Wednesday, August 29, 2012

It just keeps getting worse...

I hadn't got around to installing the software for my Witopia VPN on the new laptop I bought in the States over the summer before I returned to China.

That was an unfortunate oversight, since Net connections here are SLOW and unreliable at the best of times, and the online censorship regime is particularly intense just now. Most of the Witopia sites I'd used in the past are comprehensively blocked at the moment. Moreover, even when I found a temporary way around that, the links they'd sent me for activating my account and installing my software were no longer valid, so I had to wait a while for them to e-mail me a way of accessing my account again.

When I did finally get the VPN up-and-running, I quickly found that it was rather conspicuously not working at all.

I assumed at first that this might just be because of particularly heavy blocking in my neighbourhood (the methods and severity of Internet censorship in China vary considerably from city to city, and even from district to district; central Beijing, of course, is almost invariably the toughest locale to be in). So did the folks at the Witopia helpdesk, and they suggested a number of things I could try to get a successful VPN connection - configuring 'custom gateways', changing the DNS settings, and so on.

None of that worked. I kept getting a false positive message that my connection attempts were succeeding, but all the websites I want to access - Youtube, Blogger, Blogspot, Wordpress, non-interfered-with Google and Wikipedia, and now even IMDB (what the...?) - were still unavailable to me. Even Gmail and Yahoo Mail were being hobbled by frequent 'connection resets'. Eventually I discovered that, even though the new all-singing, all-dancing Witopia interface was giving me a reassuring 'Connected' display, in fact my IP address was still registering as my undisguised central Beijing location, from which nothing was reachable (the new-look user interface displays your IP address for you, together with a location map; but my connection speed was so bad that this feature was taking several minutes to load, and so I hadn't been bothering to look at it; hadn't even known it was there to be looked at!).

I began to wonder if this was a repeat of the problem I had a couple of years ago - that, at least with Windows Vista, you had to launch the program using the 'Run as Administrator' option (otherwise, bizarrely, you got a 'zombie' version of the program which appeared to be behaving completely normally, but wasn't in fact doing anything). I'm using Windows 7 now, which hopefully has fewer of these weird incompatibility problems with launching and running the Witopia software. And I was pretty damn sure that I had been launching the program using 'Run as Administrator' anyway. Perhaps the problem was that I now had to launch it without using 'Run as Administrator'?? I tried it both ways; it didn't seem to make any difference. I asked the helpdesk folks (twice!) if there might possibly be a problem with this, but they didn't respond on that particular point.

Eventually, after poring over my failed connection logs for a couple of days, the techies divined that, for some reason, the 'virtual adapter' tool that is a key part of their software bundle was failing to operate on my computer (even when enabled; and it was reverting to 'disabled' every time I rebooted).

Utterly flummoxed by this problem, they offered me a 'remote access' session during which one of their team would get online to poke around inside my computer to fix the problem.

I was heartened by this. Very concerned customer service. An end to my difficulties was surely now in sight.

Er, NO.

I had thought that the girl I'd been corresponding with about this by e-mail all week - and who was thus well-versed in the nature of the problem, and what we'd already tried as a fix - was offering to do this herself. But in fact, immediately after making the offer, she went silent on me. For two full days, I heard nothing more, got no further replies to e-mails to the helpdesk (up till then, they'd mostly been getting back to me within the hour, if not within minutes). Vexing.

Finally, a guy got assigned to the job. He didn't endear himself to me by ignoring all the times I'd said I'd be available to join such a 'remote access' session (which his colleague had asked me to submit), and instead telling me what times he'd be available - which, since he was working a day-shift in the States, were both in the middle of the night for me. Worse, neither of these times was immediately clear to me, since he'd used some garbled version of time difference notation that appeared to be stating the time at GMT rather than the time difference from GMT (and it really wouldn't be rocket science for him to have worked out what that was in my local time). Even worse, the first of these suggested times had already passed by the time I received his e-mail. I think, in fact, it had already passed when he sent the e-mail. He claimed he sent it with a couple of hours' warning (completely inadequate for a late-evening appointment!), but it didn't show up in my Inbox until the following morning; and I had in fact checked my e-mail late the night before as well, long after he claimed he'd sent it. So, basically, the only option he was giving me, at very short notice, was the middle of Friday evening. I said 'no'. Now that he'd been assigned the case, this dude seemed strangely determined to see it through... even though he wasn't working over the weekend. At least he booked me for first thing on Monday... which, unfortunately, was again in the middle of the evening for me here in Beijing. (I believe Witopia's 'Help' service is supposed to be 24/7, so I don't get why they've assigned me a guy who only works weekdays, and is in the wrong timezone to be much use to me.)

Can you guess what happened next??  I bet you can't!

[I'll delay the denouement of this story for a few days (well, it's NOT OVER yet!!), to see if any passing IT bods would like to speculate on the cause of the problem with the VPN adapter... or ponder how spectacularly the Witopia guy failed to solve it.

John, one of my most regular commenters over the past year or two but on a bit of a break recently, has shown himself to be quite a computer nerd in the past. Now would be a felicitous moment for you to emerge from your hibernation, sir.]

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