Saturday, May 19, 2007

Book Review: Eragon

Eragon by Christopher Paolini

A teenage boy (Eragon) is living with his uncle, until the evil emperor's minions kills his uncle and destroys their farm. The boy journeys to avenge his uncle's death, accompanied by an older man who seems to know more about the boy than he lets on. The man gives Eragon an ancient sword. On their journey, they are rescued from a precarious situation by a stranger, and rescue a mysterious woman from prison. Wait, haven't I heard this story before? I swear, if it's revealed at the end of the second book that Eragon is actually the lost son of the emperor, I'm going to burn every copy I can find.

Reading it, I kept a count of the writer's Paolini ripped off: Lucas, Tolkein, McCafery, LeGuin. Those are only the one's I'm familiar, I'm sure there are more. The book is competently, but not artfully written. He's descriptive enough, and the characterizations are fairly good especially for the main characters. The plot moves along nicely enough. It seems to be edited pretty well. The fact that it was written by a teenager is a little less impressive when you find out the Paolini family owns a publishing house.

My favorite bad part is the language guide in the back. This is such a transparent ripoff of Tolkein. Now, Tolkein was a accomplished linguist who knew the structure and development of languages. Paolini clearly has little or no experience with any language than English. Instead of doing something clever with noun inflection or verb tenses, he just basically copies English with its degenerate tenses and cases. For example, future tense is just a participle plus the helper verb will. Pathetic.

The Scottish Connection

In an op ed in the Boston Globe about Scottish Separatism, H.D.S Greeway says:

Scots often ran England, too. Half of the last 20 British prime
ministers have either represented Scottish constituencies at one time
or another, or were Scots themselves. Gordon Brown, almost certain to
be the next prime minister, is a Scot.

Ten out of twenty seemed a little high to me, so I checked it out.

Tony Blair
Born in Edinburgh. His father was of English ancestry although he grew up in Glasgow. His was of Scotch-Irish descent. After living in Scotland and Australia, his family moved to Durham where he went to school. Sat for Sedgefield in Durham.

John Major
Born in Carshalton, part of a London borough. Sat for Hutingdonshire and Hutingdon.

Margaret Thatcher Born in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Sat for Finchley, part of London

James Callaghan Born in Portsmouth. His father was of Irish ancestry. Sat for Cardiff South and subsequent reconfigurations.

Harold Wilson Born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire. Sat for Ormskirk and Huyton, both in Lancashire.

Edward Heath Born in Broadstairs, Kent. Sat for Bexley, Sidcup and Old Bexley and Sidcup, all part of London.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home Finally, a real Scotsman. Although he was born in the Mayfair section of London, his father's family is of ancient Scottish lineage. He eventually succeeded to the Scottish Earldom of Home, but disclaimed it when he became Prime Minister. He was recognized as chief of Clan Home (purists will say you can't be a clan chief and have a double barrelled surname). Sat for Lanark and for Kinross and Western Perthshire.

Harold Macmillan Born in the Brixton, part of London. His grandfather was Scottish. Sat for Stockton-on-Tees (in northern England) and Bromley in England

Anthony Eden Born in West Auckland in Durham. Sat for Warwick and Leamington in central England.

Winston Churchill
Born at his grandfather the Duke of Marlborough's country house Blenheim Palace (in Oxfordshire). In his long parliamentary career, he sat for a number of constituencies including Dundee in Scotland.

Clement Atlee Born in Putney, part of London. Sat for Limehouse and Walthamstow West, both parts of London.

Neville Chamberlain Born in Birmignham. Sat for two different seats in irmingham.

Stanley Baldwin Born in Bewdley in Worcesershire. Sat for Bewdley.

Ramsay MacDonald Another real Scotsman. Born in Morrayshire in northeast Scotland. Sat for Leisceter, Aberavon (Wales), Seagan (England) and Combined Scottish Universities.

Andrew Bonar Law Born in New Brunswick, Canada. His family had Scottish and Scots-Irish backgrounds. He went to live in Glasgow in his youth. He sat for a number of constituencies including ones in Glasgow.

David Lloyd George Born in Manchester, but of Welsh ancestry. His family moved back to Wales shortly after he was born. Only Welshman to be PM. Sat for Caernarvon Boroughs.

H. H. Asquith
Born in West Yorkshire. Sat for East Fife and Paisley, both in Scotland.

Henry Campbell-Bannerman
Born in Glasgow. Sat for Stirling in Scotland.

Arthur Balfour Born in Whittingehame, East Lothian, Scotland. His mother was the daughter of the Marquess of Salisbury. Sat for Hertford, Manchester
East and City of London.

Marquess of Salisbury
Born in Hertfordshire, England. Sat for Stamford in Lincolnshire before succeeding the marquisate.

Earl of Rosebery
Born in Berkeley Square, London. Never sat in the Commons. The title is a Scottish one created in 1703.

Of the last 20 prime minister, I count the following
English: 14 (Blair, Major, Thatcher, Callaghan, Wilson, Heath, Macmillan, Eden, Churchill, Atlee, Chamberlain, Baldwin, Balfour, Salisbury)
Scottish: 6 (Douglas-Home, MacDonald, Bonar Law, Campbell-Bannerman, Balfour, Rosebery)
Welsh: 1 (Lloyd George)

So that's 6 of 20. Add in Churchill and Asquith, who sat for Scottish constituencies, and Blair, who was born in Scotland, that makes it 9 out 20. Almost half.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Defining Reasonablness Down

What can you say when John Ashcroft and Ted Olson are the reasonable ones?

In fairness to Ashcroft though, he was never really a Bush insider. I think he was actually taking his job seriously.

Executive Power

The post about Tony Blair was originally an email to a friend. We got into the "imperial presidency" and separation of powers, and I came up with this.

The writers of the US consititution were aware of the power of the sovreign in Britain and the whole separation of powers was to prevent a single person or institution to have exclusive power. In the 18th century, the sovereign had enormous power. While parliament had control of the purse strings and even the power to remove the sovereign and set succession, the sovereign had enormous power. He had complete authority to appoint and dismiss ministers, call elections and create new lords. What I find interesiting is that the 200 or so years since the revolution, the British/UK system has evolved to where the sovereign has virtually no power to act on her own initiative. This is likely a major reason that the UK is still a monarchy and France, Germany and Russia are not. My reading of history points to one moment that precipitated the shift of power from sovereign to elected government: the accession of an 18 year old woman as Queen. The men of 1837 couldn't imagine a woman, and such a young woman, as being capable of handling the responsibilities. So began the fiction of acting in the Queen's name.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Great Juxtaposition

I have no idea if this was purposeful, but Iliked the juxtaposition the Globe had its front page Monday:

The Massachusetts National Guard, the descendants of the Minutemen, marching across Concord bridge and below the descendant of George III.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Why the Name?

I figured I needed a snappy name for the blog. It struck me that I tend to say "actually" pretty often. I remember years ago when I must been under ten, another little boy saying to me, "You say actually a lot." I also noticed I string sentences, that perhaps should be better left alone, together with "but." So I put them together and said it a couple times and I figured it would work.

I think it also works well with my more pedantic tendencies. People spreading urban legends and other misinformation really irritates me. I often can't help myself and I have to jump in and correct them. I'm sure not every one appreciates my efforts to make the world less ignorant.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


I read this article in the New Yorker last week. It wasn't much I didn't already know or at least suspect. All I can say it's a good thing he doesn't have to go find a real job.

Ten Years of Blairism

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of Tony Blair's acension to Prime Minister. Labour had been out of power since 1979 and the Conservatives had won four straight general elections. Margaret Thatcher had been prime minister for over eleven years; longer continuous service than anyone but Lord Liverpool(served from 1812 to 1827). In the runup to the 1992 election is was widely believed that Neil Kinnock had remade Labour enough that they would easily defeat Thatcher's successor John Major. But it was apparently not enough as Major pulled out an upset and led five more years of Tory rule. By 1997 I think several things converged. There was Tory fatigue. Blair was one of the most charismatic British politicians to come around in a long time. His Clintonian triangulation comforted voters that there wouldn't be general strikes and nationalization of industry.

About Thatcher: I used to watch Prime Minister's Question Time on CSPAN, and I will say she was masterful. Considering that she was a research chemist before she went into politics, she held herself very well. I can't imagine any recent Republican president surviving an ordeal like that. Of course Clinton would have been great at it.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Worst President Ever

I tagged my previous post with "worst president ever," but I think this post makes a good argument that James Buchanan, not George W. Bush, was the worst U.S. president ever. Still, we have almost 2 years left and there's no place to go but down.

Why I Hate George W. Bush

I remember when I first noticed him. Maybe I knew that George H. W. Bush had a son named George, but I didn't make much of it at the time. The first time I saw him on TV was during a Red Sox pre-game show. It must have been the early 90's, probably during the Clinton administration. Sean McDonough was interviewing him and they were talking about baseball. I'd like to think I said to myself, "I'm sure glad he's only running a baseball team and the country," but I probably didn't. I don't remember any of the substance of the interview. I just recall I wasn't overly impressed by him.

Flash forward to the late 90's. He was governor of Texas and starting to raise money for a presidential run. I always thought he used his name and his father's contacts to try to vacuum up as much campaign contributions as he could to scare of other potential candidates. The more I heard him talk, the more I came to the conclusion that he was: 1) a fake, 2) and not very bright. I never would have considered voting for any of the Republican candidates over the Deomcratatic contenders, but I do like to limit the damage. The other major candidate, John McCain, seemed at least at the time, the lesser of two evils.

Al Gore wasn't my ideal candidate, but I knew it was a load of crap to say there really wasn't much difference between the candidates. The Florida fiasco should have put that out of any one's mind. The "uniter not a divider" and his ruthless effort to win Florida should have made it obvious what kind of politician he would be.

The first few months of his presidency were pretty uninspiring. The typical Republican calls for tax cuts on the domestic side. On defense, the administration was so interested in a missile defense system that they seemed to be deliberately provoking North Korea in order to justify it.

And then there was September 11. Many people have said this before, but here it is again. He could have used 9/11 as an opportunity to unite the nation and use the sympathy the rest of the world had for us to actually reduce or eliminate the threat of terrorism. Instead, he used it to as a partisan wedge to push every thing on the radical right wish list.

That's really it. Every thing the Bush administration does is for short term political gain. Look at any thing they do, any "policy" they propose. Try to think of the most cynical, nihilist and basest motivation for the action. Then dial it down about two or three notches. You will then find you were giving them the benefit of the doubt. I know that sounds cynical on my part, but it's been a reliable way of understanding the administration.