Just the ramblings of a Scottish ICT Co-ordinator

Month: August 2021

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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