Sunday, October 28, 2012

Exchanging words with friends



Last December, the actor Alec Baldwin was asked to leave an American Airlines flight boarding at Los Angeles International Airport because of his desire to continue to play the game Words with Friends on his smartphone after the aircraft's doors had closed. Undoubtedly the popularity of the game, similar to the longtime family-favorite board game Scrabble, didn't suffer as a result of the dustup at LAX.

Apparently, some users find Words With Friends captivating enough to have several games going with various opponents at once. Anyone who has played the game knows that heated discussions over which words are allowed and which are not commonly erupt. Unlike the analog game of Scrabble where a player can challenge an opponent's word, on Words With Friends, the program itself decides whether a word is acceptable.

As the game has grown in popularity, so too have the sites that users can consult to see what the seven random letter tiles they end up with each round can possibly spell. Plug in your seven letters plus one open letter on the board and all possibilities are quickly revealed to a user - even though many of the words can be those for which the user hasn't a clue about their meaning. These sites do link to a definition of even the most obscure words, but players are under no obligation to learn the meaning of whatever word they are supplied.

It's not uncommon after a particularly unusual word is played by someone not known for his use of unusual words ("feazing," anyone?), that an opponent will suggest that a help site was consulted. Or, more directly, will say, "You cheated, didn't you?" By "cheated," both parties typically will know that what's meant is the accusation that a help site was used.

A question then is whether it's wrong to consult such help sites when playing the game. Is it indeed cheating?

If no clear ground rules are set that forbid or encourage the use of such sites, then I find nothing wrong with using the sites. As long as the words fit and are accepted by the online game board, no violating of the established rules has occurred.

But as with many situations, a follow-up question might be if that's the best right solution to how to play the game fair and square where questions of possible cheating are removed from the table (or, in this case, screen) entirely. It's not.

The best right thing to do when engaging a new opponent in a game of Words With Friends is to establish an agreement that using help sites is perfectly OK or if using them is off limits for this particular game. Making the rules clear from the outset wherever possible not only can make for a more even playing field, it also can result in fewer misunderstandings and accusations. All in all, the transparency of rules makes the playing all that more pleasurable.

As for whether Alec Baldwin should have been bounced from the flight? Anyone not following the instructions of a flight attendant should know they run the risk of wrath. Regardless of whether the rules are enforced consistently, once the attendant makes it clear this is going to be one of the flights where you follow the rules or else, then the right thing is to follow the rules if you don't want to get kicked off the plane. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Snapping up photos without paying is wrong

A husband and wife send their kids to a camp for three weeks each summer. They like the camp and their kids will choose to go there for at least 10 years.

In addition to the fee they pay to send their kids to this camp, the couple pays an additional $100 to be able to send and receive emails from their children. Since the camp is, as their mother reports, "a technology-free place of fun," the emails the parents send are printed out and given to the children. The children then hand write replies that are scanned by camp employees and emailed to the parents.

This is all a bit convoluted, since an old-fashioned postcard might do the trick and be cheaper. What really is bugging the parents, however, is that the camp also offers a picture-sharing service that allows them to see their kids in camping action. Parents sign a release and then a photographer regularly snaps pictures that are then posted to the camp's website. Parents can buy a 4 by 6 photo of their kid for $1.65 plus shipping and handling.

"I can get a picture printed from Walgreens for 19 cents," the mother wrote me. "This past week I realized that I could pull pictures off the website without purchasing them." Even though she says she is not really a tech-savvy person, she notes that the procedure is as easy as "copy and paste."

The mother has expressed her concern to the company providing the photographs. The latter would not negotiate the price. "Customer service is not a strength they have," she explains.

She's quick to acknowledge that the company should make a fair profit for the product it provides and charge accordingly. Copying photos from the site without paying anything is not an option for her, since she would consider that stealing. But she wonders whether it would be unethical to pull the pictures off the site and then also purchase enough so the photographer gets a fair profit -- "say, 50 cents per picture."

"Or is it just outright stealing?" she asks.

She is considering the action, but it just doesn't sit right with her, not passing her own "gut test."

I could quibble that it seems nuts for the camp not to embed the cost of a $1.65 photo or two and the email "service" into the general fee charged to attend the camp. I could also ponder why a photographer wouldn't protect the photos online so that they couldn't be copied and pasted without purchase. But the convoluted way the camp chooses to provide this service has no bearing on whether it's right to simply take the photos off the website without paying for them since they are deemed to be overpriced.

The mother's gut test serves her well and she's right to avoid taking the photos without paying for them. The right thing is to pay for the photos they take and continue to talk to the camp about changing this process. The alternative is simply to get enough parents to refuse to pay the $100 fee and to refrain from buying photos at the marked-up price until the camp recognizes that there's a better way to service the needs of the parents who send their kids to enjoy a technology-free three weeks every summer. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Should daughter help her father vote?

If you had a chance to guarantee that at least one person wouldn't vote against your preferred candidate, would you take it? What if that prospective voter were your elderly father whose care is partially entrusted to you?

In the past year, a reader has relocated her 87-year-old father from the state in which he was living to a senior-living facility near her home. She writes that he has been diagnosed with short-term memory loss and moderate to severe dementia.

"For example," she writes, "he doesn't usually know his own age, the month of the year, the season, or the name of the current president." But he does read the newspaper on most days and maintains "pleasant social interactions."

The reader has managed her father's finances for several years. Since he moved closer to her, she has managed his medical and health care issues, as well.

The facility where her father resides recently distributed absentee ballot applications to all residents. The reader notes that her father is unable to fill out the application on his own. "I really doubt if he could complete the ballot without assistance," she writes. "I know he couldn't handle voting in person. But he has always voted, and I might add, along strict party lines."

So here's the reader's quandary as she sees it: Should she help her father fill out the absentee ballot? Should she help him vote even though, as she observes, he doesn't know who the current president is?

"If I ask him, 'Do you want to vote for the Republican or the Democrat?' I know what he will say. But it seems to me he is no longer capable of making a rational decision."

She adds that her and her father's political affiliations are opposite one another. "I'm wondering," she writes, "if the thought of his vote canceling out my vote is influencing my uneasiness."

While it would be lovely to believe that all voters make rational decisions, are educated about the candidates or are in full control of their faculties when they cast their votes in an election, it's a safe bet that that's not the case. The reader is not obligated to help her father fill out the application for his absentee ballot nor is she obligated to assist him in remembering to cast that ballot in time to be counted in the upcoming election. But she shouldn't do anything to dissuade him from voting, particularly if she's motivated by the knowledge that his vote is likely to cancel her own out.

It's clear that she cares for her father and knows that voting is important to him. That she is wrestling with the question suggests she knows the right thing to do in this situation and that's to ask her father first if he wants to vote in this election and then to offer him assistance by telling him what he has to do to attain his absentee ballot and to fill it out in time to be counted. If he decides not to vote, that's his choice. But so, too, is whether he asks his daughter for help. If he asks, it seems right to offer assistance even if the outcome that goes against how his daughter might have cast her ballot. In the end, offering help in this case stops short of making any decision for him. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Honoring the will of her mother

Now that her mother is 96 and in an assisted living center in the Midwest, a reader has taken over paying the bills and handling her bank account.

The mother receives a pension as well as Social Security payments totaling less than $2,300 a month. Her rent for her apartment in the assisted living center is $5,000 a month.

The ownership of her mother's house was transferred to my reader about eight years ago. Last year, the house was sold and the proceeds remain in the daughter's name. The mother's earnings total a couple of hundred dollars too much to qualify for Medicaid, so my reader needs to come up with another $1, 700 a month just to pay her mother's rent. On top of that, she pays for any additional medical supplies, health insurance and other miscellaneous costs her mother incurs.

My reader draws $3,000 a month from the account that holds the proceeds from the sale of her mother's house. She also supplements that by paying for many things with her own limited income, which is less than $2,000 a month from Social Security.

In her mother's will, she names several people to inherit certain percentages of her money. She has no idea that her daughter is using that $3,000 per month to pay for assisted living and, as a result, there will be less money left to her church and her grandchildren.

My reader says her dilemma is whether she should let her mother's savings build so she can leave a larger amount of money to the heirs, but as a result deplete her own funds -- or whether she should use her mother's funds, which would mean that any inheritance for the grandchildren would amount to practically nothing.

Her grandchildren have told her that they do not want any inheritance. "They would rather that I protect my inheritance for as long as I can and continue to use her income to help with paying her bills," she writes.

"I know that everyone involved would say to go ahead and use her monthly income, but am I not honoring her will by doing so?" my reader asks. "It's been very hard for her to give up all control, and I'm afraid this whole state of affairs would be devastating to her."

The right thing is for my reader to honor her mother's wishes as much as possible, but not to deplete her own funds that she needs to pay her living expenses in the process. Her mother's intention in her will was to divide whatever assets existed upon her death to her grandchildren, the church and other beneficiaries. It's not her daughter's responsibility to draw on her own funds to make sure that her mother's funds stay as healthy as possible.

While the best thing might be to let her mother know the specifics of her financial condition, if their agreement was that the daughter would take care of paying her bills and managing her expenses drawing on her mother's accounts as needed, then that's what she should do.

She is already honoring her mother by taking care of her and her affairs. She should not go broke in the process if the resources exist in her mother's accounts to pay her mother's expenses. If she wants her children to inherit more, she can decide to leave whatever she wants to them in her own will. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

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