Saturday, February 15, 2014

50 shades of green

Update: The streak has reached 100, read more about the additional projects I was working on here

Alright, four shades. Making 50 squares.

Yep, that's right, my GitHub commit streak reached 50 days!

What's GitHub? What's a GitHub commit streak?


For the uninitiated, GitHub is an online service that lets you efficiently manage repositories of code using the git protocol. Besides allowing for easy version control and collaboration on code (which are just features of the git protocol), it provides a bunch of useful collaboration tools like the issue tracker, and nifty features like pull requests. Most code hosted on GitHub is open source.

I keep most of my code on GitHub because

  • I can access my code from anywhere and make changes
  • I can use git without having to set up a bare repository on a remote server every time
  • It's open source, and I don't have to deal with the hassles of keeping it up to date elsewhere
  • It's pretty easy for others to report issues on it
  • It's easy for others to submit their own patches to the code via the pull request feature. I can also add collaborators with minimal hassle.
When using Git, a "commit" is basically a bundle of changes to the code, which can later be pulled/pushed between servers. On GitHub, if you've been committing code for a number of days in a row, it's called a "commit streak", and is showed on the profile. Days with relatively more commits are shown as a darker shade of green on the punchcard.

How I got started

Initially I didn't have any intention of maintaining a commit streak. Near the end of December, I was working on both Charcoal and HostelNoticeboard, and after a week and a half of constantly committing code, I noticed that I had a commit streak going. Naturally, I was pretty happy and wanted to extend this.

I first set up some ground rules, inspired by Ryan Seys:
  • Issues don't count
  • Edits to READMEs don't count
  • Edits to non-code files like GitHub Pages files do count.
  • No scripting commits; and push code the day you write it unless it's half written
  • No playing with local commit times
I also identified repositories and mini-projects that I needed to work on beforehand. This actually got some of my backburner'ed ideas out of the woodwork; some of which I actually implemented.

The journey

Initially I found it challenging to commit code every day. I had a lot of other commitments (ha!) in life and didn't want to impinge on my academics. Usually it takes a bit of time to get warmed up before coding; one has to evaluate the situation and figure out what needs to be done. This, along with debugging, takes up quite a bit of time.

However, as time passed, I got more and more efficient at this so that I could spend more time writing real code. At the same time, maintaining the commit streak became a habit. I used to always have a terminal tab open for my cloned repositories, and would be hacking away every now and then.

Sticking to an agenda becomes natural after a point

There were some days when I thought that I would be too busy to code, and would instead make some minor changes to fill in the punchcard for that day. Almost every time, I ended up unexpectedly making more substantial contributions the same day. There were also some days when I would open the site, in a panic that I forgot to code that day; and it would turn out that I had committed code, just forgotten about it. I guess that's the first sign of madness, but who cares?

Use GitHub for your academics, too!
As exam time neared, I had to switch strategies. I always had planned to put up my LaTeX documents (notes, presentations, assignments) on GitHub, making it easier for me to share them, keep them up to date, and incorporate improvements. Till then I had been using scripts to upload them to my university homepage. Which wasn't as efficient.

So I created CourseResources, and uploaded all the old documents I could find. Since I would be writing notes or assignments regularly, this provided a steady source of commits (also, a second motivation to study!) that helped me when I was too busy to write proper code. I still tried not to rely on this for the streak, though. The goal is to consolidate as many LaTeX notes as possible here; the repo is under an organization for easy collaboration. 

Where it's at now

So, in the past 50 days, the new projects I created are:

  • Kapi, a Metro note-taking app with fluid math support. Made it for a hackathon, plan to continue working on it.
  • IIT-Timetable, a webpage that lets one easily construct and share a printable semester timetable without having to worry too much about the complicated slot pattern. While there are plans to extend this, the app is complete in itself.
  • ChatExchange, a python wrapper for Stack Exchange Chat. Currently it has basic read/write functionality, but needs a lot of polishing. I also created multiple projects that use this as a submodule:
    • StackExchange-ChatBot: A python class that can be used to easily create a chatbot that can react to various commands. I created this today, and it doesn't do much yet but gives an idea of the basic structure.
    • SmokeDetector: A bot that monitors the Stack Exchange realtime feed and links to possible spam or otherwise low quality posts in a couple of chatrooms so that it can be dealt with quickly. This was intended to solve the issue of spam lying around on low-activity sites if the moderators aren't around at that moment. The bot is currently running, though I make tweaks to the algorithm every now and then.
    • ChatExchange-Scripts: A couple of random scripts created as proof-of-concepts.
  • CourseResources (both the CourseResources and Slides repos): As mentioned before, contains all my LaTeXed documents. Feel free to pull request and add your own.
  • daemonic-mach, a project to integrate inotify or watchman with Mozilla's mach build program to speed up build time. This is just a placeholder for now, I haven't yet gotten around to starting this. First commits don't count for a streak unless there are subsequent commits, so this didn't add to the streak.
  • ECMAScript6-tester, a script that loads dummy versions of proposed ES6 features into the document and reports compatibility of the document with these features. Intended to prevent naming collisions (like this one) where a prototype extension clashes with a new feature, breaking things. This repo is another placeholder.
Look at all this code I wrote!

In addition, I worked on the following preexisting projects (not necessarily my projects):
  • Charcoal, a webapp that lets one easily collect and flag noisy content (mainly comments) from Stack Exchange sites. I mainly dealt with the JS code in this.
  • HostelNoticeboard, the code (both Pi-side and server-side) for the Electronic Noticeboard project in IIT. I've written the Pi-side code and a portion of the server-side stuff. The code works and is currently deployed, on a single Pi with the online interface here. There are a bunch of improvements on the roadmap that I mean to get to in a few weeks.
  • waca: The Wikipedia Account Request System, running here. I usually do small bugfixes.
  • The Web & Coding club website, running here. I add posts and sometimes make changes to the Jekyll code.
  • Manish-Codes, random userscripts and things which I write.
All in all, plenty of code written, lots of work done :D

Where it's going to go

I really don't know how long I'll be able to keep this up. Academics do get in the way, and while I can do minor changes every day, that's not too productive. However, it's giving me a driving motivation to get all my backburner'ed projects finished, which is great! It's also taught me a lot about planning and I got a  good chance to hone my coding skills.

These 50 days have been really fun, though, and I hope I'll be able to keep it up as long as possible :)

Hope I get the time!

Octocats taken from the Octodex

Friday, February 7, 2014

Getting started with bug-squashing for Firefox

So over the past few months I've been trying to contribute a bit to Mozilla (mainly Firefox). Last August there was a MozBoot session at IIT Bombay which helped me get over the learning curve.

First off, a big thanks to @Debloper (and @hardfire) for showing me the basics. The process is intimidating, though once you've done it with help, it becomes pretty natural. These Mozilla reps got me past that intimidation point, so I'm really grateful for that.

This post is basically an tutorial on how to get started. It's basically an in-depth version of this tutorial, which I feel misses a few things.

Note that I am still a beginner at this, comments on how to improve this post/my workflow appreciated.

Ok, let's get started.

Step 1: Identifying a bug you want to fix

Firstly, make an account on You'll need it later. Browse the bug lists on the site, looking for bugs that seem fixable. Look for bugs marked as "good first bug", which have a status of "NEW".

Of course, this is a bit cumbersome to do and there are a lot of  bugs which are nontrivial or have a lot of discussion baggage which you may not want to go through. Fortunately, there are some tools out there that greatly help in searching for bugs.

Firstly, there's What Can I Do For Mozilla?. This is an interactive questionnaire that helps you find out which portions of Mozilla or Firefox you may be able to comfortably contribute to. Note that this is not just Firefox, though if you select the HTML or JS categories you will be presented with the Firefox subcategory which contains various entries.

This doesn't help find bugs as much as it helps you find the areas of the codebase that you might want to look at.

However, there is a different tool that is built specifically for this purpose; to look for easy bugs given one's preferences and capabilities. It's called Bugs Ahoy, and it lets you tick your preferences and programming languages to filter for bugs. It also has two insanely useful options, one that lets you filter out assigned bugs, and one that tells it to look for "good first bugs" ("simple bugs"). "Good first bug"s on Bugzilla are easy bugs which are kept aside for new users to try their hand at. There is a mentor for these bugs, who is a very active community member or employee. These mentors help you through the rest of the process, from where you need to look in the code to how to put up a patch. I've found that the mentors are very friendly and helpful, and the experience of being mentored on a bug is rather enjoyable.

Make sure the bug isn't assigned to anyone, and look through the comments and attachments for details on the status of the bug. Some bugs are still being discussed, and some bugs are half-written (it's not as easy to use these for your first bug). If you need help on choosing a bug, join #introduction on There are lots of helpful people out there who can give feedback on your chosen bug, and help you get started.

Step 2: Finding the relevant bits of code

If this is a mentored bug, you usually can ask the mentor in a comment on the bug for help. Be sure to get it assigned to you! If the mentor doesn't respond in a few days, use the needinfo box at the bottom of the page:

Type the username (usually preceded by a colon somewhere in the full name string), and a suggestion box should pop up with various users. Pick your mentor out from the list, and ask for help in the comment box.

If you want to look for the code yourself, Mozilla Cross-Reference is a great tool. For Firefox, you probably want the mozilla-central subtree. With MXR, you can easily search the codebase for text, variable names, and regexes.

For most UI changes, you can track the code down by first looking for nearby strings.  For example, if you want to look at the code for the where-do-I-save-downloads preference which is preceded with the text "Save files to", the search result leads to a dtd file, which defines the entity saveTo.label as the string. (Remember, all displayed strings will be in a localization file). Searching for saveTo.label turns up main.xul. Now that you've found this, you can dig deeper by looking at the event handling and figuring out where the relevant javascript is, or you can look around this same file and figure out how it works, depending on what you want to fix.

I've not really made any changes to the C++ yet, only the toolkit and UI javascript, so I can't comment on how one can find the C++ code relevant to a bug. But you can always ask around in IRC or ask your mentor (if any) for help.

Step 3: Downloading and building the code

Not all bugs need a build. Some are quite easy to do without having a full copy of the code or a build, and while you'll eventually want to have both of these, it is possible to hold this off for a while, depending on the bug. While it's easier to create patchfiles when the system is all set up, I will address patching without the full code in the next section.

Downloading can be done in two ways. Both require Mercurial to be installed (sudo apt-get mercurial works).

One way is to simply hg clone This will download the full repository. However, if you don't think your internet connection will be stable, download the mozilla-central bundle from here and follow the steps given there. Note that Mercurial is a bit different from Git, so you may wish to read up on the basics.

To build firefox , first do the OS-specific build environment setup linked to here. Once done, go to the root directory of the firefox code and run ./mach build. After your first build, you can run incremental builds (that only build the files you ask it to, and rebuilds any files depending on it) by using ./mach build <list of filepaths>, eg ./mach build browser/components/preferences/. You can specify both folders and files to the incremental build.

Note that for some javascript files, you have to build their containing directory — so if your changes aren't getting reflected in the incremental build, try building the directory they are in.

Step 4: Getting a patch

So by this point you will have figured out the fix and modified the code so that you have a partial (for a multifaceted bug) or full fix of the bug. At this point you can submit the patch for review. For this, you need to have a patch to submit first!

Creating patches with hg

If you have the full cloned repository, first add these lines to your ~/.hgrc to enable the mercurial queues extension with the proper settings.

username = Firstname Lastname 

qnew = -Ue

mq =

git = 1
unified = 8
showfunc = 1

Once done, navigate to the firefox source tree and run hg qqueue -c somequeuenamehere. This will create a named patch queue that you can work on.

Now, run hg qnew patchname.patch and then hg qpush patchname.patch. This creates a new patch by that name in the .hg/patches-queuename folder, and pushes it onto the curretly applied stack of patches. You can update its contents with the changes made to the code by  hg qrefresh or simply hg qref.  This patch is the one that you can submit in step 5.

When you run hg qnew, it will ask you to enter a commit message. Write the bug name and a short description of the patch ("Bug 12345 - Frob the baz button when foo happens"), and add a ";r=nameofreviewer". In case of mentored bugs, the uername of the mentor will be your reviewer. If not, you'll have to find a reviewer (more details on this later, for now you may leave this blank and edit it in the patch file later). Note that the default editor for this is usually vim, so you have to press Ins before typing text and then Esc followed by a :x and Enter to save.

Advanced usage

In case of complicated bugs or bugs which already have a patch, you can queue the patches up. Simply use hg qnew to create patches and  hg qpush or hg qpop to move up and down the patch queue (this will change the code to reflect the currently active patch, and hg qref will update that same patch)

If you want to work on a different bug in parallel, you just have to pop all current patches out, and create a new patch queue with hg qqueue -c. You can then switch between the queues with hg qqueue queuename.

Creating patches without hg

Since the full repository takes a really long time to download and unpack, it's useful to have a different way of making patches so that the download doesn't become a blocking step.

For preliminary patches, with just one file

This is if you want to submit a patch that can be reviewed fr feedback but not checked in as a final patch. I wouldn't recommend using this method, but I'll keep these instructions here just in case.

If you're just editing one file, put the old version and the new version side by side, and run diff -u oldfile newfile >mypatch.patch in the same directory. Now, open the patch file and edit the paths to match the relative filepath of the edited file from the root firefox directory (eg if you edited main.xulold to main.xul, replace both names with browser/components/preferences/main.xul)

Proper patches

Put the files in a directory, and then run git init on the files. Now, git add *  and then git commit -m "commit message" to commit the files.

After this, make your changes to the files. Then, run git diff -U8 >output.patch . Edit the patch and change the a/filename and b/filename lines to be a/path/to/filename and b/path/to/filename. The paths here are relative with respect to the root directory.

Now, add the following to the top of the patch

# HG changeset patch
# Parent parenthash
# User Firstname Lastname>
Bug 12345 - Frob the baz button when foo happens; r=jaws
Set the commit message as described in the above section for creating patches with hg.

As for the parent hash, you can get it by going to the mozilla-central hg repository and copying the hash of the tip commit.

Step 5: Submitting the patch, and the review process

See also: Getting reviews

Now that you're at this stage, the rest is pretty smooth sailing. Find the "add attachment"  link on the bugzilla page:

Upload the attachment, give it a descriptive name ("Patch for barring the foo", though sometimes I just use "Patch 0.1"), and make sure the "patch" checkbox is ticked

Now, you also need to ask for review. Click the dropdown next to the review menu, and set it to "?" ("requesting review"). Put the username of your reviewer in the "Requestee" box (and use the autosuggest to get the email address). If you don't know who to ask for review:
  • If the bug is mentored, your mentor will be able to review your code. Usually the mentor name will turn up in the "suggested reviewers" dropdown box in bold, too.
  • If the bug isn't mentored, you still might be able to find reviewers in the suggested reviewers dropdown. The dropdown is available for bugs in most firefox and b2g components.
  • Otherwise, ask around in IRC or check out the hg logs of the file you modified (start here) to find out who would be an appropriate reviewer.
  • A list of module owners and peers for each module can be found here (the Firefox and Toolkit ones are usually the ones you want). These users are allowed to review code in that module, so make sure you pick from those. If you mistakenly pick someone else, they'll usually be helpful enough to redirect the review to the right person.

Usually, on the first bug, your review will be canceled ("r-"). This is nothing to be worried about, the mentors (and/or reviewers) are very helpful and will let you know exactly what can be improved in the process. This is one of the things I like about Mozilla; everyone's quite helpful!

Once you fix the nits and other changes requested from you, re-upload the attachment (mark the old one as obsolete).

At one point, the review will be granted, and the code will be checked in. Once that happens, the bug will get marked as resolved. And you're done with your first bug!