Why 2012 was the best year ever – and how 2013 can be even better

December 26, 2012 | Leave a comment

Sunset silhouetteThe Spectator explains why 2012 was the best year in the history of the world:

It may not feel like it, but 2012 has been the greatest year in the history of the world. That sounds like an extravagant claim, but it is borne out by evidence. Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.

This is a lovely piece of news to be greeted with at the end of the year. I disagree with the article in some ways – for example, it lauds fracking as delivering an era of energy abundance – but the message is one that’s easy to get behind. Our modern age is bringing about unprecedented human prosperity through connectedness and technology. One of the hallmarks of the Internet age is that national identity is being slowly replaced by an international identity – more and more, individuals are forming strong bonds with people in other nations, who they may never meet in person. It’s got a long way to go, but nationalism is slowly becoming extinct.

Wonderful! So, isn’t it time we dealt with the elephant in the room?

The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 54% higher than the 1990 baseline. That means it’s going to be almost impossible to limit global warming to the 2°C limit that was set just three years ago – which in itself wasn’t enough to prevent environmental disaster. That disaster isn’t abstract, and should worry you even if you don’t care about the environment itself: it translates directly to the death of at least 100 million people and severe economic troubles by 2030. Climate change touches everything, and again, even if you’re a money-orientated Randian who couldn’t give a jot about the rest of us, it will make you poorer. That should be enough to make even the staunchest conservatives sit up and take notice.

Of course, there are people who don’t believe in climate change at all, but the arguments against don’t hold water scientifically. (That last linked page is so good, so full of fact-filled resources, that I’ll link to it again. Go take a look.) There are fatuous religious arguments from the Christian right, which I’m not sure even adhere to their own internal logic. In general, the arguments against rip climate change into the realm of politics, when it stands pretty firmly in the realm of scientific fact.

So what can we do about it? Here, then, is how technologists like us can make 2013 even better than the year gone by, both for our own individual prosperity and for everyone’s. We can continue to make the world a more peaceful and prosperous place in the short term by doing all the things we already do – and additionally work towards making it a sustainable peace and prosperity, in all senses of that word. We should all be striving to minimize resource conflicts, and to make all of our communities sustainable in their own right without polluting anyone else’s – while ensuring that we don’t lose any of the wonderful things the last hundred years has brought human society. Global travel, the Internet, widely-accessible personal computing, medical advances – all of these things need to be here to stay (and should have the freedom to evolve and progress).

I strongly believe that while neither technology nor individual action can bring about this change by themselves, together they have a chance. I’m not alone: Google, for example, has invested nearly a billion dollars in clean energy, and green investors (when they have domain expertise) are thriving. VCs are warming up to energy efficiency platforms, and of course, Tesla Motors became cashflow positive this year, raising further interest in the space.

Customer interest in green technology is already increasing, due to high fuel prices and better general awareness. I think 2013 could be the year that investor interest in green technology takes off, and correspondingly, I think we’ll see a slew of new companies whose interests are aligned with their customers’, not just in the short term, but with a very long term view as well. That’s a great thing for the startup ecosystem, it’s a great thing for web customers, and it’s a great thing for every single person on the planet.

Who to host with (domain names, web space, SSL, DNS)

December 4, 2012 | 6 comments

I’m sometimes asked who I recommend buying web infrastructure from. Here’s my list based on my personal experience:

Domains | SSL | DNS | Shared hosting | Dedicated hosting | Transactional email | Virtual servers

Domain names: Namecheap

Almost all of my domains are hosted with Namecheap. They’re simple, have a super-fast web interface, a straightforward API, and have never messed me around. Most importantly, they’re cheap, so I never have to regret a purchase. I transferred my domains from GoDaddy by hooking them up to third-party nameservers (see below) before initiating the move. It took around 24 hours.
NB: I get a cut if you buy a domain from the link above. If you’d prefer to avoid this, here’s a clean link.

SSL certificates: CheapSSLs

A lot of people use GoDaddy for this, but their certificate chains make server configuration annoying, and there are about a million and one reasons to avoid buying from them anyway. Meanwhile, CheapSSLs resell certificates from a bunch of providers, including RapidSSL, for significantly less. I tend to use wildcard certificates, which are expensive (although still half the price of anyone else), but a normal cert will set you back around $7.99.

DNS: Amazon Route 53

No complaints: Route 53 just works, including wildcards and complex domain rules. And it costs 50 cents per month, plus 50 cents per million queries. That’s pennies, and you get the benefit of Amazon’s distributed infrastructure and redundant data centers. It’s a good idea to host your DNS with a different provider to your domain names, and I haven’t looked back since switching earlier this year. (I had been using Namecheap’s bundled DNS, which is also pretty good, but again: keep your domain names and nameservers apart.)

Shared web space: Pair

My first ever .com website used Pair Networks, over a decade ago, and I’ve been recommending them ever since. Their support is responsive, and they sell perfectly good shared plans that fit most budgets. It’s worth noting, however, that although I’ve heard great things from the people I’ve recommended them to, I haven’t used a shared hosting plan personally since at least 2002. It’s worth thinking about virtual servers, too.

Dedicated server hosting: SoftLayer

This blog runs on a dedicated SoftLayer server. They’re prompt, the connectivity is great and the prices are excellent. An alternative is Rackspace, who are genuinely great, but also comparatively very expensive. I’ve also had pretty good experiences with ServerBeach, who hosted YouTube when they started. Finally, I’ve had poor experiences with Codero.

Transactional email: Postmark

I’ve learned the hard way that using default out-of-the-box SMTP to send email on rented servers, particularly on shared hosting, often results in a very high level of spam-flagged messages. Postmark deals with all of the nuanced email configuration for you, and just works, although if you’re using it for a reasonably successful service you’ll need to find a cheaper solution. (I moved to Amazon SES, which is a little trickier to hook up, but does the job nicely, and at a very low cost.) Postmark’s other genius feature: an inbound email API, which pings you messages in a JSON string, with attachments broken out and properly encoded. Brilliant.

Virtual servers: the jury’s out

Virtual servers are very often not cheaper than dedicated ones if you leave them running all the time (unless you’re running a very, very small instance). Nonetheless, it’s handy to be able to spin up or clone a server near-instantaneously. The leader is Amazon EC2, which is the service I’ve mostly used, but a lot of the coders I know swear by Linode (which I need to spend more time with before I can recommend it). AppFog and Heroku are versions of the virtual server experience that extract away a lot of the configuration and administration, but, frankly, I don’t trust them. I like to be able to get down and dirty with a server if I need to.

Picking a great password

December 2, 2012 | 5 comments

I was trying to find a simple, brief guide to picking great passwords, and came up short. Hopefully this simple advice is useful:

  1. Don’t pick a password; pick a pass phrase.
  2. Include letters of both cases, numbers, and punctuation characters. For bonus points, use “special” characters like é and î.
  3. Don’t pick something you’ll have to write down to remember. Never write down a password.
  4. Try not to use the same password for multiple sites.

Some examples of passwords I might use (you’ll have to think of new ones; each line is a single password):

  • “B0w T!es ar€ Coo7.”
  • ‘Th3re 4re W0rlds 0ut there where the Sky 1s burn1ng, 4nd th3 S3a’s 4sleep, 4nd th3 R1vers dr3am.’
  • “!€xtermin8″ “D3le7e!” “Dok-torr”

Letter substitutions like I’ve done above are not secure for single word passwords. Don’t rely on them! And they’re kind of fiddly anyway, so if the punctuation in the phrases above is too much, you could even simplify them:

  • “Bow Ties are Cool!!”
  • ‘There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream.’
  • “Exterminate!” ‘Delete!’ “Dok-torr”

And if you really, really must record your passwords somewhere, the only solution I recommend is 1password. But I’d recommend not doing it.