Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘training

Frozen-bubble II

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After a recent text relating to frozen-bubble ([1]), I have spent some time actually playing the game again.

During play, a number of other observations (mostly: re-)occurred to me, many with a wider applicability, including:*

*While I give examples, understanding the examples is not necessary to understand the individual point. Note that levels mentioned are not necessarily the best illustrations, just ones found through quick checks. Moreover, note that while levels with higher numbers tend to be harder, individual levels can deviate considerably, e.g. in that level 70 is likely the hardest, while some of the 9x levels are reasonably easy.

  1. An intensive involvement with a certain activity, including computer games, can be a great source of self-knowledge, e.g. how one reacts when, what errors one tends to make, how one handles stress, … Similarly, it can be a form of training for at least some of the discovered problems. I have learned particularly much about myself from playing “Battle of Wesnoth”. This strengthens my opinion that it is important to build depth first and breadth second (cf. e.g. [2]).

    (I strongly suspect that something similar is behind some Japanese activities that straddle the border between activity and mediation.)

  2. Looking at levels, there is a difference between “average” difficulty and difficulty when having good or bad luck—something notable in many other games too. Some levels are just plain difficult, irrespective of luck (unless it is absolutely outrageous), while others are easy or difficult depending on random events. For instance, level 65 can be completed with two single shots—if the first two (randomly colored) balls in the “gun” happen to be orange. (And if the player happens to have good nerves…) On the other hand, with a more typical series of balls, it can be quite hard—and with “poor” balls it can rival level 70.

    Level 86, in contrast, is very easy on a “normal” day, with even somewhat reasonable balls, but can turn into a nightmare when no blue shot appears over a prolonged time.

    Similarly, an easier level can be less tolerant of errors than a harder level, especially in the first few shots—something that seems to correlate mostly with how low down the balls reach at the beginning of the level. (Something that might be a partial explanation for the “cursed” games from [1]: An early screw-up and a bit of poor luck leads to a first failure, I make a second attempt with a little more adrenaline, and see a repeat, etc.)

  3. The best sign of greater skill is not manifested through being able to complete a level at all, but to be able to do so with more consistency and even when playing poorly (relative a base level). Even a comparatively poor player can get by level 70 with the right mixture of luck and “being in the zone”—but the better player is much more likely to do so with few attempts.
  4. The best approach to a certain level can depend on the amount of luck. For instance, look at level 65 again: If orange balls appear fairly early, the best approach is typically to just avoid blocking the orange “line of fire”, and then to let the two orange balls kill half the field each. However, if orange balls come later, the best approach is to play the level more-or-less like any other. The problem: The set of balls to fire is (excepting the next two) not known in advance, making a perfect choice of approach impossible, which forces the player to find some compromise between using an approach suitable for more likely eventualities, hedging his bets, and risking failure when sufficiently “wrong” balls appear. (In addition to, obviously, adapting as the level develops.) In the case of a sufficiently hard level, where more than one try is usually needed anyway, it might even pay to play under the assumption of a certain set of balls, and then play the level repeatedly until this set actually does appear. (But I have no recollection of actually having done so myself.)
  5. Some of what I have learned about game play has had an accidental component, in that I have seen the fired ball do something* unexpected, which I have later been able to duplicate deliberately.

    *A trivial example is the first time I saw a ball bounce of a wall—likely on the first or second level of my very first session. A more notable is firing a ball between other balls, when there is a one ball space, but even a slight imprecision causes the ball to “stick” rather than pass through. A quite surprising one is that, on level 98, either one of the two lower “bunches” can be taken down with a single shot, even in the state at the beginning of the game (assuming that the ball to fire is white respectively blue).

  6. A shift of perspective has often led to an unexpected, temporary improvement in level of play, e.g. playing with the game at an unaccustomed screen position*. This might be a result of increased concentration and less self-confidence. I have similarly made the experience that I can (in general) work quite well when a bit tipsy, because I am more focused than normally—I know that I am not at the peak of my mental capacity and try harder to compensate. (Not to be confused with the misjudgment of ability that can also follow drink. Of course, the best approach is to be perfectly sober and focused…)

    *There is a full-screen mode, but I prefer to play with a smaller “windowed” game that covers just a quarter-or-so of the screen area.

    This overlaps with e.g. a text on how easy tasks can be harder than hard tasks.

  7. In at least one case, which shot is hard and which easy has changed places: In my early days, I had great problems with shooting a ball through a one-ball gap—normally, it just got stuck in the gap. Today, I have great problems making it stick—it often goes through even when I want it to stick. (Note that getting through is what I want to do in the clear majority of cases, which makes this the more accustomed shot and might also cause an unconscious thought of a sticky shot being poor.)

    A similar effect is present on the entire level 39: With some experience and skill, I could easily shot off the most of the elongated bunch with my first shot by bouncing a ball on the wall and into the right “slot”, and be done in a very short time. With much more experience and skill, I find myself constantly missing the easy-on-paper shots involved, making it take longer than in the past. (But I cannot recall the last time I actually failed on this level.)

    (Through an unrelated effect, I am less likely to get through level 70 today, despite being a better player: with less experience, I usually played it again and again until I got through; today, I rarely bother to give it more than a single try.)

  8. While playing faster is usually good, and being able to play faster with quality is a sign of greater proficiency, play can easily become too fast: Choosing a better shot and reducing the risk of failure just a little can have a major impact on results, especially because (a) the effects can accumulate, (b) there is often a great difference in value between a great choice and a merely good one. If an increase in speed leads to worse play, this can often overcome the gain through having more shots per time frame.
  9. When playing for a longer time, especially on easier levels, I occasionally zoom out mentally, and have my thoughts wondering while playing. To some degree, this is a problem, because my play suffers; to some degree, it can be a very nice, relaxing, meditative state.

    On rare occasions, I can even lose the focus of my eyes on the game—and continue to play with no obvious problem. (Possibly, because movements are detected more by the “fuzzy” parts of human vision.)

  10. Especially when playing fast, decisions are not necessarily made based on the playing field as it is but as it will be in a few shots time. This is mostly good, because it allows faster decisions; but can lead to complications like a missed shot causing one or two other poor shots, e.g. because they aim at a target that is not reachable. It can also lead to gross errors like shooting the one ball where the next should have gone, because the brain “jumps the gun”.
  11. Deficits in one area can be partially made up by another, e.g. in that (for frozen-bubble) a beginning player can compensate a lack of precision shooting with a better strategy. This can even promote a better understanding of a level, and I do in part find myself having a lesser understanding of how some levels work now than I did at earlier times–despite having played them more often.
  12. Skipping lower levels because they are too little of a challenge can backfire by removing a great training opportunity. With the greater security margins, a player can try out a lot of hard shots with little pressure, and will not have to improvise them for the first time when there is pressure. In some ways, lower levels can be seen as training sharp-shooting while higher levels train speed-shooting.

    To boot, the lower tempo and lesser stress can be a very pleasant change.

  13. General ideas for good tactics apply differently to different levels. For instance, many levels benefit from “going deep”, trying to hit ball clusters far away from the player (e.g. level 70 or, when having early orange balls, level 65), while others benefit more from trying to hit balls close to the player and to work oneself upwards (including level 65 without orange balls).

    (Not to be confused with those levels, where going deep simply is not possible or only possible after having already made considerable progress.)

The above does not include observations on good approaches to the game it self, e.g. the benefit of having a free center of the field, or things that the game makers could have done better, e.g. by not having that annoying, unskippable animation after a loss—for the simple reason that this is not a text about frozen-bubble, just on experiences and thoughts caused by playing frozen-bubble.


Written by michaeleriksson

July 29, 2019 at 10:03 pm


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Looking at my backlog, I find a few thoughts on “frozen-bubble”*, that I originally thought too short and uninteresting to publish. However, they do in part give a different perspective on things that I have written about tennis** (notably item 2 of [1] vs. item 2 below), so what the hell:

*An arcade-style game that I have played reasonably often over the years, especially since it comes for free with Debian. The exact details of the game are not that interesting for this text, but involve firing balls of varying colors onto other balls of the same color to eliminate them from the playing field, before they reach the ground.

**Especially because (a) I have never played tennis, (b) the two have in common that the player has to make many very fast decisions based on incomplete information and then execute those decisions with a high precision. (However, frozen-bubble is likely considerably more extreme, and likely more akin to playing at the net than at the base-line.)

  1. Situations often arise when I am under extreme pressure for some time, where even one false shot will virtually ensure a loss. When (and if…) those situations are overcome, there is a very great danger that I lose my concentration and/or become over-confident and thereby get myself into trouble again. Similarly, I have often had a feeling of “I have as good as won already”, even without preceding pressure, and then somehow ended up losing. (Vice versa, I have often had the opposite feeling and the opposite result.)

    This is possibly most interesting in light of the constant accusations on the Internet that a certain player “choked”, as e.g. with Federer in the recent Wimbledon final. Might it be that certain-looking-victories-after-a-hard-fight are not lost due to e.g. nerves—but do to loss of concentration or over-confidence in the unconscious belief that the victory is already finalized? This would be understandable in someone very used to winning, like Federer, and matches the above final very well—a long, long fight, and then two championship points that he both burned. (With the remaining items, I will leave potential applicability to tennis as an exercise for the reader.)

  2. It is often the “safety shots” that go awry. Indeed, I do not know how many times I paused, thought “I am no hurry at the moment, let’s go for safety”, and then missed a normally trivial shot—sometimes in such a manner that I soon found myself in hurry.
  3. In contrast, when playing under high stress, I can often pull off a series of shots that I would have considered near impossible as a beginner—and at a rate and with a decision time that I would have considered impossible. When having no time to think, the brain can do some really impressive things, and training certainly pays. (But do not construe this as “I am a great player”—I suspect that there are those who would still make me look like a beginner.)

    A wider lesson, well matching my observations in other areas, is that training and experience does not necessarily or solely result in the ability to reach better decisions—it is often a matter of reaching the same decision faster and with less effort.

  4. I have often found that I am a noticeably better player after a prolonged break, e.g. in that I play very intensely for two or three days, take a six month break, and then play at a higher level than before the break. (This is a fairly typical rhythm for me and frozen-bubble.) Likely, the brain has received enough stimulus to, in some sense, re-wire it self, and after the break the re-wiring remains.

    This is not to be confused with the drop of ability that can occur simply through playing for too long without interruption and how this drop disappears after a break or a good nights’ sleep.

  5. There are situations when the game seems cursed, when I suddenly put three, four, or five important shots just half-a-step off, whereby I not only miss the benefit from making the shots, but also often found that important later shots are blocked. Worse, I have sometimes gone through level after level in the first attempt—and then suddenly become stuck on one level for five to ten attempts, where I would normally go through in one attempt or, on a bad day, two or three.* This can usually be resolved through just taking a quick break, clearing my head, and re-starting—but doing that is hard. My instinctive reaction is just to try again and again, with a continual decrease in both my mood and my playing level. Often, the issue is not resolved by success in the umpteenth attempt—but by me just closing the game before I lose my temper.

    *Not to be confused with getting stuck on a hard level—if I got through level 70 in five attempts I would consider it a good day… Indeed, usually I give it one attempt, and then just skip to level 71. (With the side-effect that my mastery of level 70 likely trails that of other levels, even difficulty aside.)

  6. It is very easy to “blame the game” when things go wrong, at least in the moment. When I gain some distance, I usually see what I did wrong, which has been an important real-world lesson: Do not blame others for everything that goes wrong in a blanket manner. Instead think things through and blame them for the problems that they have actually caused. (Which is plenty enough…)

    However, in my defense, there are a few quirks that can cause a loss out of mere bad luck, notably when a needed color does not manifest for ten rounds or an “extinct” color is re-born again and again at the end of the game. (Players will understand what I mean.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 27, 2019 at 10:53 pm

The horrors of October 31st

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This October 31st we have that yearly horror of my current client’s, that thing that has the employees groaning and wishing they could be somewhere else, that most dreaded part of the year.

No, not Halloween: The deadline for the annual security awareness training.

There is so much wrong with it that I hardly know where to begin—and honestly doubt that I will manage to remember all issues. To give it a try:

  1. In order to complete the training, an online course, it is necessary to use a Flash* program/lecture/presentation/interactive course/whatnot loaded over an external** website.

    Pause right there: It is necessary to use a FLASH program from an EXTERNAL website—in order to take a SECURITY course.

    In other words, the greatest single endangerment of my work computer and my clients internal network that I am involved with in the course of the year is the security course…

    As one of the colleagues remarked, he actually considered the possibility that the course was some form of test: Refuse to take it and complain to the security officer—automatic pass. Take the course—automatic fail.

    *Writing this, I contemplate the minor possibility that the course might have been re-written to use some variation of HTML5 and JavaScript, although it still felt and acted like Flash—unlikely, but possible, and I mention it for the sake of fairness: Last year, I definitely had to take actions to re-activate Flash and to grant it access to the sound system, things I have de-activated as a matter of course. This year, I did not. It could be a re-write, it could be that some automatic update had re-activated/-reset Flash. (Something that has happened repeatedly in the past with this client.) I also have JavaScript deactivated, as a matter of course, but since I deliberately switched from Firefox to IE for the duration of the course, the fact that I did not have to reactivate JavaScript means nothing.

    **I am unaware of the actual authorship of the program and to what degree the client is able to control contents. However, the contents are most definitely from an external website, implying that even if the program was non-malicious to begin with, there is no guarantee that it still was so at the time of the download. Of course, Flash is well-known as one of the greatest security horrors, with the most vulnerabilities, of any web-based technology. It is no coincidence that even those who once were hailing it as the future are now distancing themselves, nor that future developments will not take place: Earlier this year, Adobe, the maker of Flash, announced its end-of-life.

  2. The presentation is poorly made, with many unnecessary moving objects, artificial and droning voices, and other annoyances and distractions. The general format is similar to a PowerPoint-style presentation: Imagine someone being given an extensive introduction into the various features of such a presentation program—but not one word on how to make a good presentation in any non-technical regard. Imagine this someone, as such people often do, go nuts with using any feature available without any regard for anything but feature use. That type of presentation is the equivalent of this course.

    Why a presentation style course instead of possibly two pages of text and a questionnaire to begin with? Beats me…

  3. Most of the contents are too trivial to keep a computer professional out of boredom or to teach him anything really useful. On the outside, different courses for different target groups, with different skill levels, should have been provided. I, e.g., have read several books and many articles on various topics related to computer security, including two by the infamous Kevin Mitnick on social engineering. What do I gain from being shown one or two presentation slides that amount to “watch out for social engineering”? Nothing: Either I already have a certain knowledge and understanding or I do not. In doubt, chances are that I would be better qualified to hold a course in computer security for the makers of this course, than they are to hold one for me…

    (A partial explanation might be that the keyword is not so much “security” as “awareness”: The intention is likely less to educate people about security and more to remind them of the importance, which also explains why what amounts to the same course is mandatory every year, rather than just once. This is to some degree something that can be of value even to those with a considerably above average knowledge. It is also something that could be done much, much more efficiently and effectively, and without boring the “students” to tears.)

    To boot, the general level of the course is truly for the “lowest common denominator”, suitable for high-school drop-outs, and extremely condescending: Let’s see if you can help Mary avoid phishing! I can only be thankful that this was not a course on dogs or English: See Spot run…

  4. Considering the low amount of actual content, the course is much too long*, especially since there is a boredom factor, with the ensuing lack of concentration—and I repeatedly caught myself drifting off to the point that I had missed was what said. Cutting it down considerably would have resulted in something with greater educational value (for those weaker in knowledge) for the simple reason that they would be that much more focused. For those already knowledgeable, it would have shortened the pain.

    *I did not time my effort and also paused the course several times to answer questions concerning/suggest solutions for a work problem—as well as getting at least two cups of coffee. However, in a guesstimate, the actual “course time” might have been around two hours. At any rate, even materials for a beginner should have been coverable at, say, three times the tempo used; for those knowledgeable, with less material needed, there was likely less than five minutes worth of content…

  5. Interactive questions: The progress checking takes the form of a number of multiple-choice and match-left-item-to-right-item style questions to answer. Most of these are fairly useless and/or can be answered without taking the course based on common sense and an ability to guess what type of answer this type of test maker wants to hear. (The reader might recognize the latter part from high school or some social-science course in college.) This to the point that several questions are of the type “Which of these items are dangerous?”—with the correct answer “all”.

    At the same time, some require actually deliberately giving a wrong answer, because there is no logic or insight behind many of them, merely a mechanical comparison to earlier examples. Notably, I needed three* tries to answer a matching question for the simple reason that I matched the label “quid-pro-quo” to an example actually containing a quid-pro-quo… Unfortunately, the test makers did not follow the normal meaning of “something-for-something” in a trade/barter situation (where, for all I care, one of the parties might be dishonest), but instead intended something along the lines of “pretending to offer something so that someone else unwittingly would give up something valuable” (specifically, “pretend to want help you with your computer so that you thoughtlessly give access to it”)—something incidentally matching the normal meaning of another item, “pretexting”, very well… The intended match for “pretexting”, in turn, had very little to do with the normal meaning of “pretending to want something in the hope of actually getting something else” or “using the claim of wanting something as an excuse for an action with a different agenda”, but instead referred to a social-engineering practice of pretending to know something/being someone, or offering a bit of known information, in the hope of learning something new that could later be used for further infiltration.**

    *Multiple tries are allowed, which reduces the insight needed even further, especially with the low number of possible answers. However, rumor had it that there is a three-strikes limit, and I did grow a bit nervous there. Specifically, I got the first try wrong due to quid-pro-quo and, not even reflecting on the possibility that that could be the issue, I just turned two other matches around, and failed again (because quid-pro-quo was still in the “wrong” match.)

    **Disclaimer: I go by memory here, not having access to the actual questions at the moment. It is conceivable that my details are off—but not the overall principle.

    In such cases, it might actually be an advantage in not being a sharp thinker and not having much prior knowledge. Notably, someone who lacked an understanding of quid-pro-quo (e.g. a high-school drop-out…) might just go blindly by the examples to begin with, and get it “right” in one attempt.

    To my recollection, I had one other answered turned down: In a “chose all things on this computer desktop where secrecy is needed” (or similar) scenario, I reasoned that the test makers probably wanted to see the icon for MS Word included, seeing that careless use of MS Word can be a confidentiality issue*. They did not: They argued that MS Word is a program and, unlike data, is not a matter of confidentiality. This actually matches my own opinion, but it was also a distinction that I had judged to be beyond the intellectual horizon of someone engaging in such extreme dumbing down. In other words, the format and “stupid” questions, which moved the test taker to not give the right answers, but the “right” ones, back-fired on me.

    *Notably, the totality of the information present is not necessarily equal to what can be read in the document, due to meta-information, “track changes”, comments, and possibly some other mechanisms. Say that the sender of a document has the display of “track changes” turned off, the recipient turned on, and that the changes contain confidential data (or e.g. derogatory remarks).

  6. Some of the items take an attitude which is practically unrealistic or too focused on the security aspect. For instance, one question described a situation where someone dropped a report of some type near a fax machine, despite this type of report normally only being sent by email: Guessing the intentions of the test makers correctly, I opted to keep quite in the moment and bring the issue to the immediate attention of HR. In theory, this might be a good idea. In real life? Probably a very bad idea: There is an undue risk for both me and the other party, in that I could be seen as paranoid, untrusting, or unfriendly (especially if details got out or I had bad luck with the who-knows-whom), and the other party might see his reputation hurt by unfair suspicions—bear in mind that most instances of suspect behavior actually have a non-malicious explanation. Left to my own devices, I would probably have just asked for an explanation, feigning casually curiosity*. Depending on what that explanation ended up being (possibly including factors like delivery), I might or might not have talked to HR or made some alternate research. For instance, if the answer was “Bob is stuck with a dead lap-top battery and needs the report urgently for a customer negotiation”, I would have pretended to take it at face value—and at first opportunity, again casually, brought the topic up with Bob. Now, if Bob had a different story, then I would have talked to HR**.

    *As opposed to the “confront” alternative given among the multiple choices.

    **Or someone like the security officer, the other party’s boss, whatnot. Depending on company culture, regulation, and the individuals involved, HR is not necessarily the best starting point—nor even necessarily a good one. In fact, I suspect that a partial reason why HR was the “right” answer is that going to HR puts the employer in full charge of the process, which might be preferred for reasons unrelated to security topics (but is not automatically in the best interest of the other parties involved). From another point of view, many people in corporate hierarchies see themselves as necessarily smarter, having better judgment, being better educated, whatnot, than those theoretically lower in the hierarchy. This might be true when most of the employees are e.g. uneducated factor floor workers or clerks. In my field of work and during my career, a Master’s degree in a STEM subject has been the norm, and the situation is correspondingly very, very different. (Admittedly, this is changing for the worse over time.)

  7. Many highly needed pieces of advice (to the uninformed) are left out, notably safe-surfing tips like “make sure that Flash and JavaScript are deactivated per default”…
  8. Technical problems: At least two colleagues have complained about program interruptions and state not being saved, forcing them to start over—with something that was a chore the first time around. I suffered a “website not responding” scare my self, but program execution resumed shortly after.
  9. Political correctness: There are plenty of images of people (none of them adding any value). To my recollection, only one features a white man: An image of a disgruntled employee, out to do harm to his employer, sadly hunched over his computer, face hidden. The rest were women, various non-Whites, or both—all smiling, happy, beautiful.

    (It is saddening that this topic pops up even in a context where it should be entirely irrelevant.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 28, 2017 at 4:34 pm