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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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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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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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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There are very few moments in our lives when we have a chance to witness such an extraordinary political performance as unrolled a few days ago in Beijing. Unexpectedly, the 34-year-old North Korean dictator decided to pay a visit to his political tutor Xi Jinping, thirty years his senior and the strongman of China. Xi, who recently forced his political subordinates to grant him a mandate that allows him to reign in China until the end of his days, now has similar powers as pre-revolutionary emperors, notably the first Communist tsar, Mao Zedong.
Only a month after Xi Jinping gained his imperial powers, the young Kim Jong Un put his own imperial outfit on, summoned his wife, and boarded the family’s armored train. Heading to the capital of the Middle Kingdom, it was like the prodigal son’s return home, a harmony within the political universe that we all thought was long gone. Instead, it came and hit with a powerful blow, not at all as nostalgic as a Hollywood remake, but a strong statement that the old is the future of the world order.
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On November 8, 2016, Erik Hagerman was struck by a bolt. Donald Trump was victorious, the last thing he wanted to hear. So on that very day, the 53-year-old former Nike corporate executive swore that he would avoid everything that happened in, and to, America after election day. He did not want to see Trump step into the White House and did not want to hear anything related to politics. Hagerman thought that his extreme experiment would last a week or two, but then he got used to a feeling that he hadn’t experienced in a long time. “I am bored,” he told Sam Dolnick, of the New York Times, “but it’s not bugging me.”
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A few days ago, the White House announced that President Donald Trump accepted an invitation, extended to him by South Korea, to meet the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who appears ready to negotiate the denuclearization of his country. The American and world media went berserk and began to praise the erratic President. In spite of the spectacular nature of the news, the euphoria didn’t last more than half a day. It should’ve lasted an even shorter time if the world had asked itself the inevitable, critical question much sooner: why on earth would Kim Jong Un ever give up his oft-paraded and trumpeted military toys? He wouldn’t.
I always thought that Donald Trump was the kind of man who could, by his very unpredictable character, surprise the world for the better. His ego, unreliability, and inconsistency could be, someday, useful, maybe even good. When I started to examine how his mind works, I realized that he would be capable even of pardoning Edward Snowden, the former NSA staffer turned whistleblower, who the political establishment, including former president Obama, considers a traitor. Back in the time of the Deng Xiaoping, this kind of pragmatism was the order of the day, with Deng saying, “No matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.”
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The photo above shows my defunct New York car plates. My car did not die; I haven’t exchanged it; I did not have a car accident. I am very much alive, I’ve just moved from New York to Washington D.C. Happily and eagerly, I was hoping for a new adventure.
During the first period of our living in D.C., we spent a lot of time commuting between the two cities. It seemed normal not to relinquish too much of our New York identity because we spent our working days there, driving the 230 miles home almost every weekend. In D.C., we parked our car in the garage of my wife’s office, moving around the city by the perfectly functional local bike share most of the time. Biking in D.C. is pleasant; the city offers well-protected bike lanes, broad streets and sidewalks, less traffic and mild winters. The main reason, however, to keep the car in the garage was not to keep it safe and clean, but because we–New Yorkers–could not justify a street parking permit while only renting a small pied-a-terre in DC, our primary residence still in New York.
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No matter how one tries to avoid a reality that day by day edges toward insanity, the guns always go off. People lose hope not suddenly, but slowly, as if it’s slipping from their hands, fading from their consciousness. Public trust and safety become distant histories. More and more, people prepare for their fears, shut the doors of their houses, gird themselves against the American terror. People’s lives are increasingly insular, private, dedicated to families, friends, fishing. They wait quietly for better times, then the sounds of the shooting ring out again and they know they will long wait.
As I rode my bike around Washington D.C., along the Potomac River, I passed the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts then turned toward the Mall, leaving the Lincoln Memorial behind me. I noticed that the 50 flags surrounding the immense Washington Monument were at the half mast. The country was still mourning the deaths of the students and teachers who were massacred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on 14 February. At nineteen minutes past two o’clock in the afternoon, an Uber dropped 19-year-old Nikolaz Cruz off in front of the school. He was carrying a backpack and a longer duffle bag. Cruz entered the school, home to nearly 900 students and 30 teachers, activated a fire alarm, and began shooting indiscriminately at students and teachers with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, multiple magazines in tow.
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A week ago I considered the dilemma between humanity and artificial intelligence; have we created our own damnation? I wrote a little about Elon Musk, the owner, CEO, and designer of cars and spacecraft. He is a formidable figure, a man quite inarguably of his time but who gives the sense that, no matter the epoch, he would be pioneering on a frontier. This fascinated me, so I spent more time this week learning and thinking about Musk, the innovation of his ideas, and the stagnant world that respects and opposes him. Musk exudes, publicly and intentionally, uplifting and optimistic ideas, but also elicits doubt.
Soon after Musk’s SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy, the world’s most potent operational rocket, capable to carry a Boeing 747 into space, Elon Musk’s success raised some questions and quite a lot of envy. Public doubt about whether a substantial part of the nation’s space industry should slide into the hands of a single private operator is considerable and fair. The conquest of new planets by an individual, no matter how smart and capable of acting in the interest of the whole of humanity, recalls the seeds of absolute statehood.
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