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A Dull and Boring August for the Market?

A couple of my favorite pastimes are following world events and the financial market. And, often the two are intertwined. Usually when there are significant adverse political developments, the market falls because of greater uncertainties and risks.

Given the backdrop of increasing geopolitical tensions, the approaching end of Fed’s Quantitative Easing in October, and the S&P 500 bumping along at almost 2000, I am surprised that the market has remained as resilient as it has over the past few months. Moreover, this past Sunday, The Wall Street Journal article For S&P 500, Strategists’ Forecasts Fall Short (subscription required) suggests that many strategists believe that the majority of this year’s gains have been realized.

With the market’s resilience so far, I would not be surprised by a pullback. And because we are approaching the end of the earnings season, with many investors and traders away on vacation, I do not expect stocks to go much higher in the absence of positive news. Thus, my investments remain much the same as they were before because I expect a dull and boring August.

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Physical Books Versus E-Books

After listening to a recent radio story about people still preferring physical books over e-books, I decided to write why I generally prefer e-books.

Having recently read several long length biographies and Russian novels using Kindle on my iPad, I found several advantages.

Perhaps most important is that while reading I am able to quickly investigate something of interest—historical facts, locations, items, words, or people. If I were reading a physical book, I likely would not stop, put the book down, and then start searching. With an e-book, I can highlight the item of interest to investigate further. Highlighting often provides more information. If that approach doesn’t work, then I can search on the internet.

With long and complex Russian novels—such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (Vintage Classics) and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina—I found the Kindle’s X-Ray feature invaluable. When you come across a character that you’ve forgotten, you can use the X-Ray feature to quickly spot where the character was mentioned. If the X-Ray feature is not available for a particular book, simply searching the book is a good substitute.

Moreover, I often like to highlight or annotate specific passages. With e-books, I can easily markup text without physically damaging the book. Later, if desired, I can simply delete my markups. With Kindle, I can easily find all my highlights and annotations.

And last, I like that my e-books are extremely portable and readable across several devices.

Even though I prefer e-books, I sometimes purchase both the e-book and a physical version.

Those are my reasons for generally preferring e-books over physical books. Regardless of whether you prefer to read an e-book or physical book, it’s great to read.

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Nicholas and Alexandra

After having read and reviewed Robert K. Massie’s books Peter the Great: His Life and World (Modern Library) and Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, I recently finished the remaining two books in the series: Nicholas and Alexandra (Modern Library) and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter (Modern Library). In this article, I will briefly review the last two books.

The first book detailed the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra. As I began reading, I had an uncomfortable sense of foreboding. I knew that their lives ended in tragedy with their assassinations in Ekaterinburg in 1918. So, as I read through the book, I knew that all the events led to one unfortunate conclusion.

As I read through all these biographies, I tended to identify with the characters. When I read about Peter the Great, I traveled back in time and was with him during his accomplishments and festivities. Along with him, I suffered his defeats and celebrated his victories. Similarly with Catherine the Great, I suffered along with her during her hardships, especially at the beginning of her career, and then I celebrated her accomplishments during her reign.

Reading about Nicholas and Alexandra, my feelings were much different, because instead of a leader who overcame his challenges, this story was about a leader and his family who eventually succumbed to their challenges. Moreover, in the prior biographies, I romanticized about a period in time where there were few conveniences. During the times of Peter and Catherine, horses were used for travel and letters for communication. In Nicholas’s reign, trains, cars, and planes began to complement and replace horses. Electricity was commonly used, with the added benefit of better night lighting. And, the telegraph was used for fast communication. Some of the romanticism of earlier life was replaced by the common familiarity of more modern conveniences.

I was also struck by the recency of the era of Nicholas and Alexandra. Reaching back into history, it’s as if my fingertips are almost able to touch some of those who knew or saw Nicholas and Alexandra. For example, George Balanchine, one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and famous choreographers and well-known choreographer for the New York City Ballet, performed as a young child before the royal couple. I was already alive when Balanchine died in 1983, which is not that long ago. Most of the prominent characters, however, were adults during Nicholas’s reign and died earlier, before I was born.

Nicholas’s life was filled with challenges that he was never able to overcome. His father, Alexander III, died too young at age forty-nine, long before he had an opportunity to teach his young, inexperienced, twenty-six year old son Nicholas II all that he needed to know and understand to govern Russia. Nicholas married Alexandra, a woman that he truly loved from Germany. Together they had four beautiful daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, followed by one son, Alexei. Unfortunately, Alexandra carried a gene that led to Alexei being cursed with hemophilia, a disease that prevents from the blood from clotting in a regular and timely fashion.

Prior to reading this book, I had no clue about this awful disease. For small children during that period, this disease was especially cruel. While ordinary kids often got bumps and bruises that quickly healed, hemophiliacs suffered a much worse fate when bruised. Their blood didn’t clot easily. Instead, the unconstrained bleeding led to internal swelling that affected their joints, often immobilizing limbs. Hemophiliac kids cried out in extreme pain, begging their parents to help them, yet there was nothing that could be done. For young Alexei, he sometimes spent long periods unable to walk.

During Alexei’s painful periods, Alexandra took solace from a man named Rasputin. Rasputin was an enigmatic, Janus-faced peasant who showed the Romanovs a religious, caring side of his personality, while he showed others his more eccentric and aggressive personality. When he was with the Romanovs, he was able to provide Alexandra with often prophetic words of wisdom that comforted her as she cared for her son. More important, however, was that he was able to calm everyone, which helped Alexei when the doctors were powerless to help. The significance of remaining calm was that Alexei had a better chance that his blood would clot and stop the internal hemorrhaging. Because Alexei often got better, Alexandra saw Rasputin as a savior, her conduit to God.

Switching away from Nicholas the sovereign to Nicholas the husband and father, I found striking differences between Nicholas and his predecessors Peter and Catherine. Nicholas was very much a family man. During his marriage with his wife, they exchanged over six hundred letters, and their letters remained warm, loving and intimate throughout their marriage. He cared deeply and passionately about his children, perhaps with special attention to Alexei because of his illness and because of his special role as heir. My impressions of Peter and Catherine is that for each of them, their greatest loves were their roles as sovereigns while families and romantic partners came a close second.

Just focusing on Nicholas, I have two trains of thoughts. First, he was a weak leader, most probably because he went from having no particular roles or responsibilities prior to his father’s death to assuming the role as sovereign of Russia in only a heartbeat. Very few could make such a dramatic transition successfully. Moreover, others claim that he was indecisive and unable to stick to his decisions. As a result of being an indecisive and weak leader, events seemed to shape his destiny. And second, as a person, he was charming, extremely considerate, man who cared deeply about his faith, family, and country. I was left with the impression that Nicholas was a likeable person who found all the stars aligned against himself. As a leader and as a person, he simply had too many unfortunate circumstances to overcome.

At the end of the book, I read about the tragic events that took place at Ekaterinburg’s Ipatiev House, which was called The House of Special Purpose. On 17 July 1918, Nicholas carried his son from upstairs to the cellar, where he and his son along with his wife and four daughters and three others—Trupp, valet; Demidova, Alexandra’s maid; and Kharitonov, cook—were executed. After the execution, the bodies were hastily buried near one of Ekaterinburg’s mine sites.

The first book Nicholas and Alexandra was written at about 1967, when the Soviet Union still ruled Russia. At that time, some information was unavailable. The second book The Romanovs: The Final Chapter was written in 1995, a few years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, when more information was discovered and became available.

The Second book, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter is divided into three main parts. First, I learned greater detail of their execution. The book discussed discovery of the bones of the deceased. Once the bones were discovered, there was considerable confusion among scientists and competing claims between government entities. There were Russian, American, and British scientists who all worked, though not always harmoniously, toward identifying the remains. And, both Moscow and Ekaterinburg claimed rights to the remains. After the book was published, I learned that Moscow eventually won and that the remains were interred at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg on 17 July 1998, eighty years after the executions. And, I believe that all remains, including those of the servants, are together.

The first part also goes into the DNA science and government squabbling in great detail. I just wanted to know the conclusions.

The second part of the book discusses a Polish woman who represented herself as Anastasia, one of Nicholas’s daughters. Once again, the book goes into considerable detail about her life and those that interacted with her in trying to assess her claim of being Anastasia. In the end, I learned that she was a peasant woman from Poland. As she had been in sanatoriums, she might have been mentally ill and sincerely believed that she was Anastasia. Again, I had little interest in all the details. All I wanted to know was the conclusion.

And the last part of the book discussed where some of the still living Romanovs are now. Some are living in obscurity while I others have achieved prominence in their fields.

Robert K. Massie is a superb historian and author. With all the rich detail packed into each book, I can only begin to fully appreciate all his efforts to research and chronicle the lives of the Romanov dynasty. What an incredible reading journey I have enjoyed.

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Catherine the Great

Further to my prior article Peter the Great, I finished rereading Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman this past week. With the benefit of greater background knowledge, I enjoyed my second reading of Catherine the Great much more than my first.

Peter the Great and Catherine the Great were remarkable leaders. Peter provided Russia with a pathway to Europe through his building of Saint Petersburg and his acceptance of foreigners and their knowledge and technology. Moreover, he forced change upon his own people by updating some of their important customs and rituals and providing new governing institutions. And, one of his significant legacies to Russia was a powerful army and navy.

Catherine complimented and furthered Peter’s achievements. She provided another pathway to Europe through Crimea and the Black Sea. Through her reading and her correspondence with leaders of Enlightenment, she brought to Russia the best of Europe’s moral, political and judicial philosophy. Being a patron of the arts, she also brought literature, art, architecture, and sculpture. As an aside, if you attend any of the Bolshoi Ballet productions at your local theater, you should note that the introduction mentions that the theater was constructed during the reign of Catherine II or Catherine the Great. Furthermore, she assembled one of the largest and finest art collections in Europe, which is stored at the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Catherine helped advance medicine—she herself was one of the first to be inoculated against smallpox and then persuaded the noblemen to follow. She also constructed schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Catherine built on Peter’s legacy and created an even stronger, more diverse, and richer country.

As I read about Catherine, I was most impressed by her intelligence, strategic thinking and planning, and, perhaps most of all, determination. Born as Sophia Augusta Fredericka on April 21, 1729, she left Germany at age fourteen to marry Peter III in Russia, the grandson of Peter the Great. Peter III had been severely mistreated during his upbringing and that led to many problems, including his unhappy and difficult marriage. Catherine endured eighteen years of boredom and loneliness during her marriage, which provided her the opportunity to read many books. She utilized this knowledge during her reign to achieve her many accomplishments.

Unlike Peter the Great who spent much of his time outside of Russia, either learning from Europeans or fighting wars, as sovereign Catherine spent most of her time in Russia. Where Peter set the foundation for further growth and development, Catherine admired and capitalized on his achievements, and used her strengths to help further modernize Russia. As evidence of her admiration, she commissioned a heroic equestrian statue in bronze to sit on the riverbank of the Neva River, with the inscription: TO PETER THE FIRST, FROM CATHERINE THE SECOND.

While her achievements are numerous and significant, I was left with the impression that her life was difficult. As much as she enjoyed governing Russia, she also enjoyed her close friends. Unfortunately, after her unhappy marriage and the murder of her husband Peter III, she never succeeded in finding a lifelong partner to share her dreams and accomplishments. She went through a series of partners and is later thought to have married Gregory Potemkin, though unconfirmed. Even after their passions subsided and both found others, they continued to remain close.

Her relationship with her first child and heir, Paul, was strained throughout her life. Some suggest that as she was nearing the end, she was also preparing to disinherit Paul in favor of her grandson Alexander. She died, however, before putting her plan in place.

Although some of her personal aspirations were never satisfied, she along with Peter the Great were two of Russia’s greatest sovereigns.

Massie spent eight years researching and writing Catherine the Great. I am glad that he devoted so much effort, because his book is not only historical and educational but is also an absolute joy to read.

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Peter the Great

I recently read Robert K. Massie’s Peter the Great: His Life and World (Modern Library) and am rereading his book Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.

Both books together provide a historical perspective on the current Ukraine crisis. I should note, however, that I initially read Catherine the Great last year and started Peter the Great earlier this year, prior to the current crisis. Having read both books, I have a good understanding of Russia’s history concerning Crimea and that knowledge helps to put the current crisis in better perspective.

Although I cannot do justice in writing about the book Peter the Great, I will provide a quick review. It is an immense book of over 1100 pages that, according to Wikipedia, in 1981 earned Robert K. Massie a Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

Peter the Great at about 201 cm or 6’7″ was a towering leader, both literally and figuratively. I am impressed by his willingness to fight wars alongside his army; his constant search for new and novel things, including knowledge and education in almost all topics; his passion for people and their potential, regardless of their rank or station in life; his love of his family and country; and his general enthusiasm for life.

Given that he was the sovereign, he could have easily escaped any role or responsibility for personally fighting wars. Yet, he fought alongside those who placed their lives at risk. And, he was demanding leader who constantly sought to better his armies.

With his prominent role as a leader within his armies, I am surprised at his passion for knowledge and learning. Whenever he traveled, he always asked to be shown new things. And, if the person said that there was nothing new to show, then he asked to be shown everything, for he might find something new even if his host did not. He loved books and brought as many back to St. Petersburg as possible. Even more impressive was his breadth of interests—everything from shipbuilding to medical surgery.

Despite his prominent role as the sovereign of Russia, he did not limit his contacts only to those born into upper society. Instead, he preferred those individuals who rose on their merits. Moreover, he worked hard and he played hard with all ranks of people. From fighting in the trenches to shipbuilding to socializing with foreigners to dancing on tabletops, he saw it as all part of his job. I also admired how he changed and modernized Russian society, demanded religious tolerance, championed industry and commerce as well as promoted the roles of women within society.

Although he died young at only fifty two, toward the latter part of his life he was preoccupied with succession. He wanted to ensure that all his accomplishments would be continued and strengthened. He designated his wife, which at that time was unusual for a woman to lead, to succeed him. Russia needed to keep advancing forward.

Overall I simply admired his passion for life. Even though he was responsible for Russia, he still enjoyed learning as much as he could and even working with hands, whether it was shipbuilding or his daily two hours working on a lathe to build things. He always saw opportunities to continue to learn and develop.

A leader such as Peter the Great comes along, perhaps, every few centuries. I no longer think it is possible for another leader to match his accomplishments. No leader today could have his wide array of interests without being labeled crazy. For example, no leader today could have serious interests in shipbuilding, war, nation building, and surgery. Each of those of specialties now take a lifetime of preparation and study.

I am sad to have finished the book, because I enjoyed learning of Peter the Great’s latest accomplishments.

Even aside from learning about Peter the Great, I enjoyed traveling back in time to imagine what life must have been like. All the emotions and dramas that play a part of our lives today were equally prevalent back then.

Regarding Catherine the Great, although I had read the book last year, I decided to reread it with having Peter the Great as background knowledge. I am finding the book even richer and more interesting now than I did before. Perhaps once I am finished Catherine the Great, I will provide another book review.

Switching topics, having read Peter the Great and Catherine the Great and being of Ukrainian ancestry, I am interested the Ukraine crisis. Even though I don’t want to comment too much on the current crisis, I will provide a brief discussion in the form of a few links to different information sources for those wanting to know more. I have read almost every recent article on the topic from the British Broadcasting Corporation, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times. And with deepening crisis, I recently started a subscription to Stratfor, a global intelligence website. From having read as much as I can, I have learned that there are many different viewpoints. I tend to disregard those articles that are simply ad hominem attacks, for they reveal nothing. Instead, I try to understand the driving motivations and possible outcomes.

As I write, the situation is still fluid. At present, John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov are planning to meet soon in hopes of finding a path through the crisis. Each of the previously mentioned sources have useful articles. I will highlight below some of the articles that I have found helpful in framing this crisis. Each of the articles is free; however, registration might be required.

  • Ukraine Turns From Revolution to Recovery (Stratfor)
  • Ukraine’s Increasing Polarization and the Western Challenge (Stratfor)
  • How the Ukraine crisis ends (Washington Post)
  • As tensions build, U.S. facing ‘zero options’ in Ukraine (PBS News Hour)
  • Russia Examines Its Options for Responding to Ukraine (Stratfor)
  • From Estonia to Azerbaijan: American Strategy After Ukraine (Stratfor)

My above list is by no means exhaustive. As mentioned, each of my earlier sources has helpful and informative articles. And, if you are trying to understand this situation, you should read as many differing viewpoints from different sources as possible.

I hope that this unfortunate situation is resolved soon and peacefully.

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February 2014 Blog Update

I am still busy working away on learning various website technologies. I have read a couple of books on WordPress, plus a book on HTML5 and CSS3. Although not difficult, reading and comprehending these books still takes time.

At present, I am about one-third of the way through Adobe Dreamweaver CC Classroom in a Book. Given that I am updating my knowledge on web technologies, I decided to learn how to use Adobe Dreamweaver. For simply entering new posts into my WordPress blog, it’s probably overkill. In the future, however, I might decide to get under to hood of my WordPress blog, and knowing how to use Dreamweaver will be helpful.

The purpose of this post is to let everyone know that I am still making progress and will be posting more soon.

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Welcome To My New WordPress Blog

I took the above picture of Waterfowl Lakes on 24 October 2013, the last warm day in Banff National Park in 2013. If you click on the picture, you’ll end up at the picture on my Flickr site.

This entry is my first post into my new WordPress blog. My old Movable Type blog has been retired. I purposefully did not import the old data into this new blog. Instead, I like the idea of starting fresh.

In preparation for moving to WordPress, I have begun learning about HTML5, CSS3, themes, skins, and various plugins. It’s amazing how much has changed since I was last actively blogging. While I had a reasonable understanding of HTML 4, XHTML, and CSS, everything has changed. I find, however, that my past learning is helping me learn this new material.

I am still in the process of learning how to use WordPress. So I expect changes to this website over the coming days and weeks.

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