Words that Saved the World

The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) asked me to list the best book I’ve read in 2013 (and why); and also for the book I’d like to receive as a Christmas present.

I wrote a short piece in response, which is included in their feature titled ‘Leafing through the best picks’ on 22 Dec 2013.

Here’s my essay in full: it wasn’t easy to pick one good title in a year in which I read many enjoyable and mind-stretching books.

Word power amplifies political power...

Word power amplifies political power…

Words that Saved the World

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Although it lasted only a thousand days, John F Kennedy’s presidency was eventful and memorable in many respects. His legacy has inspired an estimated 40,000 books and films. This year, which marked the 50th anniversary of his assassination, I read an exceptional addition to this (still rising) pile.

To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace (Random House, 2013), by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, revisits the extraordinary days from October 1962 to September 1963. That was JFK’s Annus mirabilis (Year of wonders) when he marshalled the power of oratory and political skills to achieve more peaceful relations with the Soviet Union and a dramatic slowdown in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

During that year, which started with momentous ‘13 days’ of the Cuban missile crisis, JFK he gave a series of speeches where he argued that peace with the Soviet Union was both possible and highly desirable. One delivered to the American University in Washington DC in June 1963 is generally referred to as his Peace Speech. Sachs shows why it was one of the most important foreign policy speeches of the 20th Century – ultimately more consequential than any other by JFK.

If Winston Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle” during World War II, Kennedy used his mastery of the same language to talk the US and Soviet Union down from the brink of a planetary nuclear war.

What I’d love to get for Christmas is Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela (Seven Stories Press, 2013) just written by my journalist friend Danny Schechter. We can count on Danny, who has spent 40 years chronicling the story of Mandela and South Africa’s struggle for freedom and equality, to provide plenty of depth, nuance and analysis.

Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer and blogger.

Can you hear me now? Why people yell into mobile phones…

Louder, please?

Why do people – especially middle aged men – yell into their mobile phones?

This is one of those widely asked questions in relation to communications technologies that have become part of our daily lives. Mobile phone etiquette hasn’t evolved as fast as phone coverage, so this behaviour remains a regular source of irritation at hotels, restaurants, airports and other public places.

So why do people with normal speaking volumes yell into their cell phones? I came across an interesting explanation, which also suggests that it’s a trait more common among Digital Immigrants.

Here’s an extract: “Household telephones, or landlines, have a microphone in the receiver that amplifies your voice into the ear piece. When you talk into a landline, your voice is captured and replayed through the ear piece, so you hear your own voice loud and clear….With cell phones, your own voice is not amplified into the earpiece, so the only sound you hear is from your mouth. Seem like this wouldn’t be a huge difference, but the volume level of words coming from your mouth through the air and into your ear is a pretty big difference from sounds coming from a phone speaker that’s pressed directly against your ear.”

No, Sir Winston is not using an early mobile phone - it's a field radio receiver!

Hmm. So there’s hope that the trait will become less common in the coming years.

Of course, the habit goes a long way back to the days when phone lines rarely offered good audio quality. There is the true story of how Sir Winston Churchill had to suffer a Cabinet colleague who was a loud phone talker. During the Second World War, they were sharing crammed war cabins.

One day the Minister was once again talking very loudly on the phone. Churchill asked his secretary to go over and tell Mr Brown not to talk at the top of his voice. The secretary returned and told the PM: ‘Sir, the Minister is talking to Scotland.’

Without batting an eyelid, Churchill replied: ‘Yes, I’m sure he is. But tell him to use the phone!’