Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Friday 22/10/2004San Francisco is a city with many reputations. It has in the past been "the best bad city in the United States", where licentious depravity lived alongside a disapproving -- yet secretly proud -- set of civil propriety.

Friday 22/10/2004
San Francisco is a city with many reputations. It has in the past been "the best bad city in the United States", where licentious depravity lived alongside a disapproving -- yet secretly proud -- set of civil propriety. Those days have long passed, of course: nobody now lives sinfully beneath the fog. But it still has snares set for the unwary: in my case, visits have usually involved a high risk of falling out of windows.

It's all the fault of Karen, a production maestro on our American site. She has the terrible misfortune to inhabit a frankly gorgeous apartment in the gentrified bohemia of the Haight and Fillmore area. Furthermore, she labours under the twin curses of being a friendly ex-pat Geordie and having a spare room. In return for a smuggled stash of chocolate biscuits, Marmite and teabags, she frequently allows passing British journalists to ruin her weekends, even if they persuade her to go out, listen to some terrible racket put on by passing rock and roll bands, and distress her system with gin and tonics. Her nobility in the face of such decadence is unsurpassable.

It was on one such weekend that I happened to turn on my laptop. It chirruped, and announced that it had found a number of Wi-Fi networks. As K's flat is on the top floor of a three-story building surrounded by the cribs of the IT world's cuttingest young blades, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, My instinctive urge for bandwidth kicked in, and I explored. There were three accessible networks, but none of them were particularly reliable on the kitchen table. I waltzed around the front room with the laptop, twirling like a gay young debutante while I stared deep into the eyes of my Wi-Fi sniffer software.

There was only one place where the signal was strong and the connection reliable -- perched half-way out of the top story window. I had pictures to send, email to read, sites to browse: nothing for it but to wedge myself gingerly into the space, dangle the review laptop out over the street below, and settle down for a long session. That was OK -- but of course, I couldn't resist the temptation to repeat the experiment at various other times during the weekend. Disaster was inches away.

During my last jaunt to San Fran, however, sanity had struck. The networks were there in profusion, but every last one of them had been locked down tight. I know Wi-Fi security is supposed to be hackable, but life is too short -- especially on a sunny Saturday with all the joys of the city to plunder. That didn't stop me trying to get a sniff of something open -- as long as I never looked down.

However, defenestration will soon be a thing of the past for the laptop lugging traveller. Today, the Mayor of San Francisco has said that he will not stop until every inhabitant of that great city has access to free wireless networking. If I ever go back, I'll be able to quietly peruse the world from a safer position. My travel insurance will not be tested, and my gin will remain unspilled. And another little sparkle of danger will have passed from the long and exciting history of San Fran -- to the great relief of passers-by on Fillmore.