Saturday, April 22, 2017

Spring 2017

Flowers of Keukenhof
Finally the spring is here and the trees and weeds are full of flowers in Louvan-la-Neuve. Paid a visit to Keukenhof to witness more flowers.

We bought the 10 train pass ticket  for 77 Euros. It covers the journey inside Belgium, Louvain-la-Nueve to Essen. The remaining international train journey (Essen -> Leiden) is separately bought. There was no need to get down at Essen though. The journey was Louvain-la-Neuve -> Ottignies -> Brussels Nord -> Rotterdam -> Leiden.

From Leiden, the combination ticket costs 24 Euro, which covers the return bus journey from Leiden to/from Lisse (Keukenhof), in the bus 854. It takes 32 mins each way. If you just buy the entrance pass to Keukenhof without the bus pass, it would cost 16 Euro/person. The combination ticket can be bought from the AKO bookstore in Leiden train station.

Leiden is a beautiful university town, located conveniently on the way to Keukenhof. The bus stop is just in front of the train station. So it is best to stay close to the train station.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Why I would not give up my seat for 800 $

A weekend trip to NYC.
It might sound reasonable for someone to assume that 800 $ or the advertised maximum (of United) 1350 $, a reasonable deal for someone to voluntarily give up their flight seat. If you think about it, 800 $ is way too little to even consider that.

I am trying to recall voluntary reboarding of passengers by United Airways in the recent past. If I remember correct, they started with 400 $ and increased to 800 $ to find volunteers to give up their seat in a flight bound to Newark from Atlanta. They managed to find volunteers. 

I would not give up my seat for 800$ for many reasons. First, that trip was a long-weekend trip to NYC. Any delay would make us lose one day out of our 3 days in NYC. We have a hotel booked. If our flight is delayed by a day, they are not going to return the money we paid (400 $ / day). If the delay is beyond 2 days, the 800$ is already below the mark, and we would basically have to cancel our long-planned vacation.

Now the second situation. Mostly I travel for conferences. Many times I had to present a paper on the arrival day (or the day following that if arrived on a Sunday evening). If I am delayed (unless by a few hours), I would lose the chance to present my paper. As a PhD student, presenting my research is very important for me. I am not going to give up this opportunity even if I do not lose anything monetary if I am delayed. Don't expect me to give up even for a very high bribe.

Third, on my way back home, I often have other important tasks to handle. For example, after I returned from Croatia to Lisboa in 2015 summer, I immediately had to go to San Jose for OpenDaylight Conference. If my flight is delayed, my onward travel plans will be affected. Cannot volunteer. I may give up my seat in fear of United Airways style cop-violence though.

Conch Salad in the Bahamas
Usually flights define a crucial point in most of our lives. We don't fly every day. When we fly, it is usually for an important event - a conference, a long-planned vacation, or meeting family after a long time. Our days during the flights are usually more valuable than the other days. It is childish to assume 800 $ for the delay is sufficient for the distress caused to the economy class passenger (since it is highly unlikely someone who earns more than 800$ ends up in the economy class, which is also fondly called "cattle class").

It does not mean I would not give up my seat for 800 $ at all. There are certain situations that I would be more than happy to volunteer. We were in our way back home from Nassau after a long weekend in the Bahamas. It was a Delta flight. It was not overbooked. So no one was asked to give up their seat. But think of it. If they give us 400 or 800 $ each for the inconvenience caused by the travel plan change and give us a hotel stay for the delayed day with vouchers for the dinner, why not? We would be happy to extend our holiday by one more day. But it did not happen, of course.

I will be more willing to volunteer if I am returning home from a week-long trip. But if I am on my way to my destination, unlikely that I give up. It will screw up my travel plans - conferences, booked hotels, and important vacation time. Airlines need to come up with better compensation packages than the involuntary inhumane "re-accommodating" process. 

You should also read the cruel response from the CEO of United, Oscar Munoz. I hope justice will be served eventually.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Long Transits in Dubai with Emirates

Trying to capture this tallest building inside the frame
I used to be a frequent traveler of Emirates when Colombo was my central airport. After a long time, we were back to Emirates. This time we had a transit of 12 hours and 40 minutes. Emirates offer free visa (otherwise would cost ~120 AED), free accommodation with meals and transport to/free the accommodation in Dubai, as long as certain conditions are met. The transit should be long (more than 9 hours, if I remember correct), and should be the shortest possible transit in the route (means, you cannot choose to book a latter flight just to be eligible to this offer, when an earlier option is available).

We had a nice sleep, and felt refreshed for our onward journey. Also the hotel had a package tour for 2 hours where they took us around the city and dropped us back for 30 USD/person. It was a good experience. Emirates actually do not advertise this free stay during transits in their web site. The entire thing is kind of obfuscated. Probably they do not want this to be an advertising/marketing point. Everything was smooth. Thanks Emirates. Impressed again.

Beware of Robbers in the Public Transport

Colombo, feels just like a very familiar city. Deja vu.
So I was in this bus during a recent visit to Sri Lanka. This conductor guy was standing next to me when I was about to get down. I felt he was too close and some touches in the backside of my backpack. I assumed he mistakenly was touching as the bus was moving. As I got down, my glass box fell down from the small front pocket of my bag. Now it all made sense to me. He assumed that was my wallet in the small pocket. He thought I was easy prey. Because of his stupidity, the box broke falling down. He kept staring at me as the bus moved on - he probably did that involuntarily as he noticed me taking the box from the ground, or probably he wanted to see whether I identify his trick and react (how? by chasing the moving bus? or by shouting? I did not react except giving an angry face at our failed system). He managed to wide open the bag though nothing valuable was there for him to steal. It is a sad state - the conductors are expected to serve the passengers, not to rob them. Next time when you are in Sri Lanka, beware of these bus conductors. From my overall experience, most of these guys are unpleasant. Based on the last experience, some can be robbers too!

A similar incident happened in Brussels Nord train station too. We were boarding the train, tired after a long flight. One middle-aged woman (~35) presumably of east European origin based on her looks, jumped the queue. Then another 2 of her friends, jumped in front of me, making a distance between me and my girl. We were with luggage. One woman, inside the train, was pulling my girl's big luggage talking something in a language that sounded new and strange, as if she was helping her (but actually she was merely dragging. not helping). In the mean time, the 3rd woman in front of me, was pretending to help me drag luggage too. I was kinda annoyed by that time. No one jumps queues in Europe usually. At least in the west. These were women. So I tend to let them pass. However, we were with luggage. No reason to make us suffer. But when I got in, I noticed my girl's front bag (where she had her cash, mobile, and all other valuable items) was wide open. 

While one woman managed to distract her by pulling her big luggage, and other doing the same trick on me, the other one in the middle managed to wide open her small front bag (that usually is for passport, documents, and cash during the flights). Luckily for us, as soon as I boarded the train, I noticed the bag open. I loudly announced, "Your bag is open. We have robbers in this bus". I looked at the women. Not because I immediately guessed they were the robbers. But they were the ones interacting with us. It took me a second to realize what is going on. By this time, sensing a retaliation, one of those robbers told me quick, "Oh, we are going to airport. Wrong train", and all 3 robbers jumped the train and disappeared in a second!

My girl confirmed she did not lose anything. The robbers almost rob us. So it can be decent looking women too. Don't assume the robbers are usually ugly men. The sad part of the entire story - no one in the train was bothered to listen, interfere, or react while we were having these conversations or when I announced that we were almost robbed. Probably they are used to all these dramas. Or probably they thought we all belong to a same team, giving a performance to rob someone else? Who knows.

This is the second scam we encountered in Brussels. To read more about the first one: How to Overcome an Uber Scam.

Back to my EMJD-DC busy life.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Luxembourg by Public Transport

Louvain-la-Neuve, the village of the second (current) university of my PhD sleeps during the Sundays. Almost everything shuts down, as students disappear from the village to their hometowns during Friday evenings to reappear only on Sunday nights. Since it was getting a bit boring during the weekends in this small village, we decided to visit the nearest country, Luxembourg. We first have to go to Ottignies and transit there to take a train to Luxembourg, that originates from Brussels - Midi station.

Usually, this costs 51.60 Euro/person to go to Luxembourg by train from the village. However, on weekends, the local public transport has a 50% discount in Belgium. This leads to the final price of 35.40 Euro/person in the weekends. One ticket from Louvain-la-Neuve to Arlon (Belgium) that costs 23 Euro for a return trip, and the next from Arlon to Luxembourg for return trip for 12.40 Euro. The transit remains the same though the tickets are broken as the above to separate the local trip from the international part of the journey.

For 4 euros, you may purchase a daily pass that you can use to travel anywhere in the country by bus or train. Hop on Hop off buses and toy trains were not available during our visit, as they start only from April. Many shops were closed on Sundays. Some were closed as it is still off-season. However, tourists were already there. Luxembourg city was quite boring compared to other cities. Even Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, scored better in my opinion. But Luxembourg is still worth visiting once. If you ask me, any country is worth a visit at least once, anyway.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Cut the LinkedIn Small Talk

One of the most annoying LinkedIn marketers I have encountered - those who add you out of nowhere (3rd degree connections, usually). Then they start a small talk with you.

Some advises:
1. Don't add random people and start messaging them in LinkedIn - at least read their profile well to see whether they would be interested in your message. No need to waste both of your time by a boring chat.
2. If you have the urge to do so, do it as a single message, a paragraph. I don't use LinkedIn as a chat client.

The marketer small talk usually goes weird and slow, as if they were asking me out. I help them these days to cut this small talk short. By this way, I help them end this within  a few minutes.

In the above chat, I helped end the chat sooner with the counter-question "How can I help you?" instead of answering "I am fine, thanks, how are you?", then waiting for their follow up answer and further small talk on how bad the weather these days. Second, the short and direct reply "No" helped them stop the chat without further small talk such as "Good bye", "Hope to make business with you again".

Though I come across rude in the above chat and sharing this blog post, you should realize that this is not a single message. We, each of us, receive a ton of such messages in LinkedIn. So this is a collective annoyance.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Thiruvannamalai 2017

The temple before the sun rise!
Paying a visit to Thiruvannamalai was in our list for a long time. Eventually, had the opportunity. It was a magical experience to visit the temple before the sun rise, and experience the morning sun.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Every time Skype updates

Microsoft attempting to force two of their failed products to their unsuspecting users.
I am not sure how ethically correct it is for Microsoft to try to trick the Skype users into setting Bing as the search engine, and MSN as the home page!

I feel it is morally incorrect to make the boxes ticked by default. Have I not paid attention, I would have mistakenly set MSN as the home page and Bing as the search engine. 

I did not visit MSN even once for the past decade, and I don't think I have ever used Bing. This is bad - really bad - more like a virus or adware from Microsoft's end to hijack Skype users. Unsuspecting non techie users may end up with a default home page and default search engine they never asked for. 

Microsoft, pls stop! Get more users in the right way - not by tricking the innocent users and wasting their time! I find it amusing that the third choice, "Make Edge (or IE) as my default browser" is not forced too.

P.S: I vaguely recall mistakenly installing and making McAfee as the default anti-virus when I installed Adobe Reader a year or two ago. So apparently Microsoft is not the only offender.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

TripAdvisor: How fake reviews can ruin your travel diaries..

There are many fake reviews in TripAdvisor. It is easy to spot one that harvests fake reviews. They are usually reviewers just have reviewed only the current one with a 5*. This is not to say that all the once-only reviewers are fake. But if a place is reviewed all 5* by these newbies, that should ring a bell. Moreover, I have seen in freelancing sites "employers" asking for 100s of reviews in sites such as TripAdvisor for a hundred dollars! It can also be friends filling TripAdvisor reviews for a restaurant owner, or even the restaurant employees creating multiple fake accounts to accumulate 5* ratings. 

It can also be social engineering. When I stayed in New Delhi in 2012, the hotel owner asked me to rate them 5* in TripAdvisor. That was my first review! I guess a normal person would have given 5*. Does not hurt. right? But I gave 4*, the rating I thought the hotel deserves (than what the owner hinted)! Would be easier to manipulate one's rating with some benefit (like a discounted rate) though. I am not going to give fake 5* ratings for free stuff though. :) I hope.

Always check the 1* ratings. They may show how the place mistreats the visitors. Also 4* ratings. They tend to be the genuine happy customers. Fake reviewers always give 5*. Not 4*. No one pays to give 4* ratings! Similarly, 2* ratings tend to be more rational than 1* too, unless the restaurant is really fishy and unpleasant.

I sent a detailed report to TripAdvisor content-integrity sometime back on a sample situation. Their response was along the lines of "At the same time, we have privacy policies in place which prevent us from being able to divulge to anyone external to TripAdvisor the results of any investigations."

Apart from being Nepal restaurants in Europe, what is the other similarity shared by "Sushi King, Wijnegem", "Sushi King, Malle", "Leo, Lisbon, Portugal", and "Fishtail, Lisbon, Portugal"? They all have been reviewed by the same set of early reviewers who gave 5* reviews with extra-ordinary positive reviews. These reviewers also created their accounts just to review these restaurants!

The first 2 restaurants are in Belgium and as their name suggests, are owned by a same chain. The last 2 are in Portugal, and owned by an individual (see the attachment for proof, taken from TripAdvisor). There are many accounts that were created to review 2 or 3 among these or just 1 of these restaurants! Some of these reviewers have reviewed 1 or 2 of these restaurants more than once! (5-star each time).

I have attached two reviewers with this association for these 4 restaurants. There are many. Just go through each of these restaurants and click the 5-* ratings. You can see reviewers created solely to review one or a few of these 4 restaurants. All these reviewers are Nepalese or Indian.

I can do an association rule mining across all these profiles and get more associations to show how these reviewers are having a strong correlation with each of these. These 4 may be more than 4. I mean, if you find a 5th association, try to build a cluster to see whether they share the same pattern. I am just a volunteer TripAdvisor member. I gave up after finding 4.

1. It is highly unlikely that a large share of reviewers visited all 4 of these restaurants in 2 different countries, and created their accounts to review only these 4!
2. I suspect they have some incentives.
2.1. I have previously seen random employers in freelancer websites seeking freelancers to bulk review their pages in Facebook, TripAdvisor, etc..
2.2. They are probably friends of the owner. In case of Leo, it is currently #1 in Lisboa with just 136 reviews. These reviews can be from bots. Even if they are from real humans, it is not hard to find 136 "friends" for an Indian/Nepalese restaurant owner in Portugal.
3. Given that Leo is the #1 in Lisboa now, unsuspecting tourists visit there since it is a "must" now, as listed #1 by TripAdvisor. Some of them are satisfied naturally. The food is not bad - and deserve 3* - 4* anyway. So they leave a positive review. Some were a bit disappointed learning this is just yet another Indian restaurant. However, the initial bootstrap from the fake reviewers were strong enough for Leo.

As a continuous volunteer reviewer in TripAdvisor, I am disappointed to learn that TripAdvisor's approval workflow is not smart yet.

1) The ranking algorithm should be changed to
1.1) ensure a meritocracy than a democracy. In the Internet, each account is not necessarily a human. So democracy in such systems is flawed. Currently, there is no difference getting 100 5* reviews from fake accounts or bots and 100, real reviewers with proven track record.
1.2) give more importance to the number of reviews. 1000 4* reviews are probably better than 4.5* rating with 137 reviews. This should of course not harm the new businesses. So needs a smart approach. Requires further research. Currently this is the loophole how Leo managed to become the first in Lisboa!
2) The approval workflow should consist of a data mining approach to ensure reviews are not creating a pattern. As of now, I was able to find a pattern very easily among these companies. With a large set of engineers and the management interface/API, this should be simple for TripAdvisor team.
3) Fix the reporting system. Currently it is a bot. First, I report, and a canned response asked me to send an email to this address. I am not even sure whether this will be considered properly.

Leo coming to the top spot reminds me the story -

The difference is Leo actually exists as a normal Indian/Nepalese restaurant. But there are much better Nepal or Indian restaurants around, and this surely is not the #1 of Lisboa.

These first 100 reviews were given by fake reviewers to give an initial bootstrap to secure the first place, and following were social engineering. The tourists who blindly follow TripAdvisor and pay a visit here assuming this to be the best of Lisboa. Following this huge popularity, this small canteen restaurant is even unable to cope with the number of customers, making the waiting time grow large. Unsuspecting customers take all these positively. Some even fell for the mediocre Indian food, which can also be found in any other Indian/Nepal/Bengal restaurant around.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

How to Overcome an Uber Scam

Louvain-la-Neuve, by night
When I was in the US, all the Uber and Lyft drivers I met were honest and professional. This may be also because of my limited experience with Uber or Lyft.

Arrived in Brussels airport (BRU), we got to know that the Uber is not allowed near the main entrance. So after ordering the Uber, we meet him at the car park level 3. From the beginning, he started insisting that we pay in cash or by credit card. I told him that does not make sense to me as we pay by the application and this would lead to a double payment. He said, he would cancel the ride and then we can pay. He explained that this would help him avoid paying commission to Uber. He told us that when we pay 60 euro to uber, all he gets may be 50 euro. He repeated in French and his broken English that he prefers cash, throughout the journey.

We met a friend in the university, and continued to our apartment in Louvain-la-Neuve. After making him wait till we locate the apartment and unload the luggage, we finally said good bye. He smiled and asked for a 5-* rating in Uber nicely. Since everything went well (and he did not force us to get out though we did not accept his demand by payment in cash or credit card), I told him, "Of course, sure". I also got his phone number, since he explained that Uber does not work in Louvain-la-Neuve (LLN) - This is true. I verified it myself.

This is where the scam begins. After dropping us and leaving, he continued his journey (probably a return to his home or Brussels) - as we saw in Uber app. We noticed he did not end the trip though we have already got down a few minutes ago. We did not know what to do now, as this was our first experience - usually the drivers ended the journey the moment we got down. We were contemplating should we call him and ask him what is going on? We were thinking shall we cancel the trip. Our worry was, what if we cancel the trip and he does not get even any money at all (which is bad, as we indeed have arrived at the destination). That is my lack of knowledge on how Uber works.

Eventually, we decided to cancel the trip, to avoid getting charged like 200 euro, as he continues his journey, pretending to be riding us. We cancelled after a few minutes. I was still worried whether he would return and demand me pay by cash since I have now cancelled the journey. We were charged 76.14 Euro from Uber for this ride (I actually felt relieved to see that I was indeed charged!). However, I estimate this ride has cost us 15 Euro in addition to what he deserved. 

So the learning experience: after getting down from Uber, always check that the driver has stopped the journey and not continue to charge you for a journey that you never even had!

Of course, he has received a 1-star rating from me for overcharging and annoying us throughout the journey in French and broken English that we should pay in cash or card. Probably he was planning to double charge us - charge by app, as well as cash! Probably we were lucky that our lost was minimal compared to what he was planning for (for example, if we accepted to pay by cash, he may have demanded 85 euro, the regular taxi rate from BRU Brussels Airport to LLN), or even more.


We reported this to Uber the next day. Mentioned how the driver overcharged us and also insisted that we pay by cash. Uber refunded 12.39 euro in 4 days since we reported. This was an effective and quick resolution. Thanks, Uber!

The response from Uber:
My driver asked for cash payment

Wednesday, February 1, 2017 at 6:39:09 PM · uberX
Hi Pradeeban,

Thank you for giving me notice of this problem. Feedbacks from our users are important in order to provide a high quality service. I am sorry for the driver's attitude, such a behaviour does not meet our standards and I will have a talk with the driver.

Indeed, it appears that the trip has not been cancelled directly beyond the destination therefore I will adjust the price.

Let me know if you have any other questions or feedback.


Previous Charge - 76.14
Refunded Personal - 12.39
New Total - 63.75 Euro
P.S: Keep using Uber. Just be careful of the scam drivers in Brussels or anywhere else. Feel free to use my referral code: pradeebank2ue to get your first ride free!

If you are an Uber driver, don't assume that all the foreigners are easy prey for your scam. Of course they are new and may be naive. But does not worth it. Any rider can report these scam behaviours, and hopefully get it resolved. Pls avoid giving bad first expressions to your country when probably you are the first local he/she would meet.

P.P.S: Finally, getting settled in LLN for the second part of my PhD.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Changing the address in Portugal's Financas portal

This took me some time to find how to change the address using the online portal for the Financas of Portugal. Writing them below for future references.
Financas Index Page
To change address:

You will receive the confirmation code by post to the new address in 5 days. 
Once you received the code by post, to confirm the change address, visit the index page:

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Changing Indentation in LaTeX Pseudocode

By default the algorithmic package indents 2 em. It can be reduced or increased using a simple command.

Just place

\algrenewcommand\algorithmicindent{0.5em} % or any other value as you wish



This will reduce or increase the indentation as you prefer.