Words matter

As an academic editor and instructor for those seeking to communicate the results of their research as well as their ultimate ambitions as researchers and scientists, I obsess about words, primarily the words of others. I understand that words can and do carry incredible meaning and a power we often forget or neglect. Particularly, when they matter most. Particularly, when emotions run high. Particularly, when we most need to use and wield them carefully.

As an American, I absolutely and unequivocally support an individual’s freedom to express themselves. So long as it does not incite violence. So long as they accept when speaking what they say and to whom and how may carry consequences, and before speaking they be ready to accept those consequences.

First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.

I use this space to express my own beliefs. My own ideology. My own random musings on current events and odd occurrences in the world around me and further afield. But, I do so accepting fully that I will offend some and alienate others at times. I write and share here in the hope that it also inspires some, primarily to use their own voices and their own words, to allow others a glimpse into divergent world and views or to simply think about the world in a slightly different way. But, I also understand that what I have said elsewhere and written here about my own beliefs carries consequences for me. And, I accept those consequences. Because I understand the responsibility that speaking out carries.

As debates once again rage about the First Amendment and the Freedom of Expression as the US President is banned from social media platforms perhaps permanently and a social media platform loses its hosting services given the violence that was fomented and organised via it, it seems like we all need to re-examine what the right and freedom to express ourselves means.

It seems to me when someone uses a platform to plan and/or organise an assault on a body of government, where individuals are running around that chamber actively searching for the Vice President as well as the Speak of the House, the Senate Majority Leader and various other elected officials, so that they can kidnap or kill them, we might want to question what constitutes ‘speech’. When such actions are encouraged by a sitting President, who continues to lie after making nearly 30 000 false or misleading claims through the election in 2020, allowing him to continue to do so whilst he also encourages violence against members of a body of government might carry some consequences.

It seems to me when a sitting President encourages his devotees to march to the Capitol, when his personal attorney argues for ‘trial by combat‘ and another elected official quotes Hitler, we might want to limit their access to megaphones. At the very least, perhaps we can let them know that their words have consequences.

Furthermore, if a private business owner can refuse providing their service to an individual for no other reason than they object to that potential client being gay, another private business can also decide that they do not want to do business with a company or group or individual that fosters and foments violence in any form (Think: No shirt. No shoes. No service.).

Individuals can say what they want. But, they also need to accept that actions have consequences, particularly when dealing with private businesses and companies. (Isn’t that what many said in response to Colin Kaepernick not being signed after he took a knee?)

The Freedom of Expression also demands we use that right and freedom responsibly.

Words matter. And, the words of the President (and others) this particular week as well as for quite some time have been inflammatory, intentionally spread misinformation and outright lies, incited violence and fomented hatred. He can say whatever he wants. But, he must also accept that those words may carry consequences.

At the very least, the rest of us need to reflect upon what we are willing to say and do, and the responsibilities afforded and put upon each of us when we do so, as well as what consequences we are willing to face given our choices.

And, if nothing else, we must remember: words matter.

On ‘Steering the Craft’ by Ursula K Le Guin

Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I clearly need to read more from Ursula K Le Guin.

I picked this book up based on the review a friend and colleague posted about it several months ago. As an instructor for PhD students and postdocs who seek to improve their writing skills, this seemed like an interesting read and possible source for new ideas and tips to share.

I’m delighted to say this book proved more than useful and highly insightful, and already appears to have influenced my own teaching as well as revising for various clients. (I’m not kidding: I caught myself yesterday hearing Ursula’s guidance as I proofread a manuscript for a client, finding several highly ambiguous and awkwardly phrased sentences that desperately required reshuffling.)

Filled with insight, tips, and useful examples from masters of prose, as well as exercises for both writing and critiquing, this is a highly useful book, both for those writing fiction or memoirs as well as for those like my own students attempting to tell the story of their research. As time (and energy levels) permits, I plan to work through the exercises. At the very least, I’ll be incorporating them into my own courses and gladly share them with colleagues.

This is a gem of a resources for those who seek to write as well as for those working with writers regardless of genre, style, length or topic. It’s also a bloody good read.



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On ‘The Uncounted’ by Sara ‘Meg’ Davis

The Uncounted by Sara L.M. Davis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


In today’s world in particular, there are days when it seems as though we are drowning in information. Too much data. Too much ‘stuff’ to process and make sense of. That feeling is only partially true, however. Across various areas and arenas, we know far too little, particularly when we focus on issues surrounding health and human rights. All too often we take the absence of information or data or evidence as a sign that we may relax a bit.

We desperately need to shift that thinking. The Uncounted, by Sara ‘Meg’ Davis provides a road map for how we may begin to shift our thinking and perspectives in order to adjust how, amongst whom and what we collect data in a relatively simple way, and in a way which may pay huge dividends, particularly amongst those most in need and previously most neglected in policy planning and financing.

‘The Uncounted’ is a fantastic read, one which profoundly challenges the notion that in the absence of information or evidence we don’t need to worry about issue X. That is, if we carefully examine those variables for which we have no data or evidence, perhaps upon digging deeper and enlisting assistance from those more acutely and intimately aware than we are, we will find previously hidden information and data. And, that data and information are likely to radically shift how we design programmes or policies on various issues. We will no longer be able to simply dismiss an issue as unproblematic. Quite simply, ‘The Uncounted’ provides a profound argument for carefully considering how we examine and apply the absence of evidence as an indicator.

‘The Uncounted’ is rich in ethnographic descriptions, documenting the various assumptions made by multilateral agencies charged with dispersing funding to and establishing guidelines for countries in how they respond to HIV, tuberculosis and malaria (e.g., The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, UNAIDS, WHO, PEPFAR, etc) and local-level agencies and individuals best situated to argue for expanding programmes and funding schemes within communities. For those unfamiliar with such agencies, Dr Davis disentangles these various personalities and agencies rather neatly, making it clear who does what and whose voice is perhaps most necessary in deciding upon programmes and policies to address HIV in particular. Following the progress and steps necessary to count the uncounted within the Caribbean region provides evidence for how we can begin to shift our thinking and truly ensure full inclusion of all individuals affected by HIV and specifically those least likely to date to receive crucial services and support.

Reading ‘The Uncounted’ during a global pandemic proved rather surreal,not simply because some of its key characters are also playing a crucial role in current events vis-a-vis Covid-19. As our global health-related realities have been thrown into chaos this year with the emergence of Covid-19, I’m curious to see how various elements of Dr Davis’ careful and thorough work play out. Whilst focused primarily on HIV, and the very real oversights in counting typically hidden populations such as men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers and people who use drugs, certainly many individuals, and perhaps the most vulnerable, will go uncounted in the wake of Covid-19. Will health, social, and economic policy makers and planners at local, national, and international levels solicit the perspectives from those at the community levels most intimately associated with the epidemics and acutely aware of problems in providing treatment, care and support to those affected in order to understand who, what, why and where? Or will they rely on the absence of evidence as evidence of absence simply because individuals are not counted by the powers that be? How will key populations be accounted for? Will they?

My hope is that the powers that be across power structures would heed the advice and road maps provided by Dr Davis. The reality is that in some places, that advice and those road maps are not being considered. And, in those places it seems as those Covid-19 is raging unchallenged. [Insert heavy sigh here.]

‘The Uncounted’ provides this cynic with a bit of hope, however, particularly with regards to HIV. Hope that we expand our perspective ever so slightly, yet in a way which we can make a huge difference to communities and key populations who may have previously faced stigma, discrimination and institutional neglect, and who may finally receive the crucial support to transform structures that place them at the response to HIV. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary. And, to my mind, long overdue.

Clearly, we can no longer that that ‘absence of evidence as evidence of absence’.



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On ‘Write It Up’, by Paul Silvia

Write It Up! Practical Strategies for Writing and Publishing Journal ArticlesWrite It Up! Practical Strategies for Writing and Publishing Journal Articles by Paul J. Silvia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As an instructor to young (and older) PhD students, specifically providing guidance on the wonderfully wacky world of academic publishing, I think this book rocks.

It’s not just a how-to for each individual section of a manuscript, it’s also a bit like a personalised cheerleader, cutting off each objection and ‘but what about’ as it crops up. Never dull, always insightful and on point, Paul Silvia offers a delightful primer on academic writing and putting together academic articles that will be read rather than simple consigned to the published rubbish heaps that litter various libraries, virtually and otherwise. 

I’d require my students to read this book if they were undergraduates and took my classes for actual letter grades. However, they’re adults and can and will do what they want with their valuable time. So, let’s just say that I will strongly encourage them to heed his advice (along with mine to read this book), particularly if they question what we discuss and do in my own classrooms.  

One particularly useful bit of this book is the chapter on the publication process itself, from submission to journals through to revising and resubmitting based on that most dreaded process called ‘peer review’. If you, my dear students, read nothing else, read that chapter. [And, as you do, you will hear my voice, saying, ‘See? I told you so!’]

Thank you, Professor Silvia, for having our instructors’ backs, as well as providing an example of an academic writer with wit, charm and intellect that shines through careful writing. I’ll be recommending this gem of a book to all of my students forevermore.

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On ‘Shrill’, by Lindy West

Shrill: Notes from a Loud WomanShrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Witty. Brutally honest. Raw. Genuine. Empowering. Righteous. And unapologetic.

I love this book. So, so much. And I love that I feel more empowered reading it.

Thank you, Lindy. You rock, girlfriend! I have no idea what you look like, but you embody beauty beyond measure.

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On ‘Headstrong’: 52 Women in STEM

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the WorldHeadstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World by Rachel Swaby

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Women in STEM. Yes! Yes! Yes!

This delightful book places women firmly at the centre of their work and contributions to various breakthroughs and discoveries. Rather than being relegated to the status of ‘wife’ or ‘assistant’, they are the pioneers in their respective fields. It’s ever-so refreshing, although at times infuriating if only that some women did not receive the recognition they deserved until after their deaths.

Whether as a ray of light and hope during these odd times, or as inspiration for young scientists, this is a lively read. If I had a daughter, I’d read it with her, and perhaps dive into the extensive bibliography documenting women’s many contributions to STEM.

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On ‘How to Write a Lot’

How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic WritingHow to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J. Silvia

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A colleague / friend with whom I’ve been working the last year recently mentioned this little gem of a book to me as we discussed some rather disappointing peer reviews she’d received.

Academic writing is hard work, often leaving writers / authors rather dispirited and unmotivated. Finding motivation to write at all remains a constant battle for many of us. And, time and again, I find myself saying to students, colleagues and myself, ‘just schedule time to write and only write if you want to accomplish anything’.

More than anything, that message rings out loud and clear throughout this precious little bit of encouragement by Paul Silvia.

I genuinely love this book. Its tone. Its thinness. Its simplicity. Its language. And, its messages, both primary and supporting. Whether student or mentor, writing an article or book manuscript or proposal, whether just beginning or seeking to finish items on your to-do list, this book offers something for everyone.

In the week since it arrived, I’ve gone from planning to read a chapter at a time to plowing through it as if it is the most exciting suspense novel ever. It’s just that engaging. And, I will be recommending, if not demanding, that all of my students give it a read regardless of where they live within the graduate school landscape.

Thank you, Paul Silvia. I’ll be revisiting my own writing schedule this weekend. And, recommitting to cleaning my desk procrastinating less.

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Surrealistic pillow, v2.0

My dreams in Helsinki are never as vivid or as surreal as those when we’re on holiday. But, every once in a while, my subconscious plays a little joke on me as I slumber. This morning, my subconscious decided to remind that I evidently really love gin and need to read some Hemingway again soon. Or, simply, Cuba is on my mind.

Just before waking, I dreamt that I was at some rather random gathering involving sail boats and Christmas trees, neither of which are at all common in my waking world. Amidst the festivities, some of us sat at a rather plain table whilst several of my fellow real-life gin-loving friends waxed poetic and sang the praises of one gin or another.

As a bottle of one of those gins was passed around, I poured myself a rather generous glass. No ice. No tonic. No garnish. Just gin. [NB: As much as I do enjoy a lovely and refreshing gin and tonic on a warm summer afternoon, I’d never ever consider just pouring a full glass! ]

After pouring, I look up and across the table from me sat Papa Hemingway, without his captain’s hat or pipe, but most definitely his snow-white beard and paunch.

Looking on and seemingly otherwise rather bored, what was his reaction to my long pour?

‘Is that all for you, sister, or are you sharing?’

I woke myself up chuckling.

Dream a dream, and make yourself wonder what the hell goes on in that head of yours when you aren’t distracted by all the bloody noise.

Papa Hemingway

On ‘Men Without Women’

Men Without WomenMen Without Women by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love Haruki Murakami.

I love the way he is able to transport his readers to the exact place he’s describing. How he can weave tales which seem utterly outlandish and yet entirely plausible. How he can create emotions, particularly those of longing and loss and a sense of wanting, simply through his characters’ thoughts and actions.

For each of these stories describing Men Without Women, I’d like more. I’d like to know what happens next to each of them.

More than anything, I’m reminded once again why Murakami is amongst my most favourite authors. Thank you once again, Maestro. You are a genre unto yourself.

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On Anthony Bourdain

Finding Anthony Bourdain was a complete accident. Flipping through channels in Moscow on a completely ordinary day, I stumbled across this weird dude on a military boat saying, ‘Not how we expected this show to end, huh?’.

Anthony Bourdain in Beirut, 2006 from Andrew MacGregor Marshall on Vimeo.

That dude was Tony and he was filming an episode of No Reservations in Beirut. The problem was all hell broke lose on his first day of filming and he, his crew and many others were trapped in a hotel until they could get out of the country safely. He, the star, seemed more concerned about his crew, the other hotel guests (particularly the kids) and the hotel staff, as well as all those beyond the hotel living in hell on earth. He cooked for his crew as stress relief, and mostly he showed such a rare degree of honest compassion for everyone else in that episode that he was just … some dude who happened to have this really cool gig, talking about food and eating it on camera. In a war zone.

I was hooked.

I watched him through the last episode of No Reservations. I mourned the closing of El Bulli with Tony.  I have watched almost all of Parts Unknown faithfully, although I am a bit behind.

I love his perspective on food, his commentaries on the cultures in which he finds himself and his interactions with the people he meets as he eats and pontificates across the globe. He makes the different seem not so bad. And, not quite so foreign.

When he traveled to Cuba in 2011, I was equally thrilled and horrified. My biggest fear was ‘which’ Cuba he would see; which Cuba would he show his legions of followers from the couch. But, before that show aired, he wrote the following:

It’s easy, I know, to over-romanticize the unspoiled. Especially when “unspoiled” means “poor”. But look. Look.

Whatever your politics, however you feel about Cuba–look at tonight’s show and admit, at least, that Havana is beautiful. It is the most beautiful city of Latin America or the Caribbean. Look at the Cuban people and admit that they are proud and big hearted and funny and kind–and strong as hell, having put up with every variety of bullshit over the years. On these things, I hope we can agree.

That episode made me weep for the country which has embraced me and which also breaks my heart just a little every time I think of her and her amazing people. He got it. And, better yet, he showed it to everyone else.

He showed so many parts of this crazy world to us all, and showed us the unpolished, unvarnished, unsanitised versions. Because that’s life. For all of us. Regardless of the perfect images we personally choose show to and share with the world.

‘Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.’
Anthony Bourdain (No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach

This past year, he’s also been a rather vocal ally to women, supporting #metoo, understanding the inherent irony of a chef from an incredibly chauvinistic and misogynistic profession giving voice to acts of misogyny and sexism. But, you know, having that ultimate dude as an advocate for women calling out powerful men meant something.

All of it did. It does.

Now, in a world in which we won’t have his wit, his curiosity, his insatiable appetite for all of the food, his uncanny skill with words and their descriptive beauty and power … I’m simply heartbroken.

Thank you, Tony. You gave us too much. And, forgive me, but I really, really, really want to punch you right now.

If you feel at all at the end of tether, before you do anything, please call / reach out to me. Reach out to someone. Anyone.

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org. Take a moment and know that you are loved.