Despite seven decades of programming experience documenting software remains a challenge. There are many reasons for this sorry state of affairs with the most important being that programmers simply do not agree on the need for documentation. As pathetic as this sounds it’s not without merit. It all depends on what you call “documentation.”
Writing technical documents for management, marketing or users usually results in excruciating rounds of Dilbertian critiques. Everyone understands your code better than you do. If you provide too much detail, you get complaints. If you use unfamiliar words, you get complaints. If you point out limitations, assumptions or caveats, you get complaints. If you assume basic 8th grade reading levels, you get complaints. If you use nonstandard fonts or unauthorized style templates, you get complaints. No wonder many programmers hate “documentation” and blow off the entire problem by making ludicrous claims about “self documenting code.” The self documenting cabal may have fooled management but they’re not fooling the rest of us. The need for illuminating program documentation is as pressing today as it was for ENIAC coders in the 1940’s and, when in it comes to illuminating documentation, the best overall approach was pioneered by Donald Knuth over twenty-five years ago and goes by the moniker literate programming.
Providing basic literate programming support in JOD has been on my to-do list for ages. I’ve held off until recently because I have never been happy with my mark up options. JOD directly supports simple J scriptdoc compatible leading comment block formatting. For example many of my J verbs start with a comment block like:
Even if you can’t spell J I bet you have a good idea about what this “program” does and, if you doubt my claims, I’ve left you with some examples to try the next time you find yourself in J. Stupid comments may be for losers but telling comments, especially example laden ones, really help! And, if you really find comments distracting, JOD has a deal for you!
compj purges pesky comments and reduces tedious long identifiers like mask to pure compact J. Getting rid of comments is trivial, putting them back in: not so much! JOD’s simple comment block formatting has been very effective but it’s hardly literate programming.
Literate programming requires more muscle. Knuth used his own TeX. TeX and LaTeX are certainly up to the job, as are many HTML and XML approaches. Unfortunately, all these mark up formats suffer from “distracting taggyness.” I can tolerate LaTeX but HTML and XML drives me nuts. Yes, there are perfectly fine editors for all these formats, but remember, we are inserting the resulting text into code that we will be looking at for the rest of our miserable coding lives! We need a mark up format that’s stable, readable, versatile, easy to use and, this is very important, easy to ignore! Markdown is such a format. It’s almost ideal for program comments and is capable of much more. I’ve started using markdown in JOD and it’s already paying its way.
jodliterate.ijs is a J utility script that can generate semi-literate LaTeX documents directly from JOD groups. It uses a version of pandoc with J syntax highlighting, see Pandoc based J Syntax Highlighting for details. I consider jodliterate semi-literate because it’s completely at the mercy of the programmer. If you don’t store coherent markdown text fragments in JOD all you get is a nice syntax highlighted listing. But, if you actually write about your group, jodliterate can produce essential documents. jodliterate.pdf is an example of this tool being used on itself. Self reference always makes an excellent test case. jodliterate will be included in the next JOD release. Until then you can download the J script from this directory. As always referenced files are available in the files sidebar. Enjoy!