Read-Write Software

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My favorite moments with free software are when I get annoyed with some manual task that a tool leaves me to do for myself, and then invent a feature that the tool should have to handle the task for me.

With any software free or proprietary, if I’m lucky the tool might have a configuration system powerful enough to let me effectively add the feature from the outside. But with free software, I don’t need the authors to have anticipated my needs—I can reach into the guts of the software itself and change it to work the way I want. If it’s a friendly codebase or if I’ve hacked on it before, I may be able to add my change in a few minutes. And hey presto: software that does exactly what I wanted. It’s a lot more fun than praying to the vendor and waiting a few years, and it’s faster and more reliable too.

So it went with Git one night last October. I was repeatedly revising a branch with git rebase -i. A couple of points along the branch were marked as branches of their own, so every time I changed something I would have to either

  • rebase the full branch, then do a dance with checkout and reset to update the sub-branches, carefully typing the correct new commit IDs;
  • rebase the full branch, then muck with update-ref with the same care about getting commit IDs right; or
  • rebase the first sub-branch, then use rebase --onto to move the next sub-branch on top of it, then rebase --onto again for the main branch

What I really wanted to do was just

  • rebase the full branch, and tell the sub-branches to come along for
    the ride.

Fortunately I’d worked on the code for Git’s interactive rebase before—at Ksplice we push Git to its limits in six different directions, and rebase -i we push beyond the limits of stock Git—so I knew where to find the moving parts that could do what I needed. Four minutes after having the idea, I was happily using the new feature.

If you want the feature too, it’s up on my Git git repo. Or you can wait until I get it upstream. Why haven’t I done that already? That’s another old story about software. My 4-minute, 4-line patch turned into 29 lines with documentation and with proper error handling, then 147 lines to make the feature easy to invoke, and then 231 lines with test cases. So I just finished all that work today. Maybe you’ll see the feature in Git 1.7.1 this spring.

Written by Greg Price

January 25th, 2010 at 2:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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