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25 March 2010


Matins: Phil Dhingra puts a health-insurance agent through his paces. (Philosophistry)

Fielding questions from this customer who does his homework (i.e. the customer from hell) is no easy task. Feeling confident, he started up-selling me some options. He asked me whether I wanted to lock-in my premium for three-years for only 8% more (annual inflation rates are around 3.5%). I smirked and said, "Well hell yes I want to lock those in. Aren't premiums supposed to go up after Obamacare?" Which, after I said that, I realized how much of a Rorschach test this whole meeting was. If I truly was an Obama fan, wouldn't I trust the Democrats who said premiums would go down?"

To the agent's (and American Republic's) credit, he humored my curiosity, as I took about an hour of his time not only working through the implications of Obamacare, but also in trying to finally understand non-self-explanatory terms like coinsurance, deductible, and first-dollar coverage. The only term that didn't need much explaining [was] Cadillac, used in the context of "comprehensive medical coverage" plans, which brought up another thought, "Wait, I heard Obama is going to tax those?"

After describing all the plans, the agent urged me to sign up, at least partially so I could be processed by underwriting, to which I replied, "Wait, will underwriting even be necessary? I mean you can't deny me for pre-existing conditions." "Those protections don't take effect until 2014, actually." Touché.

Lauds: In our opinion, the bottom line of Alex Ross's evaluation of Peter Gelb's first full season at the Metropolitan Opera is that Mr Gelb is insufficiently interested in music. (The New Yorker)

When I hear Gelb talk about “opera as theatre,” I feel that he is almost shying away from its essential nature. His brand of opera is cooler, more detached, more image-driven. If the décor-mad Franco Zeffirelli set the tone in previous decades, Lepage—who made his Met début in 2008, with a technologically dazzling, emotionally arid “Damnation of Faust”—now seems the presiding spirit. With this change of direction, Gelb is thriving in what some might define as his primary mission—to bring skeptical newcomers into the house. “The Nose” has sold out every night, with new faces dotting the crowd: art-world denizens, Szot fans, curiosity-seekers young and old. Gelb had a similar left-field hit with Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha” in 2008, and will likely repeat the feat when Peter Sellars finally brings John Adams’s “Nixon in China” to the Met next season.

Gelb deserves high praise for returning the Met to the thick of the city’s cultural life. I hope, however, that amid the sleek concepts and media tie-ins he will still attend to opera’s primal virtues. After all, when Verdi talked about his ideal singing style, he focussed not on personal appearance or technical finish but on the razor-sharp delineation of character and the uninhibited projection of emotion. “If everyone sings with extreme passion,” the composer wrote before one première, “I am certain it will be a success.”

Prime: Regarding the sale of Gothamist to Rainbow Communicatioins, Felix Salmon digests Nick Denton's sour grapes.

Jake [Dobkin] and Jen [Chung] worked hard building something they were rightly both very proud of. They never sold any equity to anybody, and they ended up selling their company at a time of their choosing: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both have recently become parents for the first time. They both have long careers ahead of them at Rainbow if that’s what they want, or can leave after three years with a world of opportunities and bulging pockets. So when Nick tells his readers to “hold off on the envy”, he’s living on a completely different planet. Jen and Jake have achieved something great here: they’ve built a real blog business with seven-figure revenues from scratch, they’ve got rich doing so, and they did it their way, on their own terms, all before either of them turned 35. Many congratulations to them both.

Tierce: Jonah Lehrer's essay on dreaming quite acutely puts Freud out of place.

While Freud would certainly celebrate this research -- as he predicted, dreams have "a psychological structure ... which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state" -- it's worth pointing out that the stories we invent while sleeping are much more practical than he imagined. For the most part, they don't reflect the unleashed id, full of unfulfilled sexual desires. Instead, we dream about what we think about: the mazes and mysteries of everyday life.

Sext: Book Blog Birthdays: The Second Path recently celebrated its second; The Millions is now seven years old. Meanwhile, at Salon, Laura Miller considers the delightfully pseudo-competitive folly of The Morning News's Tournament of Books.

The ToB has a healthy sense of its own absurdity, evidenced by the fact that the first round put Hilary Mantel's doorstop historical novel set in the court of Henry VIII, "Wolf Hall," up against "Logicomix," a graphic "novel" by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou about Bertrand Russell's effort to establish the logical foundations of mathematics. Both could be called historical fiction, but beyond that, the notion of weighing them against each other is so silly that it effectively pegs the entire contest as a goof. ("Wolf Hall" won that round, by the way.)

Because the competition itself is essentially meaningless, ToB is a Trojan horse. Under the guise of a sports conceit, it encourages people to read outside their comfort zones and reflect on the often knee-jerk judgments they make about books they've never even cracked open. In what other circumstances (besides having a job as a book reviewer) might someone wind up reading both John Wray's "Lowboy," a novel about a schizophrenic 16-year-old, aptly likened by judge Andrew Womack to a "cool indie flick," and Kathryn Stockett's best-selling book club favorite, "The Help"?

Nones: The game between Somali pirates and civilian crews has been ratcheted up a level by the presence on the freighters of private armed guards, a detachment of which killed a pirate last weekend. The story of the MV Almezaan may be more worrying than it at first appears. (BBC News)

Pirates are known to use fire-arms and rocket-propelled grenades in their attacks on ships but rarely harm the crews of vessels they capture.

Several organisations, including the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), have expressed concern that the use of armed security contractors could encourage pirates to be more violent when taking a ship.

Somalia has not had a functioning government for nearly two decades and analysts believe that attacks on shipping will continue as long as there is no central government capable of taking on the pirate gangs.

Vespers: Maria Bustillos's advance review of David Lipsky's memoir of five days spent with David Foster Wallace in 1996, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is downright invigorating. (The Awl)

And when they finally are at ease together, after a whole lot of edginess and caginess of the type that will be very familiar to intelligent, ambitious young people everywhere, when they forget about the risk and come out from behind their respective barricades, it’s exhilarating. There’s a glorious discussion of television, including the respective parental curbs put on the boys’ TV time, growing up. Wallace was only allowed two hours per day on weekdays; Lipsky says, “I preferred my dad’s house over Mom, one reason, because no restrictions on TV at all.” Boy it is good, that part. The book just takes flight in this developing pleasure of mutual understanding and trust. It brings Wallace down to a human scale, in a penetrating and evocative way. Not like bringing down a Goliath, though; what you have is just the two Davids.

Compline: There are no strange maps at this unusual entry at Strange Maps, just a discussion of population density. If the nation were as packed as densely as Brooklyn, which state would it fill? Not a very big one. But, before we answer the question, some global context:

The US is one of the world’s biggest countries, with one of the world’s most numerous populations [1]. The 23rd Census of the United States [2], now under way, will provide us with updated information on the current size of America’s population, but until then, let’s assume – as this map does – that the country is inhabited by about 300 million people. With a total area of 3,794,101 sqare miles, that gives the US a population density of approximately 79 Americans per square mile.

That’s far less than the world’s most crowded place, Macau (48,003 inh./mi2) but also way above the world’s emptiest one, Greenland (0.006 inh./mi2). The US ranks somewhere in the less densely populated third of the list of countries and territories, in the same neighbourhood as the DR of the Congo (76 inh./mi2) and Latvia (90 inh./mi2). For comparison’s sake: Canada, America’s bigger, emptier neighbour to the north, has a density of just 8.8, while Mexico stands at 142 inh./mi2.

The European Union, with a total area of 1,669,807 square miles and an estimated population of just over 501 million, has a density of 300 to the square mile. A lot higher than the US, but then again, the EU doesn’t have an Alaska (the aforementioned Danish dependency of Greenland [3] has elected not to be a part of the European Union).

We agree with Frank Jacobs that the prospect of making all Americans neighbors "does not sound like a very good idea."

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