United airlines versus Switzerland

Since my time in the US, I am a long-standing United airlines (actually Continental) customer. I enjoyed the service and especially the modern computer system. The transparency of United operations towards their customers is just years ahead of their competition. I simply enjoy viewing the seat map, upgrade standby list, boarding pass etc. in my app or online. The even nicer feature is to see where the next plane comes from and if it is still on schedule. Yes, I’m a geek but kudos United!

Well, now I live in Switzerland (ZRH as main airport) and sometimes catch myself considering to switch. My last flight was again one of these moments … let me elaborate.

I’m usually traveling on tight schedules (because I unfortunately travel too much). This means, my plane usually starts boarding when my train arrives in the station. The time to get to the gate is very deterministic. So far, I have done this for intra-European flights, and it works great! After United sent me this email about the online check-in and app, I thought I’ll try it for overseas as well – what can go wrong!?

Well, so I checked in using the app — worked great as expected. Then, I made my first mistake: I asked at the check-in to reconfirm if that would work (I was on a very tight time schedule and needed to get breakfast in the lounge, so I could not afford to go back and forth). Ok, they told me that I need to repeat (at least parts of) the check-in procedure. So this took forever, as usual, this is why I used the app check in in the first place. So far, overall, a time loss (needed to do both, app check in and counter check in …). Uff! Also, the personnal seemed unfriendly as usual, they’re not United reps after all and it seems they don’t care much about service or the perception of the airline in general.

Ok, at the end, I proceeded to ask if United managed to buy into the Panorama lounge so I cound get breakfast. This requires a bit of explanation: the international terminal E in ZRH has no SWISS lounge. United only cooperates with SWISS afaik, which operates a lounge in A. So all Staralliance member airlines BUT United buy into the Panorama lounge which seems to be somewhat independent. There are immigration and train between A and E, so no way to quickly change terminals. So I asked if United managed to buy into the E lounge, the person at check-in reconfirmed with the apparent lead and both agreed that I could, as a Staralliance Gold member with an Eco ticket use the E lounge now (this was after I explicitly told them that this did not used to be this way). Ok, great, so I minimize the risk of missing the plane which was boarding at that time.

When showing up at the E lounge, I was told that I was not allowed in. They even tried calling check-in or a United representative – nada, apparently all at the gate. So they called the gate and got the answer “the plane is already boarding, so send the customer down”. Well, I wonder if they have breakfast for me at the gate. Total fail United, total fail! The lounge desk personnel was not further willing to continue this discussion, so I went to the gate and asked about the situation.

First, somebody from swissport (the company that United hires for managing check-in etc.): I said I wanted to complain about their process. Apparently swissport doesn’t even have a mechanism to complain and they sent me to complain to United. Seriously, they do NOT have such a channel — well, this makes it just too obvious how much they care about the customer. Ok, finally, there was a United representative at check-in (first time I saw somebody from United at the ground in ZRH actually). So I explained my situation and got a “sorry, they must have made a mistake”. It was, like often, with this latent, one could call it arrogant, “well, maybe it’s your fault and you may not have understood what they really said/meant” sub-tone. Gaaaaaaaa! At this point, I was ready to go up any wall, and nearly lost my temper. I repeated that I clearly understood what they said (even what they discussed in German) and that it was a very simple question after all. Fail #2: don’t treat customers like idiots (at least check before if they are).

Ok, accepting this mess (the boarding process was coming to an end), I explained that my major problem with this is that I didn’t have breakfast. Immediately, they pointed me to the airport shop so I can go and buy a “Gipfeli”. Wow, you screw up and then you ask me to fix it myself — great cutomer care! I asked explicitly if they wouldn’t have some snack in the plane – I got a clear no (which we all know is false). Ok, so I bought my breakfast before running into the plane … wow. I mean, it’s really not about the $20 breakfast, but the total unwillingness to (1) accept that something went wrong on their side and (2) trying to fix it, even a little bit!

And then, I get into the plane and it’s like a different planet. As usual, everybody is friendly and helpful. The purser (who is now called “International Service Manager”) asked for feedback and I told him the story. He suggested to send the story (especially since the situation in ZRH is latently suboptimal) to United. I also got to talk to the United sales manager for Switzerland for quite a while. We had very interesting discussions and I even learned something, well, I’m glad I left the problems on the ground but I’m not really looking forward to checkin in to the next flight ;-).

One more somewhat riduculous issue in the context of United vs. Switzerland is that, sometimes, one has to use SWISS as a carrier (based on either route or time). United sells code-share tickets but really nothing seems to work between the two airlines. For example, there is no way that either SWISS or United can reserve a seat for such a flight. Yes, not even SWISS can! Sorry, what!? My secretary gave up after hours on the phone … so I’m not even looking forward to the return flight the day after tomorrow (probably 9 hours in a middle seat …). Gaaa! This seems to be the most effective way to get rid of frequent fliers. Thank you.

On the run to Baden

After probably the most stressful month that I have ever encountered (14 deadlines in five weeks, one really important one), I had to get out to do something fun. Well, I have only been to the alps three times since 2.5 years because it takes at least half a day, and I had to pick something more efficient this time as I don’t have too much time to spare. And living in Switzerland has the advantage that it’s likely that something nice it at your doorsteps :-). The decision was to run with a friend from Urdorf to Baden. Google maps says 14 kms, so it cannot be that bad (we guessed maximum 2 hours). Well, we didn’t calculate for the crazy paths in the woods and hills — it was far from straight and we ended up running 22.1 kms total.

Our route … many times, we had to back-track due to dead-ends. It didn’t help that the GPS in the cheap Android phone only worked for 30 minutes :-(.

Well, 22 kms seems like absolutely no problem but it was a total ascend of 2055 meters over nearly 8 kms followed by about the same descent also on 8 kms. So only 6 kms were flat. That was the tough part. The diagram shows the elevation, the axis is around 200 m.

Below some impressions of the snowy hills. It was around -3 degrees Celsius, but didn’t feel cold at all!

After one hour running, the promised sun shows up (kudos MeteoSwiss). The tracks were tough, all frozen snow, we fell both :-).

View from the first break, nice!

Most Swiss bunkers had nice icicles, makes a good defense I guess.

More steep paths … uff, many iced with abysses :-).

Finally in Baden (it was not easy to find with the broken GPS). And one last uprising to the old castle.

The remains of the old castle.

The view into the valley with the train station.

11 SPCL@ETH activities at SC14

The Intl. Supercomputing (SC) conference is clearly the main event in HPC. It’s program is broad and more than 10k people attend annually. SPCL is mainly focused on the technical program which makes SC the top-tier conference in HPC. It is the main conference of a major ACM SIG (SIGHPC).

This year, SPCL members co-authored three technical papers in the very competitive program with several thousand attendees! One was even nominated for the best paper award — and to take it upfront, we got it! Congrats Maciej! All talks were very well attended (more than 100 people in the room).

All of these talks were presented by collaborators, so I was hoping to be off the hook. Well, not quite, because I gave seven (7!) invited talks at various events and participated in teaching a full-day tutorial on advanced MPI. The highlight was a keynote at the LLVM workshop. I was also running around all the time because I co-organized the overall workshop program (with several thousand attendees) at SC14.

So let me share my experience of all these exciting events in chronological order!

1) Sunday: IA3 Workshop on Irregular Applications: Architectures & Algorithms

This workshop was very nice. Kicked off by top-class keynotes from Onur Mutlu (CMU) and Keshav Pingali (UT) through great paper talks and a panel in the afternoon. I served on the panel with some top-class people and it was a lot of fun!

Giving my panel presentation on accelerators for graph computing.

Arguing during the panel discussion (Hadoop right now) with (left to right): Keshav Pingali (UT Austin), John Shalf (Berkeley), me (ETH), Clayton Chandler (DOD), Benoit Dupont de Dinechin (Kalray), Onur Mutlu (CMU, Maya Gokhale (LLNL). A rather argumentative group :-).

My slides can be found here.

2) Monday – LLVM Workshop

It was long overdue to discuss the use of LLVM in the context of HPC. So thanks to Hal Finkel and Jeff Hammond for organizing this fantastic workshop! I kicked it off with some considerations about runtime-recompilation and how to improve codes.

The volunteers counted around 80 attendees in the room! Not too bad for a workshop. My slides on “A case for runtime recompilation in HPC” are here.

3) Monday – Advanced MPI Tutorial

Our tutorial attendee numbers keep growing! More than 67 people registered but it felt like more were showing up for the tutorial. We also released the new MPI books, especially the “Using Advanced MPI” book which shortly after became the top new release on Amazon in the parallel processing category.

4) Tuesday – Graph 500 BoF

There, I released the fourth Green Graph 500 list. Not much new happened on the list (same as for the Top500 and Graph500) but the BoF
was still fun! Peter Kogge presented some interesting views on the data of the list. My slides can be found here.

5) Tuesday – LLVM BoF

Concurrently with the Graph 500 BoF was the LLVM BoF, so I had to speak at both at the same time. Well, that didn’t go too well (I’m still only one person — apologies to Jim). I only made 20% of this BoF but it was great! Again, very good turnout, LLVM is certainly becoming more important every year. My slides are here.

6) Tuesday – Simulation BoF

There are many simulators in HPC! Often for different purposes but also sometimes for similar ones. We discussed how to collaborate and focus our efforts better. I represented LogGOPSim, SPCL’s discrete event simulator for parallel applications.

My talk summarized features and achievements and slides can be found here.

7) Tuesday – Paper Talk “Slim Fly: A Cost Effective Low-Diameter Network Topology”

Our paper was up for Best Student Paper and Maciej did a great job presenting it. But no need to explain, go and read it here!

Maciej presenting the paper! Well done.

8) Wednesday – PADAL BoF – Programming Abstractions for Data Locality

Programming has to become more data-centric as architectures evolve. This BoF followed an earlier workshop in Lugano on the same topic. It was great — no slides this time, just an open discussion! I hope I didn’t upset David Padua :-).

Didem Unat moderated and the panelists were — Paul Kelly (Imperial), Brad Chamberlain (Cray), Naoya Maruyama (TiTech), David Padua (UIUC), me (ETH), Michael Garland (NVIDIA). It was a truly lively BoF :-).

But hey, I just got it in writing from the Swiss that I’m not qualified to talk about this topic — bummer!

The room was packed and the participation was great. We didn’t get to the third question! I loved the education question, we need to change the way we teach parallel computing.

9) Wednesday – Paper Talk “Understanding the Effects of Communication and Coordination on Checkpointing at Scale”

Kurt Ferreira, a collaborator from Sandia was speaking on unexpected overheads of uncoordinated checkpointing analyzed using LogGOPSim (it’s a cool name!!). Go read the paper if you want to know more!

Kurt speaking.

10) Thursday – Paper Talk “Fail-in-Place Network Design: Interaction between Topology, Routing Algorithm and Failures”

Presented by Jens Domke, a collaborator from Tokyo Tech (now at TU Dresden). A nice analysis of what happens to a network when links or routers fail. Read about it here.

Jens speaking.

11) Thursday – Award Ceremony

Yes, somewhat unexpectedly, we go the best student paper award. The second major technical award in a row for SPCL (after last year’s best paper).

Happy :-).

Coverage by Michele @ HPC-CH and Rich @ insideHPC.

EuroMPI 2013 & Best Paper Award

EuroMPI is a very nice conference for the specialized sub-field MPI, namely the Message Passing Interface. I’m a long-term attendee since I’m working much on MPI and also standardization. We had a little more than 100 attendees this year in Madrid and the organization was just outstanding!

We were listening to 25 paper talks and five invited talks around MPI. For example Jesper Traeff, who discussed how to generalize datatypes towards collective operations:

Or Rajeev Thakur, who explained how we get to Exascale and that MPI is essentially ready:

Besides the many great talks, we also had some fun, like the city walking tour organized by the conference

the evening reception, a very nice networking event

or more networking in the Retiro park

followed by the traditional dinner.

On the last day, SPCL’s Timo Schneider presented our award-winning paper on runtime compilation for MPI datatypes

with a provocative start (there were many vendors in the room 🙂

but an agreeing end.

The award ceremony followed right after the talk.

The conference was later closed by the announcement of next year, when EuroMPI will move to Japan (for the first time outside of Europe).

After all, a very nice conference! Kudos to the organizers.

The one weird thing about Madrid though … I got hit in the face by a random woman in the subway on my way back. Looks like she claimed I had stolen her seat (not sure why/how that happened and many other seats were empty) but she didn’t speak English and kept swearing at me. Weird people! 🙂

Alps view

Since I’m living slightly north of Zurich, nobody believes me when I’m claiming that I can see the alps from my bed. But well, it’s true. I have to admit that they’re rather small and about 60 kms away but I can indeed look right into the center of the alps! The valley between Altholz and Buechholz (which is full of great mushrooms) is nicely aligned and enables the view.

Here a coarse map:

and a finer one:
(credits: Google maps)

The two visible mountains are Gross Ruchen and Gross Windgaellen. Well, they’re visible every two weeks, when the weather is good :-). I’ll see of I can take a picture next time.


Moving to Switzerland – Part 1

Oh well … the move comes closer. It’s actually much easier to move within the US (surprise!). The first part was packing everything (check!). I left nine bags of stuff (including my weightlifting set :-)) readily packed to check them into a plane at a friend’s house (thanks Cristina!). All bulkier and lighter items are in the trunk of my car (including the TV, the bar of the bar bell and other random stuff.

The highlight so far was the pickup of the car. The car is shipped with Schumacher Logistics. Everything went fine so far and the people are really nice. The trucker showed up a day early, which was fine, because I just returned from Germany (well, a looong day). He drove a gigantic truck and got lost in Champaign (he drove around while talking to me on the phone, dude …). So finally, he made it on Springfield and didn’t want to drive down the street to not scratch the cars on his truck with the trees (oh well, he had to back up). But that went well.

This middle-lane in the US is actually really useful, for example, for loading cars :-). Here are some pictures:

The truck – a seven-car carrier! Ridiculously huge.

Two cars already loaded when he came.

Inspecting our car for ridiculously small scratches. Man, this guy found all kinds of super-small scratches all over. Hope nothing more happens …

Ok, first try to load :-). I told him it wouldn’t fit …

Well, yeah, it didn’t fit (surprise). 🙂

Ok, 2nd try, lower deck. I was assuming he drives it into the middle … but …

He kinda stopped at the very end!? Oh well, I’m not a shipping pro.

The car was strapped to the truck with gigantic chains (the tires showed serious signs of pressure …).

I hope there are no bumpy streets, the distance between street and exhaust was not that great …

And there he goes … hoping for the best!

I’ll keep you posted!

Arrived in Japan and the Earth quaked immediately

In part two of my crazy travel (Champaign -> Zurich -> Lugano -> Zurich -> Tsukuba, Japan -> Zurich -> Champaign), I arrived in Japan. The flight was great, I love Turkish airlines! The bus was not so great (especially the very suboptimal schedule).

I am staying in Hotel Shinonome, where I stayed before (last time in 2008) and I like it very much. It’s somewhat hard to communicate with the staff (hand-wavy sign language helps a lot, but the biggest challenge was to ask for the wireless password — anyone knows sign language for that?? :-)).

During my first night, Tsukuba was hit by a 5.3 earthquake, which is not too bad but it was enough to wake me up and make my lamp fall from the table. When I first woke up I thought I was in the plane and turbulence started (I spent the night before in a rather turbulent flight :-)). Was an interesting experience, especially on the 9th floor!


I’m now awaiting the last day of the MPI Forum and will then present my talk at Tokyotech and finally go on my way home on Friday! Hope the bus at 7:00am actually comes (they have a strange reservation system).

Advanced MPI-2.2 and MPI-3.0 Tutorial in Lugano

I gave my first tutorial about advanced MPI-2.2 usage and the upcoming MPI-3.0 standard in Lugano this week. Even though it was a lot of work to prepare the slides and especially the hands-on exercises, I have to say that it was a lot of fun. The user interaction was great and I learned a lot about how (Swiss) applications use MPI and what is required from future interfaces. The people at CSCS are also exceptionally nice and I very much enjoyed dinner with some!

The agenda and the slides of the tutorial are available on my tutorial website for this course. CSCS recorded everything and there may be a slide-cast soon.

The hands-on experience was also great! I was not expecting that so many folks would complete the exercises. I also realized that some things are somewhat non-intuitive in MPI. A good learning experience for me!

I’m looking forward to present more of those tutorials! If you missed the one in Lugano, I will present a slightly shorter version of the same tutorial with Martin Schulz at ISC’12.

My time in Lugano was also great, it’s just such a beautiful place:

And the train ride back to Zurich was also wonderful. Some impressions:

An SC11 story – walking by OccupySeattle and Space Needle …

A couple of days ago was one of those nights where I went back from the parties to my (slightly remote) hotel. I was passing OccupySeattle every day … but this time it was full of police. The funniest part was that the cops told me to leave while I was just walking by … I mean, seriously, I didn’t even stop. Actually, they stopped me in order to tell me to leave. I didn’t think it was worth mentioning until I saw this. I think the whole movement is really fed by such stories in a very grim way.

The movement is interesting and the Seattle one is especially noteworthy since the weather is really bad.

Well, well … very strange. Btw., the conference was absolutely great! Well, it was a bit too small (crowded) and the Party in the Space Needle was rather disastrous (reminded me a bit of the SC08 Texas thing without food). It was the opposite though this time — there was a lot of excellent food and drinks, but there was simply no space to stand. And getting up the needle was a 1-hour effort, well, Jim and I found a secret shortcut ;-). Here is the proof:


SC11 is over now! And we even had a 1.5 hours break before SC12 started for the committee :-). It was a great show, bigger, better everything. ~5k people in the technical program and ~12k total.

PS: I know that Mount Rainier and the Space Needle can not fit on a picture like this … it’s called artistic freedom!

Lufthansa, the worst airline ever (at least in Star Alliance)

I really need to put a sign on my desk that says: “Don’t ever fly Lufthansa again, they will rip you off for sure.”


Well, I did it again, I booked a Lufthansa flight to save a university that invited me about 1.000 dollars. Well well, now I regret it painfully (again). It’s incredible how bad this can be. Well, first the airport in Zurich, no signs to Lufthansa whatsoever. You have to guess that it’s in check in area 1, which is, by the way, at the furthest point of the airport. Ok, fine, the airport can be improved (I will fill out a feedback form). But then you realize while standing in the first class line at the Lufthansa counter (I have Star Alliance Platinum status now) that the woman who entered the economy lane five minutes after me was already walking to gate … well, clearly, if there are 9 open counters in economy and one in first class (four more were not manned) it will be slower. Fine.

I was also missing mileage credit for a flight to the US and Lufthansa did not reply to any of the three emais I sent them in the last month :-(. Well, so I decided to go to the ticket-desk to ask about missing miles for a past flight to the US. After a long discussion, I learned that United sold me a class K ticket (which was mentioned nowhere). And apparently only Miles&More customers get 50% miles to fly in this class and other Star Alliance customers (e.g., US) get nothing. Great, I just lost more than 5000 qualifying miles! Well, I wanted to get at least the 50% mileage credit on my Miles&More account, but guess what? When I checked in as a US customer, I lost this chance!? Oh well, I was actually careful while booking this ticket because I already lost 50% mileage credit before. This is why I booked a United flight … but yeah, it was operated by Lufthansa! How much I hate this airline now…

And it’s getting better. I am sitting right next to the toilet in nearly the last row (57) here because they didn’t bother to check me in with a reasonable seat (keep in mind that I checked in at the first class counter and asked repeatedly for a better seat).

Also, they threw me out of the lounge 60 minutes before the flight departed to allow for additional US securiy screening. Well, fine, not their fault. But when I arrived at the gate, Lufthansa employees directed me to bypass the additional security directly to the gate (with all those dangerous liquids in my luggage 🙂 ). When I asked if this is some kind of extra priority lane, I was told “we don’t talk about this”. I am seriously wondering what the US TSA would think about this. For the record, this was LH 434 departing from Gate H08 in Munich to Chicago. Well, I was now standing 30 minutes at the silly gate (additional seat-change requests were not successful).

I am wondering what happens next. My only advice is now: just don’t fly Lufthansa.