A Pirate’s Toolkit: the VPN

It is one of my core beliefs as a pirate that if a corporation tells you that you can’t do something, you should probably find a way to do it anyway. Especially if this corporation is a member of FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Neflix, and Google.)

So, if Netflix decides to tell you that you can’t watch something because you’re in the wrong country, it is our bounden duty to ignore them and do it anyway.

Enter the VPN (virtual private network.)

What is a VPN, you ask? Simply put, a VPN is a way of tricking whatever website you’re trying to access into believing that you are accessing it from somewhere else. It also seems to increase your privacy (hence the P in VPN) in general on the web, although how much security you get depends on the provider and the country it operates in.

For most of us in the Western world, this is important mainly because of the differences in service between US, UK, and Canadian versions of Netflix. However, for those living in more authoritarian countries, such as China, a VPN can mean much more than that.

At present, to the best of my knowledge, there are two versions of the internet. The web most of us get, and the authoritarian web controlled by China. Other countries may have their own version, I’m not sure. Kind of like parental controls, but on a country-wide scale.

(Grr. Have I mentioned lately how much I hate it when governments try to be paternal?)

In these countries, citizens can use VPNs to get access to information they wouldn’t have. For example, finding out how events are being reported in other countries, which is especially important if the media in one’s own country is directly controlled by the government. Like in North Korea.

It is however important to note that, for obvious reasons, VPNs tend to be illegal in said authoritarian countries.

Currently, VPNs are not illegal in the Western world. Mostly because, like I said, we mostly just use them to access other country’s versions of streaming services. While technically a violation of Netflix’s user agreement…nobody really cares that much if you do that.

Okay, a few people care, but fortunately for the time being they don’t make laws. At least not directly, yet.

Why these different versions exist in the first place has to do with the people Netflix gets its content from. To gain access to this content, Netflix has to make agreements with these people, which includes in which countries they want their content shared with.

Don’t ask me why. The foibles of content providers are one of the great mysteries of the universe. Any librarian will tell you this.

Now, you may be wondering, if I get a VPN and use it, will Netflix (or whoever) get mad at me or suspend my account?

No they will not. You’re paying for their service, and they know not to bite the hand that feeds them.

They only “get mad at” your VPN provider, which they do by playing whack-a-mole with the servers VPN providers well…provide.

In which case you may occasionally get a polite error message telling you to turn off your VPN. If this happens, simply switch to another server on your VPN provider. If you’re with one of the good ones, they should have plenty to choose from.

In the future, however, where you’re accessing the internet from (and hence the usage of VPNs) may become less trivial. In addition to the authoritarian, and non-authoritarian versions of the internet, the EU may end up with its own version due to its copyright laws.

Websites that want to operate in the EU may have to change, so they may develop versions of themselves that comply with EU laws. Or they may simply refrain from doing business in the EU, resulting in a different overall experience.

What effect that will have on the average user remains to be seen. It’s possible we could see more and more differences in the way websites are viewed in different countries, as the laws around copyright and internet content mature. In which case the humble VPN may become more salient for the average user.

(For a much more in-depth discussion of VPNs, including security, as well as a handy website dedicated to figuring out which is the best one, click here.)

That being said, for the brief period I used a VPN, I used ExpressVPN. Once I figured out how to download the darn thing (it was only complicated because I had a Chromebook, and only until I realized that I could get the app via the Google Play store) it worked quite well.

It was a little expensive, but they do the one-month free trial, which is more than enough time if you only want to binge watch one thing.

So if you want a VPN, either Google it, or just click on that handy link up there.

Why is Netflix Such a Big Deal?

netflixAt the end of my last post, I mentioned that my biggest emotional problem, at the time, was the fate of one of my favorite characters in a Netflix series.

I felt odd, even guilty, about that. Because there are other things going on in my life and those of others around me, but nonetheless, it was embarrassingly true (and frankly I’m still not over it).

It was about to get worse. This series kept me up at night. But not in the way you think. No, I didn’t stay up too late watching it. On the contrary, I decided to go to bed at a decent hour because I couldn’t take it any more.

And then my brain said, “Oh you think it’s sleep time? Nope, you’re going to be up at least another two hours sulking about this, so you may as well work off some of that emotion on computer game opponents.”

Plus, I was on edge so I woke up early…

It was a stupidly grueling weekend, and I needed a nap afterwards. A couple naps. All over a TV show.

Normally, I don’t get this upset. Especially about Tommy, who I love, but I know he’s the sort of fan-favorite character that writers like to pretend to kill about once a season, just to keep things interesting. So I don’t fall for that. I enjoy worrying about him a little, but I know perfectly well that if something big was going to happen, it wouldn’t be accomplished so flippantly.

This time was different. The writers were making a giant, hairy deal out of it that stretched over I don’t even know how many episodes. They even foreshadowed it and everything, by making the same thing happen to a character close to Tommy, and then almost making it happen to him just so the audience could see how horrible it would be if it did happen. (Note to self: excellent foreshadowing technique, I must use this later.)

Plus this time it wasn’t just about him dying. I had to watch him slowly lose his free will knowing that at some point his friends were likely to have to kill him … it was awful …

I think I cried at least three separate times over this whole being-kicked-in-the-feels fest. Not to mention repeated pleas of “Lord, please not Tommy! Anybody but Tommy!” (And I mean that in the most devout way possible.)

But I had to wonder why. Was I really getting this emotional over someone who didn’t exist? Why, indeed, is Netflix such a big deal?

And this could be anything really. Hulu, Amazon Prime, whatever. Even movies, sports, movies about sports, and stories in general. But I’ll stick with Netflix because I use it most. So why does this effect us so much?

Two reasons, I think. And they’re two sides of one coin called “escapism.”

On the one hand, most of us who live in the Western world experience unprecedented levels of comfort and security.  This is a great thing. But it’s boring.

I think the fact that our news resembles entertainment speaks to exactly how bored we are. It’s not that the problems we freak out about aren’t real. But many of us are merely using them to occupy ourselves. We get mad about things, but we don’t do anything about it. Like the way I worry about Peak Oil but don’t stock up on cans of anything.

Watching my Netflix show lets me vicariously experience all the trauma and excitement of a post-apocalyptic world without any of the risk and hardship. Same thing goes for sports. You get to be on a team and share in the victory (and defeat), but you don’t have to put in any workouts, or risk any broken bones or concussions.

That is not to say we don’t still have hard things to go through, which leads me to the other side of the coin.

This time, I think I got so upset because I was attached to the character and got carried away (I may have been a little bit lonely, too). But that’s not always the case. There have been times when I’ve been crying over a story of some sort, and realized that I was actually crying for a very different reason. One that was very real. But focusing on the story was an easier way of processing the emotions being caused by something much more difficult to think about.

Stories also give us somewhere to go where we don’t have to think about whatever is troubling us in real life, at least for a little while. A break from reality, if you will. Even if it sounds kind of silly. Especially if, like me, your life isn’t that hard to begin with. But it’s still nice. The dishes will still be there after the show is over (And who knows? Maybe the soap will be more effective with my tears mixed in.)

There is a caveat to all this, though. I do believe what I’ve just typed. Netflix is cathartic, and it is a nice mental getaway. But on some level this is propaganda cooked up by my brain to rationalize how much time I spend on it. There are tons of better things we could all be doing with our time than watching Netflix. Including things that would let us deal with emotions and entertain us. But it ain’t going away, either.

By the way, “Tommy” is fine. He could use a shave, imho, but he’s fine. I’ve avoided specifics (including the character’s name) for spoiler purposes, but I will tell you that he got infected with a zombie-like virus, and then he got better, and then he got worse, and then he got a lot worse, and then he died. And then he was fine.

I don’t think I’ve ever laughed and cried at the same time before. And did I very non-sacrilegiously thank God for his borderline resurrection? Oh you bet I did. But that’s okay, Jesus gets me.