The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert book club discussion questions

We will be reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert at the next Las Vegas Non-Fiction Book Group. These are the questions that I will use to keep discussion going.

1) Has reading this book changed your views about climate change in any way?
2) Did you find what you learned in this book alarming?
3) What do you think about the example of the ammonite – they were perfectly adapted to their environment, but the catastrophic effects of the asteroid still resulted in their extinction.
4) Do you see any way of slowing the acidification of the ocean? (pg118 tipping point is pH 7.8 – expected 2100)
5) Do you think the “islands on dry land” method of studying small ecosystems can help us to predict the effect of our actions our larger ecosystem?
6) In some parts of the world the number of species has dropped, in some parts of the world the number of species has increased. How does this add to the difficulty of predicting the future?
7) What percentage Neanderthal are you?
8) How far would you go to stop a species from becoming extinct? Give a rhino an internal ultrasound? Give a crow a handjob?
9) Do you think that Kolbert remains unbiased about the subject?
10) Do you think you will change the way you live as a result of reading this book?

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The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

sixth extinction

Since the first creatures existed on planet Earth there have apparently been five mass extinctions, some of which were caused by us humans, some by other environmental disasters, such as asteroid impact. This book is about some of those extinctions, and the massive changes the planet is going through due to our actions, and making some predictions about what could happen next.

Kolbert makes a pretty compelling case that the sixth extinction in question could be us, caused by us. Oh, but the Earth could be repopulated by giant rats. Just as the avian dinosaurs managed to withstand the asteroid impact, the rats may well withstand whatever ruination we bring on the planet.

Kolbert touches on biology, geology, botany and various other natural history related subjects and she manages to explain them all in terminology that I can understand. The situation certainly looks very alarming, but her style is not over dramatic. She tells stories of species that have gone extinct, and species that are well on their way due to our activities. She explains how the various species interact with others and speculates how each of their extinctions can affect the rest of the ecosystem of the planet.

The actions of previous humans has, as Kolbert points out, resulted in some humans desperate enough to put their arm up the bottom of a rhino to give her an ultrasound and to give rare crow species a handjob. It is not just doom and gloom, though. There are lots of fascinating natural history facts, about past and present species, including us humans and our fellow apes.

 

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

goldfinch

I read Tartt’s other two novels some time ago, and enjoyed them. This one took her seven years to write so I know I am not the only person to have been eagerly awaiting this one. It was released last year but is 770 pages long and I am very busy these days so it took me a while to get to it. So, I enjoyed her first novels, I had been waiting a long time to read it, my hopes were high, I was worried that I might be disappointed. I wasn’t.

This is kind of a coming-of-age story. It begins on Upper West Side Manhattan (where I lived when I first moved to the US), then goes over to Upper East Side Manhattan (where I lived next) then pops over to Las Vegas for a little while (where I currently live). I enjoyed Tartt’s portrayals of all the places. Something utterly, unthinkably terrible happens on the UES and Theo, our protagonist, loses his mother. He is practically an orphan from then on, but various adults assume varying levels of responsibility for him.

It is about family, and love, and the importance of parenting, whether or not it is a parent who does it. It is about friendships and relationships and the importance of the way we interact with people, even if it is just for a moment, and how those interactions might be extremely important to us, but we may not know until later on.

Theo works in antiques and art and the book is partly about that world, and the way art speaks to us. The characters discuss how people can love a piece of art because it strikes us and draws us in. I am sure you can think of a couple of pieces of art that spoke to you. Well, a particular painting, The Goldfinch, changes Theo’s life in a very unusual way. I was left wondering quite what would happen with it all the way through the book. That is the beauty of reading something like this, that does no fit neatly in to a genre, you cannot guess what is coming next because it does not follow any usual pattern. It was a long book but it kept me interested all the way through.

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The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani

secret history las vegas

This is the story of co-joined twins, whose foetuses fused in their mother’s womb when she found herself downwind of a nuclear test in Nevada, and a South African man who is involved in some sort of dodgy psychological testing lab involving testing on animals and homeless people. Some bodies are found out by a Lake near the city and a police office accuses one and gets the other one to help him.

I will admit that a major reason why I picked this book up was the title. It is set in the city where I live. After a chapter or two it becomes obvious that Abani has visited for a long weekend, perhaps, if at all. I presume he wanted to set it in Vegas because of the nuclear testing near the city, but I think it may have flowed better if he had set it somewhere he knew a little better. I would certainly have been less grating in the references to Vegas (at least to a “local”, such as I am). The twins could have moved to another city where all this could have taken place.

The story flashes back to our protagonist’s earlier life in South Africa during apartheid. Presumably to draw parallels between the way that country’s indigenous population was treated then, and the way the US treats the indigenous population. It just makes the novel feel a little disjointed to me. It is primarily a whodunnit; who left the bodies, what are those Siamese twins up to, who is the dodgy bloke following our protagonist? But slipping backwards to his youth only answers one of those questions, and it does not really fit with the Vegas sides of things. I was left wondering quite what Abani had hoped to achieve.

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Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

frog music

 

This is the story of Blanche, a dancer and prostitute in 1876 San Francisco. The characters are based on real people, Donoghue has filled in some gaps in the story with her imagination, but she explains what she made up and the clues she used to do it in the Afterword. The story drags a little at the beginning, but once it got going it moved along very fast.

 

The chapters skip about in time a little. The book begins towards the end of the story, with Blanche’s cross-dressing friend, Jenny, getting shot. The rest of the book is a whodunnit, and both Blanche and Jenny lead the sort of lives that tend to collect quite a large number of murder suspects.

 

I very much enjoyed reading about San Francisco when it was just thirty years old. Donoghue drops in some nice historical facts and slight stretching of fact to colour up the story. In the Afterword she explains which is which.

 

It is partly a whodunnit, partly a story of how dreadfully women and children and immigrants were treated back then. But it is mostly about a twenty-four year old girl growing up and becoming a woman, and ultimately, finding true love.

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Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

flash boys

This book has a very good explanation of high frequency trading. Lewis explains what it is, why the banks do it, and the sort of assets they must invest in to be able to do it. He explains why it could only have happened with recent technology and goes some way to explaining why its day will soon be over. This is not likely to be because of new regulations, but because of new technologies that are coming along that will allow new ways to make money in the markets.

Lewis tells the story of a handful of exceptional individuals. One is a trading floor manager from a Canadian bank who had very little to do with high frequency trading (HFT) until he decided to become an expert on it. Then he started his own exchange to gather data on how trades happen and to better understand HFT. The exchange had built-in delays which may make it the only fair exchange in the US.

The book explains the way banks and HFT firms were investing in high quality bespoke computer programs and their own communication lines to be able to send message to exchange servers in super-quick time. They created “dark pools,” which are exchanges that do not publish their data. They use these tools, some more ethical than others, in my opinion, to arbitrage the stock markets. Lewis paints all this in a much darker light than I see it. He uses the word arbitrage less than ten times in the book (I think, I did not count), this is not a new phenomena, and it is done in lots of ways in lots of markets by lots of organisations. And has been done since markets were invented. Some players have better information or better assets than others. They exploit this to make more money. That is the world we live in.

I have a small stock portfolio of my own and am in no way as angry as he promised I would be on finishing this book. If any small investor was under the impression that the markets were fair then they are in for a big shock.

This was an interesting book about how technology has greatly changed the world of trading. I especially enjoyed the chapters on the programmers and how they add value through good code. I would say around 70% of the book is relevant information.

The style is too sensationalist for my liking. Now I read that Aaron Sorkin will make it in to a film. This is perfect for that, there is lots of backstory about the characters that feels like a screenplay, and Sorkin will write the fast-paced dialogue that will suit a movie about Wall Street traders.

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Book Club Discussion Questions for Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

We will be discussing Flash Boys by Michael Lewis at the Las Vegas Non-Fiction Book Club soon.  These are the questions I will use to keep the conversation going.

Prior to reading this book, how much did you know about high-frequency computerised trading in US stock markets?

What do you think of Lewis’ storytelling technique?

Are you an investor in the US stock markets? How does it make you feel to learn that he big banks are siphoning off billions of dollars from the stock markets?

If a bank invests in an asset, such as a fast fibre optic cable, or high-quality computer code, then should it be allowed for them to utilise that asset to profit from markets?

As Lewis says, the entire history if Wall Street was the story of scandals, every systemic injustice arose from some loophole in a regulation created to correct some prior injustice. (p101) Is this situation different? How?

Could financial regulation solve any part of the problems caused by HFT?

Lewis compares the exchanges to a rigged casino (p179), is this an accurate analogy? Or are they just like an ordinary casino?

Lewis seems to think that Goldman Sach’s prosecuting Serge Aleynikov for “stealing” their code and their huge support of the IEX on Dec 19th are contradictory. Do you think so?

How do you see stock trading evolving in the future?

Have you read any of Michael Lewis’ other books eg The Blind Side or Moneyball? Would you be interested in reading them now?

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