The best $39.99 I have spent in China
Or maybe: the best $39.99 I have spent on a legitimate purchase, so I don't have to weigh this against the boxed set of all episodes, ever, of The Simpsons, plus all seasons of The Sopranos, plus some other stuff, which together went for something like that price at Even Better Than Movie World in Shanghai.*
And maybe: the best $39.99 not spent on alcoholic beverages, so I also don't have to weigh it against the mixed case of Rogue Dead Guy, Brooklyn IPA, Red Seal, and other American microbrews that I got in Shanghai, back when I still was trying to find good beer and hadn't yet embraced my fate of drinking Yanjing etc through the rest of my time in China. (By the way, shrewd business planning by the Chinese beer industry! These same local Yanjing-etc brewers are ideally positioned to withstand the current and alarming world-wide shortage of, gasp, hops. You can't run out of what you don't use.)
In any case: I'm glad to have spent just now $39.99 for a year's subscription to Personal VPN, from WiTopia.net. I tried it out of desperation and found that it solved two nagging and related problems.
One is the daily annoyance of dealing with the Great Firewall here in China. If you're not using a VPN and are relying on the plain-vanilla internet in most of China, you keep bumping into sites you can't read or open. Most of the time: the whole of English-language Wikipedia. Also: any blog hosted by Blogspot or Blogger, which turns out to be quite a few of them. Off and on, NPR audio streams, and YouTube. I call this an annoyance rather than an absolute barrier because, with time, you can usually find what you're looking for mirrored or hosted someplace else. But often you just don't bother.
A VPN (which, in effect, lets you tunnel beneath the Great Firewall and use the internet as if you were based somewhere in the outside world) solves this problem. So over the last year I've been using a variety of VPNs, including one from my company in America and another that a friend in a Chinese company has graciously let me use.**
But neither of them spared me a different problem: the huge SLOWNESS penalty that the Great Firewall imposes on the internet in China. This was an issue in Shanghai and a potential crisis after we moved to Beijing. Even when using my existing VPNs, in the last week I found that via the internet from my new apartment it could take two or three minutes for a typical web page from a site outside China to open. Outlook often just timed out when trying to collect my email.
For reasons I'm not sure of, the WiTopia VPN has had a miraculous effect, speeding up the same connection by what seems like a factor of ten. (Yes, I've run side-by-side tests, going to one site with the VPN turned off, then another a minute later with the VPN turned on.) It wasn't that my whole apartment building was working off a single 1200-baud dialup connection, as it seemed! It was just the Great Firewall, with the various filters and delay cycles it imposes on all transmissions. And of course this VPN also copes with the related Wikipedia/Blogger headaches.
You have to pay attention to get the thing installed on a PC -- making sure that files are installed into just the right directory, being careful in the "activation" process -- but if you follow the very clear instructions it works. End to end the whole installation process took me 10 minutes -- and when I bought, downloaded, and installed another copy on my wife's computer the next day, that took only half as long. The Mac installation routine is, surprise!, supposed to be quicker and easier.
If you're in China, this is the perfect Thanksgiving gift! And if you're not in China but spend a lot of time using public Wi-Fi sites on the road, it might be worth considering anyway as a security measure.
* When I told visitors to Shanghai about this, they always thought I was making it up, until I showed them. On Dagu Lu, a very nice restaurant-lined street in Shanghai, a pirate video store called "Movie World," in English, sits on one side of the street. Immediately across from it is a rival store whose English name is "Even Better Than Movie World." The power of suggestion being what it is, my wife and I always went into "Even Better," since it just seemed somehow... better.***
** Thank you,Yumin Liang!
*** Footnote on footnote! Yes, I know that buying illegal copies is Wrong. I will present my unified-field theory, or rationalization, on this subject some day.