Vegas, baby

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Vegas, baby

Las Vegas, and I was theoretically prepared for this, is a profoundly, wildly strange town. What follows are little vignettes of my stay here for Infocomm 2012, the trade show for audiovisual nerds.

Disorientation is the default setting for me here, and I have stopped blaming my poor sense of direction. Even the conference centre is laid out such that it has taken two days to figure out the relationship between the North and Central exhibit halls. And yes, I realize there is a pretty big hint in their names, thank you.

Vegas is profoundly, wretchedly unwalkable, and not because of sprawl issues. Obviously, the weather itself is the first and most profound problem: temperatures this week are flirting with 40C. But beyond that, even when relatively short distances are involved, Vegas seems designed to be actively hostile to anyone on foot. Gargantuan city blocks, huge intersections with surprisingly long cycle times, and sidewalks that end abruptly are typical. The lively Downtown seems to be the only exception, with large crowds on the sidewalks, but even there they feel like an afterthought. Almost none of the casinos or hotels I have visited seem to be designed to be walked into: my own hotel, the business-oriented Springhill Suites, is maybe the best example. I thought the modest doorway to the lobby I had been dropped off at (and which, on foot, is my normal means of entering and exiting the complex) was a side entrance to the lobby, until I went looking for the "real" hotel entrance. There is none. That's it. This place has its first seven floors (except the lobby area and lobby-level restaurants) devoted to car parking, and I suppose most guests enter the hotel from the parking levels.

As if to emphasize the wacky transportation infrastructure, Las Vegas has a monorail. Yep, the silliest form of mass transit this side of cable cars, and Vegas has one. That said, if it goes where you want to be, it's fine: cars arrive every six minutes or so, are clean, and it is an acceptable $5/trip (cheap compared to a cab). On the other hand, I was literally standing underneath the Harrah's monorail station, having ineptly walked there by a route that only made sense as a disoriented best effort, looking in vain for any way to get to the platform! I finally spotted a nondescript staircase 100m down the street that led up to the walkway that connected the nearest hotel to the monorail (and the hotel parkade).

The hotels and casinos are nice to walk in, but they are structurally disorienting. This is sort of fun if you're amiably wandering, and it's ok to just go with it. But standing in front of a floor map in the Venetian, with marked points on the map all around me, it took me several minutes to figure out what direction I was facing.

And by the way, the Venetian is just as joyfully crazy an idea as you'd expect: there is a "Grand Canal" located on a floor above street level, with trompe a l'oeil skies painted on the ceilings. It was wonderful and terrible. Then as I popped into a washroom, I was standing beside three men speaking Italian to each other. What the...I don't even...they weren't cast members: just three street-casual Italian men (one wearing a "USA" track jacket, of course), spending their vacation at the Venetian. I never mustered up the courage to ask them, well, to ask them I don't know what.

I wandered over to the World Series of Poker (at the Rio hotel) to sweat a friend, and while poker is fascinating, serious business, the place where the greatest tournament series in the game is dealt out is profoundly banal. Huge ballrooms with hundreds of poker tables set up, and conference room chairs for the players, and this is where games are dealt out with the winners of the tournaments taking home six and seven figure prizes.

The art of vendor seduction was practiced on me very gently by a master of the art, so I got to have a very nice dinner at a nice restaurant called "First." Good conversations too, though as usual I worry that I'm the know-it-all boor at the table, though hopefully I wasn't too much my usual self.

At Infocomm, I haven't seen too many jaw-dropping new technologies, but I did discover a company pursuing the strangest niche technology imaginable. Prysm is touting what they call a "laser phosphor display." imagine the colour-dotted phosphor mask of a traditional CRT design, except that instead of having a vacuum tube with an electron gun behind it, the LPD has a laser shooting at the back of the phosphor mask, stimulating light emission just like an electron beam does in a CRT. No vacuum needed, though! The resolution (or at least the dot pitch) is not impressive, but the power consumption is. They're trying to make it big in certain kinds of digital signage and video wall markets.

And there's the usual raft of Far East vendors arriving with mad technologies at crazy prices, desperately seeking first-world distribution. A presenter-tracking PTZ HD camera for $1500? A five-input seamless HD switcher for about $3000? I know you don't know what that means trust me: those prices are amazing. If the stuff works.

I rode my folding bicycle about 3.5 miles from my hotel to the Rio (see WSOP vignette above). It was painfully hot, the roads were not built for bicyclists, and it was by no means an easy trip, despite the dead flat terrain. No sane person rides a bike in Vegas at this time of the year. When I got to the Rio, they had a bike rack! There were two other bikes parked in it. One was a nondescript cheap mountain bike. The other was a competition grade Quintana Roo triathlon bike, probably worth almost as much as my car. Who owned it and why they rode it to the Rio, I have no idea.

Infocomm has a special International Lounge for foreigners, with refreshments, seating, and free wifi: the three greatest show-floor perks imaginable. I have never been so glad to not be American, and yet I'm fluent in the local language, and I'm still in my own time zone. Being Canadian here is almost like cheating.

My beloved supplier Ben entered his job title as "King of the Bongo." so he walks around the show floor with a perfectly official badge that proclaims him King of the Bongo. It's good to be king.

Dinner conversation tonight fell off the deep end somewhere around the time we started discussing the sad low-level job of handing out hooker cards on the street, a sort of misbegotten pimp-in-training occupation that is ubiquitous in Vegas. This led to the idea of InfoPimp, an international conference on pimps and pimping, and speculation on the metrics and best-practices oriented sessions you might find at such a conference. In my defense, I had been drinking. Then I killed all the fun with a long monologue on monarchy, governance, fiat currency and the problem of ideal currency zones. In my defense, I had been drinking.

My hotel has a decent complimentary breakfast buffet. The highlight is the make-your-own waffle station.

So yes, Vegas is wonderful. And I haven't even been to the Pinball Museum yet.