Saturday, August 27, 2005 5:04 PM
part 15

This year is the one hundredth anniversary of the establishment of Las Vegas, and one hotel was celebrating by offering rooms at one hundred dollars a night, a 50% discount. That was amazing enough that Ling-Li and I went.

The drive goes through a lot of desert, and in the middle of one part of the desert was a series of signs listing the ten commandments of the Bible. Something like the Burma Shave signs, but without the rhymes or the humour. Another sign directed drivers to an "Early Man Site", but we didn't go, so we have no idea what that was.

About 100 miles from Las Vegas is Zzyzx Road. Perhaps it was named by an old ADVENT (or what some know as "Colossal Cave", even though it's actually based on the Bedquilt Cave, but I digress) player, but who misremembered the proper magic word, or a mathematician who couldn't quite remember the cross-product rule.

The drive takes one through the Mojave desert. From the rise before it, one can see the road has cut a swath through the middle of a vast plain. It's a devastating view of the environmental vandalism that goes on here. Anyway, the road divider had graffiti on it. I'll just say that again. Someone drove into the middle of the Mojave desert and painted graffiti on the road divider. It wasn't even good graffiti. Even for people with average skill in the art (as patent lawyers like to say), any one of them could tell you that in that heat, the paint dries even before it hits the surface, so you're just wasting your time.

We got there during the afternoon, which was so hot that we couldn't go outside, so we wandered around the casinos to try to understand what all of the fuss is about. Most of the hotels have casinos in the same building, and the buildings are designed such that one must pass through the casino to reach the hotel room.

Some casinos are connected to each other. For those who go to Las Vegas for the gambling, one can find food, bed, and a casino, all without the need to go outside. That would be marginally acceptable, I suppose, but Las Vegas is a place where the dangers of passive smoking are explicitly ignored. A haze of cigarette smoke exists permanently at eye-level, throughout the entire building.

Casinos also have no windows and no clocks. There are lots of flashing lights, but not enough to light up the room - the overall lighting level is approximately that of early evening. The indoor malls have fake skies on ceiling, making it seem like day, even at night. Then there is the noise of the people and the slot machines. Eye strain and tinnitis, to go with the lung cancer.

I was amazed at how much people spend on the slot machines. The machines are often called "one-armed bandits" for a reason, despite that many of them are now entirely electronic, and no longer have the handle. Now they are "one-fingered bandits". There are machines that cost everything from one cent, up to five dollars and more per play. Many people pay for multiple plays up front, rather than pay then play then pay then... The machine displays the number of games that can be played for the money that was deposited. During the next few days, as we passed through different casinos on our way to other places, I kept track of the largest payment that I had seen. The numbers started out at a few dollars on the first day, but during later days, I saw many with numbers in the tens of dollars, and a couple of one hundred dollar plays. It was on the last day, though, that I saw the one that made me stop and stare. Five hundred dollars.

The indoor mall in the Venetian hotel has a Venice theme, including a replica of Saint Mark's Square. There's an outdoor and indoor canal, along which gondolas are driven (yes, driven - while the gondolas do have people at the back who steer the boat, there is a motor that is used to propel it, since the canals have no current. The boat even has pedals for acceleration and braking). The gondola drivers sing as they drive. When drivers apply for the job, they have to attend an audition to show off their singing voice, and learn a number of songs in Italian. They have to learn how to drive the gondola, which is not as easy as it looks - accelerate, but not too quickly, don't hit the wall, don't take the curve too widely, since the canals are narrow when two gondolas are passing each other in opposite directions. There is also a hazard in the form of the overhead pedestrian bridges which are actually lower than head-height for the driver standing at the stern.

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