Misgivings of a Cosmos Hugger


Carl Sagan, who had “billions and billions” of fans. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Good old Wikipedia tells me that “tree hugger may refer to a slang, sometimes derogatory, term for environmentalists.” If people consumed with ecosystems are dismissed as tree huggers, then you can write me off as a cosmos hugger. I’m in love with and worried about our whole existential collect: ginkgo bilobas, Carl Sagan, black dogs, harvest moons, avocados, even my neighbor who scraped his shovel as loudly as possible across the street in front of his house to clear 1/8 inch of snow—at 6:40 this morning, while I was enjoying in-breaths and out-breaths in the Ultimate Presence. Breathing in, I hear my neighbor shoveling. Breathing out, I smile at my $%#@ neighbor.

Because of my cosmos-huggerly love for neighbors of all shapes and sizes, all animals, vegetables, and minerals, all solar flares and black holes, I’ve had misgivings about the implications of several news stories in recent years. The following goodbyes and greetings have me stroking my beard and raising a cautionary finger.

Pluto Is No Longer a Planet.


Computer-generated impression of the Plutonian surface. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The demotion of our distant neighbor Pluto is actually old news, but I still haven’t accepted it. Back in 2006, news.nationalgeographic.com reported that “the distant, ice-covered world is no longer a true planet, according to a new definition of the term voted on by scientists.” And what is a planet? “A full-fledged planet is an object that orbits the sun and is large enough to have become round due to the force of its own gravity. In addition, a planet has to dominate the neighborhood around its orbit.” Pluto, it turns out, is a scrawny hunk of ice with an “untidy” orbit.


Mickey Mouse’s dog Pluto. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The scientists’ definition is based on buff rather than character. The report notes the trouble ahead—I’m not sure how/when it was handled. Now a dwarf plant, Pluto will have to be written out of textbooks, an expensive proposition. I’m ambivalent about other important, but cheap problems. 1.) We can no longer remember the planets in order by saying, “My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas.” Now we’ll have to go with the same sentence with nachos or nectarines at the end. Either option is feeble. And 2.) What are we to do with Mickey Mouse’s English Pointer? Call him Neptune? Harrumph. So if the eighth planet is exiled, we’ll have a dog named Uranus? Imagine children at Disney Land pointing and shouting that. I vote we consider Pluto at least an honorary member of our solar system.

Okay, Who Made Off with My Cents Symbol?

I’m not such a grump as to expect to find the cents symbol, ¢, on my MacBook Air keyboard. There’s not much use for it anymore. Charlie Anderson offers on his website a detailed explanation for ¢’s disappearance—too detailed for this appreciation. In short, with the advent of computers in the 1960’s, engineers started fussing with keyboards, and pennies weren’t the only layoffs: “Three handy fractions were [also] cut: ¼  ½  ¾. This makes sense, especially when you consider that the ASCII [the American Standard Code for Information Interchange] committee was composed of engineers. I’m sure they thought, in their engineer’s way, ‘Why have ¼ but not 1/3?  And if we have 1/3, then why not 1/5?  Or 3/32?’ Similarly, the committee apparently found $0.19 an acceptable, if somewhat obtuse, way of expressing the price of a Bic pen. At any rate, the popular and useful cent sign didn’t make it.”

I have two kvetches about the ¢ issue. First, including “¢” in this text required over ten minutes of noodling around on the Internet for instructions. Yes, there is a generic cent symbol, but it’s clunky; it fits in like a welder’s mask with a prom gown.


Rolling into the sunset. (Credit: Wikipedia)

My second misgiving hasn’t come to pass, but it’s inevitable. Now that ¢ is becoming obscure, its main tenant faces eviction. RetireThePenny.org is leading the charge. MIT Professor and site founder Jeff Gore says, “The penny has outlived its usefulness. Let’s retire it.” His suggestion deserves consideration. If, as Gore argues, a penny actually costs 2.4¢ to produce, and if, all angles considered, “the penny drains almost $900 million from the national economy every year,” then, well, points taken. Here are my cautionary fingers: 1.) Any time financial decisions get made in the land of the free, the wealthy seem to benefit. Just saying. 2.) This may be quack economic theory, but if the penny disappears, I bet nearly all costs will be rounded up to the nearest nickel, dime, quarter, or dollar. Price tags won’t get rounded down. Watch and see. And 3.) Penny wise and pound foolish would slide into oblivion along with a penny saved is a penny earned and other useful expressions. So let’s keep the penny, even if children born today won’t learn what ¢ means in grammar school.

Goodbye to John Hancock?

“Is Cursive Writing Dead?” So barks cbsnews.com, and with good reason. “The recently established Common Core State Standards, the standardized educational benchmarks for U.S. public schools, omit cursive as a requirement. Some states, including Indiana and Hawaii, had dropped cursive from their curricula in favor of keyboard proficiency as early as 2011.”


“I don’t read cursive.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

I get this decision and can go with it, but my cosmic Spidey sense tingles. Yes, handwriting as a whole is diminishing, while cents-less keyboards take over. And I admit, writing with a pen or pencil for any length of time now hurts. Still, consider a devil’s advocate. At the trial of the neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman, witness Rachel Jeantel was asked to read a letter. With “her head bowed, [she] murmured with embarrassment, “I don’t read cursive.” So when we no longer teach cursive in schools, we’re leaving behind not only writing in that script, but also reading it. Someday, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address will be as accessible as cuneiform—sad. Also, learning cursive may nurture patience and attention to detail in young, attention-strapped minds.

Starbucks friend John disagrees with me on cursive, and he’s usually right. We’ll all just read translations. I won’t go down swinging on teaching curls and loops.

Name Public Places That Are Quiet.

The first place that comes to mind is the library, right? Not anymore, at least at my beloved local library. Ed Palattella of the Erie Times-News is only the messenger, so he’s not in my crosshairs. As he reports, because “it often does seem quite noisy and loud in Blasco Library,” Mary Rennie, the Erie County Public Library’s director, is “looking to set a little bit of ambience.” We’re talking “mostly ‘soft classical’ and jazz” over “the library’s overhead speaker system.”


Shh! Burlingame Library, Burlingame, San Mateo, California (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Rennie is probably a bright, thoughtful person, but noooooooo! True, libraries tend to be soaring spaces in which sound echoes, but for once in my life, I’m in favor of stern figures with furrowed brows and zero tolerance. Palattella ends his short piece with this surrender: “Music at Blasco. It is a tune of the times.” I’m going to the mat on this one—not that it matters. In monasteries and libraries, silence is foundational. Posses of inflexible librarians should be sent as missionaries to convert the rude and blathering with tough love. Shhh!

Glassholes, Glassholes Everywhere?

Good Lord, if the Google Glass site I’m checking out right now is legit, residents of the First World are either doomed or blessed. You probably already know the idea: put on a pair of these techno-glasses and “Say ‘take a picture’ to take a picture.” Or “Record what you see. Hands free.” Or “Speak to send a message.” Or “Ask whatever’s on your mind.” Want to know how to say “half a pound” in Chinese? You’re covered.


Please look at me when I’m talking to you. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I’m all for immediate access to information, but my cautionary finger points down another path. Google warns us not to be glassholes: in other words, with wondrous technology propped on our noses, remember to “respect others” and “be polite.” Yeah, right. With the cosmos’ current text-messaging drunkenness, can we really expect ourselves to pay attention to our fellow human beings when the next message or the latest swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated pops up in our face?

Could any technological advance be harder to manage? Well, yes. Consider the smart contact lens currently in development. “Imagine texting while driving,” writes Brian Snyder of Reuters, “or placing a call while showering, without holding your phone in your hands. It’s not sci-fi any more – a new technology allows information like text messages and driving directions to be projected onto a contact lens.”


Bionic contact lens. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine what’s next. (Warning: I’m pushing the envelope!) You and I are making love, and I’m looking into your eyes. Only I’m looking into someone else’s eyes, a projection. And I look down and see another body. It’s flawless. Each mole and stretch mark is gone. Wow!

Enough. You get the idea and might call me a worrywart. Maybe so. But this cosmos hugger has misgivings. In a universe where the humble ¢ and icy Pluto are unworthy, where music passes for silence, are scarlet scars—they’re lovely, actually—on mothers’ bellies sacred? Won’t it be irresistible to eliminate saddle bags by seeing them with artificial eyes?

What good is the cosmos when we can see constellations without looking up at the sky?