Change of Subject
October 20, 2012
Game on, "Rachel from Cardholder Services," wherever you are.
The Federal Trade Commission has announced it will award $50,000 to the person who comes up with the best technological solution to the problem of increasingly crafty robocallers who pepper our land and mobile phone lines with their unwanted, recorded solicitations.
Many of the calls you and your ilk make are illegal, but the FTC says that recent advances in electronics and Internet telephony have made it easier than ever for you to mass dial through restrictions and that consumers are receiving more such calls than ever.
I had already spent the $50,000 in my mind when FTC staff attorney Kati Daffan told me Friday that my solution — a special button on every phone to press whenever telemarketers call, blocking that number from ever calling you again — wouldn't work very well.
"Callers buy up lots of outgoing numbers and change them all the time," she said. But, she added, one idea that shows promise is a version of crowdsourcing — collecting all the blocked numbers at a central point, generating a large database of offending numbers and then uploading them to the phones of users who want them.
Ideally, the winning solution will be free to the consumer and block nearly all such calls on every device. Rachel from Cardholder Services will have to look for a new line of work, and we'll be able to eat dinner in peace.
For more info: ftc.gov/robocalls.
Reconstructed columnist makes good
Longtime readers may remember my distance-running duels in the late 1990s with Elmhurst Press columnist Jack Zimmerman. Well, he left journalism many years ago to become subscriber relations manager for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, but continued writing in his spare time, publishing autobiographical tales of his childhood on the South Side.
On the strength of that work he's just been named one of three winners of the 7th annual Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Charitable Foundation Arts Achievement Awards.
"Your stories are harsh, yet lyrical and poetic," said the congratulatory letter that came with a $33,333.33 check. "They speak to our common humanity and our shared experience."
These awards from the Wilmette-based charity are smaller, local versions of the so-called genius grants from the MacArthur Foundation in that winners don't even know they've been nominated until they're told they've won.
The best part of the news for fans of Zimmerman, 67, is that the prize is earmarked for artists "who are in mid-career," meaning we can expect much more work for him in the future.
The other Meier winners for 2012 are visual artists Mindy Rose Schwartz and Bernard Williams.
Traditional country gospel — where hymns meet hoedowns in harmonious, toe-tapping reminders of inevitable death — is the best music there is. Even those of us among the unchurched can appreciate the passionate lyrics and the soaring, unforgettable melodies.
If you agree or are almost persuaded, you'll want to head out to FitzGerald's in Berwyn Thursday for an 8 p.m. tribute to Charlie Louvin, who with his brother Ira recorded scores of memorable country gospel songs.
After a screening of the documentary "Charlie Louvin: Still Rattlin' the Devil's Cage," assorted musicians will perform in tribute. Admission is $5.
For a free sample, drop by the Grafton Pub & Grill in the Lincoln Square neighborhood Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. The Pickin' Bubs and I will be leading a gospel singalong, lyrics provided. I learned some of the songs we're doing — "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" and "Gospel Ship," for instance — growing up listening to the Bloodwashed Throng, my father's quartet. And, as they used to say prior to performances, management assumes no responsibility for spontaneous conversions.
Speaking of singalongs, the Grafton is just down the street from the Old Town School of Folk Music where Mary Schmich and I will be fronting the 14th annual Songs of Good Cheer holiday caroling party Dec. 13 through 16. The event is a benefit for Chicago Tribune Holiday Giving, and tickets are already going fast at 773-728-6000.
Upon further review, it's time for baseball to join the 21st century
In the end, it didn't matter that Omar Infante of the Detroit Tigers was called safe at second base when he was obviously tagged out by the New York Yankees' Robinson Cano in the eighth inning of the second game of the just-concluded American League Championship Series.
Infante should have been the third out, as umpire Jeff Nelson later admitted, and he and another runner went on to score. The Tigers would have won anyway, but the flagrantly blown call was yet another stark reminder of the unnecessary injustices that occur when a big-time sport stubbornly refuses to implement a comprehensive instant-replay review system, even during playoff games.
It was so bad that New York Times reporter and staunch baseball traditionalist Bruce Weber, author of the 2009 book "As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires," changed his opinion.
"I've always been an advocate for letting the umps do their job and having the rest of us live with the job they do," said Weber, a friend since college, during an email exchange in which I taunted him for the ineptitude of his beloved Yankees. "I'm probably the last holdout. But at this point, with television replays so immediately decisive, even I recognize the irony in having the people who make the calls be the only people in the world without access to them."
To make sure games don't get any longer, Major League Baseball could start, say, enforcing rule 8.04, which says that if a pitcher takes more than 12 seconds to throw to home plate when the bases are empty, it's an automatic ball for the batter.
Worst. Vote. Ever.
What's the most regrettable vote you've ever cast? What were you thinking, and why were you so wrong?
Regular blog commenter "Beth" suggested this as a possibly educational essay assignment for readers. Post your entry at Change of Subject online, chicagotribune.com/zorn, or shoot me an email at email@example.com.