Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A few things that made my 2017 interesting..

Thiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India
2017 is my best year so far, followed by 2015 and 2013. In this post, I list 30 things that made my 2017 interesting.
2. A fast-paced year full of déjà vu.
Too many things happened in too little time.

3. Winning a projector from Teradata in a Twitter contest at VLDB 2017
I love this Mini Android Smart Portable Projector.

4. A midnight walk in
Timișoara with just a paper map
Finally, a huge fan of Romanian music visits Romania!

5. My first book published.
It was nice to publish my first book, and receive its hard-copies.

6. My first book chapter, ready for publication.
My book chapter was accepted for publication before my first book, but my book was released first.

7. Reviewing books and papers.
Received a few printed books as a result.

8. ACRO2017 in Karlstad, Sweden.
My first (and probably, only) summer school. And making friends!

Spring flowers of Keukenhof
9. Beautiful Oslo
This city is as beautiful as Stockholm.

10. Sunny Szeged
It is a pity I did not collect some Hungarian Forint (1 USD = 262.611 HUF) back home to give them to scammers.

11. Valencia - once more Spain!
I visited Spain and Sweden in 2013, 2015, and 2017. Following this pattern, I predict that I will revisit them both in 2019. ;)

12. Memories of Louvain-la-Neuve 
When I arrived in Louvain-la-Neuve in February, I did not realize that my entire year is going to be in this Belgian village!

13. Walk across the castles in Luxembourg
I love these small EU countries.

We were right in the season. Perfect timing.

Short. But surprisingly nice.

16. Two months in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
As a visiting student / Government Visitor to KAUST.

17. Sleepless nights in Colombo
Deadline-oriented motivation. This year is full of that.

18. Turning 30
I think that is a big achievement to reach my 30s.

19. A day in the streets of Prague
A day full of random metro rides and walks.

20. New Year's Eve in Zurich!
Enjoying the view of the moving flights from the ZRH Airport Observation room on the 1st of January!

21. Attending VLDB in Busy Munich
Loved attending a top conference for the first time. Berlin is still my favorite city.

22. Colorful Bruges, Belgium.
Summer in Bruges
It is so colorful in the summer.

23. Experiencing Chennai, India
After watching several Tamil movies from India, it is nice to be in Tamil Nadu for the first time.

24. Dissecting various scams in Portugal, Sri Lanka, and Belgium.
Fell victim to a few. Dodged a few. A scammer may come in various shapes, jobs, and genders. But usually, he is a taxi driver.

25. A sunny day in Fonte da Talha
Spending a whole evening in this Portuguese beach once more before the summer runs out!

26. Staying in a hotel room in Faro just to connect to the Internet before a flight
Luckily the Internet was reliable enough in my room to connect to an important meeting that I was part of.

27. Working on Óbidos and Évora
This time I am talking about my research papers. Not the Portuguese cities.

28. Attending EMA GA in Brussels.
Been the PR several times for both EMDC and EMJD-DC. But first time in the GA representing both.
29. Half-decade of Memories
It has been 5 years in Lisboa and with IST/INESC-ID!

30. Two Christmas Parties!
Joined the parties in UCLouvain/Belgium and INESC-ID Lisboa.

Every year, I have one new year's resolution - to outperform my previous year. :) The bar is very high for 2018. I wish you a happy new year everyone. Thanks for reading my list until the end. You may also read the blog posts of the previous years as well.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

How to Transfer Money free to a Foreign Account

Bank transaction rates for foreign currencies are exceptionally high, with poor transaction rates. TransferWise is an online platform that aims to solve this problem.

You can transfer your money to a foreign account for free up to 500 GBP, using the TransferWise referral link:

Similarly, share your own invite link with your friends, and their first transactions will be free as well if they use an invite link. The more invites you send, you will also be rewarded.

I have transferred money between US and EU accounts, as well as to Sri Lanka from the US and EU bank accounts. It really has a diverse list of currencies and speedy delivery. Try and confirm it on your own!
What made me a fan of TransferWise is not just their transparency and real transaction rates (you can confirm by comparing with provided transaction rates with TransferWise values). It is also the customer service of TransferWise. When I ran into some issues with a transaction, TransferWise went all their way to resolve the issue as quick as possible with their personalized support.

I am a happy customer of TransferWise, and this is my unbiased review as a regular user. :) Are you a user too? Please share your experience.

You may read my other reviews here.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Delayed Ryan Air and Drinking Water

A half-decade long memory.
My Ryan Air flight was delayed by 2 hours and 55 minutes. I was informed that I am not entitled to any compensation as this delay is less than 3 hours. Very convenient timing. There was no free water on board. Despite the delay, everyone was forced to buy water for 3 Euro. What if someone did not have 3 Euro to buy water and faint down? It is after all the mistake of Ryan Air for delaying with passengers onboard, without even informing us the reason for the delay properly. I had to buy water + meal combo for 10 Euro as it was lunchtime already. I love my TAP Portugal flights - even the shortest flight gets you something to eat and drink!

This year, I had to fly back and forth between Belgium and Portugal a few times with the last minute flights during the last 4 months. I once had to pay 200 Euro to fly from Faro to Charleroi one way, which would have cost me less than 20 Euro if I booked on time. I even did not take any checked in luggage with me. Just my big backpack as the handluggage.

Once I also had another 200 Euro flight between Brussels and Lisboa with an overnight transit in Madrid with AirEuropa. AirEuropa seats are wide with large legroom.

Eventually, I am back to Portugal after all the back and forth movements. When I am back, the year is about to end. The year was full of memories and lots of déjà vu. It was like living my entire 30 years of life back in a single year. Like a remix of old songs. Sometimes it felt like living a South Indian Kollywood masala movie directed by someone making a new movie copying fractions from many old successful movies.

It was a fast-paced year. I migrated rapidly. Moved apartments even rapidly. Sometimes I lived in 3 apartments within a week. I flew back and forth. Sometimes twice in a week. I had two consecutive sleepless nights - 64 hours of non-stop writing. Now that I am back and relaxed, it is time to focus on my deadlines again.

Experience as a Visiting Student at KAUST, Saudi Arabia

The beautiful KAUST Grand Mosque
I am back in Portugal after my 4 months of migrations including 2 months at KAUST, Saudi Arabia. Now I am full-time into my core Ph.D. research.

Overall, my experience of 2 months at KAUST was very positive, though a few experiences came as pretty shocking. I list below a few observations I found may be relevant to you as an upcoming visiting student/scholar to KAUST. Several points in this post may not be accurate for you if you are a KAUST faculty, employee, or student.

1. Frequent Apartment migrations
My 1st apartment, all for me!
I was asked to move out of my beautiful apartment after 2.5 weeks of arrival. Upon questioning, I found that visiting Ph.D. students are usually given a room in a 3-room apartment. Since KAUST did not have a room empty for me right at my arrival time, they let me stay in an apartment. Then they still did not have a "regular" room. So they let me stay 10 days in a room in a 3-room apartment managed by KAUST-Inn. I had the master bedroom. There was a  SHARP-brand TV in my room. Cleaning service thrice a week, including the room. Nevertheless, I never let them clean my room, as I find that unnecessary for the 10 days. I also had my own bathroom. However, the other 2 rooms had to share a single bathroom.

My room in the second apartment
Finally, they got a room for me in a regular student apartment - my 3rd place during my 2-month-long stay. The apartment had 3 rooms. I was in the smallest room. But all the rooms had their own bathroom. So we just got to share the kitchen and the living room. I stayed in this room for a month until I left the Kingdom. Even this small room was big enough. We do not have a cleaning service for these student apartments, unlike those managed by the KAUST Inn. It is not necessary anyway for just a month-long stay.

This will be the typical view from your apartment
One would wonder what is the necessity for such a weird migration strategy when there was plenty of empty space. I later learned that it is a resource allocation strategy according to the policy (i.e., they must maximize the time I spend in a shared student apartment). It sounds weird, and especially when this migration plan comes as a surprise to you only days before you really have to move. But that is KAUST for you.

A nightly walk
No one from KAUST has blogged or mentioned about these KAUST apartment migrations before. If you happen to visit my blog, be informed that you may have to switch your apartment in the middle of your stay. My advice - when you get your keys from the SGA (Students Guest Apartment) for the first time, confirm whether you will indeed stay in this apartment during your entire stay, or ask them to give your migration plan (which dates you will be expected to move to a new apartment). It will help you plan when to buy stuff (you don't want to move between apartments with lots of food items). Of course, you can get a taxi free of charge from KAUST for these inner-mandatory-migrations. Also, remember that these apartments are free and registered free of charge for the students with no effort from students' end. Much kudos for that!
The major shopping square

Make sure to bring ethernet cables and a router. There is an Internet connection with several Internet sockets in the apartments. But you will most likely need your own cables and the router. It will help if you bring them with you so that you can connect instantly once you are home in KAUST. Especially if you are the only one in the apartment, you won't even have the choice to ask your roommate for the password of their router.

2. Noisy Open Workspaces
A lonely sunset
I am okay with sharing office space with 5 - 6 Ph.D. students. We do that in INESC-ID. But all the students are silent and do not make random noises. In all my universities of my Ph.D. time, I shared office space with 0 - 5 students. What came as a surprise? KAUST loves open workspaces with up to 30 students. Our open room is on the ground floor. The laborers and security guards love to walk around and even play music without earphones during the weekend (yes, I like working on weekends too). Also, other students in the room like to make calls and do meetings right in the room, making it have a large white noise. It is not a productive environment for students at all.

Uniform apartment buildings
Just like others, I learned to play some music (usually Chinese or Romanian music) in my earphone, so that I do not need to listen to random people (workers and students) speaking in Malayalam, Arabic, Filipino, Chinese, or Russian. Who invented this open workspace for Ph.D. students and developers who need to use their brains? Is it to show the developers are the new blue-collar? I would recommend KAUST to invest some money in making workspaces with smaller (up to 6) number of persons in each room. To give a balanced overview, my friends were okay with the noisy environment wearing noise-canceling headphones. I am not really into headphones or earphones, though.

3. Communication black holes
Line of apartments
There was a guy in SGA. He is like a communication black hole. You give him some requests. He will reply, "Yes, Sir. Sure, Sir. I will make it done soon, Sir", with a big smile. His task finishes here. He does nothing except this kind gesture and a big smile to you. You better send an email to the system - you will get the work done. There are also these stateless support call centers I experienced in many places (not really in KAUST). Every time you make a call, details discussed in the previous calls are lost. You must always start from Ground 0. Actually, sending an email always worked in KAUST (better than dealing with the communication black hole I mentioned).

4. Queue Jumpers
Queue jumping is quite the norm in many Asian countries. KSA is not an exception. Be prepared to face the person behind you counting their chance to jump the queue when possible, especially outside the university, such as the airport.

A Magnificent View
5. Stipend and Reimbursements
You are going to get the stipend or scholarship in cash, by default, as a visiting scholar. I don't think you are going to open a local bank for such a short period.

Initially, I asked KAUST whether they can send the money to my bank in Portugal. They were willing to. But then I checked with my bank and found they are going to charge me for incoming currency exchange fees. Also, my actual funding was from Belgium while I was in KAUST (my case was a bit more complex than a regular case). So what KAUST had to give me was just the visa fees and some travel expenses I incurred. So it was not huge money, and I chose to get it in cash.


6. Currency Exchange

Line of date palms
The airport gives you the best transaction rate (I know that is unbelievable). Saudi Riyal (SAR) -> USD is fixed at 3.75 -> 1 always throughout the country. So getting it in $ will be the best. But even Euro, although fluctuates, gives the actual transaction amount, rather than a reduced amount other airports give. I just exchanged all my remaining SAR into Euro in cash at the airport before flying back to the EU. Just make sure to exchange all the money before you leave the country to Euro or USD. SAR is useless outside Saudi Arabia. The airport offers options to exchange money from SAR to a wide range of currencies, including several Asian countries' currencies, which are typically unexchangeable outside those countries.

View from our lab building
You can get excellent currency exchange rate between SAR -> USD, as USD -> SAR is fixed at 3.75. At the airport, you can get 3.72 SAR for 1 USD, and buy 1 USD with 3.77 SAR. However, the USD often runs out for a smaller amount. Remember, it is the best deal in KSA to convert back and forth between USD and SAR than from another currency. The time I left the country, the money exchanger at the airport had only 100 USD notes. Not the small notes. Same for GBP. However, he had 20 Euro notes. So I got 20 Euro for 91 SAR. Not a bad deal either. So exchanging money at the airport is a great deal at Jeddah airport compared to many other airports in the world. Airport money exchanges in the US and the EU eat your money. 

7. Expensive Local Supermarket
View from the canal bridge
Things were quite expensive in the Tamimi supermarkets, the only supermarket chains in KAUST. Almost all the things were imported from the USA. I heard from my Saudi roommate that the 800 g dates I bought for 89 SAR (around 20 Euro) can be bought for 5% of its price (for 1 Euro) outside KAUST (in Thuwal or Jeddah).

8. Clumsy Airport
The Jeddah airport is clumsy, dirty, and nasty. The need to put the electronics into the checked-in luggage for the flights to the UK gives an additional overhead. The flights are booked by KAUST (thanks for them to manage this and pay for the flights). However, that also means they will book you the cheapest of the flights, understandably. I could have transited through any other airports to arrive in the EU/Brussels. But they chose British Airways (BA)/London LHR for me, making to go through this painful exercise of placing the computer, tablet, and digital camera into the checked-in luggage. Regardless of my previous bad experience, British Airways did not damage or delay my luggage. My electronic items were safe, also thanks to my careful packing (I placed my laptop between two pillows!). The airport was chaos, with lots of clueless pilgrims (it serves as the primary airport for the Hajj pilgrims going to Mecca) wandering around and jumping queues. Probably the airport will remain the worst part of the visit to KAUST.

9. Lots of Savings $$$
The Red Sea
There are, of course, lots of freebies from KAUST, including accommodation and transportation - including flight and ground transportation. Your money is just for your food. 3.5 $ for lunch or dinner from the canteen, which probably gives the best canteen food in the world (I have tried university canteen food in around 10 countries, including, Sri Lanka, France, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Croatia, and USA. ;)) Assuming you have both lunch and dinner from the canteen, and some cereal for breakfast, your daily expense would be 8 $. 240$ is sufficient for your food. You can watch movies at the cinema! Very cheap - 5 SAR or 1.50$. 300$ is adequate for you for a comfortable life there. Remaining money you get from KAUST is for your entertainment or savings. Your choice.

Sunset in the Red Sea
There were times my friends and I were watching several movies at the cinema there (they even show Indian movies, and change the movies every few days) - because it was very cheap! We did bird watching and fine dining (for a low price and often free with the professors when we welcome faculty candidates or visiting professors!). There are many good aspects of KAUST that you won't find anywhere else in KSA or elsewhere. I was in KAUST during autumn to winter. KAUST winter was equal to the Portuguese summer. Enjoyable weather. One day it rained and flooded Jeddah city. No big damage in KAUST, though. We also encountered a minor sandstorm one day.

If you have read until the end, most likely, you are considering to visit KAUST yourself as a visiting student. Go for it. It is a pleasant experience overall!

Further Reading: 
[1] My arrival at KAUST.
[2] My research at KAUST.

Failure of Twitter Symmetry

The dark side of Twitter
There are at least 3 types of Twitter users: 1) Those who follow accounts that share some specific tweets (the followers), 2) Those who connect with people to interact as in any other social media (the friends), and 3) Those who are or want to be the news streams (the leaders). There are also Twitter parasites, an ever-growing population, who does a mass-following and every day perform a mass-unfollowing. In this procedure, they would have accumulated a million followers while just following a few thousand. These Twitter parasites feed on the human psychology - when a "star user" follows you, you tend to follow them back. They play a numbers game to trick people to follow-back, and to unfollow just after someone followed them back. I have been followed by many such verified Twitter star users to unfollow me only after a few weeks since I followed them back. 

I use Twitter for friendship. To share and interact with interesting people. I am not on Twitter to follow visionaries. There are also another set of Twitter users who start like me (under the category 2 above), and then during some specific time decide to be like the category 1 or 3. They then perform a mass-unfollow. Now you end up following their random musings - one way.

I suggest Twitter have an automated workflow - when someone who followed you first decides to unfollow you, automatically unfollow them back. This will stop the Twitter parasites and those who suddenly waken up just before the new year to follow only the "worthy accounts". My suggestion for the Twitter parasites - there is no real reward to unfollow those who fell into your trap and followed back. Isn't it more important to keep the communication than just having a large number of passive followers?

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Scammers and Robbers in Brussels Nord Train Station: Do you speak English?

Robbers in Brussels Nord train station is not new. They target the tourists who arrive from the Brussels Zavantem Airport as Brussels Nord serves as the main train station that connects the airport to the city center. I encountered them before this year during my early days in Belgium. That was of 3 women, presumably from an East European country such as Bulgaria, judging from the looks.

After that I used Brussels Nord train station several times for my daily commutes. But now I do not have big suitcases with me, unlike when I fly. I was wondering whether the situation has got better or is it just me being lucky. But yesterday, it happened to me again, as I was returning with my big suitcase, a large laptop bag, and a camera bag, ready to fly to Portugal.

As I was rushing between the platforms at the Brussels Nord station, a somewhat pretty girl in her early twenties stoppped me, "Hi, do you speak English?". She probably is of Romanian or Bulgarian origins, though I am not really an expert in identifying their nationality. It is not important either. She looked in distress. I assumed she wanted some directions with trains, metro, or whatever.

I replied, "Yes, I speak English". She quickly uttered, "Oh, thank God", and continue to say something along the lines like I saved her since no one apparently speaks English here. This immediately gave me a big warning - Brussels is a multi-lingual city. Actually it is very easy to find someone who speaks English. I never had trouble asking random strangers questions and receiving helpful suggestions in English - not even once. Despite Brussels being a mostly French/Dutch speaking city, its prominence as the European capital and tourist destination has made it truly international. For a newly arriving tourist, of course it may sound plausible that she had a hard time locating someone who can understand her.

She continues, "I lost my wallet/card/money *" (did not really catch what she lost, as we were in the middle of a noisy busy path where passengers were quickly moving around - it was 5:30 PM Friday, full of work crowd). "Could you please buy me a train ticket?" One thing apparent was her careful choice of the person to seek help - a young man possibly from India who is also apparently a tourist, potentially just arriving at Brussels. In such situation, one would easily sympathize: what if I was in her situation as a tourist with no money to train ticket in a place where no one speaks English! (oh yes, I believe that Brussels is a village in deep China or French-speaking Africa, where no one understands your English). Also who does not like to help a girl who spotted you as someone who can help among the millions of others passing by?

Now I confirmed that my warning signs were right. In these situations in the past, I always have helped people; happened mostly in Sri Lanka. I am not really sure how many of these were genuine need and how many were just regular beggars. I did not care much as they were mostly in a much small scale (< 0.50 Euro) as public transport in Colombo is much cheaper than in Brussels.

It did not take me even a few seconds to come to the conclusion: this young lady with a beautiful smile was either planning to make me pay for her "long train ride to Amsterdam" or in the worst case make me take my wallet in the middle of the crowded path where her partner can quickly snatch and move on with my wallet. In either case, I quickly replied with an empathetic smile, "Oh, I am sorry. I do not have Euros. I am going back". I watched her smile fade away as she rushes leaving me without any reply.