[ncolug] The Hole Hawg

THE HOLE HAWG OF OPERATING SYSTEMS
by Neal Stephenson

Linux has always lurked provocatively in the background of the operating system 
wars, like the Russian Army. Most people know it only by reputation, and its 
reputation, as the Dilbert cartoon suggests, is mixed. But everyone seems to 
agree that if it could only get its act together and stop surrendering vast 
tracts of rich agricultural land and hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war 
to the onrushing invaders, it could stomp them (and all other opposition) flat.

It is difficult to explain how linux has earned this respect without going into 
mind-smashing technical detail. Perhaps the gist of it can be explained by 
telling a story about drills.

The Hole Hawg is a drill made by the Milwaukee Tool Company. If you look in a 
typical hardware store you may find smaller Milwaukee drills but not the Hole 
Hawg, which is too powerful and too expensive for homeowners. The Hole Hawg 
does not have the pistol-like design of a cheap homeowner's drill. It is a cube 
of solid metal with a handle sticking out of one face and a chuck mounted in 
another. The cube contains a disconcertingly potent electric motor. You can 
hold the handle and operate the trigger with your index finger, but unless you 
are exceptionally strong you cannot control the weight of the Hole Hawg with 
one hand; it is a two-hander all the way. In order to fight off the 
counter-torque of the Hole Hawg you use a separate handle (provided), which you 
screw into one side of the iron cube or the other depending on whether you are 
using your left or right hand to operate the trigger. This handle is not a 
sleek, ergonomically designed item as it would be in a homeowner's drill. It is 
simply a foot-long chunk of regular galvanized pipe, threaded on one end, with 
a black rubber handle on the other. If you lose it, you just go to the local 
plumbing supply store and buy another chunk of pipe.

During the Eighties I did some construction work. One day, another worker 
leaned a ladder against the outside of the building that we were putting up, 
climbed up to the second-story level, and used the Hole Hawg to drill a hole 
through the exterior wall. At some point, the drill bit caught in the wall. The 
Hole Hawg, following its one and only imperative, kept going. It spun the 
worker's body around like a rag doll, causing him to knock his own ladder down. 
Fortunately he kept his grip on the Hole Hawg, which remained lodged in the 
wall, and he simply dangled from it and shouted for help until someone came 
along and reinstated the ladder.

I myself used a Hole Hawg to drill many holes through studs, which it did as a 
blender chops cabbage. I also used it to cut a few six-inch-diameter holes 
through an old lath-and-plaster ceiling. I chucked in a new hole saw, went up 
to the second story, reached down between the newly installed floor joists, and 
began to cut through the first-floor ceiling below. Where my homeowner's drill 
had labored and whined to spin the huge bit around,
and had stalled at the slightest obstruction, the Hole Hawg rotated with the 
stupid consistency of a spinning planet. When the hole saw seized up, the Hole 
Hawg spun itself and me around, and crushed one of my hands between the steel 
pipe handle and a joist, producing a few lacerations, each surrounded by a wide 
corona of deeply bruised flesh. It also bent the hole saw itself, though not so 
badly that I couldn't use it. After a few such runins, when I got ready to use 
the Hole Hawg my heart actually began to pound with atavistic terror.

But I never blamed the Hole Hawg; I blamed myself. The Hole Hawg is dangerous 
because it does exactly what you tell it to. It is not bound by the physical 
limitations that are inherent in a cheap drill, and neither is it limited by 
safety interlocks that might be built into a homeowner's product by a 
liability-conscious manufacturer. The danger lies not in the machine itself but 
in the user's failure to envision the full consequences of the instructions he 
gives to it.

A smaller tool is dangerous too, but for a completely different reason: it 
tries to do what you tell it to, and fails in some way that is unpredictable 
and almost always undesirable. But the Hole Hawg is like the genie of the 
ancient fairy tales, who carries out his master's instructions literally and 
precisely and with unlimited power, often with disastrous, unforeseen 
consequences.

Pre-Hole Hawg, I used to examine the drill selection in hardware stores with 
what I thought was a judicious eye, scorning the smaller low-end models and 
hefting the big expensive ones appreciatively, wishing I could afford one of 
them babies. Now I view them all with such contempt that I do not even consider 
them to be real drills--merely scaled-up toys designed to exploit the 
self-delusional tendencies of soft-handed homeowners who want to believe that 
they have purchased an actual tool. Their plastic casings, carefully designed 
and focus-group-tested to convey a feeling of solidity and power, seem 
disgustingly flimsy and cheap to me, and I am ashamed that I was ever 
bamboozled into buying such knicknacks.

It is not hard to imagine what the world would look like to someone who had 
been raised by contractors and who had never used any drill other than a Hole 
Hawg. Such a person, presented with the best and most expensive hardware-store 
drill, would not even recognize it as such. He might instead misidentify it as 
a child's toy, or some kind of motorized screwdriver. If a salesperson or a 
deluded homeowner referred to it as a drill, he would laugh and tell them that 
they were mistaken--they simply had their terminology wrong. His interlocutor 
would go away irritated, and probably feeling rather defensive about his 
basement full of cheap, dangerous, flashy, colorful tools.

linux is the Hole Hawg of operating systems, and linux hackers, like Doug 
Barnes and the guy in the Dilbert cartoon and many of the other people who 
populate Silicon Valley, are like contractor's sons who grew up using only Hole 
Hawgs. They might use Apple/Microsoft OSes to write letters, play video games, 
or balance their checkbooks, but they cannot really bring themselves to take 
these operating systems seriously.



Larry DiGioia
HP Technology Services
Rolls-Royce Energy Systems
105 N. Sandusky St.
Mount Vernon, OH 43050

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