Fear and Loathing of Las Vegas
By davew on Nov 07, 2007
While CEC itself was good and very worthwhile attending, Las Vegas does rather more than "put my teeth on edge". If it wasn't for my presentation obligations, getting to see so many of my old pals and wanting to see other folks' breakouts, I'd have been close to rearranging my flights to be out of there within the first 24 hours.
If you want to know why, read on. If not, skip to the next article, which is far more positive and involves guns :-).
From the air, Vegas is very spread-out - it's very unlike most American cities, and if it wasn't for the sheer garishness of the illumination of the Strip and the fairly rigorous geometry of the street patterns, what you see from above at night could almost be mistaken for London.
The first warning bell rang in my head, when I had to walk past ranks of slot machines at the airport. Some of these were even air-side.
When I landed, rather than being bussed to the Paris / Bally where the conference was being hosted, with the rest of the CEC folk, I was picked up by Steve Nelson (Head of the Security Ambassador Board), and he, Luc Wijns (who was on the same 'plane) and I went for dinner and beer at the Crown and Anchor, a "British" pub a little way off the Strip. It's nice to feel welcomed :-).
About the only way in which the place could be described as British in atmosphere involves lots of Union Jacks and regimental colours around the place - British pubs tend not to do neon. Fortunately, some of the beer also came from home, and even though the Americans do a fair amount of damage to a pint of Hen by serving it chilled from a nitro pump, at the end of the day, it's still Hen :-). There were also some British-inspired dishes on the menu (Steve enjoyed a steak and ale pie), however my metabolism was still out of kilter having just spent the better part half a day travelling a third of the way around the planet, so I contented myself with some bacon and cheese potato skins.
We drove to the Strip via some back roads and went into the hotel via a side door, so we didn't see the full horror of the place immediately - however, it took a stroll of some 200 metres through the massed ranks of slot machines and card tables to find Reception. In fact:
Vegas Rule #1: If either your starting point or destination are on the Strip, you have to walk through at least 200 metres of slot machines and card tables to get between points A and B. If points A and B are both on the Strip - even if they are in the same hotel - you can make that 400 metres.
There's an almost-constant beeping in the ears, like tinnitus, when doing anything on the ground floor of a hotel on the Strip.
Then, there's the people sat at these machines and card tables - but it's the ones at the machines which get to you if you look closely. Glazed of eye, they feed money into flashing and beeping contraptions while hitting a very few buttons, for hours and hours at a time; I walked past a little old lady one evening on my way to my room, and she was still there when I came down for breakfast the next morning. The Wachowski Brothers must have been in Vegas, or thinking about Vegas, when they came up with the idea in "The Matrix" that the purpose of humanity is to power the machines.
Vegas Rule #2: You are trapped in the Matrix. Take the blue pill (or the red-eye, the hell out of there). You need to wear shades at night; my photochromatics darkened, when on the Strip after sunset.
Surprisingly, smoking in unsegregated areas of indoor public places is entirely permitted.
Anyway, I checked in - which took 20 minutes of queuing - and headed off to bed; on drawing my curtains back, I was confronted with a replica Eiffel tower. In retrospect, I think the one in Blackpool is taller.
With the effects of several pints of Hen to help me sleep, I managed about 5 hours of shut-eye; not bad, for me, for a first night on a day in which I travelled from BST to PDT with a 2-hour stopover in EDT. One serious soak in the bath in the morning (why is it that American baths, to my view, always seem to be slightly countersunk into the floor?) and I was ready to take an extended stroll to see what Vegas looked like from the ground, while working up an appetite for breakfast.
Vegas Rule #3: Hotel exits are hard to find. Interior lighting is kept to a perpetual early twilight, and exit signs are placed no further than 100 feet before an actual exit. I regularly bumped into colleagues who were looking lost, asked them what they were looking for, and was told "daylight". I hate to think what would happen in the event of a fire; maybe the casinos have emergency floor lighting, like passenger aircraft...
The Strip looks like Second Life. Actually, that's not true; I suspect a bunch of Second Life was modelled on Vegas. One thing's for sure, all the hallucinogens left over at the end of the '60s must have been force-fed to the architects tasked with designing the place. There's a life-size castle which looks like it was built from 30-foot-a-side Lego bricks, a 3-storey high Coke bottle, a bike shop with half of a 1-storey high Harley coming out of the wall above the door, a scaled-down New York skyline (interestingly, minus the Twin Towers) , a pyramid (incongrous in black, and with a many-storey high Vodka advert on it) with an upward-pointing light source which the FAA must still be complaining about, and everywhere, slot machines and card tables in seemingly-endless rows. In the middle of "New York' New York"'s main slot machine floor, stands one of the most outstanding products of a diseased mind I've seen; render Marilyn Monroe in classic "Seven Year Itch" skirt-blowing pose in stone, and modify it by raising her right arm, putting a torch in her right hand and planting the Statue of Liberty's crown on her head.
If Vegas looks like this to a clean and sober security geek, I can begin to understand what Hunter S. Thompson used to see there.
Vegas Rule #4: Read "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" before you go. What's there today, isn't what St. Hunter was seeing in the '70s, but it's a helluva lot weirder than what was actually there when he was, and almost as weird as what he was seeing.
Indoors, it's hard to get away from the beeping without going to a presentation, or your room. Outdoors, it's hard to get away from the flicking of cardboard on cardboard, as though there's always someone within a few feet of you doing a riffle shuffle on a card deck. What the folk (usually appearing to be of Mexican or other Central / South American origin) doing this are actually doing, is propagating "tart cards", advertising the personal services of "ladies of negotiable affection", as Mr Nelson and I like to refer to them (with a tip of the hat to Pratchett). Even though I'm given to understand that prostitution, while legal in most of the rest of Nevada, is actually illegal in the county in which Vegas sits, it nonetheless goes on openly. Actually, it must be a really hellish job to be a Vegas cop; not only are most residents likely to have fully-automatic ordnance at their disposal, but in order to have anyone notice the roof lights on your car at night on the Strip, you'd have to replace them with at least Class III lasers...
Anyway, on the Sunday (being the day after) I landed, there were a few things I needed to do; among these was "mandatory speaker training", which I went to with an open mind, and came out of with some useful new ideas on presentation technique. There was a huge dinner laid on for Sun folk, in the evening; the food wasn't bad, and I welcomed the opportunity to catch up with a big bunch of friends. Bumping into Wolfgang Ley, I found that he'd already done a bunch of research into where the local microbreweries were, and marked them on his map; with Steve Gaul also on hand (we needed to discuss the finer points of what we were going to cover in our presentation and workshop on the Monday - plus, Steve also likes his beer), Wolfie and I decamped to one in yet another nearby hotel / casino complex, which - even though it no longer brewed on the premises - carried "Sin City Stout". I'm not much of a Stout drinker at the best of times, but this stuff did a good job of converting me to the chocolate-malt cause:-).
Vegas Rule #5: You can still find a good locally-brewed pint, if you know where to look :-).
Waking up at a sane hour on Monday morning after a good night's stout-induced sleep (whew), my agenda read: "Breakfast, general sessions, breakout setup and test, breakout, deep-dive, try not to panic during any of the previous two entries, dinner". I'm pleased to say (as in the CEC posting previously) that the breakout and deep-dive were both well-received; no CEC dinner was organised in the evening, so a bunch of us found a nice Italian restaurant tucked away in the back of another hotel / casino complex (restaurants are always at the back, see Rule #1) and had a really rather good dinner. It always helps to have Italians (principally Domenico) on hand to choose the wine at such occasions, of course!
Tuesday, I've mostly covered in the CEC article (with the major exception of the fun had at lunchtime, but that's the next post); about the only other point worth mentioning is to agree with Tim Bray about Vegas not being set up for pedestrians (although Joel and I took the first bus back from the party; Tim did better than us, by actually managing to get 3 kebabs). I was in the mood for dining Oriental, but anything Oriental seems to be ridiculously overpriced in Vegas; when steaks are on a financial par with Singapore noodles, Something is Very Wrong. In the end, we ended up dining pseudo-French, back at our own hotel, hours later.
Wednesday was a "general sessions, and get out of Vegas". I was disappointed to miss the post-wrap-up Security Ambassador get-together, but that's flight times for you. The views of the Nevada desert from the window, heading out to LA, were spectacular; I've never seen anywhere quite so seemingly untouched by Man. Quite the welcome contrast to Vegas.