Even more short reviews of books I’ve read in 2014

I’m not sure whether I’ll make it a permanent fixture for years to come, but, for now, here’s another set of book suggestions, following those on books on (South) Africa from 2011, some more and also general read in 2012, and even more fiction & non-fiction book suggestions from 2013. If nothing else, it’s actually a nice way to myself to recall the books’ contents and decide which ones are worthwhile mentioning here, for better or worse. To summarise the books I’ve read in 2014 in a little animated gif:

(saved last year from daskapital.nl)

(saved last year from daskapital.nl)

Let me start with fiction books this time, which includes two books/authors suggested by blog readers. (note: most book and author hyperlinks are to online bookstores and wikipedia or similar, unless I could find their home page)


Stoner by John Williams (1965). This was a recommendation by a old friend (more precisely on the ‘old’: she’s about as young as I am, but we go way back to kindergarten), and the book was great. If you haven’t heard about it yet: it tells the life of a professor coming from a humble background and dying in relative anonymity, in a way of the ups and downs of the life of an average ‘Joe Soap’, without any heroic achievements (assuming that you don’t count becoming a professor one). That may sound dull, perhaps, but it isn’t, not least in the way it is narrated, which gives a certain beauty to the mundane. I’ll admit I have read it in its Dutch translation, even in dwarsligger format (which appeared to be a useful invention), as I couldn’t find the book in the shops here, but better in translated form than not having read it at all. There’s more information over at wikipedia, the NYT’s review, the Guardian’s review, and many other places.

Not a fairy tale by Shaida Kazie Ali (2010). The book is fairly short, but many things happen nevertheless in this fast-paced story of two sisters who grow up in Cape Town in a Muslim-Indian family. The sisters have very different characters—one demure, the other willful and more adventurous—and both life stories are told in short chapters that cover the main events in their lives, including several same events from each one’s vantage point. As the title says, it’s not a fairy tale, and certainly the events are not all happy ones. Notwithstanding its occasional grim undertones, to me, it is told in a way to give a fascinating ‘peek into the kitchen’ of how people live in this society across the decennia. Sure, it is a work of fiction, but there are enough recognizable aspects that give the impression that it could have been pieced together from actual events from different lives. The story is interspersed with recipes—burfi, dhania chutney, coke float, falooda milkshake, masala tea, and more—which gives the book a reminiscence of como agua para chocolate. I haven’t tried them all, but if nothing else, now at least I know what a packet labelled ‘falooda’ is when I’m in the supermarket.

No time like the present, by Nadine Gordimer (2012). Not necessarily this particular book, but ‘well, anything by Gordimer’ was recommended. There were so few of Gordimer’s books in the shops here, that I had to go abroad to encounter a selection, including this recent one. I should have read some online reviews of it first, rather than spoiling myself with such an impulse buy, though. This book is so bad that I didn’t even finish it, nor do I want to finish reading it. While the storyline did sound interesting enough—about a ‘mixed race couple’ from the struggle times transitioning into the present-day South Africa, and how they come to terms with trying to live normal lives—the English was so bad it’s unbelievable this has made it through any editorial checks by the publisher. It’s replete with grammatically incoherent and incomplete sentences that makes it just unreadable. (There are other reviews online that are less negative)

The time machine, by HG Wells (1895). It is the first work of fiction that considers time travel, the possible time anomalies when time travelling, and to ponder what a future society may be like from the viewpoint of the traveller. It’s one of those sweet little books that are short but has a lot of story in it. Anyone who likes this genre ought to read this book.

One thousand and one nights, by Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011). Yes, what you may expect from the title. The beginning and end are about how Scheherazade (Shahrazad) ended up telling stories to King Shahrayar all night, and the largest part of the book is devoted to story within a story within another story etc., weaving a complex web of tales from across the Arab empire so that the king would spare her for another day, wishing to know how the story ends. The stories are lovely and captivating, and also I kept on reading, indeed wanting to know how the stories end.

Karma Suture, by Rosamund Kendall (2008). Because I liked the Angina Monologues by the same author (earlier review), I’ve even read that book for a second time already, and Karma Suture is also about medics in South Africa’s hospitals, I thought this one would be likable, too. The protagonist is a young medical doctor in a Cape Town hospital who lost the will to do that work and needs to find her vibe. The story was a bit depressing, but maybe that’s what 20-something South African women go through.

God’s spy by Juan Gómez-Jurado (2007) (espía de dios; spanish original). A ‘holiday book’ that’s fun, if that can be an appropriate adjective for a story about a serial killer murdering cardinals before the conclave after Pope John Paul’s death. It has recognizable Italian scenes, the human interaction component is worked out reasonably well, it has good twists and turns and suspense-building required for a crime novel, and an plot you won’t expect. (also on goodreads—it was a bestseller in Spain)


This year’s non-fiction selection is as short as the other years, but I have less to say about them cf. last year.

David and Goliath—Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants, by Malcolm Gladwell (2013). What to say: yay! another book by Gladwell, and, like the others I read by Gladwell (Outliers, The tipping point), also this one is good. Gladwell takes a closer look at how seemingly underdogs are victorious against formidable opponents. Also in this case, there’s more to it than meets the eye (or some stupid USA Hollywood movie storyline of ‘winning against the odds’), such as playing by different rules/strategy than the seemingly formidable opponent does. The book is divided into three parts, on the advantages of disadvantages, the theory of desirable difficulty, and the limits of power, and, as with the other books, explores various narratives and facts. One of those remarkable observations is that, for universities in the USA at least, a good student is better off at a good university than at a top university. This for pure psychological reasons—it feels better to be the top of an average/good class than the average mutt in a top class—and that the top of a class gets more attention for nice side activities, so that the good student at a good (vs top) university gets more useful learning opportunities than s/he would have gotten at a top university. Taking another example from education: a ‘big’ class at school (well, just some 30) is better than a small (15) one, for it give more “allies in the adventures of learning”.

The dictator’s learning curve by William J. Dobson (2013), or: some suggestions for today’s anti-government activists. It’s mediocre, one of those books where the cover makes it sound more interesting than it is. The claimed thesis is that dictators have become more sophisticated in oppression by giving it a democratic veneer. This may be true at least in part, and in the sense there is a continuum from autocracy (tyranny, as Dobson labels it in the subtitle) to democracy. To highlight that notion has some value. However, it’s written from a very USA-centric viewpoint, so essentially it’s just highbrow propaganda for dubious USA foreign policy with its covert interventions not to be nice to countries such as Russia, China, and Venezuela—and to ‘justifiably’ undercut whatever plans they have through supporting opposition activists. Interwoven in the dictator’s learning curve storyline is his personal account of experiencing that there is more information sharing—and how—about strategy and tactics among activists across countries on how to foment dissent for another colour/flower-revolution. I was expecting some depth about autocracy-democracy spiced up with pop-politics and events, but it did not live up to that expectation. A more academic, and less ideologically tainted, treatise on the continuum autocracy-democracy would have been a more useful way of spending my time. You may find the longer PS Mag review useful before/instead of buying the book.

Umkhonto weSizewe (pocket history) by Janet Cherry (2011). There are more voluminous books about the armed organisation of the struggle against Apartheid, but this booklet was a useful introduction to it. It describes the various ‘stages’ of MK, from deciding to take up arms to the end to lay them down, and the successes and challenges that were faced and sacrifices made as an organisation and by its members.

I’m still not finished reading Orientalism by Edward Said—some day, I will, and will write about it. If you want to know about it now already, then go to your favourite search engine and have a look at the many reviews and (academic and non-academic) analyses. Reading A dream deferred (another suggestion) is still in the planning.


Moral responsibility in the Computing era (SEP entry)

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy intermittently has new entries that have to do with computing, like on the philosophy of computer science about which I blogged before, ethics of, among others, Internet research, and now Computing and Moral Responsibility by Merel Noorman [1]. The remainder of this post is about the latter entry that was added on July 18, 2012. Overall, the entry is fine, but I had expected more from it, which may well be due to that the ‘computing and moral responsibility’ topic needs some more work to mature and then maybe will give me the answers I was hoping to find already.

Computing—be this the hardware, firmware, software, or IT themes—interferes with the general notion of moral responsibility, hence, affects every ICT user at least to some extent, and the computer scientists, programmers etc who develop the artifacts may themselves be morally responsible, and perhaps even the produced artifacts, too. This area of philosophical inquiry deals with questions such as “Who is accountable when electronic records are lost or when they contain errors? To what extent and for what period of time are developers of computer technologies accountable for untoward consequences of their products? And as computer technologies become more complex and behave increasingly autonomous can or should humans still be held responsible for the behavior of these technologies?”. To this end, the entry has three main sections, covering moral responsibility, the question whether computers can be more agents, and the notion of (and the need for) rethinking the concept of moral responsibility.

First, it reiterates the general stuff about moral responsibility without the computing dimension, like that it has to do with the actions of humans and its consequences: “generally speaking, a person or group of people is morally responsible when their voluntary actions have morally significant outcomes that would make it appropriate to praise or blame them”, where the SEP entry dwells primarily on the blaming. Philosophers roughly agree that the following three conditions have to be met regarding being morally responsible (copied from the entry):

 1. There should be a causal connection between the person and the outcome of actions. A person is usually only held responsible if she had some control over the outcome of events.

2. The subject has to have knowledge of and be able to consider the possible consequences of her actions. We tend to excuse someone from blame if they could not have known that their actions would lead to a harmful event.

3. The subject has to be able to freely choose to act in certain way. That is, it does not make sense to hold someone responsible for a harmful event if her actions were completely determined by outside forces.

But how are these to be applied? Few case examples of the difficulty to apply it in praxis are given; e.g., the malfunctioning Therac-25 radiation machine (three people died caused by overdoses of radiation, primarily due to issues regarding the software), the Aegis software system that misidentified an Iranian civilian aircraft in 1988 as an attacking military aircraft and the US military decided to shoot it down (contrary to two other systems that had identified it correctly) and having killed all 209 passengers on board, the software to manage remote-controlled drones, and perhaps even the ‘filter bubble’. Who is to blame, if at all? These examples, and others I can easily think of, are vastly different scenarios, but they have not been identified, categorized, and treated as such. But if we do, then perhaps at least some general patters can emerge and even rules regarding moral responsibility in the context of computing. Here’s my initial list of different kinds of cases:

  1. The hardware/software was intended for purpose X but is used for purpose Y, with X not being inherently harmful, whereas Y is; e.g., the technology of an internet filter for preventing kids to access adult-material sites is used to make a blacklist of sites that do not support government policy and subsequently the users vote for harmful policies, or, as simpler one: using mobile phones to detonate bombs.
  2. The hardware/software is designed for malicious intents; ranging from so-called cyber warfare (e.g., certain computer viruses, denial-of-service attacks) to computing for physical war to developing and using shadow-accounting software for tax evasion.
  3. The hardware/software has errors (‘bugs’):
    1. The specification was wrong with respect to the intentionally understated or mis-formulated intentions, and the error is simply a knock-on effect;
    2. The specification was correct, but a part of the subject domain is intentionally wrongly represented (e.g., the decision tree may be correctly implemented given the wrong representation of the subject domain);
    3. The specification was correct, the subject domain represented correctly, but there’s a conceptual error in the algorithm (e.g., the decision tree was built wrongly);
    4. The program code is scruffy and doesn’t do what the algorithm says it is supposed to do;
  4. The software is correct, but has the rules implemented as alethic or hard constraints versus deontic or soft constraints (not being allowed to manually override a default rule), effectively replacing human-bureaucrats with software-bureaucrats;
  5. Bad interface design to make the software difficult to use, resulting in wrong use and/or overlooking essential features;
  6. No or insufficient training of the users how to use the hardware/software;
  7. Insufficient maintenance of the IT system that causes the system to malfunction;
  8. Overconfidence in the reliability of the hardware/software;
    1. The correctness of the software, pretending that it always gives the right answer when it may not; e.g., assuming that the pattern matching algorithm for fingerprint matching is 100% reliable when it is actually only, say, 85%;
    2. Assuming (extreme) high availability, when no extreme high availability system is in place; e.g., relying solely on electronic health records in a remote area whereas the system may be down right when it is crucial to access it in the hospital information system.
  9. Overconfidence in the information provided by or through the software; this is partially alike 8-i, or the first example in item 1, and, e.g., willfully believing that everything published on the Internet is true despite the so-called ‘information warfare’ regarding the spreading of disinformation.

Where the moral responsibility lies can be vastly different depending on the case, and even within the case, it may require further analysis. For instance (and my opinions follow, not what is written in the SEP entry), regarding maintenance: a database for the electronic health records outgrows it prospective size or the new version of the RDBMS actually requires more hardware resources than the server has, with as consequence that querying the database becomes too slow in a critical case (say, to check whether patient A is allergic to medicine B that needs to be administered immediately): perhaps the system designer should have foreseen this, or perhaps management didn’t sign off on a purchase for a new server, but I think that the answer to the question of where the moral responsibility lies can be found. For mission-critical software, formal methods can be used, and if, as engineer, you didn’t and something goes wrong, then you are to blame. One cannot be held responsible for a misunderstanding, but when the domain expert says X of the subject domain and you have some political conviction that you prefer Y and build that into the software and that, then, results in something harmful, then you can be held morally responsible (item 3-ii). On human vs. software bureaucrat (item 4), the blame can be narrowed down when things go wrong: was it the engineer who didn’t bother with the possibility of exceptions, was there a/no technological solution for it at the time of development (and knowingly ignore it), or was it the client who willfully was happy avoiding such pesky individual exceptions to the rule? Or, another example, as the SEP entry questions (an example of item 1): can one hold the mobile phone companies responsible for having designed cell phones that also can be used to detonate bombs? In my opinion: no. Just in case you want to look for guidance, or even answers, in the SEP entry regarding such kind of questions and/or cases: don’t bother, there are none.

More generally, the SEP entry mentions two problems for attributing blame and responsibility: the so-called problem of ‘many hands’ and the problem with physical and temporal distance. The former concerns the issue that there are many people developing the software, training the users, etc., and it is difficult to identify the individual, or even the group of individuals, who ultimately did the thing that caused the harmful effect. It is true that this is a problem, and especially when the computing hardware or software is complex and developed by hundreds or even thousands of people. The latter concerns the problem that the distance can blur the causal connection between action and event, which “can reduce the sense of responsibility”. But, in my opinion, just because someone doesn’t reflect much on her actions and may be willfully narrow-minded to (not) accept that, yes, indeed, those people celebrating a wedding in a tent in far-away Afghanistan are (well, were) humans, too, does not absolve one from the responsibility—neither the hardware developer, nor the software developer, nor the one who pushed the button—as distance does not reduce responsibility. One could argue it is only the one who pushed the button who made the judgment error, but the drone/fighter jet/etc. computer hardware and software are made for harmful purposes in the first place. Its purpose is to do harm to other entities—be this bombing humans or, say, a water purification plant such that the residents have no clean water—and all developers involved very well know this; hence, one is morally responsible from day one that one is involved in its development and/or use.

I’ll skip the entry’s section on computers as agents (AI software, robots), and whether they can be held morally responsible, just responsible, or merely accountable, or none of them, except for the final remark of that section, credited to Bruno Latour (emphasis mine):

[Latour] suggests that in all forms of human action there are three forms of agency at work: 1) the agency of the human performing the action; 2) the agency of the designer who helped shaped the mediating role of the artifacts and 3) the artifact mediating human action. The agency of artifacts is inextricably linked to the agency of its designers and users, but it cannot be reduced to either of them. For him, then, a subject that acts or makes moral decisions is a composite of human and technological components. Moral agency is not merely located in a human being, but in a complex blend of humans and technologies.

Given the issues with assigning moral responsibility with respect to computing, some philosophers ponder about doing away with it, and replace it with a better framework. This is the topic of the third section of the SEP entry, which relies substantially on Gotterbarn’s work on it. He notes that computing is ethically not a neutral practice, and that the “design and use of technological artifacts is a moral activity” (because the choice of one design and implementation over another does have consequences). Moreover, and more interesting, is that, according to the SEP entry, he introduces the notions of negative responsibility and positive responsibility. The former “places the focus on that which exempts one from blame and liability”, whereas the latter “focuses on what ought to be done”, and entails to “strive to minimize foreseeable undesirable events”. Computing professionals, according to Gotterbarn, should adopt the notion of positive responsibility. Later on in the section, there’s a clue that there’s some way to go before achieving that. Accepting accountability is more rudimentary than taking moral responsibility, or at least a first step toward moral responsibility. Nissenbaum (paraphrased in the SEP entry) has identified four barriers to accountability in society (at least back in 1997 when she wrote it): the above-mentioned problem of many hands, the acceptance of ‘bugs’ as an inherent element of large software applications, using the computer as scapegoat, and claiming ownership without accepting liability (read any software license if you doubt the latter). Perhaps that needs to be addressed before going on to the moral responsibility, or one reinforces the other? Dijkstra vents his irritation in one of his writings about software ‘bugs’—the cute euphemism dating back to the ‘50s—and instead proposes to use one of its correct terms: they are errors. Perhaps users should not be lenient with errors, which might compel developers to deliver a better/error-free product, and/or we have to instill in the students more about the positive responsibility and reduce their tolerance for errors. And/or what about re-writing the license agreements a bit, like accepting responsibility provided it is used in one of the prescribed and tested ways? We already had that when I was working for Eurologic more than 10 years ago: the storage enclosure was supposed to work in certain ways and was tested in a variety of configurations, and that we signed off on for our customers. If it was faulty in one of the tested system configurations after all, then that was our problem, and we’d incur the associated costs to fix it. To some extent, that was also with our suppliers. Indeed, for software, that is slightly harder, but one could include in the license something along the line of ‘X works on a clean machine and when common other packages w, y, and z are installed, but we can’t guarantee it when you’ve downloaded weird stuff from the Internet’; not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. Anyone has better ideas?

Last, the closing sentence is a useful observation, effectively stretching the standard  notion of moral responsibility thanks to computing (emphasis added): “[it] is, thus, not only about how the actions of a person or a group of people affect others in a morally significant way; it is also about how their actions are shaped by technology.”. But, as said, the details are yet to be thought through and worked out in some detail and general guidelines that can be applied.


[1] Merel Noorman. (forthcoming in 2012). Computing and Moral Responsibility. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Zalta, E.N. (ed.).  Stable URL: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/computing-responsibility/.

Some reflections on learning isiZulu

It didn’t go as fast as I hoped and planned for, and certainly slower than all the other languages I learned over the years. While it is true that learning one indo-European language after another is ‘easier’ because some words and grammar rules are quite similar within each branch, and there aren’t many words in common with isiZulu (in the Nguni language group), that is not the reason why it’s going slower.

The main reason is the lack of (adult) education opportunities and the learning material. There was one course offered, which I attended, but it was cancelled after 6 weeks due to a dwindling number of participants (from 6 down to 2), and despite checking the classifieds regularly, there are no ‘isiZulu tutoring’ offers (there are for maths and other subjects) and I’m told there is a shortage of isiZulu teachers even on primary and secondary schools. So this left me the options of self-study and the get-a-boyfriend one.

A consequence of the “English is the language of business” agreement for post-Apartheid South Africa is that now most South Africans learn and can speak English (yeah, what the Afrikaners couldn’t achieve by some awful law back in 1976 [that Afrikaans be the medium of instruction at all schools and everyone thus learns to speak Afrikaans], the English language mother/native tongue/home language speakers achieved by other means). So the get-a-boyfriend option doesn’t really work for learning the language, at least not to the same extent as in other countries.

I will focus on the self-study and learning material in the remainder of this post. Now, I am fairly disciplined in study habits, but as my fellow researchers can attest, being an academic is more than a 9-5 job, and conference paper deadlines, attending conferences, and additional teaching duties get in the way of keeping up with it. Perhaps some consider this a lame excuse, but the following one holds generally: one easily can get the pronunciation wrong if not corrected by a mother tongue speaker (some accent is always better than a distorted pronunciation), the lack of practice in conversation, the absence of inside knowledge to which of the newspapers to buy to decipher (i.e., which one has simplistic sentences vs. high-brow complicated sentences and larger vocabulary), and so on.

And then, the textbooks! I had bought one on the internet while still in Italy, as preparation before moving to South Africa: Teach yourself Zulu, which I wasn’t quite happy with, and, in hindsight, perhaps I could have guessed that, because I didn’t like the ‘Italian for English speakers’ either when I bought that one when I first went to Italy in 2004. Trying two others from here, it just got worse. I think the main problem is the lack of structure, as they are all terribly disorganized when it comes to grammar. I’m probably experiencing the same emotions as Carsten Graebler (a German exchange student who developed an online dictionary and a grammar cheat sheet because there was none and he needed one in his attempts to learn isiZulu).

Let me give an example. When personal pronouns come into play, it gives a list of examples in the ‘order’ of I, he, they, you, she, or as I, we, you, you, that have so-called “concords” with the verb. Anywhere else, the latter is called with its proper linguistic term conjugation, and in the order of I, you[singular], he/she/it, we, you[plural], they, with a corresponding list how to conjugate the verb. In roman languages, they are at the end of the stem, in isiZulu, at the start, so we have ngi-, u-, u-, si-, ni-, ba-; e.g.: ngithanda = I like, sifunda = we study and so on. They are just lists one has to memorize for the pronouns and nouns. Then, like in the roman languages, because the verb in the sentence already indicates who or what it is about, one can drop the subject (personal pronoun/thing) in the sentence. With a language that doesn’t have such heavy conjugations, you have to include it. (As an aside: the conjugation maps to the subject, not subject+pronoun, so, teachers, don’t include the latter nonsense in the textbooks and don’t teach Zulus a ‘translating the isiZulu’ in the ‘sort of English but the wrong way’ (and then spit on them for using it the wrong way)! I cannot recollect any of the Italians or Spanish make the same mistake when they speak in English, so that’s really due to bad teaching here.)

And, please, make an index of the grammar rules. Now, when I want to check how again, e.g., future tense is, I have to browse through the book, where the grammar is presented piecemeal in a fairly random come-along way that suits the mini-conversations of the chapter’s topic rather than a whole rule together in one place.

There are two related hypotheses about the lack of structure, like I’ve seen also in the English ‘teach yourself Italian’ textbook. One: it is due to the relatively simple grammar of English compared to the complex grammar of multiple other languages, so if one knows only English, it is harder to handle structure, glean from others ways how to structure things, or even think about looking for structure in another natural language. Two, with a grammatically simpler language, the onus is on the receiver of the message to decode the message in a way that is hopefully what the sender intended, whereas with grammatically richer languages, the onus is on the sender to encode correctly what s/he wants to say so that the receiver can understand precisely what the sender really meant. Like having more and less expressive ontology languages (e.g., using OWL 2 DL and SKOS, respectively), where the former allows the modeler to be more precise and the latter retains lots of ambiguity that easily can be misinterpreted by another modeler or software application. I don’t know whether anyone investigated this for natural languages, and to what extent that has an effect on conducting a conversation and learning and teaching a language.

Then there are the topics. In one isiZulu textbook, the topic of the first chapter is greetings, the second is on giving short commands (wait, listen, come here, do it, fill up, make tea!). Or a course structured so as to “teach you isiZulu so that you can instruct your domestic and gardener what to do”: no, I want to use it in everyday life and work (I don’t have a domestic, and not even a garden), like congratulating someone on his birthday, understand when they ask me where the registration office is and answer it, ask for the AV key to use the data projector in the lecture hall, and even better would be to be able to explain some computer science in isiZulu and give a compliment for a test well done. The Teach yourself Zulu textbook is at least somewhat better in this regard, as it handles early on also topics like celebrations, going to the supermarket and buying food, going for a drink, and asking someone for something instead of instructing the worker.

Last, I want to learn isiZulu, the language, not be indoctrinated in racist crap that “isiZulu is a new language; it only became one in 1905, when the colonists an missionaries started to write it down…before that, there were only many mutually incomprehensible dialects but no language…really, Afrikaans was a language before isiZulu” and that “yes, that’s what they [the Zulus] have, short little stories; they don’t have comprehensive histories like we have in the West”, to quote but two. And not to have illustrated the use of iyi– only with indoda iyisela (the man is a thief), whereas it just as well could have been illustrated with, if I understand the unexplained rule correctly, indoda iyinono (the man is a careful/tidy person).

So, overall, I haven’t managed to go beyond the very basics. Each university I’ve been before UKZN had a language centre, where students and employees could sign up for evening courses in multiple languages. It would help to have that here, too. Or the civic centre or community school/college could organize such courses. True, there’s a shortage of teachers, but there’s also a 29% unemployment rate in the country—surely some of them are capable of becoming isiZulu teachers. And teachers and teaching material could upgrade themselves with the latest tools (like the isiZulu spell checker, online dictionaries and conjugator), update the textbooks material to make it suitable for the 21st century, and add some decent grammar compendium. In the meantime, I probably have to contend myself with flicking through the material trying to remember it all and with entertaining myself with some curiosities in the dictionaries.

Annotated list of books on (South) Africa I read last year

I mentioned in the New Year’s post that I’ve been reading up on (South) Africa to obtain some more background information than provided in the online and printed newspapers and monthlies (such as The Africa Report, with, e.g., its article on Google in Africa). The remainder of this post is an annotated list of fiction and non-fiction books, collections, and pamphlets on Africa I read in 2011, which to quite an extent had to do with availability in the nearby bookshops. Yes, I’m talking about hardcopies. Looking them up online for this post, some are out of print, and less than half are available as eBook, Kindle edition, etc. The links are to the Kalahari.com online bookstore, when available, but several are available also internationally through booksellers such as Amazon.

Suggestions for “must reads” that can help me to understand this complex country and continent are welcome!


Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (1994, Abacus). Highly recommendable to anyone interested in the struggle and appalling situations and injustices under the Apartheid regime. It easily readable, and makes a man out of the myth. It is a personal account, and not so much an exposé of ideas (cf., e.g., Fidel’s “my life” or “la historia me absolverá”).

Terrific Majesty: the Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention by Carolyn Hamilton (1998, Harvard University Press). After the first chapter of academese, the remaining chapters provide a highly readable and fascinating picture of the life of King Shaka as well as the agendas of the multiple narrators of those times, somewhat alike a two-layered ‘soap opera’. 

The Racist’s Guide to the People in South Africa by Simon Kilpatrick (2010, Two Dogs). Illustrates well the new term I learned here, “equal opportunity offender”, although he does it in a satirical, witty, way. For the record, I can confirm Kilpatrick’s description of the Dutch [described in the same paragraph as the Germans]: yes, I do commit the cardinal sin of wearing socks in sandals, eat liquorice and lots of cheese, don’t leave a tip if the service or food is crappy, and as a child I went many times on summer holidays in France bringing most of our food from the Netherlands (indeed, that was cheaper). But, to some extent, I still wonder how accurate and/or exaggerated some of the descriptions of the other groups are. 

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for our Time by Jeffrey D. Sachs (2005, Penguin Books). Appeared to be written for people who politically lean to the right to convince them to move toward a centrist position, for Sachs’ ego as do-good-er within a capitalist framework, and serves as an appeal to the baby boomers to let go of the generational egoism so as to come off less bad (or a bit better) in history. 

Persons in Community: African Ethics in Global Culture, edited by Ronald Nicholson (2008, UKZN Press). Various essays of varying quality. Positive: Ubuntu from different perspectives and in different contexts. One can safely skip the annoying writings with Christian religious stuff, which has done more harm than good, notwithstanding the attempts at revisionary history writing.

African Renaissance (read in part), edited by Malegapuru William Makgoba (1999, Mafube Publishing). A collection of essays written in 1999 on problems and looking forward on what to do to realise a better future for South Africa and the continent. I think this will become a useful document for assessing if, and if yes how, the hopes and ideas have been realized over time. As an aside, it introduced me to the term “potted plants in green houses” that refers to certain academics in South Africa (note: they can be found in other countries as well, albeit due to different reasons).

Currently reading: Africa’s Peacemaker? Lessons from South African Conflict Mediation (currently reading), edited by Kurt Shillinger (2009, Fanele). The collection contains analyses of several conflicts in Africa, and lessons learnt of South African efforts in conflict mediation. From the parts I have read, this would have been useful to read for one of the courses of the MA in Peace & development I did a while ago.

Lined up to read: Chabal’s Africa: the Politics of Suffering and Smiling (2009, Zed Books).


The following three pamphlets are from New Frank Talk, and give plenty of food for thought—not just to me, but if you do a search on it, you’ll see various sources, including news articles, discussing the topics.

Black Colonialists: the root of the trouble with Africa by Chinweizu. On post-colonial time, loathing Blacks in government who behave like their former colonialist masters.

Blacks can’t be racist by Andile Mngxitama. The thesis is that if you are not in a position of power, you cannot be racist, as one cannot act upon one’s prejudices about certain identified groups of people (if one has them); hence: ‘race’-based prejudice + power + acting upon it = racist. (Most) Blacks are not in a position of power, hence, cannot be racist, or so goes the argument in a nutshell. 

The white revolutionary as a missionary? Contemporary travels and researches in Caffraria by Heinrich Böhmke. On the ‘well-meaning left’ going to Africa to ‘help the poor and do good’ as a modern-day version of the colonialist-missionary with its negative influences.


The Angina Monologues by Rosamund Kendal (2010, Jacana Media). One of those books you just have to finish reading quickly to see how events unfold with the characters. It describes the experiences of three South African interns in a remote hospital in South Africa and how they come to grips with that new situation and their heritage with the different situations and mores they each grew up with.

The Master’s Ruse by Patricia Schonstein (2008, African Sun Press). The author has been so friendly to me, but it was not easy finishing reading the book. Perhaps it is a good book, attested by the freedom of the reader to read in it what fits the reader (and that wasn’t pretty). 

Black Diamond by Zakes Mda (2009, Penguin Books). Criticism of recent developments in South Africa is woven into the storyline. It also claims to insert all sorts of clichés, which is harder for me to assess. Disappointing is the portrayal of most of the female story characters who all happen to have all sorts of negative character traits and behaviours, with the male lead—having fought in the struggle, but not getting his share of the money and fame to become a ‘Black Diamond’—the good guy. It reads as if it were a Bouquet-book but then for a male readership.

Can he be the one? By Lauri Kubuitsile (2010, Sapphire press). Now this is a real Bouquet-book (called Sapphire here), but then with a cast of successful Black South Africans.


Regarding possible suggestions, I have read several fiction and non-fiction books over the years, so possible glaring omissions from the aforementioned list may have been covered already—or: if you consider reading something about (South) Africa and none of the above piqued your interest, then maybe one or more of these ones do. Some of those books are, in alphabetical order by surname of author:

I write what I like by Steve Biko (1987, Heinemann). A must read. Writings from the ‘70s, on the Black Consciousness Movement. Introduced me to the term “Whitey” and (problems with) the “White liberal left”.

Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee (2004, Vintage).

Lettera ad un consumatore del nord by centro nuovo modello di svilluppo.

Concerning violence by Frantz Fanon (part of Wretched of the earth, which, when you search a bit, is available in whole as a free pdf download). Highly recommendable.

Hacia el reino del silencio by Miguel Díaz Nápoles (2008, Pablo de la Torriente, Editorial). On Cuban doctors in Ghana.

The challenge for Africa by Wangari Maathai (2010, Arrow Books). Highly recommendable. Interesting analyses of problems, ideas and successes for self-empowerment. If you have any difficulty choosing between this and Sachs’ book, take this one.

I am an African by Ngila Michael Muendane (2006, Soultalk CC). About decolonization of the mind. A must read.

How man can die better: the life of Robert Sobukwe by Benjamin Pogrund (version of 2006, Jonathan Ball Publishers). Highly recommendable to anyone interested in the struggle and appalling situations and injustices under the Apartheid regime; Sobukwe was with the PAC.

Inside rebellion: the politics of insurgent violence by Jeremy M. Weinstein (2007, Cambridge University Press). Highly recommendable, if you’re into this topic.

As mentioned, if you have any good suggestions, please leave them in the comments or email me off-line, lest I keep on picking books fairly randomly and hoping it is worthwhile the price and reading time.  But maybe I should venture more often into the real world, instead of ‘reading this one more book to be better prepared for it’.

TAR article on Google in Africa

The The Africa Report magazine’s cover story was “Is Google good for Africa?” [1] (the online page provides only an introduction to the longer article in the print/paid edition). Google is investing in Africa, both regarding connectivity and content: if there’s no content then there’s no need to go online, and if there’s no or a very slow connection, then there won’t be enough people online to make online presence profitable. In the words of Nelson Mattos, Google’s VP for EMEA: “Our business model works only when you have enough advertisements and lots of users online, and that’s the environment we are trying to create in Africa” (p24). Gemma Ware notes that “by investing now into Africa’s internet ecosystem, Google hopes to hardwire it with tools that will make people click through its websites”, and, as she aptly puts it: they have raised the flag first.

(Picture from WhiteAfrican's blogpost on "What should Google do in Africa?" (2))

On average, there is one web domain for every 94 people in the world, but for Africa, this is 1 in 10.000. Somewhere buried on p24 and p26 of the TAR article, two reasons are given: no credit card to buy space online and a ‘.[country]’ costs more than a ‘.com’ domain. There’s no lack of creativity (e.g., the Ushahidi platform co-founded by the new head of Google’s Africa policy Ory Okolloh, and much more).

In percentages of Google hits around the world, the USA tops with 31%, then India with 8%, China with 4.2%, UK 3%, Italy 2.3%, Germany and Brazil 2.9%, Russia 2.8%, France and Spain 2%, and at the lower end of the chart South Africa with 0.7%, Algeria and Nigeria with 0.6% and Sweden with 0.5%. The other African countries are not mentioned and have a lighter colour in the diagram than the lowest given value of 0.5%. These data should have been normalized by population size, but give a rough idea nevertheless.

40% of the Google searches in Africa are through mobile internet—including mine outside the office (unlike in Italy [well, Bolzano], here in South Africa they actually do sell functioning USB/Internet keys and SIM cards to foreigners). They estimated that there were about 14 million users in Africa in 2010 (the Facebook numbers on p26 total to about 28 million), which they expect to grow to 800 million by 2015. Now that’s what you can call a growth market.

There’s no Google data centre in Africa yet, but there are caches at several ISPs, which brings to mind the filter bubble. One can ponder about whether a cache and a bubble are better than practicing one’s patience. What you might not have considered, however, is that there are apparently (i.e.: so I was told, but did not check it) Internet access packages that charge lower rates for browsing national Web content and higher rates for international content where the data has to travel through the new fibre optic cable. So the caching isn’t necessarily a bad idea.

On content generation, Google has been holding “mapping parties” to add content to Google MapMaker, which also pleased its participants, because, as quoted in the article, they didn’t like seeing a blank spot as if there’s nothing, even though clearly there are roads, villages, communities, businesses in reality. There are funded projects to digitize Nelson Mandela’s documentary archives, crowd sourcing to generate content, Google Technology User Groups, helping businesses to create websites, and many other activities. In short, according to Google’s Senegal representative Tidjane Deme: “What Google is doing in Africa is very sexy”.

One of the ‘snapshots’ in the article mentions that Google now supports 31 African languages. I had a look at http://www.google.co.za, which has localized interfaces to 5 of the 9 official African languages in South Africa (isiZulu, Sesotho, isiXhosa, Setswana, Northern Sotho). As I have only rudimentary knowledge of isiZulu only, I had a look at that one to see how the localization has been done. Aside from the direct translations, such as izithombe for images and usesho for search, there are new concoctions. Apparently there is little IT and computing vocabulary in isiZulu, so new words have to be made up, or meanings of existing ones stretched liberally. For instance, logout has become phuma ngemvume (out/exit from authorization/permission) and when clicking on izigcawu (literally: open air meeting places) you navigate to the Google groups page, which are sort of understandable. This is different for izilungiselelo (noun class 8 or 10?) that brings you to Settings in the interface. There is no such word in the dictionary, although the stem –lungiselelo (noun class 6) translates as preparations/arrangements; my dictionary translates ‘setting’ (noun) into ukubeka (verb, in back-translation it means put/place, install; bilingual dictionaries are inconsistent, I know). It’s not just that Google is “hardwir[ing] [Africa] with tools”, they are ‘soft-wiring’ by unilaterally inventing a vocabulary, it seems, which reeks of cultural imperialism.

Admitted, I have not (yet) seen much IT for African languages, other than spell checkers for all 11 official languages in South Africa that work for OpenOffice and Mozilla, a nice online isiZulu-English dictionary and conjugation, and Laurette Pretorius’ research in computational linguistics—the former was heavily funded by outside funds and the second one a hobby project by German isiZulu enthusiast Carsten Gaebler. Nevertheless, it would have been nice if there were some coordinated, participatory, effort.

Writes the article’s author, Gemma Ware: “as Google’s influence grows, Africa’s techies are aware of the urgency to stake their own territorial claim”. This awareness has yet to be transformed into more action by more people. Overall, my impression is that ICT (and the shortage of ICT professionals) already has generated the buzz of excitement where people see plenty of possibilities, which makes it a stimulating environment down here.


[1] Gemma Ware. Is Google good for Africa?. The Africa Report, No 32, July 2011, pp20-26.

[2] Erik Hersman (WhiteAfrican). What Should Google do in Africa? June 28, 2011.

p.s.: The article does not really answer the question whether Google is good for Africa, and I didn’t either in the blog post; that’s a topic for a later date when I know more about what’s going on here.

Reports on Digital Inclusion and divide

The Mail & Guardian (SA weekly) reported on a survey about “digital inclusion”/digital divide the other day, with the title “India’s digital divide worst among Brics”. It appeared to be based on a survey from risk analysis firm MapleCroft and their “Digital Inclusion Index” (DII).

Searching for the original survey and related news articles, the first three pages of Google’s result were news articles with pretty much the same title and content (except for one, where the Swedes say they are doing well). As it turns out, the low ranking of India is the first sentence of MapleCroft’s own news item about the DII. Lots of more data is described there, and everything together not only can be interpreted in various ways, but also raises more questions than it answers.

186 countries were surveyed, the Netherlands being number 186 (highest DII) and Niger number 1 (lowest DII). India turned out to have a DII of 39 and is therewith in the “extreme risk” category, China 103, Brazil 110, and Russia 134, which are relatively a lot better and in the “medium risk” category, but China and “to a lesser extent Russia” in the ‘wrong’ way (limited internet freedom). To tease a little: instead of ‘India is the worst’ regarding digital divide, one also can reformulate it in a way that India is important enough to be a full BRICS member [even though it has/irrespective of] a low DII. The place of the new “S” in BRICS—South Africa—is not even mentioned in the Mail & Guardian article, but MapleCroft has put it in the “High Risk” category (see figure here, about halfway on the page).

According to MapleCroft, “Sub-Saharan Africa is by far the worst performing region for digital inclusion with 29 of the 39 countries rated ‘extreme risk’ in the index.”. Summarizing the figure, Africa and South-East Asia are mostly in the high or extreme risk categories, Latin America, East-Europe and North Asia are in the medium or high risk categories, and the US, Canada, West-Europe, Japan, and Australia are in the low risk category. One of my fellow members at Informatici Senza Frontiere (Alessandra Cattani, who did here thesis on the digital divide) provided me the information that internet access in Italy is less than 40%, yet they are also in the low risk category according to the DII.

At the bottom of MapleCroft’s page, there is a paragraph rambling about the position of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in the ranking (81, 66, 77, respectively) and that “Internet and mobile phone technologies played a central role in motivating and coordinating the uprisings”. A third in Tunisia uses the internet, 16% is on facebook, whereas only about 5% of the Egyptians and 3% of the Libyans use facebook; all three countries are in the “high risk” category. This data can be ‘explained’ in any direction, even that facebook access is so low that it hardly may have contributed to motivate the uprisings (such as USAid and neoliberal policies in Egypt).

So, what exactly did MapleCroft measure? They used 10 indicators, being: “numbers of mobile cellular and broadband subscriptions; fixed telephone lines; households with a PC and television; internet users and secure internet servers; internet bandwidth; secondary education enrolment; and adult literacy”.

Considering fixed telephone lines is a bit of a joke in sparsely populated areas though, because it is utterly unprofitable for telcoms to lay the cables, so countries with low population density and a geographically more evenly distributed population are at a disadvantage in the DII. (and are all telephone lines and TVs digital nowadays?). Mobile phone use is relatively high in Africa, not just having one and using it to call family and friends, but also, among others, to handle electronic health records, disaster management, banking, and school-student communications, and the number of internet users has increased by some 2350% over the past 10 years (OneWorld news item, in Dutch). Even I can use mobile phone banking from the moment I opened my account here in SA and they were surprised I did not know how to do that (even after about 6.5 year in Italy, I still had to ‘wait a little longer’ for Italian internet banking—they do not offer mobile phone banking). Then there are the ATMs here that offer services that would fall under ‘online baking’ in many a European country. But MapleCroft has not considered the type and intensity of usage, or the inventiveness of people to enhance one technology as a way to ‘counterbalance’ the ‘lack’ of another technology.

Regarding bandwidth, fibre optic cables for fast internet access are not evenly distributed around the globe (picture), and even when they pass close by, some countries are prevented from plugging into the fast lines (most notably Cuba—the lines are owned by US companies who are prevented from doing business with Cuba due to the blockade).

The last two indicators to compute the DII may, to some, come as a surprise, but is not: one thing is to have the equipment, a whole different story is to be literate to read and comprehend the information, and then there’s a whole different story of having developed sufficient critical thinking to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff in the data deluge on the internet. India has and adult literacy of some 63%; this compared to adult literacy of 90% in Brazil, 100% in Russia, 94 in China, and 89% in South Africa (data from UNICEF). Secondary education enrollment is trickier, where UNICEF at least is more detailed, because it makes a difference between enrollment and attendance (and graduation and tertiary education, not covered by either one).

Then there’s digital inclusion, versus a digital divide. Both the bottom and the top echelon are “included”, according to MapleCroft, the former just with an extreme risk and latter with a low risk of falling behind. It certainly has a friendlier tone to it than considering the divide it has created between people and the consequences that follow from it, both economic and social.

Take the underlying social divide: who has access? For instance, if there is one PC in the household, who uses it? Recollecting my even younger years, the PC access pecking order was Father > Mother (practically skipped) > Brother > Sister (me, youngest, female), which obviously has changed over the years for both my brother and me. There are other parameters to consider here, such as occupation, level of higher education, and several countries have whole groups of people that are at a relative (dis)advantage due to socio-economic, political, ethnic, disability etc. factors. However, it is a separate line of inquiry to determine to what extent it affects the inclusion or exacerbates the divide. MapleSoft did not include it in the DII.

And then there is the time dimension. The DII diagram is a snapshot (I do not know which measurement date), but comparison along a time axis may reveal trends. So will percentages. Take, for instance internet users. Worldmapper has two beautiful figures as topically scaled maps (density equalized maps) for 1990 and 2002 data, which I showed earlier: the US shrunk relatively while Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa grew. No doubt they also grew a lot over the past 8 years.

Hence, overall, the coarse-grained ranking of the DII as such does not say much, and raises more questions than that it answers. Aside from serving an underlying political agenda, the real news value of the DII as such is rather limited.

Essay on the Nonviolent Personality

La personalità nonviolenta—the nonviolent personality—is the title of a booklet I stumbled upon in a bookshop in Trento in spring 2004 whilst being in the city for my internship at the Laboratory for Applied Ontology. The title immediately raises the question: what, then, actually does constitute a nonviolent personality? The author of the booklet, Giuliano Pontara, since recently an emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Stockholm, aims to contribute to answer this question that certainly does not have simple answer.

The booklet itself is out of print (having been published in 1996) and, moreover, written in Italian, which most people in the world cannot understand. However, in my opinion at least, Pontara’s proposed answer certainly deserves a wider audience, contemplation, and further investigation. So I set out to translate it into English and put it online for free. That took a while to accomplish, and the last year was certainly the most interesting one with multiple email exchanges with Giuliano Pontara about the finer details of the semantics of the words and sentences in both the Italian original and the English translation. Now here it is: The Nonviolent Personality [pdf, 1.7MB] (low bandwidth version [pdf, 287KB]).

So what is it about? Here is the new back flap summary of the booklet:

At the beginning of the new century, the culture of peace finds itself facing many and difficult challenges. This booklet surveys some of these challenges and the characteristics that a mature culture of peace should have in order to respond to them. Particularly, it investigates what type of person is more apt to be a carrier of such a mature culture of peace: the nonviolent personality. Finally, it addresses the question regarding the factors that in the educative process tend to impede and favour, respectively, the development of moral subjects equipped with a nonviolent personality.

The original Italian version was written by Giuliano Pontara, emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Stockholm, and published in 1996, but its message is certainly not outdated and perhaps even more important in the current climate. Why this is so, and why it is useful to have a more widely accessible version of the booklet available, is motivated in the introduction by Maria Keet, Senior Lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

A slightly longer description

The first chapter of the book, having been written in the mid-nineties, discusses the then-current political situation in the world. Pontara describes the post-Cold War situation, touches upon separatism, nationalism, fundamentalism, exploitation and totalitarian capitalism (among other challenges). This includes the “cow-boy ethics” and the return of the Nazi mentality, the latter not being about Arian supremacy, but the glorification of force (and violence in general) and contempt for ‘the weak’, the might-is-right adagio, and that cow-boy ethics has been elevated to prime principle of conducting international politics. You can analyse and decide yourself if the shoe fits for a particular country’s culture and politics, be it then or now. After this rather gloomy first chapter, the first step toward a positive outlook is described in Chapter 2, which looks at several basic features of a mature culture of peace.

The core of the booklet is Chapter 3, which commences with listing ten characteristics of a nonviolent personality:

  • Rejection of violence
  • The capability to identify violence
  • The capability to have empathy
  • Refusal of authority
  • Trust in others
  • The disposition to communicate
  • Mildness
  • Courage
  • Self-sacrifice
  • Patience

These characteristics are discussed in detail in the remainder of the chapter. Read it if you want to know what is meant with these characteristics, and why.

Chapter 4 considers education at school, at home, and through other influences (such as the TV), describing both the problems in the present systems and what can to be done to change it. For example, educating students to develop a critical moral conscience, analyse, and to be able to think for oneself (as opposed to rote-learning in a degree-factory), not taking a dualistic approach but facilitating creative constructive solutions instead, and creating an atmosphere that prevents the numbing of conscience, the weakness of the senses, consumerism, and conformism of the mass-media. Also some suggestions for class activities are suggested, but note that education does not end there: it is a continuous process in life.

The English writing style may not be perfect (the spelling and grammar checkers do not complain though); either way, it tries to strike a balance between the writing style of the original and readability of the English text. And no, the translation was not done with Google translate or a similar feature, but manually and there are some notes on the translation at the end of the new booklet. Other changes or additions compared to the Italian original are the new foreword by Pontara and introduction by me, an index, bibliography in alphabetical order and several Italian translations in the original have been substituted with the original English reference, and there are biographical sketches. I did the editing and typesetting in Latex, so it looks nice and presentable.

Last, but not least:
Creative Commons License
The Nonviolent Personality by Maria Keet is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.