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March 16, 2008

The Agility of Las Vegas

One of the things I love about flying in an airplane is being able to look down at the earth from above; I enjoy both picking out natural features and observing the impact of humanity. When I fly I try to get a window seat and I spent the descent glued to the window, even if I don't know the area I'm landing in.

One of the coolest things that's out there on the Internet is the availability of free geocoded satellite images, so you can simulate this experience anywhere in the world. I was in Las Vegas last weekend (for a hockey tournament, not MIX) and while I enjoy the view of the Strip from above, my favorite is sections like this, to the west of the Strip where people actually live (yes, people do live in Las Vegas):

View Larger Map

(I did this in Google because I couldn't get Live to give me a link; even with Google I had to hack up the URL it generated). One thing this view demonstrates is the complete artificiality of Las Vegas. When you look at Seattle from above you can imagine that some of the trees were there 200 years ago, and perhaps some of the lakes and rivers are close to their old boundaries; that road you see crossing between those hills might follow an ancient trail. But with Las Vegas, the mix of neatly arranged subdivisions and scrubby desert, with straight roads the peter into nothingness the instant they pass the last house, makes it clear that it's all fake; every blade of grass or piece of gravel comes from somewhere else.

I don't find this appalling at all; in fact I like Las Vegas a lot, both as a real place and an idea. The central notion of Las Vegas is that nothing is permanent, that the present places no limits on the future: what is is just another factor to consider when planning what will be. If there's already a casino on a spot where you want to build your casino, don't worry about it too much. All it means is that the cost and time of your project has to include knocking down the existing casino.

I think this is a valuable lesson for software developers. It's the same thing that YAGNI is about, trying to get developers to be more agile. Too often we get hung up on the way our code is written when considering how to extend it; or we try to plan for the future in our initial design and wind up getting boxed in because we don't want to undo what we did once we figure out what we really needed. Las Vegas doesn't think like that. If a road has to go a certain distance to reach some houses, then you stop the road at that point; if in the future somebody needs to extend the road to reach some new houses, they can build it then (I'm ignoring the foresightful but anomalous planning of I-215 in this argument). Bellagio builds a monorail to the Monte Carlo, then has to trash it to build their new tower 5 years later. Could they have anticipated this? Possibly, but why bother; it's just something else to factor in when the time come. Microsoft is considering something similar, tearing down the ten-year-old Building 24 to make way for larger buildings. At first I found this "wrong" in a fundamental way: "We just built the thing, how can we consider tearing it down?" But if we need the space we need the space, and it shouldn't really matter if the building that is there was built last week or last century. That's Vegas-style thinking, which is what I like about Vegas: it's an agile town.

Posted by AdamBa at March 16, 2008 09:12 PM

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Actually, there's a way to build links with Live Maps, it's just very well hidden deep in the help:


There's probably a way to do the same for embedded maps.

Posted by: Bob at March 17, 2008 08:45 PM

I remember reading that in NY around 1900 it was common to tear down a skyscraper after 10 or 20 years and build a bigger one. Now every building is considered historic. Where my (other) son lives there is a giant Pepsi sign that to me is a great blight on the East River but any attempt to tear it down is met by a hue and cry about its "historic" significance.

So preservationism can go too far. There is no building so ugly that it can be torn down without protest.

Posted by: marble chair at March 18, 2008 02:27 PM

It's interesting that you look at Las Vegas that way, since planners generally consider it a failure (despite the fact that the American Planning Association is holding its annual conference there). But I guess what you're saying is that planning may not be necessary (and where does that leave me?). But what makes the difference in terms of physical infrastructure (particularly public infrastructure) is the limitations on resources (financial, natural, geographical), which means that you want to try to anticipate what might happen in the future. Sure, the Bellagio can tear down their monorail to build a new one, but it sounds like a waste of money and materials to me, as opposed to doing a slightly better job of anticipating the future. I have no idea if the Bellagio is owned by a public company, but if it were, presumably the shareholders wouldn't be happy about that waste of money (although tearing down a monorail makes sense, since it will always be the technology of the future, not the present). And with public infrastructure, people tend to get upset when they see wasted taxpayer dollars. I guess Building 24 is maybe a little different, since even from a purely financial point of view, it probably made sense to build a smaller and cheaper building 10 years ago, and then replace it with something larger now, as opposed to simply building a larger building at the beginning.

And then there are big issues about sustainability, but that's pretty much a lost cause in Las Vegas.

As for Marble Chair, the point is not that the Pepsi sign has historic significance, it's that it's a landmark for the neighborhood. Several stores sell t-shirts and other paraphernalia with pictures of the Pepsi sign. I'm not sure if it's even landmarked; I think the developer wanted to preserve it as a marker for their development (they are the same developer who wound up saving the facade of 223 Pearl Street, as described in a recent New Yorker article). And compared to other blights on the East River (powerplants, the FDR Drive, spreading plumes of petroleum spills), the Pepsi sign is actually quite attractive.

Posted by: JEB at March 22, 2008 05:20 PM