Wednesday, November 25, 2015

"How can we see something from the origin of the universe?"

Physicists have a lot of very good evidence that the universe inflated from a singularity, a single point, approximately 13.8 billion years ago. Some of the evidence comes indirectly from mathematical models, but physicists can also detect and investigate the echo left from this time because that echo remains today. The entire universe is bathed in a sea of microwaves, called the cosmic microwave background (CMB). The CMB is direct evidence for the Big Bang theory, as it is called. If you have an old TV set you can see CMB photons contributing to the static on the screen. This echo is still here because it has nowhere else to go.

The unimaginable energy (here, think about all the current matter and energy in the entire universe squeezed into a microscopic space) of the Big Bang unleashed a fury of extremely energetic photons called gamma rays. They shot around in every direction, crashing into other particles. Some of those photons are striking Earth today billions of years later, but as microwaves rather than gamma rays (fortunately). About 300 photons are flying through very square centimeter of space right now. There are so many of them, only a tiny fraction of them have stuck other particles and transferred their energy into other forms. Where are they coming from?

To get our answer we need to take a look at the expansion of the universe. No one knows why the universe expanded from a single point or what existed, if anything, before that. What physicists do know is that the Big Bang was the origin of both space and time, as we understand it. Space and time are described as dimensions in a four-dimensional theory called general relativity. Physicists can theoretically trace events back to about 1/32nd of a second after the universe popped, or banged, into existence. Before that time, current theories about how space-time operates break down into nonsense, so it is impossible to peak into the very first moments of our universe.

Shortly after the Big Bang (a tiny fraction of a second), the universe, according to most well established theories, went through a brief period where its expansion rate increased to faster than light speed. Physicists can prove that galaxies farthest away from us are also traveling away faster than light speed because we are now once again in an era of accelerating expansion. These two periods of accelerating expansion owe themselves to different mechanisms.

All of this faster than light business does not violate the special relativity rule that says that nothing, even light, can travel faster than light speed, because space-time ITSELF is the thing doing the moving, or expanding in this case.

How can we see the CMB when it is the oldest stuff in the universe? Shouldn't all those photons be invisible because they are moving away from us faster than they could travel toward us? The CMB permeates the entire universe. That includes the part of the universe that is not moving away from us faster than light speed. This is the CMB that is detectable. Everything is traveling away from everything else in the universe but the expansion is cumulative. You can't even detect it on the scale of our own galaxy but as you get further and further away over great distances, that miniscule expansion rate accumulates so that as you observe regions very far away, you are seeing photons coming from very old stars and their motion is approaching light speed. There is evidence of a much larger invisible universe outside the boundaries of the visible universe. Photons in this outer region will never reach us so it is invisible to us. When you look at the oldest stars you are seeing stars that are long burnt out. You are seeing the light that shone from huge white-hot stars that were born when the universe was just hundreds of millions of years old. In other words you can see ghost of stars that once were. There may currently be new stars in that region that are generations younger but their light hasn't reached you yet.

Expansion of the universe had a significant effect on CMB. Each photon travelling randomly through space travelled while that space expanded. As space expanded, the wavelength of each photon was increasingly stretched across it. What started as very short wavelength gamma photons are now long wavelength microwaves. We can no longer see them because they are now in the invisible part of the spectrum. If you could put on glasses that let you see in the microwave spectrum, you would see the universe glowing all around you. You might be wondering: does this mean that those photons lost their energy to space somehow? No, although this "tired light" hypothesis had some traction decades ago, apart from colliding with other particles and transferring their energy, photons retain as much energy as when they were created. There is no "friction" in the vacuum of space.

An important point to keep in mind is that there is nothing outside the universe, at least according to most theories. A common analogy used to think about the expanding universe is an expanding balloon, but there are some key differences. While a balloon expands into the space around it, there is no space for the universe to expand into, not even a vacuum. The surface of the balloon is a two-dimensional surface expanding outward, whereas the universe is expanding spatially in three dimensions. You can get a simplified idea of what the expansion looks like if you draw a few dots on a balloon with a marker and then blow it up. The dots grow further and further apart from each other as the balloon expands. In reality, however, the dots, which are galaxies of stars, are embedded in the substance of the balloon. A better analogy might be raisins moving apart from one another in a rising loaf of bread. There is an additional quality of space-time that the balloon doesn't illustrate. All the matter dotted throughout the universe affects space-time. It stretches space-time's four-dimensional fabric. Space-time stretches as the universe expands, taking everything in space along for the ride, but matter itself also stretches space locally. Like a bowling ball on a trampoline, a massive object such as a galaxy makes a depression in space-time, except the depression is in four dimensions rather than in three.

Space-time is also a relative fabric. The theory of special relativity says that how a section of space-time looks and behaves depends on how fast you are traveling relative to it. Think of an object like a spaceship travelling close to light speed through space relative to you. In other words it could be flying through space past you as you float in a space station. Its spatial length would appear to be squished. It would look like a short squat ship. It would appear as thin as sheet of paper if it were going almost exactly light speed. People on the space ship wouldn't notice anything weird. The ship's time frame would also stretch. Those people could travel to some planet light years away, settle down and colonize, and still be decades younger than you when they returned for a visit. The movie, Interstellar, illustrates this unsettling effect very well. Exactly at light speed, relative time stops altogether. If you could hitch a ride on the back of a photon, your children would live their lives, the entire history of mankind would play out, in fact the universe would unfold to its end around you and you would not have time to even blink. It would all play out instantly to you. Time also plays this tricky maneuver at the event horizon of a black hole. In this case, time slows down relative to the space around it because space-time around a massive black hole is stretched infinitely by mass concentrated to a point of infinite density. Here, too, however, the rules of physics break down and there is speculation about exactly goes on inside one.

If we get back to CMB for a moment, there is another way to think about why those original photons are still everywhere. Because the universe is a self-contained expansion of what was originally a singular point, there is no location in the universe that you can label as the starting point of that expansion. The entire universe is the starting point. Although scientists (correctly) talk about the oldest stars being those that are farthest away from us, it can be a bit misleading. It doesn't mean that space-time is youngest in the center, and that center is surrounded by older shells of space-time. The space-time of the whole universe is the same age. The whole universe is that point in space 13.8 billion years after it started to expand. That being said, there are older and younger stars. The oldest stars, mentioned earlier, first began to shine just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Thanks to the universe being a giant self-contained Big Bang, we can see almost the entire evolution of the universe just by observing photons of light. All the ghosts and echoes of the past are still there. From Earth, distant stars are moving away in all directions. They are red-shifted, or Hubble shifted. The most distant stars are the oldest stars and they are moving away fastest. This is not because Earth is in the center of the universe. It is because everything is moving away from everything. If you could jump into a wormhole and travel instantly somehow to any distant planet in any distant galaxy, you could look up in the night sky there and see the same phenomena. Distant stars would be moving away in all directions and the oldest most distant ones would moving away fastest, approaching light speed.

By mapping out the ancient CMB photons across the visible sky, scientists can glimpse what the very young universe looked like. Its energy wasn't perfectly homogenous. Those slight variations in density created tiny gravitational pockets into which matter tended to clump, forming the first stars and galaxies. Those ancient photons could not travel freely when they were first created. The universe was so dense and energetic that they constantly banged into electrons and protons. When the universe was about 380,000 years old, the density of electrons and protons was low enough that photons could travel for distances between them. From then on, they were free to travel not outward into the universe but in all directions as the universe expanded outward. That is why we can see back into the universe's past only up to 380, 000 years after the Big Bang. By observing a similar map of neutrinos, however, physicists hope to see the ghost of an even younger universe, because neutrinos escaped and began to stream long before photons could. The tricky part here is that neutrinos are themselves almost ghostlike particles. They are very difficult to detect.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Nerd In Vegas

We were newbies. At 50, it might seem difficult to manage not to have gone to Las Vegas even once. My husband signed up for the November Rock n' Roll Race along with a handful of good friends so I tagged along. We've been curious for years: What the heck is Las Vegas?

Note: All prices except stated otherwise are in American dollars as of November 2015. Right now us Canucks are paying an additional 30% thanks to our weak dollar. The prices are included because part of my argument here is whether it was worth it or not. We wanted to stay on the strip and have what we thought would be a real Vegas Experience. Quite a few friends we talked to usually stay off-strip for a little as $50/night and pay much less for restaurant meals. This is our experience along with a little additional information attained through some online sleuthing.

As we landed I could see the city hovering in the desert like a mirage. Even in daytime, it is alluring at first sight, full of promise and magic. We chose a rental car and except for a few misleading exit signs the drive to our hotel was straightforward. Our friends chose to take a taxi to their hotel. Here's where things begin to get interesting, and none of us, even non-newbies, knew any of this. Just to get in a cab in Las Vegas you are charged $3.30. There is an additional $1.80 surcharge for airport pickup/drop-off. There are waiting time fees. Some cabbies will tell you there is an additional mandatory tip as well. In Edmonton, you just get in the cab and the metre tallies up your minutes. I think in most cities it's a pretty standard interaction. Here fares are murky, and often way too high. There is much written online about Las Vegas cabbies taking the long haul route to your destination. They will drive to hell and back to get from point A to point B and being a newb you don't know any better. I sensed this when some friends and we took a cab from our hotel to Freemont Street. According to the map it's a straightforward jaunt from the MGM Signature, where we stayed, to the end of the strip. At night, we were turning off and on ramps and speeding around other cars. The ride was $30, too steep really.  After a little online sleuthing to see what other people have experienced, I have this tip for other newbies (if there are any left in the world besides us): say, "Please take the most direct route. I don't want to go on the freeway."

Joe booked a room for us at the Signature at MGM Grand. The drive to the three towers, the valet service offered, and the grand lobby entrance all make you feel you are in for an exclusive and ritzy experience. There was a hiccup when we checked in. Joe paid for four nights through air-miles, a third party provider, and there was no record of us in their books. After much rummaging through printoffs and waiting around, we managed to produce our confirmation number. I don't know whether air miles or the hotel dropped the ball there. We also dropped the ball by not having all documents within easy reach. Newbie note: make sure you have every document with you and handy, especially if you book through anywhere but the hotel directly.

Our room was very nice with a lux marble tiled bathroom (which is emphasized on the website, of course). For the base price I thought it was a fairly decent deal for a very good room, around $240/night (Canadian). This was the standard price we got while using air miles. If there is a sale, you won't see that reflected in your air mile usage.  It varies by time of year and who you book with, in American dollars, it costs about 30% less, and I would recommend it both for good service and for proximity to the strip (while still being quiet). We found out from friends staying there with us that these rooms are owned and then rented out as hotel rooms, a cool idea. They don't have pressure-sensitive minibars (thank you) but instead have a mini kitchen. If we were to stay there again, we would have asked for the kitchen utensils (not in room but supplied if you ask) and then go to Walgreens on the strip for yogurt, fruit and muffins for every breakfast except for one (rationale coming), for convenience in the morning, a healthier option, and because it is much cheaper.

Not so cool were additional rates charged. First, to print off a few race registration sheets cost us $9. Even less cool was the fact that the MGM pool complex unknown to us was closed for the season (although in fairness I rechecked the website and it does state clearly it is closed now; maybe we arrived just as it closed). We were looking forward to the lazy tube ride and the pools.  Not being able to use any of this, we were charged an additional $29 (American) per day for a resort fee. Really guys?  If the complex was still open, according to the hotel website you must pay for a spa pass of $25 (American) per day per person in addition to the resort fee. Huh? To rent a tube for the lazy river costs an additional $16. To rent a cabana is free (and Tripadvisor reviewers warn that this is the only place you will find shade when it gets fiery hot in summer). The catch there is that you must buy at least $400 (American!) in drinks/snacks to qualify I believe that's for two and it goes up from there, according to a reviewer question on Tripadvisor from 2012. The website only states that a minimum food/beverage purchase is required. We still had access to the hot tub and pool of our tower, however, and we had the place almost to ourselves. Still, I think you can see where this is going. $240/night quickly balloons to almost $1000/night and you still must find breakfast and dinner somewhere and some kind of nightlife. If that is in your budget I say go for it but I would have been miserable spending a fortune just to stay comfortable there in the summer, and I'm still a bit peeved about it in the winter, frankly. Lesson: Everything costs in Vegas. By the way, a newbie tip here is that many add-on fees are not easy to find on hotel websites, especially the pricey strip hotels. I wonder how many people arrive to a far more expensive stay than what they planned on. I find this business approach insulting to guests who are paying a premium for good rooms in a good hotel. For comparison, I experienced one-on-one service with unlimited activities, full access, and almost free amenities including drinks and great local healthy food at an ecoresort in Costa Rica a few years ago, called Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge. I just checked the website: It's $230/day during the green season (when we stayed), very exclusive (can get there only by plane and then boat) and a hell of a lot more fun. If you read some of my other articles you know I try to be ecologically responsible. On this point I argue that even a non-ecoloving person would prefer this other option, although admittedly you will not find sequins, high heels, "call girls" or slot machines. How ecofriendly is Vegas, I wonder?  I'm going to get to that.

When we landed we wanted an early supper so we set off exploring. The towers are connected nicely to the MGM proper, a fairly short walk that includes moving pedways. Once in MGM Grand, however, we entered an endless smoke-and-racket filled casino that is a maze to navigate through. I don't spend time in casinos so its appeal is limited. Good restaurants, or at least restaurants with celebrity chef names attached to them, branch off these gambling caverns. All other high-end hotel complexes we visited were the same in this regard. You had to walk through the casino to get to a good restaurant, to see a Cirque show, to get out of the hotel, to get anywhere actually. And every one is a maze.

Here is one thing I just don't get. All these restaurants seem to open into the smoky casino air. Not only is it unappetizing to walk through a cloud of smoke to eat, but you are also entering a cavern within a cavern. There are no windows anywhere. I don't understand the appeal of a $150 Gordon Ramsey steak dinner (for some wine and dessert, add $100, and I mean per person here). Even if the décor in these restaurants is really stunning (at least what I could see peeking in).

We kept on and made our way to the monorail station. If you want to see the main highlights of the strip, buy a day pass. For two of us it costs $24, one of the few charges I felt was totally reasonable as it connects you quickly to several key tourist destinations on the strip (traffic on the strip at night is too congested for a car but I had a reason for the car rental, coming up). By now it was dark and the strip lights were indeed dazzling. We had found ourselves buying a Fat Tuesday drink on the way (a boozy slush drink in an insulated cup). These were indeed good and every flavour we tried was delicious. We found it fun a bit thrilling to walk around with a boozy drink all over Vegas as it is most definitely legal to do so within the city. They are $15 each and $10 if you bring back your cup to reuse. I give them an eco nod for the reusing option. There are Fat Tuesdays and their knock-offs all over, almost as many as there are Starbucks. The Starbucks in our hotel charged twice as much as the ones near the strip. As breakfast options are limited right at the towers (there is only one small café and Starbucks) it seemed natural to just get two lattes, two yogurt/fruit cups and a doughnut for breakfast, until we got our bill, $45! With that option shut down, we reacted by going big and going tiny on following mornings. On Sunday morning before the race, we opened our wallets and enjoyed the champagne brunch at the MGM. It costs about $28 each, a great deal compared to Starbucks, and it was good! Great food, great service, lots of choices, wonderful champagne orange juice. We took our time, got very full and got giggly. I consider that a worthy indulgence. It got our spirits up when we were starting to wonder about this whole Vegas thing. To go tiny we trekked to the food court in the MGM. Perfectly acceptable breakfasts can be had here on a much smaller dime. Still not uber-cheap by any means. And where can a soul get a piece of fruit or vegetables to nibble on? God help vegans in Las Vegas.

What got to me, and I think to my friends and possibly most visitors as well, is that absolutely nothing is straightforward. What should be a simple walk down the strip is in fact a maze. Before you know it you are finding yourself walking up across a pedway into yet another hotel, and more specifically into its rambling casino. It may be Bally's or Paris or New York, New York, Caesar's Palace or the Venetian. Regardless, you will be fighting your way through a smoky casino maze to get to any of the "good" stuff like miniaturized versions of Paris. Or Rome. Or something. Getting off at monorail stops is no different. Your first sight will be maybe a few shops and then a casino. I would think more than a few people start to get as creeped out by this as I did. Even if you choose to simply walk the strip, you are in a noisy congested maze of people, sights and lights. Tack three times onto to any length walk you plan to make. Forget Google's walk time estimates. They're no good here because time and space in Vegas operate according to their own mysterious physics.

On this point I found myself experiencing a really odd mix of emotions. It is overwhelming and in a vague sense alluring. At low moments I felt like part of herd of cattle marching to some unseen slaughterhouse and I started to feel manipulated, as if "They" are going to get my money one way or another and I will eventually realize I am powerless to stop it. I started to feel really angry toward "Them." I was going to have my own Vegas vacation on my own goddamn terms, thank you! As a tourist, it is hard not to feel more than a bit manipulated or at least micro-managed. Who are "They" I wondered. I will get to that.

Despite this, we found our way to small treasures. There are very good little eateries all around the artificial cities and there are cheap eats on the strip but you generally must look for them. For example, Jean Philippe Chocolates and Pastries in the Bellagio, is a really wonderful place to stop and eat. This man is a world renowned pastry chef. The cascading glass chocolate fountain is dazzling and the pastries and treats are beautiful to the eye and welcomed by the taste buds. We got some great savoury crepes there. The salmon in mine was astoundingly fresh, as fresh as seafood right off the shores of Vancouver Island. This led me to research, and perhaps it is no surprise that Vegas boasts one of the most sophisticated food supply infrastructures in North America. Ingredients are shipped fresh and fast from around the globe, and you can find everything here from fresh wild salmon to sea urchin to any caviar you desire, etc. For a steep price, however. And served in a cavern. There is great pizza to be had in a shop in Ceasars Palace. There is a fantastic pub with a really good beer list in The Venetian. Most of these offerings were on the reasonable side and they were all very good. I don't know what the right way to do Vegas is but this approach seemed like a sound option. We also got to try White Castle fare and Crispy Crème doughnuts, two American treats that have been on our to-do list for some time. I suppose the other option, if you have a big budget or simply want to do Vegas BIG, is to try several high-end famous chef restaurants. There are many. However, I did find it somehow distasteful to discover that Mr. Ramsey represented himself in at least three eateries, covering the entire price spectrum. It seems a bit obvious that this is easy money for an already wealthy man. And what do I get for this? Certainly Mr. Ramsey himself is nowhere to be found. Perhaps a plaster likeness of him would yell at me as I walk into his restaurant: "You STUPID COW!!" This idea in general somehow seems a bit dated to me. I go back to my earlier comment that if I want to spend money on a chef eatery, give me a chef in his own native restaurant where he lives and creates, where he sources his ingredients from the local farms. He doesn't have to famous. NOW I will happily give over $300 to enjoy a truly transcendent culinary adventure. But not here in this fake jungle. It's on principle now. And the principle, I learned online is called "the concept-driven restaurant." This, along with craft beers, is a new trend and Vegas is playing catch-up.

I found to my surprise stunning art in Vegas. It is all around to be had for free. You just have to enjoy it. To get to that patisserie I mentioned we walked through the Bellagio conservatory and the Fiori di Como – the glass ceiling flower art – in the hotel lobby. I spent several minutes aiming my camera upward to photograph it. And I spent several minutes just looking at it, so beautiful! The glass artist, Dale Chihuly, is very accomplished and he was commissioned to make this piece in 1998. It cost $10 million to create and consists of 2000 hand-blown glass blossoms that weigh 40,000 pounds all together, all supported by a 10,000 pound steel armature. Between 2 and 5 am every day, a team of about eight engineers clean and maintain it. This piece reminded me of my most favourite glass art, the modern stained glass windows in Hereford Cathedral in England. The windows were inspired by the poetry of a 17th century Hereford poet, Thomas Traherne. My sister bought this poetry book for me when we visited there on a walking holiday. It is spiritual poetry that is stunning in its descriptive powers of the human heart, as stunning as the sound of the organ and singers in that wonderfully atmospheric cathedral. Now in Vegas, does the Fiori di Como achieve spiritual depth (or height)? Should it? I read online that many people come just to see the flowers and many of them sit under them for hours contemplating them. Others lay on the floor to see them best. Could they be so hungry for something beautiful in a real sense? I was.

In the following days, I looked for art and found it in installments, sculptures, and in galleries. It is good art, or at least art that made me stop, think, examine and question. Picasso and Salvador Dali works could be found as well as other artists I had never heard of that I thought were even more fascinating. There is a gallery devoted to the work of a Russian artist in the Forum shops at Caesars Palace, that is just, how can I say this, utterly intriguing.

While Joe ran a half-marathon, I thought to myself as I explored: Vegas itself is a marathon. I need stamina to get to all the places I want to see, and I need to pace myself and guard against sensory exhaustion. It is both feast and assault to your senses. There is beautiful and even sublime if you look. There is also tacky, gross, depressingly sad and just plain weird. It is both thrilling and disorienting. I kind of loved it a little bit, but in the same way as the line in the movie Backdraft, "The only way to beat fire is to love it a little." You need to be on guard in Vegas. I could sense its predatory nature and, in fact, I suspect predation is really what Vegas is all about. It is sometimes subtle. It knows that you are going to eventually say to yourself, "Well I'm here so I might as well . . ." and that is when you begin to contribute your share to the massively expensive infrastructure that is Vegas. It is a machine carefully designed to relieve you of your money, and it will most often do it while you are enjoying yourself.

It feeds on your weaknesses: shopping, gambling, drinking, eating, and sex in any way you can imagine it, and pride too because there seems to be an unwritten rule here: don't look cheap or poor. You can look tacky though, and in fact here I think tacky gets you fashion points. Newbie tip:  Especially if you have a bit of a psychological interest, watch people's faces while they walk, while they eat, and while they party and gamble. I felt sometimes I was witnessing seethingly powerful forces in our collective unconscious at work as I walked, especially after dark. I felt my own mysterious urges and thoughts stream upward to greet me at strange and unexpected times. I knew I was experiencing only the glitzy shell of Vegas, but I could vaguely sense something ugly deeper inside, truths about Vegas that maybe cabbies, the police and social workers know too well. There is also raw celebratory energy in places and I could see many people simply letting loose according to what appeared to be a more innocent agenda. Is that so bad? I let it take me over a few days later as I danced with our friends at the open-air concert on Fremont Street. It felt good to let it all go. It feels as good now to let the little kid inside gawk around inside fake Venice, Rome and Paris. They are fun; we both enjoyed walking around in them. But these themed places will never age gracefully like the originals. There is a brutal obsolescence built into them, because what's currently "in" changes on a dime, and I can feel they are already missing the mark. Look with your rose-coloured glasses and there is romance in Vegas too, even if it comes from a fake streetlamp shining gold light onto fake cobblestone. There are numerous places to stop and steel a kiss with your sweetheart.

We spent lots of money to see "O" on our first night there and it did not disappoint. These Cirque du Soleil shows offer magic and awe and they are gloriously beautiful. We see the traveling shows whenever we can in home in Edmonton. This was our chance to see a permanent show. The technical achievement of it utterly fascinates me as I think about it. Newbie suggestion: do see at least one show in Vegas. I think a burlesque show or magic show could be equally fun. It was a good introduction to Vegas because Vegas itself, I was learning, is theatre. As long as I kept this knowledge in mind, I enjoyed my experience and let some of its magic in. Even the ubiquitous casinos are theatre, really. There is a spectrum on offer from techno-new (MGM, Bellagio) to an old school glamorous/a-little-sleazy. I am thinking of the quite wonderful but horribly smoky Golden Nugget casino on Freemont Street. It was interesting to compare that hotel lobby and casino to the newer monstrosities on the strip. That older building is more humanly sized and it instantly feels just a bit less intimidating. I wonder if the strip development overdid it. Had it gone too far and made us feel more uncomfortable than comfortable? Judging from how popular the strip seems to be, I might be alone in that thought. As a group, we ate dinner at Vic and Anthony's in the Golden Nugget. It is elegant, intimate and totally overflowing with the glamorous atmosphere of what I imagine as "Old Vegas." I loved the swooning voices of the rat pack in the background as we enjoyed a memorable dinner together. Newbie tip: this is a place I would definitely go for a quintessential steak dinner experience in Vegas: really good, not crazily expensive and worth every dime.

It is in a way wonderfully fitting to take in the Mob Museum near Freemont Street. If you wonder like I did how Vegas got to be what it is, this is a fascinating place to dig in and investigate. Money, crime, and power families – in there you see both the glamorous lifestyle of the mob bosses and their women as well as the ruthless and short lives of made men. There are intriguing connections to the Kennedy assassination, to Cuba, and even to the recent European soccer scandal there. Old Vegas came to be when the mob found a city to invest in. The mob was cleaned out of Vegas in the 1980's with a series of high-profile investigations and arrests (and here you can find some very interesting origins of modern investigation techniques such as the witness protection program and the switch to trying people according to connections to criminal activities rather than according to each individual crime). I think admission was around $20 each, money well spent!

Las Vegas, I learned online, is always transforming itself. The mob gave Vegas the blueprint that corporations now use to develop it further, bigger, better. At least they hope it's better. I'm not convinced. It seems people love Vegas to party, gamble, be someone different, and play, but it is a slick operation that takes as much money as it can psychologically muscle out of you. It can leave you high and dry to fly home, defeated and wondering what just happened. There is a lot of "I hate Vegas" online I quickly found out, and the reasons seem to be similar to the letdown I felt there, rather than just those that lose big at the tables, although I suspect there are countless people who lose homes, cars, etc. in the casinos. Travellers are more sophisticated than ever. People have more vacation options too. They can see real European cities in their own unique way. They can travel to out of the way countries to eat the exotic foods there, and they can experience local cultures. People are savvy and they can smell a tourist trap. Vegas, it seems to me has done it all way to obviously. What it offers is something like Velveeta processed cheese. You know you can get real artisanal flavourful cheese elsewhere, and probably for much less. More than a few of my friends seem to be kind of sick of the place, especially those that have been there a few times. Will millennials buy the hype? Are the swank nightclubs enough for them when there are better ones arguably in Europe and most have been there too at least once? Those kids are even more critical of everything than we are.

Christmas is approaching and it likewise promises magic as well as a rosily unrealistic expectation of loving family harmony for the holidays. The reality is extra stress and cost, a few tensions here and there among family, and if I am lucky a few moments of rest. It is not a very restoring experience. Yet I feel the Christmas magic enter me and I love that feeling of anticipation. Even though I am definitely old enough to know better, and I know I am going to get cranky putting up the tree again and I'll need a stiff drink or two before the holiday is over, I love the theatre and ritual of it. How different is that from the Vegas Experience? Maybe there is something in our hearts that desires it. Christmas, however, is at least anchored by family bonds and by something spiritual and historic. Vegas is anchored only by money. It's ultimately sadly hollow. If we go there hungry, we will go home even hungrier.

Is Vegas on its way down? Will millennials embrace this kind of "more is more" mentality? Or have they had it with the baby boomer greed they had to grow up living with? Time will tell. More pressing is the question of whether Vegas will survive climate change and the deep drought threatening the water supply of Lake Mead. When we arrived I could see the steep dried white backs of the lake against Hoover Dam, stark evidence of a severe and increasing water shortage. Although you can quickly forget Las Vegas is actually located somewhere on Earth, it is indeed plunked down in the middle of Mohave Desert. The only water supply is the Colorado River, and it is being way over-used in the continuing drought experienced there. The city invested more than $1 billion to build new intake valves at the bottom of the lake behind Hoover Dam because the water level is falling below the present intake. It also cut its water consumption by 23% while the city grew by 500,000 people.

It seems that while the city itself is not in denial, the tourist zone is. I never saw a low-flush toilet or low-flow showerhead. Our room instead had a deep Jacuzzi tub. It seemed at least the tourist zone is ultimately unsustainable, and that is where almost all the investment money is. Imagine summer temperatures continuing to rise and at some point, being virtually unlivable. Will resorts build giant air-conditioned domes over their resorts, thus making the experience even more claustrophobic? Perhaps some enterprising CEO will capitalize on climate change and create an enclosed Moon or Mars experience, so you can feel like a new world colonist while you gamble. I never saw a single recycling bin anywhere, and in Vegas you quickly realize how much plastic and other waste you create when you rely on take aways and disposable drink cups. Perhaps city management thinks it’s a lost cause to get drunk people to recycle their garbage. So much trash is thrown right on the ground and many people are hired to discretely clean that up all day and night. I can just imagine how large the local landfill must be and how fast it must be filling up. Something is going to have to give at some point if climate change continues on this trajectory, as it is expected to. The twenty-somethings I know are more than a bit peeved that we baby boomers have done so much damage to the planet. Vegas could be the lightning rod for that resentment, rather than the escape destination it hopes to continue to be.

However, Las Vegas also seems resilient and the corporate machine here is very intelligent. In fact, I find myself wondering what kinds of secret algorithms CFO's, or gambling managers or whatever they are called, employ in the money-generating gaming rooms. Who so cleverly designed the disorientating passageways that funnel humans into casinos? I admire how seamlessly it seems to work. Still, surely CEO's know the world is changing fast and that even a denial as solid as the Hoover Dam can't win out over reality. Will Vegas reinvent itself as the Green Gaming City? Will solar panels outshine hotels as we fly in? And why aren't there already solar panels everywhere? It's not a new technology and it is now quite affordable, an investment that would in fact reduce energy bills and save money. Will we ever see native gardens planted among the buildings? How about greenhouses somewhere close by to supply food?

Caesar's Entertainment, which owns Caesar's Palace, Paris, Bally's, Flamingo, Rio, Planet Hollywood, Harrah's Las Vegas and the Quad, launched a Codegreen program in 2008. To see a review (as of 2013), read this case study. You have to purchase the PDF to read the entire paper. Frankly I find it very light on current specifics and heavy on future plans and initiatives. MGM Resorts, the other big corporate player in Vegas, owns MGM Grand, Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, The Mirage, Monte Carlo, New York-New York, Luxor and Excalibur as well as the new CityCenter, a massive strip complex that includes new conference facilities. It launched its own program called Green Advantage. In 2013, 12 MGM properties were certified as Greenleaders by Tripadvisor. Mandalay Bay announced it plans to install the second largest rooftop solar array in the U.S. (finally! and I will believe it when it actually happens). To get an idea of how MGM Resorts is attempting to go green, watch this October 2015 Bloomberg video. Don't expect hard facts here either, but instead beware of too much of what I call corporate-speak. My response to both programs is yes, you are making strides in building more efficient energy production facilities and recycling cardboard (things that reduce your bills and thus your bottom line), but you are light on details about true eco-responsibility, and you are not doing nearly enough to address your critical water issues. In the video the sustainability officer (yes MGM has one to its credit) states that when they constructed their latest LEED-certified CityCenter, they did not want to look anything like an ecoresort. It needed to look glam and shiny, in keeping with what they think tourists are attracted to in Vegas. But will younger tourists continue to find that attractive? I seriously wonder.

The world and how we relate to it is changing fast, I think if these corporations have a fatal flaw it will be that, like a large ship, they are too heavily invested to turn on a dime. They might be too big to keep up with rapidly changing demands. One thing is clear: they understand that at least selling green is important to today's tourists. They are under pressure to promote a glamorous green. Is it real or is it window-dressing, because it seems to me they no longer have the option of green-washing if they want to survive. Convention attendees, coming from companies that are practicing green initiatives, expect their convention center to be practicing them too. Most tourists are going to demand that as well. It doesn't feel good at all to know I am being far less ecofriendly in Las Vegas than I am at home. This city is clearly under environmental stress and I only exacerbated it with my presence there.

Nevada is a beautiful state and when we drove out of the city to hike I couldn't help but wonder why Las Vegas couldn't embrace its natural surroundings rather than build replicas of elsewhere to attract people. Will people game and have fun in a natural setting? I think so.

If you go to Las Vegas, try the Red Rock Canyon. It's about 40 km (26 miles or so) out of the city (the reason for the car rental). We had time to explore the interpretive centre, which is very well done. Knowing nothing about desert flora and fauna, and the history of people there, it was really fascinating to learn. The exhibits are set up to make that easy and fun. We found that in mid-November the temperature is perfect, for example, mild 20C in the day and a refreshing 14C at night. After reading several blogs online about other people's experiences, I think this is a much better time to visit than during the heat of summer. In summer, prepare for 40C and much larger sweaty crowds everywhere.

We hiked the Calico Tanks, called the quintessential hike online. It is both challenging (some route finding skill is good) and so very beautiful. This was my one must-do as I had never hiked in desert before. How the light plays on the colourful rock and craggy ancient trees is stunning. There are indeed water tanks hidden in the large crevice, and I'm sure that animals and people have used that secret source for thousands of years. They were low but there was standing water even during this extended drought Nevada is experiencing. Do hike this if you can, but don't if you have knee problems. Do wear shoes with good grip as you will need that. And bring at least 1 litre of water for your hike (more in summer). If I were to do it again I would backpack in a nice picnic to enjoy with Joe at the end where we reached a summit that overlooks Las Vegas in the distance. There we could enjoy the city from a new perspective. I would also sign in at the signup book at the interpretive centre just so that they know we are out there.

I really wonder how Las Vegas is going to adjust or if it can. I would like to say I am above the unevolved thrill of Vegas but I am not, at least not completely. She left her mark on me as this article attests. Still, I know there are far better places to experience out there in the world. As our plane took off, I watched the dark and glittering city disappear behind me and I felt glad I experienced it. But, Vegas lived up the image of a mirage in the desert. At first, it seems to promise so much but, at least for average working class people like us, it ends up delivering very little.