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Good Reads: A Calvin and Hobbes take on Egypt

Here is a survey of insightful articles on what's next for Egypt, the cost of America's obsession with security post 9/11, and how cellphones can help with disaster management.

Egypt’s game of Calvinball

As a longtime correspondent and professor at George Washington University, Marc Lynch is a highly trained observer of Middle Eastern politics. So when he looked at the chaotic nature of Egypt’s current political scene, after the Arab uprisings, he quickly saw a pattern.

The pattern went like this: There was no pattern.

Just when political parties and candidates felt like they were beginning to understand the system, the system changed. Parliamentary elections were held, only to have one third of the elected parliamentarians declared ineligible after the fact. Behind all these changes was the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which midway through the elections gave itself more power and diminished those of any future elected president.

It reminded Mr. Lynch of the cartoon characters Calvin and Hobbes and their favorite game, “Calvinball.” Lynch writes in Foreign Policy:

“Calvinball sometimes resembles recognizable games such as football, but is quickly revealed to be something else entirely. The rules change in mid-play, as do the goals ("When I learned you were a spy, I switched goals. This is your goal and mine's hidden."), the identities of the players ("I'm actually a badminton player disguised as a double-agent football player!") and the nature of the competition ("I want you to cross my goal. The points will go to your team, which is really my team!").  The only permanent rule is that the game is never played the same way twice. Is there any better analogy for Egypt's current state of play?”

The funny part about Calvinball, of course, is that it’s so chaotic that Calvin sometimes ends up losing. That’s a fact that might give the generals in the SCAF some cause for concern, Lynch notes.

Land of the Free

Every age has a central political or social phenomenon that gives citizens a sense of focus. During the roaring ‘20s, it was the feckless abandon that came after a senseless war. The Great Depression followed up swiftly with austerity and sacrifice, World War II ushered in courage and persistence, and the cold war brought with it the “Red Menace,” in which Communist sleeper cells attempted to undermine free societies.

The central narrative of the past decade was determined by the terrorist attack of Sept.11, 2001, and the desire that Americans felt for security at all costs. This was a time when US courts allowed the most significant suspension of judicial and legal rights seen in modern times. Those suspected of terrorism could be locked up indefinitely, with very little evidence.

Some of these suspects, such as University of South Florida’s Sami al-Arian, remain either in jail or under threat of prosecution, merely for expressing what Mr. Arian’s daughter Laila calls his constitutional right of self-expression as an American of Palestinian descent. Read Laila al-Arian’s story in this week’s The Nation for a warning of how a hyped-up legal system can go horribly wrong.

Canada’s polite spying

Most Western countries ramped up security after the 9/11 attacks, but each in its own way. Canada, ever the counterpoint to its rough-and-tumble southern neighbor, informs citizens in advance that it is listening in on their conversations in public places, and does so politely, as Megan Garber reports in The Atlantic magazine.

“At Ottawa's airport, the Ottawa Citizen reports, signs will be posted referring passersby to a ‘privacy notice’ – which will, in turn, be available on the CBSA website. You can load up the site and learn exactly how – and why – the government is watching you. The CBSA will also provide a help line ‘explaining how the recordings will be used, stored, disclosed, and retained.’”

Quake behavior

If you have started to look at your cellphone as some kind of spy – tracking your movements, archiving your every purchase, and passing that information along to governments, or worse, advertisers – here’s something that might repair the relationship a little.

Cellphones might save lives during natural disasters. In a study published in this week’s edition of “Science” magazine, Nicholas St. Fleur writes that epidemiologists Linus Bengtsson and Xin Lu from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden tracked the movements and call patterns of 2 million anonymous cellphone users in Haiti, both before and after the devastating January 2010 earthquake. What they discovered was that they could predict where people would go in an emergency, based on where they traveled for holidays.

The team found that after the earthquake, "people seemed to have traveled to where they had their significant social bonds and support," says Bengtsson. Specifically, Haitians went to the same locations where they had spent Christmas and New Year's. For example, departments (Haiti's major administrative divisions) Sud and Ouest received the highest influx of people. By understanding where people go during their holidays, the researchers say that they can accurately guess where people will go during times of disaster.”

And that is good news for emergency aid groups. 

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