlotte, and half of Atlanta–plus hundreds of miles, mostly on rural byways, between those cities.

8/25/2021: S01 E07 – SmartTechCheck Podcast by Parks Associates, Mark Vena

I joined my analyst friend’s podcast yet again; my major contribution was explaining my drive-testing work to listeners (or, for those who get the podcast via YouTube, viewers).

8/29/2021: Want to save on your streaming bill? Check your credit card reward, mobile carrier offers, USA Today

If you sign up for any of my Patreon tiers, you’ve been getting cheat sheets from me about which digital services offer cash-back offers through credit cards. This column walks USAT readers through this money-saving option and option and also notes the streaming freebies available on some wireless plans.

Not cool: freezing my credit after yet another data breach

The text message I was especially uninterested in receiving hit my phone Sunday morning. “T-Mobile has determined that unauthorized access to some business and/ or personal information related to your T-Mobile business account has occurred,” it read. “This may include SSN, names, addresses, phone numbers and dates of birth.”

T-Mobile’s texted non-apology for a data breach affecting tens of millions of subscribers went on to note that “we have NO information that indicates your business or personal financial/ payment information were accessed,” as if those data points were the ones I couldn’t reset with a phone call or three.

Instead, I got to spend part of an evening at the sites of the three major credit bureaus to freeze my credit, just in case any recipient of the stolen T-Mobile data was going to try to go to town on my data. In the exceedingly-likely event that you, too, will have to clean up after a corporation’s carelessness with your data, here’s how that went down.

At Experian, at least I didn’t have to clutter my password manager with another saved login. After providing my name, address, complete Social Security Number, birth date and e-mail, the site asked me to verify my identity by answering a personal-data pop quiz (for example, picking previous cities of residence or a cost range for my monthly mortgage payment). After passing that test and starting the credit freeze, Experian generated a 10-digit PIN I could use for subsequent access.

Things were not quite as easy at TransUnion. I had to create an account and provide almost as much personal information as Experian demanded, except that TransUnion only required the last four digits of my SSN. On the other hand, the sign-up workflow included a tacky invitation to sign up for marketing spam: “Please send me helpful tips & news about my service, including special offers from TransUnion and trusted partners!” The site asked me to pick a security question from a preset menu, none of which would have been too difficult for a stranger to research had I answered them truthfully, and then verify my identity in another personal-data quiz.

The company that had itself lost my data before, Equifax, offered the easiest on-ramp. After coughing up another mouthful of personal data–including my full SSN as well as a mobile number–I was able to create an account and, after clicking through a link sent in an account-confirmation e-mail, put a freeze in place. I did not have vouch for my identity by picking a ballpark figure for my mortgage payment or identifying a phone number I’d used before… and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

I do know it’s not a good thing that T-Mobile kept information like Social Security Numbers that it could not have needed after checking my credit–a failure its apologies have yet to acknowledge. Firing them for that data hoarding, compounded by weak security, might offer a certain emotional closure. But I have no reason to think that switching to AT&T or Verizon and then handing over the same personal data wouldn’t open me to the same risk, because I’m struggling to see anybody at the giant telcos who gives a shit about data minimization.

Weekly output: Memories management

This week involved more time in airplanes than any other I’ve had since 2019. And then a week from Monday, my kid will be getting on a bus to start a new year of school–another thing that hasn’t happened since 2019.

Screenshot of Verge post as seen in Safari for iPad8/18/2021: How to turn off unwanted ‘memories’ in Apple Photos, Google Photos, and Facebook, The Verge

I thought this how-to about fine-tuning the Memories features in Facebook, Apple’s Photos and Google Photos would be a fairly simple listicle to write. But then the settings in some of these apps proved to be a good deal more complex than I realized. And I probably would have missed one iOS feature had I not checked in with Web developer Eric Meyer, whose writing on what he once called “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty” first made me aware of how these flashback features can go awry.

Lessons from transatlantic travel during the never-ending pandemic

Returning to Europe for the first time in close to two years reminded me of some aspects of EU life that had faded from my mind, like the endless series of GDPR-mandated privacy dialogs marring familiar news sites.

But my visit to Estonia on a sponsored press trip this week also exposed a newer difference between life here and on the other side of the Atlantic: how people are responding to the pandemic that’s now nearing its third year.

While I did not have to show proof of vaccination or a negative test result to board my flight (I took a PCR test two days prior to departure anyway and got a negative result the evening prior), I didn’t take too many steps after landing in Frankfurt before being asked for those documents to get into a Lufthansa lounge.

In Estonia–where the positive-test rate is lower than here in Virginia, while the vaccination rate is also lower but rising rapidly–I had to present my vaccination card once again to check into the hotel in Tallinn.

I faced more documentation requests to get into restaurants, a museum and a government office building. I’d call it a papers-please ritual except the Europeans among me could display EU-spec digital certificates on their phones that could be verified with a scan of a QR code, while I was left showing my paper card or a photo of it. This left me feeling like a health-tech hick, especially when one official looked at that image and said something like “I’ll have to trust you.”

(I’m told there’s an effort to build out a digital-vaccination-certificate standard across U.S. states, with California already supporting it; yes, consider the story assignment received.)

Mask compliance, however, did not seem great in the few mostly-empty restaurants and bars I ducked into; I did not linger in any crowded indoor spaces unmasked because I felt like I was pushing my luck enough already.

(For the same reason, I bought a BinaxNow antigen test at a CVS this morning and got yet another negative result.)

I had to present a negative test to board my flight home Thursday morning. That itself got checked twice, once before I could get a boarding pass and again before the gate for my flight back to the States from Munich.

And then after a long day of travel, I returned to a United States in which most people never have to produce any sort of confirmation of vaccination or a recent negative test–and some people seem violently opposed to any such mandate, even if that rugged individualism in the face of a pandemic just might put them in the grave.