Sat Dec 12, 2015

Well, since I have a five-hour layover here in Amsterdam, I may as well rustle together some thoughts on my trip to Norway.

The only reason for my visit was for work, so let me start with my time at Kongsberg Maritime. After an unsuccessful attempt at using DITA at VTech, I was a little skeptical about plunging into structured authoring, although I was willing to learn the tools of course.

But Ragnar, the senior information developer over there, put me through a DITA boot camp where he promised I would eat, sleep, and dream of XML and DITA. And I did. So, did I emerge a DITA disciple, ready to spread the word at home?

Well, yes and no. On the negative side, DITA can feel a bit restrictive with its strict, rule-based architecture. And it was a bit discouraging to learn that only 15 companies in the world use a combination of Arbortext on the front-end and SDL Livecontent on the back-end for their documentation.

However, on the positive side, the true power of DITA only emerges when you’re working with a geographically diverse group of writers. Actually, I would go so far as to say that solo writers would do well to stay far, far away from DITA.

There are about 30 writers within the company that all share the same database. The immediate benefits to this are obvious. Although nobody shares the exact same product, they’re similar enough that you can most likely re-use content that somebody else has written.

We all share the same manual types, chapter headings, and boilerplate text. Even sentences are written to be as “round” as possible so that they are generic enough to be re-used everywhere. Variables and conditional text add product-specific contextualization. The database is organized to facilitate discovery and contributions to library topics is encouraged.

The supports in place are varied. A DITA steering committee of about five people at HQ oversees the XML implementation and manages requests from the writers. Each member specializes in one area, such as template improvements, or metadata tags and so on.

There are also regional groups - I am now a member of the Horten Doc and DITA crew - aka the Conref champions! Even though there’s only one of me in Vancouver, it’s great to have the resource of other writers. After all, nobody understands a writer more than another writer.

Even though I was working most of the time, I did have a free weekend to explore Norway a little. On the Saturday, Ragnar was kind enough to take me into Oslo for the day. We visited the Viking Ship museum, the Norwegian folk museum, Akershus Fortress, and the Resistance museum. I especially enjoyed that last one - hearing the stories of Norway’s resistance movement during the Nazi occupation was both fascinating and unbelievable.

On the Sunday, I checked out Borre national park where several Viking burial mounds continue to skulk silently beside the desolate coast. It was here where they excavated the famous Viking ships. A haunting and beautiful place.

Some general observations about Norway and Norwegian culture (Buzzfeed headline: 10 facts about Norway you’ll never believe!):

  1. Norwegians eat pizza with a fork and knife. They also don’t use any condiments.
  2. They prefer diesel over gasoline.
  3. Nobody thinks twice about drinking coffee in an outdoor patio. In the winter. With no heaters.
  4. It is cheaper to buy groceries in Sweden, but it is somewhat frowned upon. Also, Swedish cookies are so good.
  5. Norwegians will tell you they only speak a “little” English, then speak it fluently. But there seems to be a lot of variety in their accents.
  6. Many traditional foods involve putrified fish - unsurprisingly most Norwegians don’t like it that much. I did, however, have a traditional Christmas dish called Pinnekjøtt, a really good lamb dish that all Norwegians enjoy.
  7. Norwegians start work really early. And they eat lunch at 11AM.
  8. The streets are empty during the day - presumably because everybody either works or goes to school. Little kids all go to daycare because it is free. So no stay-at-home parents.
  9. Everybody has bitter stories about how some people collect their welfare checks to buy cars and take vacations while hard-working Norwegians support their lazy asses.
  10. I guess I should mention that Norway is horribly expensive, but it is a socialist country after all, so there is a good reason for Norway’s reputation as a pricey destination. Still, when visitors like me end up paying $15 for a beer and get taxed 25% on top of that, this reputation is hard to refute.

To me, Norway felt like the more remote parts of Canada where good working-class people try to carve out their lives in the barren landscape. It is almost nothing like Vancouver, which seems ridiculously ostentatious in comparison. And that was refreshing to me. There’s a fantastic Beach House song called, well, “Norway”. Listen to it. You may dream of a country far away, shrouded in mist, carved up by fjords, air crisp with the tang of the sea. Yet there are sombre undertones - a mourning, an aching, a sadness that is beautiful in itself.

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