A day of Thanksgiving

This post was actually written yesterday. I’m spending the day with family, not sitting in front of a computer.

Thanksgiving isn’t my favorite holiday. (Neither is Christmas, the usual popular choice.) I don’t feel the need to criticize it for historical connotations, as many do every year. But as a Christian, I find it an important holiday – it’s a day to reflect on what blessings I’ve received and how fortunate I am.

I’m thankful I’ve walked this Earth for thirty years (next week, that is; close enough). The Lord has given me an appointed time, and I don’t know what it is. I’ve wasted so much of it on things that didn’t and don’t matter, but every year I’m given is a blessing.

I’m thankful for my wife of five years. She has blessed me in ways I never anticipated, calls me out when I need to be taken down a notch, and builds me up when I’m low. She’s my first reader, my editor, and one of the few people that can tell me what she really thinks of an idea. She’s encouraged me on my many endeavors, and without her I couldn’t do what I do.

I’m thankful for my son. As I write this, he brings a smile to my face as he’s sitting in his high chair chomping on his favorite food: an apple. He drives me nuts sometimes, but he’s brought joy and laughter to our home that I didn’t know was missing. And he’s so stinkin’ cute it’s ridiculous.

I’m thankful for my family. Though we sometimes fight, we disagree, we argue, I also know that I can call at any time from anywhere and have all the help I could ever need. My father in particular has made many things in my life possible – advice and willing hands whenever I need to fix a car or swing a hammer or drive a screw.

I’m grateful for the ability to provide for my family. I have a sound mind and body, and I’m able to hunt to put venison on the table or spend days cutting up and processing beef. I’m able to work to provide money or repair our home or do any of a hundred things to ensure my wife and son are warm, sheltered, and fed.

I’m thankful for independent publishing. New technology like print-on-demand, Kindle, and Nook allow me to put books out even if I can’t find a regular publisher – and make more money off them than I would under a standard contract.

I’m thankful for a church that is closer than many families.  They, too, will come at a moment’s notice and provide an ear when I need to talk. Though there are only a handful of people in the church close to my age, they are valuable friends and brothers and sisters in Christ.

Finally, I’m thankful for Jesus Christ. His Word provides hope and guidance and sustains me spiritually. The words I have are insufficient to describe the importance of his grace, and how that affects me each and every day, consciously and unconsciously.

So today, I’m thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Game Review: Assassin’s Creed II

This continues my ongoing review of the Assassin’s Creed science fiction/alternate history game series.

Remember all my complaints about Assassin’s Creed?

There’s a reason Assassin’s Creed II, set in Italy during the Renaissance, is considered by many to be the best of the series. Released in 2009, it continues the frame story of Desmond Miles from right where Assassin’s Creed left off (in a very ugly fashion, I might add, that would have angered me had I not had Assassin’s Creed II queued up and ready to go). The character of Altaïr is gone, though, to be replaced by the much more dynamic Ezio Auditore da Firenze.

Ezio’s a bit of a womanizing happy-go-lucky guy until his father and brothers have their necks stretched following a treason conviction based on trumped-up evidence. Donning the robes of an Assassin, Ezio spends Assassin’s Creed II pursuing his revenge.

Ezio also takes up the leadership role for the Auditore family after his father’s demise, and a minigame involves restoring the family’s estate. While that sort of world-building makes its first appearance here, it certainly won’t be the last time in the series.

Assassin’s Creed II takes the series from alternate history to very alternate history. I don’t recall another game that involves a fight with the pope over an artifact from a pre-human civilization that can be used to control the minds of other people. Seriously. And, as with Assassin’s Creed, the game ends on a nasty cliffhanger that’s downright irritating. (Seriously, closure, people. Closure.) However, part of that cliffhanger is information tying the frame story far more closely to the main story, which was desperately needed given the player time spent on the frame.

The game plays better than Assassin’s Creed. Combat is a bit more dynamic and adds some new weapons to the mix. Ezio is actually an interesting character, and his conflicts with his family and his desire for revenge seem far more organic than Altaïr’s flat performance. Large jumps in time are a bit jarring, but this is a far superior game to Assassin’s Creed.

The Assassin’s toolset expands a bit. First, and most importantly, Ezio can actually swim. Add to that dual hidden blades (instead of the single in the first game), poison, and a gun, and there’s a lot more ways to end a target’s life than in the original game. There’s also the addition of a notoriety system; actions now have longer-term consequences.

There’s also more world interactions than before. Ezio takes to the air in Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying machine, drives a wagon with a team of horses, and rows a gondola, along with the familiar horseback sequences in the “world” between the game’s major cities.

AC2 is improved in virtually every way over the original Assassin’s Creed. It’s definitely a worthy successor.

The importance of narratives

Among the last things I read last night before going to bed were several news feeds coming out of Ferguson, Missouri. Namely, reports that shots had been fired and a nice GIF of President Obama calling for calm split-screen with an image of a burning car. (Insert your own jokes about metaphors for Obama’s presidency here.)

This morning, I read celebratory threads on a lefty site about how the lack of deaths and full-scale race riots meant the minority community had proved that right-wingers are a bunch of evil racists who should never have doubted the calm and collected response.

The whole thing left me scratching my head.

Sarah Hoyt opines occasionally about the importance of storytellers, and by that perspective gave me a view on this I would have otherwise lacked.

In our society, we have more information readily available at our fingertips than ever before. We are not shackled by what the three or four biggest media outlets choose to cover and how they choose to cover it. Alternative viewpoints are easier to find than ever.

And in spite of all that, narrative is more important than truth.

Look at the facts of the situation. 18-year-old Michael Brown stood 6’4″ and weighed nearly 300 pounds. Just prior to the altercation that ended his life, he stole cigarillos from a convenience store and roughed up a store clerk who tried to stop him from leaving. Minutes later he encountered Darren Wilson (who was in his police cruiser). There was an apparent fight over his gun and the firearm discharged inside the officer’s vehicle. Brown immediately fled then, by eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence, had turned around and tried to rush the officer again. He was then fatally shot.

But narrative drove the aftermath. By the narrative Brown was a “gentle giant” and a “child”. The cops were, necessarily, racists who used disproportionate force in the shooting.

And now, after last night, certain people are out suggesting that the average American is racist as well for suggesting that rioting was going to happen last night.

I’ll be the first to admit I was fairly certain there’d be a body count this morning.

On the other hand, this was hardly a peaceful protest, either. A dozen businesses burned or destroyed, looting, and assaults on uniformed police officers. And this peaceful protest narrative also leaves out the presence of National Guard, FBI, and hundreds of additional police in an attempt to contain the violence before it broke out.

Ferguson’s hardly a shining star in civility.

But the narrative will go on. And that’s why it’s important to have writers, reporters, and authors of varying political and social views – to ensure inconvenient facts don’t get swept under the rug because they conflict with the narrative.

End of Deer Season

Now that deer season has come to an end, it’s time to get back into writing mode.

I didn’t get Friday’s planned gun control post done on Thursday night like I planned, and my Friday morning lasted far longer than I expected.

Deer

It involved an epic chase, and fortunately, he was in full rut (and therefore stupid). By the time he was hung up and cooling, it was nearly noon, and my afternoon was already fully accounted for. Saturday involved more work, and Sunday included an unplanned trip to the hospital to visit my great-grandmother.

And hey, let’s be honest – I didn’t have a post planned for this morning anyway.

Alongside writing, I’m closing in on my radiant heating project. One more trip to Bismarck and a couple of deliveries from Amazon and I’ll have everything I need to complete it. Black Friday isn’t going to involve any shopping for me (unless it’s at 5 AM on the couch in my underwear).

I do have some posts planned for the rest of the week (including part 3 of gun control), so stay tuned.

A Golden Age of Information

It’s been a busy week here.

Aside from slow progress on writing projects, I’ve had a stack of side work and house improvement projects to work on. I’ve repaired a half dozen computers this week (the last one is on my bench right now); my wife’s car is currently sitting torn-down in my father’s shop out on the farm; our backup car is now, fittingly, back up and running; and I have the rest of the gear coming to finish my heating project for the house expansion. Also on the to-do list is shoot a deer this weekend (closing weekend for deer season, so I’m getting short on time), and maybe get some plumbing and wiring done.

There’s actually a common theme running through all my projects (aside from deer hunting – that’s an outlier): the information age.

“Erm, Neumiller? You’re talking about mechanics and home improvement. That’s not exactly information age stuff.”

Surprisingly enough, it is.

Not many people I know offline would think of me as a real hands-on type guy. I grew up on a ranch, so hard work and working with my hands aren’t earth-shattering prospects for me, but I’m no one’s first choice when it comes to carpentry, or plumbing, or wiring, or working on a car. I’m pretty sharp at computers, but they’re a different breed than the basic hands-on skills that build and maintain our modern world.

With that said, the Information Age has made these fields far more accessible.

Looking at my various projects, in order: the wife’s car currently has the head stripped off (we thought a blown head gasket, but it was a burned valve and we still don’t know where the coolant’s going) due to plenty of informational videos about the 2.2 engine that’s shared between plenty of vehicles (Sunfire, Cavalier, S-10 pickup). The backup car was a pretty easy job that didn’t require extraneous information (a battery change along with the ends on both leads). The new heating system was designed by reading extensively online on the radiant floor heating I wanted to put in, including both drawbacks and strengths. Electrical and plumbing are both fairly straightforward projects, but there’s plenty of information for consulting (which I need to do on occasion) when I’m not sure about best practices.

That is the world we live in – a world where we can find all the information we need to do so many projects with our own two hands.

Never in the history of the human race has so much information been so readily available at our fingertips.

And we use it to 1.) look at pictures of funny cats or 2.) look at porn.

Kind of a sad commentary on the human condition, isn’t it?

The knowledge is only as useful as our willingness to put it to work. All those Youtube videos of practical skills and projects (which I’ve been consulting heavily for automotive work; between the cracked head on the Jeep and the work I’ve done on the Sunfire, I’ve probably watched four to five hours of instructional videos along this year) are useless if we don’t do it ourselves.

It must be four years ago already when I had a conversation with an overseas friend. He was caught in the same trap many people my age put themselves in: overspent, in debt, and stuck where he was because he couldn’t afford to do anything else.

We spoke at length about the way we had chosen to structure our lives: we purchased used vehicles, not new; we didn’t spring for the latest and greatest electronics; we regularly were paying down our student debt; we forewent eating out regularly and cooked meals at home; we purchased an old house in tough shape and put in hours to fix it up ourselves. And so forth – we didn’t have the fanciest toys, nor the biggest house, nor the newest phones – but we were working to make our lives better.

At the time, I didn’t think it had made a difference – my experience was that most people didn’t want to hear phrases like “Do it yourself instead of hiring it” and “Sacrifice now to make things better later”.

A year back, the same friend reached out to me and thanked me for the advice I’d given. He told me it was some of the best advice he’d ever gotten, and after following it he found options opening up for him that he’d never had available before.

I’ve gotten a bit far afield from where I started, but remember this, if nothing else: You have access to more knowledge than any generation before you. Use it, and you can make your life better.

Game Review: Assassin’s Creed

My adventures in Assassin’s Creed started last Christmas when a good friend bought me Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag after hearing me say it looked interesting. During various Steam sales, I picked up all five previous games and have, over the course of the last six months or so, played through them all.

With new Assassin’s Creed games launching last week, I figured I’d better get some reviews up. I’m waiting for Rogue to be released for PC, and it’ll be a while before I get a new video card that’s capable of Unity. One of the downsides to running a mini-ITX computer with a single-slot graphics card is that you usually can’t get the latest and greatest crammed in the case; I’m still using a Radeon 5770 slim card.

Expect weekly reviews for the next six weeks.

Assassin’s Creed is an ongoing science fiction/alternate history video game series. Launched in 2007, it’s been releasing at least one major game a year on a pretty insane production schedule. The general quality of the games has gone up and down, so we’re going to start at the beginning.

Assassin’s Creed (the original game) started the whole affair. Players switch between modern-day prisoner Desmond Miles and his ancestor Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad. (I so copy-pasted that.) The modern plot is just a framing story for the real action, in this case taking place in 1191 during the Crusades.

Altaïr is a powerful, high-ranking Assassin in his order. However, during his first mission in the game, he breaks the tenets of the Creed and, as a result, is busted down to novice after barely escaping a well-deserved execution. As penance, he has to hunt down nine Templars in order to restore his rank.

It would be unjust to judge Assassin’s Creed by comparing it to the later games; it established a new universe and played smoothly (for the most part). The combat system is largely counter-based, and attempting to take offensive action instead of counterstriking usually doesn’t end well.

The game offers a variety of weapons (the infamous hidden blade, swordplay, and throwing knives) and is fairly open-world, although the objectives stay the same. Unfortunately, the game suffers from obviously being a game – by which I mean there’s a set pattern you follow for each assassination. Arrive at the city, talk to the local Assassin’s Bureau contact, gather intelligence, talk to the contact again, and then head out to knife your target. The first time, it feels cool; the sixth time, you’re ready to chuck a controller out the window.

The character of Altaïr also feels a little flat at times. He doesn’t seem to have interests outside of sticking sharp things in other people; and while he is hunting down Templars to restore his rank, he doesn’t seem real concerned about it either. He just feels flat, like characters often did in older video games. (Although, given its 2007 release date, Assassin’s Creed could have – and should have – done better.)

While later entries far exceed Assassin’s Creed, it’s still not a bad game – it suffers from having created the baseline all the following games started from and improved upon.

Definitely worth playing.

Verdict: 6/10

North Dakota Author: Todd Ford

It’s been a while since I wrote a post on another North Dakota author. There aren’t that many of us, so it’s best to space it out, or in less than a month I’d be out of people to talk about. That said, I’ve been meaning to write this post for quite a while, because it’s a personal one.

I’ve known Todd Ford for over four years – we worked in the IT department at MDU Resources (me as help desk technician and later supervisor, him as a programmer). And while we’ll never agree on politics, we do share a passion for writing. Todd’s been at it a lot longer than I have, but he’s been far more reluctant to show the world what he’s done. It’s not an uncommon trait among writers; we pour ourselves into those words, and if they’re rejected, it hurts. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

So I was very excited when Todd announced he was finally releasing a book to the world.

Todd is a self-described cinephile. That man loves movies. It’s only fitting, then, that his book is a mixture of autobiographical and movie reviews. In short, it’s a large portion of his life.

It’s also great to see a collection like this. The movie reviews were written over a twenty-year period, and it’s too easy to let those things slip away and vanish forever. I know, personally, many of the articles and stories I wrote in college have vanished forever due to hard drive failures and lost papers; but by collecting them in this bundle, Todd’s preserved a portion of his work in a way that will likely outlast him.

Oh, the title? See You in the Dark: Two Decades of my Cinephilia in North Dakota. You can grab either a Kindle or Paperback version from Amazon.

The Futility of Gun Control, Part II

Due to life happening, I didn’t get around to writing this in nearly the timely fashion I had planned.

It’s important to remember our laws are not sane.

I just wanted to start with that, because this post is about firearms, aka “lower receivers”.

“Uh, I’ve never heard of a lower receiver. What’s that?”

Let me put on a teacher’s cap for a minute and do my best to explain.

In 1968, the wonderful minds in Congress (yes, that was a joke – it’s alright to laugh) passed the Gun Control Act of 1968. (With a name like that, you’d probably guessed it was passed in 69, which is why I specified the year. That’s just the way our government works.) It created large portions of the mess we have in gun laws today.

It made it a crime to sell a firearm to a convicted criminal, created the ugly FFL system which is required for any cross-state-lines transfer (and de facto banned mail-order firearms, save antique guns – interestingly enough, the first model AR-15s should be hitting antique status very shortly if they haven’t already), restricted firearms imports in a variety of ways, and, of relevance to this post, required all licensed manufacturers to put serial numbers on their firearms.

Staying on topic here, the last point is what’s relevant to “firearms are lower receivers.” The question on serial-numbering firearms is what is the firearm?

To which some of you are saying, “Huh?”

It’s critical to remember that firearms are like any other machine – they’re a combination of parts. Since the Industrial Revolution, firearms are manufactured with enough precision that parts are interchangeable. So, on any given firearm, you have dozens of parts which are all interchangeable and can be replaced as needed. So for the sake of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which component is the “firearm”? Is it the firing pin or hammer? Trigger? Barrel?

In general, it’s considered the weapon’s “frame” or “receiver”, which all other parts fit into. With most firearms, this is an adequate definition, but with the advent of modern sporting rifles, it gets to be ludicrous.

My brother once referred to the famous semiautomatic Ruger 10/22 as a “LEGO gun”. Aftermarket customization kits are available for Ruger 10/22s that can make them all sorts of interesting firearms, from AR clones to gatling guns. They’re easy to work with and anyone with some basic tools can manage such a conversion.

The AR line takes it a step further. They’re designed to be fully customizable from the get-go. Online tools make it easy for people to put together a virtual firearm with all the features they want, then get a parts list and order everything they need to put it together in reality.

ARs are designed to such a degree, in fact, that it actually has two receivers – an upper receiver and a lower receiver. The only part that is serial numbered and tracked by the federal government is the lower receiver. All other parts are just considered “components.”

So, now that we’re this far into our education, let’s take another peek at what the 1968 law did? It required all licensed manufacturers to put serial numbers on their firearms.

Licensed manufacturers.

Something that seems to be often missed is that anyone in the US can manufacture a firearm for themselves. (Caveats apply; basically, anything you can buy without special tax stamps you can build. You can’t build a fully automatic weapon, for example; short-barreled rifles would have to be registered with the Feds. Etc, etc, etc.) Until recently, this was a very niche crowd – people with the specialized tools and knowledge to build a reliable firearm aren’t common. Now, if these unlicensed people build a firearm for themselves (can’t be for resale), they didn’t have to put a serial number on it. It would be impossible to enforce, so the Feds wisely decided to leave it be.

But the Internet changes everything.

Now, manufacturing a lower receiver from scratch isn’t easy. It still requires specialized tools and knowledge. Buuuuuuuut, a number of manufacturers started poking at the edges of the law to find out just where the line between “legal” and “orange jumpsuit” lies.

Enter the 80% lower receiver.

BATF basically states that any receiver that is 80% or less complete is not a firearm under the 1968 law, because it’s too far from usable. So, these 80% receivers can be sold without a serial number, without filing paperwork with the federal government, and without doing background checks.

And the rest of the parts are, again, untracked.

How difficult is it to complete an 80% receiver? There’s a few different ways to go about it. The manual way is most difficult. However, CNC mills are becoming the more popular way to do it. I’ve also read plenty about “AR parties” where a group gets together and someone with the proper knowledge walks newcomers through the process.

End result, a fully-functional AR-15 that the federal government can’t track because they don’t know it exists.

And remember, this is with the technology we readily have available now. Just imagine what it’s going to be like in another twenty years.

Yes, ban “assault rifles” – it’s going to do so much good.

I’m working on part III – 3D printing. It should be fun.

Why I Don’t NaNo

I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo.

For those of you now scratching your heads, NaNoWriMo (hereafter referred to as “NaNo”) is the not-very-abbreviated abbreviation of National Novel Writing Month. Taking place in November of every year, it’s a challenge to participants to write a novel in thirty days – in this case, a “novel” meaning “fifty thousand words”.

I tried the challenge in college, but I had to come to a personal conclusion: it’s a bad time of year to do it.

For me, personally, almost any other month would be better (save December, due to Christmas travels). The word count required (less than two thousand per day) isn’t hard to hit.

But November is deer season.

In North Dakota, opening day of deer season is virtually a state holiday. Schools usually schedule to take the day off. (This year was an exception due to Veterans’ Day.) Most businesses run at part-staff. On Sunday, churches are usually female-dominated because the men are out in the field. (Deer-hunting widow is a common term used around here.)

My last job was working for a major company’s IT department. Now, IT isn’t usually considered the home of traditionally masculine pursuits, but here in ND large portions of the staff took off with rifles in hand to chase whitetails and mulies across the snow.

And deer season is two weeks long.

I was one of the lucky few to draw a buck tag this year. (Numbers are down state-wide, and I only had a single preference point.) Large portions of my spare time have been spent outside looking for The Big One. It’s definitely hard on the time necessary to hit my daily word counts for NaNo.

I’ll be danged if I’m going to be tied to a keyboard when I can be outside with a rifle, binoculars, and a deer tag.

The Morning After

The 2014 elections are over, and it was a bigger rout for the Democrats than expected. A quick look over the election results showed that, not only did a Republican wave materialize, it was larger than expected.

Fivethirtyeight.com had some interesting numbers in their election coverage last night. Most notable was their comparison of pre-election polling to actual results. In short, this year’s polling skewed heavily Democrat, translating to victories where Republicans were thought to be trailing by a few points and tight races where Democrats believed they had large margins. (Average skewing for gubernatorial races: +2 points for Dems; average for Senate: +6 Democrat.)

So, Obama is now in a situation similar to W at this point in his presidency – his popularity with the electorate has fallen off, and he faces a House and Senate controlled by the opposition. What happens now?

Option 1.) We spend the next two years in gridlock with virtually nothing substantial being accomplished. A Republican House and Senate passes multiple bills that Obama is forced to veto – approving the Keystone XL pipeline, repealing Obamacare, etc. These votes are all used to campaign in 2016, with Democrats painting Republicans as pure partisans and the Republicans painting Democrats as obstructionist. (Oh, the irony.) A quick perusal of Democratic pundits this morning shows they believe the field to be stacked in their favor for 2016 for retaking the Senate, so the blue team may take this route with the confidence of electing Hillary in 2016 with control of the Senate on her coattails.

Option 2.) Obama compromises with the Republican-controlled legislature to pass some items on his agenda and get some of his appointments through. Arguably the best situation for the country, but it makes talking-points campaigning harder in 2016. Republicans will likely push for this route to prevent the “party of no” meme from returning – after all, they have control of substantial portions of the government, and now they need to prove they’re willing and able to use it well. Whether they succeed is questionable and can only be answered by the 2016 election.

Here in North Dakota, Republicans won virtually up and down the ticket. Perhaps the most notable thing about the election is the lack of surprises. State government remains in Republican hands with a few seats changing parties, but the State Democrats failed to make serious inroads. The question, then, is “Why?” Personally, I’d say the national party hurts the state party; ND is right-wing enough that the far-left stances from major Dem figures has a negative effect on centrist lefties here. (Personally, I believe if Heidi Heitkamp had been running for office this year, she would have lost, and badly; but by 2018 the political landscape could be entirely different yet again.)

The eight ND measures boiled down to one simple fact: North Dakotans found it easier to say “No” then “Yes.” Aside from Measure 2 (which I’ll address in a moment), there were plenty of doubt-raising arguments made against each measure, and while I don’t think some of those arguments were valid, a majority of my fellow voters disagreed.

Measure 2 was the sole passing item, and I suspect it passed because a “Yes” meant “No”. For those who aren’t aware, Measure 2 amended the constitution to forbid certain types of taxes (mortgage taxes, property transfer taxes, property sales taxes). Given how flush the ND government currently is with oil money, it’s no surprise how the measure turned out.

Finally, a note on Measure 5. Given the 80/20 drubbing it got, I wonder if there’s going to be some backlash against the conservation groups that supported it. A lot of voters suspected groups like Ducks Unlimited were trying to get their hands in the ND oil cookie jar, and they got their knuckles rapped for it. There could be longer-term consequences.