Chris Dragan's Corner

git, where am I?

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git is a great piece of software, it is a marvel of engineering, it is very useful and reliable.

However there is one problem with git, which barely anybody mentions – it has a very unintuitive user interface! After years of using git I still feel like most git users – I have very little idea about what happens when I issue particular git commands.

Aside from its user interface, git works so well, that other version control systems exist only because they are easier to use. For example, bzr is trivial to master if you’ve ever used any other VCS. Mercurial is slightly more complicated, but after a few days of use you can get the gist of it. But git will surprise you even after years of use.

There are two reasons why git is so difficult to master. First, the git nomenclature is confusing. There is a sea of git commands and switches which modify the commands in subtle ways, so it is easy to get lost. For example, git checkout does not do what you would normally expect it to do, if you have experience from other VCSes. git reset is outright confusing and many users can’t distinguish it from git checkout. A branch in git is not really a branch, it is merely a pointer to some revision in the repository, you can conceptually use it as a branch, but you can also move this pointer to any existing revision in the repository.

Secondly, there is very little information about the state of the tree. It is very hard to find information how to see your location in the tree. Where is your HEAD pointing? Where is master pointing? These questions only scratch the surface.

Today, however, I came across the best git command, which makes it much easier to determine where things are:


git log --graph --oneline --decorate --date=relative --all

This command shows a graph of commits, it shows the location of HEAD, branches, etc.

One note is that this command does not show dangling commits, i.e. commits which are not reachable from any branch or tag. Dangling commits are created by moving the HEAD and adding new commits at that location, or by doing git reset –hard. Typical advice to find such commits is to use git reflog, but it is still difficult to extract useful information from it. The easiest way of finding all dangling commits is the following command:


git fsck --lost-found

Now if you want to include a single dangling commit in the graph, you can use git checkout to go to that commit and then display the graph. This makes life with git a little easier!

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