Today in Data: Basically, I feel like it’s pretty much terrible out there

This morning I was reading New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman’s mostly scathing review of the design of the brand-new 1 World Trade Center, when I came across this passage:

Like the corporate campus and plaza it shares, 1 World Trade speaks volumes about political opportunism, outmoded thinking and upside-down urban priorities. It’s what happens when a commercial developer is pretty much handed the keys to the castle. Tourists will soon flock to the top of the building, and tenants will fill it up. But a skyscraper doesn’t just occupy its own plot of land. Even a tower with an outsize claim on the civic soul needs to be more than tall and shiny.

Emphasis mine. I’ve always hated the term “pretty much,” at least when used in a newspaper article, and I’ve noticed it appearing more and more of late:

So I decided to compare it to a couple other terms whose common denominator is their collective insistence on near-meaninglessness:

Note: The tool I used to obtain these figures, Chronicle by NYTLabs,  doesn’t differentiate between words/phrases found within direct quotes versus those penned by the reporter him/herself. In the excerpt I quoted above, Kimmelman used the phrase “pretty much” himself, but certainly a portion of the increased usage of these terms in recent years is due to their inclusion in direct quotations, which is (to some extent, anyway) more forgivable from a writing perspective.

Today in Data: A Month in the Life of CitiBike #18068

CitiBike has proven to be quite the hit in New York. As of mid-November, CitiBike claimed that riders had taken 14,589,242 trips since the service launched in May 2013. With approximately 330 docking stations and 6,000 bikes in circulation, that’s a lot of wear and tear on each bike.

In the spirit of finding out just how much of a workout these bikes get, I pulled the latest full month of available bike trip logs from CitiBike’s site, which happens to be August 2014. I sorted by bike ID to determine which specific bike was ridden the most times that month.

This led me to CitiBike #18068, a stalwart two-wheeler with 349 individual trips taken in August — over 11 rides per day. (5,958 unique bikes were ridden a total of 963,489 times in August, for an average of 162 trips per bike.) Using the GeoJSON geographic data convention, I was able to map all of these trips by plotting the starting and ending bike stations on Google Maps:


Today in Data: NYC Restaurant Inspections

New York City, like an increasing number of American metropolises, boasts a decently impressive Open Data web site. A lot of the tables are out of date or otherwise useless, but some of them are pretty cool and are updated fairly often.

Tonight, as a hobby while allowing my digestive system to process copious amounts of turkey, stuffing, and chocolate cheesecake, I downloaded the restaurant inspection data table, which contains over half a million records of inspections within the city over the past several years.

I began by whittling down the dataset to include only inspections that took place this year. Then I removed all inspections that didn’t have a borough field filled out (Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, or Staten Island), as well as removing all rows with anything other than A, B, or C in the field for letter grade. Finally, I filtered out all but the most recent inspection for each establishment — so if a particular diner, for example, was inspected more times due to its uncleanliness (this is official policy), I only included the last one.

This left a final count of 22,105 restaurant inspections in 2014 alone — only the last one conducted for each establishment, and only for inspections resulting in a letter grade of A, B, or C and associated with one of the five boroughs.

First, I checked to see whether any discrepancies existed among the letter grades awarded to restaurants in the various boroughs:

Here’s the same chart in percentage format:

Interestingly, where I began to see a divergence was when I checked grades by month, rather than by borough:

In the winter months (January through March), as well as so far this November, A grades constituted over 90% of all final inspections. From April to October, however, that ratio hovered anywhere from just under 83% to just under 90%. Of course, I don’t have the December numbers for this year yet (time travel has yet to be invented — unless, of course, it’s already happened in the future), but I’d assume it would follow the same general trend: fewer A grades in the summer, more in the winter.

To delve further into this hypothesis, I filtered out all A grades and sorted the remaining 2,648 Bs and Cs by their most common violation descriptions. Here are the top 10:

The top violation is storing food at temperatures that are too high, something that would occur most frequently in the summer months. And indeed, 272 of the 406 total counts of this violation (67%) took place in the four-month period from June to September 2014, for a monthly average of 68 counts. By contrast, from January through May, restaurants were only cited for this violation on a total of 94 occasions, or fewer than 19 times per month.

Indeed, of the five top violations reported in inspections resulting in B and C grades, four involve either overly-hot food or (the potential for) infestation by rodents, flies, and so forth — in other words, classic summer problems.

One final thing you might not expect: the cleanest bill of health given to a specific type of cuisine was for…donut shops. So you’ll know where to find me in the next few weeks:

That’s it for now. Feel free to send me more ideas for how to parse this data, and I may continue this series with other datasets as well.

Matt Bai v. Tom Fiedler

About a week or two ago, I ran across a Matt Bai piece in The New York Times called “How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics.” It recounted the by-now familiar saga of the eponymous antihero, the presidential candidate who in 1987 had famously disputed allegations of marital infidelity, remarking: “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.” Weeks later, Tom Fiedler and his colleagues at The Miami Herald did just that, and the rest is history.

There are several problems with this, Bai argues. First, the Gary Hart story itself —  that is, the version told and retold time and again — is not an historically accurate, nor chronologically faithful, recounting of the events surrounding Gary Hart’s downfall.

But these inaccuracies disguise an even larger problem, which strikes at the root of journalistic self-identity: what is news? Does marital infidelity cross that threshold? Does lying about it?

Bai took a walk down memory lane, briefly touching on the well-known but mostly ignored liaisons of presidents past, and explaining that it was Watergate — and the instant celebrity its exposure afforded Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward — that decisively transformed journalism into a perpetual quest for the moralistic coup de grâce. The Point of Journalism somehow shifted to emphasize hypocrisy and moral failures, as opposed to, say, failures of policy.

I think the highest compliment I can pay the piece — and its author, Matt Bai — is to call it challenging. Even as someone who follows both the news and meta-news (that is, news about journalism and the news business), I was struck by how absent these types of questions had been from my mind. For all of us — certainly those who lived through the Watergate era, but perhaps even more so for those of us who’ve lived our entire lives in an ever-thickening cloud of cynicism about the political process — the natural assumption has been that the job of journalists is to take politicians down a notch. Matt Bai took a step back and asked, as if for the first time, why that is.

I suppose it should have come as no surprise, given the tenor of his article, that Bai would soon provoke a response from Tom Fiedler. But what is most astonishing is just how feeble, and just how riddled with unquestioned premises, that reply was. Fiedler asks: “But was it inconsequential when Hart repeatedly, and for weeks before the confrontation, publicly denied that he was a ‘womanizer’?”

Two paragraphs later, Fiedler repeats the question: “That’s not news?” Oddly enough, in both cases he presumes the answer is so patently obvious that it hardly necessitates explanation (which he twice elects not to provide, at least explicitly). But this is precisely the flaw in modern journalism that Bai is questioning: the point is that perhaps this really is not news at all. I’m inclined to agree with him. And Fiedler’s vaguely mocking response doesn’t constitute much of a rebuttal.

Fiedler continues:

Twenty-seven years later, here is the question I would ask of Bai: What should we have done at that moment? Should we have closed our notebooks and caught the next plane back to Miami, concluding that reporting the lie wasn’t newsworthy? That it was inconsequential—and not just to us, but to potentially millions of voters?

Well…yeah. Or perhaps they should never have boarded the plane from Miami to begin with. I can’t speak for Matt Bai here, but it seems to me that this is precisely the question he’s asking: are the lies of Gary Hart newsworthy? But Fiedler doesn’t attempt to answer this: he simply expresses disbelief, repeatedly, that it’s being asked in the first place.

Here he is again:

Some voters might want the media to report a candidate’s positions on the economy, abortion, civil rights, immigration, gun safety and so on. They care little about the candidate’s personal beliefs or behavior. But some voters—indeed, the great majority of voters—are more interested in who the candidate is. This is the much-discussed character issue.

Much-discussed by whom? By the media, of course, of whom Fiedler was a member. At the very least, he’s mistaken correlation for causation. More realistically, he’s simply reversed causation 180 degrees: it’s not that the media discusses character issues because the people want it. People want it, in large part, because the media — conflating journalism and entertainment — helpfully provides it nonstop. Why? Because, among other things, Woodward and Bernstein are household names now, and every other journalist would like to become one as well. Exposing lies, no matter how pedestrian or tangential, is the golden ticket for a career in political media.

Of course, media coverage is an infinitely complex topic, and many factors affect its composition. But Fiedler belies this complexity with his implicit suggestion that it’s not up to journalists to decide what’s newsworthy: “For a journalist to withhold information that more fully reveals the character of a candidate,” Fiedler writes, “would, in my opinion, be a sin of omission.”

But editors commit this sin of omission every day when they decide which stories to run and which to drop, which ones to mount on the front page and which ones to relegate to the back and underneath the fold. Fiedler’s protestations resemble former New York Times editor Bill Keller’s when confronted over his reluctance to use the word “torture” to describe…torture:

Of course, I regard waterboarding as torture. But if a journalist gives me a vivid description of waterboarding, notes the long line of monstrous regimes that have practiced it, and then lays out the legal debate over whether it violates a specific statute or international accord, I don’t care whether he uses the word or not. I’m happy — and fully equipped — to draw my own conclusion.

Fiedler’s argument, akin to Keller’s, is essentially: I just provide the facts, and the readers decide whether it’s relevant. But this is patently false: a work of journalism is inextricably interwoven with the countless reportorial and editorial decisions that produced it. The reporter is no more bound to report on so-called “character issues” than he is on a candidate’s proclivity for pets, or fast food, or French films. But to the extent that he relates any of these facts, he has helped fashion the narrative around which that candidate is viewed.

In other words, there’s no such thing as “just the facts, ma’am” in journalism. As it relates to a candidate’s fitness for office, the closest thing to an “essential” element of political journalism is to examine the policy proposals. Marital infidelity — except for the rare cases in which it demonstrably interferes with one’s ability to conduct official business on behalf of constituents — is a long way from that.

Fiedler begins to wrap things up:

Many people forget that although Hart dropped out of the campaign just days after the Herald’s story in May, he revived his campaign in late December of that year and began running the gauntlet that begins in Iowa, goes on to New Hampshire and then stretches nationwide to the nominating convention. His reemergence provided the acid test of whether Democratic Party voters would sublimate the character question to the policy issues.

So what happened? In Iowa, of the seven Democrats on the caucus ballots, Hart finished sixth. In the next stop in the nominating process, New Hampshire’s fabled primary, Hart finished last. Dead last. This time he quit the race for good. Hart’s positions on the issues hadn’t changed from the heady days when he was the front-runner, before Donna Rice and Monkey Business entered the public discourse. What had changed were the voters, who now knew that Hart had been living a lie.

Once again Fiedler fails to understand something as simple as causation. Matt Bai is asking whether we should fixate on matters of personal character to the extent that we do. And Tom Fiedler’s response is to point out that, after his newspaper did so, voters changed their minds about Gary Hart. But this is an answer to a question that no one’s asking.

Ferguson, and national moments

The following was first published for We Find, You Read, a new email newsletter to which you should subscribe.

America is fond of declaring Moments, with a capital M. There is The Libertarian Moment, currently embodied by Kentucky senator Rand Paul. The financial crisis — and, later, French economist Thomas Piketty — helped usher in The Keynesian Moment. Jason Collins and Michael Sam facilitated The Gay Moment.

These Moments are not confined to happy events. Following the Newtown massacre, we rushed to proclaim A National Moment on gun control: needless to say, the opportunity came and went. The National Football League was said to have a Moment regarding concussions. And today we find ourselves, once again, heralding what Reverend Al Sharpton has deemed a “defining moment for this country” in Ferguson, Missouri.

Moments pass. Or worse, they become “conversations,” the universal American signifier (favored by network anchors and Washington pundits alike) for a deluge of words that quickly drown all meaning. Millions of people yelling at once does not a conversation make.

Neither does one person speaking to millions. Last night — after watching live as her colleagues Jake Tapper, Don Lemon, and Marc Lamont Hill struggled to breathe following the police’s indiscriminate use of tear gas — CNN anchor Rosemary Church wondered aloud why the Ferguson police had failed to deploy water cannons for crowd control. Any conversation in which perspectives such as hers play a principal role is not one worth having.

Indeed, our “national conversation on race” is less useful than silence, never more obviously so than when its loudest interlocutors alternate between caricature and farce. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps the keenest observer of racial issues in America, memorably wrote in 2010:

The very nomenclature–“conversation on race”–betrays the unseriousness of the thing by communicating the sense that race can be boxed from the broader American narrative, that you can somehow talk about Thomas Jefferson without Sally Hemmings; that you can discuss Andrew Jackson without discussing his betrayal of the black artillerymen who fought at the Battle of New Orleans; that you can discuss the suffrage without Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells or Frederick Douglass; that you can discuss temperance without understanding the support of the Klan; that you can discuss the path to statehood in Florida without discussing Fort Gadsen; that you can talk Texas without understanding cotton, and so on.

Transforming a Moment into a movement is the Holy Grail, and it is not easy. Defining an organizing objective is the first concern, and limiting scope must follow closely behind. (Today, Zuccotti Park is just a park.) If we are to confront, at long last, the dual menaces of police militarization and systemic racial discrimination, we must be sufficiently determined to delve into more fundamental questions.

These inquiries should prod the American conception of masculinity itself, one whose chief metric often appears to be the extent of lethal weaponry one can amass. It should similarly encompass racial disparities in both policing methodologies and judicial decisions. And it should make note of the disparate language so often used when a crowd is white (“protest”) and when it is not (“riot”).

Fashioning a movement, lastly, will create uncomfortable bedfellows. But there is much the left can agree on with the likes of Rand Paul, who observed (correctly): “There is a systemic problem with today’s law enforcement.” One is not obligated to wish for a return to the gold-backed dollar in order to Stand with Rand against police brutality. The Ferguson Moment will soon vanish, but let us make something of its passing.

“Telegenically dead Palestinians”

We try to target the rocketeers, we do, and all civilian casualties are unintended by us but actually intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can, because somebody said they use, I mean it’s gruesome, they use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead, the better.

- Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu

No one fears propaganda quite like a propagandist.

When Benjamin Netanyahu speaks of “telegenically dead Palestinians,” he is attempting to negate, via sardonic aside, the collective effect of hundreds of images of bloody, lifeless bodies — often very tiny ones — being mourned by men and women in the throes of unspeakable agony. These images, vivid in their specificity, he considers propaganda. Netanyahu fears “telegenically dead Palestinians” precisely because Israel’s dwindling foundation of international support hinges on their invisibility and, therefore, on his ability to foster a telegenic humiliation of the Palestinian people.

That for years he has managed to accomplish this, and to do so with remarkable dexterity, is a testament both to Netanyahu’s media savvy and his interlocutors’ credulity. He is helped along, too, by a decidedly non-telegenic  bête noire in Hamas — one whose nonchalance towards the civilian Palestinian death toll rivals Israel’s.

But Netanyahu increasingly resembles the boy who cried wolf. His monotonic recitations of impending doom at the hands of the blockaded and helpless Palestinians (or, in convenient moments, Iran) evoke Joe Biden’s damning encapsulation of Rudy Giuliani, a kindred opportunist in gleeful exploitation of tragedy for political gain: “…A noun, and a verb, and 9/11. I mean, there’s nothing else. There’s nothing else.” (Netanyahu’s adherence to the Giuliani playbook is in fact doubly insidious: while he liberally trades on the memory of the Shoah to lend gravitas to his hawkish policies, he has abandoned actual Holocaust survivors badly in need of food, healthcare, and other basic necessities.)

Netanyahu’s problem — and, by extension, Israel’s — is that the impact of his militaristic drumbeating is undermined by his obvious lack of interest in regional peace: acquiescing to American pressure shortly after Barack Obama’s first inauguration, Netanyahu — the same man who had once exulted in scuttling the Oslo peace process and boasted that “America is a thing you can move very easily” — cannily declared himself, for the very first time, in favor of a two-state solution. Determining which statement represents the truth is, as always with Bibi, a matter of finding whichever quote was spoken the furthest distance away from a visible television camera. Just as telling are his insistence on settlement-building and his plans for a long-term occupation of the West Bank.

Most Americans, however, are not following along closely enough to parse out fact from fiction. It is no accident that, in his frequent appearances on American television and in person, Netanyahu is fond of appropriating American imagery to vivify Israel’s existential threat of the moment for a receptive audience. In 2011, he described the 1967 borders as “indefensible,” explaining: “Israel was all of 9 miles wide — half the width of the Washington Beltway.” Four days later, he used the same line in front of a joint session of Congress.

Two weeks ago, Netanyahu told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “I mean, imagine what Israel is going through. Imagine that 75% of the U.S. population is under rocket fire, and they have to be in bomb shelters within 60 to 90 seconds. So, I’m not just talking about New York. New York, Washington, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Miami, you name it. That’s impossible, you can’t live like that.” (Nearly two million Gazans do live like that, and far worse.)

Netanyahu’s communicative style here is in keeping with a 116-page booklet called “The Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary,” authored by Republican strategist Frank Luntz. The document was written for “visionary leaders who are on the front lines of fighting the media war for Israel,” and it contains blunt strategic advice on how to promote Israel’s point of view to the foreign public, especially Americans:

  • “Don’t talk about religion. Americans who see the bible as their sourcebook on foreign affairs are already supporters of Israel. Religious fundamentalists are Israel’s ‘Amen Choir’ and they make up approximately one-fourth of the American public and Israel’s strongest friends in the world…The primary reason for this is that their religion tells them to do so.” (p. 12)
  • “Personalize the problem for the American audience…’Imagine Washington, DC under missile attack from nearby Baltimore.'” (p. 42)
  • “Israel is so rich and so strong that [leftists] fail to see why it is necessary for armored tanks to shoot at unarmed kids or why Israel needs to level homes or attack villages or, most importantly, why a Palestinian state is a threat to Israel’s existence.” (p. 96)

Similarly, Israeli officials seem to be heeding the report’s admonition to communicate empathy from the start: “Indeed, the sequence of your conversation is critical and you must start with empathy for BOTH sides first” (p. 4). On July 29th, Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, responded thusly to CNN host Jake Tapper’s  question about the death of Palestinian children:

You know, we had a special press conference in Tel Aviv last night.

And the chief of staff of the Israeli military, the most highest Israeli official in uniform, he said it in openly, and he said it in Hebrew to the Israeli public. It wasn’t something for foreign consumption. He said, every innocent victim in Gaza pains us.

And I think he was saying something very genuine, something very real that Israelis feel. We don’t want to see innocent civilians caught up in the crossfire between us and Hamas.

While the above approaches are tailored to a more skeptical audience, the Israel Defense Forces’ Twitter account, by contrast, is a tour de force of wartime propaganda.twitter On August 2nd, for example, the IDF tweeted the following text accompanied by a video: “WATCH: More Hamas tunnels successfully destroyed in Gaza.” The tweet just prior linked to the IDF’s blog and declared: “Israel accepts ceasefires, Hamas rejects them.” (That tweet — which was posted at 9:39 AM EST on August 2nd — was directly contradicted by Haaretz, which had reported just minutes earlier that “Israel will no longer seek a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip via negotiations with Hamas, senior Israeli officials said.“)

Given this meticulous attention to words and their varying effects on foreign ears, it is unsurprising that Netanyahu is just as carefully attuned to media coverage of the Palestinians. It especially explains his description of “telegenically dead Palestinians,” a phrase as notable for its dismissal of authenticity as it is for its derision.

The problem for defenders of Israel’s actions in Gaza, however, is that the Palestinian death toll, now surpassing 1,500, is all too real. The vast majority of these appear to be civilians: some estimates place the percentage at 80% or above, and even Israeli deputy foreign minister Tzachi Hanegbi acknowledged that he was only able to confirm that 47% of Palestinian deaths were combatants. (This is not to say that Hamas eschews propaganda; however, its efforts in this arena are so ham-handed as to be nearly comical.)

The civilian casualties have shaken even some of Israel’s allies. United States Secretary of State John Kerry, unaware that he was being captured on microphone, fumed to an aide about the extent of Israeli military actions in Gaza: “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” he said twice. In recent days, both New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait (“Israel Is Making It Hard To Be Pro-Israel“) and Vox founder Ezra Klein (“Why I have become more pessimistic about Israel“) have penned pieces airing their discomfort with Israel’s bombardment as well.

The cumulative effect of on-the-ground reporting and photography streaming out of Gaza is beginning to create a rare dynamic for Israel: in this conflict, at least, young Americans no longer see Israel as David, but as Goliath. Based on the threads of evidence from recent polling by Gallup and Pew, young adults are starting to look at Israel and feel, if not always say, “Enough.”

This empathy for the Palestinians’ plight was precisely Netanyahu’s target when he described dead Palestinians as telegenic (a rhetorical device whose horrendous history ought to especially shame Netanyahu). But even according to Frank Luntz’s handbook, this technique does not play well: “The Israel-against-the-world, woe-are-we approach comes across as divisive” (p. 17).

This leaves Israel, and its advocates, precious little material to work with, and the result is a predictable regurgitation of “What would you do if…” questions. But this intellectual conceit is wearing thin, especially since the immediate riposte is so obvious: Stop occupying the West Bank and bombarding Gaza. (Another tactic, attempted by former presidential speechwriter David Frum, is to deny reality altogether.)

In truth, there is no effective Israeli response to the video of a weeping Chris Gunness (above), the spokesman in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), just as there is no appropriate reply to the images of dead children. The authenticity is bracing, and it leaves little room for caricature or dismissal. The question is just how long it will take Israel to stop playing the cartoon villain.

Introducing SCOTUS Map

Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 10.08.25 PM

Victoria Kwan and I have been working on a few projects for the past few months. One of our more recent efforts is SCOTUS Map. (SCOTUS stands for “Supreme Court of the United States.”)

This map, based entirely on Victoria’s research (and my rudimentary knowledge of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript), displays where the current and retired Supreme Court justices are speaking throughout the summer and into the fall.

The map includes details on each event itself, the venue, registration information, and (eventually) post-event recaps. The right-hand sidebar lists all events, both past and future, in chronological order. SCOTUS Map will be continually updated as new events are announced, and we plan on creating new iterations of it for each successive Court term (and recess).

The map is permanently available at http://scotus.victoriakwan.com/pages/scotusmap. (Visiting http://scotus.jaypinho.com/pages/scotusmap will take you to the exact same page as well.) Please note that it is best viewed on a desktop computer, as tablets and especially mobile phones tend to squeeze the dimensions a bit.

We invite you to take a look. If there are any events involving Supreme Court justices that we haven’t yet added, please let us know by tweeting at @SCOTUSMap or by sending us an email.

Finally, keep checking back here, as we have other projects in the works that we think you’ll enjoy (especially if you happen to be a legal nerd).

Thank you!

Jay

Squaring The Circle

“Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.”

This boilerplate disclaimer, inserted amidst various other notices on the copyright page of Dave Eggers’ latest novel, is superfluous: nothing in The Circle resembles reality in any way whatsoever.

This book administers a cudgel to the English language, among other ignominies, and, as with all such tragedies, the reader is left with only two options: remain a complicit bystander or stand firm against literary massacre.

I choose the latter. Some books are so terrible that only a review warning away potential readers has the power to absolve oneself of the guilt and self-loathing that accompany the book’s completion.

The Circle is a disaster. It is, on its face, a cautionary tale of the consequences of over-sharing and voluntary self-surveillance in the digital era, but its concerns are so explicitly belabored, its storytelling so juvenile, its characters so obviously proxies for authorial obsession, that the fictional universe is inevitably compromised in favor of absurdist dystopia.

Here, numbers — and everything else — have no meaning. Eggers tosses them around like grains of sand, wholly detached from any sort of significance. (Case in point: employees of the Circle — a thinly-disguised hybrid edition of Facebook, Google, and Twitter — actually count the grains of sand in the Sahara. It takes three weeks.) In one excruciatingly long paragraph, Eggers channels an Excel spreadsheet by quoting 40 separate numbers in mind-numbing fashion:

The total number of stats she was tracking was only 41. There was her aggregate customer service score, which was at 97. There was her last score, which was 99. There was the average of her pod, which was at 96. There was the number of queries handled that day thus far, 221, and the number of queries handled by that time yesterday, 219, and the number handled by her on average, 220, and by the pod’s other members: 198.

If there were even an inkling of a rationale for this numerical inundation, The Circle could have been at least minimally readable. But even the most disinterested reader cannot match Dave Eggers’ apathy for his own figures. In an unsurprising oversight, Eggers describes Mae’s “six weeks she’d been transparent” on page 309, then “the three weeks Mae had been transparent” on the subsequent page.

The raison d’être of the Circle — to vacuum up every conceivable data point on its users in order to better serve advertising and personalized content — is clearly borrowed from contemporary social networks. But this is where the similarities end. Eggers’ heroine, Mae Holland, achieves the Herculean task of appearing more inanimate than the Circle’s villainous algorithms, whose alleged ascendance ostensibly prompted Eggers’ hellscape.

Mae is a human being in only the most technical sense: she has eyes, ears, and a mouth, but virtually everything else suggests a quasi-robotic response to all human interaction coupled with a stunning lack of self-awareness. Mae is essentially a drone, only more predictable and less vulnerable to human emotion.

As the Circle demands ever more of her devotion — in one of the book’s rare highlights, she slowly accumulates workstation computer screens, beginning with two and expanding eventually to nine — Mae rarely betrays any semblance of human resistance, choosing instead to drown her peers’ disapproval in a pool of self-loathing.

If that metaphor sounds overwrought, you’ll have a very difficult time completing The Circle. Which brings me to the eponymous company’s “completion,” the Eggers-ian concept of absolute omniscience that, unfortunately for him, is already comically outdated thanks to Edward Snowden. While Eggers struggles valiantly to elucidate the grave danger of the creeping news feed — a phantom menace that, much like creeping sharia law, dissolves upon closer scrutiny — the nation has moved on to PRISM and XKEYSCORE: apparent mundanities belying great danger, a precise inversion of Eggers.

That is not to say The Circle isn’t terrifying, although certainly not for the reasons intended by its author. I finished the book fearing less for a grim future of autonomous digital overlords and more for the disappearance of the subjunctive tense: “For a moment, the couple watched as Mae maneuvered her way to their barge…as if this was their living room and she their night’s entertainment.”

Elsewhere: “Mercer took a deep breath, and Mae knew he was about to give a speech. If there was a podium before him, he’d be stepping up to it, removing his papers from his sportcoat pocket.”

And again: “He smiled sympathetically at Mae, but with a raised eyebrow, as if there was something about Mae that was perplexing him, something he couldn’t put his finger on.”

It’s almost as if Eggers was not familiar with the English language. In this, at least, he has his creations for company. Remember that ubiquitous movie scene where the bad guy explains his diabolical plan to the horrified hostages before carrying it out? The Circle is a 491-page version of this, right down to the expositional format and preachy condescension.

In one scene, a Circler — novelistic parlance for an employee of the Circle — explains an on-campus sculpture (designed by a literary Ai Weiwei knockoff) to Mae:

I mean, how can the Circle find a way to make the connection between us and our users stronger? To me it’s incredible that this artist, so far away and from such a different world, expressed what was on the minds of all of us here at the Circle? How to do better, do more, reach further, you know? How do we throw our hands through the screen to get closer to the world and everyone in it?

This doesn’t sound like anyone I know, and I work in online advertising. (The dead giveaway: social networks with customer service departments.) The walking dead in Eggers’ universe are categorically immune to warnings of a totalitarian eradication of privacy — their idealistic naiveté thus constituting, to borrow John Oliver’s phrase, “a straw man so large you could burn it in the desert and hold an annoying festival around it.” (Not to mention the fact that Ai, his celebrity-infused dilettantism notwithstanding, became famous for protesting surveillance, not celebrating it.)

Indeed, events of the past week undermined Eggers’ preening concern. Facebook released a study revealing that they had conducted a one-week experiment over two years ago in which approximately 700,000 users were exposed to varying levels of positive and negative posts.

Upon the study’s release, the Internet hordes went wild with speculation and fury. “Facebook and the Ethics of User Manipulation” was one of the kinder headlines. A general consensus coalesced around the idea that involuntary subjection to such an experiment was highly unethical — despite the fact that Facebook’s News Feed is, and has for years been, algorithmically curated based upon criteria that are necessarily highly subjective. Everything on one’s Facebook feed is, to an extent, the result of an experiment.

In short, on many issues we are still closer to much ado about nothing than the other way around. Yet Eggers still inhabits a 1984 world, and his star, Mae Holland, meets an end as self-nullifying as Winston Smith’s: acquiescence to her masters via the betrayal of a lover.

But even in the wake of Snowden’s devastating disclosures, Aldous Huxley’s prophesies ring truer than George Orwell’s. As a social network, the Circle may dull our senses, but it is unlikely to kill us. In fact, Eggers is at his best when conjuring a near-future world in which a frenetic, almost-constant exchange of digital messages — zings, he calls them — drives their senders and receivers into paroxysms of emotional insecurity and self-regret.

This is a society I recognize (as a participant), from the quiet desperation of Like-seeking to the more overt emergence of Internet celebrity as a legitimate vocation. And so I find it truly bizarre that the debate on the vanishing art of the negative book review — recently inflamed by Buzzfeed books editor Isaac Fitzgerald’s categorical disavowal of them — was presaged by Dave Eggers all the way back in the year 2000:

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

This is precisely the brand of overly-sensitive claptrap Eggers now decries in his novel, many years later: honesty as a casualty of a status-obsessed generation. So do not listen to 2000 Dave Eggers. Go forth, be a critic. Social networks will not destroy you, nor will punishing book reviews.

The same cannot be said of The Circle.