Monday, October 30, 2006

The Hacker FAQ by Peter Seebach 10/30/0

[Below is an essay reprinted unaltered as permitted by the author. it remains one of my favorite hacker pieces. I hope you also enjoy it. *sapphoqnfriends]


A version of this has been bought by IBM DeveloperWorks.

Furthermore, IBM sponsored another article, the Manager FAQ, a guide to managers for hackers who are frustrated and confused by corporate life. I'd like to thank IBM for their kind support of this project. I'm pretty happy with the new piece, and I'm glad to have finally been nudged into posting it.

I'd like to point out how reasonable and friendly IBM has been about this; compare with the way that CRC has treated Eric Weisstein.

The Hacker FAQ

The following list is an attempt to cover some of the issues that will invariably come up when people without previous experience of the hacker community try to hire a hacker. This FAQ is intended for free distribution, and may be copied as desired. It is in an early revision. If you wish to modify the FAQ, or distribute it for publication, please contact the author. The author is The official distribution site (as of revision 0.05) is "".

DISCLAIMER: The author is a hacker. Bias is inevitable.

This document is copyright 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999 Peter Seebach. Unaltered distribution is permitted.

Revision 0.05 - Last modified September 28, 1999

Questions and Answers:

Section 0: Basic understanding.

0.0: Won't my hacker break into my computer and steal my trade secrets?
No. Hackers aren't, contrary to media reporting, the people who break into computers. Those are crackers. Hackers are people who enjoy playing with computers. Your hacker may occasionally circumvent security measures, but this is not malicious; she just does it when the security is in her way, or because she's curious.
0.1: Was it a good idea to hire a hacker?
It depends on the job. A hacker can be dramatically more effective than a non-hacker at a job, or dramatically less effective. Jobs where hackers are particularly good are:
  • Systems administration
  • Programming
  • Design

Jobs where hackers are particularly bad are:

  • Data entry

More generally, a job that requires fast and unexpected changes, significant skill, and is not very repetitive will be one a hacker will excel at. Repetitive, simple jobs are a waste of a good hacker, and will make your hacker bored and frustrated. No one works well bored and frustrated.

The good news is, if you get a hacker on something he particularly likes, you will frequently see performance on the order of five to ten times what a "normal" worker would produce. This is not consistent, and you shouldn't expect to see it all the time, but it will happen. This is most visible on particularly difficult tasks.

0.2: How should I manage my hacker?
The same way you herd cats. It can be a bit confusing; they're not like most other workers. Don't worry! Your hacker is likely to be willing to suggest answers to problems, if asked. Most hackers are nearly self-managing.
0.3: Wait, you just said "10 times", didn't you? You're not serious, right?
Actually, I said "ten times". And yes, I am serious; a hacker on a roll may be able to produce, in a period of a few months, something that a small development group (say, 7-8 people) would have a hard time getting together over a year. He also may not. Your mileage will vary.

IBM used to report that certain programmers might be as much as 100 times as productive as other workers, or more. This kind of thing happens.

0.4: I don't understand this at all. This is confusing. Is there a book on this?
Not yet. In the meantime, check out The New Hacker's Dictionary (references below; also known as "the jargon file"), in particular some of the appendices. The entire work is full of clarifications and details of how hackers think.

Section 1: Social issues

1.0: My hacker doesn't fit in well with our corporate society. She seems to do her work well, but she's not really making many friends.
This is common. Your hacker may not have found any people around who get along with hackers. You may wish to consider offering her a position telecommuting, or flexible hours (read: night shift), which may actually improve her productivity. Or hire another one.
1.1: My hacker seems to dress funny. Is there any way to impress upon him the importance of corporate appearance?
Your hacker has a very good understanding of the importance of corporate appearance. It doesn't help you get your job done. IBM, Ford, and Microsoft have all realized that people work better when they can dress however they want. Your hacker is dressed comfortably. A polite request to dress up some for special occasions may well be honored, and most hackers will cheerfully wear clothes without (unintentional) holes in them if specifically asked.
1.2: My hacker won't call me by my title, and doesn't seem to respect me at all.
Your hacker doesn't respect your title. Hackers don't believe that management is "above" engineering; they believe that management is doing one job, and engineering is doing another. They may well frequently talk as if management is beneath them, but this is really quite fair; your question implies that you talk as if engineering is beneath you. Treat your hacker as an equal, and she will probably treat you as an equal -- quite a compliment!
1.3: My hacker constantly insults the work of my other workers.
Take your hacker aside, and ask for details of what's wrong with the existing work. It may be that there's something wrong with it. Don't let the fact that it runs most of the time fool you; your hacker is probably bothered by the fact that it crashes at all. He may be able to suggest improvements which could dramatically improve performance, reliability, or other features. It's worth looking into.

You may be able to convince your hacker to be more polite, but if there appear to be major differences, it's quite possible that one or more of your existing staff are incompetent. Note that hackers, of course, have different standards of competence than many other people. (Read "different" as "much higher".)

Section 2: Productivity.

2.0: My hacker plays video games on company time.
Hackers, writers, and painters all need some amount of time to spend "percolating" -- doing something else to let their subconscious work on a problem. Your hacker is probably stuck on something difficult. Don't worry about it.
2.1: But it's been two weeks since I saw anything!
Your hacker is working, alone probably, on a big project, and just started, right? She's probably trying to figure it all out in advance. Ask her how it's going; if she starts a lot of sentences, but interrupts them all with "no, wait..." or "drat, that won't work", it's going well.
2.2: Isn't this damaging to productivity?
No. Your hacker needs to recreate and think about things in many ways. He will be more productive with this recreation than without it. Your hacker enjoys working; don't worry about things getting done reasonably well and quickly.
2.3: My hacker is constantly doing things unrelated to her job responsibilities.
Do they need to be done? Very few hackers can resist solving a problem when they can solve it, and no one else is solving it. For that matter, is your hacker getting her job done? If so, consider these other things a freebie or perk (for you). Although it may not be conventional, it's probably helping out quite a bit.
2.4: My hacker is writing a book, reading USENET news, playing video games, talking with friends on the phone, and building sculptures out of paper clips. On company time!
He sounds happy. The chances are he's in one of three states:
  1. Basic job responsibilities are periodic (phone support, documentation, et al.) and there's a lull in incoming work. Don't worry about it!
  2. Your hacker is stuck on a difficult problem.
  3. Your hacker is bored silly and is trying to find amusement. Perhaps you should find him more challenging work?

Any of these factors may be involved. All of them may be involved. In general, if the work is challenging, and is getting done, don't worry too much about the process. You might ask for your corporation to be given credit in the book.

2.5: But my other workers are offended by my hacker's success, and it hurts their productivity.
Do you really need to have workers around who would rather be the person getting something done, than have it done already? Ego has very little place in the workplace. If they can't do it well, assign them to something they can do.

Section 3: Stimulus and response

3.0: My hacker did something good, and I want to reward him.
Good! Here are some of the things most hackers would like to receive in exchange for their work:
  1. Respect.
  2. Admiration.
  3. Compliments.
  4. Understanding.
  5. Discounts on expensive toys.
  6. Money.

These are not necessarily in order. The 4th item (understanding) is the most difficult. Try to remember this good thing your hacker just did the next time you discover he just spent a day playing x-trek. Rather than complaining about getting work done, write it off as "a perk" that was granted (informally) as a bonus for a job well done. Don't worry; hackers get bored quickly when they aren't doing their work.

3.1: My hacker did something bad, and I want to punish him.
Don't. 30 years of psychological research has shown that punishment has no desirable long-term effects. Your hacker is not a lab rat. (Even if he were a lab rat, punishment wouldn't work; at least, not if he were one of the sorts of lab rats the psych research was done on.) If you don't like something your hacker is doing, express your concerns. Explain what it is that bothers you about the behavior.

Be prepared for an argument; your hacker is a rational entity, and presumably had reasons. Don't jump on him too quickly; they may turn out to be good reasons.

Don't be afraid to apologize if you're wrong. If your hacker admits to having been wrong, don't demand an apology; so far as the hacker is concerned, admitting to being wrong is an apology, most likely.

3.2: I don't get it. I offered my hacker a significant promotion, and she turned it down and acted offended.
A promotion frequently involves spending more time listening to people describing what they're doing, and less time playing with computers. Your hacker is enjoying her work; if you want to offer a reward, consider an improvement in title, a possible raise, and some compliments. Make sure your hacker knows you are pleased with her accomplishments -- that's what she's there for.
3.3: My company policy won't let me give my hacker any more raises until he's in management.
Your company policy is broken. A hacker can earn as much as $200 an hour (sometimes more) doing freelance consulting. You may wish to offer your hacker a contracted permanent consulting position with benefits, or otherwise find loopholes. Or, find perks to offer - many hackers will cheerfully accept a discount on hardware from their favorite manufacturer as an effective raise.
3.4: I can't believe the hacker on my staff is worth as much as we're paying.
Ask the other staff in the department what the hacker does, and what they think of it. The chances are that your hacker is spending a few hours a week answering arcane questions that would otherwise require an expensive external consultant. Your hacker may be fulfilling another job's worth of responsibilities in his spare time around the office. Very few hackers aren't worth what they're getting paid; they enjoy accomplishing difficult tasks, and improving worker efficiency.

Section 4: What does that mean?

4.0: My hacker doesn't speak English. At least, I don't think so.
Your hacker is a techie. Your best bet is to pick up a copy of TNHD (The New Hacker's Dictionary). It can be found as (last I checked) or from a good bookstore. If you have trouble understanding that reference, ask your hacker if she has a copy, or would be willing to explain her terms. Most hackers are willing to explain terms. Be ready for condescension; it's not intended as an insult, but if you don't know the words, she probably has to talk down to you at first to explain them.

It's a reasonably difficult set of words; there are a lot of them, and their usage is much more precise than it sounds. Hackers love word games.

[It is also possible that English is not your hacker's native language, and that it's not yours either. Feel free to substitute a more appropriate language.]

4.1: I can't get an estimate out of my hacker.
Your hacker hasn't figured out how hard the problem is yet. Unlike most workers, hackers will try very hard to refuse to give an estimate until they know for sure that they understand the problem. This may include solving it.

No good engineer goes beyond 95% certainty. Most hackers are good engineers. If you say you will not try to hold him to the estimate (and mean it!) you are much more likely to get an approximate estimate. The estimate may sound very high or very low; it may be very high or very low. Still, it's an estimate, and you get what you ask for.

4.2: My hacker makes obscure, meaningless jokes.
If you feel brave, ask for an explanation. Most of them can be explained. It may take a while, but it may prove interesting.
4.3: My hacker counts from zero.
So does the computer. You can hide it, but computers count from zero. Most hackers do by habit, also.

If you found this information useful, please consider sending a token donation to the author; email for details. You might also consider buying a couple of books through my "affiliate program" link; you get cool books, I get pocket change. :)

Recommended books:

The links in this section will all try to take you to Powell's, where you can spend your money on cool books.

The Cathedral & the Bazaar (Eric Raymond) - a discussion of different ways of building systems.

The New Hacker's Dictionary (Eric Raymond) - a great source of trivia, lore, and translations for difficult concepts. (Not always in stock, I'm afraid.)

Comments about this page can be sent to

Thursday, October 26, 2006

HBO THE SOPRANOS COMMERCIALS HAVE STARTED 10/26/06 is where you can go to download some Bada Bing wallpaper for your computer and other stuff.

I watched The Sopranos faithfully all the way through the last season [even though they made us wait sooooo long for it]. I will be watching the show regularly again once it [supposedly] re-starts in January. I made some hot Incredimail e-stationary with Tony Soprano on it.

My excuse for writing about The Sopranos is that some of my good friends watch the show too. Hi Ei and Nancy. Strangely enough, my family does not watch the show. They all snort and go, "Ewww, we don't watch that!" Absolutely amazing since a fourth of the family tree hail from Calabria. I tell some folks that I watch the series because I am studying my Italian heritage. It's true that in the series there is quite a bit of killing, blood, guts, violence, robbery, and flunking out of school. I don't care. I like the show and that is that.

Besides which, there is also Italian meals and Italian music, hot cars, loose women and horny men, a strong message about women being able to determine their own future instead of getting trapped into the same ol', a priest with a major hang-up about home-cooked meals, comraderie, and the beach. Once again, there is something to be said for, "If you don't like it, you can change the channel." [Or block it from your kids' young and innocent brains].

I change the channel when I hear preachers and nuns telling me how to live and think. I guess that makes me like Frank Zappa. He let his kids watch a lot of stuff on teevee but he would not allow them to watch the ministericals asking for money less they get smitted and killed. And I don't run around screaming in public that the preachers are polluting the thoughts of my precious doggie. So save it and go rant about The Sopranos to someone else. Don't make me come over there and show you how to change the channel on your teevee sets.

Anyways, sorry for that bit of a digression which some of the audience will be mildly amused by and the rest will be apathetic to or left mildly simmering. Back to the original purpose of this post, which was to announce that I saw a commercial [or rather heard it, since I was surfing with StumbleUpon in order to build up my bookmarks on on the laptop at the time]. Carmella's voice came on and she said three things. I missed the first thing. Then she said, "The family is a sacred institution," [or something like that] and then something about there must be consequences. After which the announcement was that the Sopranos are re-starting in January of 2007. Hopefully it will actually start then instead of delaying one more time.

Speaking of delays, in news for the geeks among my friends-- Windows is delaying ServicePack3 for XP until 2008. I've already decided we are not giving M$ any money to install the bloated Vista. So when "support" [read 'downloads of security patches'] for XP expires, we will be redoing all the computers in strictly Linux or possibly BSD.

For those friends who are computer security hobbyists, I ran across a site today which offers real tunneling and for free-- no traces, unlike Anonymizer which purports to provide an anonymous proxy but in fact it is only partially invisible and not free. If one uses the Google translation web page service plus the Anonymizer proxy, I suppose that might be better than either alone. Though the whole purpose of it all is to be invisible, thus one might be better off with the real tunneling exe. At least it appears that way to me. Privacy is becoming an increasingly difficult commodity these days.

That is not entirely a bad thing considering the terrorists and bombings and wars and stuff. Though not an entirely good thing either. When I downloaded the Google updates this evening, I was offered a choice of having "safer surfing" and the showing of page rankings in return for sending on my web searches to the big G or not. In order to get the little bar and the numbers that show the rankings of each return on my search, I would have to give up a bit of my reasonable expectation of privacy. Some of that is because Google creates search results "on the fly" though I think there would be a way to program in the little rank bar without having to show where I'm going. Regardless, I said no. I've got lots of ways to keep my web surfing reasonably safe. And I don't much care about knowing the ranking of a search result. Especially since I use other criteria for evaluating accuracy of things I find out there in cyberspace.

I found also today an interesting article about MySpace. Some folks believe that somehow MySpace should do "something" about the nasty sexual predators who sign up for accounts and go trolling for little boys [and probably girls too]. MySpace claimed that their staff are concerned about that thus the age and picture rules. Folks don't always think that is enough. So some techie wrote a script and bingo-- he found bunches of sexual predators on the government registration rolls who were stupid enough to sign up for MySpace with their own legal names. Even after eliminating the false positives, there was still a bunch. One dude got arrested for sending lewd pictures to a boy. Since he didn't meet the boy, the authorities were unable to nail him for anything else.

I won't be much good for anything during the daytime on Friday if I don't get to sleep soon. With that, I will say all of today's e-mail will have to wait til then. Take care of you, and I'll catch ya later.

~sapphoq n friends

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

FINGERS 10/24/06

last night, as i lay in the dark
a dark dank mood overtook me.
i roiled in its' tentacles
screaming hot blood spattering

sinister echoes
to no one listening.

dawn came
bringing the grayest of gray.
in the gloaming

i am a copse of rotting fecal matter
waiting for the worms.

~sapphoq n friends

Saturday, October 21, 2006


It is almost Sam Hain.
It is almost the New Year of the Witches.
We gather separately and together at the altars of our ancestors
Those of us who keep what we know of the old ways
sprinkle salt in circles ever expanding outwards.
We send messages on the wind
to the ancient ones who came before us.
We light candles
for the lost who cannot find their way home.
We gaze into water bowls knowing
that hope feeds us.

We are the roots and the soil.
We are dreamers roving through space.
We are the brilliant blazing stars.
We are the ocean our other mother.

Those of us who keep what we know of the old ways
embrace the ancient ones as our own.

~sapphoq n friends

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Monday, October 16, 2006


We Send You Our Blessings

A sweet movie going around the internet. The pictures are pretty and the message is nice. Take a few minutes to watch the whole movie and then wait for it to tell you the story.

Possible trigger for some: The movie refers to a Higher Power and to a male God [but not a specific religious ideology].

~sapphoq n friends


Over at you can light an internet candle for kids who have been or are now going through child abuse.

There are also some links there worth investigating, including a couple where one is able to report websites which are engaged in child pornography.

People often forget that paedophilia is not about love or expression of sexual orientation. Paedophilia is about using children and it is sick. Society has long confused rape with rabid uncontrollable sexual urges instead of acknowledging that rape is about power and violence and not about sex. Paedophilia is not about "sex" or "love" or "falling in love with."

I have no use for pedophiles. Any adult who is using children and teens under the age of consent should be civilly committed for life.

~sapphoq n friends

Sunday, October 15, 2006

FRIENDS OF SAPPHOQ: shameless promo of an e-group 10/15/06

On July 18, 2005, having nothing better to do, I founded an e-group called friendsofsapphoq over at yahoo. I had a long-standing dream of getting all of my friends together in one room at one time and they would all "get along." Reality always rears it's ugly head. And so that dream was consigned to the wasteland of unfulfilment.

The internet exploded into my life in a big way and I took another stab at my childish dream via electronica. For the most part, friendsof has worked and continues to work rather well. Some of us know each other or have met or became close via other e-groups. Some of us have just stumbled in via a blog or a friend's friend.

Topics and issues change. We have e-mailed the group about news stories, new ventures, new jobs, disability, illness, deaths, fears, triumphs, and the stuff of everyday living. We have also been treated to pictures from outer space, pictures of dogs and kids and grandkids, daily meditations for women, and views on politics. The number of postings have varied from 53 on up to 626.

There are currently 31 members. If you are willing to mingle electronically with a bunch of people who do not all share the same religious viewpoints, sexual orientations, disabilities or lack of disabilities, political affiliations, ideologies, philosophies.....then come on in.

~sapphoq n friends

Friday, October 06, 2006


SPIKE Q. NEEDS 10/6/06

idea from Dianna over at

First you type in your name followed by the word "needs" into your search engine and list the top ten results:

spike q needs: a recipe disc, dough, answers, to make changes in the registry, housekeeping, special things, to order stock, a certain aspect or quality, to return as a different character, splicing.

Then, you can either post it in your blog like this:

spike q. needs a recipe disc.
spike q. needs dough.
spike q. needs answers.
spike q. needs to make changes in the registry.
spike q. needs housekeeping.
spike q. needs special things.
spike q. needs to order stock.
spike q. needs a certain aspect or quality.
spike q. needs to return as a different character.
spike q. needs splicing.

Or, you can do some adding, subtracting and rearranging to make a poem out of the words like this:

Special Needs

I need a recipe, to find some answers, or maybe
to make changes to the registry. I need more dough,
internal housekeeping, to order stock, or maybe
some wholesale splicing. People have told me
that I need a certain aspect or character trait that
I seem to be lacking. Or maybe to die and then
reincarnate as someone else entirely. To that,
I say, "No thank-you." Once has been enough
for me if not way too much and too long as it is.

~sapphoq 'n' friends