Friday, September 28, 2012

"A Young Father's Fear"


Having trouble converting ideas from brain to blinking cursor, I shall forego any commentary and simply quote the following, from Jeffrey R. Holland

Thirty years ago last month, a little family set out to cross the United States to attend graduate school—no money, an old car, every earthly possession they owned packed into less than half the space of the smallest U-Haul trailer available. Bidding their apprehensive parents farewell, they drove exactly 34 miles up the highway, at which point their beleaguered car erupted.

Pulling off the freeway onto a frontage road, the young father surveyed the steam, matched it with his own, then left his trusting wife and two innocent children—the youngest just three months old—to wait in the car while he walked the three miles or so to the southern Utah metropolis of Kanarraville, population then, I suppose, 65. Some water was secured at the edge of town, and a very kind citizen offered a drive back to the stranded family. The car was attended to and slowly—very slowly—driven back to St. George for inspection—U-Haul trailer and all.

After more than two hours of checking and rechecking, no immediate problem could be detected, so once again the journey was begun. In exactly the same amount of elapsed time at exactly the same location on that highway with exactly the same pyrotechnics from under the hood, the car exploded again. It could not have been 15 feet from the earlier collapse, probably not 5 feet from it! Obviously the most precise laws of automotive physics were at work.

Now feeling more foolish than angry, the chagrined young father once more left his trusting loved ones and started the long walk for help once again. This time the man providing the water said, “Either you or that fellow who looks just like you ought to get a new radiator for that car.” For the second time a kind neighbor offered a lift back to the same automobile and its anxious little occupants. He didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry at the plight of this young family.

“How far have you come?” he said. “Thirty-four miles,” I answered. “How much farther do you have to go?” “Twenty-six hundred miles,” I said. “Well, you might make that trip, and your wife and those two little kiddies might make that trip, butnone of you are going to make it in that car.” He proved to be prophetic on all counts.

Just two weeks ago this weekend, I drove by that exact spot where the freeway turnoff leads to a frontage road, just three miles or so west of Kanarraville, Utah. That same beautiful and loyal wife, my dearest friend and greatest supporter for all these years, was curled up asleep in the seat beside me. The two children in the story, and the little brother who later joined them, have long since grown up and served missions, married perfectly, and are now raising children of their own. The automobile we were driving this time was modest but very pleasant and very safe. In fact, except for me and my lovely Pat situated so peacefully at my side, nothing of that moment two weeks ago was even remotely like the distressing circumstances of three decades earlier.

Yet in my mind’s eye, for just an instant, I thought perhaps I saw on that side road an old car with a devoted young wife and two little children making the best of a bad situation there. Just ahead of them I imagined that I saw a young fellow walking toward Kanarraville, with plenty of distance still ahead of him. His shoulders seemed to be slumping a little, the weight of a young father’s fear evident in his pace. In the scriptural phrase his hands did seem to “hang down.” In that imaginary instant, I couldn’t help calling out to him: “Don’t give up, boy. Don’t you quit. You keep walking. You keep trying. There is help and happiness ahead—a lot of it—30 years of it now, and still counting. You keep your chin up. It will be all right in the end. Trust God and believe in good things to come.”

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Death of King Mosiah

My favorite section of the Book of Mormon is from Mosiah 11 to Alma 43. There is so much detail in the story line, from Abinadi to Alma I to Alma II and Amulek, from Aaron and Ammon and Ammonihah. Apparently it's also the richest trove of place and person names that begin with the letter A.

In the middle of this you get the conversion of the sons of Mosiah and their mission to the Lamanites. Mosiah 28 tells of their desire to leave their homeland and give up the kingship of Zarahemla. Mosiah's initially resistant because he's afraid for his sons' lives, but God tells him "Let them go up, for many shall believe on their words, and they shall have eternal life; and I will deliver thy sons out of the hands of the Lamanites." The sons leave and the story returns to Alma II's missions and Chief Judgeship. 

One thing I hadn't noticed until a few nights ago is the proximity of Mosiah's death with the departure of his sons. In Mosiah 28:8, the sons leave. Then Mosiah translates the record of the Jaredites, comes up with the system of chief judges, and dies. He's 63 years old, having been king of 33 of those years. Where are Aaron, Omner, Himni, and Ammon? They're just getting started on their 14 year mission, far away in the Land of Nephi. They've been gone since the previous chapter, probably around a year earlier. Did they know he was going to die? Was he pretty sure he would never see his sons again? I'd wager they knew King Dad was getting on in years and that they might never see him again. 

None of those details are explicitly spelled out anywhere in the verses leading up to their departure, but the fact that Mosiah's sons were leaving behind not just a kingdom and their homeland, but also their own father, adds to the so much more to their story. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Context and the Population of Zarahemla


I recently read through Alma 2, but didn’t get very far when I ran into verse 19.
"And it came to pass that the Nephites did pursue the Amlicites all that day, and did slay them with much slaughter, insomuch that there were slain of the Amlicites twelve thousand five hundred thirty and two souls; and there were slain of the Nephites six thousand five hundred sixty and two souls."
Normally I would have read Alma 2:19 without much interest.  If you read the Book of Mormon like I do, your brain skips of the words with numbers in them to the more interesting parts. This time, I wrote the number down.  19,094 people died meant a lot more to me than there were slain of the Amlicites twelve thousand five hundred thirty and two souls; and there were slain of the Nephites six thousand five hundred sixty and two souls.  
That’s a lot of people.  Then I wondered what percentage of Nephites that could be.  How big is the typical Nephite capital in your mind?   is that? Is there a way to estimate the population of Zarahemla before the war? 
It turns out there is a way.  My numbers suggest Zarahemla had a population between 80,000 and 150,000 in 86 B.C.
Disclaimer: If you're not into math, this will get very boring very fast and I’d suggest skipping to the So What section.  
Here’s the gist of the word problem: 
The year is 86 B.C.  Alma the Younger, Chief Judge in Zarahemla, is challenged in an open election by a dude desiring to be king, Amlici.  The people vote and Amlici loses.  Those who voted for Amlici get together and crown him king of the Amlicites.  His first order of business is to kill those who didn't vote for him.  War ensues.  After 12,532 Amlicites and 6,562 Nephites are killed in the battle, the Amlicites retreat.  Given the above, estimate the population of Zarahemla before the Amlicite war. 
In order to make the math possible, I've made the following assumptions.   
-Only men and every man voted in the election of 86 BC.  
-Only men and every man from Zarahemla fought in the war. 
-Only men are included in the numbers of the dead given in Alma 2:19
-There are as many women as men in pre-war Zarahemla.  My guess there were more, so keeping the male and female populations equal will render the population estimate more conservative.
Variables and Likely Bounds
A subscript of i means initial value (prewar) and f means final value (postwar)
Ni = initial population of Nephites
Nf = Ni - 6562 = post war population of the Nephites
Ai = population of Amlicites before the war
Af = Ai - 12532 = post war population of Amlicites
D = total number of dead = 12,532 + 6,562 = 19,094
Mi = initial male population of Zarahemla 
Mf = post war male population of Zarahemla = initial population minus those that died = Mi - D 
Ri = Ni / Ai = the ratio of Nephites to Amlicites before the war.  Given my assumptions, Ni is the number who vote against Amlici.  A is the number that votes for Amlici.  Given my assumptions, Ri to be greater than 1 since the Nephites won the election.  In other words, just one vote in favor of the Nephites to tip a 50/50 election.  We also know that R has to be small enough that the Amlicites think they can win a war.  So, if the election had gone 75/25 for the Nephites, the Amlicites probably wouldn't have picked a fight.  I think the highest R could be is 1.5, or 60/40.  I don't think they'd pick a fight against the Nephites if there were more than three Nephites for every two Amlicites.  So, 1 < Ri < 1.5. 
Rf = Nf / Af = The number of Nephites per Amlicite at the moment the Amlicites retreat (Alma 2:18).   How many enemies per soldier will cause an army to retreat? My guess is at least 2, but maybe as many as 4.  So, 2 < Rf <4.  
W = percentage of fighting age Nephites and Amlicites who are married. Let’s just assume this is around 50%. 
C = number of non-fighting children per married Nephite or Amlicite male.  Does 2.5 kids per married family make sense?
Z = total pre-war population = Men + Women + Children = Mi + Mi + Mi * W*C = Mi *(2+W*C)
The Algebra
Mi = Ai + Ni 
and
Ri = Ni / Ai 
so
Mi = Ai + (Ai *Ri ) = (Ri +1)*Ai 
Do the same algebra for Mf
Mf = Af + (Af *Rf )
There are now two equations for Mi - Mf.  
Mi - Mf = D
Mi - Mf = Ai + (Ai *Ri ) - [Af + (Af *Rf )]
Meaning
Ai + (Ai *Ri ) - [Af + (Af *Rf )] = D, which can be simplified as
Ai *(Ri +1) - [Af *(Rf +1)] = D
Since Af can be put in terms of Ai (Af= Ai - 12,532) and both Ri and Af constants, there’s only one unknown in that equation. It’s Ai.  
Ai *(Ri +1) - (Ai -12,532)*(Rf +1) = D
Simplify and put in a value for D (19,094):
Ai = (12,532*Rf - 6,532) / (Rf -Ri )
Expand the equation for total pre-war population (Z): 
Z = (2+W*C) * Mi
Z = (2+W*C) * (Ri +1) * Ai
Z = (2+W*C) * (Ri +1) * (12,532*Rf - 6,532) / (Rf -Ri )
Plug the final equation for Z into a spreadsheet, and voila!  You’ve got yourself an estimated population.
So What?
Apart from illustrating that some of us like to play with numbers and spreadsheets more than others, what does the above tell us?  Why does it matter what the population was?  
The answer is that it gives us a hint of context.  The scriptures are full of context clues that casual reading misses.  When Alma later takes some missionaries of to Antionum to visit the Zoramites, he lists off a few friends whose names I always used to skip over.  If you look at who he’s talking about in chapter 31, you realize Alma is opening up the Antionum Zone with a powerhouse of super-missionaries.  Glazing over the context means the story is not as rich.
The context clue verse 19 gives is that Zarahemla was a big place.  In my mind, I always assumed the cities in the Book of Mormon were small, agrarian villages with some minor institutions in place.  A pre-electricity population of 100k in a city means we’re dealing with much more than a mesoamerican Boonyville.  Complex economic, political, and social systems would have been required to keep Zarahemla running smoothly.  This is the city Alma the Younger is running as chief judge.  The four sons of Mosiah turned down a kingship of Zarahemla in favor of a 14 year mission to their hostile enemies.  The size of Zarahemla matters because the city is a character in many of the stories in the middle of the Book of Mormon.  Missing the context means we miss some of the richness of those stories.    

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Blogging is weird

I had decided, after years of never-having-blogged, that blogging is weird.  

Maybe it's only weird to me.  Every time I think of starting a blog, I want it to be two conflicting things.  The first is a sort of personal idea journal--some way by which my ideas are transformed from messy thoughts into sequenced, logical sentences, for my own benefit.  A process akin to the extrusion of noodles from dough.  Often those noodles are thoughts that I want to share, which is where the conflict comes in.  If it's a personal journal, why publish it?  

Before today, I never had a satisfactory answer to that question, so the grandiose blogs remained uncreated and the fabulous posts remained unwritten.  (How many of you wake up in the middle of the night with a great name for a blog? I personally have never done that, so if you have, you're all alone).  

Today, however, I've found my answers, and maybe blogging won't be so weird after all.