Saturday, February 24, 2018

Llovizna gets a new look

I have been busy ever since my return from KAUST on the 12th of December. I was often working 60 - 80 hours a week with many deadlines. I had the UCLouvain Confirmation at UNINOVA, Almada (the opposite side of the Tagus river). It was a rewarding experience. Besides, I also had a quick trip to Evora, exactly four years after I visited it for an EMDC Winter Event. Today, I decided to give a new look to my blog, switching from the black background to a brighter one with a larger font. More plans for March. Exciting times ahead.

Below is how my blog Llovizna (formerly known as, 'On my way home.' Renamed to 'Llovizna' on the January 6th, 2010) evolved over time.

'On my way home,' as of April 23, 2009:

As of October 2, 2009:


'Llovizna,' as of February 6, 2011:









As of February 22, 2018:

Friday, February 23, 2018

Twitter bots, trolls, fakes, parodies, and anonymous

Twitter indeed has numerous bots. But not every weird account that you encounter on Twitter is a bot. There is a clear difference among the bots, trolls, and fakes, though often the demarcation is vague.

First, a bot is not necessarily bad, though often bots are deployed with malicious intent, such as distributing propaganda and making viral content out of useless posts. Twitter bots are an economic model, with companies such as Devumi selling them to like, retweet, comment, and share your posts automatically for a price. 
 
I had two bots Llovizna and @on_my_way_home to tweet every time I post something to my blog. I stopped these accounts and their posts in 2016. I could have made these automated posts directly to my main Twitter account Pradeeban. In 2009, I chose to create proxy accounts to tweet my blog posts to keep my Twitter account under my entire control, with no automation.

People often confuse a bot with a fake account and an anonymous account. An anonymous account is usually genuine. It hides the real identity of the user but does not try to create an alter-ego or another personality for the human behind the user. An anonymous account may have 0 to 100% of identification information of the user. On the other hand, a fake account is intended to misrepresent someone. If I create an account with no information at all to post on sensitive topics, that is an anonymous account. On the other hand, if I pretend to be a princess from Sweden in my Twitter profile, that is a fake account. 

Some fake accounts acknowledge they are fake, and often function with a touch of humor, faking the identity of a known person, such as politicians, leaders, and actors. They are parodies, as long as they acknowledge this in their profile, so as not to mislead an unsuspecting follower.

A bot account is still a complete account. By logging into the account, a human still can post tweets as in a regular account. However, usually interacting with a bot account is fruitless.

Trolls can be a regular account, though more often than not they are fakes, parodies, or anonymous accounts, as the repercussions of being a troll are imminent in the current sensitive world. It is often advised not to involve the trolls, as the more you interact with someone over the Twitter in their timeline, more visibility they get.

I have seen arguments on Twitter, where a verified user or a user with several followers discrediting the other party by their number of followers. "She got only 50 followers. She must be a bot" or "He got only 30 followers. He must be fake". These arguments are flawed for several reasons. First, if someone is making an intelligent communication, it is (still) not possible to be a bot. Second, you cannot judge a person fake by their number of followers. The person can just be someone who is busy with their real life than harvesting Twitter followers in a shady practice followed by many popular and verified accounts (more on this in my previous post, Twitter is inherently flawed and unfair - and "Influencers" are ruining it).

I also noticed that those who use the "number of followers" as a measure to judge the validity of someone's tweets are the ones that pay for fake/bot followers, or use the shady practice of "follow and unfollow after a follow back" used by accounts such as and

Twitter bots are not necessarily bad. They do some specific useful tasks, such as creating news syndicates and reporting weather alerts. Therefore, disabling the potential for bots is not a good idea. However, it may be a good middle ground if Twitter makes it mandatory for the bot creators to explicitly identify and acknowledge them as bots and offer to identify information to the creator. Such restrictions are already in place for parody accounts - you must self-identify your account as a parody if you are impersonating someone (usually a famous person). Otherwise, your account may be terminated by Twitter. We need similar measures to bots to ensure ethical use of bots.

Fake accounts can be entirely fictitious or imitate a real living person to some degree such as using someone else's identity or photo. Fake accounts are often harmful and are malicious in intent (for example, consider someone faking as a minor/child, or someone faking as a racial or sexual minority to make a political statement). They need to be controlled too. Twitter needs to improve a lot. Their workflow is flawed. Their verification program is broken and harmful. I still appreciate the simplicity of Twitter, despite its shortcomings. It is always an excellent platform to share your thoughts publicly, even if no one is listening.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

My experience with flight reservation sites

Flight price comparison with Skyscanner
Let me summarize my experience with various flight companies based on my 6 years of travels. Always compare your flight prices with Skyscanner, and book by following the link. Skyscanner does not charge any fees for its service, nor it places cookies on behalf of the travel agent sites.

1. TravelGenio / Travel2Be - Managed by the same team. The worst of all. Read my post on my experience with them - Is TravelGenio a Scam?
Score: 0/5

 2. Tripsta
They are the best of all that I tried.  They do not randomly increase the price or seek additional charges.

However, like all the other travel agents, they also apply a price differentiation. As I prefer my flight details to be in English and in Euro, I had a habit of using their Ireland website, tripsta.ie. However, for the same flight, it costs 507 Euro in tripsta.pt and 541 Euro in tripsta.ie. Next time, I will stick with tripsta.pt, though I need to stick to the Portuguese language, as I cannot change the language to English while in Portuguese site. Only Portuguese language is available in tripsta.pt. I can, of course, use Chrome to auto-translate, just to be safe.
Score: 5/5

3. GotoGate
They are fine. However, I did not like the site as much as I liked Tripsta - which was simple and plain.
Score: 4/5

4. MyTrip
Haven't tried yet.
Score: ?/5

5. eDreams
Used them a few times, as they were the first to offer an easy payment with PayPal with 0 additional fees. The situation has changed now. They once sent a notice mentioning "Your card has been declined" when I actually paid using PayPal and when the payment was indeed successful. I had to call them and clarify. It was a smooth process, and the email was a mistake. They fixed it and sent another confirmation email promptly as I asked them over the phone - just to be safe.
Score: 4/5

6. Rumbo
Haven't tried yet.
Score: ?/5

7. BudgetAir
Offered 15 Euro discount, if you pay additional 8 Euro during a previous flight. I did not prompt for this, as I was not sure whether I will use them again. However, overall pleasant experience booking with them. No additional charge and no random fees. Also offers cheapest for many flights.
Score: 5/5

8. TopAtlantico
A local Portuguese option. Has many branches everywhere in Lisboa.
Haven't tried yet. 
Score: ?/5

9. Abreu
A local Portuguese option. Has many branches everywhere in Portugal. Price is a bit high. However, it gives you the sense of security if you must buy from an agent. Recommend if you live in Portugal. You can visit them to buy the ticket.
Score: 5/5

10. Geostar
Another Portuguese option. Too expensive. 
Score: 2/5.

11. Kiwi.com
Too expensive. Is this a joke?
Score: 1/5.

12. Your local travel agent
For the same flight, we paid 560 Euro from our travel agent (original price: 565 Euro; with discount - 560 Euro). 8 Euro more than Abreu. However, local travel agents are experienced to find you the best options from/to their base country - after all, this is their expertise.
Score: 3/5

13. Direct booking from TAP
Offers easy payment options as long as you have a Portuguese bank account - through ATM or online banking. Unless the flight is a TAP flight, the price will be very high. Even for the TAP flight, this may not be the cheapest option. However, you can pay within 24 hours. This gives you an additional safety net. Also, TAP flights are the best, inside Europe, to travel to/from Portugal.
Score: 5/5

14. Direct booking from Wizz 
The website was terribly slow. Takes ages! When I complained, they suggested me to book through their mobile application. They have friendly folks on their social media though. Wizz gives you the lowest prices and discounts to exotic locations in East Europe when you book directly. Their membership program is worth purchasing too.
Score: 5/5

My final verdict, based on my experience with flights across Europe, Asia, and the USA is given below. Good luck with your travels!



VERDICT:
Tripsta: GOOD 5/5
BudgetAir: GOOD 5/5
Abreu: GOOD 5/5
TAP: GOOD 5/5
WIZZ: GOOD 5/5
Gotogate: FAIR 4/5
eDreams: FAIR 4/5
Local Agent: NOT BAD 3/5
Geostar: BAD 2/5
Kiwi.com: BAD 1/5
TravelGenio/Travel2Be: BAD 0/5

Is TravelGenio a Scam?

It is always a good idea to compare the flight prices across multiple travel agent sites before actually buying them. Skyscanner is a web site that lets you compare the flight prices across multiple sites such as TravelGenio, Tripsta, and eDreams.

TravelGenio, has always been the poortest performer across many of the flight booking sites that I tried. However, I keep falling for them again and again as they list the lowest price. But, TravelGenio is the best in their bait-and-switch pricing strategy. For example, a price may be listed as 506 Euro. But when you are about to pay, it will increase by 10 Euro for many of the popular cards. As of today, only Visa Credit and Maestro cards offer the promised price. Others have an increase of 10 Euro for the flight of 506 (thus making the price 516 Euro).

However, I had even worse experiences with them.

I share my 2 bad experiences below:


First bad experience:

After booking the flight and everything was finalized and confirmed (they even had the payment finalized from my debit card), Travelgenio sent me the below email from the address infort@corp.travelgenio.com.

Caro Cliente,
Tal como lhe informamos no processo de compra, a reserva que tentou realizar não pôde ser confirmada pela linha aérea.
Como alternativa, realizámos uma reserva com a melhor tarifa disponível e com vôos semelhantes.
A nova reserva que realizámos possui localizador 4KB5FY e está garantida durante o dia de hoje.
Necessitamos, por favor, que nos confirme se deseja adquirir ou não esta nova reserva, caso contrário, procederemos à sua anulação sem qualquer tipo de gasto.
Envio-lhe em outro e-mail o itinerário detalhado da reserva para que possa verificar se os vôos são do seu interesse.
Ficaremos aguardando as suas instruções.
A tarifa mais económica que lhe podemos oferecer é 60.00 Euros superior ao importe que reservou inicialmente
Muito obrigado.

[Goolge Translation:
Dear Customer,
As we inform you in the buying process, the reservation who tried to perform could not be confirmed by the airline.
Alternatively, we made a reservation with the best available rate and with similar flights.
The new reserve that has held locator 4KB5FY and is guaranteed during the day.
We need, please let us confirm whether to purchase or not this new reservation, otherwise, proceed to its cancellation without any expense.
I send you another e-mail the detailed itinerary of booking so you can check if the flights are of interest.
We'll be waiting for your instructions.
The lowest fare we can offer is 60.00 euros to import higher than initially reserved
Thank you very much.
]


I replied:
Hi,
When I initially checked, the price indicated 752 Euro for 2 passengers. Then when I was about to pay, the price increased to 806,70 Euro, and I still paid and reserved the tickets. So that already is an increase of around 54 Euro.

Are you telling me that you are going to charge me an additional 60 Euro, making it 866 Euro, or are you telling me that you are going to charge 120 Euro more (60 Euro per person), and make it 926 Euro?
This is so frustrating. Please let me know and clarify how much is the current price, and how much, in addition to the 806 Euro that was reserved I should pay, so that I can confirm. Also let me know, how long will it take you to refund the amount, if I decide to cancel the booking.
Is there is a way I can create a bug report or feedback for this weird behaviour of the system?

I have used Travelgenio before, and it never had similar issues. It seems probably some management or other policy changes leading to this behaviour. I would stop using Travelgenio and instruct my friends and colleagues to do so (through social media, and travel reviews, etc), if this issue is not smoothly resolved.
Also, is this a real email, or a scammer impersonating Travelgenio? The email looks so unprofessional and extremely weird.

Regards,
Pradeeban.


Their reply:
Dear Customer,
 
Thank you for contacting Travelgenio.
 
In reference to your e-mail we inform you that the total amount is eur 864.74.
Please let us know on how to proced with the booking.
 
Yours sincerely,



I replied:
Ok, you may proceed with this for the total amount of 864.74 Euro. Please finalize this soon. Please do not keep randomly increasing the price further.
Also send a finalized invoice and confirmation to my email account once this is done and completed.
I do not want to mess up with my travel due to the mishaps in your system and policies.

Regards,
Pradeeban.


I was angry. So I replied once more:
I booked using Travelgenio, because it indicated 752 Euro. Otherwise, I would have used Travel2Be which showed a bit higher price (around 800 Euro, if I remember correct). Now finally I have to pay 864.70 Euro due to the inefficiency in Travelgenio. I wish your system was more effective. Also I noticed that the flight slots are quickly filling up. So I want to finalize this sooner. I do not want you to further increase the price or change the flight schedules.

I will be happy with your customer service, if you still could go ahead with 806,70 Euro, the amount I paid for, during the registration. If customer satisfaction is nothing for you, and if you still think it is not possible, you may go ahead with the 864.74 Euro as I indicated in the previous email.

I am writing up a blog post based on this experience. The ending and the verdict of that review blog post depends on how this issue is resolved.

Thank you.
Regards,
Pradeeban.


Eventually, I checked the prices online and with the local travel agent, and it turned out the prices went up during this delay, even in the other web sites. So I decided to pay TravelGenio the additional amount they asked, despite feeling betrayed.


During this conversation, I was not aware that Travel2Be actually has a partnership with TravelGenio, and they are probably owned by a single company. I later learned that from the TravelGenio web site itself, and from the signature of the emails I received:


Dear Customer,

Regarding the invoice for this booking, we have forward the information given to the corresponding department and as fast as possible you will receive the corresponding invoice.

We remain at your full disposition should you have any questions or need any further information.

Thank you and kind regards,


TRAVELGENIO/TRAVEL2BE

--
Giuditta
User Satisfaction Agent
Travelgenio.com



Second bad experience: 


Interestingly, I did not really remember the first experience when I booked another flight after some time. I just went for the cheapest option.
I paid for TravelGenio once more for another flight. Only after paying, I realized something not right. I immediately sent them this email:


When I was booking, it showed 154.01$. Suddenly the total appeared as 157.01$ with no explanation. Pls see the screenshot.
I expect an explanation how the 3$ is added to the final value magically.
Regards,
Pradeeban.
3$ magically added to the price.



Their reply:

Dear Pradeeban Kathiravelu,
Thank you for contacting our Advanced Support Department and sharing your comments with us. The feedback of our customers helps us to improve our products every day as well as the customer care provided.
We are writing to you regarding your booking T6T7FI.
In reference to your query, let us inform you that the prices shown at the availability page are subject to discounts and/or surcharges that will apply according to the payment form selected by you when you do the purchase.
At the payment page you can verify the payment methods available as well as the surcharges that apply to each one of them. If you select a payment method without discount, the price will change and the page will be immediately updated. As a consequence and before you confirm your booking definitely, you will be able to see, next to the “purchase” button, the final price you will have to pay according to the selected payment method.

However, and even if the final price, including surcharges, was shown before you confirmed the purchase, we understand your situation and therefore, as a goodwill gesture, we have refunded the amount corresponding to 3 usd, as you requested.
We hope you will travel with us again soon.
Kind regards,


Their reply was weird, cryptic, self-serving, and unnecessarily long (also not at all apologizing for their mess up). They just should have apologized for the technical glitch and refunded. However, I indeed received the 3$ back to my bank account. Nevertheless, if I did not pay attention, or if I did not complain, I would have lost my 3$.


Summary: TravelGenio may not be entirely a scam. But it follows shady business practices. Travel2Be is in fact another site managed by them.


VERDICT: AVOID TravelGenio and Travel2Be at any cost!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Twitter is inherently flawed and unfair - and "Influencers" are ruining it

Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook are a few of the social media platforms that are frequented by the "Influencers." LinkedIn and Facebook have a more balanced approach than Twitter and Instagram. I am not a user of Instagram. So I will limit my focus to Twitter now.

Twitter is very light-weight. Anyone can join, in several capacities. This lead to companies such as Devumi selling fake followers - followers created with the help of bot applications in a significant amount.

Twitter, knowingly or unknowingly, has created a class hierarchy with its verification program. Any journalist, a public-facing person, an author, or an "influencer" can become verified, proving a significance or importance. All these definitions fall into a million shades of gray. 

Twitter intentionally has kept its platform with minimalist features. For example, you do not even know who unfollows. This is similar to Facebook. However, Facebook unfriend is different as it is two-way. When someone unfriends you, they also lose you. This is not the case for Twitter. You would not believe how many verified Twitter users with blue/white ticks follow you, and later unfollow you once you have followed them back. Many of us have blogged about this before. There are tools such as Fanbase that automates this ill practice, making it even easier.

For example -  see this amazing post by Matt Navarra: Twitter is being spoiled by one type of user

Consider a case you receive a follow from two of these Twitter users:
User A with "10 following and 20 followers."
User B with "5,000 following and 1.25 Million followers."

Who would you follow back?
If you are an innocent Twitter user such as the below kid, you will follow back the user B. After all, B has 1.25 Million followers, and he has chosen to follow you first. Such a humble person!

Fig 1. The innocent kid was followed by an "influencer" author with fame and money in his mind.

But you know what? He/she would unfollow you within a period (anywhere between a week, to a few months), once you have followed them back. Of course, they would unfollow you even if you did not follow them back - but that is fairer relatively.

This is more of a numbers game - the same play by the pickup artists (PUA). Follow 1000 users every day. 100 will follow back. Repeat. At some point, you will have anywhere around 10,000 - 1 million followers. Now you can continue your following game. But at the same, keep unfollowing at intervals. As you reach thousands of followers, the naive users will follow you back more when you follow them first. No one really notices that you unfollowed anyway.

Unfortunately, Twitter does not alert the unsuspecting Twitter user when someone unfollows. Of course, there are applications such as Tweepmaps. But not many are aware of it. Even those who are aware of it, do not know the economics behind this numbers game.

Jeff Emmerson, followed me when he had just 5000 followers. He continued his follow-and-unfollow loop to harvest 1.25 million followers, while "following" only a few thousands at any time. In Figure 1, he followed the kid first. The kid followed him back. But as usual, our Jeff Emmerson unfollowed the kid later.
Fig 2. How to become an "Influencer."

Anyone would question me. Why does this matter? Am I looking into a silly thing? Who cares - who follows me and unfollows me? Right? Wrong.

This is a power play and economics. Someone such as Jeff Emmerson who authored a book needs to show that he is indeed an influencer. When he followed me and around 9 of my connections, we followed him back since he looked genuine. But he was just promoting his upcoming book (probably his biography with some fiction. Did not read it). Then he also started to promote other brands. Each such promotional tweets with 1 million followers can be as expensive as 2,000 - 20,000 Euro! This is real money. You are just a number in this pool.

Fig 3. One of the advertisements, among many, for the same brand.

When I politely questioned Jeff Emmerson on this, all he did was just blocking me. Interestingly, I found at least another user having experienced the same!

Fig 4. Blocked by someone claiming to be a "mental health advocate!"
It is plain wrong. Someone claiming to be a mental health champion follows people with interest in mental health. Those posts on Twitter on tags such as #depression #mental #health #adhd #bipolar. Then unfollows them after they follow back. Very helpful, dear verified influencing best-selling author!

Well. To be fair, Jeff is not the only "influencer" that follow this pathetic Twitter loop. I found many. . did the same thing and blocked me when I found this.

CamMi Pham () is another interesting case. She followed me. I followed her back. She unfollowed me in a day or two! I unfollowed her back. She followed me back in a month or so. (It is hard to forget these people with the same profile picture and verification). :) Giving the benefit of doubt, I followed her back. She unfollowed me again within a week or so. I unfollowed her again, confirming that she indeed is a Twitter parasite. Guess what? She followed me again after some time. I did not follow-back. She unfollowed soon after. She did not follow me again yet. :P


Fig 5. CamMi Pham, the one who spams you with frequent follow-unfollow
As you see above, I am not the only one spammed by CamMi Pham's frequent follow-and-unfollow loops. :D

Fig 6. Some replies to CamMiPham

As you can see above in the replies, you can see some identifying her tactics of "bait and switch" or "follow to unfollow." However, Twitter hides these negative replies under "More replies" tag where they show up only if you click, once the profile owner (i.e., CamMiPham) hides them. So this works in favor of the owner of the profile.
Some other individuals following this shady practice are listed below. There are many. I did not trace everyone:


is not really an "influencer" per se. but a company with the same shady practice.
Twitter is taking notice of fake accounts and trying to shut them down. However, it does not seem to take any action against those who use the bots or manual malpractices to increase their follower count unethically. Even Twitter accounts such as Amitabh Bachchan, the most popular Bollywood actor, care about their follower count! :D

Fig 7. The Bollywood Veteran is not so happy about the loss of followers.
I asked myself, why would someone need to unfollow. Why can't they just follow people and keep following those accounts? At least, keep following the accounts that followed you back. Isn't that more ethical? After all, they did not know you before YOU followed them first. I found the answer from CamMi Pham's promotional webinar material.
Fig 8. The secret sauce of becoming an "influencer."
"Twitter followers:  963K.  Instagram followers:  66.5K.  That merely touches the iceberg of CamMI Pham’s global fan base.  How did she do it?  Join us Wednesday, February 7 from 11:00 a.m. Central time until 12:00 p.m. (noon) Central Time and listen to CamMI talk about “Dare to Be Bold!"

This is her business. She lives out of this. It is essential to show that she has a million followers - as in an idol.
Madonna has 2 million followers when she follows less than 50 accounts. Everyone knows and adores Madonna. But is that the case with these unknown "influencers"? These unknown influencers also want to be Madonna. So they must unfollow, even those accounts they followed first. It is also like the restaurants in the touristic area. It is a known scam. In some places, they populate the shop with their friends to look popular. Once you look popular, more crowd will follow. "Fake it till you make it," they say.

Regardless of several complaints, Twitter does not seem to improve at all. Just the way fake reviews ruin websites such as TripAdvisor, these influencers continue to ruin Twitter for everyone. I might consider leaving Twitter. But it still remains as the ideal platform to complain about a company or a politician. So for now, we have to live with Twitter, though it sucks.

In summary, next time if a "popular" user follows you out of nowhere, remember that they are just adding you to their affiliate marketing pool. No need to follow them back unless you know them already, or if you think their tweets are valuable to you.