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A man of many words. Profane, profound, loyal to a fault and a right rat bastard. I love the finer things in life: expensive cigars, cheap women and all the salted, cured meats I can eat. A friend to dogs, lover of humanity and despiser of people. If I were King the world would be a better place, because, well...I would be King! Oh, and I like ice cream.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Of ebooks, China, and the internet

Oh how I love living in the 21st century! In the brief hiatus between Peace Corps and coming to China I got myself an ebook. Amazon's Kindle seems to be the most popular model, but I had to order it via mail. Maybe after two years in Botswana I was untrusting of postal services in general, but I never got around to placing the order. Instead, while visiting my buddy Mark in Toledo, I picked up a couple Barnes & Noble "nooks" at a local store. Mark, nice guy that he is, even bought me covers to protect them.

And I must say they are fantastic. Purchasing books was never so easy! But it turns out B&N will only allow online purchases from a computer located in the United States. This was a problem since I was on my way to China for a year.

A Barnes & Noble rep in New York suggested I get a Virtual Private Network or VPN. A VPN, through the magic of the interweb, allows your computer to "appear" to be in the continental US. My VPN runs around $80 a year and makes my laptop appear to be in Oakland, California. Ergo I now have 90+ books on my nook and never have to leave behind favorites in my travels because my backpack is too full and I'm over the 20 kilogram airline weight limit for checked bags.

Many people say they prefer an actual book, that they like the feel of the pages, etc. Fair point. I do too. But ebooks are the wave of the future for those who still read. In fact I predict young folks will be more inclined to read on these gadgets. Time will tell. Fact is the growing sales of ebooks (now an official category on the New york Times best seller lists) bodes well for the technology.

It turns out there is another advantage to a VPN. It is a well known fact the government of China blocks such internet sites as facebook, Youtube and many blogs (doubt if they've picked up on this one). Of the 500 million registered facebook users in the world only something like 14,000 are in the People's Republic of China. that's an incredible number considering China has 1.4 billion people. Yet I have many friends here in-country, foreigners and Chinese alike who regularly post on facebook and Youtube. The reason? VPNs and other software that allows this.

Except for dissidents and some attempts at protests against government policies, the Chinese rulers seem to take a fairly light-handed approach to life online. It's true they employ official hackers to try to counter the potential deleterious effects of the web against them. But I suspect ultimately it will be to no avail. Regular citizens can read about the 1989 Tienanmen uprising and arrests, beatings and jailings of well-known dissidents, including Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. The lid is off this Pandora's box and it will be very difficult to put it back on.

This is a big country with a LOT of people. Much of it still rural and still developing. The critical mass for political change may still be decades off. Or it may not. Six months ago who saw the uprisings in the Arab world coming? No one. Not even them.

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