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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How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

how i live now

This is a very odd book. I am struggling to put my finger on quite why but I think it is because the teenage voice is so very authentic. I so rarely speak to teenagers that I cannot be sure.

This is about an American fifteen year old from Manhattan being sent to rural England by a wicked stepmother. She then falls in love with her cousin (whoa!) and then World War III breaks out (double whoa!).

For the first few chapters I could not work out what time it was supposed to be set in; current time or a few decades ago. I eventually worked out that it was just the slightly clichéd view that some Americans have of rural England having been unchanged over the past one hundred years or so. Then I could not work out quite where it was set, but I eventually worked that it was the clichéd view that some Americans have of England being made up of London and some small hamlets with nothing but a pub and a farm. Then I could not work out quite why there was a war, but I think that is where the authentic teenager’s voice comes in, because they do not seem to really know anything about anything these days. Or is that a slightly clichéd view of my own?

The book is short and every paragraph gets to the point. There is no wasted text in this book, so it moves along nice and quickly. Apparently it has been made in to a film, with a slightly more socially acceptable situation of the cousins falling in love.

This is an OK young adult book, but does not make me question things in any way, the way that many YA books I have read recently have done.

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Think Like a Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

think like a freak

Oh, I just love the Freakonomics books and podcasts, so I was bound to enjoy this book. It is not very long at 211 pages, but they get lots of information in there. Not all of it is new information, they have re-hashed some older stories from previous books. Also, if you listen to the podcasts their way of thinking will have already worked its way in to your brain.

They discuss vast range of topics; from how to eat many hot dogs in record time, why Dave Lee Roth requests no brown M&Ms in his rider, the effect religion has on the German economy, how to determine someone’s true incentives, why we should try to think like a child more often, and quit things more often, and say I don’t know more often. All very helpful advice.

The podcasts broadcast at the time of this book’s release take some of the chapters and go in to more detail, so it may enrich the experience of reading the book to also listen to those podcasts. These books are funny and entertaining and thought-provoking. Everyone should read this book and then use the ideas they suggest to think differently. Except they won’t. Because it is not that simple. But they should.

We read this for the Las Vegas Non-Fiction book club that I organise.  Discussion questions here.

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Think Like a Freak Book Group Discussion Questions

The Las Vegas Non-Fiction Book Group will be meeting soon to discuss Think Like a Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, below are the questions I will use to keep the discussion going:

Do you think reading this book has changed the way you will think about things in future? In what way?

Do you find it hard to say “I don’t know”?

What do you think of Kobayashi the hot-dog eater and Dave Lee Roth’s methods?

Were you surprised to learn the effect that religion had on the German economy?

Would you have a transPOOsion if you had the ulcer-causing bacteria?

What did you learn from the magician? Should we try to think like a child more often?

How easy is it to determine someone’s true incentives?

Why are better educated people more extremist?

How long do you think it will be before we have driverless cars?

Do you find it easy to quit things?

How often do you think you think like a Freak?

Here is my review of Think Like A Freak

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