Get rid of that annoying “WebSocket connection to ‘…’ failed” error on WordPress sites running Jetpack

If you run a self-hosted WordPress site with Jetpack, installed, you may have noticed a frequent error message showing up in your browser console.

In Chrome it looks like this:

WebSocket connection to ‘wss://public-api.wordpress.com/pinghub/wpcom/me/newest-note-data’ failed: Error during WebSocket handshake: Unexpected response code: 403

In Safari it’s slightly less specific, but the issue is the same:

WebSocket connection to ‘wss://public-api.wordpress.com/pinghub/wpcom/me/newest-note-data’ failed: Unexpected response code: 403

This issue has been reported various places online but nowhere do I find a true fix.

As indicated in some of those support threads I linked to above, it’s due to an issue with the Notifications module in Jetpack. What? It’s something I was not even really aware of and that can be extremely easy to ignore, especially if your site is not blog-focused or does not have active commenting. Turns out Jetpack has this little “Notifications” icon up in the admin bar next to your Gravatar, where you can get the latest updates on what’s happening on your blog.

If you’re like me, you don’t need or want the Notifications tool. And if getting rid of it gets rid of that stupid error that’s constantly popping up in the console, all the better.

Side note: Did you know there’s a hidden page where you can access the settings for a ton of Jetpack modules? (Neither did I.) Just go to /wp-admin/admin.php?page=jetpack_modules in your WP admin and there it is! If you’re just dealing with this issue on one particular site, and don’t want to write any code, simply deactivate the Notifications module here and you’re done. If this is something you are dealing with on many sites though and you want an automatic, code-based solution to stick into your base theme, read on…

I tried using Jetpack’s instructions for disabling a module via code. (Fun fact, the name for this module in the code is not 'notifications' as you might expect; it’s 'notes'.) Frustratingly, neither the 'option_jetpack_active_modules' filter nor the 'jetpack_get_available_modules' filter worked. I even scoured the Jetpack source code for other filters I might need to use, and none of them made a difference.

Oh, I was able to get 'notes' not to appear in the array those filters returns, and I was even able to use that to get “Notifications” to always appear as “inactive” on that hidden settings page.

But the error kept showing up in the console, and the little Notifications icon was still in the admin bar. The module was not inactive.

Finally, through further source code poking, I discovered there’s a static public method called Jetpack::deactivate_module(). I tried running it in those aforementioned filters but it resulted in an HTTP 500 error. (Strangely, it was an out-of-memory error. Shrug.)

So I decided to try the method in different actions. After some trial and error, it seems the 'init' action works. But that’s a bit of overkill, running this code on every front end page load, especially since once the module is deactivated, it should stay deactivated, so my solution is to run it on the 'admin_init' action instead. Especially since this issue only happens for logged-in users anyway, it should be adequate.

Here’s a bit of code you can stick into your theme’s functions.php file or wherever you like to put things like this:

add_action('admin_init', 'rm34_jetpack_deactivate_modules');
function rm34_jetpack_deactivate_modules() {
    if (class_exists('Jetpack') && Jetpack::is_module_active('notes')) {
        Jetpack::deactivate_module('notes');
    }
}

A WordPress URL rewrite rule to phase out year/month folders in the Media Library

This is one of those fixes where it is probably worth me explaining the very specific use case I needed it for first, to serve as an example of exactly why anyone would need this, because on the surface it may seem pointless.

Picture this: Restaurant client. Table cards with QR codes linking directly to menu PDFs, so customers can look at the menu on their phones instead of using a physical print menu that has been handled by dozens of other people.

Note to the future: I’m not sure what the restaurant experience looks like in your world. What I’m describing may be ubiquitous for you now, or may be a complete head-scratcher. Assuming it’s safe for you to touch your head. For context, I am writing this in the midst of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s the problem: Menus change. URLs referenced by a QR code do not. By default, WordPress automatically creates year and month subfolders inside wp-content/uploads and puts files in the folder for the year and month the post they’re attached to was created, or if you’re uploading directly into the Media Library, not attached to a post, then the year and month the file was uploaded.

So that means that the URLs embedded in my client’s QR codes contain 2020/09. But now it’s October, so if they upload a replacement file today, its URL will contain 2020/10 and the QR code will not work. I should note at this point that I do not like the default WordPress behavior of putting files into these subfolders, but I sometimes forget to turn off this setting when I’m creating a new site, or — as is the case here — I’m working on a site someone else originally set up.

My solution: Turn off year/month folders, so that any newly uploaded PDFs with the same filename will have the same URL. (Assuming the client deletes the old one first!)

You may be thinking, well, that’s great, if you had done this before the QR codes were created. Yes, exactly. That’s where this rewrite rule comes in.

When you turn off the year/month folder setting, it doesn’t move any existing files or change any code that links to them. This purely affects new uploads going forward. So what I need is a rewrite rule that will allow existing file URLs with the year/month path to continue working, while automatically removing that bit from the URL and trying to find the same file in the main uploads folder, if there’s no file at the year/month URL.

OK, here’s the code:

# Redirect file URLs from year/month subfolders to base uploads folder if not found
<IfModule mod_rewrite.c>
RewriteEngine On
RewriteBase /wp-content/uploads/
RewriteRule ^index\.php$ – [L]
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-d
RewriteRule ^([0-9]{4})/([0-9]{2})/(.*) /wp-content/uploads/$3 [L,R=301]
</IfModule>

This should go not in your main .htaccess file, but in an .htaccess placed inside your wp-content/uploads folder.

Let’s assess what’s going on here, line by line.

# Redirect file URLs from year/month subfolders to base uploads folder if not found

Just a comment so we remember what this is all about. You may think you’ll remember. But you probably won’t. Comments are your future friend.

<IfModule mod_rewrite.c> and </IfModule>

Apache configuration conditionals wrapper for all of our actions, to make sure this code doesn’t run if mod_rewrite isn’t enabled. Honestly I often leave this out because… come on, the entire site is going to be broken if mod_rewrite isn’t enabled.

RewriteEngine On

If you don’t know what this is about, RTFM. (The “F” is directed at the manual, not you. I hate the Apache documentation.)

RewriteBase /wp-content/uploads/

This is the reference point for the ^ later on. Needs to be the relative path of the uploads folder below your WordPress site’s base URL.

RewriteRule ^index\.php$ - [L]

Honestly we probably don’t need this line, as there shouldn’t be any index.php files inside your uploads folder anyway, but it just feels weird not to include it. This just says “don’t do any rewrites to the index.php file.”

RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-d

These lines are very common in this type of rewrite instruction set, and in fact come straight from the default WordPress rewrite rules. They are saying, only apply the following rules to URLs that don’t match existing real files or directories under this path. This is critical to keep all of your existing Media Library URLs working.

RewriteRule ^([0-9]{4})/([0-9]{2})/(.*) /wp-content/uploads/$3 [L,R=301]

This is what we’re here for. Note we are using the magic of regular expressions to make this work. There are three parenthetical groupings, though we technically could eliminate the first two sets of parentheses and change $3 to $1, but I just like having the parentheses to help me keep things straight.

([0-9]{4}) is matching a 4-digit number, representing the year folder.

([0-9]{2}) is matching a 2-digit number, representing the month folder.

And (.*) is matching… anything, representing the filename. That’s the bit we want to reference in the replacement string, /wp-content/uploads/$3 which tells Apache to serve up the filename from the year/month URL directly out of the uploads folder itself.

The final bit, if you’re not familiar with rewrite rules, [L,R=301], just says this is the last rule the previous set of conditions applies to, and that it should return an HTTP 301 (permanent redirect) status along with the redirect, which is good SEO karma.

How to get a Mac to stop trying to play audio through an HDMI monitor that doesn’t have speakers

How has it come to this? It’s 2020, and on top of everything else (a global pandemic, an incompetent and megalomaniacal U.S. president, police in my neighborhood murdering Black people, riots in my neighborhood over police murdering Black people, climate change-induced forest fires destroying California, murder hornets), my MacBook Pro has suddenly decided that it must try to send audio output to my HDMI monitor whenever it’s plugged in, even though the monitor doesn’t have speakers, and I have a set of speakers plugged into the headphone jack.

It’s a completely asinine scenario, and the solution is even more asinine, but it does seem to work. It also maybe just fixes one annoying issue I always had with my speaker setup: I would have to turn the Mac’s volume all the way up to get adequate output to the speakers, which have their own volume control.

What’s the solution? Create an aggregate device. What’s that? I’ll show you.

First go into Applications > Utilities and open Audio MIDI Setup. Hopefully you’ve never had to open this little utility before, because I doubt anyone who works in interface design at Apple ever has. (ZING!)

You’ll see something like this… but without the last item, which is the aggregate device I already created, much like a TV chef who already has a finished dish waiting in the oven.

That “VS248” is my HDMI monitor. “External Headphones” is my speakers, plugged into the MacBook Pro’s headphone jack. Then of course there are the internal microphone and speakers of the Mac itself.

Click the little plus sign at the bottom left, and choose Create Aggregate Device. Click the checkboxes under Use for “External Headphones” and your monitor. That will make them appear in Subdevices above. When I did this, it had VS248 on the left and External Headphones on the right, which was assigning the monitor to channels 1 and 2, and the headphones to channels 3 and 4. You can drag-and-drop the names of the devices to change the order. Move your External Headphones to the left so their color is assigned to channels 1 and 2. You can also give this aggregate device a distinct name by clicking its name in the left sidebar and typing in what you want. I cleverly called mine “Headphones and VS248.”

That’s it! Now close this window, open System Preferences, and click on Sound > Output. Select your new aggregate device for sound output, and you should be all set.

One thing I noticed about this that was initially annoying, but then I realized is actually a good thing! was that now the volume control and mute “buttons” on my MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar were grayed out. Damn it! Oh, wait. That’s actually fine, because this aggregate device is automatically setting the output on the headphone jack to maximum, allowing me to easily control the volume in the speakers with the speakers’ volume knob. I no longer have to manually turn the Mac up to maximum. And, hopefully, although I haven’t tried it yet, this also means that when I take my Mac away from my desk and plug my earbuds directly into the headphone jack, I won’t have to remember to adjust the volume before blowing out my eardrums! The Mac should remember the optimal volume I already have set for when the sound output is External Headphones-only.

A brief reflection on Facebook’s anti-UX

I am convinced that Facebook designs its user experience (UX) as anti-user experience. Their goal is not to make their site intuitive, friendly and convenient. It’s not to surprise and delight. (Well, surprise maybe.) It’s all about doing everything it can to dangle just enough of a carrot in front of you that you’ll click more times than you want to, exposing yourself to more ads, which translate to more revenue than they could reasonably justify if the advertisers knew just how brief and worthless those “impressions” really are.

Anyway… here’s an example of the latest annoyance, in the form of a Your Memories on Facebook block. This is what I saw in my browser window:

It’s an extremely brief teaser of and old post of mine that, yes, I actually am interested in seeing, since I am really missing the Minnesota State Fair this year. So I click on See more… but nothing happens.

I’m sure most users are just utterly confused by this, and may or may not understand that what they’re seeing is a preview of what their friends will see if they share this “memory” on their timeline. It doesn’t matter if they understand or not though, because Facebook has done enough user research to know that they’ll still keep clicking things to try to see more, leading them to the only links here that actually do anything, the Send and Share buttons.

Clicking Share pops up another window that shows a bit more of the post, but still not all of it, and another non-functional See more… “link”. But the only way to actually see the entire post is to share it on your timeline. Which is the only thing Facebook wants you to do here, because it “drives engagement”.

I’d insert an eye-roll emoji here but I’ve turned off that feature in WordPress, because I hate every part of everything right now.

Since I’m sure you’re dying to know how this all ends… here’s a screenshot of the shared post on Facebook.

See more…

How to execute a no-nonsense upgrade to PHP 7.4 on Ubuntu 16.04 LTS

Yeah, yeah. Ubuntu 16.04 LTS is getting pretty long in the tooth. Long-term support ends in less than a year.

But if you’re anything like me (I’m sorry), you’re managing multiple VPSes that are, at the moment, still running it. And now WordPress is giving all of your clients scary warnings about needing to upgrade their version of PHP. What to do?

I’ve distilled the process down to 11 lines that you can just copy-paste straight into the command line. It’s not entirely hands-off; there are a few steps where you’ll be asked to confirm whether you want to keep your existing configuration files (YES!) and such. And — very important — you’ll want to review the set of PHP-related packages I’ve got listed here to make sure they’re ones you need, and that they’re all the ones you need. If you’re not sure whether or not there are others you may want, I suggest running apt update and then apt-cache search php7.4 and reviewing the list of results before proceeding.

Now then… here we go. I’ll break it all down after the code sample.

CAVEAT EMPTOR: I’ve just run this series of commands on three servers and it seemed to work fine, but this code is provided AS IS and you’re on your own if anything gets screwed up.

This assumes you’re already in sudo mode. If not, start with a sudo -s and FEEL THE POWER.

apt update
apt -y install software-properties-common
add-apt-repository -y ppa:ondrej/php
add-apt-repository -y ppa:ondrej/apache2
apt update
apt -y dist-upgrade
apt -y autoremove
apt -y install php7.4 libapache2-mod-php7.4 php7.4-mysql php-imagick php7.4-cgi php7.4-cli php7.4-common php7.4-curl php7.4-gd php7.4-json php7.4-mbstring php7.4-opcache php7.4-soap php7.4-xml
a2dismod php7.0
a2enmod php7.4
service apache2 restart

OK, what are we doing here? Let’s break it down.

apt update

Updating our package cache. Gotta do this first, always.

apt -y install software-properties-common

You may already have this installed. I’m not entirely sure what it’s for but the other articles I read had me doing that before the next steps so who am I to argue?

add-apt-repository -y ppa:ondrej/php
add-apt-repository -y ppa:ondrej/apache2

We are adding external package repositories created by Ond?ej Surý that allow versions of Ubuntu Linux to install newer versions of PHP than what comes with the standard Canonical set.

apt update
apt -y dist-upgrade
apt -y autoremove

Gotta do this again, since we’ve added new repositories. We’re doing a full-blown update of any outdated packages in the OS, and using the -y switch means we’re not going to be asked to manually confirm before proceeding. Be careful!

apt -y install php7.4 libapache2-mod-php7.4 php7.4-mysql php-imagick php7.4-cgi php7.4-cli php7.4-common php7.4-curl php7.4-gd php7.4-json php7.4-mbstring php7.4-opcache php7.4-soap php7.4-xml

This is the big one. We’re installing PHP 7.4 as well as a bunch of related packages we probably need. If you don’t know what all of these do, I encourage you to research them. You may not need them all. You may need others not included here. But these seem to do the trick for a typical WordPress setup.

a2dismod php7.0
a2enmod php7.4

Here we’re telling Apache to stop using PHP 7.0 and to use PHP 7.4 instead. This assumes you’re currently running PHP 7.0, which would be the case if you’re still on the default Ubuntu 16.04 LTS packages.

service apache2 restart

Let’s restart Apache and get that PHP 7.4 goodness! Hopefully everything works! But I suppose we should also be forward-thinking. This command is deprecated and I believe removed completely in Ubuntu 20.04, so you could use the more modern (but to my eye, decidedly less friendly) systemctl restart apache2 instead.

Postscript

One more thing… along the way you might have updated some packages that recommend a restart. If that’s the case, throw in one last command for fun:

reboot

Obviously if your server gets a ton of traffic you may not want to reboot in the middle of the day. But then you shouldn’t have been doing any of this in the middle of the day. The Digital Ocean VPSes I use typically reboot in less than 10 seconds, so I am never too hesitant to reboot at any time. Some of the other commands above, however, may shut down Apache or MySQL for a longer period (probably not more than a minute or two).

Post-postscript

This should also work more or less the same for any other version of Ubuntu you’re trying to keep fresh past its sell-by date. The main thing you might need to look at is the a2dismod php7.0 line. You’re probably running a different version of PHP. You can use php -v to see which version you’re running, and you can run ls /etc/php to see which version(s) you have installed.