Just the ramblings of a Scottish ICT Co-ordinator

Long Cane Training

Picture of a long cane being held up in front of a computer workstation

As some of you may know I am partially sighted, so while I’ve struggled on uneven surfaces, which I am sad to say now includes pavements and walkways in most towns as councils up and down the UK are trying to tighten their belts in an attempt to save money amid the ongoing cost of living crisis, I have never until now felt that I needed to use a long white cane. Sure I’ve had symbol canes before, but I have found them to be useless as people don’t seem to be aware that a white stick = eyes not working so well, so I stopped using them because essentially I’m sacrificing a hand for no good reason.

However I was approached by a mobility officer at NorthEast Sensory Services to do some long cane training. The difference between a long cane and a symbol cane is that in the UK the standard long cane will have a ball on the end that can allow the cane to be rolled back and foth in order for a blind or partially sighted person to get a lay of the land in front of them and as such they can prepare for any obstacle or changes in elevation on the ground.

So how have I found long cane usage so far? It can be very useful both for helping me get a lay of the land, due to the difficulties I had previously outlined, but also, unlike a symbol cane, people actually seem to realise you are visually impaired or blind. One thing I will say though I feel like I have some imposter syndrome with the cane as I’ve not ever used one up until now in my mid-30s.

An issue that I do have with the cane is it can put quite a strain on the wrist, and given the state of pavements in Aberdeen, the cane can vibrate sometimes unbearably so, which can become uncomfortable and tiring. Also with the cane I am finding I’m walking a lot slower, so my Apple Watch will not pick up my footsteps as exercise. Hopefully these will all be problems I can overcome as I can imagine I will find the cane can really help with my personal mobility.

The iPod Touch is no more. Good bye old friend

A Blue iPod Touch 7th Generation on the home screen

Today, Apple announced that it is no longer going to make the iPod Touch. While this will no doubt be of no surprise to the majority of people, it is still a sad day nontheless.

I have owned three iPod Touches, one of which is my current Digital Audio Player. While I have had issues with duplicate songs appearing when I’ve transferred music from my PC, as well as songs that did not upload correctly, this iPod Touch has been a fantastic wee device.

So why did I go for an iPod Touch? At the time I recieved it (it was a birthday present from two very good friends), I only had a 64GB 2020 iPhone SE, which had nowhere near enough storage to store even a slice of my music collection. This was compounded further by the fact that this space had to be shared with photographs, videos and other apps. Now I could have just bought an Apple Music subscription and streamed my music through that on my iPhone. I did not wish to do this however as I a) already have a music collection and b) I really did not wish to pay for a subscription to any music service, given that if you can’t afford it, all your music goes away.

Another consideration was that if I was out and about, I did not wish to completely drain my iPhone battery listening to music. Also, I felt that having a dedicated device to listen to Audiobooks on, without having to have them interrupted by push notifcations that I like to have on my Phone seemed like an advantage.

Finally, the iPod Touch, which has only had minor refreshes in the last decade has a dedicated headphone jack, unlike certain other pocketable iDevices I could name.

I’ve had my blue iPod Touch 7th Generation with 256GB of storage since March 2021, and have found it to be extremely useful. As it runs Apple’s iOS, it has the same accessibility options that you would find on any contemporary iPhone, including VoiceOver and Zoom, which means that I can see what I’m doing a lot better than I could on my old iPod Classic 7th Generation with it’s fixed-size fonts. The iPod Touch also supports using external amplifiers connected to the Lightning port, which has enabled me to experience amazing sound using my i-fi hip dac and either a pair of Senheisser HD599s or the Meze Classic 99 headphones. If I really wanted to explore the capabilities of my audio equipment, however I would need to use high resolution audio, which is actually supported on the iPod Touch, either using Apple Music to stream high-res music, or by using VLC Media Player!

Recently I’ve been using my iPod Touch to re-listen to Harry Potter series, something I feel able to do given the sheer amount of space available on this device.

While all this can be done on an iPhone, I really would not be able to afford to buy a higher capacity iPhone, so would still need a high capacity music player. I’m the sort of person who likes to have their entire music collection in their pocket. I find it a scutter to be constantly swapping out music on my portable music player, and if I were to go away for a while, I’d want to make sure I have a good collection of music with me.

For me, the only thing that would tempt me away from my iPod Touch, apart from support being dropped by Apple, would be if I could (somehow) obtain an iPhone with 512GB on contract. As such a phone would be ruinously expensive to purchase, even on a contract, I don’t think I’ll be giving up my wee blue MP3 player just yet.

I’m not the only one who thinks highly of the iPod Touch. Dankpods has made a video detailing how good he thought the 7th Generation was in 2020.

DankPods’ video on the 7th Generation iPod Touch (The views expressed in this video do not represent my views and the views of JayWakefield.com

Another thing that does concern me is that parents would often purchase iPod Touches for their children in place of an iPhone. It also offers a cheap way for people who not use any Apple devices to dip their toes into iOS.

While you may be thinking that MP3 players (or Digital Audio players as they are now known) are going the way of the dodo, there are a lot of smart DAPs on the market from the likes of Sony and Fiio (among other manufacturers). These devices run Android and some of them feature fairly high end digital to analogue converters (DACs), and having Android will give you access to all kinds of media consumption apps.

That said I am pretty locked into the Apple ecosystem, which is extremely accessible given my having poor eyesight, so the iPod Touch’s discontinuation is going to hurt.

The iPod Touch was the last iPod that Apple sold after having discontinued the Classic in 2014 and the Nano and Shuffle in 2017, but with it now being discontinued, the iPod name itself is dead after nearly 21 years, and while the none-smart iPods were far away from being the last word in audio fidelity, they, along with iTunes, turned a generation of people on to digital music. I will continue to use my iPod Touch for as long as it is supported, but after that, who knows what I will do. I think I’ll always want to be able to carry my music locally with me, especially now it is prohibitively expensive to actually use my Plex server. I’m not a fan oth subscribing to content that other people have control over, so I hope that digital audio players will continue to let you store music locally, rather than just streaming it.

That said, the iPad has given me many years of joy, in it’s many forms.

Elgin, Beautiful Elgin

I was invited to go with Patchouli Rain to Elgin to see her parents this last week. I gladly accepted this invitation as a) I needed to get away from everything for a wee bit and b) I love spending time in Elgin.

As I’m a wee bit short on money at the moment I’m not doing too many elaborate things. That said I have, as usual, been enjoying the beauty and atmosphere of Elgin.

I took the decision to come down off my antidepressants by reducing my dose in November 2020, and have completed the transition. Despite the usual side effects of doing such a thing I am feeling a lot more “there”. It took a lot of soul searching for me to decide to do this. This is not something that you should do lightly, and even then only under guidance from a medical professional.

So anyway, back to my own situation, since coming off the antidepressants I have been feeling a lot more “get up and go”. Because of the improved weather we have had over the past week or so, I’ve been taking a small walk once a day, and this has continued to be the case while I’ve been on holiday in Elgin.

I do not know what it is about Elgin, but ever since I visited Last June I have felt in love with the place, and for a while was even thinking of trying to move there permanently. I feel that it would have been a good place to try and think about working to re-establish a small computer business, like I had back in 2012-2013 with Jay Wakefield Computers. That said, I am now wanting to be closer to family and friends who live in England, while still living in Scotland, so I have decided that Edinburgh may be a better bet.

Back to my walks in Elgin, even around where I am currently staying there are nice streets to have a wee evening walk around. People’s flowers are starting to come in, but even with that aside, I am enjoying the air up here.

An Apple Blossom tree in bloom with almost xanadu green coloured leaves hanging over a wooden picket fence
A Tree whose branches look like they’re made out of pipe cleaner.

I am glad that I have felt the urge to go walking. I love the Spring and Summer months, walking helps me to be able to go out there and experience the warmer, brighter weather, as well as helping me to use up some of those annoying kilocalories that seem to just get in the road.

That said, while I am in Elgin, I hope to take full advantage of what is on offer, and even exercise my shutter finger.

New Kitchen Under Cupboard Lighting

Nanoleaf Essentials Strip Lights going underneath and around a kitchen cupboard

Recently, both flourescent lights that I had installed in the kitchen broke even though I had recently replaced the bulbs. Because of this I decided to go for a more high-tech solution to the shadowy countertops in my kitchen and purchased a Nanoleaf Essentials Lightstrip Starter Kit from Amazon, which turned up today. This particular lightstrip has a control panel that allows you to control the colour and brightness, but it can also be connected using Bluetooth, or if you have an Apple HomePod Mini on your home network, you can use Thread to connect it to your Apple Home Router. What Thread does is to turn any smart device into an access point, which can make connection easier. Luckily I was able to take advantage of this new technology, even if I only have the one Thread-enabled smart device at the moment.

I decided to set up the lightstrip while it was still coiled up to test out it’s capabilities. Setting up the Nanoleaf Essential strip was easy enough, though the Add Accessory screen on the iPhone was not as intuitive as I’d have liked as I had to go to More Options before I saw that the the Nanoleaf’s NFC-enabled control box had been picked up. Once set up, I was able to test out what the strip could do. Immediately I was blown away by the brightness of the strip, and just how much light it actually generated. That said, the Nanoleaf Essentials Lightstrip is one of the brightest RGB Strips on the market at the time of writing. This strip can do extremely bright shades of white. It can do both the standard cool/warm temperatures one would expect from LED lights, but it can also do different shades of white with colour biases. Unlike with my bulbs from VOCOLinc and LIFX, I have found that pastels can be a wee bit more difficult to achieve. I believe this is due it appearing to have seperate LEDs for white and colour. If you’re cycling through colours, it can turn the white LEDs on and off as you go through them, which can can cause stark changes in brightness. Also it does concern me that one can’t purchase additional two meter strips from Nanoleaf, only 1 metre ones. If I needed for example to relocate the strip, due to the sticky backing I would not be able to relocate the current strip and would need to purchase a whole new kit, despite my having a perfectly functional easy access controller..

Those concerns aside, so far I really like the Nanoleaf Essentials Striplight Starter Kit. It’s bright, produces some beautiful colours, and works well with Apple Homekit.

I’d like to do a wee blog post on my thoughts on the effects of RGB lighting on my mood, but one thing I will say here is that this lightstrip will allow me to both have enough light to safely cook a meal, and to enjoy some chill ambient lighting if I fancy a wee fly cup (sneaky wee cup of tea) in the wee hours.

Being Accessible with Apple

Apple HomePod Mini sat on a desk with the top lit up

I have been using Apple tech on and off since I bought my first piece of Apple hardware, a green iPod Nano 3rd Generation in early 2008. One thing that always struck me about Apple, having used a friend’s 2007 MacBook briefly in 2007 before purchasing my own in 2008 was how accessible they made their devices, from the iPod shuffle that could read out the names of tracks, to iOS, which over the years has developed a whole raft of accessibility options so that as many people as possible can use the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad, to the Mac lineup, all of which come with assitive technology out of (ever shrinking) box. This technology was great in that it could allow people to access the their devices. What happens however if you want to access something bigger. What if you want to access …. life?

Since the introduction of Siri on the iPhone 4S back in 2011 (one of which I owned and loved, despite scoffing at it when it came out. That’ll show me!) Apple, along with Amazon, Google and even Microsoft, have been trying to turn a simple digital assistant into something that can run facilitate in any aspect of your life. Now as dystopian as that may sound, certain “skills” (as Amazon might call them) that you can install to a digital assistant can genuinely make life easier for people with disabilities.

Over the past couple of years I have installed a plethora of smart devices in my home inclusing a few smart plugs from Meross, some smart bulbs from LIFX and VOCOLinc as well as a heat diffuser. I bought an Apple Homepod Mini at the beginning of this year to use as a Homehub. Apple Home made these devices very easy to set up as they are Apple HomeKit compatible, and can be often set up with nothing more than the quick scan of a QR code (which admittedly is an inaccessible way of doing things if you have limited vision). What has resulted is that I have a home that is easier to use, with the ability to turn off those hard to reach plugs instead of just leaving them on (which is very important given current energy prices).

I fiund this useful for people with limited vision as they might not always be able to tell if plus (and even lights) are switched off. While the Apple HomePod has fewer “skills” than an Amazon Echo, the ones it does have can be useful. I’ve found the Intercom feature to be very useful for communicating with people when I’m not home, even for a simple “That’s me away back, please can you put the kettle on?”

Last year, Apple launched the AirTag­­™. This wee device can be placed in, or clipped on to any valuable item and as such can be pinged by any Siri-enabled devices which will cause the AirTag™ to play a sound which you can then locate. If you have an iPhone 11 or higher, you can be directed to the missing AirTagged device by the U1 chip in the iPhone which will vibrate to let you know how far away you are from the AirTagged item.

Like I said in my last blog post (I promise I’m not being paid by Apple or any of their affiliates, honest!) I can’t even begin to tell you just what an absolutely fantastic invention the Apple AirTag™ is. Being visually impaired and on the Autistic spectrum can make it so that I’ll absent-mindedly put things down (yes, even important items) and promptly lose them. Now with a quick enquiry to Siri on my iPhone I can be reunited with any lost AirTagged items and hopefully avoid any unpleasant and unnecessary meltdowns.

Going back to the iPhone, a flick down from the top right of the Home screen on my iPhone 11 presents me with, among other things, a magnifying glass feature. Not so long ago you’d have to spend hundreds of pounds on a handheld video magnifier with the visual acuity needed to magnify text, or even more if you wanted a full-sized CCTV camera system. Now though, Apple have you covered thanks to the iPhone. Supplement that with the Seeing AI app from Microsoft, and your iPhone can even tell you about your surroundings, read documents and even tell you what colour an item is (though every blonde haired person I’ve tried it on has been unceremoniously told that they have brown, grey or even green hair).

Speaking of colours, the smart bulbs I have installed in my home are very easy to set up and use through HomeKit, though their respective apps will give you more flexibility. I’d like to give the LIFX app commendation for not only being accessible with VoiceOver, but also for observing the text size in iOS. This is an excellent app to access if you are visually impaired. While LIFX has made their app accessible, I must confess that I prefer the behaviour of the VOCOLinc Bulbs. This is a shame because I have found the VOCOLinc app to be quite inaccessible, using small font sizes even if iOS’s text size is turned up, and not having support for VoiceOver. I hope this is something that VOCOLinc will implement in their app.

Anyhoo, I have been able to make scenes that incorporated both the LIFX and VOCOLinc bulbs using the Apple Home app. That said I have found it easier to do this in the VOCOLinc app ironically as it will show you the current colour or temperature, or brightness each bulb is set to if it is switched on, which can make it easier to make scenes if you’ve found a colour you like while messing with the in-app colour wheel. Apple Home by comparison will initially show you a grid of six colours to choose from when setting up a light bulb’s colour. While you can access a colour wheel by tapping on a colour to select it, and tapping on it again, the current colour of the bulb will not be the one that’s selected, which means you have to select it manually, and you have to then preview the entire scene to see if it is iindeed the right colour for what you want. I hope this is something that could be implemented into Apple Home.

I am aware that the Amazon Echo works with a wider array of smart IoT devices, but I feel that I would still use the Apple HomePod over an Amazon Echo or Google Nest as Apple takes privacy seriously, which can make me feel safe.

So I’m sat here in my Apple Homekit enabled Smart Home, and want to kick back and relax. Given an Apple Music subscription I could ask Siri to start playing my favourite music on my HomePod mini. That’s fantastic, but what if I wanted to watch TV? I bought an Apple TV 4K in late January, and have found it to be extremely accessible. I previously owned an Amazon Fire TV 4K, and while it worked beautifully when I first set it up, it started to become quite glitchy, and when I enabled the screen reader, it would not shut up if I was starting a video through Plex. My Apple TV 4K by comparison will talk when I want it to, but won’t when I don’t thanks to my being able to access an Accessibility shortcut.

An Apple TV 4K Set up underneath a TV.

The interface of the Apple TV is much easier to navigate. Sure you can wind up in the Apple TV+ screen which will show advertisements of recommended programmes, but a quick click of the TV button will take me back to the Home Screen which is set up very much like it would be on iOS, save for the rectangle icons in place of iOS’ square ones. I’ve also found that turning on audio description in the Apple TV settings will make any app that observes the setting deliver audio description. I was pleasantly surprised for example to hear a Disney film being audio described to me on Disney+, a service that I’d never been able to turn Audio Description on in before.

So it seems that while Apple still strives to make their devices themselves as accessible as possible, I feel they are trying to make it so that you can use their devices to make more of life accessible, and that I feel is an amazing thing.

UPDATE: Because of every other device manufacturer’s unhealthy desire to copy everything Apple does, we have seen implementations of various accessibility features in various other devices running Android and, and Windows Mobile when it was still relevant, and I think this is a good thing. The only issue is that some of these accessibility solutions can be a wee bit clunky at best, but we can live in hope that these are updated and improved as time goes on.

A New Apple Address has happened

Yesterday, there was an address from everyone’s favourite fruit-named company, Apple. I wasn’t watching at the time because while an Apple event is something most would want to see, I honestly could do without all the sales gimmicks and marketing foreplay before finally seeing the announced products (not to say that I’d turn down the opportunity to be at the Apple Campus in person to see a presentation), so I went to the Apple web-site later on to have a look at what was on offer. That way I could look at the specs of the various devices and really delve in to the details of the devices on offer.

So what devices were there? This keynote introduced a modest update to the iPhone SE, a colourful new iPad Air, a new form factor of Mac called the Mac Studio, and a new colour for the iPhone 13 Pro called Alpine Green, which gives the phone a rugged outdoorsy or Army green hue.

So what do I think? First off the bat, I can pretty much say I will most likely never own a Mac Studio from new as they start at an eye-watering £1,999. While some will argue (and rightly so) that the machine has the bleeding edge M1 Max or Ultra chip at it’s heart, complemented with at least 32GB (for the M1 Max Mac Studio) or 64GB (for the M1 Ultra Mac Studio) of RAM, I lament the lack of upgradability. Some people may say that I don’t get Macs, and yes, I understand that the M1 is an SOC (System on a chip) so it’s not meant to be user upgradable, but if I’m paying £2,000 for a computer that only has a 512GB SSD, you can bet your bottom dollar that yes I want to be able to upgrade the hardware. The machine does have a plethora of USB Type A, USB Type C and Thunderbolt 4 ports, which mean you can add upgrades externally, but for my money I want something that will not only last, but can change as my workflows change. This is why my PC is custom built, and even my ASUS TUF Gaming laptop was chosen partly on my ability to upgrade the RAM and add a second NVMe SSD.

Mac fans needn’t scoff at my online scribblings however as I have owned or had use of many Apple Macs over my personal and professional adult life, and I am very excited about Apple’s M1 chipsets. I would not say no to an M1 powered Mac Mini, or even one of the new tastefully hued new iMacs (though I would not go for the base model) if I had the room to set one up, and I feel that I should give considerable amounts of my time and attention to other operating systems so that I can keep abreast of their developments and how to use them. Unfortunately I will not be purchasing any kind of Mac just now as I just don’t have Apple Computer money sitting in my bank account.

Given the chance, I’d not mind owning the new iPad Air 10.9″. Like Last year’s iPad Pro, this new iPad Air features an M1 chip and 5G connectivity on the cellular models. I’ve had an iPad Gen 7 since May 2020, and I feel that it is pretty much the only way to do tablet computing. I’ve had various Samsung Galaxy Tab models, some Amazon Kindle Fire devices, and a couple of Windows 10 powered tablets, and while they have had their strengths, I feel that iPadOS (née iOS) has matured such that anything you want to do on a tablet simply works better on an iPad. Now that iOS FINALLY has a file structure that is available to the user, along with the appropriate file picker dialogue boxes (pop-up windows?), along with an ever expanding selection of apps, and FaceTime and iMessage, I honestly would recommend an iPad to anyone shopping for a tablet. For me though, one of the biggest pull factors back to the iPad for me has to be the creativity apps. I make quite extensive use of Garageband for iPadOS, and have dabbled in ProCreate and Adobe Photoshop with the Apple Pencil with varying degrees of success. What I like about the new iPad Air is that it has support for the second generation Apple Pencil, whose flat edge which is used for magnetically charging from a supported iPad makes it easier for me to hold and use than my cylindrical first gen Apple Pencil. That said if you do have a first gen Pencil, you’re not out of luck as the iPad air supports it as well as the second generation one.

One stand out feature for me is the new Center Stage support on the newer iPad cameras. this helps to center you in the frame during video calls. I guess this will work in a similar way to the Facebook Portal which also can center the video caller in shot. This is a feature that is sorely mssing from Patchouli Rain’s 2019 iPad Pro, exacerbated by the fact that if you have the iPad Pro in landscape mode, the camera will be on the side of the screen, causing Patchouli Rain to be out of frame during FaceTime calls. Sadly, this feature is not being back-ported to older iPad Pro models.

Again, I do not believe I will own this iPad Air, as I could not foil spending money I don’t have when my iPad 7th Generation works absolutely fine, though it is starting to show it’s age a wee bit. One thing that I could maybe see myself owning is the new iPhone SE, but only if I cannot afford Vodafone’s contract prices for the iPhone 12 and 13. This has been an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary upgrade, and honestly for current SE (2020) users it could be a hard sell. The new iPhone which appears to use the same chassis as the 2020 SE, which itself was based on the chassis for the iPhone 8 does feature new internals under increasingly old looks. An A15 Bionic chip sits in the iPhone SE 3rd Gen behind the same 4.7″ IPS display from the 2020 model and it has been enhanced for efficiency meaning better battery life. This new iPhone SE also features 5G. The rear camera is said to be a 12MP “wide camera”, but how wide remains to be seen as recently the 2020 iPhone SE’s camera has been suffering from tunnel vision it would seem. I’ve often found the iPhone’s colour correction to be intolerable, especially when I’ve wanted to capture some of the breathtaking sunrises and sunsets we have enjoyed over the past couple of years. Often I have to spend minutes trying to wrestle the colour balance into something I want while being constrained to Apple’s presets, and this is less than perfect, especially with the beautiful blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sunsets we experience here in the North-East of Scotland. This new iPhone has Smart HDR 4 which, according to Apple, “automatically refines the contrast, lighting and skin tones for up to four people — so everyone looks their best.” (Apple Inc, 2020, https://www.apple.com/uk/iphone-se/, correct as of 9th March 2022). Only time will tell how well this works.

Like the 2020 version, the new iPhone SE comes in Midnight (Black), Starlight (White) and (PRODUCT) RED. I had end enjoyed owning the Product Red 2020 iPhone SE, but anyone who knows me will know that if I was in the market for a new SE would know that I would want it in blue.

Speaking of new colours for iPhones, I do like the new Alpine Green iPhone 13 Pro. Will I be rushing out to buy one? Absolutely not. I would like however to negotiate a contract with Vodafone that includes a blue version of said iPhone 13 with a considerable amount of storage. My iPhone SE suffered an accident, which rendered me having to rent an iPhone 11 from MusicMagpie.com, and while this is a brilliant arrangement to put an iPhone in the hands of someone who needs it very quickly, I would like to own my own device again if I’m paying for it. I prefer the larger screen, the wider angled camera and the U1 chip of iPhone 11, along with it’s front-facing 12MP camera (Let us never speak of the notch!). Something that concerns me is at this juncture, I cannot find out if the 3rd generation iPhone SE has a U1 chip. Were it not to contain one, this would rule out the new SE for me as a purchase as The U1 chip in my iPhone 11 makes it easier to locate my AirTagged belongings as it can literally direct me to them, where as the iPhone SE (2020) had to settle for just playing a sound on the AirTag I am trying to locate. (I cannot tell you how much of an absolute help this device really is for someone with visual impairment and Asperger Syndrome constantly putting things down absent-mindedly and being unable to find them).

I have been back in the iOS ecosystem since 2020 when I obtained my red 2020 iPhone SE and iPad 7 on contract from Vodafone UK. Since then I’ve been gifted a 7th generation iPod Touch (which I use pretty much every day – I’m listening to some music from it even as I type), and bought an Apple HomePod Mini and Apple TV 4K. Patchouli Rain and I have also set up smart RGBCW light bulbs from VOCOlinc and LIFX around rooms in our houses through Apple’s HomeKit (which in my place is connected to the Apple HomePod Mini as a HomeHub), along with a slew of other Smart devices including some plug sockets and an aroma diffuser (again from VOCOlinc). Add to this menagerie the aforementioned Apple AirTags (and the AirPods I just remembered) and you can see I’ve been locked, hook line and sinker, into the Apple Ecosystem and will be here a while yet. That said I am not too sad about this as iOS (and laterally iPadOS) have matured to the point that even I as a seasoned Android user do not feel too locked down. I do not feel the need to jailbreak my iDevices (I’ve tried that and it’s more bother than it’s worth, especially as I had an interesting quirk where the magnifier would shoot off in a completely different direction to where I was swiping). One thing that I think we all need to remember is that Apple seem to take users’ privacy extremely seriously, even down to iOS asking you if you want a given app to track you across other apps and giving you the option to stop that behaviour. Does this mean that Apple is the be-all-end-all in terms of everything? Absolutely not. I run an Amazon Fire HD 10 as my secondary tablet, and it works pretty well, although it is slowing down a lot now as it has aged. I will say though, for my particular use case, Apple iOS and iPadOS is the best way to go for me. I would like an M1 powered Mac, and really want an Apple Watch, but I don’t think I’ll be ditching Windows 11 any time soon as my primary OS, and my current watch appears to tell the time just fine, so I’ll stick with what I have. That said I want my Mum to have an iPhone SE, as she would appreciate the relatively small size of the device, and I think iOS’ ease of use, together with the relative longevity of Apple iDevices would work well for her, and would allow her to FaceTime with me, my sister and niece easily.

Cross Stitching by Holly Pritchard – a book review

Cross Stitching by Holly Pritchard (Picture of front cover thanks to Goodreads)

For the first time (I think ever), I am going to write a book review on a blog.

Cross Stitching is the third book from Welsh author Holly Pritchard (formerly Holly Stockport), and is a departure from the Melanie Winters universe (the subject of her first two novels).

Here, we meet some brand new characters. Isabelle is the heroine of this novel, having being blindsided by her parents’ divorce, she is undergoing therapy sessions that appear to be doing more harm than good, leaving her at her lowest. This is when she happens upon a mysterious world quite by accident and meets Erin, who the author describes as “a bubbly girl under a shy surface that has demons of her own”. Erin is wrestling with her own demons, and as Isabelle gets to know Erin and this world, she starts to learn some of the secrets of Erin’s past threatening to tear them apart.

So now that I’ve paraphrased the blurb, what do I think of this LGBT romance novel? Holly has a cosy writing style that has been honed over the course of her first two novels and I am delighted to see is present throughout this novel. It seems that the characters are never more than five minutes away from a steaming hot mug of tea, and the banality of real life made cozy by the author. That said, as you progress through the story, you will experience the strange world that Erin inhabits through Isabelle’s eyes as it reveals itself layer by layer, becoming more sinister as it does.

The structure of this book lends itself well to being easy to read, and once you start you will want to keep reading; something highlighted by the fact that I am currently up at 4:55AM writing this blog post after having read my copy.

All I can say is this: I have a great many thoughts on Cross Stitching, and could spend quite some time discussing the narrative and plot devices it uses. If I did that, I would be spoiling it all for you all, but what I can say is that I believe that if you’re looking for something new, exciting and thought-provoking to read, you should definitely pick up a copy.What I will say is that it proves that the Author has gone from strength to strength in her writing career and it shows in this book.

I’d like to thank Holly Pritchard for the pre-release copy of this book I recieved. I very much enjoyed reading it.

Accessibility Conserns During The Pandemic

A Track & Trace card featuring a QR code on a table at Inversnecky in Aberdeen

Since the summer of 2020, governments around the world were frantically trying to work out how best to bring their respective countries out of lockdown. As this worldwide Pandemic has caused situations and circumstances that have not been felt in living memory for much of the world, many of the world’s powers were having to think up creative solutions to the problem of trying to juggle giving folks’ their freedom back, and hopefully restart their economies with trying to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Scotland, along with the rest of the UK have brought in a whole raft of ideas and solutions in an attempt to try and help people out of their homes and back into their work and social lives, and of course spend money and restart the economy. These ideas have ranged from the extortionate and ludicrus failed Track & Trace system in England, to Scotland’s ‘Spaces for People’ initiatives. That along with the constant message of frequent hand-washing and mask wearing has meant that we have been able progress to being able to have more freedoms.

This has come with a price however as there are a few things that I can honestly say have been made harder for people with disabilities.

Firstly, when the Pandemic started and we were in full lockdown, some supermarkets were trying to enforce a rule where you could only touch items that you were going to purchase. In supermarkets where this was the case, blind and partially sighted people alike have found it extremely difficult to shop if they are unable to look closely at an item to determine if it’s what they are looking for. Even if you were lucky enough not to have your local supermarket enforce this rule, the chances are such that you would probably have had try and follow a one way system up and down the aisles denoted quite clearly on the floor – that is unless you again are blind and partially sighted. It is most likely that you might need to have someone help you around the supermarket, say, a guide? Great, but what if said guide does not live in your house? Well, before we were allowed to form ‘social bubbles’ with one other household, you would have been breaking the law to be within a two-metre distance of someone outwith your household!

Luckily, the supermarkets in Aberdeen, while they have one-way systems implemented, have been helpful. I’ve not had any run-ins with staff for picking up items to look at them, or if I’ve inadvertantly drifted out of the one-way system. Customers have also appeared to be understanding.

Now in order to access the supermarket, you may have to cross a road. Fine if it has a pelican crossing, you would just press the button and wait for the green light, simple enough? Well, actually no. I did see an image purporting to be from somewhere in England. What I can only assume was that particular area’s council had put cardboard over the box at the pelican crossing and suggested that pedestrians merely wait for the green man. Fine enough, but unless the light has been reprogrammed to allow more opportunities for pedestrians to cross, you can be waiting a long time to be able to cross a road. Something that is not known about pelican crossings in the UK is that they have a small turning knob underneath the unit that will rotate when it is safe to cross the road. A lot of people will need to touch that in order to ascertain whether they can cross, a fact that is made more plain by the fact that some pelican crossings use the turning knob as the sole none-visual cue that it is safe to cross a road.

Luckily, supermarkets are returning to more of a state of normality as we open up. and, again, I have not seen any signs that I should be discouraged from pressing the button to cross a road in Aberdeen, but as towns and cities started to open up, the Scottish Government issued funding to councils to make ‘spaces for people’ in their areas to be able to walk safely in town while socially distancing. Unfortunately it is my beleif that Aberdeen City Council well and truly dropped the ball with this.

Anyone in Aberdeen who follows the City Council will know that they’ve wanted to pedestrianise Union Street, which is Aberdeen’s main shopping street (sic) for a while. When the ‘spaces for people’ initiative started, Aberdeen City Council were able to very quickly pedestrianise Union Street, from Market Street to Bridge Street, a distance of 0.4 miles. They also imposed a one-way system in the Rosemount area of the city, with cars parking in the middle of the road for some reason, and put in cycle lanes on the beach promenade, and turning it into a one way street for cars.

This has caused a lot of issues for folk everywhere. Union Street has become very difficult for people who maybe can’t walk far, and the buses have been redirected so it is difficult to know where you’re stopping, especially as they don’t have audio announcements. To top this off, the taxi rank has been moved.

A lot of poeple have been looking forward to going out to eat. For this, the government have made ‘Track & Trace’ mandatory for venues such as restaurants. Firstly, you have to scan a QR code using your phone’s camera which will take you to a web-site where you can ‘check in’ to the venue. QR codes are used on a lot of products nowadays (and I’ve used them myself on certain things that I’ve helped people with), but they’re not the most accessible. Even an iPhone with VoiceOver enabled isn’t going to tell you even if a QR code is in frame (SeeingAI might), let alone tell you where the QR code physically is. Luckily restaurant staff will often offer to check folks in on pen and paper, so this is more of a non-issue. Nethertheless, it was this issue that motivated me to write this blog post on my thoughts about accessibility issues during the Pandemic.

I have not, nore do I wish to, open the can of worms that is the issue of face masks. I am not here to tell you that you should or shouldn’t wear one. What I will say though is I’ve found that it can make people difficult to hear, and people who are deaf will often lip-read, so the wearing of opaque face mask can cause issues. Luckily, clear masks did become available quite quickly for those who converse with deaf people.

So what do I think to what’s going on? Eighteen months ago I was telling anyone who would listen that lockdown would cause a rise in mental health issues, and I still feel that this will be the case. I was also appalled at how quickly people lost support when lockdown was imposed in March 2020. I was very lucky as I had a friend spend lockdown with me, and I was still able to recieve my support who did shopping on my behalf, so I was at least okay. I did often wonder how people whoi were ‘shielding’ (essentially being told not to leave your home) coped. Luckily some supermarkets were delivering boxes of food to those that were shielding, but this was often odd combinations and odd-sized portions of food. That said, those boxes would have been a lifeline for a lot of people.

There’s a lot I could talk from the last eighteen months, but I feel this blog post has already gone on too long. The only thing I can say is follow the current guidelines in your area, consider having the vaccine, and isolate if you have COVID-19 symptoms.

People living in Scotland can click here for information on COVID-19
People living in Wales can click here for information on COVID-19
People living in England can click here for information on COVID-19
People living in Northern Ireland can click here for information on COVID-19

Play the Game

Those who know me will know I enjoy playing video games, especially on PC (though I enjoyed my Nintendo Switch a lot when I was in hospital in June, and for the recovery period after). As I’ve been able to play a fair amount this year I have had some thoughts about games that I’d like to share.

So what have I been playing?

If you have spoken to me at all in the past eight or so months, you will know that a game I favour currently is Red Dead Redemption 2. Since purchasing it at Christmas, I have played through it three times and I’m on my fourth play through of the Story. But what has drawn me to this game? I have been taken in by the world, which features a lot of wide ranging environments, from the snowy Rocky Mountain state of Ambarino to the sticky humidity of the Lemoyne swamps through the rain-soaked eerie forests of Roanoke Ridge and the bracing yet beautiful heartlands, not to mention the diverse state of West Elizabeth with it’s rich Big Valley with the arid Great Plains to the south, and the desert state of New Austin making a return from the first game, and not to mention the off-of-the-map Caribbean island of Guarma being available to explore for one of the chapters of the game. This plays host to a very gritty yet emotional storyline that calls you to be a part of it, to take the rains as Arthur Morgan and ride with the rest of the Van Der Linde gang on some of their last great adventures together as a gang.

Not only do you experience the story through the eyes of protagonist Arthur Morgan, but you can see the world growing around you, with houses being built and trees being cut down as you progress through the storyline. With this being a Rockstar game, you also are given an insight into socio-economic trends of the time that the game is set, including the fallout from the American Civil War, with its effects being especially felt in the Southern state of Lemoyne.

The cherry atop this beautiful cake made of bits of the old West and possibly a deer carcass that Arthur found while hunting in the Grizzlies is that its soundtrack is amazing. Stand-out songs for me include D’Angelo’s I Stand Unshaken, Rhiannon Giddens’ Moonlight and Mountain Hymn and That’s The Way It Is by Daniel Lanois. Willie Nelson even loaned his pipes to the soundtrack with a version of the song ‘Cruel Cruel World’.

So with this game having left such an imprint on me that I was comparing my stay in Hospital in June to the final stand-off in the game, what could I play next that could finally drag me away from The Five States?

I guess the answer to this would be that the game also has to have a sprawling beautiful world that can be explored on horseback. Enter The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’ve started playing this game on the Nintendo Switch after I found it on sale in June. This is a game that I am currently unable to finish as I’m finding it difficult to fight off one of the Shrine masters. That said, the storyline appears to be quite gripping, and I do like the crafting element of the game (something this game shares with Red Dead Redemption 2 and a lot of other modern games). This game also has a fantastic soundtrack, and like Red Dead Redemption 2 it uses musical cues to help establish what is happening (for example the music could start speeding up and take on a sinister tone when an enemy is nearby). I will have to keep pushing through Breath of the Wild as I am finding it to be a fascinating game, though I struggle to see the text if I were to play the game in handheld mode.

So what am I looking forward to? Well, I hear Rockstar are looking to remaster GTA 3 and it’s spin-off titles, and if they are successful, they could be re-mastering the original Red Dead Redemption. I hope that they do this as I have found the original game difficult to play. I find the horse-riding mechanics disorientating, and I have also found that the game does not have as much contrast as I would like. This is something it shares with GTA IV, as both games seem to almost have a grainy quality, but with not much in the way of colour, whereas GTA V and Red Dead Redemption 2 had more saturation and appeared clearer to me.

Two games I am looking forward to this year however are Bus Simulator 21 and Forza Horizon 5. As someone who is unable to drive, but who has always been interested in driving, I find that I like to sometimes live vicariously through driving titles, from racing games to simulation titles like Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Bus Simulator, and to titles like Grand Theft Auto V that allow you to drive cars, but then to get out and walk and have things to do at a destination.

While modern gaming has brought me many hours of joy both on PC and on Console, there are certain trends I do not like.

First of all, I am not keen on the Subscription idea of games, because as we have found with movie streaming services, they can give the with one hand, but easily take the awayeth with the other. That said, I feel it can be a useful way of playing new games without having to pay full price for them, as prices for games recently have gone up quite dramatically. I would prefer Xbox Game Pass over Google Stadia, because at least you are able to play games locally on your own console, and you don’t have to pay both a subscription fee as well as for each game like you have to with Stadia. I have never felt comfortable with the idea that my apps and data aren’t stored on my own device where I have the last say in what happens to them. That, and I cannot afford to be taking out all these subscriptions.

Another thing I hate in modern gaming is micro transactions. These more often than not appear in mobile games, but we are starting to find them in full-priced games (think Star Wars Battlefront 2). Game companies are also focusing solely on online multiplayer games rather than single player because they have found that they can have people paying small amounts for in-game purchases to give them an advantage during online play. ‘But Jay!’ I hear you cry, ‘Couldn’t you just grind until you save up the money to purchase the required items in the game without paying real money for them?’. Well, technically you could, but as we have seen with Rockstar on GTA Online, these items cost so much that one could not realistically expect someone to commit to the sheer amount of grinding that would be needed to earn the in-game currency needed to make these purchases. Not only that, but any time you try to do things on games like GTA Online to make money, the game will literally alert other players to your activity and encourage them to try and stop you. Do they make the money that you would have made? No! So companies like Rockstar will literally encourage people to grief (the act of constantly killing a player in an online game) others “just because”. I am not a strong player, I will freely admit that, but this makes it so that other people would not want to play with me as I would become a liability, so I will wind up playing in an online world solo, and that makes things even more difficult. What I would like is more single player content. Rockstar have been so obsessed with GTA Online that now the game has been around for, and subsequently released for, three generations of game consoles, whereas during the PS2 and XBox era, they made three GTA games for that generation of consoles.

We are at the point where people are excited to play remastered versions of the games from yesteryear as there has not been as many compelling games around to play if you are not into constantly fragging your friends on the latest full-price Call of Duty game. Sure we do HAVE some amazing games just now, but I am finding that a lot of the games are just much of a muchness – that is if you are looking only to the Triple-A studios. There have been a lot of great games from smaller developers, things like PC Building Simulator and House Flipper are often titles I will dip in and out of, and I always look forward to new map areas for Euro Truck Simulator 2 and American Truck Simulator.

So what do I think of the hardware we have now? I think that the hardware just now is fantastic, were you able to purchase it. Thanks to the chip shortage and scalpers, Xbox Series X and S consoles and PS5s are not easy to come by, and the newest graphics cards from AMD and nVidia are practically made out of unobtanium. I think more needs to be done to try and deter people from scalping, so that the rest of us can enjoy the newest generation of gaming hardware.

Sorry for the long rambling post. Those are my current thoughts on the state of video games at the moment, but whatever you like to play, I hope you enjoy your game.

Beta-Testing Windows 11

If you have visited a computer news website or watched a YouTuber who makes videos on computers recently, you may be aware that there was a build of Windows 11 leaked in the Spring. This was later followed up with an announcement by Microsoft that a new version of Windows called Windows 11 is indeed on the horizon, scheduled for release between late 2021 and early 2022. A build of Windows 11 was then made available to Microsoft insiders on the Dev channel. I did mess about with this build of Windows 11 in July (I did not note the build number … whoops), but had to go back to Windows 10 when I found that Street Fighter V ran slowly. Unfortuantely I needed that game working for a session of a gaming group called AAD RetroFest (a Retro Gaming group that is run by Aberdeen Action on Disability) that took place in late July..

Since then, a build of Windows 11 has been made available on both the Beta and Dev channels of the Microsoft Insider program, which has the build number 22000.132.

Windows 11 About Box showing the version as 22000.132

I decided that while I would like to beta test this build of Windows 11, I felt I should do so on another drive, so I decided to purchase an NVMe SSD from Crucial to install Windows 10 to with Windows 11 running on my pre-existing S-ATA SSD. I was successfuly able to obtain a Windows 11 ISO from UUP Dump so that I could create a clean install of Windows 11. If you decide to do this, I would recommend using Rufus to transfer this image to a USB stick, as I had issues when I used BelenaEtcher (which is my normal installation flash drive creation tool).

Windows 11 setup would appear not have the correct drivers needed to start the installation process if run from a flash disk drive that was created using BelenaEtcher

Once I re-wrote the Windows 11 image to a flash drive using Rufus, I was able to install Windows 11 without incident. I was able to clean install Windows 11 on the S-ATA SSD alonside a Windows 10 installation which was installed to the NVMe SSD, and this created a boot menu which would allow you to choose whether to start Windows 10 or Windows 11.

Boot menu on dual-boot system allowing the user to boot into Windows 11 or Windows 10

So with Windows 11 newly installed, it was time for me to meet the new Out Of The Box Experience (OOBE). So how was it? Firstly I was presented with an animated version of the updated Windows logo in blue against a white background which would then fade out to reveal the Out Of The Box Experience wizard.

The updated Windows logo greets you when you start Windows 11 for the first time.

As for the rest of the initial Windows 11 setup, it is very much the same as Windows 10 in terms of what it asks. You will be asked which keyboard layout you wish to use, whether you would like to use a Microsoft account to sign into Windows, if you would like Windows apps to be able to use your location, whether you would like to enable Find My Device, if you would like programs to use your advertiser ID and whether you would like to share your computer’s diagnostic information with Microsoft. Of course Windows will check for updates during this Out Of The Box Experience phase.

Select your keyboard layout
Select your system locale
Let Microsoft and Apps use your location
Let apps use advertising ID
Send diagnostic data to Microsoft

There are differences between the OOBE in Windows 10 and Windows 11. Firstly the OOBE in Windows 11 is more colourful with multicoloured images that correspond with what step you are currently at in the wizard. There is also the option to give your computer a network name while in the OOBE. As someone who specifically names their computers in order to identify them on a network I appreciate being able to give my computer a name during the setting up phase.

Name your PC

Once you have given Windows 11 the relevant information it will set up your computer. The screen that is shown while this is taking place has been upgraded to show a blue spotlight effect. After this, you are presented with the Windows 11 lock screen.

Windows 11 setting up the computer for its first use.
Windows 11 Lock Screen.

Like Windows 10, Windows 11 will pull lock screen images down from Bing Images by default. If it can’t pull down an image it will show what appears to be a close up of the elegantly crumpled up piece of fabric which features on Windows 11’s new desktop background. Speaking of desktop background images, Microsoft seems to have pushed the boat out, because the choise of default desktop background wallpapers that come with Windows 11 are beautiful. I hope they will be carried through to the final RTM build of Windows 11.

Once you log into Windows 10, you will be presented with the Windows Desktop and the new redesigned start menu open and coming from the middle of the taskbar, where the buttons now reside by default. They can be moved back over to the left, but the taskbar itself can no longer be moved.

The first view of the Windows 11 Desktop after it installation

So, how is Windows 11 to use? Since initially installing it alongside Windows 10, I realsied that I just wasn’t using the Windows 10 install so I decided to re-install Windows 11 on the NVMe drive as despite it being a budget drive, it is quicker than the S-ATA SSD by quite a way. Overall I have found build 22000.x of Windows 11 an absolute pleasure to use. As far as I know, the Amazon App Store has not yet made an appearance on Windows 11 so I cannot install Android apps, but the Windows apps that I use work well. I have tested Street Fighter V, Grand Thef Auto 5, Red Dead Redemption 2, Golf With Your Friends and PC Building Simulator with Windows 11 and they all run ewell (despite GTA Online crashing once while I was driving).

So how is the accessibility in Windows 11? It has seen some improvements. Firstly, you can easily change the size of the fonts used in the Windows UI using the Accessibility control panel.

You can change the size of text used in Windows 11’s UI from the Accessibility control panel

Accessibility features like the magnifier, narrator, colour filters, mono audio and stickey keys can be turned off from the Action Center in Windows 11, which can be accessed by pressing the Volume button. The Action Center in Windows 11 will also offer transport controls for media that is currently playing (even if that media happens to be a YouTube video in Vivaldi…)

The new Action Center in Windows 11 now includes accessibility options that can be toggled on or off
Accessibility feautres can be toggled on and off from within the Action Center, or you can click on ‘More Accessibility Settings’ to view the Accessibility control panel

You may have also noticed that Microsoft have changed the Accessibility icon from their take on the wheelchair user symbol to the person standing icon. This brings Windows in line with other operating systems that use this icon such as macOS and many Linux distros. I welcome this change, as I find that the traditional wheelchair symbol further perpetuates the idea that only wheelchair users have disabilities.

Another change I welcome, which has resulted in me using the Windows 11 beta as my primary OS is that the Windows Magnifier once again works with the voice chat client Mumble. From Windows 10 build 2004 onward, the magnifier would often freeze when it was run and cause Windows to become sluggish if Mumble was running. At the time of writing this post, this seems to have been fixed in Windows 11.

If Windows 11 continues to work this well once it RTMs, it will be a very attractive upgrade. There are some issues that I feel I need to discuss however.

At the time of writing, when Windows 11 was announced, it was stated that you would need a TPM 2.0 module in order to run it, and that it would only run on 8th generation Intel Core or 2nd gen AMD Ryzen CPUs. This will cause a large number of perfectly capable computers to become obsolete overnight. I for one do not appreciate this as we already have a huge problem with e-waste as is, and not everyone can afford to buy new computers, especially with the current economical situation and the ongoing chip shortage.

Another issue I would like to discuss is that in recent years it seems that Microsoft’s Quality Assurance has been somewhat lacking. All too often Microsoft would roll out updates that could break previously working installations. This coulpled with the fact that you can only pause the installation of updates rather than prevent them entirely caused a lot of problems for a lot of people. I personally would like to be able to pick which updates I would like to install like you could in Windows 8.1 and below, but Microsoft seem intent on taking control away from the user (including Enterprise users, thereby making it difficult to provision Windows 10 PCs in a corporate environment).

Microsoft say that they will release a major upgrade to Windows 11 once a year rather than twice a year like they currently do with Windows 10. Hopefully this will give them more time to ensure the new features work as intended.

So what about Windows 10 users whose computers will be unable to upgrade? Microsoft says that Windows 10 will be supported until 2025. That said, they will likely want to encourage people to move to Windows 11, so the number of updated applications that are available for Windows 10 will no doubt dwindle as the 2025 end of support date nears.

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