Paul Newman, 1925-2008

I want to pay a long overdue tribute to Paul Newman, who was one of the truly great actors of our time. Although his good looks and acting talent alone could have secured his place purely as a romantic leading man, what made him special was the roles he chose, taking people who were flawed in some way, people whose moral compass did not quite point true north, and making them sympathetic.

He also did not seem full of himself, shying away from the celebrity culture that films spawn. Despite his success and fame, he did not seem (at least publicly) to suffer from excessive ego and was self-deprecating, always a good trait to have. He delighted in telling the story of how he once spoke to a group of school children and one of them raised his hand and said, “So what did you do before you went into the salad dressing business?”

Paul Newman’s films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting have given me hours of pleasure.

I cannot really pick a top favorite but surely Cool Hand Luke, which inserted into popular culture the line “What we got here is a failure to communicate”, must rank high on anyone’s list.

Here are two other back-to-back scenes from that film, featuring that other great character actor George Kennedy.

Although Newman’s politics was progressive (he was very proud of making it into Richard Nixon’s ‘enemies list’), his films were not overtly political. But that did not mean that they did not have political meaning, since they often dealt with an individual fighting the odds, finding deep reservoirs of inner strength, and not giving up.

Newman aged gracefully. As one observer put it, he did not seem to get older, just purer. Here is a scene from a later 1982 film The Verdict that is apropos for today’s political climate.

Paul Newman grew up in the suburb of Cleveland called Shaker Heights where I now live and went to the same high school as that my daughters attended. That is the full extent of my links to him but his death brings with it the kind of sadness that follows the loss of an old and good friend.

I spent some wonderful times with him.

POST SCRIPT: Spotting a hidden religious agenda

In this 28 February 2009 New Scientist article, Amanda Gefter lists the cues by which you can identify people who are pursuing a religious agenda while seeming to talk about science.

Relative and absolute loss

Change is difficult to deal with, especially if it is a change for the worse in one’s financial status. Losing one’s job and being forced to accept a lower paying one or having to lower one’s lifestyle is not easy to accept, irrespective of what one’s initial and final level of living was.

In the wake of the Bernie Madoff fraud, we hear of many people saying that they are ‘financially ruined’, that they have ‘lost everything’. When looked at closely, though, some of those descriptions seem to be based on a relative rather than an absolute scale.

For example, take this article by someone named Alexandra Penney who was a Madoff victim and was so traumatized by the prospect of her loss that she did not leave her apartment for days. But when you read her piece, you realize that she lives in a nice New York apartment, has another studio for her work, a cottage in Florida, and employs a maid who comes in three times a week to, among other things, iron her 40 ‘classic white shirts’ because she likes to wear a clean new one every day. Every year Penney travels to many exotic countries.

Penney will now have to give up some of these things, and she is so traumatized that she thinks of suicide.

I’ve lived a great and interesting life. I love beautiful things: high thread count sheets, old china, watches, jewelry, Hermes purses, and Louboutin shoes. I like expensive French milled soap, good wines, and white truffles. I have given extravagant gifts like diamond earrings. I traveled a lot. In this last year, I’ve been Laos, Cambodia, India, Russia, and Berlin for my first solo art show. Will I ever be able to explore exotic places again?

The article reeks with self-pity and in doing so betrays a certain lack of awareness and sensitivity of how it might be perceived by people for whom the words ‘lost everything’ or ‘financial ruin’ may mean becoming homeless or going hungry, and not the loss of a maid or a beach vacation home or trips to exotic locales.

In Penney’s case, she seems devastated that she may have to give up her studio and her maid and that she has to learn how to take the subway in New York. (I had thought that all New Yorkers routinely took the subway but apparently there are some people for whom it is a totally foreign experience.) As the comments on her post indicate, she received some scorn from people who see her self-pity as signs of a self-absorbed and pampered life.

I do not doubt for a minute that Penney feels a genuine sense of loss and am not saying that she should not feel sorry for herself. Loss is loss and if, for example, it should turn out that some personal financial setback results in my being forced to give up my home and move into a small apartment in a cheaper location or have to carefully count pennies in order to meet the basic necessities of life, it would undoubtedly be difficult for me to adjust and I would feel as sorry for myself as Penney does.

But even in my loss I hope I would retain enough of a sense of proportion to realize that it is a relative loss and that, as long as I still had food and shelter, it is not ruin on any absolute scale. We need to always bear in mind that there are people who are in far worse straits than us and what to us may seem like an almost unbearable lowering of living standards may be luxury for them.

POST SCRIPT: Denis Leary remembers his own films

Leary is a really funny guy.

Betraying both principles and friends- the famous Milgram experiments.

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in February 2007.)

During the McCarthy-era HUAC hearings, some people who were called up to testify but did not want to inform on their friends and colleagues and name names, refused to answer questions using the Fifth Amendment, which says that people cannot be forced to give evidence that might incriminate themselves. While this was effective in avoiding punishment, others felt that this was a somewhat cowardly way out. The Hollywood Ten, including Dalton Trumbo, decided to use a more principled but risky strategy and that was to invoke the freedom of assembly clause of the First Amendment that says that people have a right to peaceably associate with those whom they please and thus do not have to say who their friends and associates are or otherwise inform on them.
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Friends

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in February 2007.)

Here is a hypothetical scenario to ponder. Suppose one day government agents, say from the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security, come to you and say that they suspect that one of your close friends is a terrorist sympathizer and that they would like you to act on their behalf, secretly observing your friend and reporting all his or her activities to them. Would you do this?

There are some problems with this scenario. I do not think it is standard practice for government agents to enlist amateurs to help them in such ways because they are unlikely to be good covert operatives and are very likely to give the game away. But given the level of paranoia and fear-mongering that has been deliberately created and the disregard for civil liberties and fundamental rights that characterize government actions these days, variations on the above scenario are not as far-fetched as one would like to think.
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The problem of tipping

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in November 2005.)
I have been traveling a lot recently on work-related matters and this requires me to do things that I don’t routinely do, such as stay in hotels, take taxis, eat at restaurants, and take airplanes.

I generally dislike traveling because of the disruption that it causes in one’s life and the dreariness of packing and unpacking and sleeping in strange places where one does not have access to the familiarity and conveniences of home. But another reason that I dislike these kinds of trips is that they force me to repeatedly confront the phenomenon of tipping.

I hate the whole practice of tipping. One reason is structural in that tipping enables employers to avoid paying workers less than the minimum wage, let alone a living wage. People who work forty hours per week at the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour make about $11,000 a year (Note that in terms of inflation adjusted dollars, this is the lowest rate since 1955.) But there are exemptions from even this low rate for those jobs where there is an expectation that the employee can earn at least $30 per month in tips. Some jobs pay about half the federal minimum wage rate and employers can justify this practice by arguing that tips more than make up the difference between this and what is necessary to support themselves and their families. But note that all you need is to be able to get $360 per year in tips to be not protected by even the currently miserable minimum wage laws.
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On being a contented loner

I have a confession to make: I am a bad Facebook friend. Although I have a Facebook account, I don’t do anything with it. From time to time someone will request that I be their friend and I almost always say yes even if I know them just remotely or they are just a friend of a friend. But to accept them as a friend is about the only time that I even log into my Facebook account. I have the vague sense that I should be doing more with the site, that somehow I am neglecting my Facebook friends, but am not sure what I should be doing.

So why did I join Facebook at all if I was not going to do anything with it? It started long ago when I read about Facebook in an article, when it was still limited to a few ivy league schools. I was intrigued by the concept because I felt that there were not enough avenues for students at Case to meet and socialize and I felt that Facebook might be a good thing to get started here. Since I was not quite sure how it worked, when the opportunity arose for non-ivy leaguers to join up, I was one of the first to do so to check it out. It seemed like a good thing and I recommended to the computer and student affairs people here that we should consider promoting it strongly amongst our students.

Of course, Facebook exploded in popularity without any help from us, and so I let the matter drop and forgot about my account. But after some time people discovered that I had a Facebook account and I slowly started getting requests to be friends. It seemed to me that the polite thing to do was to say yes. After all, how can you say be so churlish as to say no to a request from someone to be your friend? And so my list of Facebook friends slowly grew. Of course, the total number of friends I have is still tiny, in the double digits, unlike some people who have thousands. But I still feel guilty that I am ignoring this small group of people who took the trouble to reach out to me and I sometimes wonder what they think of me (“What a jerk. He never calls. He never writes. He never tells us what he is doing or feeling at the moment.”) I have thought of closing my account but that seems even ruder, like abruptly moving to another city and not giving people a forwarding address. So I am stuck.

(I am also puzzled by the occasional request to be a friend from people whom I do not know in the least, with whom I have no common Facebook friends, and who live in places I have never even been to. Why would they ask a stranger to be their friend? Is there some social networking dynamic that I am not aware of that is causing this?)

My problem is that I am somewhat of a loner. I do not actively seek out the company of people. (This is consistent with the post last week about how my writing pegs me down as an introvert.) I am perfectly content with my own thoughts and books and the internet. I do enjoy occasional socializing with friends, but even then I prefer conversations with a few people than large and noisy parties. If I do attend such a party, I try to find a few congenial companions and spend the entire evening in their company. I enjoy meetings with colleagues at work provided the meetings are not too frequent or go on for too long. After about an hour I start looking forward to going back to the solitude of my office where I can sort out my thoughts and put them into writing.

I also still do not own a cell phone, which shocks many people. When asked why, I reply truthfully that my job is such that emergencies do not arise and people do not need to contact me at short notice. Also my habits are fairly regular so that people can usually reach me at my office or at home. Furthermore, I have lived all my life quite happily without a cell phone and am not convinced that it has suddenly become a can’t-do-without item. In short, a cell phone has not become a functional necessity for me and I try to not clutter up my life with things I don’t need.

But there are two other major reasons that I usually leave unsaid. The first is that I hate talking on the phone. I am much more comfortable writing an email to someone or speaking with them face-to-face than picking up the phone and calling them. If I have to talk to people on the phone because the matter is too complicated to write about or requires a personal touch, I tend to get to the point quickly, and when the matter is settled, try to end the call as politely as I can.

I don’t know why I dislike phone conversations but I know I am not alone in this. Recently on some blogs the discussion turned to this topic and almost all of the bloggers said that they hated talking on the phone too. This is perhaps not too surprising. Bloggers, after all, are people who like the written word and have chosen to express their thoughts in writing.
The other reason that I do not have a cell phone is that I like to be left alone. There are many times when I simply do not want to be contacted. Once you have a cell phone, the presumption becomes that it should always be on, that you should always have it with you, answer all calls immediately, or call back within a few minutes. I have noticed that people get annoyed and frustrated when they call someone’s cell phone and it is not answered or they do not get an immediate callback.

There is an explosion of new ways of being in contact, social networking systems such as Twitter and Second Life being just two. I steadfastly refuse to join any of them unless I absolutely have to.

I did join Second Life out of curiosity when it first came out and because Case was getting deeply involved in it, but stopped doing anything with my avatar soon after, thus repeating my unfortunate Facebook experience. I am probably now as much a social pariah on Second Life as I am on Facebook.

I am not a total Luddite who rejects all new technology. If I need something I will use it. Recently I actually initiated a private social networking group on Ning (thanks to help from Heidi) to facilitate the organization of a college reunion, so I can and will use these devices if I feel the need.

I am well aware that I am fighting the tide on this one. Eventually, everyone will be on many social networks with everyone else, each person constantly aware of what other people are doing. And scattered here and there will be these isolated individuals like me who have no clue as to what is happening all around them.

That realization is a little disturbing. I like to think of myself as a social being and the thought that I am actively shunning avenues for being in touch with other people is troubling, suggesting that I am somewhat of a misanthrope. But not really. I do not hate or distrust humankind. And I am also not like Linus of Peanuts fame when he said, “I love humanity! It’s people I can’t stand!”

I really do like people and humanity. I just don’t want to be in touch with a lot of them all the time and there does not seem to be any word other than ‘loner’ to describe people like me.

POST SCRIPT: Christmas cheer for the godless

British comedians like Ricky Gervais and Robin Ince have organized a program of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People: A Rational Celebration of Christmas.

[Gervais’s] motivation is as benign as it is pro-rationalist. “I wanted to do events around Christmas for people who don’t have any belief, to show that they’re not bitter, Scrooge-like characters. Everyone is going to be approaching the evening from a passionate scientific perspective rather than from a bashing-the-Bible slant.”

For Ince and his missionary friends, the word that needs to be spread is that the universe is wondrous even without faith in a divine plan. Dawkins will read from his book Unweaving the Rainbow, “which is about how science makes things more beautiful and more exciting – not less”.

But by holding this rationalist jamboree so close to Christmas, are they not guilty of provocation?

“If it riles people,” says Ince, “it does so because they’re fools. Anyone who feels we are ‘stealing Christmas away’ would just be half-witted. Some people are desperate to be offended.”

For those who do not know Robin Ince, here is a clip that I have shown before where he compares evolution with creationism and intelligent design.

The internet is watching you

Recently I came across two sites that made me realize that the internet is getting too smart for its own good.

One is the site Typealyzer. You insert the URL of a blog and it does a Myers-Briggs type analysis of the personality of the author.

The results of a Myers-Briggs analysis places the subject along four axes:

Favorite world: Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).

Information: Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition (N).

Decisions: When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).

Structure: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).

So I inserted the URL for this blog into Typealyzer and got the result that I am an INTP-type, broadly classified as ‘The Thinker’:

Private, intellectual, impersonal, analytical and reflective, the INTP appears to value ideas, principles and abstract thinking above all else. This logical type seeks to understand and explain the universe–not to control it! Higher education often holds a particular appeal to this type who tends to acquire degrees and amass knowledge over the entire course of life. Abstract or theoretical subjects are usually the INTP’s cup of tea, and academic or research careers may seem attractive to this type. From science and math to economics and philosophy: just name the discipline, and you’ll find INTPs perched on the loftiest rungs of theory and analysis. In whatever field they choose, INTPs take on the role of visionary, scientist or architect, and they usually prefer to make their contributions in relative solitude. The mundane details of life may be the INTP’s undoing, since this type lives in a world guided by intuitive thinking. Often perceived to be arrogant and aloof, the quiet and sometimes reclusive INTP may have to struggle in the personal realm, as well, for feelings are not this type’s natural forte.

I then compared this with one of the many quasi-Myers-Briggs assessments available on the internet for free (you have to pay for the real thing) and got the result that my personality type is INTJ.

Of course, each of the four axes is a continuum and few people are at the very extremes of each. The strengths of my individual preferences were given as 44% Introverted, 50% Intuitive, 25% Thinking, and 89% Judging. These can be expressed qualitatively as moderately expressed introvert, moderately expressed intuitive, moderately expressed thinking, and very expressed judging.

The Myers-Briggs site describes the two types in the following way:

INTP: Seek to develop logical explanations for everything that interests them. Theoretical and abstract, interested more in ideas than in social interaction. Quiet, contained, flexible, and adaptable. Have unusual ability to focus in depth to solve problems in their area of interest. Skeptical, sometimes critical, always analytical.

INTJ: Have original minds and great drive for implementing their ideas and achieving their goals. Quickly see patterns in external events and develop long-range explanatory perspectives. When committed, organize a job and carry it through. Skeptical and independent, have high standards of competence and performance – for themselves and others.

The URL analyzer seems to be in pretty good agreement with the more detailed questionnaire-based analysis. The main difference is the last quality that switched from the T in the blog analyzer to the J, which switched me from the umbrella category ‘Thinker’ to the ‘Scientist’.

Since I was in the mood for navel-gazing, I also tried GenderAnalyzer, that says it uses Artificial Intelligence to determine the gender of the author of the home page of a blog. I did it twice over a couple of weeks and the first time it returned 77% male and the second time 83% male.

I am not sure how to interpret the results since the basis of the algorithm used is not given. Presumably it does some kind of textual analysis of key words in comparison with a database of some sort.

But what would be a ‘good’ result? If for some reason a reader really wants to know the gender of the author, the closer you get to 100% accuracy the better. But from the view of the blog’s author, that may also mean that you are highly gender-stereotypical in your language and/or choice of topics and/or views on them, depending on what the algorithm does. Should an author be aiming for 50% so that one is writing in ways that are free of gender bias?

Jesus’ General (from whose site I first heard about this) who proudly claims that he is “an 11 on the manly scale of absolute gender” was horrified to find that he scored only 72%, lower than even some women bloggers, and he took the necessary steps to raise his manly score.

There also seem to have been a few anomalous results for some well-known people.

What all this tells me is that the internet knows us better than we think or may like.

The old cartoon joke “On the internet no one knows you are a dog” may no longer be true. It not only knows you are a dog, it can even tell the breed.

POST SCRIPT: Put down the duckie!

One of my favorite Sesame Street music segments.

The evil of the consumer economy

(Due to the holiday, I am reposting something from last year, updated and edited.)

Each year, the Thanksgiving holiday is ruined by the revolting attention that the media pays to the retail industry in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year’s “hot” gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like “Black Friday” and more recently “Cyber Monday.”

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas, because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help “grow the economy.” I still don’t understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

One of the few silver linings in the bleak outlook caused by the current financial crisis is that people are likely to cut back on their purchases. I know that this is supposedly ‘bad’ for the economy but perhaps we need to change the basis of our economy, to one in which services, rather than goods, are the drivers. For example, we should be more willing to pay people to repair things rather than throw them away and buy replacements.

There is a curious schizophrenic attitude one finds in the media to this consumption. On the one hand people bemoan the fact that the savings rate in the US is so low that the country has to borrow from overseas to meet its investment needs, that individual Americans are not saving enough for retirement, that they are living beyond their means because of easy access to credit, and that personal bankruptcies are on the rise. The current sub-prime mortgage debacle has been caused by people being urged to pay more for houses than they could afford, and now many face foreclosure and homelessness.

On the other hand, the media gleefully cheerleads when it is reported that people are going shopping, since this is supposed to be a ‘consumer economy’, and the stock market goes up when retail sales are high.

I don’t get it. Apart from the fact that buying stuff other than to meet a direct need is simply wasteful, surely people must realize that we live in a world of finite resources, not just of fossilized energy but of minerals and other raw materials and even fresh water? Surely we should be cutting back on consumption so that we can leave something for future generations?

We are using up resources like there is no tomorrow and I am amazed that people don’t see the disastrous consequences of this. It is not even a long-term issue since the resources crunch will start to manifest itself in around thirty years or so. I know that the ‘end-timers’, the rapturists and the like who think that the world is on the verge of coming to an end see this problem (and that of global warming) as nothing to worry about since Jesus will return very soon. But what about the others? Is it that religious people think that since we are special in the eyes of god, he will somehow pull a miracle out of his hat and save us from our profligate selves?

To me the long-term problem faced by the Earth having finite resources is so obvious that I am amazed that we are not doing anything drastic about it. Here is a suggestion to start. We begin by boycotting Black Friday, staying at home and enjoying a quiet day. We should also decide that we will only buy Christmas gifts for children under twelve years of age, and then too just a few simple things, rather than the expensive “must have” items that advertisers thrust on us. We must force a shift from a consumer economy to a sustainable economy

And we use the holidays mainly to spend time with people, enjoying the old-fashioned pleasures of socializing.

POST SCRIPT: Ball jointed dolls

Speaking of consumption, NPR a few months ago had an extraordinary story about a new fad that is sweeping the country: ball-jointed dolls.

These are very expensive, customizable dolls for which people pay hundreds of dollars and then thousands more for outfits and even physical parts. The owners, mostly middle-aged women, dress their dolls up, make up stories and lives for them, and take them to BJD conventions where they compare their own “children” with others.

People spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars buying just one BJD sight unseen off the Internet. At the convention, BJD owners shelled out hundreds of dollars for mind-blowingly beautiful Armani-esque wool-lined coats, black wraparound pocket dresses and garnet jewelry for their dolls.

For BJD fans, the dolls are worth the expense. When Jennifer Kohn Murtha starts talking about her doll Kimora, it sound like she is talking about a child:

“I have one 15-year-old girl who is my love,” she says. “I have ordered for her a boyfriend who is a boxer and a physicist who will take good care of her. I’ve also ordered a vampire for her … I couldn’t resist.”

Thanksgiving musings

(Due to the holiday, this is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, edited and updated. The series on the future of the Repubican party will be continued later.)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to that class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the traditions and history and culture of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have all the fond memories associated with the childhood experience of visiting my grandparents’ homes for this occasion for a big family reunion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.
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Las Vegas musings

Towards the end of last week I spent three days in Las Vegas for the first time for a conference and stayed at one of the hotels on the infamous strip, the mile or so of road that has all the big hotels and gambling casinos. Since I do not gamble, such locations for conferences do not provide any special attraction for me. A monastery that has internet access would attract me more because I prefer peace and quiet and those two things are in very short supply on the Las Vegas strip.

I did spend an hour or so one evening wandering through the hotel casino watching people gamble. What struck me was how little fun people seemed to be having. They would sit staring intently at their slot machines or at the blackjack tables or at the roulette wheels. The casinos are deliberately designed to have few windows and no clocks so that the gamblers have little sense of the passage of time and can get into an almost trance-like state.

The gamblers I saw did not seem to be particularly well-to-do, just ordinary people, perhaps on their annual vacation from working ordinary jobs. There were some special closed-off rooms where I assume the high rollers gamble, away from the hoi polloi.

I spent the most time watching people play craps, a game I do not understand at all. It has this table that is covered with green baize cloth with patterns and markings and numbers. People would place chips of various colors and patterns at various places on the table, someone would throw a pair of dice, and based on the result the workers would move chips around or take them away or give some to the players. All of this was done solemnly and largely in silence and strongly reminded me of religious rituals, where everyone knows exactly what needs to be done and when, with the croupier as a kind of ersatz priest.

I felt really sorry for the workers in the casinos. They looked bored out of their minds. The constant bright flashing lights, the loud dinging noises from the slot machines, the cigarette smoke were all so aggravating that it drove me out of the room after an hour because I could not stand it any more. I cannot imagine how the workers tolerate it night after night.

It is also physically demanding work. I noticed that the workers at the various gambling tables had to stand all the time though they could easily have been given high stools to sit on and still do their jobs. Presumably the owners and management think that fatiguing their workers this way squeezes out a little more profit. I see this same thing happening with grocery and department store cashiers.

When I was eating at a restaurant in the hotel, a young woman would circle the rooms calling out ‘Keno’, another gambling game that seems to be some kind of scratch-card gamble that one can play while eating or doing something else. In the forty-five minutes that I was there she must have circled the room about twenty times and was always on the go. At one point, I stopped her and asked whether she had ever used one of those pedometers that would measure how far she walks during work. She said she hadn’t but thought it a good idea. She must walk many, miles in the course of each shift and I suspect that she gets paid close to the minimum wage.

I also spent a couple of hours driving around the city with a friend looking at the sights. It is unbelievably tacky, with huge hotels based on various architectural styles, faux classical Roman and Greek and Egyptian being the most popular, all clashing with each other. The parts of the town that were away from the center had some of the traditional charm of the American southwest but the ubiquity of slot machines and other garish gambling venues invariably spoiled it.

It was a relief to leave Las Vegas. I will not be going back if I can help it.

POST SCRIPT: Living in two different worlds

One can understand why John McCain, despite his new-found admiration for Joe the Plumber, might find it hard to appreciate the life of a regular working person. The median household income in the US is $48,000 per year, ‘median’ meaning half the households make less than that, and half more. But John McCain spends over five times that amount ($273,000) on paying for his household staff alone!

That may explain why he thinks cutting taxes even further for the very wealthy is good policy because then the rich can create more jobs by hiring even more domestic help, in his case maybe someone to keep track of how many cars and homes he owns, so that he is not embarrassed by not knowing. It might also explain why he keeps talking about a capital gains tax cut as being good for the middle class. People like him have little idea of the kinds of concerns that everyday people have.