Kitchen Matches and Capitalism

Jerelyn and I went camping near Island Park, Idaho, over the Memorial Day weekend a couple of years ago. We always forget to pack something, and this trip it was matches.

I drove into town and found a three-pack of matches: three boxes of 300 large wooden kitchen matches per box for $3.69. That comes to $1.23 per box of 300, or about 3 matches for a penny.

It rained Sunday afternoon, and I got to thinking about what would be involved if I actually had to make my own matches instead of buying them at the store.

First, I’d need to find the right chemicals, and then I’d need to mix or dissolve them to form some kind of slurry or paste that would adhere to the match sticks, but that would dry to a hard, flammable solid. Then, I’d need to find some smooth, straight-grained softwood, cut it to the right length, and painstakingly split it into match sticks. Then, I’d need to dip the end of each stick into the first chemical (the red stuff) and suspend it vertically somehow until the chemical dried. Then, I’d need to dip the tip of each match into the second chemical (the white stuff) and let it dry. Then I’d need to make a box and pack them inside it so that I could carry them conveniently.

Would you be willing to do that 300 times for a buck? Could you support yourself selling your own matches? I know I couldn’t.

To me, that example captures the miracle of capitalism, because there is somebody out there who can support himself selling 300 matches for a buck. And not only does he support himself (or herself, as the case may be), but for that buck he also supports the lumberjack who cut down the tree to make the matchsticks. He supports the miner who dug the raw chemical ore out of the ground. He supports the chemist who purified and mixed the chemicals. He supports the paper-maker, the box-maker, and the printer whose combined efforts make the match box. He supports the truck driver who delivered the matches to the store, and he supports the store keeper who sold them to me. All those people AND THEIR FAMILIES are supported out of the $3.69 I paid for three boxes of strike-anywhere matches.

Maybe there’s also a match magnate smoking Cuban cigars in an opulent penthouse somewhere, too, but do you know what? I don’t care! Let the match magnate enjoy his cigars. Through his business acumen, he supported dozens of families, and he gave me a convenient, affordable way to light the pilot light on my water heater.

What about the price of the matches? Are the matches priced too high or too low? I think they’re probably priced just exactly right. Competition, market forces, labor forces, and customer demand have worked together to create a balance that leaves everybody more or less satisfied. I like the price enough to buy matches again next time I need them, the workers like their jobs enough that they don’t quit, and our magnate likes his profits enough that he doesn’t close the business and retire.

Should our government compel the magnate to either raise or lower the price of matches to generate some greater social good?

Heavens, no!

If we compelled him to raise the price in an effort to benefit his presumably underpaid workers, some other enterprising match entrepreneur would step in and undercut his prices and take all the business. Soon our magnate and all the families he supports would be out of business. Not good.

Maybe we should pass a law compelling all the matchmakers to raise their prices. Then, the Mexican or Chinese or Canadian matchmakers would take over the match market and the entire American match industry would go belly up. Even more “not good.”

What if we compelled our magnate to lower his prices to give me a more affordable match? Well, his young, blonde, 20-something trophy wife probably wouldn’t be willing to let him give up the penthouse, so he’d have to pay the lumberjack, the miner, the chemist, the box makers, and the truck drivers less. Soon, the lumberjack would quit working all day among the larch and the mighty Scotch Pines, and would start selling socks and underwear at J. C. Penney’s. Either his work force would dry up and move out of the industry, or he’d need to hire less-capable workers and start putting out a lower quality match. Once again, not good.

What if we compelled him to give up the penthouse and give the money to his workers? Well, pretty soon he would say, “Screw this noise,” and he and his trophy wife would close the match business and move to Cancun or los Cabos. Once again, all the families who had relied on his company would be out of work. No bueno.

What if we created a Federal Bureau of Match-Making Oversight and assigned a whole staff of bureaucrats and bean-counters to make sure that our magnate was being fair to everybody (assuming he isn’t being fair to everybody now)? Do you think bureaucrats and bean-counters could make matches better than a hard-headed businessman like our match magnate? Not bloody likely.

In my opinion, anything the government tries to do to regulate “fairness” will only bugger things up.

Capitalism works. The match-makers and the lumberjack have jobs that support their families, I have inexpensive matches, and the match magnate has his penthouse, cigars, and trophy wife.

So why do some people think there’s something wrong with American capitalism? As far as I can see, it works pretty darned well the way it is.

Why I Heat My Home With Wood

I like to think of myself as something of an environmentalist. I turn off the lights when I leave a room. I use cloth bags at the grocery story. I reuse plastic bags and bottles. I recycle. And I heat my home with wood.

Some of my environmental friends wring their hands with woe and recount the many ways in which I am sinning against the environment and Gaia, our Mother Earth. Burning wood is dirty, they cry. I’m going to pollute the air. I’m going to deforest the entire northern hemisphere. I’m contributing to global warming, and all the coastal lowlands will be inundated. The earth is nigh-unto doomed, and it’s all my fault!

I’ve heard those warnings, but I burn wood anyway. Some of my reasons for heating my home with wood are selfish. I recognize that and I’m okay with it. There are worse guides for one’s path through life than enlightened self-interest. But not all of my reasons are selfish. Let me explain.

I feel more self-reliant when I accept responsibility for heating my own home. If the power goes out in our neighborhood, some of my neighbors will get cold very quickly. But my family and I will stay warm. I feel a certain amount of comfort knowing that I don’t need to rely on the power grid in order to keep my family warm. There is satisfaction in that. Last time the power went out, I invited some of the neighbors over to keep them warm. There was satisfaction in that, too.

Another reason is financial. It’s cheaper to heat with wood than with electricity. My neighbors who heat with electricity pay between $300 and $400 a month for power during the winter. I pay between $100 and $150. By the end of the second year, my stove was paid for. Even counting the cost of a chain saw (I got a good old-fashioned cross-cut saw a couple of summers ago, too) and the extra wear and tear on my pickup, I’m money ahead.

I feel like it’s good exercise, as well. I’m going to be 70 this year, and every time I swing an axe or push a saw, I’m getting exercise I need to stay alert and keep my body healthy. In many ways I live a relatively sedentary life style, but whenever I throw a chunk into the back of my pickup or split a log, I feel like I’ve done my heart good. That’s important to me. I don’t know how many more years I’ll be able to cut my own firewood, but as long as I can do it, I intend to keep on doing it.

Not all my reasons are selfish, though. I like to point out to my friends that wood is a renewable energy source. As long as trees grow on the mountain, I’ll be able to heat my home. The money I save on my electric bill represents electricity that did NOT need to be generated by a multi-million-dollar power plant burning coal or foreign oil. When I bring a truckload of firewood down off the mountain, I have not only made myself a little more independent: I have also made a small contribution to our nation’s energy independence.

Modern wood stoves aren’t nearly as dirty as some of my friends believe, either. The stoves you buy today aren’t your grandfather’s wood stove, belching out smoke and creosote. My stove burns hot enough that it burns cleanly, and then it re-burns its own smoke so that only a few grams of particulate go out the chimney per hour. Probably 90% of the exhaust up my chimney is carbon dioxide and water vapor.

CARBON DIOXIDE! I can hear the howls now. “Don’t you know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas? Your carbon footprint must be enormous! You’re contributing to global warming!” Yes, I know that, and I am concerned about global warming. But I don’t think my carbon footprint is nearly as large as my friends think it is.

The biggest reason I’m not terribly concerned about the size of my carbon footprint is that I only cut trees that are already dead. I prefer them to be dry enough that the bark is starting to fall off. The day that tree died, it started giving up its CO2 to the atmosphere. As its sap evaporates, it gives off volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere. The xylophagous ants and grubs and worms and termites that gnaw their way through the dead wood give off CO2. The mold and fungus that break down the wood and rot it give off CO2. The very process of decay itself is nothing more than a slow oxidation process that gives off CO2. By the time that a log has lain on the forest floor for 40 or 50 years, it will have given up probably 90% of its carbon to the atmosphere. It’s only that small residue that’s left that really adds to my carbon footprint, because whether the CO2 goes up my chimney or goes into the atmosphere in the forest where we can’t see it, it’s still going to end up in the atmosphere. And, of course, if a forest fire happens to burn across that section of forest—as they tend to do once or twice every century around here—even that small residue will go into the atmosphere as well.

Combine that with the fact that I use less electricity that was generated by the burning of coal or oil, and I’d suspect that heating my home with wood has very close to a neutral impact on my carbon footprint.

And the last reason I think that burning wood is not one of the seven deadly environmental sins is that by burning dead wood that would otherwise rot in the forest, I make a positive contribution to healthy forest management. I’m not clear-cutting the forest or inflicting slash-and-burn on the Amazon. I carefully and selectively remove trees that are already dead. The dead trees I remove clear the way for new trees to grow and start sucking up carbon of their own. I also remove dry, dead fuel from the forest, reducing the likelihood of a forest fire. And you can be sure that a large forest fire will generate more CO2 and smoke and particulates in one second than my stove would put out in a century or two.

But all those “reasons” for heating my home with wood are just excuses. Rationalizations I make for myself. The real reason I heat with wood is that I like it. The warmth of a wood fire soaks into my old bones and warms them in a way that no electric heater ever could. And whoever thought of putting on a little soft music, dimming the lights, and snuggling with his sweetie while they watch a nice romantic electric heater? Not me. I’ll take the flicker of firelight every time. And I intend to keep on enjoying that flicker as long as I can.

Of course, none of this will convince the true environmental believers that I’m not single-handedly destroying the world. They’ll continue to regale me with their dire predictions of doom. And when they do, I’ll put on my most concerned face, furrow my brow in concentration, and say, “Oh, really? I guess I never thought about that.” And then I’ll smile and thank them for their concern. And go home and snuggle with my sweetie in front of our fire.

Punctuation in Dialogue

Many writers struggle with the punctuation of the dialogue in their stories. Several years ago, I put together a few guidelines for my own use, and I thought perhaps others might benefit from them, too.

Setting Dialogue Off from the Surrounding Sentence

  1. Set dialogue off with commas ONLY if there is an attribution tag (she said, he asked, etc.).
    Example: “I don’t know,” he said, “what to think any more.”
  2. If dialogue is interrupted by an attribution tag AND additional actions, the interruption is still set off by commas as above.
    Example: “I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head, “what to think any more.”
  3. If the dialogue before an attribution tag ends with a question mark or exclamation point, there is no need to use a comma with it.
    Example: “Do you know what to think?” he asked, shaking his head.
  4. If an action interrupts dialogue WITHOUT an attribution tag, set off the dialogue with quotation marks, and use em-dashes around the action, with no spaces around the dashes.
    Example: “I don’t know”—he shrugged and shook his head—“what to think anymore.”

Note that in all of the above examples, the continuation of the speech is not capitalized, since it is still part of one grammatically complete spoken sentence.

  1. If the attribution tag precedes the speech, it is still set off with a comma, and the first letter of the spoken sentence is capitalized.
    Example: He said, “It’s hard to tell what to think any more.”
  2. If the dialogue before an attribution tag forms a complete sentence, place a period after the tag, even if another sentence of dialogue follows the tag. Start the next sentence with a capital.
    Example: “I don’t know what to think,” he said. “Everything is so confusing.”

Stammering, Interrupted, or Faltering Speech

  1. When a character’s dialogue is interrupted, end it with an em-dash placed BEFORE the quotation mark, with no spaces.
    Example: “I just don’t know—”
    Mary cut him off. “I’ve had enough of your crap!” she shouted.
  2. When a character interrupts his own speech by a sudden change of thought, an em-dash with no spaces marks the break.
    Example: “I don’t know what to think—but what’s new about that?”
  3. To indicate that a character’s dialogue is faltering or trailing off (rather than being interrupted), use ellipsis points. Place a normal space after the dialogue, nonbreaking spaces between the points, and no space between the last point and the closing quotation mark.
    Example: Johnny shook his head slowly. “I just don’t . . .”
  4. In dialogue with a stammered partial word, use a hyphen with no spaces. Do not cap the second half of the word unless it would otherwise be capped in normal text (e.g., proper names).
    Example: “Wh-what did you say?” he asked.
    Example: “Ma-Mary made me do it.”
  5. In stammering speech with a complete word being repeated, use ellipsis points between the words. Use a regular space before the first and after the last point, with nonbreaking spaces between them. Do not cap the repeated word unless it would be capped in normal text.
    Example: “What . . . what did you say?” he asked.
    Example: “I . . . I just don’t know.”

Writing Exercise

This is a writing exercise I wrote a few years ago in a writing group. We were assigned to write on the subject of smell. It didn’t turn out too bad.

Smells

Smells. That was what Presley missed most about his new body. It couldn’t smell. Oh, the lump on his face that passed for a nose had sophisticated sensors, all right, but knowing the chemical makeup of the atmosphere wasn’t the same as smelling. Nowhere near.

All of Presley’s other senses worked fine. Wonderful in fact. His new eyes could see colors no human eye had ever seen. He could see in infrared, ultraviolet, microwave, and even x-ray frequencies. Just for fun as he stood in the star light, he used his telescopic function to peer through the dim forest and pick out a sleeping bird he had been watching in its nest. Even in the dim light, every feather was clear. He checked the range. A little over 1,400 meters. 1,412.618 meters, to be more precise. Nearly a mile, and he could see the bird’s eyelids and watch it breathe. If he had been closer, he could have used his microscopic function to see the bird’s cells and even sub-cellular structures. That was cool.

He thought his other senses were pretty cool, as well. He could hear bats chittering and chirping as they swirled around the yard lights back at the barracks, and could even distinguish the individual chirps from specific bats. He touched a leaf on the tree he was leaning against. The nanoparticles on his fingertips could feel the minute pores on the back of the leaf, and a quick map of the veins in the leaf flashed on the inside of his left eyelid.

And sex! Presley laughed aloud when he remembered those last three days of leave in Augusta. He had never in his wildest dreams imagined it could be like that. It had only been a little over three weeks ago, but he struggled to remember the girl’s name. Sonia – or Tonya – or something like that. He grinned. She probably wouldn’t have any trouble remembering his name.

Just then, Presley heard a rustling in the bushes on his left that brought him back to what he was supposed to be doing. He cursed silently to himself and focused on the sound. It was only his second night on watch, and he was lost in lurid fantasies about a strip club dancer. A moment later he heard the sound again. It came from between two bushes about twenty yards to his left. Whatever it was was very small and low. Probably a mouse. He shifted his right eye to infrared and saw it. It was a mouse all right, under the dead leaves. It was scratching with its front paws. Digging a nest, probably.

Presley stayed more alert for the last three hours of his watch. The bats kept on chittering, the bird kept on sleeping, and the mouse made innumerable trips back and forth from various trees and bushes to the nest she was making under the leaves. And through it all, Presley couldn’t smell a thing. These woods should be filled with rich, earthy smells, and he missed them. He missed the smell of dew on the sagebrush along the Teton River in the morning. The smell of a campfire. The mossy smell of the river and the piney smell of the woods. He missed the smell of bacon frying and the smell of his daughter’s hair when he dried her off after a bath.

He was surprised to realize that he didn’t especially miss flavors. His new body didn’t need to eat, so there really wasn’t anything he ought to taste. But here in the dark woods at night, there were lots of things he ought to be able to smell, and he couldn’t.

Presley was in a pretty gloomy mood when 0300 came and he heard the crunch of boots coming through the night. It would be his relief, but he crouched down behind a tree and shielded his heat signature. The watchstanding manual called for precautions when approached by an unidentified. About 200 meters out he could see an unshielded heat signature coming toward him from the direction of the barracks. He shifted to normal light and recognized Sergeant Jackson.

Jackson had a square, craggy face and a nose that looked as if it had been broken. More than once, probably. Even though their faces were synthetic, most soldiers chose to have faces patterned after their old biological faces. It was easier in many ways. It was impossible to tell how old a face was, since it would never wrinkle and the hair would never go gray, but Jackson looked to be close to thirty. Old for a foot soldier, but Presley knew better than to ask too many questions.

Jackson was about fifteen meters away when he said, “You might as well unshield, Presley. I can see you behind that tree.” He wasn’t grinning exactly, but the corners of his mouth had a wry little quirk to them. That was about as close to a smile as Jackson ever got.

“How do you do that, man?” Presley asked.

“You gotta know what to look for. Anything happening out here?”

“Oh, yeah, lots. Mrs. Mouse over there is building herself a nest, Mrs. Bird is still asleep, and them damn bats aren’t eating anywhere near enough mosquitoes.”

“Whaddya care about mosquitoes for? They can’t bite you.”

“Yeah, but I can hear them whining around my ears and feel them crawling on me. I know they can’t bite me, but I’ve been slapping them all night anyway.” Presley was still for a moment and then said, “I think half of it is that I’m pissed that I can’t smell anything.”

Jackson raised one eyebrow. “Something wrong with your olfactory sensors?”

That seemed like an odd thing to say. “Nothing’s wrong with them, but you can’t smell through them. All you can do is get a list of analytes.”

Jackson smiled. A real smile this time. “Sure you can smell with them, newbie. You just gotta know what to look for. Pull up your list.”

Presley closed his left eye and blinked on the “Olfactory” button. “Okay.”

“See down there at about 40 ppb, where it says alpha-terpineol? And then a little lower where it says to 4-2-methylcyclohexanol?”

Presley looked through the list. “Mine says 42 ppb,” he said.

“Well, that’s the signature of pine pitch. You’re smelling 42 parts per billion of a pine tree.”

“Wow. I’m thrilled. Not quite the same, is it?”

“Not quite, but you’ll get used to it. Now look down a little lower, down where you see that cluster of multicyclic peptides.”

“Yeah?”

“That’s mushrooms. There’s some amanitins in there, so it probably isn’t something you’d want to eat. But with a little practice, you’ll be able to follow that smell right back to the mushroom. There’s probably a whole patch of them, and you can find them with your eyes closed if you know what to look for. Now, you ready to stand relieved, soldier?”

Actually, Presley wasn’t particularly eager to go back to the barracks. His new body didn’t get tired, and after his long night of solitude he was enjoying the conversation. But he said, “Yeah” anyway. “I guess so.” Just then he saw two new entries show up on his list of smells. “What’s that?” he asked.

“What’s what?” Jackson responded.

“Those new chemicals in the list. Methylphenol – ” Presley struggled with the pronunciation of the chemical, “and buta-. . . buta-something acid.”

Jackson laughed. “Butanoic acid,” he said. “That’s sweat. You need to go back and take a shower, kid. You’re smelling your own B.O.”

Presley shook his head. “I don’t think they were there a minute ago. They just popped up just now.”

“Then get down, kid. There’s somebody out there.” He pushed Presley toward a tree and fell to the ground.

Suddenly Jackson’s voice sounded in Presley’s ear. He was transmitting on an encrypted wireless channel. “Wind’s out of the east, kid, so that’s where they have to be.” He was silent for a moment, and then the voice said, “Turn your list to a chart, Presley. See that little cluster of sharp spikes – all those hydroxyl radicals and ketones?”

Presley did what he was told. On the left side of the chart were about a dozen little spikes. “Yeah, I see them.”

“Well, that’s female sex hormones. At least one of those people out there is a woman. Those spikes are what the scent of a woman looks like, kid.”

Presley looked at the tiny green lines and suddenly he remembered something. Her name had been Dawnya. He smiled. Maybe this new body of his wouldn’t be all that bad after all.