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A Partner’s Survival Guide

Telsa Gwynne

Issue #46, February 1998

A view of life with a hacker brought to us by a mischievous spouse who should know—Ms. Gwynne is married to Alan Cox.

I have just celebrated my fifth wedding anniversary to a hacker. Happily, there aren’t many things I would change. I feel the past five years have given me some experiences that are only fair to pass on to those contemplating marriage to a Linux hacker—a few little tips on how life will be. I have used the pronoun “he” for the hacker because my hacker is male, but I have been assured by others that the following description is a fairly standard one regardless of gender.

When you shout three times for your spouse and require an answer, don’t expect the answer to return immediately. He will reply, but only when his brain has finished with the problem it is currently working through. If this problem is conveyed to the brain via a computer screen, it becomes a “Very Important Problem” and requires up to an hour of grokking before answering questions such as:

  • What do you want for tea?
  • It’s your mother on the phone—do you want a word?
  • Are you coming to your parents’ silver wedding anniversary party? If so, the train is leaving in five minutes.

Your spouse may have problems with rational time-management—or, more accurately, with the less-than-rational world. As far as a hacker is concerned, if it is Friday night, it is not the time to consider the quantity of clean work clothes which must be available for Monday morning. In fact, if it is Friday night, it is time for an extended hacking session because getting up for work the next day is not necessary. Saturday mornings, consequently, are a great time for getting things done which do not require help from your spouse.

The concentration powers of a hacker are a problem in everyday life. If Dr. Who is on the television, your hacker is not going to notice that it is raining and the clothes on the outside line are getting wet. After all, Dr. Who requires maximum concentration.

If you take your hacker to any films which involve computers in any way whatsoever, do not expect any appreciation of the plot, the music or the direction. I took my husband, a hacker-friend and my non-hacker sister to see Beauty and the Beast. I was glad my sister was with us to share my discussion of the film’s qualities, as when the film had finished, the other two began discussing ray-projection and its application to just about every scene in the film. Similarly, we left The Net early, because it was boring (to me) and non-logical (to him). And as for that wretched Terminator

Food provided by your hacker-partner will either be sloppy and messy (he was thinking hard at the time) or incredibly precise and technically excellent. Washing up, however, is a one-banana job to be left to the operator (spouse).

In a romantic interlude at a restaurant, be very sure that you actually want to know the answer when you gaze into his distant eyes and ask “What are you thinking about?” For the answer will most likely not be “You.”

When asked “do you want to do this or do that,” your hacker partner will consider it perfectly acceptable to answer “Yes” rather than selecting one of the options. Do not panic! This can be extremely useful at times. Consider the following example: you ask, “Do you wish to pay for the paper or the new bookshelves?” He says, “Yes.” Later, when you present him with the bookshelf bill and he wonders why, you say, “I asked which you wanted to pay. You said yes and didn’t pay the papers, so I assumed you wished to pay for the new bookshelf.”

Some other partners may be able to explain gardening with a hacker better than me, but I know there are three vital things to note in this area. The first is to ensure your partner understands that Nature has root privileges—Nature doesn’t have to make sense. The second is to let him know that planting seeds in a straight line is boring. The third thing he should understand is that three miniscule crumbs of soil dropped on a kitchen surface do not constitute a public health emergency. If your partner is foolish enough to mutter “that surface ought to be sterilised before using it again,” point him in the direction of the cupboard under the sink and invite him to acquaint himself with the process, since you’ve been doing it unnoticed every week.

As to house maintenance, does it involve problem-solving? If so, your hacker can safely be left to deal with the planning (for the amusement value, if nothing else). However, intervention may be required. Your hacker may wish to adapt a household item to another use for which it was not intended, as he does with chunks of code. Sadly, however, /home/tools, once edited, cannot be returned to its original state and purpose.

Finally, here’s one tip for all you hackers. Remember: while root can do most everything, there are certain privileges that only a partner can grant.


Telsa Gwynne is a registered mental health nurse and the wife of Alan Cox. The two are merely coincidental. Her computing time is spent playing nethack and hating majordomo. She can be reached via e-mail at hobbit@lxorguk.ukuu.org.uk.