Five Thousand Balloons

Apparently, we have something of a balloon problem here in the United States, which is a sentence I never thought I’d write. Such a statement, however, would not have surprised founding father Benjamin Franklin who was suitably impressed on November 21, 1783 when he witnessed French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier use a hot air balloon to send the first human being into the air.

I don’t know. There’s just
something about this balloon
that feels ominous. Darth_vader_hot_air_balloon.jpg: Tomas Castelazoderivative work: Jebulon, CC BY-SA 3.0
licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It was only nine days later Franklin again observed a balloon rising into the air, only this time with the use of hydrogen, which he referred to as “inflammable air.” That turned out to be somewhat of a misnomer, but at the time it seemed like a really good idea.

It also occurred to Franklin that such balloons could have some remarkably useful military applications. Only a month or so later, he wrote to Dutch scientist Jan Ingenhousz that five thousand balloons manned by two men each would be an awfully cost-effective way to wage war and would be difficult for any nation to defend against.

Balloons haven’t been used to quite the great effect that Franklin predicted, but over the years they have been used, primarily as a way to gather intelligence. Surveillance balloons played a small role in the French Revolution.  And they played a larger role in the American Civil War when civilian Thaddeus Lowe earned the title of “most shot-at-man in the war” while relaying information about Confederate troop movements to the Union from aloft.

Balloons were involved in aspects of both World War I and World War II, and even drifted with cameras over the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, without much success, in the mid-1950s. So, I guess maybe it shouldn’t be so much of a surprise that China might send one drifting over the United States in 2023. At least Benjamin Franklin probably wouldn’t have thought so. 

I mean for all we know, we could be headed for a mass extinction event, like the giant balloon that took out the dinosaurs. Image by Greg McMahan from Pixabay

In the past few weeks, the US has now shot down four balloons, possibly only of one of which was allowed to complete its entire mission first. That’s the only one that as of this posting the public has much information about, though I heard the president may be set to address the nation about it today. I’m sure that will clear things right up.

As much as our media and social media governmental complaints have been preoccupied by this slow, floaty invasion or whatever it is, I can kind of see Franklin’s point. Five thousand balloons would be an awful lot to deal with. If nothing else, the balloons have attacked and directed the attention of the American people.

I’ve even heard it postulated that the three balloons that followed the first might be extraterrestrial in origin. And frankly, it’s about time someone put that possibility out there, because if it’s any indication of what is to come, I have it on good authority that five thousand balloons, each manned by two aliens, would be a pretty cost-effective way to wage war and would be difficult to defend against.

Facebook to Ban Benjamin Franklin for Inciting Violence

On October 22 of 1730 The Pennsylvania Gazette ran a truly incendiary story. It was an account of a good old-fashioned witch trial, and it displayed a great deal of unforgivable misjudgment on the part of the newspaper to run it at all.

Two defendants, a male and female stood accused, but were clever enough to willingly subject themselves to the trial on the condition that two of their accusers stood with them. The four, then, were first weighed against the largest Bible anyone could find. As everyone surely knows, the Bible will outweigh any soulless witch. Of course, it didn’t. Not even the smallest of them.

That’s a witch if I ever saw one. Or at least one of these people probably is. unattributed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The next part of the trial, before six hundred peers of the accused, took place at the mill pond since, logically, witches float. The two men and two women were bound and dunked. If they drowned, then they clearly couldn’t be witches. If they managed to surface, they’d best be burned at the stake.

But that didn’t go exactly as planned, either. The first to surface was the male accuser who explained that if he was a witch, he certainly had no knowledge of it. It’s hard to fault a guy for that. And then there were the ladies whose flimsy shifts must surely have made them more buoyant, as 18th century women’s clothing tended to do. The appropriate decision was made to postpone the trial for a warmer day when the ladies could be presented naked, just to reassure the crowd of highly proper Puritans that nothing improper was going on.

Because the article was clearly entirely factual, not satirical in the least bit, and inflamed such violence against, well someone, probably, Facebook decided to take it down and immediately suspend any ability for The Pennsylvania Gazette to share content on its massive and far-reaching platform.

Yes, that Benjamin Franklin. He was much funnier than he looks. By David Martin – The White House Historical Association, Public Domain,

Obviously, I jest. As far as I know Facebook never did any such thing to The Pennsylvania Gazette or to the author of the satirical “A Witch Trial at Mount Holly.” That author happened to be the young polymath Benjamin Franklin who would go on to help birth a nation, invent bifocals, and make questionable choices regarding electricity and poultry. He also was fond of writing satire and of making a little fun of the hypocrisy in Puritan culture.

And in 1730, Facebook could take a joke.

But apparently not in 2020.

This past week, Facebook removed a post by the Babylon Bee, a publication that, to the best of my knowledge, has never electrocuted a turkey and has only ever been known as a satire site. We’re talking really silly stuff here, like the recent articles: “Senators Vow to Hold Big Tech Accountable by Flying them to D. C. and Saying Mean Things to Them” and “Embarrassed Pope Realizes He’s Been Reading the Bible Upside Down this Whole Time.”

To be fair, neither of those is the really disturbing article that made Facebook demonetize the Babylon Bee’s page with cries that their article incites violence. The truly dangerous post was about the entirely factual senate confirmation hearing for supreme court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in which she was accused of being a witch by Senator Hirono of Hawaii, who is wise in the ways of science, and who insisted the nominee’s soul be weighed against a duck.

Oh wait, that can’t be right. That’s a schtick from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You know, I bet Senator Hirono didn’t even say anything about Amy Coney Barrett being a witch just because she has so much poise and apparently no need for notes in order to answer hard-hitting questions that she literally legally cannot answer.

Huh. I see what they did there. That’s clever. It’s probably even worth a chuckle. And violence. So much violence. Actually, I am feeling a little incited here. Thank goodness for Facebook’s censorship, or who knows what I might do.

Well, what I might do is get put into Facebook prison for this post, which frankly, would be a badge of honor. So feel free to share away, and let’s just see what happens.

Give Me My Seventeenth Day!

Today is the sixteenth day of my children’s school year. Sixteen days of getting to know their teachers, running from the bees that invaded to school playground over the summer, re-establishing homework and study routines, and deciding that maybe summer isn’t as long and boring as they thought it was sixteen days ago.

Okay, maybe not THAT creative. photo credit: Lunchbots bento for 5th grade boy - puzzle cheese for autism via photopin (license)
Okay, maybe not THAT creative. photo credit: Lunchbots bento for 5th grade boy – puzzle cheese for autism via photopin (license)

I’ve been pretty busy, too. I’ve packed a variety of creative lunches (not just the slapped together peanut butter sandwiches my children can expect every day by late March), signed and returned every form that’s come home wadded up in the bottom of a backpack, and filed away roughly a billion flyers, making note of PTA fundraiser dates and soccer practice schedules.

And since I work from home, which means that when my children are home, I don’t really get to work (or at least I do a very different kind of work), I’ve had a remarkably productive sixteen days without the constant interruption of, “MOM!”

I have submitted two new short stories, added another 12,000 words to my current novel project, posted to my blog two Thursdays (and now three) in a row, attended my weekly critique group meeting three times (where I both gave and received both brilliant and terrible advice), and disappeared down several research rabbit holes. I’m even getting a start on my reading list.

You could say I’m on something of a sixteen day roll. Sixteen glorious days! That makes two entire weeks, and it would be three tomorrow.

If they had school tomorrow.

They don’t because it’s Labor Day weekend. Monday is a national holiday and all that and our school district, like many, decided to put a teacher planning and in-service training day on Friday, giving students a four day weekend. It’s probably a good idea. Families can travel or whatever. And I certainly don’t begrudge teachers their planning and in-service days. I realize those are important.

But I feel like we were just starting to hit our stride.  I want my day back!

I imagine this is kind of how the people of Great Britain felt when they woke up on the morning of September 3, 1752 and realized the day didn’t actually exist. That year, British citizens (including those in the American colonies) went to bed on September 2 and woke up on September 14, skipping over eleven days in the process.

The calendar change was proposed by Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield whose birthday is on September 22. Guess he got to open his presents a little bit earlier in 1752. Portrait by Allan Ramsey. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The calendar change was proposed by Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield whose birthday is on September 22. Guess he got to open his presents a little bit earlier in 1752. Portrait by Allan Ramsey. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It was probably a good idea. Great Britain had been following the Julian calendar, introduced in 46 BC. That would have been all well and good except that the calendar was based on a solar year that had been miscalculated by 11 minutes. What wasn’t such a big miscalculation in 46 BC, had after a while become a very big deal, sending the calendar completely out of sync with the seasons and wreaking havoc on the Catholic feast schedule.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decided he’d had enough and proposed the Gregorian calendar which is much more accurate as long as you add a day every few years and a second or so once in a while. While Catholic nations were quick to adopt the new system, Protestant nations were less enthusiastic.

But in 1750, Parliament decided that doing business with the rest of Europe was somewhat difficult when no one could figure out what day it was, and the plan was set in motion. Two years later September got the shaft.

Rumors have swirled across the pages of history books that the people rioted in the streets because their government had the audacity to steal 11 days of their lives. The source of that rumor, as it turns out, is probably a satirical work by William Hogarth. During the next election season in which the Tories drummed up distaste for the Whigs by publicly blaming them for cancelling the first half of September and ruining everyone’s year, Hogarth produced a painting depicting the rioting horde with placards that read: “Give us our 11 days.”

An Election Entertainment by William Hogarth. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
An Election Entertainment by William Hogarth. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And history was invented.

I may be no William Hogarth, but...nope, I got nothing. I'll just stick to writing.
I may be no William Hogarth, but…nope, I got nothing. I’ll just stick to writing.

I imagine the change did make some people grumble for a while (especially those with birthdays in early September) but others didn’t seem to mind so much. In America (where people were evidently less prone to riot for no real purpose than they are today), Benjamin Franklin wrote of the calendar change, “It is pleasant for an old man to go to bed on September 2, and not have to get up until September 14.”

So as the school district steals what should have been my seventeenth productive day, I will try to channel my inner Ben Franklin and tell myself that it is pleasant for a mom to pack creative school lunches on September 3 and not have to do it again until September 8.

A Shocking Turkey Recipe

The holiday season is nearly upon us, beginning here in the US with Thanksgiving next week. And if, like us, you’re hosting family for the big day that means it’s time to make plans for your turkey. We tend to prefer the Alton Brown brine method at our house, but I bet a fair few hosts are thinking of getting up at the crack of dawn to continually check and baste their birds until they are roasted to golden brown perfection. Other more adventurous sorts may be considering rigging up a deep fryer and spending the holiday at the hospital being treated for third degree burns.

Benjamin Franklin, reviewing his collection of turkey recipes.
Benjamin Franklin, reviewing his collection of turkey recipes.

But history suggests there may be an even better (and possibly more dangerous) way.

In 1750, before he famously tied a key to a kite string and invented the lightning rod, Benjamin Franklin hosted a Christmas dinner party. Interested as he was with exploring the properties of electricity, Franklin decided to educate and entertain as well as feed his guests. His theory was that by electrocuting his roasting turkey, he could produce a more tender meat.

And he wasn’t wrong. In fact, his discovery is still important to the meat industry today, but it did come at a the expense of some personal pain and humiliation. As he was setting up an electrical jack he had designed specifically to meet all of his poultry electrocution needs, the plucky inventor received a pretty good shock himself. The gathering of witnesses to the experiment-gone-wrong reported a flash of light and a loud crack.

Whereas I would have tried to pretend the incident never happened and certainly would never mention it again (okay that’s not true. I’d totally blog about it), Franklin wrote about the failure to his brother just two days later. In the letter, he describes in detail how the event made him feel, which was, more or less, bad. Numb in his arms and on the back of his neck until the next morning and still achy a couple days later, Franklin seems to have decided that electricity, though hilarious, is not necessarily something to trifle with (chalk up one more important discovery for Franklin). He makes no mention as to whether or not he felt tenderized by the experience.

Benjamin Franklin, determined to carry on despite his shocking turkey set-back.
Benjamin Franklin, determined to carry on despite his shocking turkey set-back.

Now I can hear the objections already: “But, Sarah, that can’t be right. Benjamin Franklin was a friend to the turkey. He had great respect for it and even fought for its adoption as the symbol of the United States of America.” I hear you, Dear Reader. And I understand your concern. I, like many of you, was an American school child so I am familiar with that story. If you don’t wish to have your image of Benjamin Franklin as the great turkey advocate shattered, then feel free to stop reading at this point and assume that I’m just full of it.

But for those of you who want to know what’s what, I’m going to share the real story with you. Even though Benjamin Franklin was a part of the original committee charged with choosing a design for the Great Seal of the United States, he recommended a rattlesnake to represent the young nation. Not once did he suggest a turkey.

Franklin also proposed this image of Moses and Pharaoh at the Red Sea for the Great Seal. Imagine the controversy that would have caused!
Franklin also proposed this image of Moses and Pharaoh at the Red Sea for the Great Seal. Imagine the controversy that would have caused!

The idea that he did comes from an unrelated letter to his daughter written some years later when he was serving as an American envoy in Paris. To give some perspective, this was two years after the official adoption of the Great Seal, and six years after Franklin had served on the committee, again, making no mention of the turkey. He wrote the letter in response to his daughter’s question as to his opinion of the newly forming Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternity of officers of the Continental Army.

The society, founded in May of 1783, adopted for its symbol a bald eagle, claimed by some to look somewhat more like a turkey. Though Franklin didn’t oppose the society and eventually accepted an honorary membership in it, what he did not approve was the desire of some to make membership hereditary. This, he claimed, established an “order of hereditary knights,” which contradicted the ideals set forward by the newly formed republic.

But to openly mock or question the intentions of the brave men whose leadership had won the United States its freedom was simply not Benjamin Franklin’s style. Instead he focused on the turkey-eagle:

I am…not displeased that the figure is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey. For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird…He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red coat on.

I'm kind of partial to the bald eagle myself.  photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc
I’m kind of partial to the bald eagle myself. photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

I have to assume that despite his reference to the farmyard, Franklin would not wish the symbol of our nation or its high ranking officers to be the comically large-breasted domesticated flightless bird that graces our Thanksgiving tables. Perhaps he meant to suggest wild turkey, which is a full flavored, barrel-aged, American original that tends to give one courage. Or perhaps he meant the wild turkey, which hunters suggest is a slippery foe, difficult to sneak up on and evidently tricky to electrocute.

Whatever his true intentions, I think it is clear that though Benjamin Franklin was certainly a great American who helped to shape the United States and provide all of its half-blind citizens with bifocals, he could also, at times, be a bit of a turkey.