Documentation Generation

Organisation:Copyright (C) 2022-2022 Olivier Boudeville
Contact:about (dash) howtos (at) esperide (dot) com
Creation date:Wednesday, January 12, 2022
Lastly updated:Thursday, December 1, 2022


We want to be able to generate, from a single source, at least two documentation formats:

The document source shall be expressed in a simple, non-limiting, high-level syntax; in practice a rather standard, lightweight markup language.

All standard documentation elements shall be available (ex: title, tables, images, links, references, tables of content, etc.) and be customisable.

The resulting documents shall be quickly and easily generated, with proper error report, and be beautiful and user-friendly (ex: with well-configured LaTeX, with appropriate CSS, icons and features like banners, with proper rendering of equations).

Per-format overriding shall be possible (ex: to define different image sizes depending on web output or PDF one).

The whole documentation process shall be powered only by free software solutions, easily automated (ex: with Make) and suitable for version control (ex: with Git).


These hints apply more generically than only with a RST toolchain.

Validating / Checking HTML Content

In addition to the verification of the messages reported when the document is built, some tools allow to perform some checks on a generated document.

Notably an online HTML page, or set of pages, can be verified by third-party tools like this one, to detect dead links.

Fixing Permissions in Third-Party Content to Integrate in a Web Root

The objective is to ensure that a filesystem tree can be transferred as a whole without permission errors to a given server more than once, whereas the destination user and group (typically specialised and restricted on a server) differ from the source ones.

It is indeed often necessary to fix permissions in a third-party tree before it is transferred to a server (e.g. MathJax being copied through scp in a web root); otherwise the next transfers will stumble on the initial, inadequate group rights, typically preventing them to be overwritten by a process belonging to a different user yet being in the same group, like 700 instead of 770 - resulting in Permission denied errors.

For that we recommend executing our script in the source root prior to transfer it to a webroot of choice. This typically applies to MathJax (see the Rendering Mathematical Elements section), which therefore should not be installed in the system tree thanks to a package manager (as our script will alter its permissions) but in the user account (e.g. as ~/Software/mathjax).

So typically this script shall be symlinked in each third-party root of interest, and be executed there at each update thereof.

Pointing to a Specific Moment in a Linked Video

It is as simple as designating, in an HTML link, the targeted second by suffixing the URL video filename with #t=DURATION_IN_SECONDS, like in some-video.mp4#t=1473 [1].

[1]With mplayer, use the o hotkey to display elapsed durations.

Conversion between Markup Formats

Pandoc is the tool of choice for such operations, as it often yields good results.

For example, in order to convert a page written in Mediawiki syntax, whose source content has been pasted in a old-content-in-mediawiki.txt file, into one that be specified in a GitLab wiki (hence in GFM markup, for GitLab Flavored Markdown) from a converted content, to be written in a converted-content.gfm file, one may use:

$ pandoc old-content-in-mediawiki.txt --from=mediawiki --to=gfm --standalone -o converted-content.gfm

# Or, for older versions of pandoc not supporting a gfm writer:
$ pandoc old-content-in-mediawiki.txt --from=mediawiki --to=markdown_github --standalone -o converted-content.gfm

Then the content in converted-content.gfm file can be pasted in the target GitLab wiki page.

Another example is the conversion of a GitLab wiki page into a RST document (ex: then for a PDF generation):

$ pandoc my-gitlab-wiki-extract.gfm --from=gfm --to=rst --standalone -o my-converted-content.rst

# Or, for older versions of pandoc not supporting a gfm reader:
$ pandoc my-gitlab-wiki-extract.gfm --from=markdown_github --to=rst --standalone -o my-converted-content.rst

Finally, if really needing to generate a Word document, an example may be:

$ pandoc my-document.rst --from=rst --to=docx -o my-converted-document.docx

The lists of the input and output formats supported by Pandoc and of their corresponding command-line options is specified here.

These options are also returned by: pandoc --list-input-formats and pandoc --list-output-formats (or, for older versions of pandoc, thanks to pandoc --help).

An input file may not be encoded in UTF-8, which can result in:

pandoc: Cannot decode byte '\xe9': Data.Text.Internal.Encoding.Fusion.streamUtf8: Invalid UTF-8 stream

In this case, the actual encoding shall be determined, for example with:

$ file input.html
input.html: HTML document, ISO-8859 text

Then the encoding may be changed before calling pandoc, for example like:

$ iconv -f ISO-8859-1 -t utf-8 input.html | pandoc --from=html --to=markdown_github --standalone -o output.gfm

Transformation of PDF files

For that, one may use the pdftk tool, possibly with the convert one, which comes from ImageMagick (typically available thanks to a imagemagick package):

  • to split all pages of a PDF in as many individual files (named pg_0001.pdf, pg_0002.pdf, etc.): pdftk document.pdf burst
  • to convert a PDF file (typically a single page) into a PNG one (typically in order to edit the PNG with The Gimp afterwards): convert pg_000x.pdf pg_000x.png
  • to convert (possibly back) a PNG file to a PDF one: convert pg_000x-modified.png pg_000x-modified.pdf
  • to concatenate PDFs: pdftk 1.pdf 2.pdf 3.pdf cat output 123.pdf

Image Transformations

One may rely on:

  • GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program; corresponding, on Arch, to the gimp package)
  • or on command-line ImageMagick (on Arch, the imagemagick package, which provides notably the convert and display executables)

To invert/negate an image (swap colors with their complementary ones, while preserving alpha coordinates):

$ convert source.png -channel RGB -negate target.png

See also the Myriad's automatic rules, which generate X-negated.png from X.png thanks to: make X-negated.png.

UML Diagrams

If SysML can also be of interest, we focus here on UML2 class diagrams (one of the 14 types of diagrams provided by UML2).

Quick UML Cheat Sheet


A multiplicity is a definition of cardinality (i.e. number of elements) of some collection of elements.

It can be set for attributes, operations, and associations in a class diagram, and for associations in a use case diagram. The multiplicity is an indication of how many objects may participate in the given relationship.

It is defined as an inclusive interval based on non-negative integers, with * denoting an unlimited upper bound (not, for example, n).

Most common multiplies are:

  • no instance or one instance: 0..1
  • any number of instances, including zero: * (shorthand for 0..*)
  • exactly k instances: k (so, if k=5, 5)
  • at least M instances: M..* (2..*)
  • at least M instances, but no more than N (hence bounds included): M..N (e.g. 3..5)

For associations, the default multiplicity is automatically is 0..1, while new attributes and operations have a default multiplicity of 1.


An association is a relation between two classes (binary association) or more (N-ary association) that describes structural relationships between their instances.

For example a polygon may be defined from at least 3 vertices that it would reference, whereas a point may take part to any number of polygones (including none):

(see the sources of this diagram)

The multiplicity of an endpoint denotes the number of instances of the corresponding class that may take part to this association. For example, at least 3 points are needed to form a polygon, whereas any number of polygons can include a given point.

In UML the direction of the association is easily ambiguous (here we have to rely on external knwoledge to determine whether a polygon is composed of points, of if a point is composed of polygons). Adding a chevron (like > or <, e.g. "references >" ; ideally this should be a small solid triangle) to the text is not a good solution either, as the layout may place the respective endpoints in any relative position. Adding an arrow to the end of the line segment cannot be done either, as it would denote the navigability of the association instead.


An aggregation is a specific association that denotes that an instance of a class (ex: Library) is to loosely contain instances of another class (ex: Book), in the sense that the lifecycle of the contained classes is not strongly dependent on the one of the container (ex: books will still exist even if the library is dismantled).

Here a library may contain any number of books (possibly none), and a given book belongs to at most one library.

(see the sources of this diagram)


A composition is a specific association that denotes that an instance of a class (ex: HumanBeing) is to own instances of another class (ex: Leg), in the sense that the lifecycle of the contained classes fully depends on the one of the container (here, if a human being dies, his/her legs will not exist anymore either).

Here a human being has exactly 2 legs, and any given leg belongs to exactly one human being (therefore this model does not account for one-legged persons).

(see the sources of this diagram)


An inheritance relationship is a specific association that denotes that a class (ex: HumanBeing) is a specific case of a more general one (ex: Animal), and thus that an instance of the first one is also an instance of the second one ("is-a" relationship).

Here a human being is a specific animal.

(see the sources of this diagram)


In a design phase, one may prefer lightweight tools like Graphviz, PlantUML or even Dia.

As long as the architecture of a framework is not stabilised, having one's tool determine by itself the layout of the rendering (rather than having to place manually one's graphical components) is surely preferable.

For that we use Graphviz, with our own build conventions.

For example, supposing this diagram example, i.e. a source file named uml_class_diagram_example.graph:

$ make uml_class_diagram_example.png
# or, to force a regeneration and a displaying of the result:
$ make clean uml_class_diagram_example.png VIEW_GRAPH=true

This example results in the following diagram:

(see the sources of this diagram)

Using Additional Fonts

One may use websites like Dafont in order to select, based on appearance and licence, a given TTF font.

At least on Arch, it is sufficient to copy the corresponding downloaded TTF file (as root) in /usr/share/fonts/ so that tools like The Gimp support it right afterwards (ex: no need to run fc-cache beforehand).