War-Chalking

Back in the Depression, hobos would draw chalk marks on the walls of houses to show where a generous stranger lived. A top hat meant "kind gentleman lives here"; a cross meant "religious talk will get you a meal." This summer, the British designer Matt Jones created a new set of hobo symbols for the Internet age. Jones is a fan of "Wi-Fi" (short for "wireless fidelity"), the new technology that lets you take your broadband connection and broadcast it around your home or office. Wi-Fi signals can travel more than 1,000 feet, which means that your private connection often leaks out into the street. you're feeling generous, you can leave it "open" for anyone passing by to use. ... Presto: free high-speed access! The only problem is that Wi-Fi radio signals are invisible. You might be near a node right now. But how can you tell? Easy. You look for one of Jones's symbols scrawled on the wall. If you see two back-to-back half-circles, it means some geek has discovered an open node nearby. ... Within weeks of Jones's invention, war-chalking ... took off. The Schlotzsky's Deli chain began war- chalking its restaurants, and the state of Utah announced it would mark up its conference rooms. Wireless companies, in contrast, reacted with alarm: Nokia called war-chalking "theft, plain and simple", and some cable companies have sent warning letters to users who openly share their Internet connections. Yet the growth of Wi-Fi seems unstoppable. ... Consider it a lesson from the hobos: in a world full of generous strangers, sometimes there really is such a thing as a free lunch.

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