« Quebec Road TripTalk: Artificial Stupidity »
07.08.2003

Portland Oregon

I'm in Portland, Oregon, experiencing a sort of heat-wave survivor guilt. Every inch of the country the plane flew over was covered with a hot miasmic haze, until at the very end of the trip, we descended into a lone pocket of comfort in the Pacific Northwest. I'm here with my two colleagues, in town for the Open Source convention. The main event itself starts tomorrow, but for the past two days we've been attending tutorials. If you are a connaisseur of boredom - the kind of boredom so intense that it makes you want to smash your laptop into pieces and gouge your eyes out with the shards - you'll definitely want to catch Stas Bekman's four and a half hour talk on mod_perl. Don't let him take any shortcuts, like skipping the discussion of how files are arranged in his home directory, or neglecting to read a lengthy code example verbatim.

At one point, the room lost wireless access for half an hour, and half the audience looked ready to swallow their own tongues. The most exquisite part was the fact that we had all paid several hundred dollars to be in the room, and so no one could really leave. What if the talk suddenly came alive?

It didn't.

If you're less into boredom, and more into feeling like a genius by proxy, you can't do better than Damian Conway and his various magic shows. That's something I've noticed at O'Reilly conferences - the tutorials are a real lottery, but when you make the right choice, you forget all about the bad ones.

Even though the conference proper hasn't started, there are already huge crowds of people here. O'Reilly guy Schuyler Earle says the head count for the conference itself will exceed fifteen hundred. Portland, hide your daughters!

I arrived in the city yesterday, after a long westbound flight from the other Portland, a day full of wonders. Maine on a summer morning is almost excessively beautiful - Nature has full license to be schlocky, and has no compunction about using it. Every lake we passed was Barbie pink and dead still; I kept expecting a moose to walk out onto a nearby hilltop and sing us his morning song of joy.

The airplane ride to Minneapolis was an adventure in turbulence, ending in an IMAX descent through an arcade of cumulus clouds, big cottony towers of them, trying to form a thunderstorm by committee. I fished out a cheapo atlas in the free electric encyclopedia that comes with Mac OS X, and to my immense self-satisfaction managed to identify the maze of islands down below as the northern half of Lake Huron. Once I knew where to look, I could even pick out the Mackinac Bridge - a little strand of spider silk connecting the tip of Michigan to the Upper Penninsula.

Flying on from Minneapolis to Portland, I was seated next to an eight-year-old girl, who had fully immersed herself in the new Harry Potter book. I don't think there's a more satisfying sight than a kid really enjoying a book - she went at it with her whole body and spirit. I was too fuzzy-headed to read much of anything. But I was immensely proud of myself after figuring out that the squares on the prairie below were a mile on a side, so I could calculate the speed of the plane by counting how many seconds it took for them to get eaten by the jet engine. Eight seconds to suck in a square - 520 miles an hour. Twelve hundred squares, and then mountains.

As we passed the continental divide, the pilot pointed out a giant Sno-cone on the northwest horizon, scary old Mt. Rainier. It looked like a child's drawing of a mountain until the plane got closer, and I could see the wrinkled rock and stubble of pine trees. By now we were flying along the Columbia River, and soon enough were were over the Grand Coulee Dam. I thought of Woody Guthrie, the only man ever to successfully use the word "manganese" in American popular song:

Now in Washington and Oregon, you hear the factories hum
making chrome and making manganese, and white aluminum
Here there roars a Flying Fortress off to fight for Uncle Sam
spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam

That was back in the day when huge dam projects were cool (although aficionados needn't despair yet). Woody Guthrie is a strong candidate for Most Likely to Be Horrified By the State of the Country if Suddenly Resurrected. For all his flaws (chiefly demon rum and the ladies), he's someone I think of as a real American, back when that meant not being a toady for those in power.

Guthrie had little patience for the sententious. We think of "This Land is Your Land" as an harmless school song, but it was actually a pissed-off reaction to "God Bless America", that treacly Irving Berlin number. There's a verse they never teach in elementary school:

I saw a big high wall there, it tried to stop me
A sign was painted, said "Private Property"
but on the back side, it didn't say nothing
This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie would have understood why all these open source programmers are here, feeding their laptops on Columbia River electricity.

Halfway through our descent into Portland, my little neighbor finally looked out the window and gave a huge gasp as she saw Mt. Rainier, looming up to the north. "That's a volcano", I helpfully explained. "Yes," she said, "Mt. Rainier. And that's Mt. Hood to its south, right on the outskirts of the city. Up north you can just barely make out the Cascades range."

After we landed, I helped her get her backpack on, complete with thirty-pound Harry Potter tome. J.K. Rowling is turning our youth into brilliant hunchbacks.

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