Tagged: writing

Apples and Oranges: A Comparison

What follows is a silly attempt to explain what constitutes a comparative essay or what my K-12 teachers used to call a “compare-and-contrast” essay. I assign a fair number of these in my classes, and I wanted to have an example to show students what such an essay might look like.

In colloquial English, it is common to liken comparing two different objects to comparing apples and oranges. This a curious expression because the two share three common characteristics. First, apples and oranges are not only food, both are tree fruits. Second, along with the banana, they are among the most common fruits consumed in the United States. You can almost certainly find them packed in a lot of schoolchildren’s lunch boxes, if contemporary parents still pack a lunch for their children. Third, the two fruits are about the same size, which might be why they are so commonly eaten: on school lunch trays, in the brown-paper bags of blue-collar tradesman, and on the desk of a white-collar worker.

In this essay, I will compare apples to oranges to determine what specific differences exist between apples and oranges. I will use five criteria to evaluate their differences: their color, their shape, the edibility of their skins, their taste, and the different climates in which they are mass produced and harvested.


First, the color of each fruit is significantly different. An orange bears the name of its color: orange. After evaluating many different oranges in a variety of locations, oranges appear to come in just one color. In fact, the richness or the paleness of that orange is often a visual signifier for its freshness, its juiciness, and its sweetness—qualities that are reasonably subjective and relative to the eater’s taste.

Apples, on the other hand, can come in at least two colors: red and green. Within each color, there are some variations, indicating the different varietals of apples that are available at most grocery stores and at farmers markets in regions, such as New York, where apples grow aplenty. However, despite all these varieties, there are no apples that appear orange, and no orange appears in red or green colors. The skin color alone is a determining signifier of whether an apple is an apple and whether an orange is an orange.


Second, the shape of the fruits are also different despite being reductively described as round. First, oranges are almost perfect spheres. They are commonly packaged and displayed at stores in a fashion where orange fits in the crevice between the other oranges, as illustrated below. This allows one to evaluate the orange by a glance.

This is usually only possible with perfectly round objects, such as tennis balls.

Apples, on the other hand, do not have this exact same shape. While they are mostly round, their differing shape makes it difficult to evaluate in this fashion. You can see the bottom, the stem, or the body of the fruit, but picking one requires picking it up to evaluate the color, firmness, and whether it has suffered bruising.

Edibility of the Skin

Third, the skins of each fruit are also different. The apple skin is very commonly eaten, except perhaps by some picky schoolchildren who had a parent peel their apples before packing them in a lunch box. According to a study by Kelly Wolfe and Rui Hai Liu, a food scientist at Cornell University, an apple skin contains a lot of important nutrients that provide multiple health benefits, which one does not get from eating a peeled apple.1

An orange peel however is largely inedible. It is tough in texture and bitter in flavor. Not only that, the only sources that seem to recommend eating orange peels are a few online quack doctors with questionable credentials and motives. For example, Dr. Mercola advocates eating orange peels because, he says, the peels “may prevent histamine release,” “cleanse your lungs,” and “improve oral health.” However, let’s not forget that he has drawn a lot of controversy for advocating medical practices that fly in the face of conventionally acceptable practices and may harm public health, such as criticizing vaccines.


Fourth, the taste of these two fruits are considerably different. While taste is largely subjective, an apple is noticeably sweeter than an orange. An apple has a prominent sweet taste with a sour aftertaste. An orange, on the other hand, has a mostly sour taste although one certainly savor its sweetness along with that bitterness.

One way to evaluate each fruits sweetness-versus-bitterness is to examine their use in pie recipes. I compared two pie recipes at the Taste of Home website, and you can see how apples largely provide their own sweetness in this apple pie recipe:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 6 to 7 cups thinly sliced peeled tart apples
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • Pastry for double-crust pie (9 inches)
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 large egg white
  • Additional sugar

The sweetness of the pie comes from the added sugar, but mostly from the natural sweetness of the apples.

However, the orange pie recipe in this popular website recommends making a frosted orange pie with not only more added sugar but also adding frosting to offset the bitterness that inhere in most oranges.


Finally, the climate where each fruit is grown can vary significantly. In the United States, apples are mostly grown and exported from two states: New York and Washington, two states with relatively cool climates. Apples also peak in the autumn and are usually harvested in the months between August and November.

Oranges, on the other hand, are grown in warmer climates, and the two US states best known for growing and exporting apples are California and Florida. The harvest period is also a bit later than it is for apples. Oranges are harvested in the winter months after the apple harvest has concluded.


In conclusion, apples and oranges, among the most commonly eaten fruits in the United States, share many similarities but as I’ve compared above, they also bear many specific differences that make them assuredly different. It’s no wonder, then, that we have that aphorism about apples and oranges. In recent months, the cable news network CNN has run a series of ads as part of its “This is an apple” campaign. The ad takes aim at President Trump’s attempts to discredit the press as “FAKE NEWS” when it criticizes him and his policies:

This is an apple. Some people might try and tell you that it’s a banana the ad. They might scream banana, banana, banana over and over and over again. They might put BANANA in all caps. You might even start to believe that this is a banana. But it’s not. This is an apple.

The ad plays on the common sensibility of most (but sadly, not all) that there’s a difference between an apple and a banana, much like we now assuredly know there are at least five differences between an apple and an orange.

  1. Kelly L. Wolfe and and Rui Hai Liu, “Apple Peels as a Value-Added Food Ingredient,”
    Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2003 51 (6), 1676-1683. 

Die, Social Misfit!!! A Merry Christmas Xmix Playlist

Listen to Die, Social Misfit!!! A Merry Christmas Xmix playlist on Apple Music

Twenty years ago, literally the lifetime of a current college sophomore, I began hosting a college radio music show called Die, Social Misfit!!! on KCSB-FM, 91.9, in Santa Barbara. I used to play a lot of garage rock, surf, and the occasional exotica, all of which were popular genres among the hipsters of the time because of multiple revival movements concentrated on the US west coast. A friend from the east coast refers to that music today it as “budget rock.”

Die, Social Misfit!!! was my third attempt at doing a radio show, and it sort of mirrored my experience as a college student. The first two radio programs were, quite frankly, pretty bad, and I don’t want to describe them in detail out of pure shame. Suffice to say that those programs were series of ugly messes, not unlike the many essays I wrote for my freshman (and sophomore!) composition courses. In the case of essay writing, it really wasn’t until my junior year of college where I felt that finally “got it.” I learned how to research and use sources, how to structure an essay, how to write a compelling thesis, and how to develop a voice that would need only further refining in graduate school. (Who knew topic sentences were still a thing?!?) The same was true for the radio show, and it was around 1997 that I developed Die Social Misfit!!!. The entire program, while not necessarily a themed show, had one central idea behind it: what my friends and I would describe as “rawk!” The show aired on Friday afternoons, between 3:00 to 5:00 PM. I used to imagine countless workers listening to KCSB throughout the week, breathlessly anticipating my program as it signaled the last two hours of their workweek. I wanted to rawk them out of their chair come quitting time.

Late December is an exciting time because it signals the Christmas season, the end of the year, and also the end of the semester. As I grade scores of undergradaute student essays, I think of my poor students and how many of them still haven’t “gotten it.” Many essays aren’t worth the paper they didn’t bother using to print them. (I accept only electronic submissions.) But I also think of my old radio show. I never did a proper Christmas themed show, but over the years, I’ve maintained an iTunes playlist of Christmas songs that I would have played on Die, Social Misfit!!! had I not been a cynical twenty year-old at the time thinking that Christmas was lame. Christmas isn’t lame! Being a cynical twenty year-old, however, is lame.

Twenty years too late, I present you the Die, Social Misfit!!! A Merry Christmas Xmix playlist on Apple Music.

A lot of the songs are rocked out versions of old favorites, such as The Humpers doing “Run Run Rudolph.” The Mexican-American Elvis impersonator, El Vez, adds a little color to old favorite with “Brown Christmas.” There are also some Christmas-themed songs that are, as far as I know, not at all versions of traditional favorites, such as Lillian Briggs’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll Polly Santa Claus.” But there are some songs that I’m sure you’ll recognize but likely never heard like this. For example, the New Bomb Turks does a cover of U2’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” at a such a breakneck pace that, according to legend, it blew The Edge’s hat off his head when he first heard it. And speaking of meta covers, you can hear The Ventures playing a version of “Sleigh Ride,” and Los Straitjackets doing an almost note-for-note cover of that Ventures cover. And, of course, I even included the Phil Spector Christmas album because even though he pulled a gun out on the Ramones and shot a woman dead, I really like that album.

Forgive for the songs that appear more than once.

I know that all college sophomores today prefer to share their music mixes on Spotify or YouTube, but since I have had this playlist in iTunes for over a decade, it was really easy to make it public with a couple of clicks. Also, because I’ve been adding to it for myself over the years, I never bothered to curate a proper order. Instead, I just shuffle play it whenever the mood strikes for rawkin’ Christmas music. You should shuffle play it too.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

For Those Long Nights on the Computer

For some years now, Hotel Tonight has been offering last-minute rooms for some above average hotels. I haven’t yet been able to use the service because I have a brother who works at a major hotel chain and usually comes through with a family discount.

Today, Hotel Tonight announced Hack Tonight. The service, currently in Beta, is for people who are staying up all night writing code:

Up late coding? Unable to get home… or leave the office? We’ve got your back. Starting today, we’re rolling out HackTonight. HackTonight takes mobile to a whole ‘nother level – it’s the hotel experience that comes to you!

This sounds like a great service! I especially could use the Blue Bottle Drip and the Hoodie Dry Cleaning services. Please offer one for academics, too, and you got a lifelong customer.

Those Times I Wrote for STEM Professors

Dr. Loretta Jackson-Hayes, an associate professor of chemistry at Rhodes College in Memphis, wrote a very popular editorial, published today, arguing that colleges should balance the push for STEM majors but not at the expense of a liberal arts curriculum. One reason is that having a strong arts and humanities background helps scientists explain their research.

Scientists are often unable to communicate effectively because, as Cornell University president David J. Skorton points out, “many of us never received the education in the humanities or social sciences that would allow us to explain to nonscientists what we do and why it is important.”

I can personally attest to the benefit of thinking across disciplines, by which I don’t mean a film person writing to a literature scholar. Can we call it disciplinary agnosticism?

Back in my grant-writing powerhouse days, I wrote a few grant applications reviewed by people at the graduate school, not just those in our field. One of the tips we received for writing these was to pitch it to a “New York Times-level reader.” The aim of the advice is to force students to write for intelligent, non-experts. But when I learned that professors from across the university would be reading my proposal, I always imagined a chemist, a mathematician, and an economist poring over my proposal. I pictured the physics professor from my first year of college, and the psychology TA from sophomore year.

In my mind, these “quants” would appreciate something analytical but light on impenetrable theory. I included a brief summary of the historical context, some concise reasons for why the US would care about Latin America during the Cold War, and a step-by-step outline of what I hoped to learn. In other words, I wasn’t seeking to impress my advisor or a panel at a narrowly focused academic conference. I had to explain, in logical terms, what my research was and why it was important.

Did it work? Aside from one time I was pressured to apply for a grant to research my “homeland” in Brazil—my family is from Guatemala—I never was rejected for a grant.

That, and I am happy that I can understand the history of radio frequency allocations in the United States as well as the difference between latency and throughput.

Not only do STEM majors need liberal arts and humanities, but liberal arts and humanities scholars also need to embrace the thinking STEM majors get from their work, too.

A balanced education? What a crazy idea!?!

The Elements of Writing Well

No matter how much writing you do, you can always improve. Arguably, the two best writing guides you could ever read are:

And just in time for the beginning of the semester, you can buy the thirtieth-anniversary edition of Zinsser’s book for your Kindle for $2.99.

The above links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you buy something through those links, I will earn a commission fee.

How to Quote, Paraphrase and Cite: A Guide to Citations

It’s the time of the semester when teachers everywhere will start receiving a batch of papers to grade. For years, as I mark each paper, I dream about composing a concise guide about common problems with undergraduate writing.

With some spare time today, I made that dream come true. I posted to my professional site a guide to quoting, paraphrasing, and citing sources.

In addition to linking to it here, I’m also reproducing it for some SEO gamesmanship.

When to Quote

You should quote sparingly in your paper as it could rob you of your voice.

At one extreme, a really poor paper will have blockquote after blockquote. I get it: quotes take up space and help reach your word count, and it makes it appear that you’ve engaged with the reading. But all those blockquotes demonstrate a poor grasp of your own argument. If you’re going to quote so much, I may as well read the source of quotes rather than your paper.

The best papers will quote only when the passage in the source is so unique, so valuable, and so succinct, that it cannot be said any other way. Abraham Lincoln could have opened his famous address with “In 1776, we signed the Declaration of Independence. This document listed a number of grievances against the British crown. Those grievances included….” But since he started with “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and those words were and remain so powerful, you should quote him.

The same is true for short phrases. You don’t have to quote an entire sentence or paragraph. Sometimes it might be enough to just quote a few choice words that you can wrap in your own prose.

While President of the United States, Bill Clinton resisted the elimination of affirmative action for college admissions, famously saying “mend it, don’t end it.”

If you want to include something that you extracted from a source, please just paraphrase it in your own voice. There are two benefits to this. First, you can condense or expand the passage you found in someone else’s work as you see fit. It might even help you reach that word count. Second, your paper remains in your voice.

Regardless if you quote directly or paraphrase, you must cite the source in your text. Here’s how.

Simple In-Text Citations

Citing a source could be easy as just adding a couple of parentheses, an author’s name, and a page number. When paraphrasing a work by Liz Collinson, my citation would come after the passage I wrote.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit donec a diam lectus. Sed sit amet ipsum mauris (Collinson 11).

Another option is to name the author in your prose, allowing you to omit it from the parenthetical citation.

According to Liz Collinson, lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit donec a diam lectus. Sed sit amet ipsum mauris (11).

If you want to quote, the process is largely unchanged. However, to keep the prose in your own voice, you should never start a sentence with a quote.

When describing lorem ipsum, Liz Collinson notes, “Donec et mollis dolor” (11).

Note that in each example above, the trailing period always comes after the citation. Always.

Simple Reference List

All those citations are meaningless because I have no idea who Liz Collinson is or what she wrote. I need help finding the source you referenced. That’s where a reference list comes in.

For a printed work, such as a book, you just need to include:

  • author’s name (last name, first)
  • the title of the book
  • the place of publication, publisher’s name, and year of publication

Collinson, Liz. Lorem Ipsum Sit Amet: A Completely Made-up Book for You To Cite. New York: Nonexistent Press, 2013. Print.

It gets more complicated for other types of works, such as book chapters, journal articles, websites, and unpublished manuscripts. For those types of work, consult one of the following style guides:

I don’t care which one you use, but use it consistently and correctly.


Please feel free to use footnotes or endnotes, if you prefer, instead of the parenthetical citations I described above. It doesn’t matter whether you use footnotes or endnotes, but please use one or the other but not both. Footnotes appear at the bottom of each page, and endnotes appear at the end of the document.

No matter whether you use footnotes or endnotes, the in-text reference should be denoted by a superscript, Arabic numeral.

Maecenas congue ligula ac quam viverra nec consectetur ante hendrerit. Donec et mollis dolor.1

For more information on using footnotes or endnotes, consult The Chicago Manual of Style. It is the standard for footnote and endnote citations.

Exact Word Count for Undergraduates

Over the weekend a student wrote me to ask a question about an upcoming assignment. His query was a very basic but fair one. According to the assignment guidelines, each student is supposed to write a 500-word essay. The student asked:

it says the paper is to be 500 words. Are we limited to roughly that amount or is that just the minimum required?

My response was my usual boilerplate about word count. I said that the word count was a target, meaning that he could be a reasonable amount over or under that count.

Then I started thinking about my response. As a challenge, why don’t I have students write their essays to exact word count? Every student uses word processing software of some type to write their essays. College students have been doing that for the better part of the last thirty years. Word processors make it really easy to count words. It’s part of what they process, isn’t it?

The benefit of writing to an exact word count is that it forces students to edit their essays beyond running the spelling and grammar checkers. One of my colleagues in graduate school used to write paragraphs so that the last line of a paragraph would be flush with the right margin. In other words, he would edit until his paragraph was a fully-justified, four-sided rectangle.

Having students write to an exact word count would also help ensure more equitable grading. Although I’ve tried to avoid this particular bias, I have found over my years of reading undergraduate prose that the more-engaged (i.e., "better") students tend to write longer-than-average essays and get better grades. If every student writes to the exact same length, it would minimize the "verbose-essay bias" and ensure I am grading on written content not its form.

While it’s a little to try with an assignment due in a matter of days, I will experiment with an upcoming assignment for my Media Technologies class. They have three essays to write over the semester so I have some room to perform an experiment such as this one. If it works with exactly 500 words, maybe I’ll have them write to other counts, consisting of prime numbers like 571, 839, or 1013. After all, a word count is just an arbitrary number.