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To Compare an Apple to a Submarine

Is it fair to compare Quibi, a floundering new platform for professionally produced bite-size video entertainment, to TikTok, an immensely popular platform for user-generated bite-size video entertainment?

Jeffrey Katzenberg, the founder of Quibi, insists it is not.

“That’s like comparing apples to submarines,” he told The New York Times in a recent interview following the disappointing launch of the app, which had received $1.8 billion in early funding.

But is that itself fair — to suggest apples and submarines are so different they cannot be compared? Both are buoyant. Both are round in certain places. It is true that apples, like TikTok, enjoy tremendous global popularity while the average private citizen has thus far shown little interest in acquiring either Quibi or a submarine. Is that difference stark enough to render them effectively incomparable?

In an effort to compare apples to submarines, The Times spoke to Robert Crassweller, a pomologist and professor of horticulture at Pennsylvania State University, and John Plumb, a former submarine officer and a senior engineer at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization in Santa Monica, Calif. They were asked to evaluate apples and submarines along the lines of several criteria, and in relation to each other.

Modern commercial apple trees are much smaller than their wild ancestors.

“What happened is,” Dr. Crassweller said, “you wanted to get smaller trees because it takes a lot of time to climb 40 feet in the air and pick apples.” Most apples now are grown by grafting a stem or inserting a bud of the desired apple variety to a rootstock. (To ensure apples grow true to form, all commercial apples are essentially clones of their parent variety. Apples grown from apple seeds are unpredictable in quality, and may be inedible.)

Modern growers use dwarf rootstock to keep the tree 10 to 12 feet tall. The trees are kept upright with wires and posts — otherwise the weight of the apples, combined with the small rootstocks, would cause them to topple over.

By contrast, improvements in technology have facilitated the production of increasingly larger submarines.

While the vast majority of apples have an apple silhouette, Dr. Crassweller identified one “old, old variety that is more oblong than it is round,” and thus, vaguely submarine-shaped: the Kandil Sinap.

When asked to name the submarine that most closely resembled an apple, Dr. Plumb did not hesitate: the first American submarine, called the Turtle.

Based on information provided in a Congressional Research Service report, Dr. Plumb said the length of time needed to build a Virginia-class submarine — the current generation of the nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines that constitute the largest part of the Navy’s submarine arsenal — is five to six years.

“It used to be,” said Dr. Crassweller, “it would take eight to 10 years for an apple tree to really start to get into production” — a time frame that would give nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines the edge in timeliness.

But now, he said “with these new systems we’re using, it takes, like, two years in the nursery, and then we plant them and hopefully the next year we start picking apples from them.”

“We produce about 240 million bushels per year in the U.S.,” said Dr. Crassweller.

“We try to build two submarines a year,” said Dr. Plumb. (The “we” here is the U.S. military.)

Fast-attack submarines, like those in the Virginia class, weigh around 14 million to 18 million pounds submerged. Ballistic missile submarines, which carry nuclear weapons, weigh around 37 million pounds submerged. The United States currently operates 14 of the latter.

“Normally we say a bushel” — of apples — “weighs about 40 pounds,” Dr. Crassweller said.

“If you were to plant an acre orchard right now, and you used high-tech methods,” Dr. Crassweller said, it would cost “probably $26,000 to $30,000 an acre. That would involve the cost of the trees, preparing the land.”

“What would cost $30,000 on a submarine?” mused Dr. Plumb. “Nothing of note.”

A modern U.S. Virginia-class submarine costs roughly $3.5 billion according to the Congressional Research Service. Dr. Plumb did the apple math. “At $30,000 an acre, you would need 116,667 acres, or 182 square miles, of apple orchard for the same cost. This means one acre buys less than one one-hundred-thousandth of a submarine. So to four decimal places, one acre of high-tech apple orchard buys you zero submarines.”

New Virginia-class submarines are named after American states. Their predecessors, Los Angeles-class submarines, like the U.S.S. San Juan, on which Dr. Plumb was an officer from 1995 to 1998, were named after American cities. Many early American submarines were named after species of fish and marine mammals. The first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines were named after historical figures.

In recent decades, the developers of new varieties of apples have patented their products under catchy names and sold the trademarks to licensed growers. The newly released Cosmic Crisp, developed by breeders at Washington State University, can only be grown by growers in Washington.

“They cannot ship those trees out of the state of Washington,” said Dr. Crassweller. “The actual name of the variety is Washington 38, but they trademarked it as Cosmic Crisp.”

The first trademarked apple name was applied to a deep pink cultivar developed in Australia by a grower named John Cripps. As its website notes: “Pink Lady® is a brand. It is not a description or name of a tree or apple variety.”

In general, one person can safely operate (eat) an apple unassisted.

A military submarine, by contrast, “takes about 130 people to run,” said Dr. Plumb, with days generally broken into three eight-hour shifts. Furthermore, he said, “if you have to fight, it takes a certain number of people to run the whole thing when you’re fighting.”

Many varieties of apples will keep for “a minimum of 12 months” using a technique called controlled atmosphere storage, said Dr. Crassweller.

Dr. Plumb estimated that, once built, today’s nuclear submarines remain fully operational for “about 30 years.”

“Nuclear power, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t run out on the time scale of anything you might consider doing” on a submarine, he said. “You can basically go for as long as you need, based on the health and mental welfare of the crew,” he said.

“But just on food alone, you have to bring an awful lot of food to get a crew of 100 people through two or three months. That starts to become a limiting factor.”

Submarines, said Dr. Plumb, are designed to compress when water pressure outside the vessel increases as it dives. The pressure inside the submarine remains the same.

“One of the games you can play on a submarine is you can tie a rope between two pieces” — of metal framing attached to the hull on either side of the submarine’s interior — “really tight when you’re on the surface. Then as you dive, you watch it get slacker and slacker” as the hull compresses inward, he said.

“It is quite frankly a bit unsettling when you see it.”

To extend the shelf life of apples, said Dr. Crassweller, commercial growers store them in facilities where “they reduce the oxygen very low and they increase CO2. They really adjust the gas combination within these sealed rooms, and they maintain a certain temperature and a certain humidity,” which varies according to the needs of the specific apple variety.

By forcing the apples into a kind of hibernation, the ripening process can be delayed until the apples are ready to be consumed.

On a submarine, said Dr. Plumb, the concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air are monitored constantly — roughly every one to two hours under normal conditions.

“There’s little bands that humans can exist in,” he said. “We’re more fragile than you think.”

A modern method of ensuring a submarine’s oxygen remains at safe percentages is “to make your own oxygen out of seawater,” using electrolysis. After ocean water is purified into freshwater, it is run through with electricity to split it into hydrogen and oxygen.

“World War II, they didn’t have that ability,” said Dr. Plumb. “They had oxygen candles, which we had, and we had to use sometimes.” These candles, most commonly made of sodium chlorate, release oxygen as they burn.

“Your fail safe,” he said, is to “get to the surface — as long as you’re not under ice. And you can suck fresh air in.”

A weak point in a submarine, said Dr. Plumb is “anything that will cause flooding, and anything that will cause flooding is usually a pre-existing penetration through the hull.” Torpedo tubes, from which torpedoes are launched, are constructed with a series of interlocks, so that there is never an entirely open pathway from the inside of the submarine to the open ocean.

“The amount of water that could come out of a hole that big is catastrophic,” Dr. Plumb said.

Unlike many submarines in fiction, modern submarines have no portholes.

“There’s no tactical benefit to being able to look out underwater if you’re fighting a war,” said Dr. Plumb.

Dr. Crassweller estimates that an apple is at its most vulnerable when being picked, packed, and shipped by “people who didn’t grow it” and “don’t know how to handle it.”

Applesauce, which travels well and does not require refrigeration until after opening, is a common feature of combat food rations. The military has even developed a carbohydrate-enhanced variety, called Zapplesauce.

Ballistic missile submarines, said Dr. Plumb, “are literally designed to be quiet and prevent a nuclear attack on us by being able to launch a strike if we’re attacked.” They were originally designed, he said, to deter Russia from carrying out a nuclear attack on the United States.

“If Russia were to try to hit the United States,” he said, “they couldn’t take out all of our missile silos and think that they could get away with it because we would have submarines that could then respond. So basically, the entire goal of those submarines is to not be found. No one can know where they are. And if you can’t know where they are, then you can’t target them, and therefore they’re survivable.”

Based on the above explanations, it is clear that apples can be compared to submarines with relative ease. Submarines are more expensive than apples, but apples are of much greater practical use on dry land. Both take years to come to fruition. Both can be sent to war.

Interestingly, when invited to consider Quibi in relation to TikTok, Mr. Katzenberg, besides introducing the subjects of apples and submarines, invoked Netflix as an alternative point of comparison.

“I don’t know what people are expecting from us,” he said. “What did Netflix look like 30 days after it launched? To tell me about a company that has a billion users and is doing great in the past six weeks, I’m happy for them, but what the hell does it have to do with me?”

While it remains to be seen if Quibi will revolutionize the entertainment industry, we can, at least, collect anecdotal evidence from our experts about its popularity in an adult male American population of two.

When asked if he had heard of Quibi before being contacted by The Times, Dr. Crassweller said, “No, I did not know what that was.”

Dr. Plumb, by contrast, said he had “heard of it.” Does he think he will ever use it?

“At this point in my life, I do not think I will use it,” he said. “I just don’t know why I would use that.”

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