Author: Sean Welsh

How New Zealand Is Beating COVID-19

Things are getting back to normal in New Zealand. In the past two months, every time I have been to my local supermarket the rules have changed. At the start of Lockdown Level 4, a two-meter spaced queue had been marked out and a long tent had been erected to accommodate it. There was a “one trolley, one person” rule, an insistence on a single “designated shopper” per household, and a ban on bringing recyclable bags into the supermarket. Contactless payment was preferred and cash was discouraged. Customers were required to maintain two meters distance from the person in front of them at the checkout. All staff wore some kind of PPE, and some wore face visors. Perspex barriers appeared at the deli counter and the checkout. There were shortages of baking products, yeast was for some reason unobtainable, customers could purchase no more than two packets of pasta or tins of tomatoes, and messages were broadcast over the Tannoy system instructing customers to shop normally. In response to the sudden outbreak of the COVID-19 …

The Case for a Mandatory COVID-19 App

COVID-19 offers governments no attractive policy options. Those in power are in a no-win situation. The choice is not between good and bad, nor even between bad and worse, but between grim and catastrophic. On one hand, there is the “butcher’s bill” of death that results from inaction or inadequate action in the face of the virus. On the other, there is the “banker’s bill” of bail-out and bankruptcy that results from quarantine measures. The “butcher’s bill” that results from delay or inaction in the face of the virus is grim. The butcher bills fortnightly. Two weeks of inaction or delay in the face of COVID-19 can kill thousands. The banker moves at a more leisurely pace, billing quarterly. Most businesses can survive without revenue for a fortnight. Fewer can survive one quarter let alone three or four without income. “Stay home: Save lives” is the message promoted by New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, the Western leader whose response to COVID-19 has been among the most successful. The secret of this success? Ardern also …

Lies, Damned Lies, and STEM Statistics

Concerns about the number of women in STEM are misplaced for three reasons. First, the definition of the “T” is STEM is narrow and arbitrary (a lie); second, the definition of the “S” in STEM is narrow, arbitrary, and flagrantly wrong (a damned lie); and, third, while the causal attribution of sexism to explain low numbers of women in STEM (narrowly defined) is undoubtedly true in particular cases, it is unconvincing as a general explanation of the relative low numbers of women in some broad fields of PhD study. Better explanations for these disparities are readily available. Victory for Women in US PhD Awards Nine Years Running In the US, women have earned more PhDs than men for the past nine years. The most recent figures are shown in Table 1. Based on the data, I have added a column labelled “Parity.” A broad field is classified as having parity if the female percentage figure is in the range 40-60. If the female percentage figure is greater than 60 it is classified as female majority. …

Brotopia—Analysis and Review

A review of Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang. Portfolio (February 2018) 320 pages.  Brotopia: Breaking up the Boy’s Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang subjects the software business to vigorous criticism. The dust jacket claims Silicon Valley is a “Brotopia” where “men hold all the cards and make all the rules.” Women are “vastly outnumbered” and face “toxic workplaces rife with discrimination and sexual harassment” where apparently “investors take meetings in hot tubs and network at sex parties.”  Her call to action is to break up the “boy’s club” and establish gender parity in software. Alas, such argument as the book offers is colourful mud-slinging on the basis of anecdotes. The book does not support its claims with any statistical or causal analysis. When such analysis is done Chang’s claims can be dismissed as lurid gossip based on harmful stereotypes. Employment Complaint Statistics in California Every year the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) publishes an annual report that gives figures on employment and housing complaints within the …

In Defence of Combat Robots

Next week in Geneva, diplomats will assemble to discuss Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS). The precise definition of LAWS is contested but the Pentagon speaks of “weapons that once activated can select and engage targets without further human intervention.” Activists striving for a ban on LAWS call them ‘killer robots,’ language some find emotive but which is nevertheless useful for grabbing headlines. To illustrate, Disney/Lucasfilm’s K2SO is a ‘killer robot’ as is R2D2. In the Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, K2SO—a reprogrammed Imperial droid fighting for the Rebel Alliance—kills about a dozen Imperial Stormtroopers with a grenade, a blaster, and his bare robot hands. More pertinently, existing systems like Aegis and Patriot running in ‘auto-fire’ mode also qualify as LAWS under the Pentagon’s definition.  Unsurprisingly, nations fielding Aegis and Patriot think that banning LAWS would be premature. Some analysts have suggested that we drop the word ‘lethal’ and speak instead of non-lethal as well as lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (AWS). In what follows I will discuss AWS or ‘combat robots’ that can deter, capture, wound, or kill. A …