How to make WordPress more secure


“This page is temporarily unavailable”. These dreaded words were back! This was the fourth time my site has gone down and I was mad.

But it was mostly my fault.

I thought all I needed to do when I got my first self-hosted blog was to write the content and leave it up.


WordPress is one of the most popular CMS (Content Management System) in the world. It’s easy to use, powerful and free. But as a result, it’s a favourite target for hackers.

Due to my lazybones attitude towards website/wordpress maintenance, this site was down for nearly four days thanks to a malware infection (hah, I didn’t even know that could happen!). After deleting hundred over files, an upgrade and much wrangling with my host’s support team, it is finally back.

You don’t realise how important WordPress security is until you lose it.

Don’t go through what I did. Here are five things you can do to make your WordPress site more secure.

1. Update, update, update, update!

And I’m not just talking about WordPress. This includes plugins and themes – even those you do not use! Because old versions often have security holes that hackers and malwares can slip through.
Make sure your hosting package has security features
Mine didn’t, and I wasn’t aware of that. If a package comes with functions such as Sitelock, it scans your site for threats regularly and some may even fix it for you automatically. Don’t do without this feature. If a hosting package doesn’t have it, look elsewhere. Trust me, you’ll regret it if you don’t!

2. Don’t open suspicious e-mails and avoid unsafe websites

They can hop over to your website.

3. Use strong passwords

Use alphanumeric passwords, preferably with unique characters such as $,! or *. Don’t use obvious passwords like your name or birthday. Here is Norton’s useful password generator.

4. Don’t use admin as your log in

WordPress generates this for you. Hackers aim for that. Delete the admin user name and create one that is difficult to guess. No log ins that mirror your real name or the name you use on the blog. For example: byt76

5. Install WordPress security plugins

Wordfence, WP Security Scan and Secure WordPress are some of the plugins available out there.

6. Monitor, monitor, monitor!

Do this weekly. Daily if you must. You can put out the fire before it becomes an inferno. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to back up!

Photo by Linder6589

An (old) interview with Carol Berg

If you’ve noticed, my site had been flooded with thousands upon thousands of spam comments. Rather than laboriously deleting all 20,000 of them, I’ve decided to republish the posts that were the worst culprits.
Carol Berg‘s latest book The Daemon Prism, the third book in The Novels of the Collegia Magica series, is finally out!

To commemorate that, here’s the transcript of an interview I did with her in 2010. (The article that came out of it was World Weaver, which was published in The Star on May 30, 2010.)

When did you first start writing?
I started late, about halfway through my 17-year software engineering career and at a time my children were needing less of my time. A friend suggested we start writing a series of e-mail letters “in character” so she could practice her writing. It sounded fun, not near so hard as planning and writing a whole story, which I had always imagined next to impossible. When I sat down to write the first letter, I came up with twenty pages. I was astonished, and I was hooked.

What kind of stories interest you most?
Complex, layered stories about interesting people caught up in dramatic adventures. I want to like the protagonist – eventually if not at first. And I want a satisfying ending, not artificially happily ever after, but not ambiguous or unrelentingly grim.

What does your family think about your career?
My husband has been totally supportive throughout it all. He is thrilled that I’ve discovered work I’m passionate about. Writing is not just “a job.” My sons are also enthusiastic supporters. When my youngest son Andrew was in seventh and eighth grade, and I was still writing for myself, he would come in and have me read my work to him. He kept coming back for more, which was a great encouragement. He still likes to read my work before it gets printed.

Of course, my eldest son, a musician, has told me he thinks my books need more pictures. I threw a book at him.

What spurred you to quit your full time job at HP to write full-time? was there a particular event?
Actually yes. In 2002, my employer Hewlett-Packard Co. bought Compaq Computer. One of the first things they did after the merger was offer to pay those who had been with the company more than fifteen years to leave. I felt as if it was an IQ test which I passed.

How was the transition like?
Very easy. I was already working at engineering only three days a week and writing for the other four. I just dropped that old day-job stuff.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Actually, I never believed I could write a book. I have always been an avid reader of many genres, fantasy and science fiction, mystery, spy thrillers, classics, you name it. But the idea of figuring out a complicated plot, making characters come to life, foreshadowing events so that a reader would say, “Ah-ha!” just seemed horribly difficult. For many, many years, I was content to read, and channel my creative efforts into my work as a software engineer and my family.

Continue reading

Homeless in Melbourne

Homeless in Boston by juliaf

She was sleeping at the corner of Spencer Street and Flinders Street, her back to the wall of the 7-11. She had curled up in a fetal position under her bright blue sleeping bag. Beside her was a red suitcase. It looked new.

I could see the tear tracks on her pale cheeks. The sign she had with her was nearly covered by her sleeping bag, but I could read the message. In fact, I don’t think I’d be able to forget what she wrote on that piece of cardboard:

“Help. I’m 21-years-old and pregnant. I need $150 to sleep somewhere safe tonight.”

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Should you leave your faith out of your personal brand?

Cross and bibleI’ve been thinking about my personal brand lately: the “me” I want to project to the world. The reputation I want to build online.

Should I offer a safe, sanitised version of myself? Or should I tell people: This is who I am, take it or leave it?

In Malaysia, where a wrong word in any medium on social media could result in harsh punishment from the powers that be (whether it be from our bosses or from the government), Malaysians have learned to censor ourselves.

I’ve always believed that this website, which bears my professional name, will only showcase my portfolio and contain useful content to showcase my expertise – as many personal branding/blog gurus will tell you. One’s faith or spirituality – a lava-hot button topic in Malaysia – should be left out, shut in an attic somewhere.  

But I’m starting to think that this is the wrong approach. I think weaving your spirituality or faith in your personal brand could be beneficial because:

1. Your faith in God is a big part of how you make decisions, live and work. Removing that significant part of you life from your personal brand would be doing your audience a disservice. At worst, it is dishonest.

2. Talking about your faith in a constructive, non-judgemental and affirming manner could demonstrate your integrity and honesty to potential clients, employers and customers.

3. Talking about your faith makes you vulnerable, yes, but it also makes you more interesting.

There are many writers and entrepreneurs who wear their faiths on their sleeves: Jeff Goins, Michael Hyatt, Mike Duran and Donald Miller. They weave their faith and worldview into their posts about productivity, entrepreneurship and creativity without being over bearing.

What do you think? Should you leave faith out of personal branding? Share your thoughts on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.
Image by ba1969.

What is content strategy? 5 definitions

That’s the million dollar question.

If I were to tell someone in Malaysia that I am content strategist, I’d be met with a blank look. I can’t blame them. Content Strategy is a new and exciting field, so not many know that it even exists. It’s also a field whose practitioners speak in jargon-ese. Ux. Governance. Content Audit. Machine Translation. Huh? Speak English!

Is there any wonder that there’s a website dedicated to the Language of Content Strategy?

Here are five definitions:

1. Planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.Kristina Halvorson, founder of Brain Traffic, and author of Content Strategy for the Web.

2. Content strategy refers to the planning, development, and management of content—written or in other media.   – Wikipedia

3. I’m currently enrolled in Northwestern University’s Content Strategy MOOC, and professor John Lavine says that content strategy helps a target audience to be “better informed and smarter”. it also tells people “what they want and need to know in ways that are credible trustworthy and transparent.”

4. Here’s my favourite definition, because it’s nice and simple:

5. Here’s my definition: Content strategy is
a) designing the right content for the right audience
b) to manage the creation of said content in an efficient and productive manner
c) to deliver the content in a medium that will be most receptive and accessible to the target audience

Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn

Want to quit your job? Take a strengths test first

quit your job

So, you hate your job. Your career is going nowhere. You sit in your cubicle and think: “There’s got to be more to life than this!”

I was there. And I thought the solution to my career woes was to switch careers. And I thought I had a tried and tested method to do so.

When I was a teenager, like a million other teens, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I “grew up”. So, I tried to discover that by taking jobs in various industries I was interested in. I started working when I was 16. By the time I was 20, I had already worked as a customer service person, telemarketer, accounts clerk, copywriter and freelance journalist.  

Copywriting and journalism was a tie, but in the end I chose journalism because I liked the idea of learning and experiencing new things every day.

I decided to follow the same method when I decided to switch careers. I chose what I thought was a great path for me, but two years into the experiment I had to conclude that this career path was not for me.

Trust me, the trial and error method is expensive and time consuming.

There’s a better way: Find out what your strengths are and choose a career path based on that. Translation: Do what you’re good at!

The VIA survey

The free VIA survey was developed by Dr. Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness and Flourish, and Dr. Christopher Peterson, author of A Primer in Positive Psychology. It aims to help you discover your character strengths.

My top 5 Character strengths are:

Spirituality: You have strong and coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe. You know where you fit in the larger scheme. Your beliefs shape your actions and are a source of comfort to you.

Love Of Learning: You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own. You have always loved school, reading, and museums-anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.

Social Intelligence: You are aware of the motives and feelings of other people. You know what to do to fit in to different social situations, and you know what to do to put others at ease.

Humor: You like to laugh and tease. Bringing smiles to other people is important to you. You try to see the light side of all situations.

Leadership: You excel at the tasks of leadership: encouraging a group to get things done and preserving harmony within the group by making everyone feel included. You do a good job organizing activities and seeing that they happen.

Strengthsfinder 2.0

Tim Rath of Strengthsfinders 2.0 fame offers a paid one. I bought the e-book, and was e-mailed a special access code. It took me nearly half an hour to complete the Clifton Strengthsfinder but it was worth it.

My results:

Learner: People who are especially talented in the Learner theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.

Communication: People who are especially talented in the Communication theme generally find it easy to put their thoughts into words. They are good conversationalists and presenters.

Restorative: People who are especially talented in the Restorative theme are adept at dealing with problems. They are good at figuring out what is wrong and resolving it.

Empathy: People who are especially talented in the Empathy theme can sense the feelings of other people by imagining themselves in others’ lives or others’ situations.

Adaptability: People who are especially talented in the Adaptability theme prefer to “go with the flow.” They tend to be “now” people who take things as they come and discover the future one day at a time.

Interestingly, the VIA test and Strengthsfinder test has almost the same results. It’s no wonder why journalism was such a good fit for me. Because “Learning” is my primary strength, I loved absorbing massive amounts of information on new topics and thanks to my “Communications” strength, I could translate what I learned into an easy-to-digest, pleasing format. A match made in heaven!

Take action

Once you’ve completed the tests ask yourself these questions:

  • Does my current job allow me to use my strengths?
  • If no, is there a way to allow me to do so? Perhaps you can transfer to another department or create a part-time business to fulfil that need?
  • If you’re in a role that you think doesn’t allow you to use your strengths, what job do you think fit you better?
  • What is the strategy you’d use to get that dream job?
Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, who wrote the bestselling Now, Discover Your Strengths, believe than in order to be happy at you job and to get ahead, you’d have to focus on your strengths, not improve on your weaknesses.
It makes sense – why swim against the tide when you can run?
Photo by kkiser.

E-books: A selection of my articles

Thank you, Star Trek, for inspiring e-book inventors!

I’ve been waiting for e-book technology to hit the bookstores since I spied Star Trek characters reading off hand-held tablets in the 1980s. And when it finally arrived at the dawn of the 21st century, sci-fi style, I was psyched. But Malaysia did not embrace the technology immediately. I had to visit the United States to get my hands on my first e-book reader: A Sony Reader. It cost me about a thousand ringgit (ouch ouch ouch) but it was worth every penny.

Naturally, as a journalist, I wrote extensively about it.

I began with a major feature article about e-books, which I actually won an in-house award for:

Then came my column about e-books, Reading Revolution, which began life as an exclusive publication for the iPad, and then moved to its online home at The Star.

I had a lot of fun meeting international e-book authors such as Ryk Brown, waded into the murky depths of the ebook porngate, and how fanfiction is now made respectable, thanks to Amazon’s Kindle Worlds. Ebooks has made the once-stagnant publishing world into an exciting and often volatile field, and readers, writers and publishers are all being tossed around in the constant change.

But for a journalist, it’s catnip.

Malaysia’s not fully in the game yet, but I see an explosion in the future. And the Malaysian publishing industry better be ready for it.

MFA in Creative Writing : How to design your own

I’m currently a student at Tabor College’s Creative Writing programme. I’ve found it interesting and fascinating to be studying a subject that I’m passionate about and to be surrounded by people in love with the same subject and to be mentored by wonderful writers. However, although I found my MFA experience enriching, I felt that it wasn’t a whole meal, so to speak. I needed vitamin supplementation.

That’s not to say that it sucked. The programme made me go where I wouldn’t naturally go (writing young adult, for one) and forced me to produce on demand. I will definitely complete the programme (because I’m a damn completist and I see value in the programme) but am currently supplementing it with a programme I’ve designed for myself.

Step 1: Finding the gaps in my knowledge

In order to build my personal Creative writing MFA curriculum, I had to know what I needed to learn. I discovered that while I have completed two novels and several novellas, I did not know:

My writing process

I was a “throw something at the wall and hope it’ll stick” kind of writer. I was a pantser, or so I thought. What really happened was that I did a lot of outlining in my head, which is why there were huge gaps in time between writing chapters. It was time-consuming and not very reliable, and worse, I often wrote stories that had no endings. What’s my best time to write? Where do I write best? What motivates me to write? What inspires me? These are some of the questions I had to ask myself.

How to write on schedule or at a reliable pace.

I was superb at meeting deadlines as a journalist. But as a fiction writer, my readers often had to wait too long for new chapters to appear. (I started posting my stories chapter by chapter online since 2000.) I pissed off a few readers when I abandoned stories too! If you want to be a pro, this ain’t the way to behave.

I didn’t know how to conceptualise stories

I started out writing fanfic, where the conceptualising was already done for me. This meant that while I was good at plotting, writing distinctive characters, good dialogue and writing in a way that left readers wanting more, I didn’t know how to come up with characters or to build a world. When I started learning this particular skill, I was blown away by the amount of work involved. I had a lot to learn. A LOT.

I didn’t know how to market myself or my stories

Unfortunately, if you want to make it as an indie writer, you need to do some kind of marketing. It’s not my favourite subject, and I’m a grub worm in the evolution cycle, but I’m heading to the pupae stage at least.

The psychology of the writer

When I started the journey to really dig deep into writing fiction, I was amazed (and maybe a even a little alarmed) that my state of mind played such an important role in my writing. What you tell yourself is so important. Who you listen to is also vital. Lawd, even how you treat your body is of importance. The last three years has been like a drawn-out therapy session, but I’ve learned so much about myself in the process.

The indie digital writer’s ebook production

I had to learn how to format my e-book, design covers and upload my ebook to ebook distributors such as Amazon and Smashwords. I also learned to source for cover artists, editors and beta readers.

Once you’ve discovered the gaps in your knowledge, the next step is to find study materials or courses to help you fill that gap.

Picture by Robinsonma.

Lessons from “Begin Again” (and yes, it’s also a review)

Kiera Knightley and Mark Ruffalo in “Begin Again”, an awesome movie about second chances and the joy of creating with your entire soul.

Mark Ruffalo. He was the primary reason why I watched this movie. His characters often hold a cauldron of pain inside their seemingly strong/irreverent facade and the man has a way of making you want to hug him from the other side of the screen. (And to me, his version of The Hulk is the best.) What can I say? I love angsty men.

Dan is a classic Ruffalo character. At the beginning of the movie, we see how he’s at the wrong end of the corporate ladder; he’s about to be fired from the recording label he started and had suffered through seven years of mental instability, alcoholism and the worst case of marriage blahs ever. And yeah, his daughter thinks he is a loser.

When he meets Gretta (Knightley), he was minutes away from jumping off a subway platform. Then Gretta reluctantly sings on stage … he pays attention … and finds a reason to hang on.

He sees in Gretta not just fresh new talent but a reason to reignite his love for creativity. For Gretta, who just got majorly screwed (not in the romantic kind of way) by her rock star boyfriend Dave, Dan gives her the reason to live a life beyond being the girlfriend of Dave and to have the courage to share her immense talent with the world.

Critics could accuse Begin Again for being clichéd. “Yeah, yeah. I can see the ending a mile away. Dan finds a reason for living, he pieces his life together and so does Gretta.” After all, the tagline of the movie is, “Can a song save a life?” How obvious can you get?

But the movie doesn’t end the way you’d expect. In fact, I’d be terribly disappointed if it did. But despite that, the movie’s ending is both satisfying and, if I may, profound. It reinforces the message that we should all create from our souls.

For creatives like me, Begin Again speaks to my heart so deeply that I was dying to stand up and shout, “Hell, yeah!” It says, Dare to

  • … suck.
  • … create even if you think you suck.
  • … create even if people say you suck.
  • … create even if you don’t get a seal of approval from the “people who matter”.
  • … say no to the “people who matter”.
  • … create even if you don’t have the best equipment …
  • … or the best talent.
  • … create art that don’t smell of money.
  • … be true to yourself.
  • … create for the joy of creating.
  • … never compromise your integrity.
  • … take control of your art and share your passion.

On top of that, it has a killer soundtrack (Kiera Knightley sings in this one, and she ain’t bad at all). I leave you with the lovely Kiera Knightley singing my favourite song in the movie. The Adam Levine version is as good, but I love her purer version 😉

Reading and Writing Young Adult

One of my biggest dreams is to earn a Masters in Creative Writing. I know getting one doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be a better writer but I’ve always wanted to rub shoulders with fellow writers and soak in a learning environment where people are encouraged to create and explore.

So, when I discovered Tabor College‘s Creative Writing course, I was psyched. I scanned the curriculum and deemed it a very practical (they teach you to write, hey!) and non-hoity-toity. (I avoid snobbish Creative Writing courses that poo-poo genre fiction and demand that you write book-length exegesis about literary works that put you to sleep.)

However, when I discovered that the first course available was “Writing Young Adult fiction”, I thought, maybe I should wait for another subject to come by.

Young Adult is my least favourite genre. Years of Twilight exposure did not endear me to it, self-absorbed teens irritate the frak out of me and I did not have the tiniest desire to write in the genre. I have always found it puzzling that some adults read YA; I felt that it’s for kids and felt that I’ve outgrown the genre.

I thought back to my unconventional reading childhood. I didn’t really grow up reading the usual suspects: Enid Blyton, Dr Seuss or what not. My community library had an unusual collection of books for kids, and my first book from the library was about Mathematics. I was totally in love with it. I wish that translated into amazing mathematical genius on my part, but it didn’t. But it sure instilled the love of reading in me for some bizarre reason.

By the time I was 12, I’ve devoured non-fiction biographies of famous writers and scientists, read the works of Shakespeare (in comic form, less you’re too awed and impressed), was introduced to the wonders of Asterix and Obelix and books about astronomy. I suppose you can say in terms of the stuff I read, I grew up too fast 😉

I was only introduced to young adult works after I was 13, and by then I found them rather childish. Some did hold my interest – The Chalet school series (like, who didn’t want to study in a chalet up in the hills of Switzerland??), the Hardy Boys (I had a crush on them boys), Sweet Valley High (only because I wanted Jessica Wakefield to someday pay for her bitchy ways) and a horror series for YA called Dark Forces (I still love them and miss them and wish they were on Kindle). But mostly I read adult books. Uhm, like Danielle Steel (apparently, I started quite a craze in school without even knowing about it), Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and lots of Stephen King.

I digress.

In the end, what convinced me to enrol in the subject was a) the lecturer is well-known YA author Rosanne Hawke b) because I hated YA. What better way to learn something new than to step out of my comfort zone of science fiction and fantasy? Rosanne’s not going to preach to the converted, that’s for sure!

Rosanne promised me that she’d change my mind about YA by the end of the semester. I had serious doubts. Half a semester passed and I found myself plodding through the selected novels and those that I’ve come across from the library. I was no closer to liking YA at all. I had a “meh” reaction to most of the novels. This is not good.

Frustrated, I shared my “despair” with the class.They gave me an idea: Perhaps you’re not reading the right genre? Then I realised something: Young Adult is an umbrella genre with different kinds of genres beneath it. What I’ve been reading was literary YA, or most notably – YA fiction set firmly in reality.

I had to do a facepalm then because I have always shied away from realistic fiction. There’s always some element of fantastic in my stories – the ones I read and write. I think it’s because stories are a way for me to escape, and even if I want to process real issues, I’d like to explore them in a world removed from mine. After a tough day at work I’d have enough of the real world, so it made sense to escape into something different. My brain just shuts down if it’s not speculative fiction.

Fuelled by the suggestions, I visited Goodreads for suggestions and found Neal Shusterman’s Unwind, a sci-fi, dystopian YA.

Well, I was lucky. Shusterman’s Unwind had a very compelling premise: What if unwanted teens are sent of to organ-harvesting farms by their parents? Better, it was well-written and wonderfully plotted. And I ended up reading the novel in a few hours. Now, this is a marked improvement. Before, I had to schedule my reading by chapters per day for the assigned readings. It felt like work rather than pleasure.

Well, it looks like there’s some hope for me after all.

I am starting to think that my attitude towards YA came about because I prejudged the genre. Perhaps if I worked on removing this judgement, I’d be more open to literary YA or YA set outside my comfort zone genre. Until then, I’ll just explore the sci-fi/fantasy YA out there 😉