December 22nd, 2010

The one whinge of the Tea Party I share is their objection to being forced to swap incandescent light bulbs for high-efficiency fluorescent ones.

Horrid things. In small part it’s the snake oil about longevity – the claimed 10,000 hours or whatever only holds if you never turn them off, as my generation were brought up to do. (Last one out turns off the lights. What’s the new rule to teach your children? Multifactorial optimisation on the go?) Another thing is the propagandist refusal to take a systems approach – waste heat is space heating, which we need anyway in northern latitudes, though not of course in the tropics. Partly it’s the clunky form factor; the bulky ballast means that they don’t fit properly into older light fittings. Mainly however it’s the unpleasant colour spectrum.
Lighting engineers think we should be happy with fluorescent lighting because it’s approximately the same colour temperature as daylight. The sun’s photosphere is as near as dammit a black-body radiator at 5,800K, and that’s what we get minus the ozone-filtered UV. (Mercifully we are not exposed to the radiation of the fusion furnace at the core at 13 million K.) The mean equivalent temperature of fluo lamps is 5,500 K, very close, though as they aren’t black-body radiators there are spikes in the blue and green and the overall effect is hotter (psychologically: cooler and nastier).

Spectral power distributions compared. Horizontal units are wavelengths in nanometers. The shorter tail of the incandescent bulb’s distribution is truncated because it lies in the invisible infra-red.
But who said artificial daylight? What we want is firelight. The light of flames is an envelope of black-body radiation from carbon (soot) particles at various temperatures, averaging 1,700K or so. Candlelight is 1,850K. An incandescent tungsten-filament light bulb is a nearly pure black-body radiator; temperature depends on rating, but 2,700K is typical. (Source for data and image: Wikipedia.) So tungsten light bulbs are much closer to firelight than fluo lamps are, and that’s why we like them. A plea to the designers of LED lamps, the real long-term solution to low-carbon lighting, which start with three colours of monochromatic laser light: if you can, give us back our candlelight.

You could write an ev. psych. “just so” story about our deep-rooted preference for firelight. Hominids have controlled fire for at least 400,000 years – long before the emergence of modern homo sapiens a mere 100,000 years ago; we shared fire with homo erectus and Neanderthals. The same probably goes for gatherings of the hunter-gatherer band around the fire at nightfall. Over the millennia many matings must have been arranged around such fires, before sneaking off together into the dark. Disliking fire and firelight would be maladaptive; liking it, and looking good under it, adaptive, nuh?

Weeell. Not a strong story. Fire itself is a bombproof human cultural universal – surely there’s no gene for it -, and it has built up a whole raft of positive cultural associations, including warmth, food, music and storytelling. Sex too of course: the reddish light makes skin of all ages look younger and healthier, ergo more attractive. Restaurants catering to the dating market go for candles.

Woman with a Candle by Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706). Source here.

Everybody loves a candle. My parents used to put real ones on the Christmas tree: a bit exciting, and the soda siphon was kept handy. We could only light up once or twice for half an hour. But there was a hushed magic electric lights don’t begin to match.

Recently candlelit vigils have been taken up as a form of non-violent protest or commemoration. The fragile candlelight builds community and disarms hostility. Here’s a mass protest in Seoul against the threat of mad cow disease from evil beef imports from the USA; pacific and civilised doesn’t necessarily mean sensible. Source here.

For millennia, candles and oil lamps have been an important part of the rituals of many religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism, not to mention Wicca and Kwanzaa. Zoroastrianism is all about fire. Official Islam is the odd man out: it gives no ritual place to candles, but they are sold to pilgrims at the not-quite-kosher tombs of marabouts in Morocco.

Let me give the last seasonable word to (allegedly) Confucius:

It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.


Title reference here. I’ve done the Lyke Wake Walk (in daylight) before it got all tidy and signposted, rather negating the point.

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32 Responses to “Fire and fleet and candlelight”

  1. alkali says:

    This is one of those preferences that you can absolutely convince yourself of if you read enough about it. Whether you are actually able to tell the difference in practice is another story.

    My wife recently told me that I can never replace the bulb in our overhead kitchen fixture with a CFL. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I did so more than a year ago.

  2. Ebenezer Scrooge says:

    What alkali said. Bah, humbug!

  3. SP says:

    You show the spectrum of a 5500K bulb and make arguments about temperatures not matching- but further up in the same wiki article you link to is an example of a “cooler” CFL at 3500K, which looks much more similar to the incandescent.

  4. Hans says:

    Excellent article, Mr. Ludd!

  5. Keith Humphreys says:

    I reminded of the teacher whose lecturing was described as follows: He lit a candle not to illuminate, but to fill the room with smoke.

  6. MrWx says:

    My main objection is the recycling needs for these bulbs and how difficult it can be depending on where you live. I know people (in CA) who do not know you’re required (in CA) to properly dispose of batteries, and now you’re going to compel them to use CFLs?

  7. Henry says:

    For the Lyke-Wake Dirge (click on “Title reference here” at the bottom of the post) set to music, I recommend Benjamin Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings.”

  8. navarro says:


    as i recall the luddites main objection was to management practices that resulted in a loss of wages and that the looms of employers who retained a set price for piecework were left undamaged. i don’t see the relevance of the analogy to what seems more of an aesthetic argument for a particular light preference.

  9. Warren Terra says:


    Excellent article, Mr. Ludd!

    Sigh. Leaving aside the role of Ned Ludd himself (he may be eponymous with the Luddite movement, but it’s not clear he had anything to do with it), the Luddite movement was not, I repeat not, a rejection of technological change. It was a rejection of social change – more precisely, it was a rejection of social changes that resulted from new technologies making it possible for wealthy mill owners to employ far fewer workers and at far lower wages, at a time when there was no social safety net to speak of. Workers in the era were impoverished and endangered at the best of times, especially because the roughly contemporaneous growth of enclosures was displacing subsistence farmers into the cities. Mortality rates in seventeenth and eighteenth century British cities were just appalling.

    But, yeah, I don’t claim to be knowledgeable about many of the issues (waste handling, actual lifespan under normal use, etcetera). But here in Southern California it’s easy to find $0.50 CFL bulbs that are almost exactly the same size and shape as the 40-watt bulbs they replace, and (after they warm up) the light they give is just fine, not the cold glare of the 2004 lights Mr. Wimberley has apparently seen.

  10. Jeff J says:

    I was an early adopter of CFLs and I regret not waiting for LED bulbs. They don’t improve on the CFL spectrum problem, but they already win in efficiency and I doubt you’ll see a designated page on the EPA website with special cleanup instructions for broken LEDs

  11. deenk says:

    A friend of mine recently castigated me for having CFL lights that cast a ghastly glow in my bathroom. He’s no latte sipping elite (he drinks Folgers), but when it comes to electrical appliances and his own vanity he can tell the difference.

  12. koreyel says:

    The Teabaggers are against compact fluorescents?
    Didn’t know that….

    We’ll have to add that to the bottom of Matt Taibbi’s list he compiled in his brilliant Rolling Stone article:

    The individuals in the Tea Party may come from very different walks of life, but most of them have a few things in common. After nearly a year of talking with Tea Party members from Nevada to New Jersey, I can count on one hand the key elements I expect to hear in nearly every interview. One: Every single one of them was that exceptional Republican who did protest the spending in the Bush years, and not one of them is the hypocrite who only took to the streets when a black Democratic president launched an emergency stimulus program. (“Not me — I was protesting!” is a common exclamation.) Two: Each and every one of them is the only person in America who has ever read the Constitution or watched Schoolhouse Rock. (Here they have guidance from Armey, who explains that the problem with “people who do not cherish America the way we do” is that “they did not read the Federalist Papers.”) Three: They are all furious at the implication that race is a factor in their political views — despite the fact that they blame the financial crisis on poor black homeowners, spend months on end engrossed by reports about how the New Black Panthers want to kill “cracker babies,” support politicians who think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an overreach of government power, tried to enact South African-style immigration laws in Arizona and obsess over Charlie Rangel, ACORN and Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Four: In fact, some of their best friends are black! (Reporters in Kentucky invented a game called “White Male Liberty Patriot Bingo,” checking off a box every time a Tea Partier mentions a black friend.) And five: Everyone who disagrees with them is a radical leftist who hates America.

    Six: Keep your big gumnit hands off my incandescents….

  13. Curmudgeon says:

    It’s untrue that CFLs are only available in daylight (~5500Kelvin) color temperatures. 2700K incandescent equivalent bulbs[1] are very readily available even in bricks-and-mortar retail stores. 3000K halogen equivalent color temperature bulbs[2] are also fairly easy to find online.

    [1] E.G.
    [2] E.G.

  14. Swift Loris says:

    CFLs really do vary in quality and in the pleasantness of the color from brand to brand. I got a whole bunch of CFLs back in 2006 at the Conservation Mart Web site that I’ve been delighted with. The brand is MaxLite; I got their MicroMax Spirals, but they have a lot of different shapes now to fit different types of fixtures and lampshades, plus adapters of various kinds. I installed them everywhere but the kitchen and bathroom (because it’s difficult for me to change the bulbs there, and the CFLs burn out sooner when they’re turned on frequently for only brief periods). I’ve had to change the bulbs in the bedroom and living room lamps only once since I first put them in in 2006. I didn’t notice much of a difference in the quality of the light, certainly not enough to be bothersome. Get one or two bulbs at a time, and if you don’t like the color or they don’t last long enough, try another brand.

  15. Benny Lava says:

    1. daylight is superior to candlelight. It is used as therapy for SAD

    So don’t be surprised when James Wimberly kills himself

    2. the real reason that compact fluorescent blubs are bad is that they have mercury in them. This isn’t something widely published or disclosed on the packaging. Thus people may unsuspectingly break them and have a toxic hazard on their hands and not know it. These things are a serious environmental hazard. Ask yourself how many consumer will carelessly throw them out with the trash every year?

  16. Cranky Observer says:

    > the real reason that compact fluorescent blubs are bad is that they
    > have mercury in them. This isn’t something widely published or disclosed
    > on the packaging. Thus people may unsuspectingly break them and have a
    > toxic hazard on their hands and not know it. These things are a serious
    > environmental hazard. Ask yourself how many consumer will carelessly throw
    > them out with the trash every year?

    Amount of mercury in a CFL: 5 mg.
    Amount of mercury in a 48″ florescent bulb (tube) manufactured prior to 1992: 45 mg
    Amount of mercury in a 48″ florescent bulb manufactured after 1992: 18 mg.

    So if you have a typical 1980s basement workshop with four “shop lights”, each with two 48″ tubes, and you haven’t changed the bulbs since 1990 (pretty typical), then you have 360 mg of mercury “death gas” hanging from your basement ceiling. Unsuspectingly!

    Also, the amount of mercury released in the Midwest or East burning the coal needed to supply the difference in electricity used between a CFL and and incandescent over the course of a year is around 30 mg.


  17. Vladimir says:

    Think about the mercury risk that an earthquake would generate in a house filled with CFC bulbs.

  18. Davis X. Machina says:

    “Also, the amount of mercury released in the Midwest or East burning the coal needed to supply the difference in electricity used between a CFL and and incandescent over the course of a year is around 30 mg.”

    Those of us living here in Maine, America’s Tailpipe, Downwind From Everyone, thank you for using CFL’s. It was getting so that to eat our local freshwater fish, you first had to grab them by the tail and shake them vigorously, to get all the mercury down into the tail before use.

    Or was that thermometers? Anyhow, same principle.

  19. hdware says:

    I’m not unhappy with CFLs for domestic use, but they stink in terms of flattering light for exhibit cases–and they are UV emitters, to boot. LEDs are better prospects, but early adoptes for replacing candle-light should beware: the sight of a cathedral at Christmas, midnight mass, lit with faux-flickering LED “candles” is likely to cause a few hoots of deserved derision. Why this example? I saw the dress-rehearsal for the service at our local Episcopal cathedral…

  20. Brett Bellmore says:

    “The Teabaggers are against compact fluorescents?”

    No, the Tea Party members are against being forced to use fluorescents. Being against something, being against being legally compelled to give up the alternative you were using; Different concepts.

    To add to another problem with the CFLs, they interact badly with illuminated switches, especially in a 3 way configuration. The trickle current necessary to run the tiny bulb in the switch gradually charges the ballast in the CFL, which periodically discharges, causing the bulb to flash once a minute or so while “turned off”. (Not very brightly, so you might not notice it in a well lit room.) I’ve had CFLs wear out in that situation in under a year without being used more than a few minutes total.

    They really suck as porch lights in cold climates, too.

    But, James, let me note that you’re taking a very un-’liberal’ stance here: The average American can hardly be trusted to employ incandescents where appropriate, and CFLs where THEY are needed. And you’d likely whine all the more if Congress had enacted a 3000 page bill giving detailed instructions as to which situation each was to be used in. So a blanket prohibition on incandescents, while not quite optimal, is over all the best solution. “If you don’t like it, you should move to Somalia, you anarchist.”

    There, that’s how it’s done.

  21. James Wimberley says:

    Benny Lava:
    “So don’t be surprised when James Wimberly kills himself.”
    Thanks for the thought, Scrooge.
    I understand that treatment for SAD requires quite intense light, not normal domestic. Anyway I live in Spain where the winter sun is quire strong enough to keep me unsuicidal.

  22. "Fair and Balanced" Dave says:

    Sorry to rain on your parade, but there is no “ban” on incandescent light bulbs. You won’t find the word “ban” anywhere in the Federal Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (signed into law by George W. Bush–though the average teabagger probably thinks Obama signed it). The bill contains a set of efficiency standards to be phased in between 2012 and 2014. There are a number of exceptions including 3-way and 40-watt appliance bulbs. Furthermore, manufacturers are developing high-efficiency bulbs that meet the new energy efficiency standards.

    Let this be a lesson to you: Any time Faux News and the teabaggers start complaining about something, assume it’s bullshit until proven otherwise.

  23. Bruce says:

    I have compact fluorescents in pretty much every fixture at my house — and I’d recommend the varieties that come encased in a soft-plastic diffusing bulb. Don’t have the goofy look of the twisty tube, and I can only imagine it resists breakage too.

    In any case, I can’t understand the itch — in California or the U.S. Congress — to phase out standard incandescents. (And yes, Dave, despite the exceptions, it’s a ban: Trying buying your old 100-watter in L.A. come January.) In roughly five years in the first half of this decade, CFL market penetration went from close to zero to almost 25 percent — an astonishing growth rate. Subtle encouragement (the local utilities all give them away at every opportunity) and market forces (WalMart!) were spreading the word, bringing prices down and quality up — and saving energy at a pretty dramatic rate as the market saturated.

    I read Sony will stop making the Walkman this year. Nobody had to lobby for a ban. The system was already working.

    Yeah, yeah, electricity use has bigger externalities — but the carrots were working pretty darned well even before Democrats decided to create this self-satirizing situation with the light-bulb ban. Ban. Ban. Ban.

  24. SusanP says:

    They can’t ban incandescents. Lava Lamp owners of America, arise!

  25. Betsy says:

    James Wimberley, that was a very Pattern-Languagey post ( and

    Thank you.

  26. Anderson says:

    I’m just happy to install the CFLs in fixtures that stay on 90% of the time. Seemed I was replacing the closet bulb every 2 months before I switched.

  27. SP says:

    “The Teabaggers are against compact fluorescents?”
    No, the Tea Party members are against being forced to use fluorescents.

    Of course they’re against fluorescents, because they know it will piss off liberals. There are dozens of examples of conservatives bragging about how they’re going to jump in their 8-mpg pickup truck, go eat a 1.5 pound BGH-fed burger and turn on all the lights and heat in their McMansions. Politics has become a team sport- anything you can do to piss off the other side is a point for you, even if it means your kids won’t be inheriting your Florida house because it will be underwater (financially and environmentally.)

  28. You think you’ve got problems. I designed and built my house to use banks of dimmer controlled incandescents- in the winter you turn them up full and they provide heat, and counteract longer nights and SAD; in the summer, never use more than half and they last forever. To change to the newer bulbs I also have to change all the light switches and add more heating plant.

    I have lived the over-thought life.

  29. Betsy says:

    SP: “here are dozens of examples of conservatives bragging about how they’re going to jump in their 8-mpg pickup truck, go eat a 1.5 pound BGH-fed burger …”

    What unhealthy habits; I just hope I’m not subsidizing their health care in any way.

    Oh, wait …

  30. Betsy says:

    I think that kind of comment (“kills himself,” directed at a named person who is part of the conversation) merits banning, and the poster also should be barred.

  31. James Wimberley says:

    Betsy: yes, it was quite out of line. But I’m the offended person and it’s my call. I choose to take it as a joke in very poor taste. Anybody who makes that sort of remark about another commenter will find their comments deleted, and I’d talk to Mark about banning.

  32. Brett Bellmore says:

    “There are dozens of examples of conservatives bragging about how they’re going to jump in their 8-mpg pickup truck, go eat a 1.5 pound BGH-fed burger and turn on all the lights and heat in their McMansions.”

    Well, yeah, but the only reason they enjoy pissing off liberals about such things is that they don’t like having liberals’ preferences with regards to them forced upon them. Conservatives don’t go out of their way to do things to piss off liberals which they didn’t really want to do in the first place.