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Archives for October 2010

Rare and Microsoft get gamers moving

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David Gregory | 17:30 UK time, Tuesday, 26 October 2010


Microsoft Kinetic demonstrated at Tokyo Gameshow 2010

Video games are important to the West Midlands. The region is home to Codemasters, Blitz and Rare amongst many others. Rare though has a bit of a reputation for being mysterious but it's one they're trying to shake off.

With that in mind we went for a poke about their new Birmingham studio in Digbeth. At the moment the team of around 200 people here are focused on Kinect, Microsoft's new motion control system. A box of tricks that connects to the Xbox 360 and sits on top of your tv.

When we were out in Japan recently we visited the Tokyo Gameshow to see Kinect being demonstrated. Perhaps a noisy, sweltering hot barn on the outskirts of Tokyo filled with thousands of people wasn't the ideal place to see the system working. But this time back in Birmingham and in the peace of a mocked-up living room I was much more impressed.

Nick Burton from Rare was pretty insistent that this isn't a Wii knock-off. Kinect he says is a totally different approach to motion gaming. And it certainly is an impressive piece of technology. As well as cameras that can track the movements of up to four players to an amazing degree of accuracy the system also comes with voice recognition so you can issue instructions to computer controlled characters.

I may have just got a strike in bowling

At first I was a bit puzzled about how to play the games. At one point during a volleyball match the game told me to "jump" and I was flummoxed. I turned to ask Nick how to jump. He slowly explained to me that to jump in the game you just jump in real life.

But once I got my head round things Kinect is intuitive and yes different from the Wii and Sony's upcoming Move. And there's no doubt that Rare's launch title Kinect Sports is polished and an extremely effective introduction to the Kinect system. At the Tokyo Gameshow it was easily the best game we saw for the new system.

Rare also helped developed the technology that goes into the Kinect box itself. So the past two years have given the company a real head start in developing for the system. Which means if it takes off it will be another boost to our Midlands video game technology.

The last time Rare featured on Midlands Today was over ten years ago. Nick promised they're a much less secretive company now and it won't be another ten years before we do another story about them. That said when I asked them what they were working on next he said he couldn't tell us just yet.

Sunshine gold rush?

David Gregory | 11:32 UK time, Monday, 25 October 2010


Close-up of the sun

So last month we reported on solar panels being installed on council houses in Stoke. And today news of a company that wants to install "solar farms" in fields in Shropshire.

So why the sudden interest in solar power?

Well it's not just solar power it's also wind, combined heat and power and others and it's all because the "feed-in-tariffs" for renewable energy mean this sort of small scale investment can generate a healthy (subsidised) profit.

Taking electricity generated by solar panels as an example you get to reduce you bills by directly using the energy produced (around £100 a year) and you then get money for any you sell to the grid. And the whole lot attracts a government subsidy (around £500 a year).

This subsidy is locked in for 25 years (although for other renewable energy sources the tariff is only fixed for 20 years)

This is a scheme that seems to have escaped unaffected by the recent spending review. Although iI expect the government will be reviewing things at some point. With solar power for example that will most likely be when a certain number of panels have been installed across the country.

So for companies, people or councils who can commit to a long term installation this tariff means you should see very good returns. For an average home around £11,000 clear profit. And that's why councils are scouring Google Streetview to see how many south-facing council houses they own and why farmers are being offered money to mix solar panels in with their sheep.

Of course all these figures are just a rough guide and your own solar panel mileage may vary. You should always talk to an independent expert before undertaking any scheme like this and of course the government could change the tariffs on offer at some point in the future.

You may be asking who is paying for all this subsidy? Well technically it's the electricity companies but in reality it's all of us as the costs are likely to be passed onto customers.

The eventual aim of this investment we're all making will be to boost renewable energy produced in the UK and long term also the infrastructure that goes with it. For example if you are tempted by all this you will find solar panels here more expensive than europe because we just don't produce that many ourselves.

If you want to see if this scheme is for you a good place to start is the Energy Saving Trust's calculator which you can find here.

Saving the Grey Partridge

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David Gregory | 15:34 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010


Me with

Our latest Autumnwatch report looks at the work being done by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to boost populations of the English Grey Partridge. Numbers have fallen by up to ninety per cent in some areas of the Midlands as farming practices have changed.

Sadly while filming we didn't manage to spot any grey partridges ourselves apart from "Nick and Suzanne", two rather magnificent but very dead examples stuffed and displayed on a mossy log.

Hopefully numbers will increase thanks to the work of the Trust and part of that work involves getting out into the country and counting the birds themselves. The more eyes the better as these birds can be very elusive, as we learnt when we tried to film them. Many of those involved in the work of the Trust are gamekeepers and landowners who run wild bird shoots on their land.

But you don't have to be part of the shooting community to help. If you have legal access to countryside and can spot a grey partridge then you can help with the count. More details of how you can take part are here.

Are your conker trees under attack?

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David Gregory | 14:21 UK time, Wednesday, 6 October 2010


Leaves showing damage

We need your help. Across the country that symbol of autumn, the horse chestnut tree is under attack from an invading moth. The horse chestnut leaf-miner moth or Cameraria ohridella was only discovered in 1985. But since then it has spread from near Macedonia to much of Europe including the UK.
Moth on damaged leaf

It was first noticed in this country in Wimbledon. Since it's known to travel on the clothes of people it is possible it was brought here by a visitor to the famous tennis tournament. But that's just a theory. You can see how quickly the moth has spread here.

It's the caterpillars that cause the damage. As you might expect from the name they live inside the leaf and mine their way through it. Leaving small, brown, dead-spots behind them. But with thirty caterpillars to a leaf you can easily have a hundred thousand of them in just one tree.

Horse chestnut leaf-miners are lucky. They've hit a sweet spot in nature's calendar where there are few potential predators about.

You can see the small stripy caterpillars inside the leaf

This means they can get through seven or more breeding cycles. Devastating and eventually killing off the leaves of the infected tree.

And many of the brown leaves laying on the ground through the winter contain dormant moth pupae ready to start the cycle all over again when the weather warms up.

We'll be returning to this story in the Spring with details of an experiment we can all do to understand more about this moth. But in the meantime take a closer look at your conker trees. Using this guide you can learn what the damage looks like and report any outbreaks near you.

And on top of that do leave your thoughts and sightings in the comments below.


In the comments EnglishFolkFan asks about the best ways to deal with infected leaves. Bury or burn them is the short answer. In Cheltenham the conker trees in the centre of town are noticeably healthier than those in the parks. That's because in the town centre the council sweeps up and disposes of the fallen leaves. Obviously they're doing this to keep the town tidy but it also gets rid of infected leaves containing the moth pupa. This is how the moth survives the winter before reappearing when the weather warms up. So you can try and control things by burying the leaves in your garden or putting them all on a bonfire. Composting appears to be less effective. You can read more about control of this problem here.

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