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Using the Plan 9 Plumber to Turn Acme into a Git GUI

Published: August 31, 2022


I first gave Acme a somewhat serious spin ~4 months ago and decided that the mouse-driven editor was a bit too unwieldy coming from my keyboard focused tool suite.

However, a couple weeks ago I watched a snippet of the Lex Fridman podcast where he interviewed John Carmack on IDEs (the tldr being that an IDE with a powerful debugger is crucial). Carmack advocating for a heavy IDE naturally inspired me to revisit one of the most spartan editors I've worked with: Acme.

My previous post covered some of my first impressions and basics of what Acme is, so in this post I wanted to do a deep dive into one of my favorite features: the "look"/"plumb" behavior. To illustrate it, I'll walk through how I was able to use it to turn Acme into a Git GUI.

The Power of Button 3

Button 3, or "right click", will "look" in Acme. More specifically, it will take either the selected text (via Button 1) or the word under the cursor and try to:

  1. Identify if it's a file/directory that exists, and open it in a buffer
  2. Send the snippet to the plumber(4)
  3. If all else fails, search for the word in the buffer

Number (3) can be a great way to quickly click through usages of a variable in a function, and (1) is super helpful in exploring the filesystem and navigating to specific portions of files from tool output, but (2) is where the magic begins.

The plumber gets its name from being a message bus between Plan 9 programs. In a Plan 9 ecosystem, it appears (I haven't tested this) that individual servers for things like "web" or "mail" run and programs like Acme can interact with them by sending messages with plumb(1) through the plumber.

In practice on a UNIX-like system, I'm running very few servers (just the plumber itself and fontsrv(4) for nicer fonts in Acme), so the plumbing rules usually have a fallback option of running a command (rather than passing it to a server).

The plumber deciphers the messages from plumb by matching the data it receives (in this case the text under our click) against a series of patterns in a set of rules outlined in plumb(7). By adding your own rules, you can configure button 3 to open any external program. Simple rules might match URLs and open a browser, but given that Acme itself exposes effectively an API through the filesystem, we can write little programs that in turn modify the contents of Acme.

Plumbing Rules for Git

In Git, all objects (primarily commits, blobs, and trees) have a SHA, which is a hexidecimal string, making it easy to match on. Git likes to shorten them in tool output, so a primitive regex to match them might be:


That's 6 or more hex digits in a row (an astute reader might warn that this would also match, say, CSS color codes, but for our purposes it'll work!).

The full plumbing rule looks like so (in ~/lib/plumbing):

type is text
data matches '[a-f0-9][a-f0-9][a-f0-9][a-f0-9][a-f0-9][a-f0-9]+'
plumb start rc -c 'git -C '$wdir' show '$0' >[2=1] | plumb -i -d edit -a ''action=showdata filename=/'$wdir'/'$0''''

We tell the plumber that if the type of the message is text, and if it matches our pattern, that it should start the external program rc(1) (the plan9 shell) with the command:

git -C $wdir show $0 >[2=1]

To run git in the working directory of the buffer the click was made on and run git-show(1) on the full text that was matched (with stderr duped to stdout).

This command of course doesn't do much by itself--it will output to stdout. So to make use of the output, we send it back to plumb(1), this time telling it to send to the -d (destination) edit (editor) with the action of showing data. This will open a new Acme buffer with the contents of the git object (whether it's a commit, the file for the blob, etc).

Going Full GUI

At this point, we could run git-log(1) in a win(1) buffer (a shell session in Acme) and start clicking SHAs to see the diffs, but that's not super helpful.

Looking at how I like to interact with Git in Vim, I commonly do the following:

  1. Look at the full git log, with ability to dive into commits
  2. View the short git log for a specific file to see when things changed at a high level
  3. View the git-blame(1) to see when things changed at a line-level

The first can be solved by writing a small wrapper around git-log, gl:

# git-log, but piped through plumb so that it:
#   1. doesn't scroll to the end
#   2. has the proper "filename" so that plumbing SHA's works
git log "$@" | plumb -i -d edit -a "action=showdata filename=/$(pwd)/git-log"

For a shortened version (easier to browse), we can simply call this with --oneline (glo):

exec gl --oneline "$@"

The output on this repo looks like so:

[/path/to/alexkarle.com/git-log Del Snarf Redo | Look]
28a5f1c blog: Edit typos and small rephrasings for wggen post
85b54e2 blog: Add post on wggen tool to manage wg creds
6c6d8e0 blog: Add post about garbash.com
da01dba blog: Add post about mandoc resume

Finally, we can get a per-file history by just filtering glo (gv):

# gv -- imitation of :GV! vim plugin
glo -- "$file"

Here we see a nice trick: gv takes in an argument (so that we can specify the file to log), but if it's empty it defaults to $samfile, which is set by Acme to be the current buffer being edited. So putting gv in the tag of the README and middle clicking to execute gives the same output as before, but filtered!

Git blame uses the same concepts (gbl):

# git blame, in acme!
git blame --date="short" "$file" | plumb -i -d edit -a "action=showdata filename=$file:BLAME"

Calling gbl on the README pops up a new buffer with the following:

[/path/to/alexkarle.com/README.md:BLAME Del Snarf Redo | Look]
5e9783a6 (Alex Karle 2020-06-18  1) alexkarle.com
5e9783a6 (Alex Karle 2020-06-18  2) =============
016a5d70 (Alex Karle 2020-07-14  3) My small corner of the internet.

This may seem unhelpful, but remember that clicking any of those SHA's will open then in a new buffer with the full diff! Clicking 5e9783a6 gives:

[/path/to/alexkarle.com/5e9783a6 Del Snarf Redo | Look]
commit 5e9783a6ce559f76da83b2530059c9664f43306e
Author: Alex Karle <email @ domain>
Date:   Thu Jun 18 00:18:48 2020 -0400
diff --git a/.gitignore b/.gitignore
new file mode 100644
index 0000000..84c048a
--- /dev/null
+++ b/.gitignore
@@ -0,0 +1 @@

And what's this? More SHA's to click? 84c048a will give the full contents of .gitignore at this commit (if the diff doesn't show it).

The most incredible bit is that Acme doesn't need to do much to support this use case--the flexibility of choosing an external (and extensible) program to match the text and the ability to spawn new buffers in Acme via any language externally enables this beautifully. Compare this to the ~500L of VimL in vim-fugitive to convert the Vim sidebar into an interactive blame viewer. (No shade towards Tim Pope--if you're reading this, huge thanks for everything you've ever written, it's inspired me and shaped my career!).


I'm really glad I chose to revisit Acme. While it's probably never going to replace Vim in my toolkit, it was such an incredible experience to be able to turn the tool into a pretty solid Git GUI (minus syntax highlighting of course) in just about an hour or so (including time to learn plumbing rules).

The concept of a universal yet personally customizable plumber is beyond cool, and the fact that Acme has one of the 3 buttons reserved to plumb text allows for developers to easily hyperlink plaintext, which is awesome.

If you'd like to give it a spin, all my scripts (including my starter script for Acme) are Open Source and live in my dotfiles.