Greg Pak: Meta

Wherein I talk about the workings of this very site. THRILLING, I KNOW.

Fixing a SpamAssassin false positive for a WordPress/MailPoet newsletter

With the possible collapse of Twitter on the horizon, I’ve become more obsessed than ever with shoring up my personal website/blog and email newsletter. So I was pretty distressed when my last two newsletters were only opened by 21 percent of recipients instead of the usual 44 or 45 percent.

I dug through my records and rediscovered the fantastic mail-tester.com website, which will give you a spam rating on a test email. I sent them my latest newsletter and got back a shocking rating of 6.9 (not so nice). The biggest deduction was -2.499 for “URI_WP_HACKED_2 – URI for compromised WordPress site, possible malware.”

Hacked? Malware? That’s terrifying!

But a quick search turned up a wordpress.org support page in which a MailPoet support person said that that flag “is a false-positive, probably because you included social icons in your newsletter or because it doesn’t identify the shortcodes added to the newsletter as valid URLs, for example.”

So I deleted the social icons at the bottom of my newsletter, resubmitted it to mail-tester.com, and got back a lovely score of 9.4! We’ll see if this really solved the problem when I send out my next newsletter — cross your fingers for me!

I’m very happy to have presumably figured out the problem, but this is also a good reminder that running your own website and newsletter isn’t necessarily easy! I absolutely think it’s worth the time and effort — even essential given how important crowdfunding independent projects has been to my career. But it’s only been feasible because I’ve had the time and inclination to turn myself into a kind of amateur expert in the technical issues involved with running my own website and newsletter.

We’re living in weird times, and they’ll continue to get weirder. I’ll keep posting here as I grapple with this all. At the very least, I hope these little tech support notes-to-self will be helpful to others as they stumble across similar issues.

Sign up for my email newsletter and get a 20% discount code for the Greg Pak Shop!

Hulk with letter, drawn by Marie Severin

Some big news – I’m going to reopen my online store for a couple of weeks so you can buy signed books for the holidays!

And if you sign up for my email newsletter today, I’ll send you a 20 percent discount code that you can use for your first purchase at the store when it reopens!

We’re living in a strange time that’s exposing the fragility of the social networks we use to connect. But even if ever social network falls apart, I’ll still be running my own email newsletter and website as long as I’m working. So sign up today and you’ll always have a way to find out what I’m up to!

And the store’s gonna be filled with awesome signed stuff that you’re gonna want, so that 20 percent discount will be pretty nice!

Thanks so much and stay safe out there, as always!

Great post from Andy Daly about turning from tweeting to blogging (or “twarting”)

Andy Daly's website graphic

Andy Daly, a brilliant comic and an old acquaintance from my New York City improv days, has written a very funny and thought-provoking post about his decision to step the hell away from daily posting on Twitter in favor of blogging — or “twarting,” as he puts it.

I very highly recommend you click away from this page and go read his post right now. Then come back for more of my brilliant thoughts!

Andy does a great job of describing the social and political pitfalls of Twitter. But this passage hit me particularly hard:

It seems that after 12 years of tweeting, I have quietly trained my brain to compose tweets all the time.  In the early days of my Twitter self-banning, I kept coming up with dumb, trivial, concise notions that were designed to be shared with the world.  I kept thinking “well, maybe I’ll tweet just this one thing”, but instead, summoning really very impressive will power wouldn’t you say, I opened the Notes app on my phone and tapped my tweet in there.

I strongly suspect that as as a fellow person in comedy, Andy, like me, spent years of his youth coming up with jokes and one-liners all the time and scribbling them down in a little notebook. So Twitter was perfectly designed for us, and we were/are pretty great at it! But posting jokes on Twitter serves masters other than ourselves and can create a less than healthy dynamic of approval-seeking that Andy wryly refers to when he “praises” the site for allowing him to “most meaningfully, [attract] attention to myself whenever I needed some.”

I missed Andy’s post when he published it back in September, but strangely, right around the same time, I was undertaking a similar project, revamping this website and amping up my blogging — mostly by going into excruciating detail about my renewed obsession with analog photography.

So I love Andy’s new (old) blog, and I particularly dig the fact that he’s letting himself write both longer posts and short bon mots he’s dubbed “twarts.” I’m not going to use his terminology, because he strangely insists “twarts” is a combination of “tweets” and “darts” instead of “tweets” and “farts,” and that’s a little too classy for me. But I am going to take inspiration from him and let myself write more very short posts on this blog about whatever, because that seems like fun.

This is also inspiring me to do a bit more research into finding a good old-school blog reader. If I can get a few more cool blogs like Andy’s into a nice app, I’ll have a great place to go other than Twitter when I want to read some funny/insightful stuff, and that’ll be a good thing.

So thanks, Andy! Also please join my web ring?

Aaaaand… another website redesign update!

Yes, I stayed up past 3 am last night working on a website revamp. Yes, that was too late. No, I couldn’t stay away from it today.

But YES, I am very pleased with where I am now!

I thought I was just going to dive in for a few minutes to do a little more customization of the Twenty Twelve WordPress theme I installed yesterday. But instead, I got annoyed with the wasted white space at the top of the page and started poking around looking for a new theme. And after a bit of searching, I installed a theme called Twenty Fourteen — and I kind of love it!

Screenshot of the gregpak.com home page using the Twenty Fourteen WordPress theme.

As you can see from the screenshot above, Twenty Fourteen allows for a header image that’s flush with the top of the page. I understand the use of open space is a big part of giving websites a free, minimalist, airy feel. But it feels like too much if there’s so much open space above and below the header image that you have to scroll to read the first paragraph or two in the first post. So I dig this!

The title and nav bar then live on the same horizontal line, which again saves vertical space. And excitingly, the items in the navigation bar can be turned into nested, green drop down menus! I’m using those to provide handy links to some of my most current or prominent work. There’s a glitch that doesn’t let you keep scrolling those drop down menus if they’re longer than your screen, so I had to keep the number of items in them down. But that’s more manageable anyway.

The theme also provides columns on the left and the right, which gave me enough room to add a widget on the right with covers and links to some of my new work. And I was able to get my branding in by sticking my Pak Man Productions logo onto the top of the left column, where it feels just right.

Everything shifts dynamically to render nicely on any screen — on handheld devices, the line of menu items under the header image becomes a single button with a dropdown menu and full blog entries shrink into clickable headlines. The left column goes away and its contents get added to the bottom of the page when you narrow your screen past a certain point. And when you go even further, the right column goes away and gets added to the bottom as well. It requires a bit of thinking to make sure all the critical info is in a good place to be seen on all devices with these varying ways of displaying things, but it’s great that I’ve now got a site that people on all devices can enjoy without fuss.

The whole thing also inspired me to finally clean up and add some descriptions to the category pages for my most prominent work. So now when you click on “Wave” in the dropdown menu, for example, you get a little description of the character’s origins and where she appears and where you can buy the books.

Finally, I’m much happier with the way this theme displays the categories and date of each post. It’s just cleaner and better designed to differentiate posts from each other and clearly show when they were written. I think I’d still prefer if the date were at the top and the categories were beneath the headline, and I’m not sure I love that the headlines render in all-caps. But those are quibbles. It’s a big improvement over where we were just 24 hours ago.

I’m staying off Twitter as much as possible these days, but if you read this and have thoughts or notice any bugs or glitches, please do feel free to tell me on Twitter!

Website redesign update

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve been up ’til 3 am goofing around with web design, so I guess I was due for it. Going to bed now, but wanted to keep track of what I did tonight.

  1. I switched my WordPress theme from a modified Codium Extended to a theme called Twenty Twelve. Actually pretty similar, but Twenty Twelve is a little more generous with spacing, which helps make the difference between posts and other elements clearer.
  2. I got rid of the custom header I’d added in HTML to the Codium header php page. It had the benefit of incorporating custom graphics for menu buttons and it incorporated my logo. But it wasn’t a native part of the theme and it broke some formatting on iPhones. I need to acknowledge that a huge percentage of people are viewing the internet on mobile, so it was time to let it go.
  3. I tweaked some of the layout of the standard Twelve Twelve theme — putting the menu beneath the header graphic instead of above it. Or did I put the title over the graphic instead of below it? Can’t remember exactly. But I like the current arrangement better.
  4. Futzed around with social media buttons that weren’t rendering on Safari. I think it was a problem with clear backgrounds on gifs. Redid them as jpegs with filled in white backgrounds and they rendered. Weird!
  5. Fooled around with various ways to get my logo in there. I’d like to find a place for it, just for branding. No success just yet. Ideally, I’d have it in place of the HOME link in the menu. But these WordPress themes don’t allow you to replace text menu links with images. And I don’t know CSS well enough to figure out how to tweak the pages to slot it in. I fooled around and tried to see if I could just toss in some of my old HTML to do it, but… nope. I could throw it into a widget in the right hand column, maybe with a little “About” text. But that feels inelegant and a waste of space. I also tried incorporating it into the main graphic on the page, which probably could work. I can also put in a variety of main graphics that I think will do a slide show thing, so it could be part of that, maybe.

So I think I like the results. It’s cleaner and works better on multiple devices. But is it… blander? Less organic? I dunno! Maybe! I think overall it’s a bit better than the last version. But here are a few things I’d like to work on more:

  1. Maybe the basic font size could be a little bigger?
  2. That logo thing.
  3. In the previous version, I had a space for a second line of menu links where I listed a few of my best known books and the link to the Bill Mantlo donation page. Don’t have that space here because I’m working with the basic templates instead of a custom header. Maybe I can work that into a widget on the right?
  4. There miiiight be a little too much white space between posts?
  5. I should make a few more banner images and see what they look like with the randomizer turned on. I don’t know if it does a moving slide show or if a different one shows up when you go to a different page.
  6. The really ambitious thing would be to learn how to build a custom header that works organically with the CSS instead of being an old school HTML hack. If I figured that out, I could have a nice header that included my logo and had a big more designed feel to it.
  7. A thing I need to wrap my head around is that this particular design is really an image delivery device. The visual punch of the site will come from the images I post, not from the overall design of the page. So it’s a touch hard to gauge it when most of the latest posts are mostly text. Gonna have to live with it a bit and see.
  8. I should rearrange the meta tags along the bottoms of the posts. Right now they say, “This entry was posted in CATEGORY on DATE by Greg.” I can delete “by Greg.” And maybe lead with the date. Pretty sure I made this kind of tweak in the Codium theme, but I haven’t found where to do it here yet.
  9. Another big ambitious thing would be to figure out how to add breadcrumb navigation to individual pages. Like “Home > Category > Individual Post Title.” Used to have that way back when I was running the site on MoveableType, but I’ve never figured out how to reproduce it in WordPress. Literally no one’s asking for it, but it feels like it could be nice.

All right. It’s way too late. Off to bed, more later!

Website weirdness warning

Just a heads up that I’m fiddling with the website tonight – trying out some different headers. Everything should remain functional. But the top of the site will periodically look funky. No need to worry; please carry on!

Tech support update: fixed the newsletter!

newsletter stats graphic showing 30.8 open rate

I was horrified to confirm yesterday that due to a website configuration error, a huge percentage of the people who subscribed to my newsletter haven’t been getting my emails for over a year. My best guess is that at least two thirds of the emailed newsletters were ending up in spam folders!

But I’m thrilled to report that after a couple of hours of googling things like DNS, DMARC, DKIM, and CNAME, I identified the problem and found the right places to make the right tweaks — and things are working again! My latest newsletter currently has a 30.8 percent open rate, which is about triple the average open rate of all of my newsletters since May 2020, when the configuration error apparently first manifested.

I can’t help but grieve a bit over the hundreds of unopened emails that I sent during the pandemic. But I’m comforted that moving forward, I’ll be able to reach so many more folks through a mailing list that’s completely separate from social media companies. And that’s feeling more and more necessary every day, since I’m making an effort to stay away from Twitter as much as possible.

Twitter is where I’ve built most of my internet presence over the years. I’ve laughed like hell, learned a lot, made dozens of real friends, reached readers, sold books, raised many dollars for great causes, and helped pull thousands of people into various events and volunteer activities for nonprofits and political groups. All that’s tremendous! And yes, I’ll still pop in there to cheer on colleagues and causes and spread the word about my own stuff – heck, a link to this very post will be automatically cross-posted on Twitter when I hit “Publish.”

But Twitter is also a magnifier of the very worst tendencies of our culture. Its business model depends on interaction, good or bad, and like Facebook, it’s been inexcusably slow to enforce its own policies against harassment and bigotry. And even beyond the most obvious negatives, Twitter creates an expectation of unending access and observation that can be exhausting. Yes, I want to be informed and responsible and active in the world. But Twitter’s not the only place for that. Everyone’s got a different, valid position on all of this, and no doubt some day when I’m goofing around on social media, a good friend will point at this post and give me a sardonic look. But at this moment, on a personal level, I’m realizing that I’m healthier when I’m off Twitter, so off Twitter is where I’m trying to spend most of my time.

So I’m thinking about other ways to both take in information and reach out, which explains why I’m so ridiculously excited to have solved this goofy technical issue with my newsletter. And I’m deeply pleased with myself for figuring out how to edit the CSS to tweak the paragraph spacing of posts on my website to make them more readable, because here I am blogging again like it’s 1999.

If you’re reading this, you’re joining me on this retro journey, and I appreciate you so much. Thank you.

(And if you haven’t already, please do feel free to sign up for the newsletter here!)

Tweaking my website and blog strategies in 2020

I launched my first website to tout my early short films approximately one million years ago in 1999 using the “members” section of aol.com. I can’t find my archive of the original index page, but I did find my splash page image, which I assure you I thought was AWESOME. ENJOY!

Greg Pak 1999 website image

Over the years, I’ve upgraded my website multiple times. First, I moved my static pages off aol.com onto to a webhosting service with my own gregpak.com url. Then I added webring code (yes! webrings!) and cgi scripts for message boards and comments and all the other stuff we did back then. I was typing up HTML for updates and indexes in chronological order — essentially hand-coding a blog before we even had the word “blog.” At some point, MoveableType popped up and I converted the site into an actual blog with automated tools for posting and indexing. Years later, I finally accepted the fact that MoveableType was gone and converted the site to WordPress, which is where we are today. For the past eight years or so, it’s been essentially the same creature, but with social media links and embedded media and a better newsletter sign-up process.

But every few years, I find myself fixing some small glitch on the site and I end up rethinking things a bit. Last night was one of those times. I had trouble sending out my latest newsletter through the MailPoet plugin (problems that I still haven’t entirely solved), and as part of the troubleshooting I started upgrading various plugins. And eventually, like a dope, I upgraded the Codium Extended theme that provides the visual backbone of my site. Unfortunately, I’d made a hundred tweaks to the Codium templates to get my site to look the way I wanted, and the upgrade overwrote all those tweaks. Huge disaster! But I was able to find a 2016 backup and was also able to grab the source code of a cached page of one of my posts from one of my browsers, so after a panicky hour and a half, I had the site back in shape.

The bonus of that big goof was that all that poking around in the guts of WordPress got me to finally wrap my head around how WordPress.com works (as opposed to WordPress.org) and try out a few new (to me) things that I hope will help get my posts out to more eyeballs.

WordPress.org is the organization that makes and distributes the WordPress software. That “org” at the end of the URL tells you it’s a nonprofit — it distributes the free software you can install on your own server to run WordPress for your own website. WordPress.com, on the other hand, is a business that sells you hosting services for WordPress blogs. I run my site on my own, so I got my software from WordPress.org. But I’m using the Jetpack services for stats and backups that I pay for and manage through WordPress.com. It’s been a while since I set everything up, so I’d kind of forgotten how this all works! But while digging back into everything, I finally educated myself about one of the other big benefits of WordPress.com. You can use your account not just to manage your blog, but to follow and read other people’s WordPress blogs!

Yes, WordPress.com and the WordPress app have very, very nice readers that allow you to follow and easily scroll through and read a bunch of blogs. The interface is great — I like it more than Feedly (a similar blog aggregator). The biggest minus is that the WordPress Reader only works with WordPress blogs, as far as I can tell. But I’ve been looking to spend less time scrolling through Twitter and more time digging into longer articles, so this is very interesting to me as a reader.

But I’m even more intrigued as a creator.

I’ve recently seen various writer colleagues on Twitter musing about blogging, thinking about diving back into it. Folks like John Scalzi never stopped, of course. But for most of us, blogging began to feel too time consuming with not enough payoff — quick posts on Twitter almost always get tons more traction than a longer blog post. But as wonderful as Twitter can be, it’s also a garbage can full of distraction, lies, and harassment. And any social network could become unusable overnight if it’s sold or if its owners decide to monetize it differently. Conversely, we own our own blogs. Until the whole system of assigning URLs and building websites gets ripped out of our hands, folks can always find us there. So anything that encourages readers to visit our independent blogs on a regular basis strikes me as fantastic.

The payoff to this long story? I’m now following blogs using the WordPress.com app and I’m going to look for ways to encourage more people to follow my own site there — and to follow it through other services like Feedly. I’ve also discovered and enabled the widget that allows people to subscribe to my website. They enter their email and WordPress will automatically send them an email whenever a new post goes live. It’s a bit confusing because I also have a newsletter that folks can subscribe to. So folks visiting my site for the first time might get a little confused about the differences. I’ll have to figure out how to explain that succinctly on the site. But for now, it’s at least one more way folks can choose to hear about my stuff — and you can try it out by entering your email right up there on the upper right of this page!

Finally taking advantage of these tools feels important, and I’m pretty darn proud of myself. But I know that nothing matters more than posting good, useful writing. When I look back over my site’s greatest hits, I’ve always gotten the most visitors when I’ve posted something special they can’t find anywhere else. The challenge for working writers is finding the time to post that special stuff when we’re grappling with weekly, daily, and sometimes hourly deadlines. I’m still figuring it out! But digging around on the tech side always makes my website feel like a fun new toy, so I’m hopeful that you’ll see more posts like this in the near future.

A last point: the massive success of of social media comes from those fun little buttons allow you to instantly share what you dig with everyone who follows you. None of the blog aggregators I’ve been looking at quite reproduce that kind of seamless sharing. So I’ll keep looking, and in the meantime I’ll continue to use my social media accounts to push my blog posts, and I’ll do better at reading and sharing blog posts from friends. And I’ll report back if anything seems to be really working!

Some personal news…

Finally deleted Facebook. This is just to let you know that if you see anyone on Facebook posting from this point on claiming to be me, it ain’t.

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Sending out another Greg Pak Newsletter today with fun bonuses – subscribe now to get in on it!

MECH CADET YU art from Takeshi Miyazawa and Triona Farrell.

My revamped email newsletter has been a blast so far — I’ve sent out three newsletters over the past few weeks with a few free comics and lots of news.

Today I’m sending out another edition with a nice discount coupon for the Greg Pak Shop and some exclusive sneak images that haven’t been shown anywhere else from an upcoming comic book!

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