Writer and Author

Tag: Computers

A Phoenix from the Ashes

Bad things lurk in corners of the Internet pic by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

Bad things lurk in corners of the Internet. Pic by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

I’ve always known that the Internet was a bit like the Wild West, that if you turned the wrong corner there’s be the aggressive stall holder tugging at your sleeve to sell you some over-priced piece of knock-off junk while simultaneously picking your pockets while his dodgy looking mates beckon you towards a manky shed where you can hear the faked pants of the live sex show taking place on a filthy mattress inside. I’m not naive about the lawless side of things – I did some fairly comprehensive research that side of things when I was researching Devil, my first book, and I’m well aware of how out of date that research is now. But even so I didn’t see it coming. I thought this blog was a pretty safe place to hang out, a little bastion where I could whether the storm quite happily for as long as I wanted to.

Now that was naive.

It happened on my wedding anniversary. I only noticed that once I had saw the damage a few days later. They hadn’t known of course – but that coincidence made it feel like an utterly personal attack, a violation. My blog, this site, which I’ve been building since 2008 despite the fact I haven’t been posting as often as I should for quite a while now, had been hacked. It was a particularly nasty kind of hack known as the Pharma hack – or at least a variation of that hack. It works by highjacking your site as it appears in Google search results so that your site advertises whatever they happen to be selling – as the name suggests it’s often pharmaceuticals, in my case it was games. It’s a particularly annoying hack because it’s hard to detect. It only shows up in Google searches, everything looks fine on Yahoo or Bing and if you go directly to the site it’s absolutely fine. It usually effects the most popular links to your site – so in a way it’s the most backhanded of backhanded compliments. You only get affected if you’re doing something right.

So I was stuck with a website that, as far as anyone looking on Google was concerned, did a very good line in Fifa games in Polish. I changed every password I could think of and got onto my hosting company to ask for assistance but was told it was down to me to clean up. One of the staff might be willing to do it as a nixer – for a price. So I started doing my own research. It seemed the hack was quite common. It also seemed that getting rid of the hackers was not the easiest thing in the world. But there was good advice out there – in particular this WordPress forum and this excellent post. I started looking for the code the hackers had added to my site – but while I managed to find the files modified on the day I knew they got in, I couldn’t find the (hidden) code.

So I decided to take drastic action. If the hackers were going to squat on seven years of hard work because I’d managed to get some kind of Google Rank then I’d make sure it wasn’t worth their while. I’d whip the rug from under them. I’d burn the place down.

Ok there were probably better ways of doing it. Ways that wouldn’t have trashed my own ranking, especially since Google seemed blissfully unaware that I hadn’t just switched my line of work. But I’d had enough. Like I said, it felt personal. I suppose that’s what I get for having a self-named website – it’s all going to be ego in the end.

So I blew the whole thing up. I deleted the database and uninstalled the WordPress installation. Then I started deleting everything else I could find – except a load of folders that I didn’t have access to – where the backdoor actually was. It was actually rather liberating – in a decidedly destructive way. I’d backed up all my posts from WordPress (and thought I had all the images and sound files I’d uploaded over the years). What could possibly go wrong? At this stage my faith in the Internet was somewhat restored when Good Samaritan came forward on Twitter and offered to give me a temporary place to call home – without which I seriously doubt I’d have got things restored to the stage they are at the moment.

It took a while to sort out but I changed hosts and transferred my domain to the new guys. I wasn’t happy with the way my old hosts had dealt with things. OK I had been naive about the level of security needed but there should have been a bit more by way of support there. I had always felt with them that there was an attitude that if I didn’t know how to do something I shouldn’t really be managing my own website. I might not be madly techy but I’m independent. If you bother to explain how something works, or at least point me in the direction where I can learn more, I will read up. I’m learning as I go – and the past six weeks has been a very steep learning curve.

So for the past week I’ve been putting everything back in it’s place, here in it’s new home. I’m far happier with the new hosts  – they’ve been absolutely brilliant as I’ve been getting set up, no matter how trivial the question. The damage has been done with Google but I’ve been working on the SEO.  It doesn’t help that I’ve sort of changed address – there’s now a /wordpress/ missing in every link – so I’ve been setting up redirects left right and centre and doing a bit of firefighting. Hopefully everything will settle down eventually. What all this has done is meant that I’ve had to go back over all my old posts. It’s made me remember why I started this blog and why I kept it going. Over the past few years I’ve let things slide. Well from now on I can’t promise that I’ll post as much as I did when I had a book to sell but I’ll make more of an effort. I’ve already been tweaking the look of the thing – this will be an ongoing process – I have a very clear idea of what I want – but I’ll need to learn a bit of CSS first.

And if I do things right and make another tempting proposition for the hackers I’ll be ready for them next time. I’m not going to get caught out like that twice – next time I’ll go all Charles Bronson on them!

The Work Has Begun!

I’ve been trying to get down the first scene of the new book for the past week and a half.  The blank page is always a little scary but I think I was thrown by starting something so completely new.  My characters were waiting in the wings ready to start the action and I knew where that action was going to take them but the opening sentences I’d tried up until today just didn’t set the scene I wanted to set.

So I fell back on that old reliable – a change of scene.  This morning I packed myself up and headed into town determined to banish the blank page and make a dent in Chapter 1.  I love writing at my desk at home, surrounded by all the the junk that I like to think are prompts when the muse is stubbornly absent.  I’ve had the desk since I was school and it’s always been a little oasis where I know I can work.  This summer when, for various reasons, I couldn’t work there to finish my last book I spent a week going absolutely distracted as I got used to my new surroundings.

But sometimes the old familiars just don’t work.  It’s nice to have the luxury of a writing space at home but as a journalist I’m used to working wherever there’s desk space if a deadline is looming.  With fiction I’m a little more picky, I have bolt holes that I know will always have a condusive atmosphere to get me over a hump, where I can sit undisturbed and write, preferably with a handy plug socket for when the laptop battery starts to die.

When I headed into town today though, none of the usual haunts appealed.  This new book is very different to the fantasy I’ve written up to now (that’s in terms of fiction…not journalism) The character who tells this story had his own demands and I ended up in Starbucks upstairs in BT2 on Grafton Street. As I said before, I tend to be a little bit method when I’m working on a new character.

Normally the clatter of the ladies-who-lunch and the students from Trinity yattering over their lattes would keep me at bay unless there was a particularly pressing deadline.  Today though it was what was needed and the words soon started filling the page.  By the time I’d finished my non-fat latte (well, when in Rome and all that) I had 1100 words of an opening.

It’s only a first draft and will probably go through numerous permutations before I’m happy with it but there is no longer a blank page and the story is suddenly a concrete thing, a real “work in progress”.

Which reminds me.  Having written two books using Word I decided to try out some dedicated writing software this time round.  I’ve been using Word all my working life and it’s second nature but negotiating your way around a100,000 word manuscript can be a bit cumbersome to say the least.  I’ve also been caught on numerous occasions when my computer crashed when I had been caught up in the flow of a scene and hadn’t saved.  Even with Autosave I’d usually lose the last paragraph at least.

I use Twitter a lot these days and it’s a great place to keep up with the more techie things that are going on in the world.  It hadn’t occured to me that software existed for writers – I’d heard of programmes that helped you plot a novel that seem to be marketed to all those desperate to write the next generic blockbuster but a programme that simply existed because writers aren’t necessarily best suited for the standard office word processing programmes.

I decided to investigate and found PageFour.  There are a lot of these programmes out there these days but I’m happy with this one.  You write directly in the programme and your work is saved as an Rich Text document.  This means that your formatting will show up in whatever programme you export to when it’s time to print or send it off (in my case this will be the old reliable, Word).  There are all kinds of handy little features like a search for words you over use and an easily accessible word count.  But the big thing I like about it is that whenever the programme shuts down, whether you’ve closed it or it or the computer have crashed, your work is intact.  When you open the programme again it’s there down to the last letter.

I’m using a trial version at the moment but I think I’ll be getting a license.  I don’t normally plug stuff here but I’m surprised at how handy the programme is so I thought I’d share.  I won’t be ditching Word, it’s what I use for journalism after all, but it sometimes pays to be open minded.

OK sales pitch over and I’m heading back to my chapter but it’s a good feeling to know that I’ve finally made a start and the new book is underway.  Now the real work begins.

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