Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks

You had the assignment in every grade growing up; now you're an adult and you still make these lists. Here is mine for 2010.

I am thankful for...

...Romans 5:8, which says "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
...my wife Beth who never ceases to amaze me and puts up with me.
...my children, Elijah and Mylie, that I love more and more with each passing day.
...freedom.
...my job, let me never take it for granted.
...good friends and their company.
...Josh Collier, who is always there when I need him, even if he doesn't know that I need him.
...my parents and how they raised me.
...the ability to enjoy what I like, which truly is a gift from God.
...people who take the time to listen to me.
...people who share their experience and wisdom.
...throwback Pepsi made with real sugar, that stuff is outstanding.
...that God has ordained my life with purpose.
...air conditioning and furnaces.
...Jeremiah 29:11.
...clean water and good food.

Obviously, this isn't the end of the list; it's just the beginning. We have so much to be thankful for that it's hard to write it all down. But at the end of the day, nothing else matters except what we do with this life that God has given us. As my first entry says, Christ died while we were still sinners. We didn't have to prove ourselves to Him; He chose to carry the cross because He loved us. Above all, I am thankful for that.

Happy Thanksgiving.

-Matt

Friday, November 19, 2010

The compelling universe of Mass Effect

We all have our guilty pleasures in life. I’ve always appreciated a good story in a book or movie. Actually caring for the characters would keep me involved flipping pages or sitting two hours at one time.

Over the past 10 years, video games have begun improving their stories to the point where one has to take them seriously as story-telling material. Sure, you had the mythology of The Legend of Zelda in the late 1980s, but a quick recall of that original game and you'll find very little story to it. It wasn't until arguably the greatest video game of all time, The Ocarina of Time, was released in 1998 that Zelda's story really took off. Which now brings me to the Mass Effect series

Commander Shepard
The title character is Commander Shepard. The plot is a typical hero journey: unassuming hero is discounted by many, has to prove himself, goes on a wild journey with compatriots, and ultimately has to save the galaxy from nearly impossible odds. Sound familiar? There are many parallels with Shepard's journey to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, and the way the galaxy is fleshed out is similar: this is Space Opera first, science fiction story second. The story is the critical element. You develop relationships with your crew members as you tackle obstacles, sometimes romantic in nature. You are drawn to their struggle, as each character actually feels alive in the real world. They each have their own back-story of triumph and heartache. You genuinely feel for these characters.

But the main draw is the overall universe, you can't help but feel completely in awe. I can't describe the feeling in my stomach when I finished the game the first time; I felt almost sick because I knew in my heart that this world did not exist, but what I would give to experience it if it did. The rush, the excitement of the unknown, the adventure, it was incredible. When game designers can make an environment like this, they have accomplished their goal ten-fold.

video
Mass Effect 2 built on this to even greater detail (watch the launch trailer to understand the epic nature of this game). Choices in the game this time had actual life and death in-game consequences (as opposed to the relatively linear play of ME1). The characters were fleshed out in greater detail than the original, and there is a longing to be riding along with Commander Shepard and his crew as they race against time and nearly impossible odds again (with the final mission aptly named “Suicide Mission”). You can actually beat the game AND HAVE EVERYONE IN YOUR CREW PERISH based on decisions you make.


Some people in the media have gone as far as saying that with the source material Mass Effect brings, it could be the Star Wars for the current generation. Those who are old enough to remember being in theaters in 1977 recall the raw emotion of seeing George Lucas' universe unfold before their eyes. They were drawn to the adventures of the characters and the story. There is nothing magical; stories like this have been told for eons: The Odyssey, Beowulf, etc. Who is to say that the Mass Effect series can't evoke similar emotions? I know it has for me.

This is what the Mass Effect series is. The universe captures your imagination because it feels so real – a nightclub lit with flames, deadly family reunions, a friend accused of the inconceivable – these are the sights and events that cast shadows in your mind and heart. This is a galaxy you want to explore that is populated with characters you are glad to know. It's the kind of game that you return to, not just because it's fun to play, but also because its universe is a place you wish you could call home.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Big 12 Basketball Preview

College football may be where the big money is, but for my money, college basketball is where it is. Here are my thoughts on how the Big 12 season will shape up.


Baylor: Coming off a near miss to make the Final 4, Baylor brings back one of the most athletic teams in the conference. LaceDarius Dunn is arguably the most talented player in the conference, and no one will be surprised if he wins player of the year honors at the end of the season. The main problem though is that Baylor has lost its senior PG from last season, and we basketball fans of this level all know what senior point guards mean to a team. Last year, anything Baylor received in production from its freshman was extra. This year, they will be looked upon to be the main driving force in leading Baylor to wins. Ultimately Baylor may experience some growing pains up front, but in the end, they'll be better for it and ready for the NCAA tournament. Big 12 Finish: 2nd


Colorado: In their final season in the Big 12, I don't see Colorado making much noise ultimately. They will surprise some people early in the season, due mainly to their NBA talented guard, Alec Burks. Cory Higgins is a nice player to complement Burks, but one talented player supplemented with very little bench depth is not a recipe for success, unless you're starting Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin. Marcus Relphorde is undersized at the 4, and doesn't have the shooting range you'd expect out of a 3. He's a tough player, but Colorado has very little after this. They will be fortunate to win 6 games in the conference this year. Big 12 Finish: 9th



Iowa State: ISU isn't too dissimilar from Colorado, minus an NBA talented player. However, Iowa State lost the two (and maybe three) best players off a team that won 15 games, and it is counting on the offensive production of a point guard who has averaged 8.4 points and shot 27 percent from the three-point line in his career. That is a recipe for disaster. Combine that with handing the coaching reigns to Fred Hoiberg, and well, it's going to be a long season in Ames. ISU is not very good or deep at any one position, though their only saving grace may be a very easy non-conference schedule. The fans aren't going to expect too much in this first season of coaching for the mayor, and that's probably a good thing. Big 12 Finish: 12th

Kansas: What can you say about Kansas? They lose players, their arch rival fan bases finally declare an end to their reign, and they go out and win another Big 12 title. Picking Baylor or Kansas State will be the trendy picks to win the league, especially since they lose less production than Kansas does, but Kansas has been discounted before and they just keep winning. Marcus Morris may have been their best player down the stretch, and if the NCAA ever decides to free Josh Selby, KU will be incredibly difficult to beat. Bill Self is far and away the best coach in this conference, and he knows how to prepare his team better than anyone, and knows how to match his team up with the varying styles of play that the different teams in this conference will throw at him. Transition year? Perhaps. But don't call it rebuilding. In the end though, the transition will "catch up" with KU. And by "catch up," they're only finish 3rd and be a #3 seed in the Big Dance. Big 12 Finish: 3rd

Kansas State: Is this finally the year that the best team in the state of Kansas does NOT reside in Lawrence? Possibly. Frank Martin's Cats lost their fiery emotional leader Clemente, but return just about everyone else of note, including guard Jacob Pullen. The key for Kansas State will be the production from the front court. No longer is Cole Aldrich around at KU to push the KSU forwards around. Curtis Kelly and Jamar Samuels had huge games down the stretch last year and with the natural progression expected, they both should dominate the front courts of the Big 12. Wally Judge is incredibly gifted with basketball skills, the only challenge he faces is always keeping his head in the game. He may be the most talented of the forwards for KSU, but his knack for disappearing or for getting in Martin's dog house keeps him on the bench. The simple key in college basketball is that at any one time, KSU will probably have the best player on either team on the court in Jacob Pullen. If Judge and Asprilla can play significant minutes and give KSU a dominate front court in a guard-oriented conference, KSU will win the Big 12 title. Big 12 Finish: 1st

Missouri: Mike Anderson's teams have always been the anti-thesis on how to win basketball games: they don't have a true post presence, they don't rebound the ball well, and they give up too many easy baskets. Missouri was the only Big 12 team to make the NCAA tournament that was out-rebounded on the season. They get away with this by once again leading the Big 12 in turnovers forces and turnover margin: they create a lot of steals and take excellent care of the basketball on the offensive end. Ricardo Ratliffe should help on the boards, and the return of senior glue-man Justin Safford will give the Tigers a presence in the post, at least somewhat. The true story here is the guard play, and can junior guards Kim English and Marcus Denmon step up and replace the blue collar leaders of J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor? Missouri has SIX new players to rotate into the lineup, exactly what Mike Anderson wants. In January, this team will be able to beat anyone on any given night, but unless they can shoot better from the perimeter and rebound more efficiently, anything higher than a 4th place finish is asking a lot. Big 12 Finish: 4th

Nebraska: Let's just get this out of the way: Nebraska plays basketball because they have to. Nebraska is a football school. They have never even WON an NCAA tournament game. Ever. It's no secret that I don't like Nebraska, and with them on the way out of the league, I'm not going to spend another minute thinking about them or their sloppy hobo head coach, Doc Sadler. Good riddance. Big 12 Finish: 11th

Oklahoma: This is not Najera's Sooners. These Sooners are bad, and if not for ridiculously bad teams in Ames and Lincoln, OU would be the pick to bring up the rear. They lost 4 starters off a team than managed to win 4 conference games in 2009-2010. Jeff Capel is doing the best he can, but there is no Blake Griffin here anymore. Cade Davis is a hustle player (bordering on dirty) who every coach loves and hates, as well as opposing fans. The simple truth is this: Oklahoma has 9 new players on this team. Maybe they will all be awesome and OU will dominate like we've never seen before; after all, they are bringing in JUCOs and freshman that scored a lot of points at their previous stops. But this is the Big 12, and I'm not buying it. This is going to be a long season Norman. OU's point guard play is downright atrocious, and that's the deciding factor in college basketball. Making the postseason is always a goal at OU, but with a very tough non-con (Kentucky, Arkansas, Arizona to name a few), OU may be roadkill by the time conference season tips off. And it couldn't happen to be better bunch of guys. Big 12 Finish: 10th

Oklahoma State: OSU is a team no one ever wants to play. Regardless of the year, they always have two or three players who are anywhere from 6'5 to 6'8 who can shoot the daylights out of the ball and run you out of the gym. Unfortunately, OSU isn't known for playing particularly tough defense. Travis Ford has 5 newcomers to his rotation, and the learning curve for his offense isn't easy. It could be a long year in Stillwater, but the non-con is not threatening, and nothing breeds confidence like winning. Having Ray Penn back at the point guard position, a position that OSU lacked solid play at last season, is a tremendous boost. But having your 2 guard also check in at 5'9 (Page) is a concern. OSU's backcourt is far and away the smallest in the conference. They will play all right if they use screens, but I see the larger, more physical guards in this league taking advantage of the guard play at OSU. They need Brown and Williams to be problems for the opposing defenses, but I'm not sold that will happen. If everything pans out like they want, the ceiling for this team is to be on the bubble most of the season. Big 12 Finish: 7th

Texas: The Longhorns have talent; make no mistake about it. What they lack is instinct, basketball IQ, and the intangibles it takes to win. There is no reason why, with the recruiting pool they draw upon, that Texas shouldn't have won the league at least once in the previous six years, but they haven't. Rick Barnes is a heck of a recruiter, but loses his players for stretches of the season that ultimately proves to be the reason why they never can topple Kansas. The key for Texas is that no one is paying attention to them in the pre-season. KSU and BU are getting all the love, with relatively few people outside of Austin giving the Longhorns any chance to win the league. And rightfully so; this team has been a consistent underachiever under Barnes. They have the talent in both the front court and backcourt to win the Big 12, but sketchy play from the 1 and 5 positions could derail this. Texas is under the radar, and some teams relish that opportunity without the bullseye on their back. Unfortunately for them, this is Texas; they always have a bullseye on their back.  Big 12 Finish: 5th

Texas A&M: Texas A&M does what it does and doesn't get out of what they do best: take care of the basketball and play defense. They beat teams through this tried and true formula. Loubeau is going to need to have a big season for the Aggies to finish in the upper half of the conference. They are neck and neck with teams like Oklahoma State, Texas and Missouri, but the lack of a true go-to scorer could hamper them. Ultimately, Loubeau should be that guy. A&M has a skilled big man, two very good guards and wave after wave of forward that can wear down smaller teams. The Aggies are well-coached and play smart basketball. They probably are going to need their incoming freshman to make immediate impacts and provide some scoring. The non-con is not as easy as it has been in previous years, but manageable. It will prepare A&M for the rigors of Big 12 play and they should finish in the upper half. Barely.  Big 12 Finish: 6th

Texas Tech: Defense was a major problem last year for Texas Tech, and I'm not sure if they have made any strides other than natural progression to fix it. There isn't much turnover here, but there wasn't much here to begin with. This team plays hard, is well-coached, but they simply don't have the talent of the other teams in the conference. Roberson, Roberts and Singletary are a good threesome to rely on though, and they can win games for the Red Raiders if they're all on their game and playing well. But they need more. They need Lewandowski to take a step up on the offensive and defensive side of the ball and be a difference maker in the post; his 40% field goal percentage is simply not acceptable for a post player. JUCO transfer Paul Cooper is a wide body who will throw his body around in the post, and he could contribute immediately, at least on defense. What is in their favor though is their schedule: they only play one team from the Big Six, and that's Washington (not exactly Duke). As mentioned previously, confidence breeds success. They could find themselves with 0 or 1 loss by the time Big 12 play opens. They expect an NCAA tournament season this year. I think the Big 12 will be too tough for them, but if the ball bounces right, they could pull some upsets.  Big 12 Finish: 8th

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

And so it begins...

I had an award-winning column when I was the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper entitled "The Truth About..." It was a great experience that enabled me to put down my editorial thoughts as a 17-18 year old kid and eventually won an award from the JEA conference for second place in the state of Missouri. I thought, "Hmmm, surely I can resurrect THAT."

Over a decade later, I have finally decided to start my own blog. What will I write about? What is the purpose?

I look at life and see so many different topics that would drive me to write. Too often, I feel that my Facebook page has become my personal sounding board for everything that I feel at the moment. The more I think about it, Facebook isn't the approrpriate medium for that sort of activity. Some people get angry. Many others don't care. I have 287 friends on Facebook and maybe 2% of them interact with me.

Is that how it's supposed to work? In a day and age where we are more connected than ever, I feel more disconnected with my peers than ever before. It's too easy to write an email, send a text; ever think of calling your friend and inviting them to lunch?

As you can see, my thoughts are very dis-jointed in this first entry. I promise I'll have topics. Some will be funny. Some may make you angry. I never hide who I am, where I came from, and what I believe.

Though right now I'm talking to no one but myself, those of you who utlimately follow this blog, it is my wish for you that I can somehow enrich your life.

Somehow.

-Matt