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Normally Emacs uses the environment variable
HOME to find
`.emacs'; that's what `~' means in a file name. But if you
run Emacs from a shell started by
su, Emacs tries to find your
own `.emacs', not that of the user you are currently pretending
to be. The idea is that you should get your own editor customizations
even if you are running as the super user.
More precisely, Emacs first determines which user's init file to use.
It gets the user name from the environment variables
USER; if neither of those exists, it uses effective user-ID.
If that user name matches the real user-ID, then Emacs uses
otherwise, it looks up the home directory corresponding to that user
name in the system's data base of users.