Fun_People Archive
22 Apr
Unix and the Hole Hawg

Content-Type: text/plain
Mime-Version: 1.0 (NeXT Mail 3.3 v118.2)
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Thu, 22 Apr 99 12:10:49 -0700
To: Fun_People
Precedence: bulk
Subject: Unix and the Hole Hawg

X-Lib-of-Cong-ISSN: 1098-7649
[Dear Friends and Acquaintances of Peter -- if I've ever annoyed you by
 making some scornful crack about "toy computers," I apologize and offer
 this item from Neal Stephenson who understands the lack of malice behind
 my rudeness...  -psl]

Forwarded-by: Nev Dull <>
From: Jeff Moore <>

It's such a treat when a Real Writer actually knows something about the
wacky world of computers and chooses to write about it.  The funny thing
about those Real Writers, you see, is that they can actually write...  The
subject: that whole area of operating systems and the cultures which spawned
them or which they spawned.  We've been there many times before, notably

but now Neal Stephenson (you know, _Snow Crash_, _The Diamond Age_) has
waded in with what seems to be a fine essay:

I say, `seems to be' because I've stopped after the first 20 (printed, in
a small font) pages to dash off this note.  Because, well, he'd have to go
out of his way to ruin it given the start he's made.  Right, then.  Back to


Excerpted from the "In The Beginning Was The Command Line", by Neal
Stephenson, author of Snowcrash.

To put it another way, Microsoft can be confident that Thomas Penfield
Jackson will not hand down an order that the brains of everyone in the
developed world are to be summarily re-programmed.  But there's no way to
predict when people will decide, en masse, to re-program their own brains.
This might explain some of Microsoft's behavior, such as their policy of
keeping eerily large reserves of cash sitting around, and the extreme
anxiety that they display whenever something like Java comes along.

Forwarded-by: Chris Small <>

Excerpted from the (long and very worthwhile):  "In The Beginning Was The
Command Line", by Neal Stephenson, author of Snowcrash.


Unix 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 Unix 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
run-ins, 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

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.

Unix is the Hole Hawg of operating systems, and Unix 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.

prev [=] prev © 1999 Peter Langston []