Christmas Presents and Consumerism; Beauty in the Universe

  • Christmas presents, consumerism, and Adam Lee’s take on minimalism;
  • The idea of ‘beauty’ in the universe, as another component of science fiction’s “consilience”;
  • First take on the new Peter Gabriel album.

Like many people as we get older, when Christmas comes around and people (well, my partner) ask what I want to for Christmas, I’m inclined to say “nothing.” I don’t need more stuff. No more kitchen gadgets. My car is fine. My computer set-up is fine. I have enough shoes. Shirts and socks and underwear, well, maybe, these things do wear out and get frayed. But not every year. I can go for an entire year without buying much of anything for myself — except books. Actually, this past year I did replace my laptop (see here), right about on schedule considering my history of a new computer roughly every six years. And bought a new mouse. But my monitors, my desktop radio/CD-player, they’re just fine, and close to a decade old.

As for books, I buy as many books as I want, throughout the year, so at the end of the year don’t really “need” any. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t appreciate the thought, but no one in my family (or group of friends who would give me a Christmas present) is particularly interested in books, let alone would have any idea what would pique my interest. It’s been ages, ages, since I was a teenager and actually put book titles on my “Christmas wish list” that circulated among my family as suggestions for potential gifts. I did get some significant books that way, among them Carl Sagan’s THE COSMIC CONNECTION. Way back in 1974/

With all this in mind, here is an Adam Lee essay from a few days ago. His experience reflects mine to a degree.

OnlySky, Adam Lee, 5 Dec 2023: How to be happy with less: A minimalist holiday manifesto


Every possession is a burden, and consumerism is a trap that weighs us down and keeps us chasing an unreachable goal. This holiday season, consider giving minimalism a try.

OK, but I don’t have as much stuff as he admits to, as his essay opens:

I like to think I’m a minimalist, but my attic tells a different story.

I have racks of clothes I haven’t worn in years, mostly dress shirts and slacks from my office days. I have enough spare household goods to equip an entire kitchen. I have old chargers and electronics I’ve kept because they might be useful some day. I have college books and notes, tools and gardening supplies, and various baby goods and toys my son has outgrown.

Most of all, there are the books. They’re overflowing the shelves, stacked in untidy piles, filling boxes and crates. They’re the fruits of a lifetime of compulsive book collecting. They’re heavy and bulky and poorly organized, and I doubt I’ll ever reread most of them… but I’ve kept them because what if, someday, I do?

All these possessions create a mental load, like an invisible weight. For each object I own, I have to remember that I have it (or else I’d end up rebuying it). I have to find a place for it in my not-overly-large home, and keep track of where it is for when I want it. I have to pay the cost, in time and money, of cleaning and maintaining it. If it breaks or I no longer want it, I have to get rid of it: either find someone who wants to take it, or find somewhere to recycle it, or throw it in the trash and feel guilty about knowing it will sit in a landfill for thousands of years.

The more stuff I have, the more of a burden this is. I long for a simpler, less cluttered existence.

I too could live a simpler, less cluttered existence — except for my 8000 books (last time I counted) — but my partner and I don’t because we can afford not to, especially since we’re of an age when kids and their spouses might visit and stay over, or even family from China might visits and stay for a week or more. So we have a house with extra bedrooms, and room for my library.

On the one hand, Lee acknowledges, in many ways people of our era are, by past standards, unimaginably wealthy.

… my life is rich and full, almost embarrassingly so.

My home is heated in winter, cooled in summer, and lit at night. I have indoor plumbing, fresh water for drinking, and hot showers. I have a wardrobe of clothes in every color and style, and when they’re dirty, I have a machine that washes them for me. I have an ample supply of fresh food, brought from distant regions of the world no matter the season, that I didn’t have to grow or harvest myself. My spice rack alone would be the envy of past emperors.

My book collection would make the scholars of ancient Alexandria weep. If that’s not enough, I have a device I can carry in my pocket that gives me access to the sum total of human knowledge. That same device tells me the weather in advance, guides me to anywhere I want to go, plays any music I want to hear, and allows me to talk to someone on the other side of the planet in real time. If I want to, I can travel across the world in a day or less, in comfort and safety.

By the standards of almost every human being who’s ever lived, my life is overflowing with abundance. If this isn’t enough for happiness, what is?

The irony of course is that happiness is relative, and people consider theirs in relation to the proverbial Joneses, to others in their social circle, or who merely live on their street. (This is the same dynamic that, on a smaller scale, leads people to undervalue the current state of the economy.) This is the Hedonic treadmill, whereby as people gain in wealth, their expectations change, and they are not really any happier.

Lee calls this the “consumerism trap,” and indeed it’s what drives our capitalist economy.

We’re always upgrading our cars, our electronics and our TVs, wanting the newest and therefore the best. On Black Friday, we brave the traffic and the lines to cram into stores for the latest must-have. If the neighbors remodel their kitchen with stainless steel and granite countertops, we want to do the same. It’s an endless treadmill race that keeps us focused on what we don’t have, instead of what we do.

We’re encouraged to think this way by a vast advertising industry that spends hundreds of billions of dollars to bombard us with commercials, the purpose of which is to make us unhappy.

Indeed, my partner and his family are part of this cycle. His ex in particular is an Apple devotee, always ready to buy the latest model iPhone as soon as it’s released. The reason I have a relatively recent model of the iPhone is because I get a hand-me-down.

Lee then turns to the “minimalist ideal.” (No, he doesn’t refer to Marie Kondo, whose clueless advice to “only keep 30 books” makes her anathema to virtually everyone in my social group.)

If you want to put this into practice, you can start right now. Because the holidays are the biggest spending season of the year, they’re a great time to give minimalism a try.

Try agreeing with your family and friends that, this year, you won’t exchange gifts. It’s a double win: you don’t have to go to the effort and expense of shopping for others, and you won’t get new things you have to fit into your already crowded life. (Or if you absolutely must give gifts, try agreeing on only consumable gifts: chocolate, candles, wine, and the like.)

And if you have stuff you don’t need, the holidays are a great time to give it away. There are coat drives, toy drives, book drives, and many more opportunities to pass on your extra possessions to people who can use them.

It makes for a less stressful holiday season. And you might be surprised how much better, lighter and cleaner you feel.

I’ve floated the idea, and it doesn’t work. The idea of experiences over possessions sounds nice, but usually it’s not practical. It leaves you sitting by the Christmas Tree on Christmas morning with… not much.


Today’s grand idea.

When I reviewed Shankar Vedantam’s USEFUL DELUSIONS, here, I noted his podcast, Hidden Brain, but did not follow up on it. Last night, returning from dinner, I heard part of his latest broadcast, just the last 20 minutes, which was an interview with Nobel Prize winner Frank Wilczek, about how the apparent “beauty” of the universe is reflected in mathematical equations, and why this would be so. That interview, in which Wilczek appears in only the last 20 minutes, is here.

I realize that this idea provides a supplement, as I was thinking a while back about my potential book, to the notion science fiction reflects the biases in human nature revealed by evolutionary psychology. It is that physics and mathematics informs aesthetics. What people think is “beautiful” can be understood through basic mathematical properties. And that this is yet another “consilience” bridge between science and the humanities. What humans find beautiful reflects not just their psychology, but also the physical structure of the universe.

Now, how does this relate to science fiction? Aside from the way in which sf, as a kind of literature, is part of the humanities, while its subject matter is sometimes explicitly scientific? Still pondering that.


Quick take on the new Peter Gabriel album, which I’m listening to now on CD. Nice. Very nice. Perhaps not as edgy as his earlier famous albums. But I’ll listen to it again. And again.

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