When not contextually relevant (ie. after a WiFi connection), the tray icons at the top of the screen disappear.
How can I force them to appear so that I can check (for example) my connection status?
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You can make the icons appear temporarily by swiping your finger down from the top of the screen. To my knowledge, there's no way to force them to remain down all the time.
However, this does not work in applications that have chosen to hide the tray entirely such as Facebook, Twitter and Internet Explorer.
(FYI, pre-Mango the system tray colour could not be customized per-app so apps with custom colour schemes chose to hide it altogether)