Saturday, June 30, 2007

On my way again

KLM Fokker 70Yes, the airplane is here for a reason. I'm writing this post from the DAN lounge at Ben Gurion airport (TLV). I'm flying to Frankfurt via Amsterdam, and then wait to join my colleagues in a taxi to Dagstuhl, Germany. There, I plan to attend a Dagstuhl seminar titled "Computational Social Systems and the Internet". My talk on Personalized Ranking Systems will be given tomorrow afternoon.

So, why am I flying via Amsterdam when EL-AL and Lufthansa each operate two direct flights on this flight daily? The reason is of course miles. I am a frequent flyer of KLM and thus prefer to earn KLM frequent flyer miles instead of Lufthansa's.

That's all for now. Next update from Dagstuhl itself, on their free wifi and wired network.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Moving Servers

Server MoveAs many of you know, I host my own server with domain name What many of you do not know, is that this server is hosted in my dorm room at the Technion. As part of the process of leaving the Technion and moving to Stanford I need to move this server as well, and this is not an easy task.

Dedicated server hosting, which is comparable to what I have now costs an arm and a leg. The cheapest hosting I could find is in the order of $30/month. Therefore, I decided to go with a web hosting service. After doing a brief survey, I signed up with For less than $100/year, I get all the bandwidth and disk space I need, plus a free domain name.

I registered the domain and have already moved this blog there (please tell me if there are any problems). I'll soon start copying all the contents of my website to the new server, one service at a time.

I expect to leave the dorms around late July - early August. By then, most of the primary services should already be hosted on the new server. There should be no change in the URLs.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Punalu’u black sand beach

Here is a photo I took at Punalu’u black sand beach, where I met Shira (this photo also courtesy of my camera phone, click to enlarge):

Punalu’u black sand beach


My examiner committee has finally been approved, so I can now finally submit the five copies I have previously made. Now all I need to do is pass the final exam on August 2nd and submit some more forms and the final copies of thesis and I'm done!

PhD comics: Thesis Submission

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

Submission. That's an interesting word. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as:

Submission. n.

    1. The act of submitting to the power of another.

    2. The state of having submitted.

  1. The state of being submissive or compliant; meekness.

  2. The act of submitting something for consideration.

Am I relinquishing power or being meek and compliant by handing in my thesis? Does Nature (or the examiner committee as an agent thereof) have control of my future? Or am I thinking too much?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

BISFAI day 2 - Ironic Lunch

Friday was the second day of BISFAI. I woke up at 6:45 AM(!) and took the 618 "direct" bus to Bar-Ilan University. I arrived at the conference venue at 8:30. This day the talks were about subjects much more relevant to me - Multi-Agent systems and Game Theory.

Some of the talks were very interesting. In others, I could not avoid falling asleep. There was one talk about incentive-compatible routing that I really liked.

As Bar-Ilan is a religious university, in lunch they could not serve meat. Thus, they served a vegetarian lunch. What was interesting and funny was the fact that this vegetarian lunch was served right besides posters in favor of animal experimentation!

Lunch at BISFAIAnimal Research Poster

After the conference I found that only one person was driving back to Haifa, so I took a ride with him and then was picked up by my brother (not the one from yesterday) to the Technion and then home.

Monday, June 25, 2007

BISFAI day 1 - Jet lagged

Brain Research CenterThe Bar-Ilan Symposium on the Foundations of Artificial Intelligence was last Wednesday - Friday at Bar Ilan University. I arrived at Bar Ilan right after my visa interview. As I noticed I arrived on time only for the lunch break, I decided to go and grab some lunch and meet with an online friend of mine who studies Biology at BIU.

After this very short but fun meeting, I made way to the main conference venue - the new Brain Research Center at BIU. The afternoon sessions were about Planning and Modeling, which are not my field of research. Moreover, I had trouble staying awake due to the early wake-up hours. So, I spent most of the time outside socializing with other people in the field. Many of them I have never met in Israel before, even though they were all Israelis.

I had a paper in the conference, which was presented by co-author -- Avivit. I missed the presentation, but I heard from others that it went well.

After the conference day ended, I took a bus to Azrieli Center in order to meet with my brother and his wife and play video games. I arrived one hour early and looked for something to do, but all I could find were stores who sell clothes or food. So, I sat down on a bench and continued correcting Avivit's paper.

When they finally arrived, we played many video games at the center and finally returned to their home in Hertzeliya to go to sleep for the second day of the conference.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Visa, Mastercard, American Express

Visa, Mastercard, American ExpressContrary to what you may think, this post is not about credit cards. It's about the process of obtaining a United States J-1 (Exchange Visitor) visa.

So, my story begins at 8:00 in the morning on Thursday when I wake up. I take the train to Tel Aviv and a bus to the US Embassy, the only US Consulate in Israel. In the embassy I wait in line (line - not queue - this is the American embassy...) for about half an hour and submit all my forms for inspection including my all so precious DS-2019 and SEVIS fee confirmation. They quickly check the forms, and I'm on my way to the next step - fingerprinting.

In America, foreigners don't have privacy rights, and this includes the requirement to surrender your fingerprints. They had to scan me again even though they already had my fingerprints in the system from my previous visa request. The next step is the visa interview.

According to what it says on the embassy website, you need to bring lots of documents to the interview: Salary slips, student permits, and proof that you have ties to Israel. Well, I did bring all that, but the only thing the consul looked at was my invitation letter from Stanford, and specifically on the paragraph saying how much they're going to pay. After this very short interview my visa was confirmed, but I had to leave my passport and all forms behind.

The last step of the process was to pay to have my passport and DS-2019 mailed to be by courier. I payed the 33.50 NIS (US$8) fee by MasterCard, and off I went. The whole process took less than an hour. This is what I call American Express...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

My thesis: Almost ready to submit

My ThesisHere it is! Five copies of my PhD thesis (or disseratation), all bound and ready to submit. I applogize for the low quality of the image, as it was taken with my camera phone. The table is not even wooden.

Now I am only waiting till my examiner board is approved and I can submit my thesis. After that, I need to pass the exam and perform my final submission, and then you can call me Doctor Altman.

Tomorrow would be a long day, I'm getting my J-1 US visa and attending a local AI Conference. Expect updates later this week.

So, why do you need Gold/Platinum?

I promised a post about gaining levels, so here it comes.

Elite Status gives the frequent flyer several advantages. The first advantage is more miles, in Platinum status I get two miles for every mile I've flown. Just to put that into perspective, in Platinum level for every flight from Israel to the US west coast you get a free flight from Israel to Europe (30,000 miles). And for two such flights you can get another flight to anywhere in the US.

The second important bonus is access to lounges. From Gold level onwards you get free access to airline lounges of all SkyTeam partners.

The third bonus is free upgrades. When a flight is overbooked in Economy class, the airlines upgrade some passengers to Business class. These upgrades are usually given based on frequent flyer level.

So, some info about myself. Here's my plan for this year:

MonthFlight (click for map)Status MilesAward Miles
JanuaryTel Aviv - Hyderabad via Amsterdam13,27619,914
AprilTel Aviv - Frankfurt; Stuttgart - Amsterdam - Tel Aviv (Award ticket ELAL + KLM)none- 5,000
MayTel Aviv - Honolulu via Amsterdam, San Francisco, Newark, and Paris20,54530,817
MayHonolulu - Hilo (not Skyteam)nonenone
JulyTel Aviv - Frankfurt via Amsterdam5,6068,410
AugustTel Aviv - Istanbul direct (not SkyTeam)nonenone
SeptemberTel Aviv - San Francisco via Amsterdam (one way)7,51311,269
OctoberSan Francisco - Frankfurt via Houston, Amsterdam and Newark13,83124,204
Previous Balance/LevelSilver45,230
New Balance/LevelGold134,844

Monday, June 18, 2007

Miles and More

The title of this post is the name of Lufthansa' s frequent flyer program, but the post is about my quest for miles in general. The purpose of this post is to try and explain what these miles are and why and how I collect them.

First of all, for those of you who think I'm crazy, or want to join me, I suggest visiting FlyerTalk - The world's leading frequent flyer community.

In this post, I'm going to focus on the frequent flyer program I'm enrolled in - KLM/Air France Flying Blue.

The basic idea is simple: Whenever you fly with the airline or their partners you get miles based on distance flown, which you can then redeem for free tickets based on zones in the world. There also status miles which are reset every year and let you gain Elite levels if you pass some threshold.

Optimizing for miles means many things. First, it means planning all your flights on one alliance of airlines, in my case SkyTeam, which covers three US airlines (Delta, Continental, Northwest) and many European airlines (KLM, Air France, Czech Airlines, Alitalia, etc.). Second, you must make sure your flight gives you 100% mileage, as some cheap flights only give 25%. Third, you can plan your itinerary in order to maximize your mileage, without compromising cost.

For example, if I need to fly from San Francisco (SFO) to Frankfurt (FRA), I can fly direct with Lufthansa, and gain 5,700 miles on Lufthansa one way:


I can fly via Newark (EWR) on Continental and get 6,434 flying blue miles:


or I can add another free connection in Houston and get 6,904 miles:


I am going to pick this last path, mostly because this way I will qualify for Platinum level, which requires 60,000 miles per year. More on levels in a later post.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Air France Replies

In a previous post I wrote about the disservice I had on board an Air France flight. I have recently received the following letter in reply (Scanned image of the letter):

Your letter was transmitted to us by the by the Flying Blue Service. Thank you for having taken the time to write to us, thus giving us the occasion to communicate with you. We welcome feedback from our passengers, as we realize that this is our best means to maintain, and whenever necessary, improve the quality of our service.

We are sorry to learn that you were dissatisfied with the conditions during your flight from Paris to Tel Aviv, on 22/05/07. l fully understand your displeasure, and wish to apologize on behalf of Air France. We try to satisfy the passenger's seat requests. but we cannot guarantee them. l regret the Exit seat couldn't be assigned to you for safety reasons.

Furthermore, we do our utmost to insure the all-round professionalism of Air France cabin crews throughout their career. Your cabin crew is required to speak three languages, including English and french. We are generally proud of the professionalism af Air france personnel. I am sorry that on this occasion the service you received was not up to standard.

I do hope that you will afford us another opportunity to serve you to your entire satisfaction.

Yours sincerely,

Customer Relations Officer

No miles were credited to my account. I'm not sure if I'm going to take this futher.

Friday, June 15, 2007

My future, all layed out

I guess most of you know that I am going to Stanford for my post-doc. This has become much more real now that I have a detailed plan for the next few months.

On June 21st I'm getting my J-1 visa. By the end of June I submit my now complete thesis. On the first week of July I go to Dastuhl, Germany for a seminar. On August 2nd at 12:00 noon I take my PhD exam, and the next day fly to the European Debating Championships in Istanbul, returning on August 12. By the end of August (or maybe July) I leave my dorm room, and by September I finish all my dealings with the Technion and get a certificate confirming my Ph.D. Then on September 17th I fly to Stanford. And then the world ends.

I have no real plan for afterwards. All I know is I would have to look for housing. I don't even know where I'll stay for the first day. I have never rented an apartment in my life, and now I have to do it all alone in a strange country. I'm scared.