techwriting on 7th continent

Subject: techwriting on 7th continent
Date: Wed, 11 Dec 1996 14:56:00 NZD

hello all!

a few folks have asked me to post what it's like doing tech
writing/editing in antarctica. we have tech writers come down here for
the summer seasons and occassionally for the long winter-over season.

yup-there are writers on the largest ice cube in the world-although
today we are melting some on the coast at 40F. it's a scorcher today with
a lunch break at the beach. no beach really-just millions of pointy,
black igneous rocks near the edge of the ice shelf that heat up in the
sun and are toasty to lay on while looking at seals. when the 90-inch
temporary ice sheet breaks up we'll see the ocean again.

so, as in all jobs, there are some perks: travel, -55F to 40F temps
(that's without windchill), adventure, bad food in the galley, skiing on
the polar ice cap, up to 20 pounds of outer gear to wear when it's cold
out, and the low humidity (drier than the sahara), which wreaks havoc on
computer equipment and everyone has big bad hair days. but-it's another
sunny day (next sunset is 21 feb 1997) in mactown.

why we are here:
the united states antarctic research program (funded by the office of
polar programs in the national science foundation) has three research
stations on the continent of antarctica and two ice breaker/capable
vessels that they lease to do research around the continent. we are
slaves to science-by choice and loving it.

the stations are
mcmurdo (1,000 people)- on the ross ice shelf (where i am based). this is
opposite new zealand.
south pole (173 folk) -right smack in the middle of the polar ice cap
(which was great to visit for a few weeks-i'd spend a whole season there)
palmer (45 folk)-on the tip of antarctica right opposite south america.

since most everything is north from here i have to think in terms of
where we are in relation to continents.

so-for tech writing we have a big effort here just to support the
research. as with all bizarre job locations we have a big turnover in the
approximately 2,000 folks we deploy here every year so there is a grand
need for standard operating procedures and operations and maintenance
manuals and user guides. trying to keep track of vendor documentation is
impossible, given all the customized equipment and all. (from bulldozers
and snowmelters to satellite equipment).

but-we try. there are four writer positions in the information systems
department (i'm one of those), one in science support, one in
engineering, one in operations, and i think that's it. most of us come
down here during the summer season (this is my first season), which runs
anywhere from the end of august to mid-march.

technical junk
we are converting from dos to windows (can you believe dos still lives
as a daily work environment) and now using ms word as a standard instead
of word imperfect in dos. i am a contractor here and had a hard time
believing they didn't use frame and web pages for stuff (forget online
help), so it was a bit of a shock. it was a shock to believe that i had
to convince folks that we needed to be up on technology and that a
straight dos house wasn't going to cut it. Let me illuminate: the concept
of styles in a doc kinda blew most folks away except for a few of the
writers and some other folk. the quality of some of the documentation was
superb, but alot is difficult to get through, outdated, and verbose.

so anyways-the overall goal is to go from a dos to windows environment
and be ready to save our stuff as web pages (in case we need to). i think
we will (as trends are so grossly apparent) so i am working out a system
for using ms word and then creating the web pages with internet assistant
(simply by mapping styles) and then server side includes (files) to
incorporate into the pages so that it's easier to stick in the html file
info instead of putting it in by hand into the hundreds of pages we will

so-daily tasks include writing and rewriting and restructuring standard
operating procedures (there are about 500 hundred of those just for our
info sys department) and training other writers and whoever wants to
learn word and any of the software we use. it's a mixed bag that includes
introducing technology (old to you folks-like using visio for technical
drawings and adobe acrobat for distributing information) and explaining
the trends in moving to web-based information and all. it's fun-but at
times there is great resistance to change (and i worry about those
folks-what transferrable job skills will they have if this company
doesn't rebid successfully). so-i also end up answering software
questions and it seems that topics like printing postscript just twists
folks into knots here.

i'd have to say the greatest/most exciting part of the job was going to
south pole. it's a beautiful, magical place- the gently curving polar ice
cap. the beauty is simple-the wind designs in the snow, but the work is
hard due to the environment and long hours. the geographical south pole
(right opposite where we worked in a huge geodesic dome) is at 9,301 feet
and the physiological altitude, given that it is 0.7 atmospheres, is
about 10,500 feet. makes the long days tiring, but still worth it. the
work i did there was setting up folks with templates and software to
update the standard operating procedures for the communications (hf, vhf,
satellite, and ham radio), networking, and computer systems; and mostly
getting the changes for the communications documentation. i take the
originals in word perfect, get the updates from the comms operators and
technicians, put them in, convert the whole glop to ms word, take lots of
digital photos of equipment, edit the glop again, and then we go through
a technical review.

oops-almost forgot-also spending a lot of time on station management
manuals. these are grand references for station managers and nsf
representatives to understand all the tasks and who is responsible for
them on station. these list all the tasks, descriptions, responsible
bodies, and supporting documentation for each task on station. for south
pole-that was hundreds of tasks. i only wrote the information systems
section (with hundreds of supporting docs inhouse to reference) and put
together the manual in word (yuck) for the company (six other divisions
too). so it's busy here. also training someone else to do this.

so-enough spewing. if this is off topic-i'm sorry-i just had numerous
requests to post more info so ithought you might want to hear where you
can work. it's very much an adventure in technical writing to be here.

take care,
stay cool!

laura praderio
tech writer/editor
mcmurdo station, antarctica
praderla -dot- mcmurdo -at- mcmurdo -dot- gov

p.s. i use lowercase in informal writing to save the hands and wrists the
extra effort.

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