February 29, 2008

Musings on this Wicked Town

What to say about Las Vegas?

The conspicuous consumption, first. We're fighting a war, and soldiers are dying or being maimed, to control precious calories of energy. So to see so many kilowatts (not to mention gallons of water) bring poured out into the desert for the sole purpose of entertainment is pretty horrific. There is no shortage of new construction here - explansion, new casinos, old one's being imploded. I'm am reminded of Sheryl Crow (she of "Leaving Las Vegas"), another song that starts "I like a good beer buzz, early in the morning" - and Vegas is the sort of place where drinking before noon might seem like a good idea. Lots of people on the street look like they've started early.

Not only that, but everything is faux. The Eiffel Tower. The Statue of Liberty. A pyramid. Roman architecture. The bridge of the Starship enterprise. You name it, it's here - scaled down slightly but impressive nonetheless. I watched the crowd circle the fake lake at the Bellagio, practically weeping as the syncronized water fountains and light show danced to Toby Keith's "Proud to be an American".

I'm here for a conference on electical power quality. Lots of folks here make their living designing data centers - for internet server farms, for telecom sites, and yes, for casinos. All these slot machines are computerized these days. There's a ton of work here in Vegas as well as Atlantic City, but also at all the Native American casinos springing up in the 48 states that are not so permissive in terms of gambling. Vegas is the American dream taken to it's final iteration. Somehow, the fact that Native American are profiting from (and pushing us ever so slightly) down the slippery slope to social collapse and perdition, seems right and proper. Payback, as they say, is a bitch.

I went out to dinner last night with a client and his wife. They are Indian (the subcontinent variety, not the Native Ameerian version) and we ate at a delightful and delicious Indian restaurant called Tamba. Tamba is sanskrit for copper. Copper is the humblest of metals; it remains the metal most associated with the penny (now made mostly of zinc). Both zinc and copper prices have risen - the penny is worth more melted down to it's raw materials than its value as currency.

We're outsourcing our data centers to India. We're also outsourcing our engineering - I heard a story on NPR regarding national competence in math and science. Places like China and India are outstripping the United States in preparing kids for technical careers. Ask a kid from the USA what they want to be when they grow up. An athlete maybe, or some flavor of celebrity. Ask in India - they want to be a doctor or a scientist. My client and his wife have two daughters - both have masters degrees and professional careers, one in engineering, one in medicine. they are worried about the daughters getting married, but not about them being successful in life.

As we ate, I looked up at a mural depicting an Indian village - with a musical group looking much like my kirtan ensemble, lithe women passing out prasad. I thought of yoga, of quieting my mind, looking for inner silence. Here in Vegas, that sort of contemplative space is hard to find. I'm at the far end of the terminal, last stop before jumping onto a plane headed home, and the flashing lights and cheerily bouncy music of a banks of slot machines continues to assault my senses.

At the conference, war stories are traded - and everyone has a story about how metal thieves stole the copper wiring out of a construction site, or an old building, or a piece of equipment or facility left unattended too long. It's easier to earn a living these days by stealing and fencing hundreds of pounds of copper than it is to actually find and work a job.

So that's Las Vegas. A city of pretense, a city that organized crime built and the seven deadly sins keeps expanding. I can't get out of here fast enough. It will take a lot to wash the dust of this town off my soul.....

No comments: