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Math and Memory in New Lost City

Math and Memory in Las Vegas

There's a place on the New Strip across from the Monte Carlo where you can get your picture taken with a big fat Elvis impersonator in front of a Model A Ford. Why a Model A Ford? I don't know. Maybe the whole of "The Past" occurred simultaneously, at least in Las Vegas, at least apparently. On the other hand, if you go to Vegas with your critical faculties intact, you miss the whole experience entirely.

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Inside the Luxor pyramid, there's a booth where tourists have videos made of themselves riding a "magic carpet" in front of a bluescreen backdrop. They sit on an oriental rug and are superimposed into a pre-taped video of a rocking, reeling ride down Las Vegas boulevard, while employees shout instructions at them about how to look like they're careening around and reacting to stuff. They get to take home a video putting it all together, with a soundtrack consisting of Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" (you know, "close your eyes, girl, look inside, girl ... "). All of this is entirely appropriate, of course, as you know, since there are pictographs inside the Grand Gallery of the Great Pyramid at Khufu in Egypt depicting tourists making a similar video.

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What always amazes and attracts me about Vegas is that it's a town devoted to a branch of mathematics — statistics. The cold, objective, inescapable fact is that you will lose your money. It's as hard and as mundane a fact as any in mathematics. So, the entire city grew up around this fact, like a pearl around a grain of sand. All the lights, the sequins, the wedding chapels, the mythology and history of the place, the Brat Pack, Elvis impersonators, Elvis, Siegfried and Roy, the cheezy Waitsian low-rent romance, the fiberglass-hot-dog architecture, the access and denial-of-access to various VIP areas, the libido of the place, its boundless and peerless T&A — it's all necessitated by the very rigor itself of the logic that demands that you will lose and the house will win. As long as you're dreaming, they know you're asleep ...