Fake Computer Security Stories Don’t Help Anyone

I first saw this the weekly standard blog post stating NBC: All Visitors to Sochi Olympics Immediately Hacked after a retweet by John Siracusa regarding the ridiculous way the ‘computer security expert’ opened a MacBook Air box. The premiss of the story was exactly as per the headline: that all visitors to the Sochi Olympics are getting hacked as soon as their electronic devices connect to any Russian network.

I thought the story was hyperbole when I saw it, and didn’t end up watching it all the way through, but today noticed [Daring Fireball] highlighting a blog post by Robert Graham titled That NBC story 100% fraudulent. In part that post notes:

The story shows Richard Engel “getting hacked” while in a cafe in Russia. It is wrong in every salient detail.

  1. They aren’t in Sochi, but in Moscow, 1007 miles away.
  2. The “hack” happens because of the websites they visit (Olympic themed websites), not their physical location. The results would’ve been the same in America.
  3. The phone didn’t “get” hacked; Richard Engel initiated the download of a hostile Android app onto his phone.
  4. …and in order to download the Android app, Engel had to disable a lock that prevents such downloads – something few users do [update].

Stories like this don’t do anything to help anyone. Computer security is a real issue that is significantly contributed to by many computer users not having a basic understanding of how the technology they are using actually works. This story perpetuates the belief that there is nothing individuals can do to be safe, which in turn kills any motivation to learn.

Getting into eBook Production

I’ve been a fan of ebooks for a long time. In around 2000 I was in a teaching position at the police academy and wanted an electronic calendar to organise my teaching and meeting commitments. I bought myself a Palm m100 and subsequently discovered the Palm Reader app and online store[1]. It was amazing—being able to download contemporary books instantly, any time of the day, or day of the week[2]. I read for hours on that device, with never really a thought as to the monochrome screen or low resolution.

After the m100 I briefly flirted with a Compaq iPAQ running Microsoft’s Pocket PC operating system, and can’t really recall what happened to my ebook reading during this period. But the flirtation was brief and I ended up back with Palm, buying a Tungsten T and later a Treo 650. Throughout this period, and even after my purchase of an iPhone 3G in 2008[3], I continued to buy eBooks from Palm Reader, which later became eReader after its sale to Motricity, Inc[4].

In 2008 eReader was sold to Fictionwise, which in 2009 was itself sold to Barnes and Noble. And sometime after that the eReader app was discontinued, and ultimately ceased to function on contemporary versions of iOS.

Then in 2010 Apple released the iPad and iBooks, which became my new mainstream source of ebooks, although I’ve since bought the occasional Kindle book from Amazon to read in the Kindle app on my iPad when a book I’ve wanted hasn’t been available on the iBookstore.

But throughout this ebook history I never looked too hard into ebook production[5]. Even in 2012 when Apple announced iBooks author, I only had a brief play with the software. Which is strange as during, and ever since, my posting to the academy I’ve been involved in the production of training guides for police. Although perhaps not so strange given the use of mobile technology has taken a while to infiltrate the daily lives of most of my colleges[6].

In 2014 however, tablet devices are starting to be issued to every police officer in my agency, which has made me seriously consider ebook production.

I’ve long used my iPad to read PDF files[7] for work, but a major problem with PDF is it’s fixed page size nature. Because the text doesn’t reflow to fit the device, the reading experience has never been as good as the ebook readers I’ve been used to. And this was highlighted to me even more by the Acer Iconia Windows 8 tablets they’re now buying at work, which have 16:9 widescreen displays, making an A4 page very squished on the screen.

Having bought a couple of David Spark’s ebooks recently, I realised that ebook production was really something I out to be able to do. But unlike his books, I knew my audience was wider than the iPad—all those Acer Iconias being bought at work—so iBooks Author was not going to be an option for me.

Having also bought non-DRM ePub books from O’Reilly and Peachpit, I immediately realised this was the format I needed to use. The books would work in iBooks on iOS and also on other platforms and ereaders. So I set out to do a bit of research, learning about the ePub file structure, and settling on Sigil as a tool to help me produce them.

Most years I have to produce few new guides, although I occasionally take on new topics. Instead it is usually a matter of updating the existing guides I’ve previously prepared on the topics I teach, most of which are now in Apple’s Pages, as compared to Word in years gone by. So the first step was to update the Pages documents and produce PDFs as the default format.

Rather than export from Pages to ePub, I decided to spend a bit more time crafting the ePub documents to get them to look right. Previous tinkering with ePub exporting in 2012 left me unimpressed with Pages output. So instead, for the few guides I’ve done so far, I’ve copied the plain text contents into Byword to apply formatting and then exported to HTML. The HTML files are then imported into Sigil where I’ve added the CSS to style the document, added a cover image, and generated the table of contents.


I’ve been generally happy with the results, but realise I’ve got a fair bit more to learn about ePubs to get the most out of the format. I was also happy to discover KindleGen will convert the ePubs to Kindle format, with no real loss in fidelity, potentially expanding the chances my work will be read electronically, depending on the devices the students have and are most comfortable with (they don’t all have the Acer tablets yet, and some like me probably prefer other devices[8]).

The biggest letdown though has been that after producing my beautiful ePubs (and .mobis[9]) I’ve discovered the available reader software for Windows 8—and especially touch interface apps for tablet use—are generally awful. Given this is the tablet platform most likely to be used by my readers, I’m desperately searching for a decent reader, and would be keen to hear any suggestions. Although there are some okay Windows desktop apps, the real value comes from tablet use, and the only half decent touch app I’ve found so far is ebook.de, which unfortunately doesn’t support annotation.

I’ll keep looking, but in the mean time I’m intending to keep going with my ePub learning and production. With the most recent update to Pages I’m thinking of skipping the plain text export to Byword and instead extracting the XHTML files from a Pages ePub export to start construction of a new ePub using Sigil. This should save me some time and overcome Page’s formatting quirks. But being new to this, I’d be happy for any pointers on how to do things better.

Regardless, I’m excited by a world of learning where people can use ereaders like iBooks and Kindle, and their annotation tools, to help in gaining new skills and knowledge.

  1. Formerly Peanut Press.  ↩

  2. A similar experience with music didn’t happen until 2003 with the announcement of the iTunes Music Store, which didn’t actually make it to Australia until 2005.  ↩

  3. The original iPhone was never sold in Australia.  ↩

  4. Thankfully, and despite its Palm heritage, a version of eReader was made for the iPhone.  ↩

  5. I’m sure at some stage I tried converting Word documents to Palm Reader format, although not for anyone else’s use. And in 2012 I toyed with the idea, exported a guide prepared in Apple’s Pages to ePub, but the formatting was awful, and few of the students on the detective training course that year had ereaders to read it with—and even those that did didn’t seem that interested.  ↩

  6. In the early days the training materials were written in Microsoft Word, printed, and photocopied for each course participant I was presenting to. In later years the materials were exported to PDF for email transmission to the Academy, and perhaps publishing somewhere on our internal intranet, but still largely printed out for use by course participants.  ↩

  7. I’ve been using GoodReader for its connectivity (especially DropBox), reading experience, and annotation features. As much as people recommend PDFpen, in my view, it’s just not as good.  ↩

  8. The iPad and iBooks in my case.  ↩

  9. .mobi is the Kindle format produced by KindleGen.  ↩

Fixing iWork Corrupting Documents in iCloud

Back in July I wrote about recovering corrupted iWork documents from iCloud. Well, since then I've learnt two things:

  1. The contents of a corrupted document package can be copied from the Finder by navigating to the ~/Library/Mobile Documents/com~apple~Pages/Documents/ folder, right-clicking the corrupted document and selecting 'Show Package Contents' (i.e. this doesn't need to be done from the terminal, although deleting the corrupted document does); and
  2. How to address ongoing corruption issues.

Number one is self-explanatory, but in the case of number two, since my last post, every new document I created would become corrupted—although not immediately, which made the problem very hard to diagnose. Even more bizarrely, pre-existing documents that weren't corrupted continued to work without issue. However, after doing some searching online it appeared the cause was likely that the iCloud data store on one of my computers had been corrupted and was corrupting new documents when it synced. And the solution was to disable 'Documents & Data' syncing in the iCloud preferences, which deletes the local iCloud data store, and then re-enable it to recreate the data store (which also re-downloads the documents from iCloud, so nothing is actually lost through this process).

With my computers spread across different locations, and the apparent inconsistency of when documents would become corrupted, I wasn't sure which computer was the culprit, so ended up undertaking this process on each of them. However, at the end I was still encountering the corruption issue. So as a last ditch effort I disabled and re-enabled the setting on my iPad, which appears was the device causing the problem.

Since taking this action my iCloud syncing of iWork documents has been working without issue. So if you're having this same issue, this may be the solution for you as well.

New Optus Roaming Rates

Last month I wrote about Vodafone capping global roaming fees at $5 per day, well Optus has now[1] responded with their offering, which includes a $10 per day travel pack to ‘Zone 1’[2] countries, offering unlimited text, unlimited talk and 30MB of data per day. The packs will be available to post-paid customers from November 2013, and in a tweet response to a question I asked, Optus advised the new travel pack will replace the existing data travel passes, which offered:

Expiry 1 Day 3 Days 5 Days
Price/Pass $10 $27 $40
Included Data Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited

Although the above were only available on selected networks in China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, USA and the United Kingdom.

Outside of the new travel pack, Optus will charge cheaper—but not cheap—flat rates of:

Zone 1 Zone 2
Text 50c / text $1 / text
Talk $1 / min $2 / min
Data 50c / MB $1 / MB

I’m optimistic about the new $10 travel pack, and although 30MB a day doesn’t sound much, it’s close to a 1GB plan when stretched out over a month. I just wish they could have brought the price down a little more, and it still isn’t clear what they mean by unlimited text and unlimited talk. Does this include unlimited calls within the country? Back home to Australia? Or unlimited calls anywhere? Not that I actually feel any great need to call when I’m travelling. My preference would have been for a more generous data allowance.

  1. Well, three weeks ago—I’m a little bit behind with my blog posting.  ↩

  2. Includes, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, Europe, UK, USA, Canada and Asia. Excluded from this deal are ‘Zone 2’ countries, which include Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.  ↩

Report Vodafone to cap global roaming fees at $5 a day

Last month I wrote about some positive trends in mobile roaming costs (and on the lacklustre Australian Government action in this area). Well, in follow-up, Lucy Carroll had a story in on the Sydney Morning Herald website yesterday spruiking Vodafone's plan to cap global roaming fees at $5 per day in certain countries:

Vodafone will eliminate widespread ''bill shock'' by capping global roaming fees at $5 per day for customers travelling overseas.

From August, customers visiting the US, Britain and New Zealand will be able to use their existing plans to make calls, send text messages and browse the web while travelling.

$5 a day still sounds excessive, but it's still a positive trend, if true. If nothing else it generates some competitive pressure on competitors to match or beat the charges, which may ultimately get mobile roaming costs to a sensible level.

Towards the bottom of the article there was also a comment from Optus, although the context in which it was made seems a little unclear:

Optus' consumer business division head, Vicki Brady said: ''We welcome today's announcement on the simplification for global roaming in selected countries. Optus is working towards a more comprehensive international roaming solution in the coming months.''

But again, I'm hoping this news indicates a positive shift to more sensible pricing. Definitely something to watch.

Update: See this post for details of the Optus offer

Four Russians and a Ukranian charged with 160 million credit card number theft

Russians Vladimir Drinkman, Aleksandr Kalinin, Roman Kotov and Mikhail Rytikov and Ukranian Dmitriy Smilianets stand accused of participating in breaches at a range of major businesses between 2005 and 2012, harvesting over 160 million sets of personal data including credit card numbers.

It amazes me that despite the scale at which online crime is committed, it still isn't considered mainstream in the way that burglaries and robberies are—which in turn impacts the scale and quality of the response from governments (although that lack of appreciation isn't reflected in this case).