Git patches and mailing lists

“Modern” collaboration practices or ShitHubs

Don’t get all defensive for your favourite closed-source open-source nest and its thousands of clones. You’ll (hopefully) get why I’m calling it ShitHub and why the ShitHub model is a flawed one by the end of this post. If you don’t, read this again until you do.

If you’re into open-source or free software, you might have downloaded some projects from GitHub, sent in some Issues or Pull Requests. Let’s analyse those processes a bit.

Imagine two of your favourite programs mishabit. You do a search on the interwe(e)bs or whatever and find their source code – on GitHub. Let’s say one of those projects is more in your area of expertise than the other, so you decide to hack a bit on its code and send in your bug fix, and to create a bug report for the other one.

Both of those things require you to create an account on ShitHub. That’s a red flag already. Where’s the praised decentralization of the Internet? Surely not inside this lock-in that is ShitHub. To post an Issue you use a form on the website that allows for some special formatting with Markdown and that’s about it, I think. Now, let’s talk about sending a patch. You know, when you got a new video game and it was buggy, the developers would release a patch for it. Yeah, about that… the new dev generation calls those Pull Requests.

You cloned the code, made the changes needed to fix the bug you were encountering and commited them on your system. YOU FOOL. C’mon… that’s not how it’s done! First, fork the repository on your ShitHub account. Then clone that. Now do your changes, commit and push. Go into the web interface and create a pull request from there which is pretty confusing for a beginner – speaking from experience. Comments and further work on your Pull Request need interacting with the web UI too, and need you to be logged in (but I guess you got that already).

And do I even have to point out the fact that you don’t have any clue of what’s going on inside the ShitHub, because it’s proprietary software?

Virgin Pull Request vs. Chad git format-patch

Let me show you what they don’t want you to know.

There is this cool little thing, built right into git, called git format-patch. It spits out one file per commit in a range of your choice in a format that git itself will be able understand later (which is also human readable). Those files are called, as you may have guessed, patches. The true patches. The easy to make–easy to use patches.

Let me show you an example of such a patch. Since those are basically plain text, they can be sent in the body of an email, for example:

[bug#38808] [PATCH v2] gnu: Add ghcid.

Why are patches so OP? Let’s see…

The contributor’s perspective

  • They can be quicly created directly from the command line or from your favourite git client 1.
  • It takes like 5 minutes to get accustomed to how git format-patch works.
  • Patches let you contribute to projects without requiring you to have an account on any platform. Just clone the source of the project you want to work on (this is done without forking to your account and other extra bullshit steps – clone it directly from its home), do your changes, commit, git format-patch <options> and find a way to send the patch files.
  • Because patch file are just plain-text files you can send them in a lot of different ways: by email, via an USB stick, by normal mail, by morse code (through smoke signals), by radio etc. As long as the person to whom you want to send the patches can get them (transcribed back) into plain text, it doesn’t matter, it will work.
  • Sometimes you want to record some changes and allow others to optionally apply them. This is how extra features are distributed for suckless software. For example, to add transparency to st, you want this patch.

A maintainer’s perspective on applying patches vs accepting Pull Requests

After all this time (writing now on <2020-09-13 Sun>), I gained some experience myself with applying patches, as I became co-maintainer of org-webring.

Unsurprisingly, it’s easy as fuck on this side too. git apply and git am are your best friends. I wish I could say more but it’s really that simple and I have no use for filling your time with empty words. Just use git am or git apply.

I’ve seen something interesting happen on Sourcehut in the time since I started this post. There was a contributor who was offered commit access to a project, but guess what? They refused, preferring to send patches instead, because they didn’t like having many accounts. Simple as that. It’s a bit harder to do stuff like this if you stick to the GitHub model…

Bring back the mailing lists

I’m not one of the oldies around here. At the time of writing I’m still in high school. “In my youth” I didn’t use much technology – I wasn’t one of those hacker kids that are below 15 and have at least 20 acquaintances from IRC, are profficient in 37 programming languages (including Forth, Prolog, Haskell and Brainfuck) and who eat git diffs for breakfast. So that means I’m not the most experimented guy when it comes to tech. Keep that in mind.

I heard mailing lists where the norm a while ago. I discovered them at the end of 2019 when I wanted to send patches to GNU Guix. All it takes to post something to a mailing list is sending an email to a designated address for a thread or subject. It’s that simple.

If mailing lists were created after the ShitHub model, I would say that we are on the right track, but since the whole situation is upside down, we’re shitting all over the tech industry.

The only mailing lists I read (and occasionally write to) are GNU Guix’s and SourceHut’s. SourceHut allows you to create your own mailing lists for discussing about projects, collecting bug reports or accepting patches (or any other reason you might use a mailing list for).

To: The version control systems and software forges

Please don’t move further away from basic patch-by-email support. It’s the easiest and fastest method to contribute, and the one that discriminates the least. Everyone can use their own email client and prepare the patches on their own machines without being locked in some web UI.

I haven’t worked with the internals of a mailing list, but I imagine it’s also easier to set up one of those for patches than to create a Pull Request system.

Patches and mailing lists are for everyone

To address an issue that I think will eventually pop up: patches and mailing lists are not elitist tools used only by the hissing wizards of the tech world. They are just simple tools created for everyone, tools that increase productivity and inclusion in software projects.

“Yea, but… I’m not used to emailing patches and stuff, yet I know the ShitHub model by heart”. No one expects you to be an expert without having even touched patches and mailing lists. We all had to learn this stuff at some point. But maybe try it someday, you have absolutely nothing to lose from this. I found people on mailing lists to be quite chill and accomodating to new users.

Where to then?

There is this amazing guide to git send-email for multiple systems and email providers. git send-email is a tool for sending patches by email, build into git itself, just like git format-patch.

Look for a sofware forge that doesn’t restrict contributors and that doesn’t require them to create accounts. SourceHut is the only one that I know of (besides GNU Savannah, which is pretty old and I don’t know how it works; there may be many more out there). SourceHut also lets you to create mailing lists.

Accept and send patches, not Pull Requests.

Keep in mind that all this rant is coming from someone that’s in high school. I should be blindly supporting the “JavaShit all the things” movement and I should hunger for GitHub stars while I work on my IoT project using Python in Visual Studio Code but instead of that I rant about sending patches by email. If you think about it for a second, that means there’s something cool as hell about patches and email.

I hope you liked this post and got something useful out of it. If you spotted any typo, want to make some completions or just want to yell at me, open an Issue or a Pull Request at… Oh, wait. You can’t. Thank God.



If that is Magit. I don’t know about the others