How to use Python well?

Cameron Simpson cs at
Sat Feb 19 17:27:24 EST 2011

On 18Feb2011 22:28, Roy Smith <roy at> wrote:
| In article <878vxcbudn.fsf at>,
|  Ben Finney <ben+python at> wrote:
| > This collection of a great deal of documentation for the operating
| > system into a single ???manual??? is one reason why users like man pages so
| > much: we want to find anything installed on the system documented in
| > that one place.
| What made man pages such a great technology back in the 70's was exactly 
| what Ben is saying.  Everything was on-line and instantly available for 
| quick reference.  Not to mention that you could use man as just another 
| cog in the unix toolset and do things like grep all of /usr/man for a 
| term (or an error message which appeared and you didn't know what had 
| produced it).  These were astonishing advances in usability vs. having 
| printed manuals (which may or may not have been available to you).
| But, today we have such better tools available.  HTML, for example.  
| Whether it's a wiki or the generated output of sphinx/doxygen/etc, HTML 
| provides for a much richer presentation.  Which is more convenient: 
| having the signal(3) man page reference "sigaction(2)" textually, or 
| having it be a clickable link that can take me right there?  HTML also 
| gives you much greater formatting flexibility than what's still 
| basically 35-year old nroff.

But HTML is just presentation. There are _plenty_ of manual page
renderers that write HTML. (Example:
Complete with clickable links to other manual pages etc. That can all
be done automatically. And has _nothing_ to do with the source being in
nroff format. And the source needn't be in nroff format, either. I have
a bunch of man pages in POD format, which renders to an assortment of
formats including nroff output.

Your argument above is a fine argument for saying that HTML is a very
valuable presentation format, especially if well cross referenced.
But it is irrelevant to the usefulness of man pages.

| If, for whatever reason, you're still wed to plain text, even info gives 
| you much better capabilities than man.  At least you get basic stuff 
| like menus, document hierarchy, cross-linking, and browsing history.

Any yet I (and others, based on stuff I've seen) find info to be a
disaster. Why?

 - it forces the reader to use a non-standard pager to look
   at info, typically the utterly weird one that comes with the info
   command. The user using a terminal _should_ get to use their own pager
   because their fingers know how to drive it. Info, in its tiny pieces
   of text linked to other tiny pieces of text form, does not lend itself
   to this and the browser it does offer on a terminal is arcane.

   But see below (*).

 - the info pages end up as a scattering of tiny cross linked (if
   you're lucky) pieces with little information on one place/page.
   So you can't, for example, stand at the top of the doco page and
   search for a term.

Frankly, info is usually a step backward, speaking as a reader.

* I grew enraged at the prevalence of "GNU" unix tools with only info
  for doco, and no manual pages or manual pages that said "we don't put
  anything useful here, go read the info pages, the stuff here may not
  even be maintained" (I'm serious - see the bottom of a lot of the
  rather trite manual pages that ship with GNU this/that/the-other).

  So enraged that I wrote a couple of tools called info2pod and
  info2man that read postcompiled info output (the
  binary-mixed-with-text stuff info files ship as, post install)
  and join it all up again into a single flat text output that _can_ be
  paged and searched. And a modified "man" command that can include info
  dirs in the $MANPATH and thus present info as a man page. It is a
  little ugly, but at least it clubs info into usability.

    % man screen
    1:  /usr/share/man/man1/screen.1.bz2
    2:  /usr/share/info/
    3:  /usr/share/info/
    4:  /usr/share/info/
    5:  /usr/share/info/
    6:  /usr/share/info/
    7:  /usr/share/info/
    which entry? 

  Choosing (1) gets you "man screen" as usual, choosing (7) gets you the
  whole screen info stuff flattened and presented as a single page, where
  you can _search_ for what you want.


| I'm not saying that help text is the be-all and end-all for 
| documentation.  I'm just saying that if you're going to do more than 
| help text, it's hard to imagine putting any effort into producing man 
| pages.

Hard for you, maybe. As someone whole consistently finds well written
(terse yet complete) man pages _much_ more useful than many other supposed
documentation, I find it hard to imagine lack of man pages as other than
a failure.

There are exceptions of course. The python doco at is pretty
good. Wikipedia is often very good. But many wikis and other "rich and
easy to author" systems are awful. Incomplete and badly fragmented.
A lot of that can be laid to "documentation as an afterthought"
mentality, but I also feel that having a manual page as a _single_ item
contributes a lot to getting it all down.

Writing man pages in nroff is a bit tedious (though actually not all
that hard). Generating man pages from POD or some other similarly friendly
format is easy and desirable.

| Except possibly as the automated output of some multi-target 
| documentation system which produces them as a by-product of producing 
| other, richer, formats.


Cameron Simpson <cs at> DoD#743

It looked like documentation, so I threw it out.        - unknown luser

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