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Viva Las Vegas, Seriously

Last week, I requested your suggestions for things to do with 24 spare hours in Las Vegas. This is what’s known as a bleg — i.e., using your blog to beg for something.

You were so smart and generous with your suggestions that we’ve decided to try out the bleg as a regular feature, though probably not quite in the way you’re thinking. Details will follow in the near future.

In the meantime, let me thank you for the Vegas tips. I obviously couldn’t exploit all of your suggestions, but I did tackle a few, and as a result this was the best trip I’ve ever had to Vegas. Here’s a brief report:

Penn and Teller: Quite a few of you recommended this show, and you were all right. Penn and Teller are a perfect team, and individually they are great performers. Teller’s sleight-of-hand is masterful: I loved the coins and goldfish, and the saxophone/dancing tissue bit is utterly beguiling. Penn is so good at so many things that it’s easy to overlook how damn smart he is; his patter alone (it’s pretty libertarian) is worth the price of admission. What I loved most about the show is that it’s a tribute to old-fashioned stagecraft. The emphasis is on the act; there are no diversionary explosions or lights or even music. You have to be really good to do this kind of show, especially in a day and age in which audiences are accustomed to bombast. Years ago, back when the duo lived in New York, Penn ran a little midnight-movie club that met every Friday night at Howard Johnson’s in Times Square. I went a couple times — we had a mutual friend — and it was one of those gangs that seems to only convene in New York: quirky, erudite, ambitious, old-fashioned, querulous. The Penn and Teller show, I am happy to report, successfully transplants that same vibe to Las Vegas. I’m also happy to report that it looks like Penn and Teller will submit to a Freakonomics Q&A, probably in the spring when their new season of Bullshit is ready for Showtime.

The Gun Store: Following the advice of several readers, I took time to visit the Gun Store and do some shooting. I grew up around hunters and other folks who liked guns, but I haven’t done all that much shooting myself. I had a fine time at the Gun Store’s indoor range with a Beretta pistol, and I shot an Uzi for the first time. There were nine paper targets to choose from. I chose Osama bin Laden for the Uzi (it just seemed the right thing to do). You don’t have to be a very good shot to achieve your objective with an Uzi, and boy did I. The shredded bin Laden target is now hanging on my office wall.

Hoover Dam: I am a sucker for “engineering marvels,” and this one was astounding to see, not just for the engineering but for the sheer visual beauty. The underground tour wasn’t really that interesting, but you can see and learn from aboveground most of what you want to know. Most impressive is the fact that the project was completed two years ahead of time. A concrete highway bridge is currently being built across the dam, and it will probably end up taking longer to build than the whole dam itself. How is this possible? How did a massive construction project like the Hoover Dam get completed in such a relatively short time more than 70 years ago, with so much less technology than we have today?

One answer is that safety wasn’t as much of a concern: according to my tour guide, more than 90 men died during construction. It takes a lot of time (and money) to build things safely; the regulatory and insurance environments are also obviously very different today. Still, it does make you wonder.

The concrete dam itself is incredibly thick, and I couldn’t help wondering if it was perhaps vastly over-engineered and overbuilt since it was created without a computerized model. This thought came to me because of a passage in Alan Weisman‘s The World Without Us (a fascinating book despite a tone I found anti-human), which discussed how the decades-old bridges of New York City would outlast nearly everything else around them:

“These bridges are so overbuilt, traffic’s like an ant on an elephant,” [said Jerry Del Tufo, who managed the bridges for the Port Authority]. In the 1930s, with no computers to precisely calculate tolerances of construction materials, cautious engineers simply heaped on excess mass and redundancy. “We’re living off the overcapacity of our forefathers. The [George Washington Bridge] alone has enough galvanized steel wire in its three-inch main cables to wrap the Earth four times. Even if every other suspender rope deteriorated, the bridge wouldn’t fall down.”

Flamingo Casino: In response to my bleg, I got an e-mail from Chris Tam, a bright young guy who works in marketing at the Flamingo. He offered a backstage tour; I took him up on it, had a good time, and learned a great deal about not only the gaming floor, but various operations in the casino. Thanks, Chris.

And thanks again to all of you for the generous responses to my Vegas bleg. Keep your eyes open here for our upcoming bleg project.