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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Amazing sand dunes on Mars

It's a Mars-filled weekend here at SRV. Check out this amazing HiRISE image of a sand dune inside a crater on Mars.
This image also appeared in a Discover Magazine online article: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/05/05/are-martian-gullies-formed-by-water-or-not/

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona. Full Image at: http://hirise.lpl.arizona.edu/PSP_001440_1255

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Martian polygons

This HiRISE image shows polygonal ridges that may have originally been dunes. How they formed is still unknown. Link to full image: http://www.uahirise.org/ESP_017348_1910

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Few Small North American Impact Craters (Or: Fun with Google Earth)

Several of our posts in the past here at Space Race Victory have had to do with Google Earth. One of many cool features you can see in Google Earth are impact craters. Here are just 3 of the smaller ones that can be found in North America. I wanted to look at impact craters worldwide, but it turns out that there are a lot of them, around 500 actually, with Google Earth aiding in the discovery of new ones every year. So, these will have to do for  now.

Meteor Crater: One of the best studied and one of the first craters thought to be formed by meteorite impacts is Barringer's Meteor Crater in Arizona, USA. It is a small crater (~1 km in diameter) formed ~50,000 years ago (in the Pleistocene). It's shape is typical for small impactors and is bowl-shaped. The impactor was a metal (iron and nickel) meteorite ~50 m in diameter.

Excerpts from Wikipedia:
"In 1903 a mining engineer and businessman named Daniel Moreau Barringer suggested that the crater had been produced by the impact of a large iron-metallic meteorite.

Barringer's arguments [were] met with skepticism, as there was a general reluctance at the time to consider the role of meteorites in terrestrial geology. He persisted nonetheless and sought to bolster his theory by uncovering the remains of the meteorite. At the time of first discovery by Europeans, the surrounding plains were covered with about 30 tons of large oxidized iron chunks from the meteorite. This led Barringer to believe that the bulk of the impactor could still be found under the crater floor. As impact physics were poorly understood at the time, Barringer was unaware that the meteorite had in fact vaporized on impact. He spent 27 years trying to mine the crater and find metallic iron, drilling to a depth of 419 m (1,376 ft), but no significant deposit was ever found."

Upheaval Dome: located in Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA. Upheaval dome was originally thought to be a salt upheaval dome but is now known to be the eroded core of a 5-km impact crater. Upheaval Dome was formed in the last 170 million years (Ma). The crater has been subjected to heavy erosion since its formation and is interrupted by stream-eroded canyons. Once 1-2 kilometers of material overlain the now-exposed-but-once-buried impact core.

Sierra Madre Crater: lies in western Texas, USA. Sierra Madre is a 13-km crater formed in the last 100 million years. It can be recognized as a circular mound of hills (dark green in the Google picture at the left) surrounded by a stream that follows the arch of the crater rim.

Some nice impact crater kml files for playing with can be found here: http://www.thinklemon.com/pages/ge/

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How-to: Get Knights of the Old Republic Working in Windows 7

In my opinion, Windows 7 is really the greatest, most intuitive, most responsive, and most fun to use operating system on the planet today. However, as great as Windows 7 is, the downside to upgrading to this superlative computing experience is that some older, legacy software titles do not function as expected. One of those titles is BioWare's 2003 epic Knights of the Old Republic. Recently, we here at SRV wanted to take a nostalgic tour through Knights of the Old Republic, but were stymied by the fact that it would only run for about 5 minutes of gameplay, then crash to the desktop. After much googling, we determined a set of steps that seems to get the software working under Windows 7 - or, at least we haven't had a problem yet, anyway*.
*(generic disclaimer: As with any "How-to's" on this blog, this info is provided as a general public service, and we aren't responsible for anything you do to your own computer. We do not endorse anything on websites linked from this blog, and anything you download from those sites, you do at your own risk. Also please note that this fix isn't guaranteed to work on all systems, and we're not experts on this sort of thing to begin with, so don't blame us if your computer goes **poof** because you followed any of the procedures you see here.)

We eventually found what we needed to know at this excellent comprehensive post over at the LucasArts forums. Here are the steps that we followed to get it working on our own systems:

Step 1: Apparently Windows 7 allows fractional screen refresh rates (i.e., 59.35 Hz) where previous versions of Windows forced those numbers to be integers (i.e., 59 or 60). So, you have to set your monitor refresh rate to be 60 Hz, the only setting that KOTOR recognizes. I know my monitor is rated to 70 Hz, so this isn't a problem for me, but your mileage may vary. Find the display properties tab and override so that the refresh rate is manually set to 60 Hz.

Step 2: Install KOTOR from the original installation disks. Note that I did not run the setup as administrator and I haven't had any problems. Some of the advice I saw on the internet suggested that you run the installation as administrator.

Step 3: Patch the game to 1.03, which adds new higher resolution display options as choices.

Step 4: Download the unofficial Vista/7 KOTOR fix and replace the mss32.dll file in the KOTOR directory with this unofficial!!! fix file.

Step 5: [Optional] Supposedly, installing a no-CD crack can help to keep the game from locking up. I didn't do that and it works fine, but I bring it up here out of completeness.

Step 6: In the main KOTOR directory, edit the swkotor.ini file. In the [graphics options] section, add a line:

Disable Vertex Buffer Objects=1

Step 7: We currently have NVIDIA graphics systems here at SRV, so this step will obviously not help those with ATI graphics. You Radeon users are on your own at this point. However, NVIDIA users should open the NVIDIA control panel, select the 3D settings tab and click "add program". Select swkotor.exe. Set "Vertex Sync" to "Force on".

Step 8: Right click on SWKOTOR.exe. Select "Properties." On the compability tab, for the compatibility mode, select "Windows XP SP 3" Also check the following items on the compatibility tab: "Disable visual themes", "Disable desktop composition", and "Disable display scaling on High DPI systems".

Step 9: Make new shortcut to SWKOTOR.exe and use this new shortcut to start the game.

That should do it! We followed these steps and the game has been agreeably stable in Windows 7 64-bit.

On my soapbox: I do feel constrained to point out that KOTOR is still being sold as part of the "Star Wars: Greatest PC Hits" compilation in brick-and-mortar stores as well as a direct download from Steam, so I would humbly suggest to LucasArts that they might want to invest some resources in coming up with a Windows 7 patch for the game. If KOTOR had been "abandoned" and was no longer commercially available, then I would completely understand that people play it at their own risk on modern systems. However, I feel strongly that if something is available in the marketplace, vendors have a responsibility to the end-users to make things as easy as possible. This is especially true for PC Gaming, which, after all, is supposed to be, y'know, fun and whatnot. Generally, complicated 8-step procedures that involve twiddling with important system settings culled off the webbytubes isn't as fun as playing the game that you were looking forward to. Still, it's worth it to be able to play KOTOR again!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Martian glaciers

This image from the HiRISE camera in orbit around Mars shows features on Mars that suggest the material has flowed as in terrestrial glaciers. The glacier is covered by dust and debris and looks darker than glaciers on Earth.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Link to full image: http://www.uahirise.org/ESP_017024_2230

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Go buy Mass Effect 2. Now.

Back in ye olden tymes, there were certain game companies that when they released a new game, I would just buy it without waiting a few months for the reviews in Computer Gaming World. MicroProse was one of these developers, along with Origin, LucasArts, and Sierra, too. With the Mass Effect series of games, BioWare has now joined their august ranks. Mass Effect is that good. Sure, regular readers of SRV know that I think that Knights of the Old Republic was, in addition to being the best Star Wars experience since the Timothy Zahn novels of the early 1990s, the best computer game since Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, and easily the best computer game of the 2000s. But, as good as KOTOR was, it might have been a fluke. I had never paid attention to RPGs at all before, but KOTOR got me interested, pretty much singlehandedly. However, KOTOR was using someone else's IP, and an IP that had been decimated by the recent movies, at that. Plus, BioWare didn't develop the sequel, which was developed in a hurry and felt a little rushed. So, I thought that KOTOR might have been a fluke.

It wasn't a fluke. Go buy Mass Effect 2 right now. In fact, while you're at it, buy the original Mass Effect if you haven't already and start playing it as soon as you can.

The graphics are outstanding; the digital “acting” in particular (with the exception of the Illusive Man in ME2, who looks like a demented Muppet) is unparalleled. These are the most “cinematic” games since the Wing Commander games. The gameplay has tactical and strategic depth without overwhelming the player. The “interrupt” system for conversations is one of the most innovative things I've encountered in a RPG of this type. Tired of talking? Use a Renegade interrupt to just shoot the guy. Awesome.

Although I had actually bought the original Mass Effect in 2008, I didn't actually play it until late last year and I didn't finish it until last month. So, I got to finish the original ME, then import my Shepard character almost immediately into ME2. Bringing not just the character, but that character's decisions, and then making you live with them throughout the sequel, was a brilliant move by BioWare and the most innovative thing about the sequel. Not only does it really bring you into the story, but it has also made me want to go back to the original again after I finish playing ME2 for the first time and change some of the decisions that I made in order to see what would happen. That's just about the best and most entertaining way to increase the replayability of a game that I've seen, well, since the original Wing Commander's branching storyline.

Speaking of storyline: The Mass Effect universe is easily the best science fiction universe in gaming right now. These games are the best science fiction storytelling of the past ten years. The story is gripping – it really sucks you in like a good book. BioWare clearly put an extraordinary amount of time into producing this fully-realized universe populated by interesting (and in some cases, decidedly nonhuman) aliens. In all fairness, some of the ideas and themes you see in Mass Effect aren't terribly original. David Brin's Uplift books, in particular, which feature the plucky human heroes against a universe populated with an array of truly nonhuman aliens, appear to have been a major inspiration for BioWare (and are explicitly referenced by some of the characters). But, BioWare did an extraordinarily good job of putting all of the parts together, and it feels right. It hasn't been this much fun or interesting to explore the galaxy since Star Control II. In fact, the Mass Effect games are probably the closest thing we'll ever get to proper sequels to the first two Star Control games, although the ME universe lacks the zany humor of Star Control and is much more dark than the Star Control universe. That is actually pretty surprising, considering that the Earth in Star Control II got brutally subjugated and the whole point of Star Control II was preventing a genocide. But, I digress. The storyline of the Mass Effect games is incredibly compelling – it's pretty obvious that they sat down before the first game and really diagrammed the whole thing out, and the game is much better for it.

It wouldn't be an SRV review without the quibbles about ME2—very minor, in this case. The original game was much more plausible from a gameplay standpoint; I really liked the regenerating guns (with depleting health being the major game mechanic), and I think that the whole “thermal clip” thing in ME2 feels a little forced (the cover-based shooter mechanics, on the other hand, are fun). I like the concept of surveying planets, but the implementation gets tiresome rather quickly. Most importantly, I also appear to be the only person on the planet who really, really enjoyed driving the MAKO around on the alien worlds in the first game. Driving the MAKO was itself fun, but it was also a completely believable way to explore a planet. Well, they took the MAKO completely out in ME2, and I really miss the driving when I'm planetside – the “Hammerhead” expansion pack, while fun, just isn't the same. Finally, in some of the cutscenes, we see human characters exposed to vacuum for prolonged periods with nothing but breathing masks – d'oh! But these are minor quibbles indeed.

What BioWare has done with the Mass Effect games is absolutely incredible. I haven't had this much fun with a computer game in a very long time. I haven't even finished ME2 yet, but I can hardly wait to play it through it again – and pre-order Mass Effect 3.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Preparing to Journey to the Center of the Unknown Universe

What I guess is the ultimate goal of the Spore Space Stage is to journey to the center of the unknown universe and make wondrous discoveries. With that goal in my creature's oddly-shaped mind, my current Spore strategy is to build up my automated defenses on my bloated empire with the hope that I can leave my carefully sculpted planets alone with the pirates long enough that I will have an empire to come back to. Also, I'm packing away the energy packs like a rabid squirrel.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Martian Megabreccia

This is a new image of Mars showing the central part of a large impact crater on the surface. It has a rock texture called 'megabreccia' because the rock clasts are bigger than in normal breccias, which are formed when impacts break up the surface rocks. This type of rock had never been seen before HiRISE observed it. For a more technical description read the whole feature by the HiRISE camera team:  http://www.uahirise.org/ESP_017257_2360

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

I just love all the new discoveries coming from all the current spacecraft on and around the planets and moons, it's so amazing that objects people have been observing for hundreds to thousands of years can still hold surprises! Who knows what we could find if we look even closer?!