Scrambled Signals

Everyone wants government to be more efficient and responsive to consumers. The Federal Communications Commission says it's making great strides in that direction. But there's a price to pay for progress -- as one of our readers found out.

That reader got the following letter recently from Sharon D. Lee, chief of the consumer protection branch of the enforcement division of the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau:

"In 1997, you filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission regarding a telephone-related matter. During the same time period, the FCC's Consumer Protection Branch began implementing a new complaint processing system. The goal of the new system was to allow the Commission to resolve and respond to informal complaints in a more expedient and efficient manner."

Well, that certainly sounds like a good idea. Better still, Lee's letter goes on, "your complaint was among the initial documents entered into the new system." Fantastic luck, right?

"However, as with many new systems, unexpected technical issues arose and as a result, we have been unable to further process your complaint and have closed the file. We apologize for the level of assistance provided and the delay in communicating this situation to you."

So, the FCC got the complaint, improved the system, lost the complaint, doesn't know exactly what it was about and now has deleted the file. But all was not in vain, it turns out. Even though "your specific informal complaint may not have been resolved," Lee writes by way of consolation, "the FCC has made significant progress in strengthening consumer protection" for everyone else. For example, there's a toll-free complaint number, and an Internet site to file complaints and get questions answered. The FCC has cracked down on companies engaged in "slamming" and so forth.

Lee writes that she hopes our reader has resolved the prob-lem without FCC help. If not, "we will work with you if assistance is still required. The age of your complaint may limit the actions we can take and the carrier's ability to respond . . .

"We apologize for any inconvenience."

What's the old saying about having to break a few eggs to make an omelet? Tough being an egg.

Lawyers, Guns And Money

Lawyers tend to follow the big bucks. So there's little doubt which writing competitions listed in a Georgetown University Law Center newsletter will attract the most students.

The August 30 publication mentions five competitions students can enter. One is sponsored by the Section of Public Contract Law of the American Bar Association, which is offering prizes of $1,000 and $500 for something pithy on a "topical issue in public contract or grant law."

The International Society for Utilitarian Studies is offering $1,000 for an essay on utilitarianism. The National Conference of Bar Examiners is offering $5,000 for the best entry on "issues of interest to bar examiners."

But the NRA Foundation Inc. and the Firearms Civil Rights Legal Defense Fund are offering $12,500, $5,000 and $2,500 for essays on a "Constitutional right to keep and bear arms." And the Defense Fund by itself is also offering $5,000, $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 for winning essays on "the Right of the Individual to Keep and Bear Arms as a Federally Protected Right."

Seems like a lot of money for purely intellectual exercises. After all, the NRA has repeatedly and unanimously ruled on the constitutional questions.

Viewers' Discretion

Let's face it: Most political polls basically tell you what you already know. Bush is up, Gore is down, Bradley is lurking. But Bell Atlantic Video's recent survey of 632 DIRECTV subscribers -- though thoroughly unscientific and random -- curiously countered conventional wisdom.

For example, 50 percent of those surveyed who drive pickup trucks said they normally order foreign films on pay-per-view services, Bell Atlantic Video reported, while only 25 percent of those who drive BMWs said they order such movies.

On another front, "the number one movie recently ordered by men . . . was the romantic comedy (aka `chick flick') `You've Got Mail,' " the survey found. The favorite movie for women was "Waterboy," the Adam Sandler comedy.

The survey of viewers in six markets, including the D.C. area, Baltimore and Philadelphia, also found that Thursday night is the most popular night to order pay-per-view movies, while Sunday night is the least popular.

Our favorite finding: "More than half of people surveyed over the age of 65 said they normally order adult movies, compared to only 6 percent of those surveyed under the age of 65."

Tips and comments for Al Kamen's column are welcomed at: In the Loop, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or by e-mail at Loop@washpost.com. Please include home and work phone numbers.