Documenting Perl 6

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A wise man once said that programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute. But aside from being read, your code is also going to be used by people, who don’t really want to dive into it to understand what it does. That’s where the documentation comes in.

In Perl 5 we had POD, which stands for Plain Old Documentation. In Perl 6 we have Pod, which is not really an abbreviation of anything. As its specification says, “Perl 6’s Pod is much more uniform, somewhat more compact, and considerably more expressive”. It has changed slightly compared to Perl 5 Pod, but most of the stuff remains the same, or at least very similar.

There are three main types of Pod blocks in Perl 6. Delimited blocks are probably the most obvious and simple ones:

    =begin pod
    <whatever Pod content we want>
    =end pod

Paragraph blocks are a bit more magical. They begin with =for, and end on the nearest blank line (as the name, Paragraph, suggest):

    my $piece = 'of perl 6 code'
    =for comment
    Here we put whatever we want.
    The compiler will not notice anyway.
    our $perl6 = 'code continues';

Abbreviated blocks are similar to Paragraph blocks. The leading = is followed immediately by a Pod block identifier and the content. Sounds familiar?

    =head1 Shoulders, Knees and Toes

That’s right, =head is nothing magical in Perl 6 Pod. That means you can write it also as a paragraph block

    =for head1
    Longer header
    than we usually write.

Or a full-blown delimited block

    =begin head1
    This header is longer than it should be
    =end head1

Any block can be written as a delimited block, paragraph block, or abbreviated block. No magic. Not all blocks are created equal, of course. =head will be treated differently than plain =pod. By whom? By the Pod renderer, of course, but also by the Perl 6 compiler itself. In Perl 6, Pod is not a second-class citizen, ignored during the program compilation. Pod in Perl 6 is a part of the code; along with parsing and constructing AST of the code to be executed, the compiler also parses and builds AST of all Pod blocks. They are then kept in the special $=pod variable, and can be inspected by the runtime:

    =begin pod
    Some pod content
    =end pod
    say $=pod[0].contents[0].contents;

The say line may look a little complicated. Content, of a content, of a what? What really happens, is that ‘Some pod content’ is parsed as an ordinary paragraph, and kept in the Pod::Block::Para object. The delimited block started with =begin pod becomes a Pod::Block::Named, and it can contain any number of child blocks. It’s also a first block in our example code, so it ends up in $=pod[0].

You now probably think “geez, how ugly is that. Who’s going to use it in this form”. Don’t worry. Frankly, I don’t expect anyone to use the AST directly. That’s what Pod renderers are useful for. Take for example Pod::To::Text:

    =begin pod
    =head1 A Heading!
    A paragraph! With many lines!
        An implicit code block!
        my $a = 5;
    =item A list!
    =item Of various things!
    =end pod
    DOC INIT {
        use Pod::To::Text;
        pod2text($=pod);
    }

Ran as it is, the code doesn’t produce any output. Why is it so? The DOC INIT block looks a little special. It gets run with every other INIT block, but also only when the --doc flag is passed to the compiler. Let’s take a look:

    $ perl6 --doc foo.pl
    A Heading!
    
    A paragraph! With many lines!
    
        An implicit code block!
        my $a = 5;
    
     * A list!
    
     * Of various things!

Actually, when no DOC INIT block exists in the code, the compiler generates a default DOC INIT, identical to the one in the example above. So you could really omit it, leaving only the Pod in the file, and perl6 --doc will produce exactly the same result.

But wait, there’s more!

I wrote about 3 types of Pod blocks, but there’s another one I didn’t talk about before. They are Declarator blocks, and they single purpose is to document the actual Perl 6 objects. Take a look.

    #| it's a sheep! really!
    class Sheep {
        
        #| produces a funny sound
        method bark {
            say "Actually, I don't think sheeps bark"
        }
    }

Every declarator block gets attached to the object which comes after it. It’s available in the .WHY attribute, so we can use it like this:

    say Sheep.WHY.contents;                      # it's a sheep! really!
    say Sheep.^find_method('bark').WHY.contents; # produces a funny sound

In this case we also don’t need to care about doing a ^find_method and all this for every piece of documentation we want to read. The mighty Pod::To::Text takes care about it too. If we run the Sheep code with --doc flag, we get the following:

    class Sheep: it's a sheep! really!
    method bark: produces a funny sound

The specification says it’s possible to document all the class attributes and all the arguments that methods or subroutines take. Unfortunately no Perl 6 implementation (that I know of) implements those yet. (UPDATE: Rakudo Perl 6 now implements this!)

There are dozens of Pod features that are not covered by this post, for example the formatting codes (<, > and so), or tables. If you’re interested take a look at Synopsis 26 (http://perlcabal.org/syn/S26.html). It’s actually written in Pod 6, and rendered by Pod::To::HTML. Not all features it describes are implemented yet, but most of them are (see the test suite linked below), and some modules are actually documented with it (Term::ANSIColor for example).

Some useful links:

Synopsis 26
Pod::To::Text source code
Term::ANSIColor documentation

Pod test suite (shows what Pod in Rakudo is capable of)

Happy documenting!

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