My Internet provider is a neighbor, either generous or clueless, whose wireless router I access. On clear days, I get great reception all over my apartment. But as soon as a few clouds roll in, I have to perch my laptop over the bathroom sink just to get a signal. Is Wi-Fi reception affected by the weather? —Jason W.
I understand your frustration, Jason, though if your Internet usage is anything like mine, you might find that perching over the bathroom sink will actually save time.
In answer to your question, yes; the strength of a wireless signal can fluctuate due to a host of factors including weather, cordless phones, microwave ovens and the position of metal objects in the immediate vicinity. The effect isn't too noticeable in your neighbors' house; there, the signal strength varies between "strong enough" and "plenty strong enough." In your apartment, though, the same variation means the signal fluctuates between "barely strong enough" and "totally unusable."
But fear not, young padawan; there is hope. You just need a better antenna. If your laptop has a port for an external antenna, you're in luck. If not, you can make your own antenna out of a cheap USB wireless dongle and, I shit you not, a wire mesh food strainer from the dollar store.
The Internet will give you the details (google "homemade dish antenna"). Basically, you're gonna use the strainer as a parabolic reflector to make something that looks (and works) like a miniature radio telescope. Download a signal-strength-measuring app like iStumbler or NetStumbler to help you find the best angle to position this contraption, or just duct-tape it to your head and walk around your neighborhood. I guarantee your neighbors will think twice about asking Antenna-head Man any embarrassing questions about who's stealing their signal.