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Opinion Readers critique The Post: Be clear about what an ‘algorithm’ is

Every week, The Post runs a collection of letters of readers’ grievances — pointing out grammatical mistakes, missing coverage and inconsistencies. These letters tell us what we did wrong and, occasionally, offer praise. Here, we present this week’s Free for All letters.

Reflecting on Facebook coverage

The Oct. 27 front-page article “Five points for anger, one for a ‘like’ ” noted that Facebook uses the anger emoji to stimulate user engagement — but the headline on the article slyly used the same tactic.

Five years ago, Facebook tried to address a decline in user engagement by introducing a whole gamut of new reaction emojis — all assigned with the same extra weight — to include anger, love, amusement, astonishment and sadness.

However, it was soon discovered, in the words of whistleblower Frances Haugen, that “anger and hate is the easiest way to grow on Facebook,” an insight not lost on the Post headline writers who prominently used both the word and the emoji in the headline. Intensifying the irony is the fact, revealed in Paragraph 25, that anger-boosting is a tactic now abandoned by Facebook. No matter. It still works for The Post.

I am no fan of Facebook and believe its outsize, unethical, profit-seeking behavior poses a huge risk to the global community that relies on Facebook for human connection. But I also don’t believe we can effectively critique Facebook’s tactics when we mimic those tactics in the same breath. What hope do we have for an ethical media environment when Facebook is writing the playbook not just for itself but for reputable newspapers as well?

Bel Mills, Burke

The Oct. 27 news article “How social media giant’s algorithm shapes our feeds” did not define the word, but it described an algorithm as “a system that decides a post’s position on the news feed based on predictions about each user’s preferences and tendencies.” That is not an algorithm; it is a complex piece of software, with perhaps hundreds if not thousands of lines of code. The software takes in a lot of variables and produces a potentially wide range of outputs. What you see in your feed might depend on what book you ordered online the day before or the news of a flood in New Jersey.

Relying primarily on the work of Stanford professor Donald Knuth, computer scientists define an “algorithm” as a well-defined, finite set of steps that produces an unambiguous result. Sorting a list of names in alphabetical order, or finding the prime factors of an integer — that is what an algorithm does. Developing and understanding algorithms have been among the central accomplishments of computer scientists in the past decades. We should be proud of their work. Algorithms are not threatening or sinister, like the “blob” that terrorized Steve McQueen in that famous 1958 horror movie. Please be more careful when using the word.

Paul E. Ceruzzi, Kensington

Maybe Sarah Palin can see it from there

Regarding the Oct. 28 Retropolis column, “Hotel where Trump allies plotted is no stranger to intrigue,” about the historic guests who have taken up residence at the Willard hotel:

Please note the hotel is not across the street from the White House. One cannot see the White House from the Willard. It is a full two blocks away. To the east of the White House is the Treasury Building, then a combination of 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, then the Hotel Washington, which has a fantastic view of the White House and grounds from its rooftop bar, and then the Willard hotel and a variety of new office buildings built in a complementary style of the latest renovation of the Willard.

Thomas Bower, Washington

The interesting and informative article on intrigue at the historic Willard hotel omitted one particularly cogent observation. In 1862, New York lawyer and Civil War diarist George Templeton Strong ended his unflattering description of Washington, D.C., with: “Beelzebub surely reigns here, and Willard’s Hotel is his temple.”

Westbrook Murphy, Edgewater

Hands-on leadership

The beautiful Oct. 26 front-page article “Rushing to save his players” brought me to tears with its description of coach Kevin McGill’s tale of tragedy, love and hope. And photographer Toni L. Sandys perfectly captured “Coach Kevin’s” literal “hands on” leadership and compassion in her photo of the earnest young athletes listening to their coach, who, seemingly instinctively, connects with them through his outstretched hand on a young player’s helmet.

How wonderful that these preteens have such an inspiring and understanding mentor. Thank you for this thought-provoking, multidimensional story. I wish we could clone McGill.

Barbara Morris, Falls Church


I was enjoying the Oct. 29 Style article about the dinner for presidential descendants, “The great-greatest of presidents,” until I got to this line: “The pandemic postponed most of the plans until this year, and none of the best-known modern families — Kennedys, Clintons or Obamas — have joined thus far.”

To not include the Bush family in the group of “best-known modern families” is either ignorance or a glaring Democratic bias. The dinner was nonpartisan.

Mary Rupp, Chevy Chase

Snubbing half of Nichols and May

The Oct. 27 obituary for Mort Sahl, “His political comedy set the bar for future humorists,” said, “He was regarded as a pathfinder for the more topical, personal or offbeat styles honed by Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, Mike Nichols, Dick Gregory, George Carlin, Joan Rivers and Mark Russell.”

What? Mike Nichols but not Elaine May? Surely this was an inadvertent omission.

Caren Anton, Reston

Deflating Carter

In his Oct. 20 Wednesday Opinion essay, “The Fed and inflation: What would Volcker do?,” Robert J. Samuelson continued to misstate the history of Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker’s historic role in curbing the high inflation of the 1970s, capped by double-digit inflation in 1980, assigning sole credit to President Ronald Reagan for supporting Volcker’s “ferocious credit squeeze.”

He failed to mention that President Jimmy Carter courageously nominated Volcker as Fed chair on July 25, 1979, with his reelection campaign about to begin, and supported him throughout the campaign, without once blaming Volcker for the high interest rates that were a key factor in Carter’s defeat. Carter inherited high inflation from Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald Ford. It got worse during his term in office because of poor labor productivity, a vicious wage-price spiral, a declining dollar and the radical Islamic Iranian revolution, which took almost 5 million barrels of crude oil per day off the world market and led to a doubling of spot oil prices in one year, along with long gasoline lines at the pump.

Carter was alert to the dangers of inflation from his earliest months in office, when most of us focused more on reducing unemployment and boosting growth. He sought to keep budget deficits low and spending tight, over the objection of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. By executive order, he created voluntary wage-price guidelines backed up by sanctions on government contractors that failed to follow them; created a labor-management council; deregulated the transportation system, telecommunications industry and banking to inject competition and lower prices; and developed the first regulatory review of federal regulations to seek the least costly way of achieving results and a paperwork reduction program. But when none of that halted the rise of inflation, over the objection of most of his advisers, he appointed Volcker to head the Fed, knowing that Volcker intended to crunch the money supply with a consequent rise in interest rates.

It does no injustice to Reagan to set the historical record straight on Carter.

Stuart E. Eizenstat, Chevy Chase

The writer was chief White House domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981 and author of “President Carter: The White House Years.”

I’ll say this much for Robert J. Samuelson: He’s consistent. Again, in his Oct. 20 Wednesday Opinion essay, he praised President Ronald Reagan for empowering Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker to rein in inflation — while ignoring the president who appointed Volcker: Jimmy Carter.

Samuelson’s distortion of the record is particularly egregious considering that Carter lost reelection in 1980 in large part because he stuck with Volcker, and his successor reaped the electoral benefits of his sacrifice.

What I find most remarkable about Samuelson’s critique, however, is that he never conceded that it’s not “loose money” Fed policies but the natural burst of economic activity as we emerge from the pandemic that is doing the most to fuel inflation.

Accordingly, to answer the question posed in his headline, I suspect Volcker would craft policies that take that into account, not fight battles that reference conditions nearly half a century ago.

Steven Alan Honley, Washington

The nightmare before Christmas

Call me Scrooge, but running a KidsPost column entirely dedicated to Christmas gifts during Halloween week — “Awesome puzzles, games, activity kits,” Style, Oct. 27 — made me sick. And no, I haven’t eaten all the Halloween candy.

If you really want to skip Halloween because the KidsPost editors seemingly have no interest in the creation of homemade costumes, or great decorations, or the origins of the holiday, or healthier ways to celebrate than by gorging on candy, and skip Thanksgiving because KidsPost apparently doesn’t give thanks, just focuses on “gimme” — then at least balance the greed with a small item on opportunities for kids to give to those less fortunate this season.

Bah, humbug.

Wendy Leibowitz, Bethesda

Drawing the line

Matt Davies’s Oct. 18 editorial cartoon on gerrymandering was perfect. It was amusing and gave the simplest explanation of what can be a confusing subject. Kudos to him.

Marilyn Tublin, Silver Spring

Where all poems are above average

It seems inconceivable that the lengthy Oct. 20 Style article on Garrison Keillor, “For Keillor, the woes appear gone,” failed to note that his Prairie Home Productions continues to offer the Writer’s Almanac on a daily basis via email. This is the same two-to-three-minute feature, including a poem, that ran on NPR stations for years before Keillor’s ejection.

Glen Ruh, Alexandria

More Skynet than Skype

David Ignatius’s statement in his Oct. 27 op-ed, “The Internet’s problems run deeper than just Facebook,” that “the Internet was created with an idealistic dream” was incorrect. Please consult the Internet Society’s 1997 “Brief History of the Internet,” available on the Web, which clearly shows the origin of the Internet as a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project. The groundwork was laid at MIT back in the 1960s, courtesy of DARPA.

The spread of misinformation should be everybody’s concern, and calling DARPA projects “idealistic” sadly distorts their real outcomes. They were and are a military outfit.

David Thomas, Rockville

A hanging offense

Regarding the Oct. 16 front-page article “A new puzzle for word game creators: How not to offend”:

Speaking of puzzles, not to mention careful word choice — or across and down — try as I might, I cannot figure out how a framed picture can sit on a wall, a vertical surface, as noted in a caption.

Mara Cherkasky, Washington

Maybe not great against covid, but doesn’t play nice with lice

The Oct. 30 news article “House panel investigates 2 online medical businesses over virus treatments” reported on the investigation by a House panel of whether two online businesses are pushing ineffective and dangerous treatments for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. One point in this important story was troublesome.

The article described ivermectin as an “animal parasite drug.” However, ivermectin is also used to treat a variety of parasites in humans. By implying that ivermectin is only an animal drug when that is not the case, the article could easily feed existing thinking in society that the press and medical authorities cannot be trusted.

A better approach would have been to say something to the effect that medical authorities report that there is no evidence that ivermectin is effective in treatment of covid. Though some might falsely dispute that truthful proposition, it would not have left The Post open to suggestions that it was being misleading. Given the pervasive distrust in society and the importance of following public health recommendations concerning covid, accuracy is important here.

John Guttmann, Washington

Let cooler heds prevail

The Oct. 24 front page was a near-perfect example of an appalling trend: headlines that cast every issue in terms of violent conflict. “Inside Facebook, Jan. 6 fueled a torrent of anger, regret,” “Battle for Va. House hinges on suburbs,” “Methane leaks in Russia imperil planet.”

The most laughable and misleading example was “Explosion of plate readers ignites fight over privacy.” As it turned out, that incendiary headline was the reader’s introduction to an interesting and well-reported article about a community conflict over license plate scanners and privacy issues.

In every one of these articles, the reporting was sound and even solution-oriented, but the headlines verged on hysterical. Serious readers are discouraged by these bellicose cliches. Sensational headline writing makes a mockery of good journalism.

Corey Flintoff, Cheverly

Read more Free for All letters:

Readers critique The Post: These are space tourists — not astronauts

Readers critique The Post: Missing an important point on pregnancy and the coronavirus

Readers critique The Post: What were we smoking?

Readers critique The Post: Carve out space for this artist’s credit

Readers critique The Post: Please have more respect for child-care professionals

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