Book reviews for 2017

The third, and probably for a while last, post in a row that has not much, or even nothing, to do with my current job and research interest: the seventh installment of short book reviews and opinions on a selection of fiction and non-fiction books I read last year.


Dataclysm by Christian Rudder (2014). This is a highly entertaining book about some interesting aspects of Data Science. The author, one of the founders of the dating site OkCupid, takes his pile of OkCupid data and data from some other sources, and plays with it. What do those millions of up- and down-votes and match answers reveal? What’s the difference between what people say in surveys and how they behave online on the dating site? A lot, it appears. The book makes the anonymised aggregates fun and look harmless rather than Big Brother-like to haunt an individual. A bunch of people copy-and-paste messages, but it doesn’t seem to matter for replies and interaction. Looks matter, a lot, but weirdness, too. You’re a women over, say, 25 and the man says you’re gorgeous? Probably lying: they dig the looks of 20-year old women most, no matter how old they are. The portion of people identifying as gay correlates with societal and legal acceptance of same-sex relationships and marriages. And so on. One has to bear in mind that the conclusions drawn from the data should be seen in the light of self-selection (are the OkCupid members average in the sense of collectively being like the whole population?), that pattern-finding is different from hypothesis testing, and accidental data is different from collecting data in a controlled setting. That said, it’s still interesting to read about what the data says and it offers a peek into the kitchen of online dating sites.

What the dog saw by Malcom Gladwell (2009). It’s not nearly as good as the others. In a way, the narrative is the opposite of Dataclysm (as Rudder also discusses): Gladwell’s books are more about the peculiar particular and trying to generalise from that, whereas Rudder takes the aggregates over very large amounts of instances that is the general trend backed up by data rather than anecdotes (which isn’t the plural of data). Both books were very USA-centric, which became annoying in What the dog saw but not with Dataclysm.

Gastrophysics—the new science of eating by Charles Spence (2017). I’ve met people who can’t even believe there’s such thing as food science—an established applied science and engineering discipline—so perhaps the reader’s first response to the term ‘science of eating’ may be even less credulous. But sure enough, there’s truth to that. As the blurb about the book ended up longer than intended, it got its own blogpost: gastrophysics and follies. In short: the first part is very highly recommended reading.

I didn’t manage to finish Slavoj Zizek’s “Trouble in paradise—from the end of history to the end of capitalism”. There were fine parts in it, but there was too much rambling on too many pages, piling dialectical upon dialectical topped-off with upside-downs that the plot got lost and the logic missing. I searched online for book reviews of it, wondering if it was just me being too tired to concentrate, but turned out I’m not the only one. 17 contradictions and the end of capitalism by David Harvey was better (reviewed a few years ago).


Indaba, my children—African tribal history, legends, customs and religious beliefs by Credo Mutwa (1964). This book was recommended to me with the note that although the author made it all up, for there are no such stories among the amaZulu, it is great storytelling and a must-read nonetheless. It is indeed. The first part chronicles in a fantastic way the story of creation and the first humans as a poem that is best read aloud for the most dramatic effect of the unexpected turns of events. Parts two and three see successive interactions with intruders and societies rising and falling, the organisation of society, their laws, customs, rites, and quests for power, with a bit of interference and nudging here and there by the goddesses, immortals, and the tree of life. Part four consists of reflections, events, stories, and criticisms of the recent past. Woven into these stories are how the things came to be as they are, such as the creation of the moon, the naming of the marimba (a type of xylophone), how/from where the Swazi and amaXhosa originate, and so on. The tome of almost 700 pages takes a while to finish; yet at the same time, one feels that loss once having finished a great book.

The drowning by Camila Lackberg (2012, translated from Swedish). This is a ‘whodunnit’ crime novel with twists and turns and even if you think near the end of the book that you know who’s behind the threats and murders, you’ll still be surprised, and perhaps somehow a bit sad, too. That much for spoilers. The general storyline has the novel set in a village in Sweden where village life seems idyllic, but all sorts of things are not what they seem—the ‘marital bliss’ that’s not so blissful after all, and so on. Christian Thydell published his first novel and gets great reviews, but has been receiving anonymous threats, and soon a few other men in the village get them as well. Gradually, a few people die or are murdered. Erica Falck sets out to uncover the truth informally, while her detective husband tries to do so in the official police investigation. With the cross-fertilisation of information, eventually the mystery is resolved.

How to fall in love by Cecelia Ahern (2014). I recall the time when Ahern’s first novel came out in Ireland, where the first reactions that she’d published a book was a like “well, bleh, but she’s the daughter of…” [the then Taoiseach ‘prime minister’, Bertie Ahern], yet then reviews came in like “actually, it’s really sweet/nice/quite good/etc.” and it ended up as an international bestseller and a movie (P.S. I love you). So, when I was recently in Ireland, I decided to buy one of her books to see for myself, which turned out to be her latest novel How to fall in love. Sounds just as cheesy, true, but the nutshell version of the story is quite grim. The protagonist, Christine Rose, talks a stranger (Adam) out of his suicide attempt with a deal: that she can convince him in two weeks’ time that life is worth living; if she can’t, then he still can go off and kill himself. She had just walked out of a relationship; he had found his fiancé cheating with his best friend (among other reasons why he wanted to kill himself). Christine then comes up with a range of ‘mini-adventures’, mostly set in Dublin, trying to fix it yet having no real experience in suicide-prevention support. Some activities and meddling work out better than others. The storytelling is heart-warming, funny, and light-hearted, yet at time serious and depressing as well (suicide is quite a large problem in Ireland, and higher than the world average). Several unexpected turns in the story and development of the characters and their motivations keep it interesting. It is a fairly quick read for its easy writing style, yet also one of those books that one would like to read again for the first time.

Woman on the edge of time by Marge Piercy (1976). I bought the book because it said “The Classic Feminist Science Fiction Novel” on the front cover. Frankly, that’s rubbish. If Americans think that’s feminism and sci-fi, then no wonder gender parity hasn’t been achieved and science is facing tough times there. Anyway, the story. The protagonist had dreams of education and independence and is sane but was put in the insane box and she goes along with it, with some weakness and whining about oppression here and there. What exactly is feminist about that?! The supposedly sci-fi part is the protagonist doing some mental trips to a future of “sexual, racial, and environmental harmony”. She can do that because here mind is “receptive”. Seriously? Really, there’s no smell of ‘sci’ there, just a lot of ‘fi’. If there were a single classic in the genre of ‘futurist fiction for feminists’, I’d say it’s most definitely kinderen van moeder aarde children of mother earth’ by Thea Beckman that I read back in the mid ‘80s. I still can remember the storyline now, more than 30 years later, without having read it since. The setting is in Greenland that, after some terrible nuclear war that has moved continents, was pushed south into a moderate climate whereas Europe ended up at a latitude where it’s a scorching hot climate. Thule (Greenland) is governed by women—because it was the men who screwed up with their wars—and now a dirty steamboat with exploitative patriarchal Europeans is arriving. The book describes how that society functions where women run the show (e.g., there are no prisons). The protagonists are two teenagers—one son of a female member of the governing body, the other his girlfriend from the commoners—who think that it isn’t fair that only women from the ruling hierarchy rule. In the end, they manage to neutralise the invaders and a few men get some say in governance.

The Power by Naomi Alderman (2016). As the saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover. But the book’s front cover looked really cool and the back cover story sounded like an interesting scenario, so I ended up impulse-buying it anyway. It turned out to be a page-turner. The main part of the novel describes the unfolding events of an eclectic set of main characters across the world when, from one day to the next, women turn out to have ‘the power’. That is, there’s an organ that only women have that has suddenly become active with which, while it does not make girls and women physically stronger than men, they can hurt or kill men with or rape them through administering an electrical surge at a certain place. This obviously affects the status quo of the patriarchal societies across the world, and the girls and women respond differently on the new powers gained based on both their personal background and how bad it was for them in their subculture and country. The men respond differently to it as well. Without revealing too much, it could be categorised in the ‘futurist fiction for feminists’, sort of, as it’s also about ‘what if for millennia sexism was reversed?’ and ‘what if it were to be reversed now and it’s payback time?’. The answers that the author came up with make for useful reading, and perhaps also contemplation, for both women and men. Whether you think at the end it’s a dystopian novel, fanciful daydreaming, futurist fiction for feminists, a thriller, a useful mirror to the current society we live in, or stick another label to it—an opinion you’ll have of it :).

If these books don’t interest you, then perhaps one of the previous ones I posted about in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 just might (I’m an omnivorous reader).


Water scarcity in Cape Town—not the first city and the new levies are fine

I very well remember the water shortage in Lima when I was there in mid 1996-early 1997, so I already played with the idea of writing a post on the water shortage in Cape Town with the aim to scare some people here what it’s like when the water runs out and to provide some more suggestions to save water or stay clean with less water. For instance, you can greatly reduce the need for washing your hair if you shave it off, or let it grow and put it in one or more braids. Buy more underwear now if you can, because fishing them out of the unwashed laundry basket for reuse is gross (whether to wear them again inside-out or not). A difference then there in Lima with now in Cape Town, is that a lot of people relied on bottled water to drink already, whereas Cape Town water is (still) potable, so there is no real bottled-water logistics here, at least not to the same extent. On logistics: ‘Day Zero’ is the day when the taps run dry entirely and some 200 water distribution points will be the only source of water for 4 million people in the city. The current ‘Day Zero’ estimate is around April 22, give or take a few days depending on the scenario. There’s a nice app by Piotr Wolski where you can run through alternative scenarios to estimate Day Zero.

What pushed me to write a post is one nuisance about the claim that Cape Town is the ‘first major city in the world’ that faces this problem [1]—she isn’t!—and a real annoyance with a recent UCT News article by Kevin Winter on the planned water levy [2]. (The latter indirectly also relates to another irritation I have, in that it is mainly the affluent in leafy suburbia who keep using water excessively and think that somehow running out of water is not going to affect them (lifetime of being privileged, living in a bubble and all that)). So let me discuss both.

Cape Town is not the first major city with a water shortage

Searching now for information on the water shortage in Lima back then is out-crowded on the search engines by the fact that that 8-million (!) huge city has been having so many year-on-year shortages (e.g., a picture of a water distribution point in 2016). Lima is expected to become the first major city to become uninhabitable due to the persistent water crisis; e.g., see what it is like when people are running around to find a litre or two. This is due to less precipitation in the mountains (back then at least) and receding glaciers on the climate side of the issues, and more people in the city, economics, and socio-political issues as the human and systemic dimension. This has worsened over the past decades, where Ioris also lists receding aquifers and degraded catchments, which is blamed on human factors, notably uncontrolled mining, over-abstraction, and untreated effluents [3].

Water rationing back then in late 1996 was by quarter: the poorer quarters got cut off earlier than the richer ones. I rented a room in a lower middle income quarter (Pueblo Libre), and recall the taps running dry (and thus also no flushing the toilet—forget about washing clothes) first at 9pm to come back on in the early morning, then 6pm, then 3pm, 12noon, 9am, and some days nothing; the service came and went. No hay agua. When I didn’t have water anymore at home, the richer quarters still had some, as had the International Potato Center (CIP) where I did a research project on sweet potato. Initially, some people were pretending to play sports at the CIP during lunch hour so that they could have a shower afterward without losing face. At some point when the water outages became more prevalent in most quarters, pretences fell. At a later point, there was no water coming out of those showers there anymore either, nor was there water in the labs anymore, even though the CIP is located in the affluent La Molina district. So yes, eventually also the relatively rich had to do without water, in a society that has already an unequal distribution of resources. The number of foul-smelling people increased. The upside of not being clean yourself either is that then at least you don’t smell the stench of others anymore. This is just one anecdote of what I observed and experienced. Check out Ioris’s paper on Water scarcity and the exclusionary city: the struggle for water justice in Lima, Peru [3] for results from qualitative empirical research from 2009-2013. In short: it’s gotten worse and the problems have become more complex. Relevant for the next section is also its Table 2, which lists data of 12 municipalities: lowest income Villa El Salvador has an average household income of 881.8 PEN, 14.2 cubic metre water p.p., 27.2 water tariff, and they spend 3.1% of their income on water (highest is 4.1%, in low-income Chaclacayo), whereas the figures for highest-income San Isidro are 8303.4 PEN, 29.6 p.p., 68.6 water tariff, and 0.8% of their income is spent on water [3]. Or: the richest use most water and relatively pay the least. 2011 figures state 15.2 litres p.p./day water use by people in Lurigancho-Chosica and 447.5 litres in San Isidro, on average, and large disparities in the cost of water based on one’s socio-economic status [4].

So, Cape Town most definitely is not the first major city with water scarcity issues, nor the first one with a socio-economic and political dimension to it. Apparently, the ‘driest capital’ claim goes to Cairo, with Lima coming in second [5]. As a final note in this section, some 4 billion people have to put up with water scarcity for at least one month per year; more precisely, 71% or 4.3 billion people [6]. Sure, the Western Cape region is firmly in the red in the figures there, but, also, the “Regions with moderate to severe water scarcity during more than half of the year include northern Mexico and parts of the western United States, parts of Argentina and northern Chile, North Africa and Somalia, Southern Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, and Australia” and “[h]igh water scarcity levels appear to prevail in areas with either high population density (for example, Greater London area) or the presence of much irrigated agriculture (High Plains in the United States), or both (India, eastern China, Nile delta)” [6].

Comments on polemics and facts on Cape Town’s water shortage

I chatted the other day with someone who’s in the water business here in Cape Town and asked his opinion on the shortage. The answer was “It’s very, very, very, bad… And I’m an optimist!”. You probably can find a few articles online that claim it’s all exaggerated; Olivier busts some of those claims [7] and the GroundUp water crisis articles also provide ample investigative news reporting on the dire state of affairs. Fact is, the dam levels on 29 December were at 31.4% and the rainy season will start only in late April (hopefully) or in May and, as mentioned before, Day Zero is expected to be in the second half of April, if everything continues as ‘business as usual’.

In another attempt to change the current ‘business as usual’, a new “level 6” water restrictions came into effect yesterday. Another item may be implemented on February 1, if the Cape Town government gets its way, being an extra water tax proportional to the value of the property where the raised revenue will be used to fund water augmentation schemes. It is this that Winter is whining about in the UCT news article [2]. He’s not the only one: there’s also an ‘Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse’ that claims they’ll sue the national government for it if it goes ahead. Winter speculates that the increase is more because of falling revenue due to lower water use, but he provides no evidence that the extra revenue will be used for something else than the reason stated by the municipality.

Winter argues that residents who have invested in water saving devices are “punished” with the levy and, rather, one should “use the opportunity to encourage this water to be shared with others in need, at a marginal cost”. In other words: the few with sufficient money to spare who invested in such measures (e.g., installing a borehole) should be offered a way to get a quicker return on investment. Trying to make money from an impending disaster. He continues “Non-potable, fit-for-purpose water can be used for flushing toilets, irrigating gardens, topping up swimming pools,…” WTF? He’s still fine with topping up swimming pools, caring about gardens? You shouldn’t have that much excess water from various uses to begin with. If one were to actually use the targeted 87 litres/day or, preferably, less, you will not have excess water. I surely don’t and I’m at about 45 litres/day[1]. Take a short shower instead of diving into the pool and if you swim for exercise then go running or to the gym for a change. Get your garden sorted out with indigenous plants that are already drought-resistant, so you don’t have to water the plants in the first place (or let them die—if it’s cleaning yourself vs. saving imported plants, please let the plants die now and redesign your garden next year).

Then, “it is also time to rethink expensive centralised schemes and the role of local government control in the distribution of water”. Sure, everyone is allowed to have an opinion, but a libertarian anti-government stance is surely not going to help. Read up on Lima as example. Winter goes on “The drought levy appears to send the wrong message. It fails to incentivise local initiatives that will enable access to a local water supply. Neighbourhood-scale water supplies offer a promising alternative.”. The policy target is to reduce water usage across the board. Thus, it makes total sense that the Cape Town government would not want to incentivise such local initiatives, for Winter’s proposal amounts to incentivising water wasters wasting more water by allowing them to make money of the excess water they’re using. The water wasters must reduce their water use so that also they will not have any excess water anymore.

He goes on fantasising if decentralised water systems would work, as if that could be implemented now-now. There’s not even a rough calculation whether such a scenario even might work, let alone if so, how much it will contribute to easing the pressures on the water demand and how much it would cost to implement it all. So, Winter’s proposal is just braai-talk at best, in the most generous and favourable reading of the piece. Oh, and if the reader did not get the message yet: “Property owners will then become the responsible owners of these systems”. So that the rich can become richer by exploiting the poor even more, also when it comes to the very basic necessity for life! Those property owners—the ones who’ll have to pay most levy in particular—aren’t particularly responsible now, neither on the water usage nor on a less unfair wealth distribution, so I don’t see why I should believe Winter’s word that they then would suddenly become “responsible” sharing citizens in his decentralised water system. If ‘leafy suburbia’ were only to have their bubble punctured and would have reduced their water usage substantially already[2], we’d have (had?) sufficient water to make it to the rainy season before Day Zero would be upon us.

You could say, ‘but I know x and y in leafy suburbia who are saving water and they’re nice people’, and I do save too, but I’m willing to pay my bit of the levy, hoping that it hits home that everyone will have to start taking it seriously, and have it invested it in those water augmentation measures for the public good, including more distribution points at least. Do the math: 200 distribution points for 4 million people is 20000 people/day, that’s 4.3 seconds per person/day (24/7 service) that you can tap water to carry home, or worse. Other investment measures should help as well, such as desalination plants under construction, but it is not clear at all whether that will be enough [8].

If the electricity load shedding policy is anything to go by—everyone affected equally—then so will, or should, the upcoming ‘water shedding’ affect everyone equally. Fact is that domestic users are the biggest water users [9], with 15% by business and industry, and only 4.7% by informal settlements in 2015/2016 (checked), and the rich leafy suburbs the most (open data). I would suggest to the Cape Town government that they should turn off the water for a bit to educate the privileged class in the leafy suburbs to teach them the hard way what it will be like if they keep using too much water. They also could take up Lima’s costing plan for water, as is already done with property tax in Cape Town, i.e., charge more for water in those suburbs with higher property values.

Property values are a reasonable indicator of affluence. So if residents in the leafy suburbs keep on using too much, then they surely should cough up at least some of the money for the water augmentation schemes. Not reducing water usage now and not coughing up money for bad behaviour over the past months is bound to result in some unpleasant situations. Have a look again at the video clip from Lima if you must—people at night running on the streets with a bucket, desperate to find a litre. Not to mention the class and race tensions that are already being amplified with the water crisis; the ‘leafy suburbs’ were designated white areas under Apartheid, and not much of the demographics nor of the wealth distribution has changed since then. Little has been written about that, but talk on the ground is going around.


There are issues that can be traced to politics at the local, provincial, and national levels [10]. However, in the context of the article, let me point out that the city and the province has a majority Democratic Alliance—a political party way on the right-end of the political spectrum (very capitalist etc.)—and even they don’t propose the water-spending and money-making-scheme-for-the-rich that Winter proposes. They at least get their facts, run through scenarios, and they probably can count how many votes they’d lose if the majority of the people in Cape Town would have to pay the predominantly rich water wasters to access second-grade water to survive. Having such a politically slanted opinion piece on UCT News is an embarrassment, to say the least, and is counter-productive for managing the water crisis in a manner that will make everyone get through this.



[1] Khan, S. There is a water crisis in Cape Town. Travelers should be prepared (and can help). The New York Times, 27 December 2017. Note: the claim comes from Prof. Anthony Turton, UFS, and has been made before (at least by early December, when a colleague mentioned it as well but could not recall the source). This one was just the most recent article about it that I came across that still propagates the incorrect statement and the outlet has a wide readership.

[2] Winter, K. Cape Town’s drought levy. UCT News, 20 December 2017.

[3] Ioris, A.A.R. Water scarcity and the exclusionary city: the struggle for water justice in Lima, Peru. Water International, 2016, 41:1, 125-139.

[4] Redacción. El agua es un bien escaso que el Perú no sabe administrar. RPP Noticias, 22 March 2017.

[5] Simon, Y. Lima running dry—Promoting water culture in the second driest capital of the world. WorldBank Water and Sanitation Program. Last accessed: 1-1-2018.

[6] Mekonnen, M.M., Hoekstra, A.Y. Four billion people facing severe water scarcity. Science Advances, 2016, 2(2): e1500323.

[7] Olivier, D.W. Cape Town water crisis: 7 myths that must be busted. The Conversation, 7 November 2017.

[8] Jones, A., Geffen, N. Drought: Has Cape Town planned properly for Day Zero? GroundUp, 6 December 2017.

[9] de Lille, P. Drought crisis: bad apples ruining the efforts of many water savers. City of Cape Town, 23 February 2017. Note: more sources and links are available from the GroundUp article by Piotr Wolski, which also contains an analysis on availability of data, and the lack thereof.

[10] Olivier, D.W. Cape Town’s water crisis: driven by politics more than drought. The Conversation, 12 December 2017.

[1] well, the monthly bill yoyo’s between about 30 and 60 litres, as does the one of a colleague of mine, so the guess is that that’s due to rounding in the water meter reading and that the real litre/day use lies somewhere between these figures.

[2] The amount of anecdotes I have are numerous enough to become data. The water usage facts back it up (see further down in the post).

Gastrophysics and follies

Yes, turns out there is a science of eating, which is called gastrophysics, and a popular science introduction to the emerging field was published in an accessible book this year by Charles Spence (Professor [!] Charles Spence, as the front cover says), called, unsurprisingly, Gastrophysics—the new science of eating. The ‘follies’ I added to the blog post title refers to the non-science parts of the book, which is a polite term that makes it a nice alliteration in the pronunciation of the post’s title. The first part of this post is about the interesting content of the book; the second part about certain downsides.

The good and interesting chapters

Given that some people don’t even believe there’s a science to food (there is, a lot!), it is perhaps even a step beyond to contemplate there can be such thing as a science for the act of eating and drinking itself. Turns out—quite convincingly in the first couple of chapters of the book—that there’s more to eating than meets the eye. Or taste bud. Or touch. Or nose. Or ear. Yes, the ear is involved too: e.g., there’s a crispy or crunchy sound when eating, say, crisps or corn flakes, and it is perceived as an indicator of the freshness of the crisps/cornflakes. When it doesn’t crunch as well, the ratings are lower, for there’s the impression of staleness or limpness to it. The nose plays two parts: smelling the aroma before eating (olfactory) and when swallowing as volatile compounds are released in your throat that reach your nose from the back when breathing out (i.e., retronasal).

The first five chapters of the books are the best, covering taste, smell, sight, sound, and touch. They present easily readable interesting information that is based on published scientific experiments. Like that drinking with a straw ruins the smell-component of the liquid (and so does drinking from a bottle) cf drinking from a glass that sets the aromas free to combine the smell with the taste for a better overall evaluation of the drink. Or take the odd (?) thing that frozen strawberry dessert tastes sweeter from a white bowl than a black one, as is eating it from a round plate cf. from an angular plate. Turns out there’s some neuroscience to shapes (and labels) that may explain the latter. If you think touch and cutlery don’t matter: it’s been investigated, and it does. The heavy cutlery makes the food taste better. It’s surface matters, too. The mouth feel isn’t the same when eating with a plain spoon vs. from a spoon that was first dipped in lemon juice and then in sugar or ground coffee (let it dry first).

There is indeed, as the intro says, some fun fact on each of these pages. It is easy to see that these insights also can be interesting to play with for one’s dinner as well as being useful to the food industry, and to food science, be it to figure out the chemistry behind it or how to change the product, the production process, or even just the packaging. Some companies did so already. Like when you open a bag of (relatively cheap-ish) ground coffee: the smell is great, but that’s only because some extra aroma was added in the sealed air when it was packaged. Re-open the container (assuming you’ve transferred it into one), and the same coffee smell does not greet you anymore. The beat of the background music apparently also affects the speed of masticating. Of course, the basics of this sort of stuff were already known decades ago. For instance, the smell of fresh bread in the supermarket is most likely aroma in the airco, not the actual baking all the time when the shop is open (shown to increase buying bread, if not more), and the beat of the music in the supermarket affects your walking speed.

On those downsides of the book

After these chapters, it gradually goes downhill with the book’s contents (not necessarily the topics). There are still a few interesting science-y things to be learned from the research into airline food. For instance, that the overall ‘experience’ is different because of lower humidity (among other things) so your nose dries out and thus detects less aroma. They throw more sauce and more aromatic components into the food being served up in the air. However, the rest descends into a bunch of anecdotes and blabla about fancy restaurants, with the sources not being solid scientific outlets anymore, but mostly shoddy newspaper articles. Yes, I’m one of those who checks the footnotes (annoyingly as endnotes, but one can’t blame the author for that sort of publisher’s mistake). Worse, it gives the impression of being research-based, because it was so in the preceding chapters. Don’t be fooled by the notes in, especially, chapters 9-12. To give an example, there’s a cool-sounding section on “do robot cooks make good chefs?” in the ‘digital dining’ chapter. One expects an answer; but no, forget that. There’s some hyperbole with the author’s unfounded opinion and, to top it off, a derogatory remark about his wife probably getting excited about a 50K GBP kitchen gadget. Another example out of very many of this type: some opinion by some journalist who ate some day, in casu at über-fancy way-too-expensive-for-the-general-reader Pairet’s Ultraviolet (note 25 on p207). Daily Telegraph, New York Times, Independent, BBC, Condiment junkie, Daily Mail Online, more Daily Mail, BBC, FT Weekend Magazine, Wired, Newsweek etc. etc. Come on! Seriously?! It is supposed to be a popsci book, so then please don’t waste my time with useless anecdotes and gut-feeling opinions without (easily digestible) scientific explanations. Or they should have split the book in two: I) popsci and II) skippable waffle that any science editor ought not to have permitted to pass the popsci book writing and publication process. Professor Spence is encouraged to reflect a little on having gone down on a slippery slope a bit too much.

In closing

Although I couldn’t bear to finish reading the ‘experiential meal’ chapter, I did read the rest, and the final chapter. As any good meal that has to have a good start and finish, the final chapter is fine, including the closing [almost] with the Italian Futurists of the 1930s (or: weird dishes aren’t so novel after all). As to the suggestions for creating your own futurist dinner party, I can’t withhold here the final part of the list:

In conclusion: the book is worth reading, especially the first part. Cooking up a few experiments of my own sounds like a nice pastime.

Conjuring up or enhancing a new subdiscipline, say, gastromatics, computational gastronomy, or digital gastronomy could be fun. The first term is a bit too close to gastromatic (the first search hits are about personnel management software in catering), though, and the second one has been appropriated by the data mining and Big Data crowd already. Digital gastronomy has been coined as well and seems more inclusive on the technology side than the other two. If it all sounds far-fetched, here’s a small sampling: there are already computer cooking contests (at the case-based reasoning conferences) for coming up with the best recipe given certain constraints, a computational analysis of culinary evolution, data mining in food science and food pairing in Arab cuisine, robot cocktail makers are for sale (e.g., makr shakr and barbotics) and there’s also been research on robot baristas (e.g., the FusionBot and lots more), and more, much more, results over at least the past 10 years.

The isiZulu spellchecker seems to contribute to ‘intellectualisation’ of isiZulu

Perhaps putting ‘intellectualisation’ in sneer quotes isn’t nice, but I still find it an odd term to refer to a process of (in short, from [1]) coming up with new vocabulary for scientific speech, expression, objective thinking, and logical judgments in a natural language. In the country I grew up, terms in our language were, and still are, invented more because of a push against cultural imperialism and for home language promotion rather than some explicit process to intellectualise the language in the sense of “let’s invent some terms because we need to talk about science in our own language” or “the language needs to grow up” sort of discourses. For instance, having introduced the beautiful word geheugensanering (NL) that captures the concept of ‘garbage collection’ (in computing) way better than the English joke-term for it, elektronische Datenverarbeitung (DE) for ‘ICT’, técnicas de barrido (ES) for ‘sweep line’ algorithms, and mot-dièse (FR) for [twitter] ‘hashtag’, to name but a few inventions.

Be that as it may, here in South Africa, it goes under the banner of intellectualisation, with particular reference to the indigenous languages [2]; e.g., having introduced umakhalekhukhwini ‘cell/mobile phone’ (decomposed: ‘the thing that rings in your pocket’) and ukudlulisa ikheli for ‘pass by reference’ in programming (longer list of isiZulu-English computing and ICT terms), which is occurring for multiple subject domains [3]. Now I ended up as co-author of a paper that has ‘intellectualisation’ in its title [4]: Evaluation of the effects of a spellchecker on the intellectualization of isiZulu that appeared just this week in the Alternation journal.

The main general question we sought to answer was whether human language technologies, and in particular the isiZulu spellchecker launched last year, contribute to the language’s intellectualisation. More specifically, we aimed to answer the following three questions:

  1. Is the spellchecker meeting end-user needs and expectations?
  2. Is the spellchecker enabling the intellectualisation of the language?
  3. Is the lexicon growing upon using the spellchecker?

The answers in a nutshell are: 1) yes, the spellchecker does meet end-user needs and expectations (but there are suggestions further improving its functionality), 2) users perceive that the spellchecker enables the intellectualisation of the language, and 3) non-dictionary words were added, i.e., the lexicon is indeed growing.

The answer to the last question provides some interesting data for linguists to bite their teeth in. For instance, a user had added to the spellchecker’s dictionary LikaSekelaShansela, which is an inflected form of isekelashansela ‘Vice Chancellor’ (that is recognised as correct by the spellchecker). Also some inconsistencies—from a rule-of-thumb viewpoint—in word formation were observed; e.g., usosayensi ‘scientist’ vs. unompilo ‘nurse’. If one were to follow consistently the word formation process for various types of experts in isiZulu, such as usosayensi ‘scientist’, usolwazi ‘professor’, and usomahlaya ‘comedian’, then one reasonably could expect ‘nurse’ to be *usompilo rather than unompilo. Why it isn’t, we don’t know. Regardless, the “add to dictionary” option of the spellchecker proved to be a nice extra feature for a data-driven approach to investigate intellectualisation of a language.

Version 1 of the isiZulu spellchecker that was used in the evaluation was ok and reasonably could not have interfered negatively with any possible intellectualisation (average SUS score of 75 and median 82.5, so ‘good’). It was ok in the sense that a majority of respondents thought that the entire tool was helpful, no features should be removed, it enhances their work, and so on (see paper for details). For the software developers among you who have spare time: they’d like, mainly, to have it as a Chrome and MS Word plugin, predictive text/autocomplete, and have it working on the mobile phone. The spellchecker has improved in the meantime thanks to two honours students, and I will write another blog post about that next.

As a final reflection: it turned out there isn’t a way to measure the level of intellectualisation in a ‘hard sciences’ way, so we concluded the other answers based on data that came from the somewhat fluffy approach of a survey and in-depth interviews (a ‘mixed-methods’ approach, to give it a name). It would be nice to have a way to measure it, though, so one would be able to say which languages are more or less intellectualised, what level of intellectualisation is needed to have a language as language of instruction and science at tertiary level of education and for dissemination of scientific knowledge, and to what extent some policy x, tool y, or activity z contributes to the intellectualization of a language.



[1] Havránek, B. 1932. The functions of literary language and its cultivation. In Havránek, B and Weingart, M. (Eds.). A Prague School Reader on Esthetics, Literary Structure and Style. Prague: Melantrich: 32-84.

[2] Finlayson, R, Madiba, M. The intellectualization of the indigenous languages of South Africa: Challenges and prospects. Current Issues in Language Planning, 2002, 3(1): 40-61.

[3]Khumalo, L. Intellectualization through terminology development. Lexikos, 2017, 27: 252-264.

[4] Keet, C.M., Khumalo, L. Evaluation of the effects of a spellchecker on the intellectualization of isiZulu. Alternation, 2017, 24(2): 75-97.

Orchestrating 28 logical theories of mereo(topo)logy

Parts and wholes, again. This time it’s about the logic-aspects of theories of parthood (cf. aligning different hierarchies of (part-whole) relations and make them compatible with foundational ontologies). I intended to write this post before the Ninth Conference on Knowledge Capture (K-CAP 2017), where the paper describing the new material would be presented by my co-author, Oliver Kutz. Now, afterwards, I can add that “Orchestrating a Network of Mereo(topo) logical Theories” [1] even won the Best Paper Award. The novelties, in broad strokes, are that we figured out and structured some hitherto messy and confusing state of affairs, showed that one can do more than generally assumed especially with a new logics orchestration framework, and we proposed first steps toward conflict resolution to sort out expressivity and logic limitations trade-offs. Constructing a tweet-size “tl;dr” version of the contents is not easy, and as I have as much space here on my blog as I like, it ended up to be three paragraphs here: scene-setting, solution, and a few examples to illustrate some of it.



As ontologists know, parthood is used widely in ontologies across most subject domains, such as biomedicine, geographic information systems, architecture, and so on. Ontology (the philosophers) offer a parthood relation that has a bunch of computationally unpleasant properties that are structured in a plethora of mereologicial and meretopological theories such that it has become hard to see the forest for the trees. This is then complicated in practice because there are multiple logics of varying expressivity (support more or less language features), with the result that only certain fragments of the mereo(topo)logical theories can be represented. However, it’s mostly not clear what can be used when, during the ontology authoring stage one may want to have all those features so as to check correctness, and it’s not easy to predict what will happen when one aligns ontologies with different fragments of mereo(topo)logy.



We solved these problems by specifying a structured network of theories formulated in multiple logics that are glued together by the various linking constructs of the Distributed Ontology, Model, and Specification Language (DOL). The ‘structured network of theories’-part concerns all the maximal expressible fragments of the KGEMT mereotopological theory and five of its most well-recognised sub-theories (like GEM and MT) in the seven Description Logics-based OWL species, first-order logic, and higher order logic. The ‘glued together’-part refers to relating the resultant 28 theories within DOL (in Ontohub), which is a non-trivial (understatement, unfortunately) metalanguage that has the constructors for the glue, such as enabling one to declare to merge two theories/modules represented in different logics, extending a theory (ontology) with axioms that go beyond that language without messing up the original (expressivity-restricted) ontology, and more. Further, because the annoying thing of merging two ontologies/modules can be that the merged ontology may be in a different language than the two original ones, which is very hard to predict, we have a cute proof-of-concept tool so that it assists with steps toward resolution of language feature conflicts by pinpointing profile violations.



The paper describes nine mechanisms with DOL and the mereotopological theories. Here I’ll start with a simple one: we have Minimal Topology (MT) partially represented in OWL 2 EL/QL in “theory8” where the connection relation (C) is just reflexive (among other axioms; see table in the paper for details). Now what if we add connection’s symmetry, which results in “theory4”? First, we do this by not harming theory8, in DOL syntax (see also the ESSLI’16 tutorial):

logic OWL2.QL
ontology theory4 =
ObjectProperty: C Characteristics: Symmetric %(t7)

What is the logic of theory4? Still in OWL, and if so, which species? The Owl classifier shows the result:


Another case is that OWL does not let one define an object property; at best, one can add domain and range axioms and the occasional ‘characteristic’ (like aforementioned symmetry), for allowing arbitrary full definitions pushes it out of the decidable fragment. One can add them, though, in a system that can handle first order logic, such as the Heterogeneous toolset (Hets); for instance, where in OWL one can add only “overlap” as a primitive relation (vocabulary element without definition), we can take such a theory and declare that definition:

logic CASL.FOL
ontology theory20 =
then %wdef
. forall x,y:Thing . O(x,y) <=> exists z:Thing (P(z,x) /\ P(z,y)) %(t21)
. forall x,y:Thing . EQ(x,y) <=> P(x,y) /\ P(y,x) %(t22)

As last example, let me illustrate the notion of the conflict resolution. Consider theory19—ground mereology, partially—that is within OWL 2 EL expressivity and theory18—also ground mereology, partially—that is within OWL 2 DL expressivity. So, they can’t be the same; the difference is that theory18 has parthood reflexive and transitive and proper parthood asymmetric and irreflexive, whereas theory19 has both parthood and proper parthood transitive. What happens if one aligns the ontologies that contain these theories, say, O1 (with theory18) and O2 (with theory19)? The Owl classifier provides easy pinpointing and tells you the profile: OWL 2 full (or: first order logic, or: beyond OWL 2 DL—top row) and why (bottom section):

Now, what can one do? The conflict resolution cannot be fully automated, because it depends on what the modeller wants or needs, but there’s enough data generated already and there are known trade-offs so that it is possible to describe the consequences:

  • Choose the O1 axioms (with irreflexivity and asymmetry on proper part of), which will make the ontology interoperable with other ontologies in OWL 2 DL, FOL or HOL.
  • Choose O2’s axioms (with transitivity on part of and proper part of), which will facilitate linking to ontologies in OWL 2 RL, 2 EL, 2 DL, FOL, and HOL.
  • Choose to keep both sets will result in an OWL 2 Full ontology that is undecidable, and it is then compatible only with FOL and HOL ontologies.

As serious final note: there’s still fun to be had on the logic side of things with countermodels and sub-networks and such, and with refining the conflict resolution to assist ontology engineers better. (or: TBC)

As less serious final note: the working title of early drafts of the paper was “DOLifying mereo(topo)logy”, but at some point we chickened out and let go of that frivolity.



[1] Keet, C.M., Kutz, O. Orchestrating a Network of Mereo(topo)logical Theories. Ninth International Conference on Knowledge Capture (K-CAP’17), Austin, Texas, USA, December 4-6, 2017. ACM Proceedings.

Logic, diagrams, or natural language for representing temporal constraints in conceptual modeling languages?

Spoiler alert of the answer: it depends. In this post, I’ll trace it back to how we got to that conclusion and refine it to what it depends on.

There are several conceptual modelling languages with extensions for temporal constraints that then will be used in a database to ensure data integrity with respect to the business rules. For instance, there may be a rule for some information system that states that “all managers in a company must have been employees of that company already” or “all postgraduate students must also be a teaching assistant for some time during their studies”. The question then becomes how to get the modellers to model this sort of information in the best way. The first step in that direction is figuring out the best way to represent temporal constraints. We already know that icons aren’t that unambiguous and easy [1], which leaves the natural language rendering devised recently [2], or one of the logic-based notations, such as the temporal Description Logic DLRUS [3]. So, the questions to investigate thus became, more precisely:

  • Which representation is preferred for representing temporal information: formal semantics, Description Logics (DL), a coding-style notation, diagrams, or template-based (pseudo-)natural language sentences?
  • What would be easier to understand by modellers: a succinct logic-based notation, a graphical notation, or a ‘coding style’ notation?

To answer these questions, my collaborator, Sonia Berman (also at UCT) and I conducted a survey to find out modeller preference(s) and understanding of these representation modes. The outcome of the experiment is about to be presented at the 36th International Conference on Conceptual Modeling (ER’17) that will be held next week in Valencia, Spain, and is described in more detail in the paper “Determining the preferred representation of temporal constraints in conceptual models” [4].

The survey consisted mainly of questions asking them about which representation they preferred, a few questions on trying to model it, and basic questions, like whether they had English as first language (see the questionnaire for details). Below is one of the questions to illustrate it.

One of the questions of the survey

Its option (a) is the semantics notation of the DLRUS Description Logic, its option (b) the short-hand notation in DLRUS, option (c) a coding-style notation we made up, and option (e) is the natural language rendering that came out of prior work [2]. Option (d) was devised for this experiment: it shows the constraint in the Temporal information Representation in Entity-Relationship Diagrams (TREND) language. TREND is an updated and extended version of ERVT [5], taking into account earlier published extensions for temporal relationships, temporal attributes, and quantitative constraints (e.g., ‘employee receives a bonus after two years’), a new extension for the distinction between optional and mandatory temporal constraints, and the notation preferences emanating from [1].

Here are some of the main quantitative results:

The top-rated representation modes and `dislike’ ratings.

These are aggregates, though, and they hide some variations in responses. For instance, representing ‘simple’ temporal constraints in the DL notation was still ok (though noting that diagrams were most preferred), but the more complex the constraints got, the more the preference for the natural language rendering. For instance, take “Person married-to Person may be followed by Person divorced-from Person, ending Person married-to Person.” is deemed easier to understand than \langle o , o' \rangle \in marriedTo^{\mathcal{I}(t)} \rightarrow \exists t'>t. \langle o , o' \rangle \in divorcedFrom^{\mathcal{I}(t')} \land \langle o , o' \rangle \not\in marriedTo^{\mathcal{I}(t')} or \diamond^+\mbox{{\sc RDev}}_{{\sf marriedTo,divorcedFrom}}. Yet, the temporal relationship {\sf marriedTo \sqsubseteq \diamond^* \neg marriedTo} was deemed easier to understand than “The objects participating in a fact in Person married to Person do not relate through married-to at some time”. Details of the experiment and more data and analysis are described in the paper [4]. In sum, the evaluation showed the following:

  1. a clear preference for graphical or verbalised temporal constraints over the other three representations;
  2. ‘simple’ temporal constraints were preferred graphically and complex temporal constraints preferred in natural language; and
  3. their English specification of temporal constraints was inadequate.

Overall, this indicates that what is needed is some modeling tool that has a multi-modal interface for temporal conceptual model development, with the ability to switch between graphical and verbalised temporal constraints in particular.

If I hadn’t had teaching obligations (which now got cancelled due to student protests anyway) and no NRF funding cut in the incentive funding (rated researchers got to hear from one day to the next that it’ll be only 10% of what it used to be), I’d have presented the paper myself at ER’17. Instead, my co-author is on her way to all the fun. If you have any questions, suggestions, or comments, you can ask her at the conference, or drop me a line via email or in the comments below. If you’re interested in TREND: we’re working on a full paper with all the details and have conducted further modeling experiments with it, which we hope to finalise writing up by the end of the year (provided student protests won’t escalate and derail research plans any further).



[1] T. Shunmugam. Adoption of a visual model for temporal database representation. M. IT thesis, Department of Computer Science, University of Cape Town, South Africa, 2016.

[2] Keet, C.M. Natural language template selection for temporal constraints. CREOL: Contextual Representation of Events and Objects in Language, Joint Ontology Workshops 2017, 21-23 September 2017, Bolzano, Italy. CEUR-WS Vol. (in print).

[3] A. Artale, E. Franconi, F. Wolter, and M. Zakharyaschev. A temporal description logic for reasoning about conceptual schemas and queries. In S. Flesca, S. Greco, N. Leone, and G. Ianni, editors, Proceedings of the 8th Joint European Conference on Logics in Artificial Intelligence (JELIA-02), volume 2424 of LNAI, pages 98-110. Springer Verlag, 2002.

[4] Keet, C.M., Berman, S. Determining the preferred representation of temporal constraints in conceptual models. 36th International Conference on Conceptual Modeling (ER’17). Mayr, H.C., Guizzardi, G., Ma, H. Pastor. O. (Eds.). Springer LNCS vol. 10650, 437-450. 6-9 Nov 2017, Valencia, Spain.

[5] A. Artale, C. Parent, and S. Spaccapietra. Evolving objects in temporal information systems. Annals of Mathematics and Artificial Intelligence, 50(1-2):5-38, 2007.

Part-whole relations and foundational ontologies

Part-whole relations seem like a never-ending story—and it still doesn’t bore me. In this case, the ingredients were the taxonomy of part-whole relations [1] and a couple of foundational ontologies and the aim was to link the former to the latter. But what started off with the intention to write just a short workshop note, for seemingly clear and just in need of actually doing it, turned out to be not so straightforward after all. The selected foundational ontologies were not as compatible as assumed, and creating the corresponding orchestration of OWL files was a ‘non-trivial exercise’.

What were (some of) the issues? On the one hand, there are multiple part-whole relations, which are typically named differently when they have a specific domain or range. For instance, to relate a process to a sub-process (e.g., eating involves chewing), to relate a region to a region it contains, relating portions of stuff, and so on. Those relations are fairly well established in the literature. What they do demand for, however, is clarity as to what those categories really are. For instance, with the process example, is that to be understood as Process as meant in the DOLCE ontology, or, say, Process in BFO? What if a foundational ontology does not have a category needed for a commonly used part-whole relation?

The first step to answer such questions was to assess several foundational ontologies on 1) which of the part-whole relations they have now, and which categories are present that are needed for the domain and range declarations for those common part-whole relations. I assessed that for DOLCE, BFO, GFO, SUMO, GIST, and YAMATO. This foundational ontology comparison is summarised in tables 1 and 2 in the paper that emanated from the assessment [2], entitled “A note on the compatibility of part-whole relations with foundational ontologies” that I recently presented at FOUST-II: 2nd Workshop on Foundational Ontology, Joint Ontology Workshops 2017 in Bolzano, Italy. In short: none fits perfectly for various reasons, but there are more and less suitable ontologies for a possible alignment. DOLCE and SUMO were evaluated to have the best approximations. It appeared at the workshops presentation’s Q&A session, where two of the DOLCE developers were present, that the missing Collective was an oversight, or: the ontology is incomplete and it was not an explicit design choice to exclude it. This, then, would make DOLCE the best/easiest fit.

I’ll save you the trials and tribulations creating the orchestrated OWL files. The part-whole relations, their inverses, and their proper parthood versions were manually linked to modules of DOLCE and SUMO, and automatically linked to BFO and GFO. That was an addition of 49 relations (OWL object properties) and 121 logical axioms, which were then extended further with another 11 mereotopological relations and its 16 logical axioms. These files are accessible online directly here and also listed with brief descriptions.

While there is something usable now and, by design at least, these files are reusable as well, what it also highlighted is that there are still some outstanding questions, as there already were for the top-level categories of previously aligned foundational ontologies [3]. For instance, some categories seem the same, but they’re in ‘incompatible’ parts of the taxonomy (located in disjoint branches), so then either not the same after all, or this happened unintentionally. Only GIST has been updated recently, and it may be useful if the others foundational ontologies were to be as well, so as to obtain clarity on these issues. The full interaction of part-whole relations with classical mereology is not quite clear either: there are various extensions and deviations, such as specifically for portions [4,5], but one for processes may be interesting as well. Not that such prospective theories would be usable as-is in OWL ontology development, but there are more expressive languages that start having tooling support where it could be an interesting avenue for future work. I’ll write more about the latter in an upcoming post (covering the K-CAP 2017 paper that was recently accepted).

On a last note: the Joint Ontology Workshops (JOWO 2017) was a great event. Some 100 ontologists from all over the world attended. There were good presentations, lively conversations, and it was great to meet up again with researchers I had not seen for years, finally meet people I knew only via email, and make new connections. It will not be an easy task to surpass this event next year at FOIS 2018 in Cape Town.




[1] Keet, C.M., Artale, A. Representing and Reasoning over a Taxonomy of Part-Whole Relations. Applied Ontology, 2008, 3(1-2):91-110.

[2] Keet, C.M. A note on the compatibility of part-whole relations with foundational ontologies. FOUST-II: 2nd Workshop on Foundational Ontology, Joint Ontology Workshops 2017, 21-23 September 2017, Bolzano, Italy. CEUR-WS Vol. (in print)

[3] Khan, Z.C., Keet, C.M. Foundational ontology mediation in ROMULUS. Knowledge Discovery, Knowledge Engineering and Knowledge Management: IC3K 2013 Selected Papers. A. Fred et al. (Eds.). Springer CCIS vol. 454, pp. 132-152, 2015. preprint

[4] Donnelly, M., Bittner, T. Summation relations and portions of stuff. Philosophical Studies, 2009, 143, 167-185.

[5] Keet, C.M. Relating some stuff to other stuff. 20th International Conference on Knowledge Engineering and Knowledge Management (EKAW’16). Blomqvist, E., Ciancarini, P., Poggi, F., Vitali, F. (Eds.). Springer LNAI vol. 10024, 368-383. 19-23 November 2016, Bologna, Italy.