Greg Pak: Tech Support

When archiving the data from an iPhone takes four days: A painfully exhaustive how-to guide

I spent a good chunk of the last four days figuring out how to back up and transfer the data from an overloaded iPhone 8 to a new iPhone 13 for a loved one. Every step in the process took about ten times more pondering and about three hours more time than I anticipated. So while it’s fresh on my mind, here’s an exhaustingly specific account of the steps I took in hopes that it may help someone stuck in a similar situation some day.

NOTE: How-to articles on this site are provided for educational purposes only. I’m doing my best to describe my experiences, but I do not guarantee or warrant the accuracy, appropriateness, completeness, safety or usefulness of any article. If you attempt any of these procedures, you do so at your own risk. And please, always back up everything before trying any repair, update, or transfer.

The Scope of the Job

The phone I needed to back up contained a huge number of photos and voice memos that had to be archived in a useable, searchable way. I knew that creating a backup of the iPhone via iTunes (as it works in Mac OS High Sierra or Mojave) or via the Finder (as it works with later Mac operating systems) wouldn’t create a searchable folder that you could pull individual files from. So I needed to figure out different ways of archiving that would give access to photos and voice memos as useable files. Then I needed to back up the entire phone via iTunes in order to safeguard everything on it and enable an easy transfer of its data and settings to the new phone.

Step One: Setting Up a Backup Computer

The original phone had a 256 GB hard drive and was almost completely full, which meant it was too big to be backed up onto its owner’s computer any longer. Annoyingly, Apple does not make it easy to save iTunes backups of iPhones onto external hard drives. So I had to clear a massive amount of room on the internal drive of a different computer that could become a dedicated backup and archive machine.

Fortunately, after upgrading to a new computer last year, I’d hung onto my old 2013 Macbook Air. I set up a new user (creatively named Backup) on that Macbook Air to establish a clean space free of my old data and dedicated to archiving. Then I logged back in under my original user name so I could see all my old documents and data. I’d backed up and ported this computer’s data to my new laptop last year. But on the off chance that I’d missed anything back then, I obsessively backed up the computer’s files once again to an external hard drive. And then I began deleting.

Step Two: Clearing Enough Space

If you’re like me, you’ve got documents scattered all over your computer. Some prime areas to look for them include the Downloads folder (often full of giant installer files and other big downloads), the Documents folder (which I seldom use intentionally, but programs sometimes save files here unbeknownst to me), and the Desktop (because yes, I’m Gen X, so I have loads of files and folders strewn all over my virtual and physical desktops).

But many of the biggest files on our computers are stashed away in folders most of us never open. To ruthlessly make space, I needed to root around a little more deeply.

The Photos Library linked to the Apple Photos app can be found in Users > My User Name > Pictures. As it turns out, you can move that Photos Library file to anywhere else on your computer or to an external drive, click on it to open Photos, and Photos will recognize that as your new library. So I copied the library to an external drive, tested it by opening Photos by clicking on it, then deleted the original file from the laptop’s hard drive. (Of course I’d already transferred these photos to my new laptop last year, so I didn’t technically need to save another copy of that photo library, but when it comes to historically and personally vital documents like photographs, I never take any chances.)

iTunes media can be found in Users > UserName > Music > iTunes > iTunes Media. The big categories here are Movies, Music, Podcasts, and TV Shows. I backed up all the media files inside those folders onto an external hard drive, then deleted them from the laptop. When I open iTunes again, I can see the icons of those files and could download them again from Apple if I’d originally bought them through the iTunes store. But this computer will be a dedicated backup machine, so I won’t be downloading my own music here again.

Email was a tricker challenge, and I haven’t really figured it out. I had multiple IMAP email accounts on this computer. I went to Mail > Accounts, and one at a time, highlighted each of those IMAP accounts and clicked the “minus” button to remove them. This, I was assured by helpful folks on Mastodon, would simply stop this computer from connecting to those accounts without removing the emails from the server. Apple’s own instructions say that once an IMAP account is disabled, its associated emails will be removed from the computer. And when I deleted accounts, their associated emails and email boxes disappeared from the listings in Apple Mail. But I did not regain any hard drive space, even after deleting accounts that had 20,000 emails in them. I do have a considerable chunk of archived email stored on this computer that appears in the “On My Mac” section of the Apple Mail window. But the removal of the IMAP accounts should have increased hard drive space. I still haven’t figured out what the problem is. There’s a massive folder labeled V5 in Users > Username > Library > Mail, which presumably contains all the “On My Mac” mail and the undeleted IMAP mail, but the subfolders inside have nonsense names, so I don’t have any confidence that I can determine what to keep and what to delete there.

If I wanted to start from scratch, I could just delete all the email — I transferred it all to my new laptop last year and it’s also presumably duplicated in an old Time Machine back up of this old laptop. But I erred on the side of caution and left it alone for now. Something to figure out on some other day!

Next I tackled my Dropbox folders, which contained huge amounts of data. I had a terrible fear of deleting things from the laptop the wrong way and triggering the deletion all of my Dropbox files from the Dropbox servers. So I followed these instructions to unlink the computer from Dropbox. This meant that Dropbox would no longer connect to its folder on the laptop. I then quit Dropbox entirely JUST TO BE SURE. Then I copied the entire Dropbox folder to an external hard drive so I’d have a backup JUST IN CASE. Then I moved the Dropbox folder on the laptop to the desktop of the laptop, which was probably unnecessary but felt like a good thing to do just in case Dropbox somehow reactivated itself and went looking for the folder in its regular place.

Then I went through a long and laborious process of deleting individual files and folders. Even though all this data was now living in five different places (a Time Machine backup of this laptop, a Time Machine backup of my new laptop, my new laptop itself, the Dropbox servers, and the Dropbox folder backup I’d just put on an external hard drive), I was still nervous about deleting files containing irreplaceable family photos. So I deleted all of the non-heirloom files — and still needed more space. So on Day Three of the process, I finally backed the family data up to yet ANOTHER external hard drive and deleted the Dropbox folder entirely from the old laptop.

Step Three: Backing Up Photos from the iPhone

Given how much space I’d cleared, I figured I could back up the photos from the phone through the Photos app to the computer’s hard drive. But I was wrong — the computer gave me an error message, saying I didn’t have enough room. So I followed Apple’s official instructions and moved the Photo Library to an external hard drive. In a more rational world, you’d be able to go through a menu and select a folder for the Photos app to create a new library. But instead, you have to move (or copy) the existing Photo Library to wherever you want it to live, then click on it to open the Photos app, which will then recognize this new Photo Library in its new location as the one it will use. Long story short, I moved the library to an external hard drive, plugged in the phone, and started backing up the photos.

Unfortunately, with tens of thousands of photos, the process can get a little weird. I went to sleep and woke up in the morning to discover that only half of the photos had been transferred. An error message said that thousands were unreadable or had missing metadata. I contained my panic and started individually selecting files to be transferred. I discovered a handful of photos triggered that error message, but the vast majority were fine and backed up properly. But I couldn’t trust the computer to handle all of them at once, so I transferred them in batches of a few hundred, working on a comic book script in between each download. This took long hours. But it worked, and in the end I had a giant Photo Library on an external hard drive that was linked to the Photos app on the computer.

Step Four: Backing Up the Whole Phone

Now I had to back up the entire phone. The archive computer was running High Sierra, an older Mac OS, and the phone was running iOS 16, the newest iPhone OS. This is apparently not a fantastic combination. When I plugged the phone into the computer, iTunes wouldn’t recognize it. It gave me a vague error message saying “A software update is required to connect to phone.” I didn’t click on the update link because I wasn’t sure if it would upgrade the phone or the computer, and I knew the phone had virtually no space and was too old to risk upgrading. So I ludicrously went through the laborious process of upgrading the computer from High Sierra to Mojave, which I was pretty sure would take care of the problem. An hour or so later, I plugged the phone into the upgraded computer… and got the same error message.

I did some Googling and found a page that assured me that clicking the link in the error message would just upgrade the computer, not the phone. So I unplugged the phone and clicked the link, fully expecting to be taken to the App Store for an update to Big Sur, the latest operating system compatible with this computer. But instead, the computer just worked for a little while, apparently downloading and installing a small patch, and when it was done, iTunes recognized the iPhone!

I rolled my eyes at myself, realizing I probably could have skipped updating to Mojave if I’d had the wherewithal to do some research and click on that software update link earlier. But whatever; I was ready to back up the phone! Which I did, using the iTunes tools! But I didn’t notice until it was too late that the backup was automatically set to “Encrypted.” I didn’t worry too much; I had a record of the last encryption password I’d used on this computer. Of course that came back to bite me — more on this in a bit!

The backup took a little over an hour. Interestingly, the backed up file (which lives at Users > Username > Library > Application Support > MobileSync > Backup) was just 150 GB or so. The phone’s nearly full hard drive was 256 GB, so that tells me about 100 GB on the phone are system files that iTunes doesn’t back up. A bit of valuable information in case you’re trying to judge how much hard drive space you’ll need for the backup.

It’s worth noting that Apple’s backup protocols introduce an annoying redundancy and inefficiency regarding photos. I couldn’t find any way to exclude photos from the iTunes backup process. So if you’ve downloaded your photos to the Photos app and then backed up your phone through iTunes, you’re doubling the space taken up by your photos. That’s fine in terms of safety — I like redundancy in essential data! But it can turn into a big headache when it comes to making enough space on a machine for other things.

Step Five: Setting Up the New Phone and Transferring the Data

Now, finally, the fun part! Which of course turned out to be not so fun. I fired up the new phone, an iPhone 13! The system’s pretty darn advanced now and your new phone can wirelessly nab the information needed to get up and running from your old phone. The new phone flashes a weird, round, swirly image that your old phone reads — this serves as a security key that allows your old phone to transfer its number and some of its essential operating data over to the new phone. You’re also given the option to transfer the entirety of your data — presumably your music and messages and emails and photos, etcetera. But there’s no option to selectively pick and choose what data to transfer, and the owner did not want to transfer all their photos over. So we cancelled this process in hopes that we could get more options by plugging the phone into the computer and completing the transfer via iTunes.

Alas, that wasn’t the case. iTunes doesn’t give you the ability to transfer data to a new phone selectively — your music but not your photos, for example. It’s all or nothing! Since we wanted all the email and messages and whatnot to be ported over seamlessly, we decided to transfer everything and just delete the photos manually from the phone later. So we told iTunes to start the process… and it asked for the password to unlock the encrypted backup. I cheerfully typed in the last password I’d used for this… and it didn’t work!

So now I had another conundrum that took hours to figure out. After trying a bunch of variations of the password, none of which worked, I decided to back up the original phone to a different computer and start over. But when I got to the key moment, I saw that the “encrypted” button for the backup was still checked, and when I tried to uncheck it, I got that pop up asking for the password. In short, once you’ve made an encrypted backup of an iPhone, the phone remembers and tells iTunes to ask you for that password again whenever you goof around with backups, even if you’re on a different computer.

I then spent hours trying to figure out alternate ways of backing up the phone and transferring data to the new phone. I figured I could wipe the new phone and start over, this time using the easy start option to transfer data from one phone to the other wirelessly. But I got nervous — what if something went wrong and the data on the original phone was damaged? I wanted to have a working, accessible backup of the essential data before I tried the transfer.

I considered using PhoneView, a third party backup program, which I’d installed on my new laptop. But after a little experimenting, I realized that the program wouldn’t separate out any data it backed up from the old phone into a clearly marked file that I could then transfer to the archive laptop. Instead, the data would be confusingly co-mingled with the data from previous backups I’d made of my own phone, which wouldn’t be acceptable.

I considered backing up the old phone’s Voice Messages through iTunes. But I wasn’t a thousand percent sure what would happen when I pressed “Sync.” Was there any chance that instead of being transferred to the archive computer’s iTunes program, the messages would be overwritten or erased from the original phone? I’m certain that’s not the way the program should work. But since I didn’t have a working backup of the entire iPhone, I felt nervous pressing that blue button.

So I did more pondering and researching and agonizing, and I strongly considered following these emergency steps to reset the old phone to erase the backup password. But that terrified me, because it goes against my grain to change anything about the original device I’m trying to back up for fear of screwing it up before I’ve backed it up.

In the middle of this, it finally dawned on me that the password I’d been trying to use to unlock the archive was the password associated with MY phone, not the phone of the person I was trying to help! And when I did some searching through my password storage program, I found a note with a password from the last time I helped the owner of the phone. And that password WORKED, unlocking the encrypted iPhone archive!

Back in business, I plugged the iPhone into the archive computer and hit the “Restore Backup” button, as per these instructions. I held my breath a bit, because “Restore Backup” is weirdly vague — it implies the backup on the computer will be restored or affected in some way, when all we’re doing is using data from that backup to populate a new phone. The button really should read “Restore FROM Backup” for clarity.

Despite my anxiety and copy editor’s annoyance, the process worked, and in about an hour, the new phone was functioning properly with all the data of the old phone!

Step Six: Dealing with Voice Memos

Now that I knew I had a working backup and I’d successfully transferred all the data to the new phone, I felt much safer trying to sync the Voice Memos on the old phone to iTunes for archiving. But when I gave it a shot, I got a pop up telling me that the phone could only be synched via iTunes with one computer at a time and that it was already synched with a different computer. It also told me that if I proceeded, any songs that had not been downloaded through the iTunes Music Store would be deleted. I still don’t understand all of this. I’m not sure if non-iTunes songs would be deleted from the computer or the phone or both. And I believe this all has something to do with iTunes in iCloud, but I haven’t done the research to figure it all out. Instead, I immediately backed away because I didn’t want to do anything that might damage, delete, or change files on the original phone.

After half an hour of research, I settled on transferring the Voice Memo files from the iPhone to the laptop via AirDrop. I followed the instructions at idownloadblog.com, which showed a handy way to send multiple files to AirDrop at once. If you click the “Edit” button, you’ll be able to select multiple files, then click the Share button to send. I’m always nervous pressing an “Edit” button on anything I don’t want to actually edit, but it worked without a hitch.

After several rounds of exporting, I successfully transferred all the Voice Memo files to the laptop and breathed a big sigh of relief. But I quickly noticed that the “Creation date” metadata was wrong. That field seemed to have been overwritten with a later “Modified” date, so there was no way to correctly arrange the files on the laptop according to the date they were actually recorded. The files showed up on the iPhone in the Voice Memo app with the correct creation date, so I knew the data must be in there somewhere.

After another search, I discovered Fireebok’s Meta Media app, which claimed to have the ability to replace the “Creation date” with the actual “Recording date.” That seemed to be exactly what I needed, so I ponied up $19.99 for the app through Apple’s App Store and… it worked exactly as described!

After I imported the files into Meta Media and selected the command to replace the Creation date with the Recording date, the app created duplicate files with the corrected metadata in a separate folder, leaving the original files untouched and unedited. That seems like a great system to avoid destroying original data by accident. But it does eat up hard drive space since you’re duplicating the audio files in their entirety. If you use this program, I also highly recommend working from duplicate files of your originals anyway, because if you hit “save” after changing the dates, it will overwrite the metadata on the files you uploaded.

In the end, my work flow was a little ridiculous — I created duplicate files of the originals, uploaded those duplicates into the program, used the “Copy Shooting/Recording date to Creation date” command under “Quick Action” to change the dates and create the new corrected files, then deleted the duplicates I’d uploaded into the program, keeping just the originals and the corrected files.

Another quirk was that if the creation date on a file was actually accurate and had not been replaced with a modified date, the metadata apparently didn’t contain a separate “recording date.” So the program would replace the accurate creation date with today’s date and time, which obviously wasn’t the correct recording date. I only had that happen with a few files and replaced those manually with dupes of the correct originals. It was more complicated than I would have liked, but it worked out and I was happy.

The only other small hitch is that the recording dates are logged in UTC time, a.k.a Coordinated Universal Time, which is five hours off from New York time. I imagine there might be a way to make that time stamp conform to whatever time zone you’re in, but I’m not quite up for the extra work in figuring that out, and I figure UTC time is actually the most specific and accurate record you could have anyway. As long as you know the time in UTC, you can make the adjustment and know exactly when the recording was made.

Step Seven: Cleaning up the New Phone

Since iTunes annoyingly did not give me the chance to pick and choose what data I transferred to the new phone, my next job will be to remove the photos from the Photo app on the new phone, as per the owner’s request. I remember tackling this job on my own phone back in August 2021.

There are two tricks here, according to this article. The first is to mass select photos for deletion by dragging your finger across the photos instead of selecting them individually. The second is to check the “Recently Deleted” section to tell the phone to really delete the photos you just deleted. Whew!

Conclusions

And there you have it! An incredibly simple process made incredibly complicated due to the huge size of the files involved and the hinky way Mac iOS devices interface with Mac desktops. It really shouldn’t have been this hard and time consuming to back up a phone and transfer useable data to a desktop and to a new phone. I think about the millions of people who don’t have the time or interest to go through all of these steps and who might just lose gigabytes of photos, videos, emails, texts, and voice recordings as a result. Every new phone purchased increases the risks of losing priceless personal memories and cultural history. I wish I had a solution for all of that on a macro level. I can only hope that on a micro level, writing all this down might help someone else figure out how to preserve the personal memories and history they cherish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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!

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!

All my Apple software problems

Glenn Fleishman recently posted a list of software problems he’s been encountering in his Macs. The post resonated with me — for about two or three years now, I’ve had the sense that problems with my Apple computers are constantly increasing. I’m not about to switch — I’ve been using Macs since 1985 and have gotten myself pretty locked into the ecosystem. I also essentially owe much of my career to Macs — the advent of cheap digital video editing with Final Cut Pro made it possible for me to make the majority of my shorts and my feature film “Robot Stories.” And the introduction of the iPad has enabled digital comic distribution to develop as an actual business that helps pay my rent. So yes, I’m grateful to and very appreciative of Apple products and generally very comfortable using them.

But that doesn’t mean everything shouldn’t work better. The company’s made a lot of hay over the idea that “It just works.” But increasingly, it doesn’t. So here’s my list of problems, and here’s to hoping the company’s paying attention and working on improvements.

  • The whole file system of iOS seems overly complicated. I understand the system isn’t built for my specific needs. But I want to be able to plug an iPad into a computer and see a hard drive pop up on the desktop that I can move files to and from. And I want to be able to access those files with any app that can read them on my iPad. Instead, I have to figure out how each separate app uploads files — and I have to upload the same file separately to different apps if I want to view it in different apps. This seems wasteful of both user time and space on the device.
  • The rollout of Final Cut Pro X and the lack of support for FCP 7 makes no sense to me as a pro user. I’ve stuck with FCP 7, like every other filmmaker I know because FCP 7 has all the features I need and because I have fifteen years of edited films that I CANNOT OPEN with FCP X. But I know eventually Apple will release an OS that I have to upgrade to in order to do my other work that isn’t compatible with FCP 7. And that’s going to be a terrible day. The writing is already on the wall — since upgrading to Yosemite, I can’t export from FCP 7 to QuickTime. I have to export via Compressor — which works, so at least there’s a workaround. But it’s a sign of things to come, and I don’t like it.
  • Apple hardware has become increasingly difficult to fix/upgrade at home. I was pretty easily able to upgrade many parts of my old Pismo or even my black Macbook back in the day. Much more difficult to do anything with any current hardware.
  • Searching in the Apple Mail program is a disaster. I admit — I have a HUGE number of emails in my program. But doesn’t everyone? For about a year now, using the search function to find anything in Mail frequently takes up to a minute. Since upgrading to Yosemite, it’s improved for me a bit. But it still can take many long seconds to complete a search. And sometimes it doesn’t complete the search ever — I have to clear out the search terms and try again to get a response.
  • I’ve had similar problems just using the Finder to search my computer. Searches used to be instantaneous. Now they can take a few seconds or what feels like a full minute.
  • Image Capture fails if I’ve kept it open and done other things between sets of scans. Upon returning to do a second set of scans, it typically loses its connection to the scanner and sometimes the entire computer has to be restarted for it to recognize it again.
  • For the first time ever, Preview started giving me trouble, taking forever to open and scroll through a document that was only 25 mb in size. This happened after I upgraded to Yosemite and after I’d been working with a pdf with fields you could fill in. I’ve finished what I needed to do with that document and haven’t had trouble again.
  • Every time I start up my computer, I get a message saying Text Expander wants to open up System Preferences so I can give it permission to work on my computer. I have already given Text Expander permission. But this dialogue box comes up anyway.
  • Mac Pro frequently doesn’t recognize USB drives it recognized moments before. The drive in question is a Lexar USB 3.0 drive.

I’ll update this post as I discover/remember additional problems.

 

If your desktop Mac’s internet connection is super slow for no reason…

… it might be because your iPhone is plugged in and “Personal Hotspot” is enabled.

I’ve been struggling with this one for a few days now — I have great broadband connection in my office but the internet on my desktop computer was super slow. Then I realized it was only happening when my iPhone was plugged in for charging. Most obviously, any site using Youtube wouldn’t fully load. Youtube itself wouldn’t load.

And then I realized I had “Personal Hotspot” activated on my iPhone. (I use the Personal Hotspot setting when out of the office to get an internet connection into my laptop — and sometimes forget to turn it off.)

I deactivated “Personal Hotspot” and internet speed on the desktop returned to normal.

Either the computer got confused with multiple choices for internet access and just bogged down. Or, stupidly, the computer was using the iPhone connection via USB rather than the much better office broadband connection.

Just sharing on the off chance it help someone else!

Anyone know how to make iTunes stop doing this?

Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 10.32.19 AM

iTunes stops downloading podcasts if you haven’t listened to them for a while.

I don’t check or listen to certain podcasts every week. But I want to keep downloading them, because sometimes they’re no longer available if you miss them the week they’re released (looking at you, “This American Life”). So I’d love to figure out a way to have iTunes keep downloading, even if I’m not listening.

Any ideas?

UPDATE: Whoa, that was fast! Jason Snell found this script to take care of the problem!