Gig Economy

Electric Glide

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Sitting behind the wheel, stranded in a mass of cars waiting for the red light to turn green, a mirage appeared before my eyes: a skinny and elegant female figure molded as if by the hands of Alberto Giacometti, swinging among honking cars, gliding into the center of the crossing. She zipped among the moving obstacles, made a sharp right turn and vanished. Everything happened fast, silently, her figure upright on a small scooter, her long hair waving goodbye to drivers trapped in cars.

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Urban stories

Ubering

By Andrej Mrevlje |

I have been an Uber driver for a few months now. As a rule, I don’t drive more than three days a week, for three to four hours a day. If you want to hire me, my Uber app will show you that my rating is 4.82, which puts me in the 90th percentile of five-star Uber drivers. But that figure does not mean much; the hard-earned rating can be turned into dust with one rider’s negative evaluation. When a driver’s ratings reach the red line–that is, an intolerable 4.6–Uber starts monitoring the driver, and they can be easily deactivated, the Uber term for being fired. How can one slip from high to low in an instant? It happened to me one lovely spring morning when exploring a new, off-track neighborhood.

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America

Can Hamilton Rewrite America?

By Andrej Mrevlje |
The Hamilton cast and crew greets President Barack Obama on July 18, 2015.

Whether history repeats itself as a tragedy or a farce seems to be of little importance in the United States, a country where history stomped fresh trails, different from the rest of the world. And yet, this is an exceptional time, of the Broadway spectacle “Hamilton“,  the unprecedented presidency of Donald Trump, and the inimitable collision of politics and culture. So, history, it seems, is kicking back. As Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker:

On rare occasions, the American musical can still be central to what we should call our ceremonial culture. A song-and-dance show on Forty-sixth Street can occasionally touch so profoundly on some central preoccupation of a period that, even if relatively few of us actually get to see it live, it still becomes a kind of hearth at the center of a national celebration.

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United States

Trump’s North Korea Bluff

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Kim Jong Un, That Obscure Object of Desire.

On June 13, at 5:45 a.m., the President of United States posted the following tweet: “Just landed – a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!”

As usual, President Trump used pompous words to try to position himself among the greatest presidents in the history of the United States. Trump assumed the tone of JFK, who in 1962 pulled the country back from the edge of war as an unprecedented Russian nuclear threat kept the world teetering on global destruction for 13 days. Contrary to the intensity of the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was never an imminent nuclear threat from North Korea, no matter how much President Trump likes capital letters. There was also no sigh of relief when Trump returned from the meeting with the North Korean dictator, a signed agreement in hand that, according to its beneficiary, saved America. Read more »

America

Is the Most Brutal Building in DC Housing the Hope of America?

By Andrej Mrevlje |

In October 2016, when my wife and I moved to Capitol Hill, in Washington DC, I wanted to get a sense of the space. So I started the new adventure by rambling along Pennsylvania Avenue without any particular aim. Everything was beautiful and sunny and easy going compared to crowded and condensed Manhattan, where I spent the previous six years. Penn Avenue looked like a broad, lazy river, adapted to the smooth temperament of a southern city. Then an ugly building hit me between the eyes. I stopped, scanned the offending monster, different from everything else within the Federal Triangle, the palatial seat of American power.

I tried to understand what I was looking at. The only person I saw somewhat connected to the building, as I observed him from across the Avenue, was a man jogging on the terrace that runs around the entire the second floor of the building. One round, then another, the same person both times. Nobody else entered or left the building. Was it a prison?

No. It was the J.Edgar Hoover Building, the headquarters of the FBI. The fortress was erected in the late sixties, right in the heart of the American Capital, and is considered one of the best examples of Brutalist architecture, as described here: “In Brutalist structures, unprocessed concrete surfaces are commonly used to create rugged, dramatic surfaces and monumental sculptural forms. The concrete of the Hoover Building shows the marks from the rough wood forms into which the liquid concrete was poured. The exterior is constructed of buff-colored precast and cast-in-place concrete. The intent was to attach sheets of polished concrete or granite to the exterior. The exterior walls were built to accommodate these attachments, but this plan was abandoned as the building neared from across.”

It is an outstanding building. As Paul Goldberger, writing for the New York Times in 1975, observed: “This building turns its back on the city and substitutes for responsible architecture a pompous, empty monumentality that is, in the end, not so much a symbol as a symptom—a symptom of something wrong in government and just as wrong in architecture.”

It’s a building that tells you not to come closer, not to dare pass by, not to look. But why is it positioned in the middle of other shiny, monumental, imperial-like architecture, halfway between the Capitol Hill and the White House? Why not hide it somewhere in the woods of Virginia or Maryland, the way they did with the CIA and NSA headquarters? Why this ugly, fake Corbusier of the ominous Orwellian look, with thick walls that hide cryptographic vaults, exercise rooms, a film library, a firing range, and 80,000 square feet of laboratory space; a medical clinic, morgue, a printing plant, a test pattern and ballistics range, and probably an entire military army arsenal.

My impression and image of the FBI until that time was created by movies like Blues Brothers and Twin Peaks. I never had anything else to do with those Hollywood stereotyped guys in black suits and sunglasses. So standing in front of this mythical institution, I could not resist imposing the unfriendly caricatures on it, a European tendency. But I thought I might as well start my Washington experience by entering into one of the nerve centers of this country.

As I walked into what I remember as a very dark lobby, I noticed a sign that visits and tours of FBI headquarters have been interrupted. “For security reasons,” the desk officer told me. Oh well, there went my short FBI career. If not for the suspended FBI tour, I would probably not have visited another unattractive building just across the avenue – the newly restored Old Post Office, transformed into Trump International Hotel. Only one month before the elections, the latest Trump Hotel had a soft opening, showing off its brand new Presidential Hall, ready for the special events. But it was the lobby of the hotel that interested me. So I walked in and after a couple of visits wrote a story about the city and the country that was about to become Trumpland.

A year and a half later, the three front doors of the Trump International Hotel, practically around the corner from the White House, are sealed. No more walks into the lobby; the other entrances of the colossal building are reserved for the people coming by invitation in cars and after security control. As I wrote this, I called the FBI, and they told me that the building is open for tours again. The reversed situation is more than symbolic; the radical change may even be making me a fan of the FBI, perhaps even the CIA.

A year ago, I would never have said this. But with the deterioration of many other institutions in America, the hope is that special counsel Robert Mueller will be able to conclude the investigation on the probably illegal activity of the sitting President of the U.S., his family members, and collaborators. I do not see any other way to bring this country, which still has an inimitable impact on the rest of the world, back under the rule of law.

For the last two weeks, I was traveling in Europe, and I deliberately did not follow the national U.S. news. Firstly, because I was tired of it, and secondly because I was convinced that I was not missing anything. And yet, as Daniel W. Drezner noted in the Washington Post, this is what happened in one week of news abstinence:

The Justice Department providing a Very Special Briefing to Devin Nunes, Trey Gowdy, and the president’s lawyer.
The Trump administration contemplating further abuse of the national security portion of U.S. trade law to slap a 25 percent tariff on automobiles and auto parts.
An Associated Press expose into Elliott Broidy’s pay-for-play schemes to lobby the Trump administration on behalf of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Jared Kushner finally securing his permanent security clearance, and Ivanka Trump finally getting her China trademarks.
The White House announcing via a tweeted letter that Trump would not attend the scheduled June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore without any warning for key allies.
The subsequent “summit or no summit?” drama that has played out since Trump canceled the summit, including Trump’s optimism that it will take place.
Poland offering $2 billion to host a permanent U.S. military base.
Trump claiming that a background White House briefing never took place.
Continued controversy over the policy of separating immigrant children from their parents.
Trump continuing to push his “Spygate” claims in a conscious effort to sow distrust of law enforcement.

It’s a lot, but let just stop on the last one, the so-called Spygate. It’s interesting that an accurate reconstruction of the launch and evolution of Spygate is almost impossible. Vox.com started its timeline reconstruction on June 6 with the headline, “Trump, Fox News, and Twitter have created a dangerous conspiracy theory loop. The president tweeted literal “fake news” about the so-called “Spygate” controversy. The story behind the tweet is revealing — and scary.” Is there more? According to Vox.com, Spygate was formally launched by the president’s tweet on June 5:
“Wow, Strzok-Page, the incompetent & corrupt FBI lovers, have texts referring to a counter-intelligence operation into the Trump Campaign dating way back to December 2015. SPYGATE is in full force! Is the Mainstream Media interested yet?”

The supposed source for this claim came from text messages between two FBI employees, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page (here is the background on this story as it appeared in January after Robert Mueller removed Strzok from his team). The two were having an affair during the 2016 campaign. Their text messages reveal that they were openly hostile to Trump and supportive of Hillary Clinton. None of those texts mentioned anything about a counterintelligence operation against the Trump campaign as early as December 2015. So where did the president get that idea?

Apropos, Vox.com quotes ThinkProgress, a site that lists the events that led to Trump’s tweet. A day earlier, an anonymous Twitter account notes that Page texted Strzok in December 2015 about “oconus lures,” which in FBI parlance means intelligence operations aimed at arresting someone outside the continental United States. The texts do not mention Trump and had nothing to do with him, since the FBI’s investigation into Trump opened in July 2016. But the anonymous Twitter user speculates the FBI wanted to run a baited Sting Op using foreign agents against Trump.

Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump blog, picks up the tweet in an article Monday, and by Tuesday evening the story spread to Fox News. At 7:22 pm, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs tweets about the oconus lures texts. At 8:37 pm on Tuesday, Trump sends his tweet about the conspiracy theory.

About an hour later, Fox News host Laura Ingraham says on air that “when you read those texts, it certainly looks like they [the FBI] were trying to put more lures into the campaign in December 2015.” Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, one of her panelists, agrees with Ingraham’s interpretation, saying that it is now “clear” that the FBI investigation into Trump started earlier than July 2016.

“So what happened,”, writes Vox.com, “is that a conspiratorial interpretation of texts between two FBI employees, one entirely unfounded in the actual evidence, got laundered from the fringe right-wing media to the right-wing mainstream through Fox News personalities — and eventually reached up to a member of Congress and the President of the United States.”

Anticipating the above is a New York Times piece, from May 28, that does its own reconstruction of Spygate, concluding with a similar, slightly more sophisticated conclusion. It quotes Joe Meacham, a presidential historian, and biographer. “The effect on the life of the nation of a president inventing conspiracy theories in order to distract attention from legitimate investigations or other things he dislikes is corrosive,” he said. “The diabolical brilliance of the Trump strategy of disinformation is that many people are simply going to hear the charges and countercharges, and decide that there must be something to them because the president of the United States is saying them.” So where do we stand? Whom shall we believe? What is true?

The fact is that even the singular news organizations are on different pages, and on different dates tell us different stories that are, apparently, the results of their investigation teams. Some of these stories may lead to a different conclusion than just simple attribution of the mess to the Trump team. Take the New York Times story on the operation by the code name Crossfire Hurricane, which was the secret origin of the Trump investigation. Published on May 16, weeks before the explosion of Spygate, the article details an event in the summer of 2016, when the F.B.I. dispatched a pair of agents to London on a mission so secretive that all but a handful of officials were kept in the dark. They were meeting the Australian ambassador, Alexander Downer, who had evidence that one of Donald J. Trump’s advisers knew in advance about Russian election meddling. In the F.B.I. interview, he described his meeting with the Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos. This, according to the paper, 100 days before the election ignited the investigation. And one of the persons talking to the Australian ambassador was Peter Strzok, who was later removed from the Mueller investigative team. There are other stories we know little about, but all this tells us that the FBI might sit on a whole lot more information than the media speculates about every day.

London and Cambridge–, the eternal venues of excellent spy stories–, seems to be at the center of Spygate too. The thin pretense that the FBI was there for a grab prompted the actions of a retired university professor in Britain named Stefan Halper. Halper, an American who taught for years at Cambridge University in the UK, met there with several Trump campaign advisers in mid-2016. The goal of these meetings was to assess whether there were any real links between the Trump campaign and Russia, enough to fuel a wider investigation, detailed in the must-read report by the Washington Post.

So if it’s true, as Vox.com suggests, that “the entire ‘Spygate’ controversy is not a debate between two rational sides, but rather a fight between the truth and a pro-Trump camp looking for evidence that can be spun to justify the president’s narrative, if mere fact that the president is championing “Spygate” means that Republicans at all levels, from Congress to Fox News to the rank-and-file voters, are more likely to believe in it,” what can we do, but wait? The voices of the investigators are missing, but their action is the only one that can empower and convince the Congress to check the possible abuse of power by this president. Until that day, there is nothing much to be done.

Rome

Rome or Death!

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Photo: Andrej Mrevlje

As I walked into the Spanish Royal Academy’s small concert hall at the top of Janiculum Hill, in Rome, I noticed an old lady sitting in the back row, distant from everyone else. She looked at me and said, “Roma e’proprio finita.” I asked what made her think that way, why Rome has fallen. E finita? The lady did not say anything else, she kept her lips tight, stared at me, her eyes asking, “How do you not see?”

My mind was split between the words of the old lady and a desire to focus on the sweeping view of the city below. The Academy is attached to the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, believed to be the site of St. Peter’s crucifixion. It looks like nothing special from outside, but once indoors its Andalusian architecture makes you feel as if you’ve been transported to Spain. If not for the view of magnificent Rome below. I agreed with the Roman woman but wondered if her prophecy and my wandering mind were on the same page.

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Geopolitics

The Book Trump Will Never Read

By Andrej Mrevlje |

When Kim Jong Un came out in the open, analysts, spies and all kind of experts were running through the footage, sound bits, testimonies, intelligence reports and open source information collected during the few hours the North Korean dictator visited South Korea, Pyongyang’s staunch enemy since 1953. Since that year, not one of the Kim’s had ever set foot in the South.

As a matter of fact, Kim’s crossing of the border two weeks ago doesn’t count as a state visit, since he only took a few steps into enemy territory. But those few steps were enough to get Kim out of his comfort zone, to put him into a situation that he could not control completely, a situation in which he was forced out of his emperor clothes and postures, unclad. In this sense, Kim’s crossing of the border stands in strong contrast to the declaratory visits to Beijing last month and a week ago to Dalian, where he met with Xi Jinping, the Chinese red emperor. On both occasions, the Chinese protocol was designed to please Kim by creating an atmosphere and decor that were suitable for North Korean purposes. The footage of the formal meeting between Kim and Xi, showing the two parties’ symbols, military salutes, and ornate liturgical celebrations, were shown on the North Korean state TV only.

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Geopolitics

Is the World Spinning Again?

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Is the world changing for the better? Watching the most recent events, one cannot but note that the escalations of hostilities between countries that we used to call superpowers–now bizarrely in the hands of inconsistent leaders–has slowed down a bit. It is interesting to stop and record these changes, as they evolve especially fast. The visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Washington was not recognized for its Machiavellian dimensions, particularly because of the differing political and diplomatic notions represented in Paris and Washington.    

“Il y a la gestuelle, et puis il y a le fond. En diplomatie, les deux ont un sens, mais la première ne peut l’emporter sur le second.” (There is a gesture, and then there is the essence/substance. In diplomacy, both have a meaning, but the first cannot prevail over the second.) This is how a recent editorial of Le Monde opens, dedicated to the three-day visit of the French president to Washington D.C. The visit, on the whole, was an uplifting event, reviving the hope that the world is not flat. Yet.

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U.S.- China Relations

The World : Made in China

By Andrej Mrevlje |

In the age of Trump, there are innumerable topics, issues, and arguments that go unnoticed or underreported because this president is taking up the air of the entire American media universe, with his indecisive tweets and resulting indecisive policies. This is one of those topics that escaped the public eye. It centers around Trump’s announcement to charge China with new tariffs on a long list of products. It seems easy, banal even, but the problem is deep. Part of America is becoming aware of it, and this administration is even attempting to react. But is President Trump on the same page?

One month ago, when President Trump announced that he intended to challenge China with trade tariffs, little was known about the dimensions of his move or its consequences. Considering his typically bombastic style of communicating, Trump delivered his message in a fragmentary, still Trumpian, way. “We have a trade deficit of $504 billion, or $375 billion, depends how you look at it,” said the president at the White House, surrounded by a group of his close, petrified collaborators. Trump added that the biggest part of the deficit comes from China, and therefore, “You know, I talked to the high Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, and I asked them to cut down the deficit immediately for $100 billion. But that would be a lot so we decided to go for the tariffs worth $60 billion.”

After the president finished his message, the White House promptly corrected him, saying the tariffs against China will be worth $50, not $60, billion. Peanuts. The media, without having much idea as to what was happening, improvised commentary on the President’s message and speculated that the tariffs will backfire, affecting the American auto industry and a wide range of products, including high-tech gadgets, food, furniture and beverages, beer and bourbon.

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Gig Economy

How I Became an App

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Our lives are becoming more and more surrounded and determined by technology. About 20 years ago, we embraced the web; access to the world became swift, transporting us in an instant to the furthest reaches of our existence. Browsing the net was the maximum grade of freedom. Then the apps arrived, and for quite some time we did not understand that this was our new challenge: a final negotiation between humanity and AI. It is as in politics, where we all know that China and the U.S. will have to sit down and discuss the new world order. It will be a detente or a clash.

About two years ago, after I experienced my first rides with Uber, I wrote:

“Uber is not just a new model of a company. It is not just a company with a fresh design. Uber may be hip, but that’s not all it is. It is all that Greenhouse described and more. I would love to know more about how the drivers are selected, what standards Uber uses to choose their contract drivers. I will probably have to wait for a while, but I am tempted to try the experience of being an Uber driver myself. I only have to wait until my local DMV lets me count my driving experience from across three different continents towards an American driver’s license. Then I will take this job for a couple of days a week, probably for a limited period, just so that I can understand and explain how it works.”

The time has now come. After an incredibly long, breakneck process of transforming my New York identity into a Washington one, three weeks ago I was finally able to join the ranks of the Uber drivers. That is, for a few hours a week, when I am supposedly competing with the other 30,000 Uber drivers who serve six hundred thousands residents in the capital of the United States. The size of Washington’s population doubles in the morning of every work day, when commuters hop on the subway in nearby Virginia or Maryland or get in their cars, take a taxi, an Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, or Enterprise CarShare to get into D.C. for work.

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