Sodom and Gomorrah

**Written in Chicago, Midway airport on Feb. 4, 2005**

As my favorite comedian, Lewis Black, once said – and here I paraphrase – “for
only the second time in history, Sodom and Gomorrah have been
rebuilt”. He was referring to Las Vegas, and for a long time I think I
was almost convinced that Las Vegas might be someplace fun I’d visit
someday. Well, two things have happened today – two seemingly
dichotomous things. The first is that I’ve decided that, in fact, Las
Vegas is where stupid people go to throw away their money. The second
is that I got my wish.

Today is the day I return from Boston to home, in California. After a
long and arduous couple of weeks, I am finally heading home. Don’t
misunderstand me; it was productive and rewarding on about a dozen
levels, and I am excited to have another chance to come back to MIT very
soon and focus. However, as these things often are, the reward
is draining. To add to this, when I arrived at Chicago’s Midway
Airport (where I am writing this), I discovered that the second leg of
my return journey will add an extra stop: Las Vegas.

So that explains the second thing that happened. What about the
first, you wonder? I’m getting to it. On the first leg of my flight,
the people sitting behind me were going to Vegas. They weren’t just
going there, they were **excited** about going there. You could smell
last night’s bender on their skin. It was a reek that I can only liken
to the soliloquy by Agent Smith from “The Matrix”. “I can taste your
stink,” he said, wiping his hands across Morpheus’ glistening head.

The first thing that convinced me that stupid people go to Las Vegas
was the modern irony that their journey presented. They are, in many
ways, the quintessential American that I as a scientist abhor (but
also so deeply wish to educate). Our founding fathers spoke of the
need for an educated voting populace – ergo, public education. My fellow travellers, however,
were excited about getting to Vegas, excited about having every
picture be a picture of them drunk. One guy was excited about staying
at the Las Vegas airport the whole time, gambling on one machine, and
asking the others about Vegas when they got back for their return
flight. To be fair, some of this was said in jest. But its essence was
repeated so many times clothed in jest that I suspect the kernel was
100% accurate.

That said, they expressed repeatedly fear about being on the
plane. I’m not talking about post-9/11 fear; I’m talking about good
old fashioned human ignorance. We live now in a society powered by
electricity whose origin is a mystery; we cook food in microwaves
which we think are “nuking” our food; we take unproven dietary
supplements because of an advertising-fed belief system with no basis
in medical research; and we fly, though we fear flying because we
don’t understand how those little engines can get that big plane off
the ground.

Yes – that’s right: it’s the little engines that do the lifting (but
they only point sideways…).

The fear alone expresses the ignorance. What I find ironic is that
they had to look **past** the wing to comment on the engine, and so I
believe it utterly disturbing that they entirely missed the point of
the wing. Michael Crichton wrote in “Airframe” that the wing is
the heart of the plane, the technological miracle that makes the whole
thing possible. And yet we worry about those little engines.

But it wasn’t just the complete ignorance of flight that bothered
me. As with most things, I need more evidence to really start to trust
an observation. The clincher, the one that really bugged me, was the
last discussion they had as we landed.

Our wheels hit the tarmac 10 minutes before our scheduled arrival
time. As we started to roll to the gate, the woman behind me said,
“You know, I was sitting behind a stewardess on a Southwest flight
when she was announcing that seat belts had to be kept on. She remarked
to the person next to her that ‘seat belts are important because we’re
more likely to be hit on the ground than fall out of the sky’.” The
gentleman with her then remarked that he didn’t want to know that, and
he was even more unsettled now.

What boggled me was the following: here were two people, TERRIFIED of
something which has a specific probability of happening. However, they
were unable to contain themselves when talking (at length) about how
they were going to win a million dollars, then buy their workplace and
fire their friends. Here’s the scary part: **the probability of
hitting it big in Las Vegas is VANISHINGLY small, almost ZERO, by
design**. If they were scared of being hit on the ground in an
airplane under controlled and structured conditions, they ought to be
shivering and shitless with fear about the prospect of spending money
on gambling in Las Vegas.

So here’s my final thought: it’s a good thing that we have an educated
populace that can debate about the value of taxation, that can make
the occasional sacrifice in the name of a balanced budget and the
social programs critical to supporting the hard-working lower class
of our nation. As for these people on my flight, they forgot to check
the box on their 1040EZ that says, “If you don’t understand simple
math, check this box and reduce your deductions by a multiple of 5.”
That’s okay. They’re gonna pay the man in Vegas, and come back poor
and still scared of planes.

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