Mari Voipio

(completed 2012-12-08);

Mari Voipio uses ConTeXt and other TeX-world tools in her daily work and for her hobbies.


[Photo by Frans Goddijn.]

Dave Walden, interviewer:     Please tell me a bit about yourself independent of TeX.

Mari Voipio, interviewee:     I'm a native Finn living in the capital area of Finland. I studied Scandinavian languages (mainly Swedish) at Helsinki University, but I work as a Documentation manager at K-Patents Oy, a smallish Finnish high-tech company. In my leisure time I do medieval reenactment in the Society for Creative Anachronism; research, practice and teach old textile techniques; and dabble with papercrafts and beadwork. It is important to me to be able to balance my desk job with making actual things by hand. For the same reason my favourite form of exercise is dancing, expressing myself through movement; currently I attend adult ballet classes and Renaissance dance practice sessions.

DW:     How did you first come in contact with TeX?

MV:     I found out about LaTeX while studying at university, but I never needed it myself. My first real encounter with TeX came at work, when we decided to move our product manuals out of Word and into something more powerful and better suited for that type of document. A workmate had done his thesis in engineering in LaTeX and that's how TeX got flagged in the first place. It was at his advice that we ended up with ConTeXt and the move was done at the last minute, because a few weeks after migration started Word crashed on my biggest file and erased two days' worth of work. This was in summer 2002 and from that day onwards my manuals have been written and typeset in ConTeXt.

DW:     I wonder what you mean when you say you were looking for a “solution more powerful than Word”.

MV:     One factor was the images in the product manual. For the first, there are lots of them and Word would regularly choke on them. For the second, most of the graphics come in as vector PDFs and placing them neatly into a Word file was close to impossible while inserting an external figure into a TeX file is a piece of cake. PageMaker/InDesign was and is still used in the company for marketing materials, but it isn't really optimal for “scientific” writing. FrameMaker was another option, but both of these have a fairly hefty price tag. Besides, TeX will run in any OS and it'll run without complaining even on an older computer: compiling will just take a bit longer with smaller resources. I started from zero with TeX, but I was familiar with the concept of describing the structures and visuals as I had worked with HTML and my first word processing software wasn't Word but Wordstar that ran under MS-DOS. We decided to go for ConTeXt because I had to start from scratch anyway, and ConTeXt seemed to give greater ease, e.g., in changing layouts. If I've understood it correctly, LaTeX is great with predefined styles, e.g., for coursework, but in ConTeXt the end-user gets more direct access to the visuals.

DW:     You said you started from zero. How did you go about learning ConTeXt?

MV:     Nowadays I mostly use — the ConTeXt wiki — but it did not exist at that time; neither did the sample and test suites that are available now. So mostly I used the manuals: the beginner manual and the “big” manual. I work very much on a need-to-know base, so what I did was to start converting our user manuals into TeX and resolving problems one by one when they became obvious (or too big to be worked around).

The ConTeXt mailing list was and still is a friendly place, and I wouldn't have managed without all the helpful and understanding people on the list. Sometimes I would get a solution that I cut-and-pasted into a document and it did what I wanted to do — but it'd take me a year or two to understand why it worked. I've always been the only real ConTeXt user in the company, but usually there's another person who can work with it if needed. I try to leave good comments in my TeX files both for my own sake and for other users. My first backup person had done LaTeX so he could manage with online resources and my comments. I trained the second person myself. We sat next to each other and I would first show her the file structure and functionality and so on, and then give her tasks to do. The next training session we'd go through her list of questions and find answers and then proceed onwards to more things to do. This seems to have worked very well and she caught on very quickly.

DW:     I am interested in hearing more about your process for creating your user manuals. For example, who writes them, in how many languages; in what form do the text and illustrations come to you from the writers; who typesets the documents; are illustrations done within ConTeXt with MetaPost or with some other drawing program; how does language localization happen and to how many different languages; are the manuals on-line as HTML or do you produce PDFs; and is the work flow more or less automated.

MV:     The documentation manager collects snippets of manuals from a wide variety of sources — product development, marketing, technical department, even customer feedback — and compiles everything into a user manual that is typeset in ConTeXt. If the product is a variant of an existing product, that manual will be used as the base. If the product is new, a new manual is written, but always with the same type of layout.

Often the amount of writing needed is small, but a lot of time goes into organizing everything into a reasonable combination. More recently we've finally gone over to using product structure, which allows for sharing files among different manuals; and my aim is that, for example, the chapter on measurement principle will only exist in one single place in the file tree where it is then fetched and inserted into each manual (chapter 1 in some, attachment A in others).

What we produce is a PDF that is sent to a printer for printing and binding or stapling; some manuals are A4 softbacks, others are A5 booklets stapled at the spine. The same PDF files are freely downloadable at and electronic copies (CDs, USB sticks) are provided at customer's request. Future plans include interactive PDFs and very probably versions optimized for tablet computers and/or smartphones.

DW:     Another document readers might look at is your presentation at the 2010 ConTeXt users group meeting.

MV:     Although our office language is Finnish, almost all of the outward communication happens in English. Thus also the product manuals are written in English and that version of any manual is the master copy because that's the one where we have full control of the contents. However, we do a variety of other languages, e.g., German, Spanish, and Portuguese.

We have tried several different approaches on the translation process. One translator took the PDF, converted it into {.doc) (I think), then did the translation in MS Word. What I got back was a Word file, which means that I had to manually cut and paste all the text into my {.tex) files. It was a boring task and quite a bit of extra work because I also had to do indexing while replacing English text with the translated text.

The following time we were lucky enough to get a translator who was willing to tackle the .tex files. She didn't even use a syntax highlighting editor, just Notepad, but still she got everything right — I think she accidentally deleted one brace while editing, less than I tend to forget when editing the files. Consequently, instead of taking days, post-processing that translated manual only took hours, which was a real improvement.

Unfortunately that translator only did one language, other prospects were not willing to deal with the strange {.tex) files, and in general I had a hard time trying to get people to understand that our manuals just are not MS Word or InDesign files. The conversation with translators would go
“This PDF is nice, but can you send us the Word file so we can edit/translate it?”
“The manual does not exist as Word document.”
“Whatdoyamean, no Word doc????”

Only as late as in 2012 we found a largish translation agency that pre-processes the {.tex) files to something their translators can use with their tools, then post-processes the files back into {.tex) before sending the translated files back in {.tex) format. This works out quite reasonably, especially when the same source — master — is translated into multiple languages at the same time. Sometimes the files need a bit of fixing before they compile, but that is a minute amount of work compared with the cut-and-paste option....

Another thing that has made life a lot easier is that ConTeXt MkIV is so good with the UTF-8 character set. In the early days of my ConTeXting, fonts and encodings were a constant problem and sometimes seemed to go from bad to worse. But not so any more. Now what I see is what I get and if, for example, Russian is needed, our system can manage without tweaking. A third-party module called Simplefonts allows ConTeXt to access basic Windows fonts and thus we can now use the same fonts for manuals and material done in Word. From the TeX perspective this may not be an optimal solution, but it makes it easier to adjust our system to the rest of the company running Windows and MS Office. I know that I'll get hit if the newest version of Windows contains different font sets than Windows 7, but that just means changing a few lines in couple of environment files, so I'm not too worried.

DW:     At what point and how did Hans Hagen come into your field of view as you began to use ConTeXt?

MV:     I'm fairly certain that Hans answered several of my very first questions, but I didn't know anybody in the ConTeXt community until the first ConTeXt User Meeting in 2007. Until then I had viewed program developers as very abstract and distant figures whom I could never talk with, but that meeting showed me what the TeX community can be like. I missed the following meeting in 2008, but after that I've attended these meetings every year and I'm always looking forward to seeing everybody and getting little tips and sorting out any problems I may have.

DW:     Have you ever had problems with ConTeXt's rapid development, for instance, your manual production process that worked yesterday fails today?

MV:     Yes. :-) Especially early on, in MkII of ConTeXt, I had so much trouble with fonts and encodings and such that I followed the “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” principle and avoided updating as long as possible. However, this is a bad approach in the long run because when the installation really must be updated, it takes ages to weed out all obsolete stuff and make it work again. As I've gotten better at debugging and updating has gotten easier and slightly less hazardous, I now try to remember to update ConTeXt every few months whenever there aren't any deadlines right round the corner. At home I use the very latest version, but at work I use the latest stable version except if the very newest version contains something I absolutely need.

DW:     Do you use TeX outside of work?

MV:     I do use it quite a bit nowadays. And not just ConTeXt. My latest fad is using MetaPost to generate graphs for various types of instructions.

There's a book I should translate into Finnish and typeset, and that obviously will happen in ConTeXt. I also use ConTeXt to generate price lists and different types of price tags and packaging, as layers and imposition allow me to adjust text to almost any size of sticker that my printer will accept. In MetaPost I do, for example, simulations of tablet-woven braids and recreation of ancient geometric patterns for use in various crafts ( The crown of my work seems to be my “Helsinge Book of Braids and Laces” (

Photo by Uwe Ziegenhagen

It is a 17th century style fingerloop braiding sample book: typeset in TUG's Lucida OT Calligraphy and Blackletter, printed on parchment paper, and with little silk samples braided by me. I wanted something that is easily reproduced if it gets rained on at an outdoor fair or when I add new braiding “recipes” in the middle of the book to keep them neatly grouped by technique. It seems that the combination of old-fashioned text and bright coloured samples appeals to almost everybody. And then I also do get to answer quite a bit the question “how'd you make this?” Even “why'd you make this”, but that one is easier to answer: to show that instruction books are not a new invention, to have a memory aid for myself and also to show off, and because I really like the idea of combining a Renaissance idea with modern technology!

DW:     Thank you very much for participating in our interview series. I look forward to reading your article CrafTeX: Applying TeX, MetaPost, and friends in crafts in an upcoming issue of TUGboat.

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