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Sunday, July 18, 2010

"The Evolution of Artificial Light" and "The Beatles After The Breakup"

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Washington Post Book Reviews
For You
Sunday July 18, 2010
BRILLIANT: The Evolution of Artificial Light
Jane Brox
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN 978 0 547 05527 5
360 pages

Reviewed by Joshua Glenn
Until the 18th century, night was an impenetrable abyss. Tallow candles, made of rendered animal fat, barely lightened the darkness. The workday was tied to the sun; once you could no longer see your work, labor stopped. Then tallow candles began to be replaced by whale spermaceti candles, which were twice as brilliant, and by lamps that burned cheap and abundant whale oil. Small wonder that this era was later dubbed the Age of Enlightenment.
Robert Louis Stevenson likened gaslight, which was supplied to London via several hundred miles of underground mains by the 1820s, to the work of Prometheus. A few decades later, around the time that Russia's Paul Jablochkoff was making major improvements to the arc lamp -- the first electric light -- Ralph Waldo Emerson extolled electric lights for banishing the shadows created by "the flame of oil, which contented you before." Artificial light, it seemed, was progress made visible.
But, Jane Brox asks, at what cost? Though she celebrates human ingenuity and technical advances in "Brilliant," her history of artificial light, Brox also presents damning evidence that in our millennia-long quest for ever more and brighter light, we've despoiled the natural world, abandoned our self-sufficiency and trained ourselves to sleep and dream less while working more. It's time, Brox urges, to "think rationally about light and what it means to us." Yes, the history of artificial light has its dark side, for those who aren't too dazzled to detect it.
Unlike the compact fluorescent light bulb, about which the author rhapsodizes at one point, "Brilliant" isn't very efficient. For example, it's concerned at least as much with the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Northeast Blackout of 1965 as it is with what we might call the dialectic of artificial enlightenment. Yet like Edison's incandescent bulb, which has become the cartoonist's symbol of bright ideas, Brox's history is warm and illuminating.
What artificial light has signified to us, according to Brox's analysis, is the Enlightenment's promise of liberty and equality. But in reality, the wealthy and powerful have always acquired new kinds of light first and enjoyed a disproportionate share of their splendor. The advent of new lighting in the 19th century, Brox notes, "stratified society and intensified the separateness of countryside and city, household and industry." As late as 1906, when electricity was not yet considered essential for everyone, electric lighting was available only to businesses, manufacturers and wealthy homeowners. Until the New Deal, everyone else was consigned to darkness.
But perhaps, Brox argues, that wasn't such a bad thing. Before the advances in lamp technology, the nights were long, and sleep was divided by one or more intervals of semiconscious wakefulness when men and women shrouded in gloom might talk, make love, pray, reflect, even visit others. Sounds delightful, doesn't it?
Alas, thanks to improvements in artificial lighting, free-running sleep long ago went the way of handlooms. Working hours, meanwhile, have grown longer. The God of Utility, in Baudelaire's pejorative phrase, demanded brighter illumination, and he received it. Gas lighting was first embraced by factories; a century later, Edison's light bulb helped establish the three-shift day and the final erasure of natural time in the workplace.
If illumination-disadvantaged people were out of sight and out of mind, so too were the negative effects of artificial lighting on the natural world. In the early 19th century, the demand for whale oil led to the near-extinction of sperm whales. Gaslight, a byproduct of the distillation of bituminous coal into coke, required dangerous mining. Kerosene produced from petroleum encouraged oil drilling, the costs of which we're still trying to calculate in lost soldiers abroad and ruined habitat at home.
Part of the allure of electric lighting, Brox recounts, was its supposed cleanliness: "All the attendant work and grime of production existed somewhere out of sight." Yet, until the energy crisis of the early 1970s, few realized how essential coal mining and oil drilling had become to the energy grids of industrialized countries.
Exploitation of fossil fuels won't be possible forever, yet visions of a "smart grid" and organic light-emitting diodes won't fix our fundamental energy problems. Why? Because the more modern we've become, the more we've taken our lighting and its power sources on faith. Before gaslight and then electrical lighting, Brox writes, "light -- however meager -- had always been one's own and self-contained within each dwelling." In the wake of the gasworks and the generating plant, though, light became something "interconnected, contingent, and intricate. ... It marked the beginning of the way we are now, with our nets of voices, signs and pulses, with power subject to flickers and loss we can't do anything about." The 21st century has the potential to become a new Dark Age -- except we're all less self-reliant now.
As I write this, Concord, Mass., is taking down hundreds of streetlights on side streets and rural roads to cut costs while reducing its carbon footprint. Emerson, the sage of Concord, who compared the evolution of lighting with moral progress, might be dismayed to learn that those who wish to keep a light shining in the darkness have the opportunity to do so -- if they can afford $17 per streetlight, per month.
Joshua Glenn is co-curator of the website Significant Objects and co-editor of, which Time recently named one of the best blogs of 2010.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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YOU NEVER GIVE ME YOUR MONEY: The Beatles After The Breakup
Peter Doggett
ISBN 978-0-06-177446-1
390 pages

Reviewed by Aaron Leitko
Forty years after their breakup, the Beatles are still on the radio. They're on television, in movies and video games. They're even in Cirque du Soleil. They're everywhere. Well, everywhere but iTunes. And there's a reason for that.
Peter Doggett's "You Never Give Me Your Money" follows the Beatles after their breakup -- when the magic of the band and its music gave way to the day-to-day drudgery of managing the brand and its hopelessly tangled finances. In 1967, following the advice of their late manager Brian Epstein's brother, the Beatles incorporated in Britain under the name Apple Music Ltd (later renamed Apple Corps Ltd), mostly in an effort to escape the taxman. "The financial benefits were obvious," writes Doggett. "Their earnings were now subject to corporation tax rather than income tax (currently running 94 percent for such high earners as the Beatles), and they could claim back their personal living expenses from the company."
But the Beatles also hoped that Apple Corps could be an extension of the idealism they sought to express in their music. Quickly expanded to include a publishing company, a record label, a boutique and an electronics laboratory, it would be a sanctuary for artists and innovators, a place where nobody had to beg. "Instead of trying to amass money for the sake of it, we're setting up a business concern at Apple -- rather like ... Western communism," explained Paul McCartney in 1968.
Instead, it became a quagmire.
Not long after Apple formed, the band's musical partnership began to fray -- falling victim to creative differences, petty grudges and, of course, Yoko. The business side wasn't going so well, either. Enormous sums were frittered away on unsupervised projects, including an ultimately useless state-of-the-art recording studio designed by John Lennon's friend "Magic" Alex Mardas. A warehouse worth of demos and manuscripts was solicited but never considered. Then there were the epic battles over Epstein's successor -- McCartney wanted his father-in-law, Lee Eastman, to oversee the group's fortunes while his band mates rallied behind record-industry shark Allen Klein. Unfortunately, the latter prevailed, creating a deep rift between McCartney and his bandmates. When the group attempted to sever its relationship with Klein in the early '70s, the manager filed a barrage of lawsuits -- suing all four Beatles, Yoko, Apple, nine of its subsidiary companies and one of the band's lawyers. When Klein finally settled in 1977, it was to the tune of more than $5 million. By the time the Beatles finally announced their breakup in 1969, Apple Corps' affairs had dissolved into a jumble of acronyms -- ABKCO, NEMS and EMI, to name a few. The lawsuits -- over ownership, royalty rates and trademarks -- went on for decades. Apple even sued Apple Computers over the rights to the name Apple. "You Never Give Me Your Money" diligently reconstructs the tedium, with every courtroom testimony and ill-tempered interview accounted for.
Call it the "Magical Misery Tour" -- a journey that is more engaging than you would think. When it comes to flower-power-deflating anecdotes, the book is a fair rival for the Manson family expose "Helter Skelter." Doggett portrays the post-breakup Beatles as self-absorbed, bratty and -- more than anything else -- confused. Too young to retire, the former Beatles struggled to find meaningful ways to use their time, influence and bitterly contested fortune.
Some were more enterprising than others: In 1971 George Harrison rallied a cadre of rock superstars -- including Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and a then-reclusive Bob Dylan -- for the "Concert for Bangladesh," which resulted in two sold-out performances and a live album that generated millions for the war- and cyclone-ravaged nation. McCartney and John Lennon were invited, but Doggett suggests that the pair could not rise above their egos. "I said to George the reason I wouldn't do it was because it would mean that all the world's press would scream that the Beatles had got back together again, and I know that would have made Klein very happy," McCartney said, still bitter over Klein's hiring. "I didn't really fancy playing anyway."
But even in their least-inspirational moments, the Beatles still had a flair for genius. Doggett relates a McCartney anecdote from 1971, when the band convened at New York City's Plaza Hotel to terminate its legal partnership. Lennon -- apparently laid-up at an apartment just on the other side of Central Park -- refused to show. After repeated phone calls and more than a few expletives from his band mates, he finally sent an emissary. "He had a balloon delivered with a sign saying 'Listen to this balloon,'" explained McCartney. "It was all quite far out."
Doggett delivers some less-than-flattering tales, but "You Never Give Me Your Money" is hardly lurid fare. He is too classy, too well-informed. And it's clear that he loves the Beatles. He regularly fantasizes about a separate timeline in which the Beatles reconciled or, at the very least, buried the hatchet for one last jam session.
That moment never came, but redemption is ultimately delivered. "The soul of the Beatles turned out to reside not in the boardroom of Apple Corps or the bank accounts of four multimillionaires, but in the instinctive, natural grace of their songs," Doggett concludes. It's true. In the end, not even lawyers could ruin the Beatles.
Aaron Leitko is an aide for The Washington Post's Reliable Source column. His article "The Orange Line Revolution" will appear in "Best Music Writing 2010." He can be reached at leitkoa(at symbol)

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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