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.


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.

Classification, MongoDB Operators, and Kitchen Chairs

ROCM: Representation, Organisation, Classification, and Meaning-Making was a required class when I did my Master of Information. At the time, I complained incessently about how useless it was, how I was never going to use any of it in real life… Well, I was wrong.

A cat laying upon a Roomba

Despite being sat upon in the kitchen, this is probably not a kitchen chair. Credit: barbostick

Yesterday morning, I spent about four hours thinking about ROCM as I reorganized MongoDB’s operators page. One of our professors had a tendency to ask “What makes a kitchen chair a kitchen chair? Is any chair in a kitchen a kitchen chair? Is anything you sit on? If you sat on your dog while he’s in the kitchen, is he a kitchen chair? If you carry a chair that’s usually in your kitchen into the living room, is it still a ‘kitchen chair’?”, etc. The “kitchen chair” metaphor became something of a meme among my cohort, one which inevitably gets brought up whenever we’re together.  The crux of the kitchen chair debate is the question of what makes stuff fit into the categories it fits into. This is really the issue that anyone involved in classification or organization has to grapple with, hopefully with the knowledge that no solution is perfect, but some are better than others.

This week, the question was “What makes these MongoDB operators fit together?”. Some groupings were obvious: the ‘Logical’ operators (‘or’, ‘and’, ‘not’, and ‘nor’) go together nicely. Same with the operators related to geospatial queries, and those specific to arrays. My problem was what’s left: the operators we’ve now classified as ‘Comparison’, ‘Element’, or ‘Evaluation’.  In a sense, the ‘Element’ category is ridiculous: by their nature, queries involve elements… for that matter, all queries involve comparison so the ‘Comparison’ category is a bit fraught as well. But what’s an IA-minded technical writer to do? Either give up and put them all in one long, awful list (which is unideal), or categorize as best you can, knowing that it won’t be perfect (also unideal). Clearly, I went with the latter.

I think the categories we settled on will be meaningful for our readers, while also being factually accurate, which is really the goal. The fact that there’s some weirdness is unfortunate, but sadly unavoidable.

The inevitable failure of classification systems is a central theme of Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star’s Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Bowker and Star’s examples really highlight the power of classification: they discuss tuberculosis patients, and the ways that wishy washy diagnoses ruined peoples lives; talk about the incredibly inconsistent and damaging categorization of people under Apartheid in South Africa, and discuss nursing interventions classification and its impact on both nurses’ and patients’ lives. Sorting Things Out is one of those texts that I cited in (nearly) every paper I wrote during my MI, because it always applied. At its core, the book is about highlighting the ways that classification is – or becomes – invisible, and how people grow to accept categories as natural.  As people who care about the ways that we structure information, recognizing the theory behind classification and its implications can make us better at determining an ideal structure for our use case, and at recognizing the ways that it might fail.

Sorting Things Out is on sale at Amazon right now, for under $20. I paid about $50 when I bought my copy, so now’s a good time to bone up. It’s a great read that has instilled in me the need to regard existing classification systems with a critical eye rather than accepting them at face value, and to be far more thoughtful when creating my own.

Breaking the Silos

An exciting thing happened at MongoDB Inc. today. For about fifteen minutes mid-afternoon, a diverse smattering of MongoDBers converged on our cafeteria: sales people, HR, marketing, and engineers stood shoulder to shoulder, chatting and commiserating. I learned one of my coworkers used to work at an amusement park, heard some hilarious stories from the marketing department, and laughed along as we misheard an engineer talking about his DOM (document-object model).

Dippin Dots

Omnomnom. Rocky road Dippin’ Dots.

What prompted this convergence? Last week, the lovely person who sits across from me got it into her head that she wanted Dippin’ Dots, so she ordered 35 servings to be delivered (packed with dry ice) to the office. It apparently takes a week, and they arrived mid-afternoon. It seems that all it takes to bring a group of people together is the prospect of unexpected astronaut ice cream.

Companies sometimes put a great deal of effort into getting their employees to talk to each other: the all hands meeting phenomenon is probably a good example.  On a smaller scale, maybe all it takes to get more people talking to each other is a random treat in the middle of the afternoon, unexpected and unplanned. Bonus points if it’s food you’ve not eaten since you were a kid at an amusement park.