The Quest for the Cronut

I awoke this morning slightly before 5am, and I wasn’t even grumpy about it! “Really?”, you politely ask. Indeed. I awoke slightly before my alarm, bundled up, grabbed my purse, and departed on what might be my last New York adventure: The Quest for the Cronut.

For those of you who have been living under a rock, a cronut is a mysterious baked good invented by the Dominique Ansel Bakery – that is, as its name suggests, a cross between a croissant and a doughnut.

Cronuts are all the rage in New York: people line hours before the bakery’s 8am opening for a chance to buy a maximum of two cronuts (cronutae?). As a lover of a baked good, and something of a croissant aficionado, I knew it was something I had to do before I left New York. At worst, I thought, it’d be a good story. And it was with that mindset that I existed my apartment and set out.

The adventure started early: looking up the street, I noticed some small scurrying things on the sidewalk near the garbage – my first non-subway track New York rats! SUCH EXCITEMENT! I crossed the street, startling the gentleman walking along the road who I suspect was more accustomed to people crossing the street to avoid him, rather than joining him, and headed west toward Soho.

New York may be the city that never sleeps, but the Lower East Side was definitely sleeping at 5am. Mildly creeped out by the lack of humanity, I hopped a cab the rest of the way to the bakery. As I approached it, I saw a small crowd: the beginning of the line! One man had a sleeping bag (it was chilly), people had chairs, a nice guy offered to share his bench with me (which I gratefully accepted). The early liner-uppers were super friendly: people were obviously excited to sample the cronut wares, and were content to be waiting a few hours for sake of it.

A coworker who lived nearby joined me (with a couple of chairs), and we chatted the hours away as the sun rose and the line lengthened. It was really nice, and I love that they have a security guard who ensures that no one tries to butt into the line. About twenty minutes before the bakery opened, they came around with freshly-baked madeleines, and before I knew it, I was inside, ordering a cup of tea, a lovely ham and cheese croissant, and two cronuts. My coworker got two as well, and once everyone had arrived MongoDB’s docs team (the four of us who were in the office, at least) feasted.

Delicious fig mascarpone cronuts. Omnomnomnomnom.

The cronut was delicious: reminiscent of a packzi, but crispier and tastier. Would I line up for 2.5 hours for one again? Probably not – not unless a friend asked me to – but there’s something wonderful to be said for doing something ridiculous. I mean, getting up at 5am for a doughnut isn’t like going bungy jumping or something (though I like bungy jumping, so that’s not a great example), but the ritual aspects: getting up, bundling, walking or hailing a cab, chatting with your line-mates… it’s a great experience, and well worth the lost sleep.

It’s easy to say no to things: when I lived in New Zealand, I had an acquaintance who had lived there for 8 months but hadn’t done any of the touristy things “because [she] lived there, [she] wasn’t a tourist”. I lived there too, but I was going to museums and walking tours, and having awesome weekends seeing and doing. It’s easy to sleep, or hang out and work, or watch Netflix in bed when you’re in a new city. I’m glad that I’ve managed to combat the inertia, and I know that I’ve had a more exciting life than I otherwise would have. The cronut was super tasty, but the experiences are what stick with you… the experiences, and the butter…

Better Writing is One Bundle/Package/Plugin Away

Two months ago, I downloaded and installed a writing tools bundle for TextMate 2, one of my favorite text editors. “English Highlight” as it is so innocuously named, does three awesome things:

  1. It highlights weasel words (few, very, fairly, quite, etc.)
  2. It highlights passive sentences (or, should I say, passive sentences are highlighted)
  3. It highlights duplicate words (not not that you’d ever do that).

Christopher Alfeld’s “English Highlight” is an adaptation of Matt Might’s shell scripts. Matt Might is an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah. He noticed that his students tended to ‘abuse’ the passive voice, use weasel words, and repeat words, so he wrote some bash scripts to identify these and integrated them into their LaTeX build. This has spawned a variety of plugins for common text editors. I’ve complied a list of plugins at the bottom of this post.

TextMate 2 with English Highlight screenshot

Screenshot from my TextMate: purple highlighting indicates weasels, passives, or repeated words.

I am not going to lie: it was demoralizing when I first opened up a file and saw tons of purple. Apparently nine years of post-secondary education (6 of which were in the sciences) bred a deep love of the passive voice. Similarly, two years of graduate school, where the answer to every question is ‘it depends’, may have left me generous with my ‘various’, ‘numerous’, and ‘few’s. Highlighting my shortcomings in purple makes it easy for me to identify areas that need work, and to quickly make my writing stronger and clearer.

Weasel Words

The thing about weasel words is that they rarely add to a sentence: they either make your sentence vague or unnecessarily wordy, neither of which is a positive. Admittedly, sometimes you want to say that something is ‘quite’ something. That’s cool! You’re allowed! You might not realize how often you say ‘quite’ or ‘very’, though, and if it’s not helping, it’s hindering.

I went looking for a wishy-washy sentence that I’d recently wrote, but couldn’t find one: it seems my highlighter has done the trick! I’m afraid to open any of my old research papers, so I’m borrowing an example from Matt Might:

Bad: False positives were surprisingly low.
Better: To our surprise, false positives were low.
Good: To our surprise, false positives were low (3%).

I know I have a tendency to overuse ‘various’, ‘numerous’, and ‘fairly’. Highlighting those words draws my eye back to the sentence and makes me think about ways I can improve it. Often it’s as easy as deleting the word.

Passive vs. Active Voice

The passive voice thing is less straightforward than the weasel words. The passive voice has historically held a hallowed position in the sciences, where the prevailing opinion seems to be that science should mysteriously emerge completely independent of the scientists who do it. For this reason, students have to write “10mg of magnesium were massed” in their lab reports, rather than “I massed 10mg of magnesium.” This may have been a contributing factor in my changing majors from chemistry to environment, where I was occasionally allowed to write as though I existed.

During the aforementioned environment undergrad, I attended a somewhat rebellious lecture by Linda Cooper. Linda Cooper is a lecturer at McGill who studies science communication and teaches classes on science writing. She argued that using “direct, active-voiced sentences” makes sentences stronger and easier to read, and that we should all stop blathering on endlessly in the passive voice and instead, choose to use the active when appropriate. It’s easy to see that she’s right when you compare passive-voiced to active-voiced sentences:

Original: If MMS is being run with DB Profiling enabled, further permissions are required.
Revised: If MMS is running with DB Profiling enabled, the user requires additional permissions.

While both sentences point to the same concepts: that running MMS with DB profiling means you’re going to have to do something with permissions, the first sentence is far more vague. What sort of ‘further permissions’ are we talking about? Permissions for MMS? Permissions for you-the-user? Some sort of network permissions? Who knows! The second sentence get to the point: the user requires additional permissions. In either case, the next paragraphs describe what those permissions are, but the revised sentence guides the reader more quickly to the correct answer.

There’s certainly times where passive sentences are appropriate: for instance, I haven’t managed to rewrite “MongoDB is designed specifically with commodity hardware in mind…” as an active-voiced sentence, and I doubt I will. Expunging all passives from the record isn’t the goal here: the goal is to write as clearly as possible, and to be more aware the choices you make when writing.

Resources

As mentioned above, Matt Might’s scripts have been adapted for a number of text editors. I particularly like the name of the emacs / vim mode. If you’re doing any sort of writing – technical or not – I highly recommend installing one of these extensions and trying it out. It makes a huge difference.

Diagramming with LucidChart

It might be easy to believe that the diagramming world is owned by OmniGraffle and Visio, but there is a whole world beyond those two. While they are both excellent applications, they’re also both hideously expensive, so if your employer isn’t purchasing a copy for you, and you are — as I am — but a lowly graduate student, it can be quite attractive to consider other options. In this vein, I am ecstatic :: to report back that I have nearly nothing but good things to say cheap nba jerseys about LucidChart! LucidChart is an online diagramming / modelling application: with a wide range of built-in templates, an easy-to-use interface (something Visio could public learn from, really), and the ability to import from / export to other formats (including Visio), it’s the whole deal.

Thus far, I’ve created BPMN (Business Process Modelling Notation) diagrams and data flow diagrams, as well as basic flowcharts, and been quite happy with the outcomes. All of wholesale NBA jerseys the shapes I needed were already there, and it’s super easy to connect boxes, change line and arrowhead types, and so on. They even use a reasonably attractive font (Liberation Sans, for the record). The reason why I’m somewhat in love with LucidChart, however, is from drawing entity-relation diagrams. ERDs are super useful to help visualise one’s database, and visualising the linkages between tables is market? extremely Inmobiliaria helpful when writing complex or nested queries. wi?cej LucidChart’s ERD template allows you to show various cheap NBA jerseys levels of detail, from simply listing attributes, to fully identifying keys and attribute types in the wholesale MLB jerseys diagram. You Engberg can easily label the links between the tables, both using crow’s foot notation on the end points, or by text annotation. Finally, woocommerce sharing documents is super easy: much like sharing a GoogleDoc, you simply send an email invite set invited users’ permissions so that multiple people can work on the same document. Most delightfully, LucidChart also gives out free unlimited accounts to students! All I had to do was send off a quick email and voilà! Does it get any better?

Having touted the awesomeness, I do have two caveats: since LucidChart is an online application, you do have to be connected to the internet to work on it, which can be frustrating if you have crappy wifi / no Smartphone to tether off of. Working in a hotel wholesale NBA jerseys where they only had wired internets on Exchange a laptop wholesale NFL jerseys that has no ethernet port, this was mildly annoying. The other thing to cheap NBA jerseys note is that LucidChart isn’t as powerful as the above-mentioned wholesale NFL jerseys stand-alone applications are. Visio is a fantastic application for creating diagrams and models, and is extremely powerful. For people who use all of its intricacies, this probably da isn’t going to cut it (but cheap nba jerseys then, they’re probably not looking for other options). For the rest of us who need to create ERDs or DFDs or flowcharts more simply, though, I heartily recommend LucidChart (and indeed, it has been gradually spreading to my group-mates).