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Las Vegas, August 2007 - Look out, it’s evil!
Helping to drag America, kicking & screaming, into the Age of Enlightenment
Las Vegas, August 2007
We took a quick trip to Las Vegas last week for one last summer fling before the fall semester descended upon us. There we met kayigo and her family. An even stranger time than usual was had by all, as I hope to document in this mini-travelogue.

First, I'll impart some wisdom we gained on the way to our downtown hotel, Main Street Station, from the airport. Las Vegas hotels don't generally offer airport shuttles—at least not to those who aren't prepared to drop a couple hundred thou in the casino; and those who are, ride in limousines. Instead, a cottage industry of freelance airport-shuttle companies has, for the past two decades or more, been providing that service. Typically, three businesses compete for the bulk of the Strip and downtown traffic. One might expect that the competition would keep fares low, and indeed it did, until the last three or four years when prices suddenly started rising exponentially. In February we took a shuttle from McCarran to the Orleans, what should be a quick three-mile jaunt down Tropicana Ave., but we spent about an hour en route because on the way we stopped at every Strip hotel south of Cæsar's Palace. And each stop consisted of driving all the way around the quarter-mile-on-a-side casino to the registration entrance; watching the passengers hobble down to the pavement, step by knee-popping, ankle-breaking step; pausing a few minutes while all the luggage got sorted out, and a few more while it was explained to the assembled crowd that no, this shuttle was, at the moment, outbound from the airport and another one heading the other direction would appear any hour now. We finally got wise and decided to take a taxi back to the airport. That took a mere ten minutes, and for two of us was cheaper than the shuttle.

Now if that interminable ride only got us a short way down Tropicana, you can imagine how long it takes to reach Main Street Station, way up north at the far end of downtown. Paradoxically, it's almost exactly the same length of time. We've stayed at five or six different hotels in Las Vegas, and every time it has taken us just about an hour from McCarran to our digs, and every time we were the last people off the shuttle, no matter how strategically placed our destination. Don't ask me to explain the physics behind that one. Non-Euclidean geometry definitely comes into play, but mostly I don't try to look outside too much to check whether we're in a spherical or hyperbolic universe, as the sight of Las Vegans driving is enough to kick up the old adrenaline a couple of notches. Anyway, we tried the taxi trick on the way home last week, and although the trip cost about $10 more than the airport shuttle, we shaved about a half hour off our trip time. When converting time and money (you know they're equivalent—it only remains to figure the exchange rate) I usually count my time in terms of my salary (hourly, or yearly divided by 2000). It so happens that the taxi is still a good deal by that standard, even if I neglect to count in Kathy's time as well. Hence, I urge anyone traveling with others to take a taxi: with three people pitching in on the fare, even if you're headed to the sticks you'll be ahead.

However, if your party includes only one or two people, do take the shuttle to Treasure Island, as this hotel is invariably the first stop in every northbound airport shuttle's itinerary. Why might that be? Because Treasure Island, without a doubt, is the greatest pain in the ass possible to approach or leave on a northerly course. That way, the greatest possible number of people are delayed for the maximum achievable time. I have come to the conclusion that the shuttle companies' raison d'etre is not to make money, but this.

Needless to say, my enthusiasm for Las Vegas airport shuttles has waned over the years.

Sorry—had to get that off my chest. Our shuttle ride to downtown was particularly intolerable because, in addition to the criminally inefficient dropoff procedure, we had to endure the epic battle between the vehicle's air conditioning and the 105+ °F (40.5+ °C) shade temperature with a generous blazing-sun-and-asphalt bonus. It was painfully obvious from the outset that our poor air conditioner had met more than its match, and, in fact, it began waving a white flag and conking out about three minutes into our trip.

Actually, even before we boarded the shuttle I began to ponder which was least comfortable: Las Vegas at 105 °F or Cleveland at 85 °F (30 °C) with the dew point around 77 °F (25 °C). Finally decided that it was a dead heat (hur-hur): no rational human being would ever willingly expose herself to either. But we'd only begun to sample the magnificent bounty of hellishness that Las Vegas has to offer.

One great thing about meeting the sister in Las Vegas is that she drives up from SoCal, and thus our mobility in town is greatly enhanced. The whole family picked us up at Main Street—they stayed at the Flamingo (formerly the Flamingo Hilton) on the Strip—for dinner at a reportedly world-class Thai place. In Las Vegas, of all places. I've heard from two independent sources that the Lotus of Siam serves the best Thai food in the country; and a Google search on "thai restaurant las vegas" will quickly corroborate this anecdotal evidence (for example).

As we repeated the exercise several times through the stay, I have to tell you about our drill for driving around Vegas. We had to wedge six people of adult size into the sister's little Honda. When we accounted for everyone's relative height and relationship, the only feasible seating arrangement was to put Kathy in my lap, sitting in back behind the sister (who was both the driver and the shortest among us). Getting into that position presented no difficulty; but within a couple minutes all the blood flow to my right leg had ceased, my femoral artery having been smashed flat as a sheet of paper. Meanwhile, Kathy had her own difficulties: though she clearly had me beat with respect to circulation and oxygen flow, her head was mashed up into the car's room, causing her neck to bend into a perfect U shape. Hence, every tiny pebble and bump in the road was communicated directly into her spine via the roof of the car. Consequently, our whimpers of agony intertwined into a little fugue: I started in the baritone as all communication with my toes winked out with a final, parting stab of pain, and Kathy, in her own orthogonal dimension of pain, shortly joined in a sixth higher. (I'm exaggerating; it wasn't all that bad, actually, until we staggered out of the car and my lower extremities came back on line and shouted great curses at me in the only language they knew: excruciating pain.)

Beside us sat the nephew, 13, and his best friend. All through the trip they were astonishingly well-behaved for a couple of 13-year-olds, perhaps because they had each other with whom to confide and conspire. I know for a fact that having the brother along for family vacations, oh so many years ago, saved both our sanities on numerous occasions.

Lotus of Siam was ensconced within a jumbled mass of bail-bond and payday-loan shops. In other words, it occupied a nondescript, graffiti-encrusted slot in a nondescript, graffiti-encrusted strip mall. All the stores' signs, inexplicably, were translated into Korean, except for those appearing only in Korean. Did we actually get to the right place? Well, the names and addresses matched.... At times like this, I figure that if we could last eight hours after the meal without massive antibiotics and intravenous Pepto-Bismol, we would have scored big on the Hole-in-the-Wall Mecca scale. Our spirits rose when we entered into a restaurant that could not have been more different from its surroundings if it had been placed on Titan. If I'd seen the place from the inside first, I'd have guessed it belonged in one of Seattle's hip, quirky old neighborhood like Ballard, instead of the searing concrete wasteland we'd just left.

I doubt I'd rate Lotus of Siam among the top one Thai eateries in the nation, but that was some fine Thai food we had. And, better yet, it was a Coke-on-tap house with free refills—not that common among Asian restaurants sad to say.

I woke up our second day to a startling sight. With the sun still casting long shadows from the east, the air already shimmered with heat. Distant objects rippled and vibrated in a 360-degree mirage. Sunlight glittered blindingly from windshields in a parking lot a mile or two to the south. It was already toasty, and it would only get toastier. By the time we left the hotel, the mercury simmered at 104 °F (40 °C).

Our side trip on Friday, not too surprisingly, turned out to be the most fun and the most memorable experience of the entire vacation. In the hottest part of the afternoon, we hauled over to the Pinball Hall of Fame. Both the sister and I had read of this place; I'd forgotten all about it, or else I'd have suggested the visit myself. We unpacked ourselves from the car in the middle of an asphalt parking lot fully exposed to the malevolent fusion cauldron in the sky. The heat was incredible. Each intake of breath, seared, desiccated and cracked our nasal passages. I grew up in the desert, and I'd never experienced anything like it. After I returned here, I consulted online weather records and discovered that the temperature had reached 108 °F (42 °C) that day; at ground level over blacktop, the seething air was dry roasted to at least 150 °F (65.5 °C).

Anyone who was a teenager during the Sixties and Seventies has to visit the Pinball Hall of Fame. (Try to visit sometime other than mid-summer, as one entire wall is windows, and the greenhouse effect attains almost lethal proportions.) Proprietor Tom Arnold has collected scores of old classic pinball machines from as far back as the Fifties, with a strong showing during my own pinball heyday in the mid-Seventies. Members of the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors' Club maintain the machines in tip-top working order, so that (nearly) all the lights turn on when called for, and bonuses progress as they should.

Wow, to play a pinball game again with actual, physical bells! Haunted House notwithstanding, my youthful obsession with pinball eroded quickly once electronic sounds replaced the chimes, and the old reel counters gave way to the LED score displays. I spent much time, and cash, in a state of blissful nostalgia Space Odyssey, Abra Ca Dabra and Orbit. I confirmed what I always believed: the old games, with their spartan playfields and five-digit scoring, provide far more entertainment than today's sensory-overloading, befuddlingly complex tables.

A surprise favorite was Big Hit, from the cannabis-drenched mid-Seventies. It's about baseball, actually. I walked away, several dollars lighter, really impressed: without even the most rudimentary integrated circuitry, this machine could work the logic of advancing players around the bases and counting runs, regardless of the type of hit or which bases were occupied. Human ingenuity is really a remarkable thing, even when applied to something silly like a pinball machine.

I never saw any drug-themed machines (alcohol excepted, naturally), but without a doubt, hallucinogenic substances were involved in the design of many a game released during the late Sixties. (Please, somebody, tell me: what the hell's going on here? Perhaps we're looking at merely the first two dimensions of a fantastic multi-dimensional artwork, the full glory of which can only be perceived by ingesting way too much LSD.)

Can you imagine how loud the right-wing nut brigades would scream if Wizard! were released today? That's Tommy's mother hanging on his shoulder? (Proof.) How well would you expect this game to go over in today's hard-core, anti-intellectual, "EXTREEEEEEME!!" society? I don't miss the medieval medicine or the bigotry or the draft, but there are many facets of Sixties and Seventies culture that I wish could bring back.

Afterwards, we fought our way through completely aimless traffic to the Palms, well to the west of the Strip on Flamingo Road, for Mexican food. It was the most disappointing meal I've eaten in Las Vegas in years. Oh, the food itself was all right, but our waiter moved at speeds most typical of geological strata, and the iced tea was so weak that it contained a negative quantity of caffeine. That, and the whole atmosphere bugged me. I'd never seen an entire casino targeted to 22-year-olds who continuously wear black sweaters. You can always find out the age group being catered to in any casino by listening to the background musing. When I turned 21, every gambling hall in Las Vegas played Sixties oldies, with a few exceptions for country/western. Casinos have since diversified a bit, which I appreciate; at Main Street Station, for instance, I generally hear everything from doo-wop to Alanis Morrisette. At the Palms, on the other hand, it was mostly god-awful mainstream "alternative" rock, with a few weird dance tunes just to stop us short of gouging out our eardrums with a margarita stirrer. The sad part, to us old folks, was that at one time Las Vegas was home to our favorite Mexican restaurant ever: Tres Lobos at the Stardust. But all Tres of the Lobos perished years ago, and the Stardust ignominiously followed suit last year. Oh SIGH.

On Saturday the entire gang, except me, saw a magic show at the Imperial Palace on the Strip. I had intended to wander over to Harrah's in search of some decently-paying nickel video poker, but I got caught up watching a couple playing what has to be the world's first anime-themed slot machine. This thing was hilarious—and beyond kawaii. It starred jolly, tubby Super Happy Fortune Cat! and his sidekick Lucky Hamster, whose development was arrested somewhere around day 4 of gestation. Lucky Hamster's limbs, mere buds, had no useful function, but he hardly needed 'em: his raison d'etre was simply to carom off the walls and ceiling of his little square space on the reel, performing the maniacal Happy Dance as the credits counted up and the happy music played. This happened quite a lot, really: he was a wild symbol, matching anything but the SHFC! Himself. On very serendipitous occasions, the first two or more reels would fill up entirely with Supper Happy Fortune Cat!s, triggering the Super Happy Pay! Three bonus spins of the non-SHFC! reels would ensue, each paying at least the bonus for the cat-populated reels. And all the time Super Happy Fortune Cat! would run in place, grinning his ass off, his little elbow-macaroni arms pumping madly. The programmers, either American or Australian (can't tell exactly which from the published game information) clearly had loads of side-splitting fun with the details. Poorly-translated Japanese phrases abounded, the greatest of which was the title and eponymous hero of the game. Random encouragements appeared above the reels after every winning spin. Most made some kind of general sense, like "That's Better" or "You Are Fortunate"; but once it a while a real head-scratcher would get thrown in, such as "Quacking Duck."

I never did get out of the casino. I was still laughing uproariously to Super Happy Fortune Cat!—a mother and daughter, having collected a mostly full screen of deliriously grinning moggies, were in the process of winning over $200 in pennies—when everyone came by to pick me up after the show.

Now a couple days previously, the brother-in-law amazed me by suggesting a visit to the Las Vegas Atomic Testing Museum. Here I'm a huge nuclear testing buff, and I'd never even heard of this museum. Kathy nearly died laughing seeing my face. She knew exactly what I was thinking: Pete had scored a major coup, first by finding out about it before I did, and second, by casually recommending it as a possible activity for Saturday afternoon. Having now been alerted to its existence, I'd made up my mind to go—by myself if necessary. I've even considered visiting the Nevada Test Site, whose history the museum preserves, though it requires special arrangements and no small quantity of driving through sweltering, trackless desert.

The Atomic Testing Museum was located at Seven Hundred Something East Flamingo Road, and here we were already at the Strip and Flamingo. From walking around downtown I knew that the Strip was one block east of Main Street, so to me it sounded as though we had just a six-block walk from the hotel; and I'd also noticed, from my experience downtown, that Las Vegas blocks are really small. Stupid me! I'd made not one, but two fatal errors: it had slipped my mind that the Strip angles west for quite a ways between downtown and Flamingo, and that owing to the greater distance between meridians of longitude the farther south we went, the definition of the city block would inflate by an order of magnitude. For once the heat had backed off just a little: a smattering of cirrus clouds filtered out the worst of the raw sunlight.

We set out at a brisk pace over merely half-molten pavement. Soon we passed Battista's Hole in the Wall, a great restaurant for ambiance (the last time we ate there, a roving accordionist sang "That's Amore" for Kathy, the sister and me). After some time I looked back to see that the Strip hotels had almost merged with the outlying buildings to form a cityscape. We ought to have seen it by now, I mused. At the next intersection I checked our x coordinate: only 100 East! That's where I thought we'd started! I plied Pete with many a heartfelt apology, and reminded him how fast the blocks flew by when we were looking for the Thai restaurant.

We had plenty of time to watch the traffic and despair for the future of humanity. From what I saw I can only conclude that in vehicles licensed for driving in Las Vegas, the circuitry that normally operates the turn signals is diverted to power those stupid cell-phone rechargers that look like the old stretchy spiral phone cords. To give you an idea of just how idiotic people look driving and yapping on the phone with a DNA molecule extending from their neck, I'll point out that they look exactly like the senior citizens sitting tethered to their slot machines by a cord meant to keep them from forgetting their player's club card when some physiological need manages to override the "pull...pull...pull..." circuit. And how appropriate, given that both are essentially mindless activities.

To be honest, one class of drivers in LV are not chemically bonded to their cell phones. These are the assholes who have their ten-kilowatt car stereos pumped up to about 11.2. Forget the nuclear blast simulation at the Atomic Testing Museum (see below); just step outside and walk down Flamingo Road a few minutes and you'll experience shock waves and concussions that will rattle your skull and pulverize every kidney stone you've ever had in your life.

If all that doesn't convince you that Las Vegas drivers are complete morons, on our way to the museum an ambulance came roaring by, light and siren a-blazing and a-whooping. Nobody got out of its way. With four lanes in each direction, and nowhere near bumper-to-bumper traffic, there was more than enough space to pull to one side to let the goddamn emergency vehicle through, already. The ambulance wound up embedded within a flock of SUVs, stuck fast as a damselfly in a spider web. We could almost hear the ambulance drivers screaming obscenities at all the clueless motorists. Certainly they'd reset the siren for "Get Out of the Way, You Imbecile" mode—you know, that random series of short whoops and squawks normally reserved for times when it's necessary to run red lights and drive the wrong way and stuff.

Another ten minutes of walking brought us to a second gigantic intersection, eight lanes meeting eight lanes in a football-field-sized meshwork of lane markings and dire warnings about permissible and non-permissible turns. Two hundred East. Oh, Christ. Our skin had already turned red and white-shiny with sweat brine. Minuscule cracks in my desiccated corneas began to proliferate and widen. Another ten minutes brought us to 208 East: was this some kind of cruel twist on Zeno's paradox? But just as we started to think about turning back in parched disgrace, we realized that the "office building" right in front of us was really the museum! The place had fooled me, not only through camouflage, but also by surrounding itself with empty parking lots. (One reason that I suggested walking was that parking near the Strip can be hellacious during the weekend. If we'd driven, we'd have saved 45 min. at least.) We donned our seven-league (34-km) boots and covered the remaining five blocks in about half a minute. (Is the numbering system in Vegas that screwed up, or were we saved by a kindly wormhole?)

At the top of our priority list upon reaching the museum was to drink the city half dry (well, half dri-er) through the drinking fountain. I could feel the heat radiating off my face; so I washed my face for about ten minutes, for good measure. First time I ever wished the water in a public bathroom sink were colder. Wouldn't be surprised if the staff were accustomed to incoming patrons making a beeline for the potable water, and that would just be from the walk across the parking lot.

On the whole I'd rate the Atomic Testing Museum slightly disappointing with a couple neat surprises. I began to worry when I saw that the introductory video display was little more than a series of clips from Trinity and Beyond. So it came as a shock to see that the very first artifact on display was (purportedly) Albert Einstein's original letter to President Roosevelt in 1939 warning of the possible uses of uranium and urging that special priority be placed on research on uranium fission. From there it went fairly steadily downhill, alas. The museum places very little emphasis on atmospheric testing; I learned nothing new there. In contrast, I knew very little about underground testing at the Nevada Test Site, and the large majority of the tests conducted there were subsurface.

Strategically placed at the center of the exhibition was the Ground Zero Theater. "Experience an atomic test from a distance of six miles!", the guide book read. They do a great job of foreshadowing: klaxons fill the small concrete room with an urgent red pulsing, while the heavy doors slowly creak shut. Happily, they did not commit the near-universal error of sounding a staccato POW! at the very instant of detonation. (If they had, I'd've given the curator on duty a stern reprimand. Damn, that bugs me.) However, the ominous rumble heralding the arrival of the blast wave built up way too quickly, such that the blast itself was only detectable by the sudden ear-splitting hiss of the air jets that were supposed to simulate the shock wave, which almost drowned out the roar of the explosion. This demonstration had managed to be over-dramatized and unsatisfying at the same time. Well, it was loud, anyway; I'll give it that.

Pete had to leave early to get ready to see Spamalot with his family, and so missed the best part of the tour: an exhibition of photos selected by Michael Light for his compilation 100 Suns. At once beautiful and chilling, the images in this collection document the eighteen years of above-ground nuclear testing by the US. It is difficult to comprehend the raw power unleashed in these nuclear explosions, and more difficult still to imagine the horror such devices would wreak on the population of a city. Perhaps Light's photodocumentary will manage to remind those in power that if we are to preserve our humanity, we must never, ever develop or maintain nuclear weapons for any purpose other than as a deterrent.

I'd have liked to stay longer, but our punitively long trek out to the museum forced our visit to run afoul of closing time. Like a complete doofus, I thought it might be fun and challenging to jog back to the Strip to catch my bus downtown. It couldn't be more than, what 105 °F (40.5 °C) outside, and mostly overcast? I was still going strong when I hit the corner of Las Vegas Ave. and Flamingo, so I continued to jog northward, at least where I could amidst throngs of tourists, until I reached the Wynn. Well, one out of two ain't bad: once I'd clambered into the double-decker 'bus and sat down, I realized that my heady sense of euphoria was far more a consequence of heat stroke than of exercise-induced endorphin release. Nothing for it but try to maintain consciousness until I could collapse into a lukewarm shower.

All in all, our vacation was not one of the most profitable visits ever, but definitely one of the strangest. And that's more important.

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Current Tunes: The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs, Vol. 2

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6_bleen_7 From: 6_bleen_7 Date: September 11th, 2007 02:05 am (UTC) (Link)
Very few slot machines have handles anymore; about the only ones that do are those that still have mechanical reels that have nothing but bars and blank spaces on them. Nobody born since World War II broke out plays these machines, but the old-fogey market is so lucrative (not because octogenarian slot players have a lot of money or bet lavishly, but because they have the patience to sit at one machine and play for, say, ten hours without even a pause) that casinos will devote a good chunk of their slot acreage to the classic "one-armed bandits."

Super Happy Fortune Cat!, like most modern slots, has a row of buttons on the front to choose the amount of the bet (and/or the number of pay lines), spin the reels and whatever else is involved in the game. In place of the old reels is a computer monitor. In many complicated slot machines, like Hexbreaker, the screen is touch-sensitive, and the bonus rounds involve touching objects displayed there. (Older video slots have a regular television CRT with resolution too poor to display the kinds of graphics and animation the newfangled ones do.) So, the cat's arms are merely those in the animation (see picture above; the on-screen Super Happy Fortune Cat! looks exactly like that).
samwibatt From: samwibatt Date: September 11th, 2007 05:20 am (UTC) (Link)
Aha! I knew this was out there somewhere. Just the thing for the Tsar Bomba museum!
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