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People often don’t realize how powerful GitHub’s gist pasting service is. It’s more than just a “paste” site. Gist offers a full version control system extension to GitHub’s main site. I’ve been working on developing version control training materials and gist is a great way to introduce the fundamentals.

Many gist users know that the site offers you pushbutton convenience to paste one or more files. You can create open and “secret” ones hidden from public view. Gist also lets you fork, revise, and explore diffs between revisions.

For example, you can work in groups when writing. Collaborators can fork and make changes to offer content feedback. You can then use diffs to see what edits were made.

Here are some diffs from a recent Raw String proposal I worked on:

- Screen Shot 2018 07 18 at 8 - gists with pics and zips — Erica Sadun

And this is the corresponding “rich diff”, which is slightly prettier:

- Screen Shot 2018 07 18 at 8 - gists with pics and zips — Erica Sadun

And there’s a lot more you can do with gist. That’s because gists, as version control repositories, can be cloned to your computer, modified, and pushed back to GitHub. This means you can, for example, set up albums of pictures or host an easy-to-distribute zip file.

Each gist URL is a repository’s address:

git clone https://gist.github.com//7cd24c6ab2f737735a9ab2b95628c549

As a gist’s owner, you have commit privileges, allowing you to edit your gist from your computer.

- Screen Shot 2018 07 18 at 7 - gists with pics and zips — Erica Sadun

The command line enables you to add binary files that you can’t from the interface. I grabbed a bunch of kitten pictures from Pexels and added them to my gist. A nice way to create simple albums:

- Screen Shot 2018 07 18 at 7 - gists with pics and zips — Erica Sadun

If you click “Download ZIP” at the right, GitHub zips up the repository contents (in this case five kitten PNGs) and copies them to your computer. This is not cloning; the zip file just stores the source files, not the full git repo.

It’s just as easy to host an archive file. When you have an Xcode project or playground that you need to share, Gist provides a great intermediate service alternative to iCloud or Dropbox. If you need privacy, use the “secret gist”  button when creating the gist.

- Screen Shot 2018 07 18 at 7 - gists with pics and zips — Erica Sadun

This isn’t, of course, the end of what you can do with gists. Because each gist is a git repository, you can perform all the same commands you would in any git repo. Gist, of course, has a limited interface, so you won’t be able to, for example, switch between branches from the gist website. On the other hand, you can perform other tasks that don’t depend on a GitHub UI like listing diffs:

% git diff cb9271da5070f11602d3ab436a05fb9705409fd2
diff --git a/raw.md b/raw.md
index 8ed7306..ea4b5ed 0644
--- a/raw.md
+++ b/raw.md
@@ -4,9 +4,8 @@ Escaping hinders readability and interferes with inspection, especially in the l
 
 ### Candidates
 
-A good candidate for raw strings:
+A good candidate for raw strings is non-trivial and is burdened by escaping because it:
 
-* Is non-trivial.
 * Is obscured by escaping. Escaping actively harms code review and validation.
 * Is already escaped. Escaped material should not be pre-interpreted by the compiler.
 * Requires easy transport between source and code in both directions, whether for testing or just updating source.

I think GitHub’s gists are pretty awesome. And now, at least for me, they’ve gone from handy but mindless pastes to something really special.

Do you have a special way to use gists? I’d love to hear about unconventional ways to use this utility site to push boundaries and introduce new functionality. Drop a comment or an email and let me know.



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