Thursday, October 21, 2010

Nevada - October 21, 1864

James and I drove to Las Vegas in the spring of 1993. We stayed one night and got to eat the the casino buffets pretty cheaply, and I won $5 in the quarter slot machine. We left after that. There would be more to say about the trip if I weren't trying to stick with writing only about positive experiences. (I used my "winnings" to do laundry). We made one other trip to Nevada during the 1990s while we were traveling around the Northwest. We made a quick trip across the California/Nevada border to pick up an additional county for our county map project

21: Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students who Took Vegas for Millions

I expect that to a gambler, professional or amatuer, this book would read like a fairy tale. I found it to be rather disturbing, however engrossing. The display of greed on both the part of the casinos, and the students, was what I found most troubling. How much is enough? When does winning money become more important than relationships? If casinos don't want gamblers to count cards why do they keep running games that can be beat in that manner? And why do they throw people out who have figured out how to beat the system if they haven't broken any laws?

The story followed Kevin, a member of an MIT blackjack team that traveled regularly to Las Vegas to count cards. The perspective of the story was decidedly male, although there were two women on the team. Kevin had two girlfriends, one for each side of his double life. Both were really made out to be accessories. His MIT girlfriend was described as someone who would be good to bring to Thanksgiving dinner with his family, whereas his LA Rams cheerleader girlfriend only ever met up with him in Vegas.

I was struck by the sheer genius of the students, which clashed with some typical adolescent mentalities. Although, given how dag-gone smart they were you'd think they would have caught on the the fact that their gambling days were over when the frequent casino bannings turned violent, but no, they still kept trying, thinking perhaps it was just a coincidence.

Of course any mention of librarians, especially sterotypes, must be given air time here: "Kevin didn't need to glance down the table at Cylan to see that he...was infused with good humor...he looked five years too young to know anything about card counting...He certainly didn't look like an advertising executive with developing marital troubles. And his wife...could have passed for a dowdy college librarian."

I think the book can be summed up with this comment from April, a dancer at the Crazy Horse 2 Strip Club: "Don't be naive. Nobody wins in Las Vegas. Kevin Lewis knows that better than anyone."

Pay It Forward
Most movies about Nevada are about Las Vegas, and Pay It Forward is no exception. What is different is that the movie doesn't focus on the glitz at all. The "Strip" is tangential to the story - it is simply the place where one of the characters, Arlene McKinney (played by Helen Hunt), works her two jobs supporting her son Trevor (Haley Joel Osment). At the behest of his teacher, Mr. Simonet (Kevin Spacey), Trevor attempts to make the world a better place by doing favors for three people, and asking that they, in turn, each do favors for three other people. The Pay-It-Forward experiment eventually takes on a life of its own, even as Trevor believes that it was a failure. This movie has terrific acting, a great plot, and is totally engaging, and has a good message without being too sappy. We even got our 13-year-old daughter to watch the whole thing. She said it was "pretty good". She doesn't readily admit that anything we suggest is any good, so this is high praise.

Since so much of what we ever hear about Nevada focuses on Las Vegas I wanted to find a recipe that would celebrate the more "western" aspect of the state. Nevada magazine provided this piece about chuck wagon cooking in dutch ovens. My daughter and I decided to try to make the doughnuts. The dough was easy to make, and otherwise the instructions seemed pretty simple. Unfortunately, I did not have a good way to test the temperature of the oil, which clearly was way too hot. The doughnuts became very crispy on the outside within about 10 seconds of being dipped in the oil, but remained gooey inside. We also managed to set off our smoke detectors. In a strange twist though, Paloma reported liking them anyway. James and I threw ours away.

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