February 5, 2011
February 5, 2011
IT IS the greatest drama to shake Egypt since the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Huge nationwide protests have challenged the long rule of President Hosni Mubarak, threatening to dislodge him. As yet, the denouement remains unwritten. Will it match Tunisia, where a popular uprising sent another strongman president into exile, toppled his ruling party and opened the way to real democracy? Or will it look like Iran in 2009, where a hardline regime crushed a popular protest movement with iron-fisted resolve?
The protests have left hundreds dead, frozen Egypt’s economy, forced a cabinet to resign, brought the army onto the streets and prompted Mr Mubarak to promise reforms. Egypt’s tough 82-year-old president, in charge for the past three decades, now says he will go—but only at the end of his term in September, with dignity and with a subtle threat that if he does not get his way, things could turn uglier still. While offering a bare minimum of concessions, he has driven a wedge between millions of protesters who demand change and millions of others who fear chaos and want a return to normal. By February 2nd the two sides were battling each other.
Mr Mubarak has been slow to respond throughout the crisis, but his few appearances have been cleverly pitched. When he finally spoke, after midnight on January 28th, a day when hundreds of thousands across the breadth of Egypt had battled furiously with his police, it was with a husky voice and the petulance of a master betrayed by bungling servants. He said he understood his people’s concerns, and as a concession fired his cabinet. But he blamed the unrest on miscreants and agitators, declaring that protests had grown so loud only because he himself had magnanimously granted rights to free expression.
There was something in this. During his rule Egyptians have changed, as has the world they live in. They do speak more freely now, but not only because Mr Mubarak’s regime has belatedly allowed the airing of more critical views. New technologies have also made it impossible for states such as Egypt’s to retain the information monopolies they once enjoyed.
Mr Mubarak was right in a wider sense, too. It has been on his watch, and in part because of his policies, that Egyptian society has ripened for a sudden outburst that now threatens to blow away his regime. This is true not only because he failed to improve the lot of Egypt’s poorest very much, because he throttled meaningful political evolution, or because he let his police humiliate victims with impunity. Some of Mr Mubarak’s modest achievements, such as improving literacy, keeping peace with neighbours, extending communications networks and fostering the emergence of a large urban middle class, have also sharpened tensions.
This is one reason why the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia echoes resoundingly across the region. Most of the other countries there, whether monarchies or republics, also have structures that seem increasingly anomalous in the modern world. Since the 1950s the Arab social order has been run by paternalist strongmen, bolstered by strong security forces and loyalist business grandees. Those below have been marginalised from politics, except as masses to be roused for some cause, or as a rabble with which to frighten a narrow and fragile bourgeoisie. They have been treated as subjects, rather than citizens.
But much as in southern Europe in the 1970s, when authoritarian regimes in Portugal, Spain and Greece fell in a heap, or later in Latin America, where juntas collapsed like dominoes, Arab societies are changing in ways likely to provoke a sweeping political reordering. Because of the extreme violence of a radical fringe, much of the outside world’s concern for the region has focused on the rise of Islamism as a social and political force.
The role of groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is important. But it is underlying social changes that affect all, rather than the ideological aspirations of some, that are jamming the mechanics of authoritarian control. Islamists in both Tunisia and Egypt may soon emerge as leading political actors. So far, however, they have taken a back seat.
February 5, 2011
Mohan Srivastava, a geological statistician living in Toronto, was working in his office in June 2003, waiting for some files to download onto his computer, when he discovered a couple of old lottery tickets buried under some paper on his desk. The tickets were cheap scratchers—a gag gift from his squash partner—and Srivastava found himself wondering if any of them were winners. He fished a coin out of a drawer and began scratching off the latex coating. “The first was a loser, and I felt pretty smug,” Srivastava says. “I thought, ‘This is exactly why I never play these dumb games.’”
The second ticket was a tic-tac-toe game. Its design was straightforward: On the right were eight tic-tac-toe boards, dense with different numbers. On the left was a box headlined “Your Numbers,” covered with a scratchable latex coating. The goal was to scrape off the latex and compare the numbers under it to the digits on the boards. If three of “Your Numbers” appeared on a board in a straight line, you’d won. Srivastava matched up each of his numbers with the digits on the boards, and much to his surprise, the ticket had a tic-tac-toe. Srivastava had won $3. “This is the smallest amount you can win, but I can’t tell you how excited it made me,” he says. “I felt like the king of the world.”
Delighted, he decided to take a lunchtime walk to the gas station to cash in his ticket. “On my way, I start looking at the tic-tac-toe game, and I begin to wonder how they make these things,” Srivastava says. “The tickets are clearly mass-produced, which means there must be some computer program that lays down the numbers. Of course, it would be really nice if the computer could just spit out random digits. But that’s not possible, since the lottery corporation needs to control the number of winning tickets. The game can’t be truly random. Instead, it has to generate the illusion of randomness while actually being carefully determined.”
Srivastava speaks quietly, with a slight stammer. He has a neatly trimmed beard and a messy office. When he talks about a subject he’s interested in—and he’s interested in many things, from military encryption to freshwater fossils—his words start to run into each other.
As a trained statistician with degrees from MIT and Stanford University, Srivastava was intrigued by the technical problem posed by the lottery ticket. In fact, it reminded him a lot of his day job, which involves consulting for mining and oil companies. A typical assignment for Srivastava goes like this: A mining company has multiple samples from a potential gold mine. Each sample gives a different estimate of the amount of mineral underground. “My job is to make sense of those results,” he says. “The numbers might seem random, as if the gold has just been scattered, but they’re actually not random at all. There are fundamental geologic forces that created those numbers. If I know the forces, I can decipher the samples. I can figure out how much gold is underground.”
Srivastava realized that the same logic could be applied to the lottery. The apparent randomness of the scratch ticket was just a facade, a mathematical lie. And this meant that the lottery system might actually be solvable, just like those mining samples. “At the time, I had no intention of cracking the tickets,” he says. He was just curious about the algorithm that produced the numbers. Walking back from the gas station with the chips and coffee he’d bought with his winnings, he turned the problem over in his mind. By the time he reached the office, he was confident that he knew how the software might work, how it could precisely control the number of winners while still appearing random. “It wasn’t that hard,” Srivastava says. “I do the same kind of math all day long.”