Ideas

Brainiac

Toilet paper at the Temple of Heaven

A man uses an automatic toilet paper dispenser that uses facial recognition technology at a public toilet at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing on March 21, 2017. A years-long crime spree by Chinese toilet paper thieves may have reached the end of its roll after park officials in southern Beijing installed facial recognition technology to flush out bathroom bandits. / AFP PHOTO / WANG Zhao (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images
A man uses an automatic toilet paper dispenser equipped with facial recognition technology at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

INNOVATION OF THE WEEK

What is it? Toilet paper dispenser that uses facial recognition software

Innovators: The firm Shoulian Zhineng; managers at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park

What were they thinking? Temple of Heaven Park provided toilet paper in its public restrooms for years. But the TP had a habit of vanishing, stuffed into oversize shopping bags by Beijingers looking to curb costs at home. So park managers took action: installing facial recognition software on toilet paper dispensers and limiting each visitor to a single 2-foot-long sheet.

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How did they do? Some park-goers are pleased. “The people who steal toilet paper are greedy,” He Zhiqiang, 19, told The New York Times. Others, not so much. There are reports of frustrated bathroom users banging on the $720 machines. And Jeremiah Jenne, an American historian who lives in Beijing and organizes tours of historic sites asks, “Is there not a solution somewhere between ‘put up a sign’ and ‘install the sort of thing Bond villains use to secure their secret vaults?’ ”

— DAVID SCHARFENBERG

ETHICAL DILEMMA

Recently, the Globe reported on an ugly dispute involving Worcester Polytechnic Institute; its biggest donor, Bob Foisie; and his former wife, Janet. When the Foisies divided their assets, Bob failed to disclose a $4.5 million Swiss trust — which he later gave to WPI. His ex-wife is suing. So what should the school do? We asked two experts:

Carol Hay, philosophy professor at UMass Lowell: “ An apt analogy here is when a museum finds out that a painting was looted by Nazis; it should give the art back to the family from whom it was stolen. Institutions have to rectify the immoral provenance of their holdings. It makes no difference whether an asset was ill gotten by Nazis or wrongly kept by an ex-husband.”

Alan Cantor, New Hampshire-based consultant to nonprofits: “Charities research whether donations came from an ethically dubious enterprise, but they can hardly be expected to understand the dynamics of a divorce proceeding. That said, WPI would avoid litigation and bad public relations by returning the disputed money. Ideally, Mr. Foisie would then make good on his pledge by drawing on other funds.”

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In an informal poll by @GlobeIdeas on Twitter, 28 percent of respondents said WPI should give the money back; 72 percent thought the school should offer regrets, but nothing more.

— DANTE RAMOS

ON SECOND THOUGHT

Sometimes, research prompts not just public debate but legal threats. Last year, the journal Education Policy Analysis Archives accepted an article by Stanley Pogrow of San Francisco State. He criticized Success For All, an education reform program used at more than 1,000 schools. That program’s co-developer, Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University, threatened to sue because a pre-publication version of Pogrow’s article suggested that not only was Success a failure, but that Slavin had been using it to line his pockets.

Pogrow, by the way, was the creator of a competing reform program. (His lawyer insisted the paper was not defamatory.) In the end, the journal sided with Slavin and gutted Pogrow’s paper. Neither scholar came out looking good. The journal didn’t, either. First, it accepted a paper in which one scholar threw shade at a commercial rival. Then, it folded in the face of broad legal threats. Success for none!

— ADAM MARCUS, Retraction Watch

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