Weekend Journal: Vegas for Engineers

Weekend Journal: Vegas for Engineers

I’m in Las Vegas for the 3rd time in my life. This time and the time before, going to Vegas wasn’t necessarily my first vacation choice; but I tend to roll with the punches, and I feel I could enjoy myself just about anywhere. This time I’m here for a good friend’s wedding. And as I got on the plane, I realized that I’ve never seen any kind of engineering info with regards to “Sin City” before. So how about I describe Las Vegas from the point of view of an engineer?

The odds

People think Las Vegas and they think gambling. And rightly so. Where else can you find an industry based almost entirely on a mathematical model that guarantees that the customer will (happily?) hand over their cash? What drives me as an engineer is the math behind each game. If I’m going to give up my money, I want to know I have a decent shot at stretching the time I get to play and possibly winning a little, at least in the short term. Let’s look at the “house edge” of different games. This is the likelihood that the house will have and advantage over the player; in the most realistic view of the numbers, we need to look at the time playing the game as time goes to infinity (my mathy-sense is tingling!)

  • Slots — Avg loss of $80/hr (2 coin game of $1 per coin)
    • Although one of the most common games in Vegas, playing on slot machines almost guarantees you’ll lose money over a long enough time period. So why do people play? Because it’s not incremental “winning” but instead people hoping to hit that big jackpot.
  • Video Poker — Average loss of $12.50/hr (at $1.25 per game–5 coin game of $.25 per coin)
    • Another popular game in the casino, likely because people feel comfortable playing a familiar game and it’s played a screen for low denominations. The house edge is constructed to pull in more because the overall amounts per play is less.
  • Blackjack — Average loss of $2.5/hr (at $5/hand)
    • The house edge is much more favorable to the player (but obviously still not in the players favor), so playing blackjack could be positive over the short term.  More likely though, you’ll just get to play a little longer until the casino takes your money away.
  • Craps — Average loss of $2.5/hr (at $10/round, taking advantage of the “odds” that the casino offers)
    • One of the best bets in the casino (if there is such a thing). With a house edge as low at %0.012 (depending on the odds you put down), you can in theory play much longer than any other game on the casino floor. Not surprisingly, this is also my favorite game. Why don’t more people play it? It’s confusing! But once you learn the basics–which also happen to be the best bet–it’s not too hard to pick up. Another benefit is that it’s a social game involving others at the table. And while the social aspect might necessarily appeal to the stereotypical engineer, the numbers are hard to argue against.

Source: Vegas Click

What is the commonality among all of these games? They’re all purely chance and no matter what, the house will still win over the long term. No matter what some “program” tells you, there is zero chance that rolling a seven on your first roll in craps means that your next roll will also be a seven. The probabilty of one roll to the next is exactly the same. But, if you enjoy playing games and the thrill of playing, you should be able to have a little fun.

The lights

When I asked on twitter what other engineers thought of when they thought of Las Vegas, more than one mentioned the light displays. It’s honestly not what I thought of when I first think of Vegas, but it’s impossible to deny: the technical savvy behind the design of them and logistics of powering them is quite impressive. I was particularly struck by a new lounge located in the recently completely Cosmopolitan hotel and casino. The lounge is called “Chandelier” and has strategic lighting throughout to help accentuate the “chandelier” crystals. LED lighting elements, direct white lighting elements and a few other mood lighting elements, all put together it’s an impressive set of lighting just to light people while they sip expensive cocktails. Of course, the engineers I know on twitter were undoubtedly talking about the outdoor lighting, which actually takes much more power and sycronizing. The “old downtown” section has a particularly impressive light display on a roof covering the street connecting multiple casinos. This is called “The Fremont Street Experience” and is quite impressive to watch once the sun goes down. It’s synchronized to music and acts as a large LCD screen, but with individual LED elements. The most impressive statistic: if all the bulbs were turned on at once, it would require 7.8 MW of electricity to power them all.

The sites

  • Hotels
    • The funny thing about making money off of gambling is that there’s a lot of it to be made. And although it’s still a town completely built around a pretty grungy industry (gambling, with just a touch of smut on the side), they sure do try and make it look  pretty. How do they do it? With monstrous hotels that are supreme works of architectural mastery. And they keep getting bigger, every time they build a new one. The latest, and most impressive to me is the Aria City Center. While I can hardly afford to set foot in the place (2 out of the 5 buildings are rated as 5-star hotels), I sure can ogle the buildings from afar. Obviously these are not the only ones, they’re just the newest, shiniest and most monstrous.
  • Bellagio Fountains
    • These hourly shows are an iconic part of Vegas and one of my favorite sites. Plus, the part that appeals the most to me: it’s free. It’s over 1200 nozzles that shoot water over 240 ft in over a 9 acre man-made lake (source: Wiki article). Even if you’re not a mechanical or chemical engineer, you should be able to appreciate the unbelievable amount of water being shot in the air in the name of entertainment. And if you’ve never seen it, check it out below.
    • [tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjCsKMAczrI[/tube]

  • Hoover Dam
    • If there’s anything I would suggest an engineer see in the Las Vegas area, it’s the Hoover Dam. While I didn’t get a chance to get back out there on this trip, I was completely awed the time I visited. I had never quite realized how much raw material, manpower and–most importantly–political goodwill was required to complete the dam. And getting a tour throughout the internals of the dam and hearing about the massive power generated by and stress imparted upon the dam, I was floored.

The cutting loose

Let’s be honest folks. Engineers can be pretty tightly wound. So my last point is that engineers should get to Las Vegas not just for the math or the electronics or even the impressive construction. No, I’m saying engineers should get there in order to chill out, have some drinks and generally relax. If you’re doing work anything like other engineers I know, you deserve a break.

I’m finishing this article in my hotel room and am anxious to get out and experience just a little bit more of Las Vegas before my trip is up. If there’s anything I missed, please be sure to leave it in the comments section. Maybe I’ll even have a chance to see it before I go.


If you haven’t done so before, and you can afford it, go on a helicopter trip that flies down the strip. I haven’t been to Vegas (or any of the US unfortunately) but I know a few people who have, and they really enthuse about it. I would have loved to have gone on the roller coaster they had on the top of the 1000ft Stratosphere tower, but I understand it closed in 2005. Not a long ride, but 1000ft up in the air – jeez!

Two things come to mind having done some work in small time gaming establishments is the poker machine comms network especially where members cards and associated statistics are involved. The other is the gaming attendants comms system, be it pagers, phones or whatever. Gaming floor architecture is interesting to manage RF in and around.

The other thing i find interesting in the hotels is the smart card door locks. Some of them run off battery. Carrying out a battery changeout sounds daunting. Some are comms isolated and need to be reprogrammed individually when required. Others are on a Zigbee or similar network. Either way the door needs to know which cards can access the room. If a cleaners card goes missing for instance and it becomes a security issue, someone has to go reprogram all the locks.

What Mike said, can also take a helicopter ride over the grand canyon. There’s also a smallish race track nearby where you can drive some pretty fancy sports cars around the track (not cheap though). If you’re driving in, or have time to drive out of the city, Nevada skies are gorgeous at night. You don’t get to see that kind of star show too many places other than the desert.

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