From December 2009

A Surprise Christmas

Amsterdam Dawn

Having spent Christmas 2008 in China it seemed a bit of a pity to miss out on the festivities for a second year running so I decided to make a last-minute surprise visit home without telling anyone I was coming.

Warmth

After nearly 20 hours of travelling I flew into Norwich via Amsterdam from Hong Kong on the morning of Christmas Eve and turned up on my parents doorstep shortly before midday. To say people were surprised would be an understatement (luckily none of my family have heart conditions!).

Tree + Sarah

It felt rather weird to be thrust directly into the Christmas spirit without the usual months of buildup which usually proceed it in the UK. It was however much nicer to experience it in person rather than through a Skype webcam session as was last year (however novel it may have been).

Christmas Turkey

Of course food is a big part of Christmas and the traditional turkey is a must. While looking like a big chicken the taste is markedly stronger and more flavourful. As ever my mum excelled herself – the 8,000 mile trip was almost worth it just for this! I often wonder why people only eat turkey once a year…

Marsh View

Coming from the relatively warm south of China to the freezing south-east of the UK was a bit of a shock to the system but being a hardy Brit my body soon adjusted and a few nice walks outside in near zero degree conditions were had. Although there was a bit of snow when I first arrived most of it had thawed after a couple of days.

Windswept

I have a terrible memory but was happy to find that after nearly a year of not driving that the old skills hadn’t disappeared. I always find it’s weird how your brain is able to learn and retain certain complex things as if they were second nature but for other simpler things it’s near impossible (for me anyway).

Monopoly

I’ll be heading back to China on January 4th so get to enjoy jet lag twice in so many weeks. Hopefully someone will invent a teleportation device before too long!

Tunnel Through the GFW with 12vpn

After the Beijing 2008 Olympics most people anticipated that internet censorship in China would ease but contrary to expectations the situation continues to get worse with more sites being blocked by the week (see whatblocked.com for the latest). Traditionally people bypassed the blocks using anonymous proxies and other free services but many of these have also been barred by the government and those which remain are usually so overwhelmed that service is patchy and slow at best. The best solution for foreigners in China and anyone wanting to access sites such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook these days is to get a personal VPN account using one of the commercial services available.

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, basically allows you to create a secure tunnel through your existing internet connection to a server in another country (usually Europe or America) where you can then enjoy complete freedom to surf as you would anywhere else. The technology is exactly the same as corporations use to allow their employees to work from home but is now available for personal use. Whilst it isn’t free they’re usually a lot more reliable and faster than the alternatives.

I recently got the opportunity to try a relative newcomer to the area called 12vpn (having also previously reviewed Witopia). Founded in 2008 by a group of expats in Asia who began by offering IT services to businesses, Anuson Limited opened up their VPN solution to end-users earlier this year.

Service Offering

They offer two basic packages for individuals – “Lite” ($30/year) and “Personal” ($70/year) with the only real difference being that the former has a bandwidth cap 10gb per month. Both provide multiple protocols for accessing the service (OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP, IPSec, IKEv2 and Cisco) meaning that you can use it on virtually any device. I tested it on a Windows 7 laptop, a MacBook Pro running Snow Leopard, my iPhone (first generation) and iPad (running iOS 4.2).

Setup

First impressions were good – sign-up is easy with a variety of payment options including PayPal and a 7-day money back guarantee if you’re not satisfied. Once this is complete you’re provided with setup instructions and emailed security certificates which allow you to connect to the service. The configuration steps are extremely simple with an automated installer being provided for your platform of choice (Windows/Mac…). As this is a true VPN service (not a proxy) all your applications will work without any need to change anything – you just hit connect and away you go.

For Mac users you’ll get a free license for Viscosity which offers a nicer user experience over the open source Tunnelblick alternative (the client used to connect to the VPN service).

Performance

The first thing you’ll notice once your connected with 12vpn is that you can now access to all your favourite sites again. The second thing is the big speed improvement for international sites. Whilst your download/upload speed is still limited to your physical connection things feel a lot quicker since the route the traffic is taking is far more direct and stable. In my tests YouTube videos streamed with minimal buffering time and downloading large files worked without any issues. In comparison to Witopia there isn’t any noticeable speed difference although 12vpn felt faster to connect but this isn’t something I can verify.

The service also offers a choice of servers in the US, UK and Germany which you can choose to use although I found the default to be more than adequate. If you want to use services like BBC iPlayer or Spotify then be sure to connect to the London server (and vice versa for US services).

Mobile

One of the great thing about 12vpn is that you can also use it on your smartphone (using L2TP usually). Setting it up on my iPhone was simply a matter of emailing myself a configuration file which when opened on the phone set everything up without any need to delve into any technical details. In China most people still use EDGE on their mobile for data services (3G coverage is patchy) and I had no problems connecting. This was far easier than with Witopia which I could never get to work on my phone in the past. Being able to twitter on the go is a small pleasure but one which is strangely appreciated when so far from home.

Conclusion

12vpn is a great service that I would recommend to anyone needing to bypass the great firewall or just those looking for an extra layer of security. Where the service differentiates and excels in comparison to the competition is in its flexibility to be used transparently on almost any device you might have with minimal fuss. While in an ideal world a VPN wouldn’t be necessary it’s a small price to pay for freedom.

12vpn have kindly offered to give Randomwire readers who sign up a 10% discount – enter the promotional code RANDOMWIRE when you sign-up to qualify.

Big Buddha in Ningbo

Yes this is another post featuring a big Buddha but this time it’s in a city you’ve probably never heard of.

P1050135

Ningbo is a seaport city of around 2 million people facing the East China sea, not far from Shanghai. The city is primarily oriented around trade and while it isn’t particularly famous it did have one interesting brush with history when during World War II the Japan bombed the city with fleas carrying the bubonic plague. From this (and many other atrocities) you can get an idea why China still has such a deep hatred for their easterly neighbors.

P1050140

I visited for a little over a day at the end of my previous trip around Jiangnan province and was pleasantly surprised to find clean and modern city, quite different from most other middle-tier Chinese cities. After being treated to a sumptuous lunch I was taken to a brand new temple about half an hour outside the city center. Clearly the economic troubles were having little effect here as the temple had one of the biggest bronze Buddhas I had ever seen sitting atop the hillside.

Chinese Library

After this we paid a visit to the ancestral home of Chiang Kai-Shek nearby who was the Nationalist leader of China before the uprising of the Communist party (whom he had attempted to eradicate after the Japanese surrender in WWII). Surprisingly Chinese sentiments towards him are quite good (at least the people I spoke to) and the museum paints a fair picture of his life without any demonization you might expect. He died in Taipei in 1975.

Crabs

In the evening we went for dinner in a restaurant near the port district. I have discussed at length in the past about my hatred for seafood but somehow everywhere I go people always want me to taste the local marine wildlife. Whilst most of the dinner was delicious this time I got to try “hairy crabs” which believe me are as unappealing as they sound. I really cannot fathom what makes people want to crack open these Alien facehugger-esq creatures and suck out their “tasty” flesh. For future reference this is how it makes me feel to eat one of these:

Alien Facehugger

Whilst Ningbo was a great day trip please people, no more seafood!

Can Success Be Designed?

It struck me the other day that most of the great internet companies and services which have seen massive success in recent years were in many ways a result of coincidental evolution rather than by prior design. That is to say few of them started off life how we know them today and that most came from small groups or individuals rather than massive corporations. Here are a few examples to name but a few:

  • Flickr was originally built as part of an online multiplayer game
  • Facebook started life as a student information directory at Harvard
  • Twitter began as an internal project at a company doing something completely different
  • YouTube came about when the founders couldn’t find an easy way to share videos

Some people will put this down to luck or being at the right place at the right time but to a larger degree all these people were just trying to solve problems they were experiencing themselves. They didn’t start out thinking “I’m going to build the next worldwide communications platform” or anything so grand but rather were creating something to suit their own needs. Once it became clear that what they had made would be useful to others then things took off and evolved.

From this perspective one might argue that success is not something which can be designed but rather the result of something far less tangible. A smart person alone wont necessarily be successful even if they do everything they plan perfectly and likewise the perfect solution may be too specific to be useful to anyone else. The creation of something new by definition is not a well defined process.

Another part of this is innovation. A product which allows you to do something quicker, easier and for less might have something going for it but to be revolutionary it has to do it in a way which has never been done before. Twitter generated the perfect storm for this by providing simplicity with a new mode of instant messaging. A key point here is not to do something different for the sake of it but to do something different in a way which improves on what came before or opens entirely new doors.

With all this in mind I think there are a few key points to  bear in mind for anyone with a “killer idea”:

  • Great things happen when you are scratching your own itch
  • Provide real value by allowing people to do more with less
  • Innovation comes from people, not corporate strategies
  • Long term planning is overrated when the ground beneath you is shifting so fast

There are obvious exceptions to these rules, Apple being one of them, but these are few and far between (there is only one Steve Jobs after all). Most large companies manage to succeed through sheer momentum gained by their early growth and user dependence. Case in point Microsoft makes pretty shoddy products but still makes tonnes of money because their users are hooked into a perpetual upgrade cycle. I would give an analogy to a drug dealers but perhaps that would  be going a little far!

I’d be interested to hear what you think on this. Can success be designed or is it something far more organic?

Green Hat a No-No

Green Hat

Here’s a little tip for men in China hoping to avoid public castigation: don’t wear a green hat. Unfortunately this advice came a little late for me, but first a little background as to why it’s a cultural faux pas over here:

In China “wearing a green hat” (戴绿帽子 or dài lǜ mào zǐ) is an expression that Chinese use when a woman cheats on her husband or boyfriend because the phrase sounds similar to the word for cuckold. This apparently dates back to the Yuan dynasty when the relatives of prostitutes were forced to wear green hats.

If you’re given a green hat by your significant other then the news is probably not good. To wear one is to be a bit of a dim idiot! In addition giving someone shoes or a watch is also a no-no as it signifies that your relationship is coming to an end.

These are just a few examples of how language and symbolism are closely intertwined in China. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told to watch my pronunciation because a certain word sounds like the meaning of something else undesirable. I’d be interested to see if anyone has a list of the most common ones. Would certainly come in handy for hapless travellers and expats alike 🙂