September 23, 2003

Manual Stimulation

Filed under: Archives — mhoye @ 12:00 pm

If you’re not a computer geek, at this point you should probably just
stop reading. Seriously.

Command-line information in Linux comes in two common formats –
“man”, short for “manual”, and “info”, short (one would think) for
“information”. Just out of curiosity, I decided to ask both of these
utilities what they though about themselves and each other, just to
find out what they’d say.

Then, I made a clever chart of the result.

/ Command: man Command: info
Arg: man Detailed, provides syntax, an overview, examples and some useful
see-also references.
A hacked-down copy of the output of “man man”, with line-wrapping
locked for an 80-column display and no highlighting. Classy.
Arg: info Terse, but good. Some syntax, some details, some examples. Unlike
many info pages, does not refer user to info anything.
Provides the info page for “infokey”, which my careful analysis
has revealed to be exactly nothing at all like “info”, and hence
completely useless.

It’s worth noting that there are two info entries in the manual database:
info(1) and info(5). Mercifully, man info pulls out info(1), because
info(5) is just info(1) with any trace of useful information leeched
out of it.

This comparison is not, of course, entirely fair – info doesn’t actually
mean “info”, you see, it means “texinfo”. “man texinfo” does give you a
truncated and somewhat snide helpfile, referring you to “info texinfo”.
Amusingly, here’s a bit from the returned result:

For a full description of the Texinfo language and associated tools,
please see the Texinfo manual (written in Texinfo itself). Most likely,
running this command from your shell:
     info texinfo
or this key sequence from inside Emacs:
     M-x info RET m texinfo RET
will get you there.

Whoa, the manual for Texinfo was, get this, written in Texinfo!
Wild! That would be, like, writing a Word reference in Word!
You’ve just blown my mind, dude. Will it most likely work?

For those of you who have sensibly decided not to play along at home,
actually navigating around an info page is apparently not
included in the “info texinfo” pages, though if I wanted to make
an info page, I’d be right on my way. It’s nice, though, that they do
include a pithy little quote about how good it is to have even inadequate
documentation at the bottom, just in case you weren’t furious enough
already. The fact that “man info” is vastly more useful than “info
texinfo”, ironic though it might be, was painfully predictable.

Just for completeness sake, “texinfo texinfo” does nothing.

This is all, of course, in addition to the random pastiche of HOWTOs,
html documents and gzipped postscript things that make up the rest
of the /usr/share/doc/ heirarchy. I suspect that the reasons that the
Linux world, can’t settle on a single reference tool in the midst of
all of this are twofold:

  1. Ideology is PCP.
  2. Emacs is crack cocaine cut with ideology.

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