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.

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.

Yet another way to overthink shopping: discounted gift cards via AARP Rewards

Late last year, I hit the half-century mark and then, several weeks later, made my advanced age quasi-official by getting an AARP membership card. The discounts and benefits touted by the nonprofit once known as the American Association of Retired Persons seemed like they would justify the small cost of a membership that I’d already reduced by prepaying for five years (quite the vote of confidence for me to cast in late January!) and getting a cash-back deal on it from my Citi Double Cash card.

It took me a little longer to realize that the real payback would come from AARP Rewards. This program, partly open to non-members, offers points you can collect by completing such simple tasks as answering quizzes or just visiting the Rewards page, then redeem for gift cards as well as magazine and online subscriptions. The return on those points hasn’t been good for me, between the high number required to procure a gift card (for instance, 25,000 points for a $10 Spotify card) and the low odds of picking up one for less in an instant-win or sweepstakes entry (I’m batting .000 there after nine attempts, but at least I’ve only burned 450 points this way).

But AARP Rewards also sells a wide variety of gift cards at good-to-excellent discounts, some of which cover common if not unavoidable expenses and therefore amount to free money. For example, you can get a $15 Google Play gift card for $13, a 13.3 percent savings, while Home Depot, Safeway and REI gift cards come at 8% off. (All of those examples but Home Depot require an AARP membership, which younger people can get at an “associate” level while full benefits are reserved for my new demographic of 50 and older.)

AARP Rewards also sells a limited number of daily-deal gift cards at a deeper discount; for example, last month I picked up a $15 Crate & Barrel gift card for $10. But deals from the best-known retailers vanish almost immediately, as I’ve learned in multiple failed attempts to snag a Home Depot gift card at 30% off.

So far, I’ve racked up $24 in savings this way–although since I haven’t used all these gift cards yet, the savings are somewhat theoretical. The downside is that I now have yet another place to check after credit-card sites and miles-and-points shopping portals before I make an online purchase. And I now have yet another reason to feel a little dirty if I forget to do that and later realize I missed out on a chance to save a few bucks.

Two ways your mailing list could be less terrible

Monday’s USA Today column on cleaning out an overloaded Gmail inbox required me to spend an unpleasant amount of time scouring my own inbox to find the most prolific senders. The experience left me mostly convinced of the grotesque selfishness of many e-mail marketing types, but it also yielded some grounds for optimism.

Photo shows a series of bulk-mail stamps

As in, the user experience with some of these companies’ mailing lists let me at least think that they recognized concepts like cognitive load, limited attention span and finite storage space. Here are two practices in particular that I liked:

  • Don’t send promotional e-mails from the same address as order confirmations. This makes it so much easier to find and bulk-delete the sales pitches that no longer carry any relevance–or, if you use Microsoft’s Outlook.com, to set up a “sweep” filter that automatically deletes those messages after a set period of time. Ecco, Macy’s and Staples all seemed to follow this polite, filter-friendly custom.
  • Let me choose how often to get emails–a message a day is often just clingy, but one a week could be less obnoxious–and let me specify what kind of pitches might interest me. Best Buy (“Receive no more than one General Marketing email per week”) and Macy’s (“Let’s Take It Down A Notch—Send Me Fewer Emails, Please”) get the frequency thing right, while L.L. Bean not only lets people choose between weekly, monthly or twice-monthly frequencies but invites them to request only messages about departments like Men’s, Home, or Fishing.

I’d like to close by writing something like “see, it doesn’t have to be this hard”–but a look at my Gmail inbox shows that some of my visits to the mail-preference pages of some retailers hasn’t led to them putting a smaller dent in my inbox. I guess they’d prefer I click their unsubscribe link–or use Gmail’s “block” command.

Google’s useless-to-the-self-employed “External” label: another tiny bit of freelancer erasure

The Gmail app on my phone and in my browser looks a lot more yellow when I switch to my work account, and it’s all Google’s fault. Sometime in the last week or so, Google began slapping an “External” label in a shade of deep yellow on every message sent from somebody not in my organization.

Which, since I am self-employed, constitutes the rest of the population of Earth, plus every bot and script capable of sending me e-mail. Google describes the security measure it began enforcing in late April for Google Workspace accounts–the business accounts it once gave away for free as Google Apps, then turned into a paid service in 2012, then renamed to G Suite in 2016, and then renamed once again in 2020 to Workspace–as its way to help employees “avoid unintentionally sharing confidential information with recipients outside of their organization.”

Photo shows a spam message purporting to be from Comcast with Gmail's yellow "External" label, as seen on a Pixel 3a phone in front of graph paper.

But for solo practitioners who have no employees, it’s useless. It cannot teach me anything except that even when self-employed, I can still fall victim to IT department control-freakery–and that freelancers remain invisible to many business app and service developers.

(Fun fact about the obvious phishing message in the image here: Gmail’s spam filter did not catch it.)

A support note from Google indicates that Workspace users can turn off this warning. It does not explain why I don’t see that in my own admin console. But in a Reddit thread–once again, that site proved to be an underrated source of tech supportanother Workspace user said legacy free accounts don’t get that opt-out. A frequent Twitter correspondent with a grandfathered free account has since confirmed that he doesn’t have this setting either.

I suppose Google would like me to upgrade to a paid account, but I’m already paying: $19.99 a year for 100 GB of storage. The cheapest Workspace plan would only give me 30 GB and cost almost four times as much. Since Google apparently can’t be bothered to document this new limit to free accounts, the answer there is a hard nope.

All the time I’ve sunk into investigating this problem has not, however, been without benefits. Thanks to some hints from my fave avgeek blogger Seth Miller, I figured out how to disable the also-useless default warning about replying to external e-mails. To do that, sign into your admin console’s apps list page, click Calendar, click its “Sharing Settings” heading, click the pencil icon that will appear to the right of “External Invitations,” click to clear that checkbox, and click “Save.”

Although Calendar is clearly not Gmail, this settings change seems to apply in the mail app too. At some point while I was futzing around with Workspace settings, I also found an off switch for the comparable warning about sharing Google Docs with outsiders–but now I can’t find it, so maybe that opt-out is now yet another feature reserved for paying users but not documented accordingly.

Sore feet for a shot: an afternoon as a Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteer

Like many of you, I’ve spent much of the last year feeling helpless against this accursed pandemic–not just because of the existential dread inflicted by a disease that keeps striking people who wear masks and do the other right things, but because I could not do anything to help others beyond wearing a mask myself and writing the occasional article about exposure-notification apps and novel-coronavirus antibody testing.

Add on the guilt I’ve picked up about not getting sick despite the chances I have taken (meaning, gratuitously non-essential travel), and I felt even more that I had to give something else back. Thursday, I finally did.

That opportunity came via the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, a program the state government set up in 2002. Although the MRC emphasizes medical backgrounds, it also welcomes volunteers with zero credentials in the field. I filled out my application in early February, got approved a couple of days later, and then waited to get an e-mail inviting me to an online training session. That didn’t arrive until March 1, at which point I realized I could have watched a prerecorded session any time over the previous three weeks.

Photo showing part of my Virginia MRC badge and COVID-19 vaccination card atop papers relating post-vaccination advice.

That video covered the basics of helping with COVID-19 vaccination clinics–including a mention that at the end of a shift, volunteers may receive leftover doses of the vaccine–but it did not prepare me for how quickly volunteer opportunities would get snapped up. The first few squandered chances pushed me to set up a Gmail filter to star and mark as important every MRC message.

And after weeks of waiting for vaccinations to open up for people in group 1C (my cohort, both because the Centers for Disease Control chose to categorize journalists as “other essential workers” and because I could stand to lose a few pounds), I finally opened one of those “Volunteers Needed” e-mails fast enough on April 1. I quickly signed up for a noon-5 p.m. shift April 8 at a community center in Arlington hosting second-dose vaccinations.

After a quick recap of basic rules Thursday afternoon (the important one being not to guess at answers to people’s questions) and my being issued a badge with my name and photo (as if I had a real job!), I got my assignment of minding the line. It was easy work: Check to make sure that the closest taped stripe on the floor inside the entrance wasn’t occupied, then wave in the next person on the line outside.

After a couple of hours, I took a break to finish gobbling down the sandwich I’d packed, then got moved to an indoor spot at which I could remind people to have their IDs and vaccination cards ready.

Here’s one thing I didn’t expect to get out of that: realizing how many people in so many different demographics were still waiting to finish getting vaccinated. Months after first responders and people over 75 should have all been covered, I saw several senior citizens in wheelchairs and two police officers waiting for their second shots, plus dozens more people visibly older than me.

That instantly silenced my inner monologue of grumbling over seeing younger friends posting vax selfies–and properly relegated my sore feet from hours of standing to the least of everybody’s problems.

The other surprise of this experience: how much I enjoyed brief banter with total strangers, something I last experienced working the election in November. (In retrospect, serving as a poll worker was a gateway drug for MRC volunteering.) I complimented people on the designs of their masks, greeted people wearing UVA caps with “Go Hoos,” made dad jokes about having your boarding pass ready… yeah, I do need to get out more.

One of the supervisors had asked early on if I would be interested in a vaccine dose if one were available (my reply amounted to “[bleep] yeah”) and as the last of hundreds of people with booked appointments stood in line, he said the words I’d been waiting to hear since last spring: “We have a shot for you.”

A day after getting my first dose of the Moderna vaccine, I have some soreness in that upper arm and a profound sense of gratitude. Instead of counting up after every exposure risk–five days without symptoms is my rough benchmark for assuming that I haven’t gotten infected–I can now count down. I’m T-minus 13 days until the vaccine should hit 80 percent effectiveness per the CDC study released at the end of March, T-minus 27 days until my second dose, and T-minus 41 days until my immune system has fully processed the vaccine.

I just hope today’s Costco run isn’t the crowded-places errand that gets me sick first.

But if I can get through the next five days and then cross that two-week post-first-dose mark, I’ll be ready to work another volunteer MRC shift. And this time, I’ll wear my hiking boots.

Your eyes are up there: an unfixed problem with virtual panels

After all of the practice the last year has given me at looking into a camera as if it’s another human being and carrying on a group discussion, I still struggle with one important bit: keeping my eyes focused on the camera.

File this under panel-moderation problems: If you’re going to write an outline of the talk beforehand and then consult that during the panel–as you should–you’ll leave your audience wondering why you keep glancing down.

In a real-world, non-virtual panel, the spectators almost always sit far enough away to not notice a moderator’s checks of their notes. But in a virtual panel, where the optimum distance for the camera is a couple of feet at most, this is hard to hide. Especially if you’re following the virtual-panel best practice of using a dedicated webcam and fastening it to a tripod in whatever spot will leave your face evenly lighted.

If I could ever boil down a panel outline to a large-type one-page printout that I could tape to a tripod, I might be in better shape–but then I’d still need to find some way to mount a screen close to the camera.

For those of you who also can’t self-edit panel notes and and also struggle with this first-world problem, here’s a workaround I latched onto today, when the unavailability of the Logitech webcam in the photo above may have been an advantage: After attaching my aging smartphone to the top of a chair with a cheap GorillaPod tripod and using the DroidCam Android app to employ its camera as a higher-quality substitute for my HP laptop’s white-balance-impaired webcam, I flipped that 2-in-1 convertible computer’s screen roughly 270 degrees into “tent mode” and draped it over that top railing with the screen facing towards me.

That left the screen placed just below the phone and allowed me to look more focused on the talk… right up until this recording ran over schedule and into my next appointment, leaving me squirming in my chair as I hoped everybody else would wrap things up already.

Reminder: Don’t overlook Reddit for crowdsourced tech support

Two weeks ago, I spent too much time on T-Mobile’s site because I didn’t go to Reddit’s first. I was trying to opt out of my wireless carrier’s new targeted-advertising scheme, but I could not find any way to do so when logged into my business account–and like any dummy perplexed by an unintuitive interface, I kept trying the same thing over and over instead of asking for help.

Screenshot of the icon for Reddit's r/tmobile subreddit: Snoo the alien, but wearing a magenta T-Mobile t-shirt under a jacket while holding a cell phone.

The answer I needed was waiting in a thread on Reddit’s r/tmobile subreddit, in which one T-Mo customer replied to a comment about the unhelpfulness of the carrier’s site for this opt-out by saying “I had to use the app and eventually found it in the privacy section.” As in, the T-Mobile app I’d had on my phone all long but had forgotten about, and which coverage I’d read about this issue had not clarified would be the only way for a business customer to adjust this setting.

(In case you’re still puzzling this through, open the app, sign in, tap the “More” button at the bottom right, and then tap “Advertising & Analytics.”)

This wasn’t the first time I’ve found Reddit’s company- or service-specific forums exceptionally useful for tech support. While smart companies maintain their own forums where people can sort out problems and share tips, Reddit has three things going for it that many other discussion boards lack: scale, a search that works, and crowdsourced measures of the value of a comment and its author.

Reddit upvotes, downvotes and the karma score they feed into can be abused like any other social-media system to protect toxic behavior–it was only last June that Reddit nuked r/The_Donald and some 2,000 other subreddits for repeated hate-speech violations. (Of course, there’s a subreddit on which you can debate those risks of abuse at length.) But in the context of a subreddit set up for users of the same app, service or gadget to solve each other’s problems, these collective accountability features seem to function well enough. I also keep wondering if Twitter could use some version of a karma score–and that, decades ago, Usenet could have had one as well.

Plus, many of these product-specific subreddits also feature wikis maintained by their more-frequent contributors, something you almost never see at the forums a company maintains for its customers.

In addition to T-Mobile tech support, I’ve found Reddit a good resource for help with my HP laptop, and some of my earlier smartphones. Reddit’s also proved useful as a journalistic resource when I’ve needed to find people using a service with limited availability, like Verizon’s 5G Home fixed-wireless service or SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband. I try to pay that assistance back by showing up in threads other people have started about my own stories–yes, “robpegoraro” there is me–and offering to answer whatever questions people have.

Writing this post made me realize I’ve probably neglected Reddit’s potential to help me puzzle through one app I use all the time: this blogging platform. Maybe r/Wordpress can help me feel less grumpy about the Block Editor?

Google Photos storage won’t be free. Now what?

Almost five and a half years ago, I wrote a post for Yahoo Tech about the launch of the new, free Google Photos service that ran under the headline “Will Google Really Store All Your Photos Forever?” Wednesday, Google answered that question: No, it won’t. At least not for free.

That response came in a corporate post from Google Photos vice president Shimrit Ben-Yair announcing the end of the unlimited-with-imperceptible-compression picture storage that Google had touted at its I/O developer conference in San Francisco in a simpler time:

Starting June 1, 2021, any new photos and videos you upload will count toward the free 15 GB of storage that comes with every Google Account or the additional storage you’ve purchased as a Google One member.

I don’t have to worry about this just yet. Beyond “only” having squirreled away 4.4 gigabytes of images and video on Google Photos–a rate of accumulation that Google estimates won’t push me past that 15 GB threshold for another year–my Pixel 3a phone entitles me to continued free backup from that device.

But at some point, I’ll retire that phone and may need to make some budgetary decisions. My USA Today colleague Jefferson Graham outlined the major alternatives in a post Wednesday. Leaving out Apple’s Android-excluded iCloud and assuming yearly discounts, here are the cheapest options:

  • Amazon (unlimited storage, included with $119/year Prime Account)
  • Dropbox (2 TB, $119.88/year)
  • Flickr (unlimited, $60/year)
  • Google (100 GB, $19.99/year)
  • Microsoft (100 GB, $23.88/year)

As it happens, I’m already paying for three of those–I’m an Amazon captive like everybody else, I’ve paid for Flickr Pro since 2011, and I subscribe to the 1 TB tier of Microsoft 365 for easy backup of my Windows laptop. (I also pay Google for 100 GB of storage for my G Suite work account, but that’s separate from the everyday Google account I use on my Android phone.)

I already have Flickr set to back up my photos–although the app only does that when I open it, not in the background–so that would seem the logical fallback option. That service also offers the advantage of existing outside the orbits of the tech giants. But although Flickr has worked to apply some machine-learning techniques to photo searches, it’s nowhere as good as Google at finding photos without a human-written title or description: A search for “eggs” in Google Photos yields 19 photos, only two of which don’t feature actual eggs. On Flickr, that nets me one photo, a close-up of fingertips.

So the easiest choice for me, for now, is to change nothing and hope I can stay under that 15 GB limit. One thing I will do, and which you can as well to free up some space: Clean out your Gmail by searching for and deleting messages from certain senders older than a set number of days, weeks or months (as I told USA Today readers back in 2012, when daily-deal messages were a serious consumer of inbox space).

But maybe I’m wrong. Here’s your chance to show that: Take the survey below and then leave a comment explaining your choice.

My $5 solution to woeful webcams on my laptop and desktop

It’s only taken me seven months of fumbling iteration, but I think I’ve finally found a video-conferencing setup that doesn’t leave me yearning for an upgrade to my hardware right after a video call.

That’s taken a while. Back when All This started, I thought the iSight camera on my aging iMac could suffice. But while it delivers fine footage for its 720p resolution, having it attached to a computer essentially fixed in place left me with bad lighting–when I face the screen, daylight only hits one side of my face.

My HP Spectre x360 laptop (at almost three years old it also now must be considered “aging”) features a 1080p camera and is no problem to move, even if I can only elevate it by parking it atop a stack of books. But while I knew its video could look a little washed out, I didn’t realize how bad its white balance could get until I saw it turn a dark-blue shirt bright purple. Next!

I did a few panels with a thoroughly janky setup: my iPad mini 5, propped upright between the keyboard and screen on my laptop. That tablet has a much better camera, but that excuse for a tripod limits my options for positioning it. And pressing the iPad into service as an expensive webcam meant I couldn’t use it to read my notes for a talk.

Installing the Zoom app on my phone solved the positioning issues–I have a tripod and a phone-clamp attachment–and let me easily address any producer’s request to move the camera just a bit up or town. But the Pixel 3a’s front camera is nowhere as good as its back camera, and its microphone can’t match the USB mic that I can plug into my desktop or laptop.

I finally got around to researching apps that could let my laptop or desktop borrow my phone’s camera–meaning, the higher-quality one on its back–as their own. I followed Whitson Gordon’s advice in PCMag to use Dev47AppsDroidCam, a duo of Android and Windows apps that can communicate via WiFi or USB. Getting rid of the ads in the Android app and enabling a high-definition option requires its $4.99 Pro version, an expense I gladly paid.

DroidCam’s Android and Windows halves aren’t much to look at, and the Windows app was fussy to set up. But once the two devices are paired, the software just works, reliably adding DroidCam as an input option in Zoom. 

Optimizing this setup required configuring the phone and laptop to link via USB to reduce the risks of overloading a WiFi network or introducing some lag in my video, which in turn entailed some entry-level Android tinkering to enable Developer Options and then USB Debugging. And now I have a video-conferencing setup that lets me position my best camera wherever an event producer wants, use a desktop USB microphone for the best sound quality, and keep my iPad free for consulting notes.

Things would be easier still with the Wirecutter-endorsed Logitech C920S webcam. But that gadget must have key components made out of unobtainium, considering its perpetually out-of-stock status.

I thought I’d finally broken through when Best Buy’s site reported it last week as available for delivery today to my nearest store, so I eagerly punched in my order. But as today ground on without a pickup notice from that retailer, I knew what was coming: a “Rob, there’s a delay with your order” e-mail sent at 6:22 p.m. 

Update, 10/5/2020: To my pleasant surprise, the Logitech webcam was available for pickup on Friday. Video quality on it seems to be great, so I’m sure some other malfunction will arise on my next video call.