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Virtual Life

November 2016

“Virtual” is a much used word these days.  As a boy, I think it only ever meant “almost, but not completely”; my headmaster would observe that “there is a virtual absence of common sense in the fourth form”.

It has now been hijacked to mean almost anything that has no apparent physical presence; we often hear of virtual businesses even virtual assistants, describing activity which takes place entirely online.  There is, of course, plenty of actual presence; data centres, undersea cables and networks of computers, but the dream is that it’s all taking place in a magic city in the clouds.

There are two current uses of this changing word I want to mention: one with a recommendation, one with a warning.

First, the warning.  You may have heard about the development of virtual reality headsets.  Typically, they are like motor bike helmets or heavy glasses that have small screens and earphones within them.   They are plugged into a computer, and the pictures and sounds change to reflect your movements or the operation of a hand control.  In other words, they are exactly the same as a video game except that you have to wear an uncomfortable hat.

I’ve tried one of the cheaper ones (about £150) and from that limited test my firm recommendation is that you should stay well away.  Firstly, it didn’t really work properly, freezing and hiccupping, and when it did work it made me feel ill.  Virtual reality, in my experience, is distinctly less attractive that the real thing.

Now, a good “virtual” gadget.  If you are not aware of the possibilities of something called a “Virtual Private Network” (known as a VPN) you probably should be, especially if you travel, are concerned about security or want to see websites that are blocked to you because of where you are; BBC iPlayer outside the UK, for example. or American TV channels within the UK. 

A VPN (there are many) is a network of computers spread over a large number of countries.  You log in to their network and pick any country in which they operate that you would like to pretend to be in; for example, if you are in France, a VPN can make it look as if you are in the UK, and so the BBC iPlayer will happily show you the stuff it reserves for home viewers only.   I can’t say that you won’t be breaking the BBC’s terms of use, but it works.

They also offer much enhanced security by encrypting everything.  This is especially important if you use public Wi-Fi connections, such as those in hotels and coffee bars; without a VPN, your online activity is open to a determined hacker in the same place; with a VPN he’ll still be able to see what you do, but it will all be gibberish.

A VPN effectively creates a secure pipe through which your data travels.

It can also allow you to circumvent national restrictions.  I’m writing this from China, behind what is known as the The Great Firewall of China, which blocks access to many western websites (including Google, Facebook and many more) but a VPN bypasses these controls. Strictly speaking, using one is against the Chinese rules, but I can tell you that educated locals and all ex-pats here in Shanghai use them all the time, and no one has been clapped in irons yet.

For more on this, and which VPN’s you might try, look below.  They are cheap and it would not surprise me if they soon became free.  One of the smaller browsers,, now includes a free VPN.  If Opera start pinching traffic from the big boys as a result, it wouldn’t surprise me if they all follow suit.

Which VPNs should you try?

There are any number of VPNs to try - they all work the same way.  As usual with this sort of online service, the bright thing to do is to pick one tnhat you get along with, find easy to use and receives reasonable reviews from users.  Any respectable one will also give you a chance to try it free for a while.

There are two that I can recommend from personal experience:

Express VPN

This is the one I used whilst I was recently in China, on the recommendation of many local expats.  It's a very professional system but had no difficulty with it, although like all VPNs, it is at the mercy of the strength of the wifi connection you are using.  If you want try it out, if you click here you will be taken to the site and you should, as a result of being introduced by me, receive a free 30 day subscription to try it out (I get 30 days free as well for making the introduction).

Once your free period is over, it will cost you about $13.00 per month, but you can cancel at anytime.


A very user friendly VPN, and with the benefit of a free version that allows you to pass 500MB of data through its system each month.  Much used by ex-pats to watch BBC programmes from around the world.  $7.95 per month if you need more data (a bit less if you pay a year up front.