Sunday, September 21, 2014


Eldest Son had an intriguing idea: imagine playing golf on Perelandra.

I wonder if you can emulate that in a water park or a mostly enclosed bay...

The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto

Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy begins by suggesting that those who have never experienced anything like this will have no idea what he is writing about, and may as well just put the book down. That’s dramatic advice, but fair—especially since the choice of words that follow is apt to be extremely confusing.

He, or perhaps his translator, uses the term non-rational to describe the experience of the numinous. What he means is that you cannot model the numinous and wrap your mind around it. Encountering the numinous is encountering something “wholly other.” Terms like majestic, terrifying, powerful, and so on do not, at first apply. The experience goes the other direction, as we try to express what we have known in symbols other people (and we!) can understand.

Thomas Aquinas wrote massive and thoughtful analyses of the foundations and implications of the faith which generations have benefited from, but one day he had a vision, laid down his pen, and said that everything he had written before was so much “straw.”

This experience of the holy Otto sees (and I think correctly) as the origin and source of power of all religions. Even the purely artificial religions—burning incense to the spirit of the emperor or worship of the Communist Party Revolution are piggy-backing on more spontaneous religions (communism is often described as a Christian heresy).

Although he does not explicitly say so, Otto seems to be describing at least three kinds of interaction with the numinous, and possibly four.

  1. The Isaiah or Job version, testified to by many prophets and mystics of many faiths—an overwhelming connection to something more real that you are: overwhelming and yet somehow desirable. The fate of Semele echoes the sense—you cannot look on God and live. Not because you are unclean or sinful (though that can play a role) but because you are finite. And if I may stoop to a mathematical analogy, not just finite in some dimension but finite in the number of dimensions.

    The people of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to go away—perhaps because they worried about future financial setbacks, but more likely because they were encountering something holy and were afraid.

  2. Another form of encounter is like this, but less focused. It also is unsought. For example, in the forest there comes a sense of something numinous and awesome, and the forest seems to be a holy forest because of it. I’ll go into that a little more in a moment.
  3. In yet another form the numinous encounter is sought after, and things of majesty or beauty or even asceticism are used to prepare the worshiper to encounter what, in the final analysis, can only be initiated from outside us. Our effort is not always successful, of course. But this isn’t obviously bad: I’ll discuss that briefly later too.
  4. Another form is logically available, though Otto doesn’t address it. The encounter can be with something secondary but still superior and “other” though not with the ultimate reality of God. For example, encountering an angel could be a numinous encounter.

Otto’s history of religion stands Frazier on his head. The notion that religions develop when a chief tries to inspire awe in his tribe to solidify his control begs the question of what this awe is and where it comes from. It is much more probable that the kind of encounter of the second type is common, and that the religions often come from trying to figure out how to live in light of those experiences. Otto refers us to the testimony of missionaries who find ready acceptance and understanding of their very high understanding of God even among animist cultures seemingly utterly immersed in attempts to manipulate lesser spirits.

The type 2 experience would seem to lend itself to creating a local shrine to commemorate and to visit in hopes of retrieving a type 3 experience: in the forest, by the stream, to the sky--whatever seemed to be the trigger for the original experience. Of course the result is generally some kind of idol, which as a creation of man is less than man and far less than God.

I’ve suggested before that polytheism is the compromise you get when different tribes with different gods met. It is possible that this represents instead the different experiences of the numinous within a single tribe. In either case, I expect it to have arisen syncretically rather than organically, and that true devotion, as opposed to box checking, would be to just one god of the pantheon. (The devotees of Krishna come to mind here.) Polytheism would seem to lend itself to the same kind of superstitious box-checking you find in animism: wear blue, right foot out the door first, and don’t forget to dump a little wine by the lingam and you should be OK for the day.

Of course Christianity has suffered from the same box-checking problem, if the complaints of centuries of preachers and priests are any guide. And I gather from the history of Sufism that Muslims recognize the same problem. But when one welters among many gods, they all tend to become limited and small.

The tendency is almost always to degrade rather than elevate; I believe Otto is correct in locating the origin of religions in encounters with the numinous.

Otto distinguishes between these encounters in part by looking at the side effects. Does the experience communicate a clear message, as Isaiah’s did? Does it leave behind simply a “This place is sacred” or does it have moral implications? And he adds another condition—the more spiritual the better.

This last reflects a sad defect in the book. He seems to think that the “wholly other” can make an impression on a human spirit but not on matter. He doesn’t like the idea of miracles at all and isn’t shy about denigrating them.

He also illustrates his descriptions with quotes from Hindu scriptures, suggesting (I’m not expert enough) that nirvana’s negative description reflects the “wholly other” / no way to tag it with words aspect of the numinous.

One very interesting omission is “Are we made to encounter the holy in particular ways?” From the observation that the experience of the holy ends up being described in terms of majesty and beauty and (often) right living, the effort to represent and to appeal to God which is codified in those terms seems appropriate. A hymn describing God’s power does not have the same dramatic character as the overwhelmed cry of “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord,” but that doesn’t make it inappropriate, or even necessarily inferior if that is a mode of approach to God that we were made for. Would, for example, Aquinas have had the vision at the end of his life if he had not dedicated his work to God all those years?

Read it. Subject to his caveat.

And another caveat—avoid the Kindle version. It was taken from a scan, and the OCR imbeds footnotes without distinction from the text, often mistakes “n” for “w” and suchlike, and you don’t want to know what happens when it hits Greek or Hebrew terms. It was probably taken from the same source as this. Hard copy is a better bet.

I’m told C.S. Lewis considered this one the influential books in his life.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


was defined as the attitude of the man who, having murdered his parents, threw himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan.

It could also be the attitude of a man editorializing on how the appeals court was "asking for trouble" when it reinstated Wisconsin's voter ID law. Yep, there's not much time left. And remind me why there was a delay?

The old tradition holds that the dead vote in Chicago and the cows in Southern Illinois, and there were certainly some curious voter turnouts in several counties around the country in the last election. On the other hand we're assured that it is all smoke and mirrors--that true voter fraud is almost never proved, and therefore almost never happens. Though that syllogism seems to have a little gap or two in it somewhere...

Will such laws reduce fraud? I look forward to learning that.

Will they reduce turnout? They'll certainly reduce the derelict roundup vote, which probably isn't a significant factor in most races. The turn-out-the-vote machine works best in densely populated cities; making sure the people on your block have IDs is just one more step for the organizers--not even a speed bump, really, given the work involved in making sure everybody gets an absentee ballot and suggestions.

Now that I think of it, if there's a significant reduction in the absentee ballot turnout in certain districts that will probably answer the question about reducing vote fraud. You'll have to connect the dots yourself, though.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

On reading a newspaper's science column...

"The child asks for information, and we satiate his curiosity with words. Who does not know how we satisfy ourselves with the name of some strange bird or plant, or the name of some new law in nature? It is a mystery perplexing us before. We get the name, and fancy we understand something more than we did before, but, in truth, we are more hopelessly ignorant; for before we felt there was a something we had not attained, and so we inquired and searched: now, we fancy we possess it, because we have got the name by which it is known, and the word covers over the abyss of our ignorance."
Frederick William Robertson

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Small Small Thing

While at my sister's home we watched "Small Small Thing" about a rape of a little girl in Liberia. She isn't the only one.

In the movie one of the doctors explains how the war built up a culture of rape (wars tend to do that) and subsequent frustration when the now-disarmed fighters feel powerless and want the perks they used to have. That's nice and plausible, but I'd think the crimes would be concentrated where the ex-fighters wound up. There wasn't any hint that the uncle (or the other men in the stories mentioned) was anything but a long-time member of the village--and the village stuck together to protect him.

A driver, taking the team up-country to the girl's family (and the uncle who raped her), talked about rape of children, and said something that startled me: "It was worse before the war." He said a lot of men did it to get power and money--presumably magically.

In Southern Africa (Wikipedia says sub-Saharan Africa) there's an ugly belief that sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. That suggests that magic really is one of the motives there.

There's another possibility--that cultures turn nasty when faced with a superior culture. The Atlantic article on rape in Alaska wants to blame their sky-high incidence of rape in the tribal areas on colonial efforts to disrupt the native culture, but I wonder if this is part of a reaction against inferiority. I'm told that some guys (not all, or even a majority) get psyched up for battle and violent sex at the same time. (And that others regard women as a reward of conquest, which isn't the same thing. I've not been in the army, much less in combat, and have no first-hand observations.) If a similar reaction drives the rape of children in villages, then there should be a before and after, and maybe it would have been observed. Aborigines? Newly found South American tribes? It doesn't seem perfectly convincing to me, but maybe I just don't have a clear enough understanding of the dynamics.

They know it's wrong, or they'd not try to hide it as hard as they do. But there's always some excuse. The guy is the only able-bodied hunter, and they'll starve if he dies or is imprisoned--I get that one, though there still ought to be some way of shaming him. But blaming the teller rather than the do-er for shaming the family?

At this distance, as an outsider, I have no idea what to do. Pray, yes. In this country I can denounce the glorification of violent sex (a staple of some music genres) and other trends, but abroad?

My mother wrote an AIDS prevention pamphlet aimed at girls, warning of the dangers of taking up with sugar daddies. I tried to write something for men, but realized it relied too heavily on combating desperation with some notions of chivalry--which is a western concept we haven't tried to either cultivate or export lately. But if sex is tied in with magic--my concept was completely hopeless.

And it keeps happening.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Moses or Ipanema?

Her stride is cultivated grace, her hair elegantly coiffed, her skirt cut to swirl above her knees just so, her back slightly arched for best projection.

But she does not walk in joy, granting a Mona Lisa smile to her admirers. Her head is bowed as if rapt in prayer to the tablet in her hand.

It shines, but her face does not.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Deadly force and race

An interesting study on the use of deadly force by police found that participants (an earlier study used policemen) felt more threatened by black suspects but were slower to pull the trigger on them than they were on white or hispanic suspects. In consequence, the rate of one type of error (shooting at innocent suspects) was lower, and the rate of the other (failing to shoot in time at a baddie) was higher.
James’ study is a follow-up to one in which she found active police officers, military personnel and the general public took longer to shoot black suspects than white or Hispanic suspects. Participants were also more likely to shoot unarmed white suspects than black or Hispanic ones and more likely to fail to fire at armed black suspects.

"In other words," wrote James and her co-authors, "there was significant bias favoring blacks where decisions to shoot were concerned."

This seems to make sense if both the sense of threat and the delay in analyzing the situation both stem from unfamiliarity with the body language and clothing signals. I'd guess the more unfamiliarity, the more delay.

I'd like to see if this is symmetric; if blacks have a similar delay vis-a-vis hispanics, for instance. I'm not sure if "white culture" is ubiquitous enough to provide enough familiarity: quite a few people I've known have lived in relative bubbles. If it isn't symmetric, then I'd start looking at the effects of social expectations on behavior. But I guess there'd be a similar effect.

Statistics show that police shoot ethnic and racial minorities disproportionately to their population.

But the last comprehensive look at the racial makeup of justifiable and non-justifiable shootings was a 2001 study using more than two decades of U.S. Bureau of Justice data, said James. And while statistics show black suspects are shot at more frequently than white suspects, the 2001 study found black suspects were also as likely to shoot at police as be shot at.

Recall that this most recent study was not of law officers, but ordinary citizens.

When confronted by an armed white person, participants took an average of 1.37 seconds to fire back. Confronted by an armed black person, they took 1.61 seconds to fire and were less likely to fire in error. The 240-millisecond difference may seem small, but it’s enough to be fatal in a shooting.

I got to be in one of those situation simulators when I participated in the local "Citizen's Academy" program. We were informed that we novices were allowed to hold the "weapon" at ready, but the police had to keep it holstered and draw. We weren't all that fast. It turns out a lot of bad things can happen in a second--one way or another.

I wonder what the followups will show.

Magnetic field motions in the Sun

This article from NASA is worth reading. Our satellites can determine the polarization of light from different parts of the Sun and figure out what the overall magnetic field direction is in different places. And, over time, it changes. It looks like bands form at high latitudes and migrate to the equator in about a 19-year cycle. In addition they have a new aspect of the Sun to monitor: "They noticed that ubiquitous spots of extreme ultraviolet and X-ray light, known as brightpoints, prefer to hover around the vertices of these large areas, dubbed “g-nodes” because of their giant scale." Mapping the behavior of these and of the magnetic bands suggests that the 11-year sunspot cycle is a side effect of the larger cycles.

The exact mechanism isn't clear (at least to me, and I think to them also), but finding new patterns like this is what scientists dream about. The equator, when those vast bands cancel, just has to have some wild magnetohydrodynamics going on...

And no, I didn't know that sunspots migrated to the equator.

Screen insects

I don't know how many of you remember xroach: an X-windows game that would generate a lot of images of roaches which hid behind your terminal windows or browser or what have you. When you iconized a window the roaches revealed would scurry around the screen looking for a new place to hide. You could click on them to squish them. Minutes of fun--but much more amusing if you could distract some unsuspecting soul and invoke it on their machine.

The old flat-screen I'm using at work has several layers, and an ant got in between them somehow. All morning it wandered to and fro, looking at all the backwards text. (Not that unix commands are that much odder forward...)

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Slowing down

My sister asked me to transfer to DVD a video her late husband made 29 years ago, of my eldest two children when we were visiting them in Louisville. (He was preparing a tape for my parents who were in Africa.)

There's no drama: the most exciting part is wondering if Eldest Daughter will hit anybody with the miniature baseball bat. There were many details I'd completely forgotten over the years: the ducks, the swan, the peacocks, the pillars, even the shirt I was wearing.

Ripping it last night was half an hour of watching them do the simple things: exploring and enjoying. My Better Half watched it this evening; just quiet fun remembering.

A narrative line is important, and dramatic tension too, but sometimes you can do without both.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


"The law embodies the story of a nation's development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics." Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

I think we can learn something by doing just that.

At its best the laws and regulations of a country represent machinery to provide justice in both positive and punitive ways. A man should be able to enjoy the fruit of honest labor, and be punished for injuring his neighbor. We all know of laws and rules designed to enrich the well-connected, but I’m going to ignore them for now.

Ideally the machinery should just work: given a set of input circumstances and events, then either do nothing, give a benefit, or inflict a punishment; and in each case this should be the right thing to do. The problem is that life is complicated, and little corner cases evolve from human ingenuity (How about selling options to trade bond futures?) or new technologies.

So, is this new corner case, selling options to trade bond futures, something that should be classified as a sale of a good or does it have such an attenuated connection to anything concrete that it is more like gambling—with a strong possibility of manipulation and fraud? Not sure? Does it seem important enough to merit a new law? OK. Now you have N+1 laws, and this new one will interact with some of the old ones—there’s no way of getting around that, even if you substitute one with another, since the new one has to cover more ground. The new machinery will have new corner cases.

We can often evaluate the corner cases as just or unjust dealings, but the machinery of the rules doesn’t let us solve them. Sometimes the machinery gets the wrong answer, because of some flaw in the laws (I’m not thinking of failures of juries, but of unexpected interactions of rules).

Holmes also said "This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice," and in that he was absolutely accurate. The machinery gives only a finite approximation to justice.

Any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete. In particular, for any consistent, effectively generated formal theory that proves certain basic arithmetic truths, there is an arithmetical statement that is true, but not provable in the theory. paraphrase of Godel’s first theorem

Laws and regulations are not an exact parallel to an “effectively generated theory”, but humor me. If they were, then the resulting machinery, by Godel’s theorem, would be either inconsistent or full of gaps and corner cases. (Yes, the real tax code is both.) Adding new laws will not change this problem, no matter how many you write or how carefully you write them.

Or to put it another way, you are never going to get the system to be perfect. It will always be incomplete or inconsistent (and usually both).

So are we doomed to merely converge on perfection, always bettering society but never getting it quite right?

The more corrupt the republic, the more numerous the laws. Tacitus

He meant the causality to go from corruption to multiplicity of laws, but it works the other way too. At some point the number of laws and rules exceeds human capacity to manage them, and you automatically get disregard for the law—and usually disrespect as a natural result. Enforcement of inconsistent laws tends to be capricious, so what tribe you’re in starts to matter a lot. It just gets worse from there.

So no, far from converging on perfection, trying to endlessly fix things starts to actively make society worse.

The obvious deduction is that at some point (which point will obviously be disputed) you need to stop making laws and rules to fix problems and suck it up.

That doesn’t work either.

The old order changes, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

Or for another take, look at Shaw’s

Hearken to me then, oh ye compulsorily educated ones. Know that even as there is an old England and a new, and ye stand perplexed between the twain; so in the days when I was worshipped was there an old Rome and a new, and men standing perplexed between them. And the old Rome was poor and little, and greedy and fierce, and evil in many ways; but because its mind was little and its work was simple, it knew its own mind and did its own work; and the gods pitied it and helped it and strengthened it and shielded it; for the gods are patient with littleness. Then the old Rome, like the beggar on horseback, presumed on the favor of the gods, and said, "Lo! there is neither riches nor greatness in our littleness: the road to riches and greatness is through robbery of the poor and slaughter of the weak." So they robbed their own poor until they became great masters of that art, and knew by what laws it could be made to appear seemly and honest. And when they had squeezed their own poor dry, they robbed the poor of other lands, and added those lands to Rome until there came a new Rome, rich and huge. And I, Ra, laughed; for the minds of the Romans remained the same size whilst their dominion spread over the earth.

Fallen humanity will take whatever virtues went into building the strength of a culture and a nation and eventually twist these. For example, what would Locke have made of the modern West’s elevation of individualism to the point where the received wisdom is now that you can choose your own nature? The unwritten part of the law, its cultural support, erodes over time.

And, of course, people exploit the loopholes, sometimes even in preference to the usual procedures.

The upshot is that trying to stay static doesn’t work either. IIRC the Chinese tried that, and wound up with cycles of good (well, OK) government, corrupt government, and civil war.

The answer is that there isn’t a good answer. But when someone implies that all our problems can be fixed with his rules, call him a liar. If he implies that his rules will get 100% compliance, call him a fool. He may have a good idea or two, but only by accident.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Putnam, trust, and flirting

Everybody else seems to have already read Putnam's paper showing that diversity reduces both out-group and in-group trust. I'm curious whether the startling part--the reduction in in-group trust--was replicated in other cultures as well.

Now that I think of it, does the increase in political activity in diverse cities reflect a loss of trust?

Someone noted that attitudes towards Indians in the US improved the farther away they were. I don't recall who noted this or on what basis, but I notice that Twain and Nye, though on occasion noting good qualities of an individual, tended to express less flattering views of Indians than Rousseau or Pope. The lack of trust of outsiders can be based on experience.

But, since Putnam tried to control for the crime rate, let's assume that this isn't the driving factor.

There were a couple of interesting features in the distributions Putnam showed. One is that the relationship between ethnic diversity and trust was linear. This seems a little surprising to me: insofar as it diminishes I expect it to diminish faster as the environment becomes more complicated. That we see the simpler relationship seems to suggest that the response isn't a matter of being overwhelmed, but is a rational response to some factor.

One simple model of what is going on with trust of other groups is that lack of trust varies with risk. The risk can be physical (see crime rate), but would more usually be "status risk."

For example, is the young lady with the tight blouse flirting with you? Maybe it's obvious, but maybe frequent eye contact just signified confidence back in her home town, and your response just earned you a snicker instead of a smile.

The neighbors in the green house are exceptionally loud. Are they having marital problems? Is he threatening violence? Or is this a benign case of "loudest wins?" This is a live issue in our household: a touch of Asperger's can make it hard to tell from the tone of voice (words are typically not very intelligible) whether the shouter across the street is seriously angry or not.

Risk is obviously proportional to the degree to which you cannot "read" the other person's signals. Only some of the signals are verbal denotation. We all know lots of non-verbal signals, and lots of idioms and local connotations, such as the Brit saying goodnight to an American lady with "I'll knock you up in the morning", or when Arthur Blessitt asked to hold a "rally" when he brought his cross to Liberia "rally" means a church fund raiser there.

We can sometimes tell when someone is a bit "off." (Generally they're harmless, but you have to learn more about them to tell for sure, and about 1-2% of the population will prey on you given the opportunity--more if their culture encourages predation on outsiders.) I'm guessing here, but I'd think it much easier to spot problematic deviations from the norm when you have a fairly mono-cultural norm. I'm not sure whether different races confuse, but I'm pretty sure different cultures do. (But maybe I was just a little dense as a youth.)

So I'm guessing that in a multi-ethnic community people will be slightly more likely to misidentify reliable people as unreliable, or at best of uncertain reliability.

There are also things that seem more like carrier waves or heartbeat signals. This can include what AVI calls tribal markers, but I think they don't just signal "I'm here" but also, from the non-verbal components, let your co-tribesmen know whether you're OK or having some problems. Small talk about the weather (or whatever is the thing for your tribe) allows the conversation to grow if needed. (Cold calls are hard for most of us to learn to do; so similarly is starting a heavy conversation cold.)

You know the frantic search to find something useful to answer when somebody opens the conversation with something completely alien, like BDS or the prospects of the Ukrainian rugby team. Having something to ease conversation into being is important.

Sometimes the tribal markers or tribal courtesies are experienced as micro-aggressions, and some of the unspoken courtesies (what volume you use when arguing in public, whether you nod or hail-fellow, what clothes you wear(*)), will rub you the wrong way by their absence.

So far so good. You clearly run a higher "status risk" when trying to deal with someone from an alien culture. But why should there be a difference in trust between having 10% of your neighbors be different vs having 20% of them?

It may have to do with risk estimate. Suppose the risk of misreading the intentions of a member of an "alien culture" is p, and the trust will be proportional to 1-p). And suppose the risk of misreading the intentions of someone of your own culture is q, smaller than p. If there are 100 in your neighborhood, the chances of misreading anybody is ((1-p)^N)((1-q)^(100-N)). Let q be .1% and p be 1%. For between 1 and 50 members of an "alien culture", the risk of misreading someone looks nearly linear, as shown below. (Sorry, my X-axis runs the other direction from Putnam's.) I pulled these numbers out of the air, of course, but I mostly expect people to be fairly good at figuring out who’s not trustworthy after a trial or two. Of course some of us make a good living off that failure rate.

But wait, why am I looking at the overall trust, and not trust in my group vs trust in the other group?

I have thought of only two simple models that explain the decline in both domains of trust as a rational reaction. This “calculation” is part of the first model—though it doesn’t deal with the reported offset (see Putnam’s Figure 6) between in-group and out-group trust.

  1. The survey respondent feels the whole group to be a community, and is describing the sense of trust he feels with respect to the community as a whole, with an (unexplained) offset for trust in his own group. This is one reason I'd like to see whether this effect is reproducible outside the West, in more explicitly tribal environments. We try(ied) to cultivate a "you're responsible to the community" attitude, which might change how people answer.
  2. The people in the community fall back to a kind of pidgin set of signals, and the probability that you use the pidgin within your group rather than the full set varies with the probability that you have to use it outside the group--which is proportional to the fraction of “alien culture” people in the community.

I’m not persuaded by either model. The first doesn’t explain the approximately constant offset in trust, and the second doesn’t motivate why you should use the pidgin in-group—it is just assumed easier. AVI suggested that the in-group distrust came from “activation” of distrust, but that’s not a rational reaction. Not that people are always rational, but this exercise was to look for a rational reason for the changes.

It is possible to take Putnam's Figure 6 too seriously. The statistics aren’t really good enough to accurately determine a second-order variation. There might be a slope hidden in the variation, or something non-linear—though not a big one. And the loss of trust in-group may not be a rational reaction after all.

(*) You don't need a degree in semiotics to notice that clothes or other adornments are always used for communication.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Liberian govt vs ebola

They've established isolation centers and have retrieval squads working. This isn't pretty: the WSJ calls it "A Grim Picture", but it is a good start. What's needed is more of this, not less, and ways of doing it without government sponsorship.

THIS is the grim picture: isolation broken, patients brought out, and soiled blankets stolen. In the community preliminary estimates (reported last week, so probably based on 3-week-old info) claimed 1.8 new infections for each existing one.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Ebola without hope

People are taking the old traditional approach to epidemics: head for the hills and leave the sick to die. As long as this is true--"The villagers who abandoned Fatu and Barnie have meanwhile themselves been shunned by neighbouring towns also in fear of the spread of the virus, Wile said."--it will probably work. If they get to take refuge in other towns, it will backfire.

That doesn't make it any less heartbreaking to read about. Protocols and supplies to help family take care of their own might have meant that the sick didn't have to die alone, but there wasn't enough time once the scope of the problem was known.

If I were a villager without resources, would I be willing to stay and tend the sick knowing I'd probably die too? Christians used to.