Naur, the optimist, 1985 years after Jesus Christ

The year is 1985. Certain kinds of optimism abound in programming circles. From Peter Naur’s Programming as Theory Building:

"It may be noted that the need for revival of an entirely dead program probably will rarely arise, since it is hardly conceivable that the revival would be assigned to new programmers without at least some knowledge of the theory had by the original team."

The infamous “shit mouse” bug that I pushed to production in 2018 – which subsequently became an iconic team joke with its own concomitant laptop sticker swag – was the direct result of software abandoned in the wake of absconding team members. Picking up dust-laden software seems like a common occurrence these days, no?

In their reading-with of Naur, Ceejbot offers a valuable remediation technique for deleterious knowledge vacancies. It’s one that I personally strive for in everyday software practice: gross amounts of maintainer documentation.

Don’t waste time documenting what can be seen through simple reading. Document why that function exists and what purpose it serves in the software. When might I call it? Does it have side effects? Is there anything important about the inputs and outputs that I might not be able to deduce by reading the source of the function? All of those things are clues about the thinking of the original author of the function that can help their successor figure out what that author’s theory of the program was.


…the program exists to solve a problem, some “affair of the world” that Naur refers to. What was that problem? Is there a concise statement of that problem anywhere? What approach did you take to solving that problem statement? What tradeoffs did you make and why? What values did you hold as you made those tradeoffs? Why did you organize the source code in that particular way? What belongs where?