Idiocy of Computer Language Docs: Unix, Python, Perl, Haskell

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

Learn Technical Writing from Unix Man in 10 Days

Quote from man apt-get:

    remove is identical to install except that packages are removed
    instead of installed.


    kicking is identical to kissing except that receiver is kicked
    instead of kissed.

Worked with Mathematica for a whole day yesterday, after about 10 years hiatus. Very nice. Mathematica lang and doc, is quite unique. Most other langs drivel with jargons, pettiness, comp-sci pretentiousness, while their content is mathematically garbage. (unixism mumble jumple (perl, unix), or “proper”-engineering OOP fantasy (java), or impractical and ivory-tower adacemician idiocy as in Scheme and Haskell ( currying, tail recursion, closure, call-cc, lisp1 lisp2, and monad monad monad!)) (See: What are OOP's Jargons and ComplexitiesLanguage, Purity, Cult, and Deception.)

Mathematica, in its doc, is plain and simple. None of the jargon and pretention. Very easy to understand. Yet, some of its function's technical aspects are far more scholarly abstruse than any other lang (dealing with advanced math special functions that typically only a few thousand people in the world understand.).

A Gander into the Idiocies

Here's a gander into the doc drivel in common langs.


unix man page starts with this type of crap:

       gzip [ -acdfhlLnNrtvV19 ] [-S suffix] [ name ...  ]
       gunzip [ -acfhlLnNrtvV ] [-S suffix] [ name ...  ]
       zcat [ -fhLV ] [ name ...  ]

       zip  [-aABcdDeEfFghjklLmoqrRSTuvVwXyz!@$]  [--longoption  ...]   [-b path] [-n suf
       fixes] [-t date] [-tt date] [zipfile [file ...]]  [-xi list]

Here, the mindset of unix idiots, is that somehow this “synopsis” preamble is technically precise and superior. They are thinking that it captures the full range of syntax in the most concise way.

In practice, nobody reads it. It's actually not accurate as one'd thought. It is machine unreadable and human incomprehensible. Worse of all, the semantic of unix software's options are the worst rape to any possible science in computer science.


In Python, you see this kinda garbage collection:

python 2.7.11 doc if statement
Python 2.7.11 doc on “if” statement.
7.1. The if statement

The if statement is used for conditional execution:
if_stmt ::=  "if" expression ":" suite
             ( "elif" expression ":" suite )*
             ["else" ":" suite]

Here, the mindset of the Python idiots is similar to the unix tech geekers. They think that using the BNF notation makes their doc more clear and precise.

This incomprehensible BNF notation is the ONLY thing you get if you want to know the basic syntax of {if, for, while, lambda, …}.

For much more, see: Python Documentation Problems.


Now, let's look at how Perl cultivates its cult:

A Perl program consists of a sequence of declarations and statements which run from the top to the bottom. Loops, subroutines and other control structures allow you to jump around within the code.

Perl is a free-form language, you can format and indent it however you like. Whitespace mostly serves to separate tokens, unlike languages like Python where it is an important part of the syntax.

Many of Perl's syntactic elements are optional. Rather than requiring you to put parentheses around every function call and declare every variable, you can often leave such explicit elements off and Perl will figure out what you meant. This is known as Do What I Mean, abbreviated DWIM. It allows programmers to be lazy and to code in a style with which they are comfortable.

Perl borrows syntax and concepts from many languages: awk, sed, C, Bourne Shell, Smalltalk, Lisp and even English. Other languages have borrowed syntax from Perl, particularly its regular expression extensions. So if you have programmed in another language you will see familiar pieces in Perl. They often work the same, but see perltrap for information about how they differ.


The first paragraph tells carpenters that a hammer is made of a handle and a head, and you use it by swinging and banging.

The second paragraph wax Python in, gently reminding you the context of pride.

The third paragraph, you are initialized to their lingo “DWIM”….

Juvenile humor is a characteristic of Perl's docs. It's a standalone cult. They have “perl republic”, “state of the onion”, “apocalypse”, “perl monger”, “perl golf”, etc. 〔➤see Larry Wall and Cults〕 Another trait is irrelevant rambling. For example, in the above you see: “Perl borrows syntax and concepts from many languages: awk, sed, C, Bourne Shell, Smalltalk, Lisp and even English.”.

For a example of perl doc's maturity and knowledge of math, see:

However, overall, Perl doc is more practically usable than Python's.


Here's a example of ivory-tower idiocy, from Haskellers:

Haskell uses a traditional Hindley-Milner polymorphic type system to provide a static type semantics [4, 6], but the type system has been extended with type classes (or just classes) that provide a structured way to introduce overloaded functions.

A class declaration (Section 4.3.1) introduces a new type class and the overloaded operations that must be supported by any type that is an instance of that class. An instance declaration (Section 4.3.2) declares that a type is an instance of a class and includes the definitions of the overloaded operations—called class methods—instantiated on the named type.

For example, suppose we wish to overload the operations (+) and negate on types Int and Float. We introduce a new type class called Num:

  class Num a  where          -- simplified class declaration for Num
    (+)    :: a -> a -> a     -- (Num is defined in the Prelude)
    negate :: a -> a

This declaration may be read “a type a is an instance of the class Num if there are class methods (+) and negate, of the given types, defined on it.”


Note the words “Hindley-Milner”, “polymorphic”, “static type semantics”, “overloaded operations”.

The reason they wrote their doc like that is because they are academicians. You might think that their writing is really scholarly, mathematically meaningful, full of rigor, and the daunting appearance must be due to the advanced math ideas by necessity. The irony is that the writing is actually most lousy tech writing. Most of their use of computer science jargons are unnecessary to the point of being irrelevant. And, the writing quality is nothing close to lucid.

For some exposition of esoterism, see: World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics❓.