wardriving in Gulfport
Monday, February 23 2004
setting: Room 325, Isle of Capri Casino, Biloxi, Mississippi
The beautiful sunny 70 degree weather came to an abrupt end today, replaced by a seemingly ceaseless downpour. It was still raining buckets when we wanted to leave the Isle of Capri, so I dashed out across the parking lot to retrieve the car. I got amazingly wet during those ten seconds of exposure.
The US 90 bridge entering Biloxi from the east, viewed from our Isle of Capri window this rainy morning.
Since leaving New York City I'd repeatedly tried to take advantage of any available open wireless access point so I could check my email and do all the other things I'm used to doing in my normal life. I'd sat in the windows of all four sides of the Isle of Capri casino and searched my laptop's Available WLANs list, but nothing had showed up.
We drove into downtown Biloxi and found a coffee shop, and I brought my laptop in with me on the chance that it was, you know, a cybercafé. It most definitely was not. Indeed, it seemed like a relic from the days before the modern coffee shop. Most such places, with their bluish coffee-unfriendly color schemes and businesslike whiteboard menus, have been elminated by Darwinian market forces, but I guess there are no such market forces yet in Biloxi.
Along US 90 on the western fringe of Biloxi, I suggested we pull into a shopping mall to see if we could scare up a wireless network somewhere in there.
It's stating the obvious, I know, but shopping malls really are the same. There was a feeling when walking around on the streets of Mobile that the people there were as alien to us as folks in a foreign country. But this random shopping mall here in Biloxi seemed almost identical to the Hudson Valley Mall. It was as familiar as sitting down in front of a Windows 98 computer. How can this be? Is there a shopping mall cabal that controls these things from some central location?
While Gretchen poked around in Spencer's Gifts, I managed to track down a wireless network called
I suppose the zero and one in the name of that WLAN were from some early attempt at security through obscurity. Unfortunately, though, this particular network was encrypted. I found another network but it was also encrypted. By now it was mostly Gretchen who wanted to check her email, but since she uses Yahoo web mail, all we needed was a web browser. I suggested we go into Radio Shack.
Gretchen was just getting to her list of emails when one of the store employees became aware of what she was doing, and he told her she would have to stop. Her pleading that she really desperately needed to check her email fell on deaf ears; apparently Radio Shack central monitors network traffic at affiliate stores, and they come down hard on stores with computers that stray from the Radio Shack site. It's very 1980 of them, but Radio Shack was very 1980 even in the early 1960s.
So we gave up, for the time being, on internet-related activities. Gretchen paid $10 and got a massage from a tanning-bed-sized mechanical device that sprayed high-powered jets of water onto a rubber membrane draped over her back. Interestingly, I noticed that there were two of these machines in the mall atrium and white massage customers were being steered to one of them while black customers were being steered to the other. This racial segregation might have not even been conscious, but it was obvious nonetheless.
After leaving the shopping mall, we took advantage of a continuing lull in the rain to walk briefly along the narrow Gulfport beach. I didn't find any sea shells bigger than a lima bean.
Gretchen had been intrigued by the header information of a few of the emails she'd been prevented from reading in the Radio Shack, so in downtown Gulfport we did some serious wardriving. We went straight for the taller office buildings, especially those that looked like they held multiple businesses, and then I'd scan for open WLANs. There were several, and most of them weren't encrypted. But there were problems with absolutely every one of them, and none of them would assign me an IP address and let me surf the web. It felt like these WLANs had been installed, found not to be working correctly, and then just abandoned. The technology is cheap and carried gadget appeal even for those who never get it working, but there are just not enough available people with networking skills to correctly set up and maintain these things.
The most promising of the non-functional-but-unencrypted WLANs was called "TheCoffeeHouse." Gretchen had seen The Coffee House, and it looked like a hip modern coffeeshop. I had the feeling that The Coffee House was trying to be a genuine cybercafé and something wasn't properly configured. I thought we should just go in there and see if there was any way to get on the network.
As I got my double capuccino, I asked the friendly young man staffing The Coffee House if he had a wireless network. "Yeah," he said, indicating a blinking Linksys wireless hub on a shelf, "But I went out and bought a wireless hub when what I needed is a router. It doesn't work unless you get the right DH... whatever... numbers. Here, I'll call the guy."
To make a very long, detail-rich story mercifully short, I ended up talking for a long time on the phone with The Coffee House's internet provider, both of us trying to debug a recalcitrant networking problem. What a strange thing for me to fall into here in some random city on the Gulf Coast. We never did figure out what was wrong. By now Gretchen was getting pissed about all the time we were squandering on this project. So we said goodbye and continued westward.
Our destination today was the Harbour Oaks Inn, a bed and breakfast in the next town over, Pass Christian (pronounced "Pass Cris-chee-on").
Staying in the adjacent room was a British family consisting of a 20-something daughter and her two parents. The daughter had relocated to New Orleans and was studying to become a lawyer. Her first big legal challenge was personal - she was legally challenging the Louisiana Bar's rule forbidding foreign nationals from joining. (The justification for this rule is that a foreigner might get deported and leave their clients in the lurch.)
Gretchen and I set off on a walk through downtown Pass Christian, such as it is. It's more of a sprawling suburb of ancient houses intermixed with antique stores and dingy restaurants that are closed on Sundays. Like all the other Gulf Coast cities, Pass Christian has its own Mardi Gras parade. It had evidently happened very recently, because beads were everywhere, hanging in some trees nearly as thickly as the Spanish Moss. Some trees looked like they had several years' worth of beads (judging from the variety of observed sun bleaching). I found a quite a few good beads on the ground. It seems the economics of bead tossing in Pass Christian renders them worthless the moment they hit the ground.
We randomly stumbled into a small locally-owned bookstore. Gretchen loves such stores, but she especially loved this one. She thought the special room dedicated to Mississippi authors was a brilliant idea, and she expressed her support by buying a smallish armful of books. While she'd been off in the catacombs of the store being impressed, I'd been talking about 9-11-01 with the guy staffing the place. He almost started crying when he described how empty the streets had been that day. And that was way the fuck down here in Mississippi.
Back at our bed and breakfast we wound up in a rather prolonged conversation with the B&B's owner and the British couple. They were all a very likeable bunch, but we were starving and the baby cake and bowl of M&Ms wasn't enough.
For dinner we ate at a restaurant called Long Beach Lookout, which our B&B host had recommended (given the paucity of choices on a Sunday). We were a little put off by the huge flag in front of the door that read "WE SUPPORT OUR TROOPS," but once inside and seated by our Britney Spears look-alike hostess, it was easy to relax. Our waiter was obviously gay, and since it was happy hour he got Gretchen two beers instead of the one she ordered. The hors d'oeuvres were excellent, particularly the fried green tomatoes (which looked like chick patties until you bit into them). My shrimp entree was delicious, but Gretchen was unhappy with her pasta, which contained a discordant cajun spice. Damn cajuns! She asked the waiter to find out what the spice was, but he kept making up excuses for why he couldn't ask.
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