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OmBlog
Posted at 07:29 PM ET, 11/18/2011

Reader Meter: Searching in vain for Petri’s humor and for the non-secret ballot.

Readers this past week were upset about the washingtonpost.com search engine, columnist Alexandra Petri’s sense of humor and The Post’s apparent definitive knowledge of how Herman Cain’s wife’s voted in 2008.

First off, the search engine. It’s terrible, let’s just all acknowledge that. Technologists here will privately agree. Most reporters here use Google to search for their own stories — it’s faster and more exact.

I get e-mails about the search engine every week. Here’s a typical one from this week, far more succinct than most:

“You have possibly the worst search engine I have ever seen. I entered the exact title of the article and the date, and got back a “sorry” reply.
I am a former Washington Post employee and loyal subscriber, but boy — the Web site is a minefield. Thought you'd want to know.”

The Post’s technology team is well aware of the shortcomings of the search engine, and it will turn to this, correctly in my opinion, after it first solves the issue of slowly downloading Web pages. But let me give you some pointers and a bit of explanation on the search engine.

First of all, it does use Boolean logic, which requires a bit more thought than a common Google search, which is more intelligent and uses super-fast algorithms and your past search history to help out. Boolean is the old-style search parameters, so it’s best to know exactly the key words or subjects you are searching for, and you need to use that most helpful of all the connector words, “and.”

Using “and” between two search words or phrases will assure that you get articles with both terms in them. Using “or,” or nothing, will get you articles with either of your search terms, which usually returns too many hits.

And, honestly, don’t use the headlines from stories to search. It doesn’t work very well for this reason: Most stories in The Post now have three headlines each — one for the Web home page, a very short, punchy teaser that is “search-engine optimized” to be provocative so that you’ll click on it; a second headline for the Web page the article appears on, which is longer and more informative; and a third headline in the print edition, which must fit tight space and size constraints, unlike the Web. The three headlines may be wildly different, and I think needlessly so.

So it’s better to search on key words and phrases from the story and the reporter’s exact byline. For example if I type in the search engine this: “George F. Will” and ”Mitt Romney” — I do get the two most recent columns Will wrote in which he mentions Romney. Takes a bit more thinking and typing, but works much better that way.

Keep that in mind until the search engine is addressed in 2012, and don’t forget Google.

Now for Alexandra Petri. The key here is that Ms. Petri is a humor columnist. Readers were upset at her column of Nov. 12 in which she urged that maybe we eat senior citizens.

Wait, wait, wait, she didn’t really mean it. No, she is a satirist, and she usually says the thing she doesn’t mean to make her points. I find her funny, but you can’t take her, or yourself, too seriously when she’s writing about something you care about.

She was saying that maybe the Occupy Wall Street protesters should occupy senior centers and retirement homes because, after all, the government ensures that everyone pays taxes to support old people.

Here’s a couple of sample comments from readers:

“I found Ms Petri's November 12 column regarding older Americans highly offensive, and I'm incredulous that Post editors allowed it to be published.  If this is her attempt at humor, I suggest she find another line of work — perhaps the Tea Party has an opening for someone of her intellectual capacity and inclinations. “
And here’s another:
“I have just read Alexandra Petri’s article. Is it supposed to be a joke? Is it her idea of being funny? I hope so, otherwise maybe we should just start lining up older Americans for mass extermination soon.”

Yes, it is a joke and if you read between the lines of her column, she’s really poking fun at younger folks who wonder if they’ll be taken care of when they’re older. Lighten up.

I’ll acknowledge that Petri doesn’t always hit her mark, but I like where she’s aiming.

Finally, no The Post does not know how Gloria Cain, wife of GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, voted in 2008. In a Monday Nov. 14 profile story of Mrs. Cain in the Style section, by Lonnae O’Neal Parker, it was reported that the Cains’ local paper, the Atlanta Constitution, reported that she voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

No, the Constitution only reported this: “While her husband votes Republican, Gloria Cain has voted in Democratic primaries and runoffs numerous times since 2000 — including the 2008 presidential primary that Barack Obama won with 66 percent of the vote, according to local voting records.”

O’Neal Parker said she inadvertently wrote that Gloria Cain voted for Obama. Not a bad surmise, but not a fact that can be checked. O’Neal Parker had the sentence corrected as soon as she realized the problem.

The Post ran a correction online, but I have not yet seen the printed correction. This is what the online version said:

“Earlier versions of this story incorrectly characterized information contained in publicly available voting records. The information shows that Gloria Cain voted in the Democratic presidential primary in 2008, but does not specify for whom she voted.”

Yes, the United States has secret ballots. Voting records in Georgia, and everywhere else in this country, do not reveal how people voted, only that they do vote. Let’s keep it that way.

By  |  07:29 PM ET, 11/18/2011

 
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