What is your Hole Hawg?
November 8, 2016 5:57 AM   Subscribe

In an effort to describe Unix, Neal Stephenson draws a comparison to the Hole Hawg, an unattractive but highly functional drill used by contractors but not everyday homeowners. Are there any other 'Hole Hawg' tools out there; tools that are valued by experts but either useless, dangerous, or misunderstood by laymen?

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.
posted by leotrotsky to Technology (42 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I guess a lot of medicine is like this? Like, bandaids are a pretty meaningless medical intervention even though we invest them with the power to heal. At the ER you might get stitches, glue, or for more serious wounds, one of a dozen choices of impregnated gauze containing compounds ranging from silver to petroleum.
posted by latkes at 6:07 AM on November 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was going to say medicine, but latkes beat me to it, the next one that jumps to mind are firearms. Nobody needs a machine gun, most probably don't know how to use one, but it is a powerful single-purpose tool whose effectiveness and safety are entirely dependent on the user.
posted by deadwater at 6:10 AM on November 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Formula 1 car? Completely undriveable by an untrained human being and barely driveable even by someone experienced with track driving. But it does a thing well.

Part of the reason it's so dangerous is that you have to actually interact with the tires and really be mindful of what is happening every second, which is what modern systems in cars are meant to separate you from.
posted by selfnoise at 6:16 AM on November 8, 2016 [12 favorites]

For some digitization projects the books are actually destroyed. They do this with a giant dangerous-to-fingers chopper thing that can cut the binding off of a book and cut around the margins in the sides with astonishing accuracy. Cuts through a book like butter. It's way too expensive to use for anything that isn't operating at incredible scale like, for example, the project to scan all the case law in the United States (pic in that article).
posted by jessamyn at 6:19 AM on November 8, 2016 [10 favorites]

The F1 car thing is really huge, and I think not widely understood. People think "eh, it's just another kind of car," but driving one is astoundingly difficult.
posted by uberchet at 6:34 AM on November 8, 2016

I'm a chemist and it's been a bit amusing in the past few years watching the recent fad for labware migrate down to the culinary level. I'm also a bit of an enthusiast when it comes to the kitchen, so while I don't have the experience of disdain that Stephenson mentions about culinary vs lab tools, it is still a bit of a trip to see a piece of equipment migrating from one context to another.

Chief of these, of course, are the home sous vide immersion heaters, which are repurposed temperature controllers from the lab. Polyscience, the name you saw on all of the cool chef's systems in the early 2010s, is indeed a big player in this space in the lab world too. Their consumer versions, even the "pro" commercial kitchen ones, do look like toys to me compared with the lab versions.

But that's largely just a function of cost and capability---even busy restaurants don't need the ability to haul down (or up) the temperature tens (or thousands) of litres of water quickly, nor would they be willing to pay the $20,000+ pricetags for those machines. The Anova, which works great at home, and can easily handle a 4-5L bath, runs in the $200 range. Sure it's tiny compared to the 5kW and 30kW systems I have at work, but it still works great in its niche (and I highly recommend it if you're considering one).
posted by bonehead at 6:38 AM on November 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'd guess that a lot of sports equipment is like this. I'm most familiar with tennis: Serious players generally play with rackets that are heavier and less forgiving than those marketed to the broader market.

Stephenson's description applies well to those "players' rackets": "...who carries out his master's instructions literally and precisely..." You have to be strong enough to take a quick, full swing thousands of times in a row. They will hit the ball precisely where you want; but if you err slightly, the ball will go out.

A lighter, more forgiving mass-market racket is a bit like a trampoline: you can chop or punch at the ball and it will go in the right general direction with decent power and reasonable accuracy.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:40 AM on November 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

In the computing vein, of course, there are classic editors like Emacs and Vi. And the programming language C. Which are all associated with Unix.
posted by grouse at 6:41 AM on November 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

In the computing vein, of course, there are classic editors like Emacs and Vi. And the programming language C. Which are all associated with Unix.

I was also thinking server hardware, which is extremely powerful for what it does and in many cases totally unusable for the layman, both because it's usually missing piddly little things like graphics cards, and because they're usually command-line-only.
posted by Itaxpica at 6:45 AM on November 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

In cooking, the mandoline. A single sharp blade mounted so you can quickly slice vegetables paper thin. Inevitably you end up slicing off a bit of finger, even when being careful. Most home consumer mandolines are sold with some sort of holder / hand guard thing that makes the tool slightly safer but also completely useless.
posted by Nelson at 6:50 AM on November 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Another example from the lab: some folks have designed their "ultimate" whisky glass with little glass fins in it to give a better swirl and so, I guess, produce a better nose to the whiskey.

They were inspired by a trypsinizing flask used for growing cell cultures.

This one is kind of a gimmick imo. I bought some of the glasess (because I could not pass them up ofc), and they're really not much different from the Glencairn glass. They look cool in a Bodum-glass kind of way though.
posted by bonehead at 6:54 AM on November 8, 2016

Old-school interfaces to travel reservation systems like Sabre are extremely powerful, can reserve complex itineraries impossible with other means, and are utterly incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Check out a Sabre quick reference guide to see some examples.
posted by grouse at 6:56 AM on November 8, 2016 [10 favorites]

I imagine hang-gliders are like this. Want to go up? Here we go! Hope you know what stalling means! Going down? Ok let's do it! BLAMMO

I have never tried hang-gliding. Happy to let professional pilots help me loose the bonds of earth.
posted by travertina at 7:12 AM on November 8, 2016

"I'd guess that a lot of sports equipment is like this"

Very true. I used to work at a hockey store, and when stick manufacturers started putting numerical flex ratings on their sticks, everyone just assumed that a higher number was better. So everyone would buy 110 flex. They're basically caveman clubs. It takes a lot of force to bend a 110 flex stick, so much so that a lot of pros don't even play with sticks that stiff. (I'm 36 and I play with a 65 flex stick.) You'd have these 13 year old kids coming in and buying $300 composite sticks with 110 flex, and then cutting them down to size, which makes them even stiffer. These kids, who are supposed to be developing skills at their age, would be unable to flex their sticks to shoot, and because composite is less forgiving then wood, it would hurt their stickhandling too. It was always strange to see people spend hundreds of dollars on something that would make them play worse.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:14 AM on November 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

In terms of driving, I think a manual transmission in general qualifies as "useless, dangerous, or misunderstood by laymen". Nobody knows how to drive a stick anymore, so much that a lot of car models are only offered in automatic.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:16 AM on November 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Only in the US kevinbelt - EU cars are still predominantly manual I believe.

On the F1 front: these cars are so completely out of line with ordinary people’s expectations of what a car should be like. To give but one tiny example: if you drive too slowly into a corner you *will* spin out, because there won’t be enough downforce from the rear wing to keep the wheels stuck to the tarmac.
posted by pharm at 7:28 AM on November 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Continuing the F1 line of responses, here's a video of Richard Hammond from Top Gear trying to drive an F1 car.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:42 AM on November 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Airplanes. Anyone with a few hours of training can fly a Cessna 172. You turn the yolk, you go that way. You push in the throttle, the propeller goes faster. Sure, there's more to it but everything you need to fly the thing works pretty much how you'd expect. Kind of like driving a car in 3D.

Then you get into more complex prop planes or jets and suddenly you have entire systems to learn about and it's more like operating a power plant than driving a car.
posted by bondcliff at 7:50 AM on November 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would also add Trimax, which is a gas mixture that deep divers use, something that most of your basic scuba divers would know little about and could seriously hurt themselves using.
posted by deadwater at 8:09 AM on November 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Garage door spring adjusting kit.

It's funny that Stephenson doesn't actually describe what's particularly dangerous about the Hole Hawg. But having used one myself, I can say I still have all my fingers and never broke a wrist.
posted by humboldt32 at 8:19 AM on November 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Downhill Mountain Bike Downhill Bikes are bikes that are pretty much useless for uphill riding so they tend to be used exclusively at lift based parks (ski resorts in summer) or shuttle runs (rides up hill down to waiting car). They tend to have huge suspensions and let the rider overextend themselves easily.
posted by bitdamaged at 8:30 AM on November 8, 2016

And back in the sports and vehicles domain, Track bikes - especially sprint bikes. They require a pretty noteworthy level of athleticism to get up to speed on the 45-degree banking of a track, and they're designed to excel at speeds that are just not reachable by ordinary humans - well over 40mph under one's own power.

I'd file that under "useless" for lay people.
posted by entropone at 8:43 AM on November 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I took a short introduction to firefighting, which included discussions of all the various forms of equipment we might use. We were shown three kinds of protective suits: the wildland suits, which are just fire-resistant layers, the bunker suits, which also have insulation, and the silver suits. The guys leading the course said "we won't let you use silver suits, because you can get into too much trouble": they let you get so deep into a hot fire that no one else will be able to get you out if you get into trouble.
posted by adamrice at 9:07 AM on November 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Competition level paragliders. An expert can go a long way on one, but a beginner (or even intermediate) pilot will have a very scary, possibly fatal, time in the event that they're able to keep one inflated long enough to launch.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 9:20 AM on November 8, 2016

I think most of the examples above miss the essence of the linked Hole Hawg essay. Most of these things are just 'things that make a different set of tradeoffs and are consequently not appropriate for certain, possibly more commonplace tasks', 'things that are difficult to use', or 'things that are esoteric'.

I'm not trying to pick on anybody but the manual transmission example illustrates the difference well: Imaging a Stephenson-approved "Gear Hawg" transmission. It would supply you with whatever ratio of gear reduction you requested, no matter the consequences. Dropping the transmission into reverse on the freeway would make it explode. Failure to double clutch would eventually destroy the transmission because it wouldn't be synchronized. Of course, this is impossible with most manual transmissions, because they're designed to prevent this.

The general feature Stephenson is decrying is known as an 'interlock' ("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."). Broadly, interlocks add some statefulness to a tool so that it can't be accidentally used in a way that would have catastrophic consequences, especially when that usage mode is so unlikely to make sense that mistakes are much more likely, like putting a transmission into reverse when you're hurtling down the freeway.

Part of this is because the Stephenson essay in question is really stupid. The Hole Hawg is a terribly-designed tool. What could possibly be the use of a drill equipped only with hand grips that can completely unpredictably generate so much torque it cannot possibly be gripped by hands? This isn't some cool, badass way to make a drill. It's incredibly bad design. The attitude about drill shoppers Stephenson is making fun of is exactly the attitude he has and the attitude that enables the drill to be sold: he's simply swapped aesthetic preference for the solid metal cube and pipe handles for the molded plastic. The example with the ladder is insane: how could you possibly argue that this is a good way to design a handtool that will commonly need to be used from ladders? There is no mechanism in the drill to support being braced on ladders, or by the structure being drilled into, or anything else, mind. There are only two hand grips, and there is no way to determine ahead of time what kind of reverse torque the drill will apply, because you can't see what it might catch on.

If I sound a little ranty, it's because I first read this essay many many years ago and I spend a lot of my time around Stephenson fans and hackers of various stripes (I'm a programmer), and so I've had many years to let the annoyance at this essay and this attitude build up.

Unix itself has proven over and over and over again that this type of design leads over and over again to catastrophic failures due to human error, and consequently anyone with anything to lose spends an enormous amount of time layering a series of interlocks onto their Unix systems to prevent losses from catastrophic mistakes. People who work in trades that take this kind of thing seriously (i.e. not software people) invest enormous amounts of effort in making it less likely that you're going to crash the 747 you're flying into a mountain, or that you're going to leave a hemostat in somebody's belly.

I guess I agree with Stephenson that Unix and C were designed like the Hole Hawg. Where we part company is thinking that this is good. At least with Unix and C, there's a good excuse: what else could they have done, under the prevailing constraints at the time? But we shouldn't get confused about why they did this. The same people who designed Unix and C now spend all their time working on the much-safer-to-use Go programming language.

If you want actual examples of tools that are similar the ones Stephenson describes ("terribly designed tools primarily sold to macho idiots"), you probably want to look at tools that are now illegal or unprofitable to sell due to liability reasons in the developed world.

There is another category of tools that might be worth looking at, which is very powerful tools it is difficult to make less dangerous: table saws (irreplaceable tool but produces something like 40,000 emergency room visits/year in the US), band saws (fine work frequently involves moving the fingers close to the blade, and the huge amounts of momentum stored in the wheels that make the bandsaw able to do its job also make it difficult to stop quickly). The thing is, the people who use and design these tools go to great lengths to make them safer in exactly the sorts of ways Stephenson is dismissing.

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.

Oddly, I am a contractor's son, and I work in high tech and use Unix in various flavors all day every day. I still think this essay only really makes sense if you read it as like, being by a high school kid who's telling you how his uncle gave him some fire crackers that are "equal to a quarter stick of dynamite".

Until this attitude is eliminated from the world of software engineering, we'll continue to have people being poisoned by GE CT scanners or killed by radiation therapy machines.
posted by jeb at 9:26 AM on November 8, 2016 [41 favorites]

I'm sure there are many software examples, but I'll go with what I know. As a graphic designer, InDesign is a great program that can do so many things, but without any training, you're left with a blank sheet of paper, and little idea of how to go from there. The 'for dummies version' is Microsoft Publisher, which comes complete with templates and guides you through 'designing' something.
posted by hydra77 at 9:30 AM on November 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think Core Impact might apply. You click a button and it scans a network. Click another button, it will try and hack into every server it finds, using all pertinent exploits, and then leave a payload that allows full control over the computer, including the ability to scan and launch attacks from the system. All in a friendly GUI complete with wizards.

The knowledge needed to use the tool is greatly exceeded by the knowledge needed to understand the consequences of using the tool.
posted by zabuni at 10:14 AM on November 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I extended the interpretation of the question a bit further: useless, dangerous, or misunderstood?

The glasses I liked above are an example of a cargo-cult useless and misunderstood version of the labware. The bumps in the glass do exactly what they're designed to do, create turbulent flow in a whiskey when one swirls the glass. However, that makes no discernible difference to the nose of the whisky. The link between hydrodynamic mixing in the glass and an increased rate of volatalization of the fluid aren't well established here. The shear energy spectrum of a light swirl, say 1 cycle per second, isn't enough to produce significant free droplet formation (or even less credibly increased vapourization) above the liquid. There are actual papers on the energy of mixing available in very similar flasks, written by some of my collaborators. Of course, the labware is well suited for the purpose it is designed for, mixing cell cultures.

So here's a product that apes the appearance of a piece of labware, misapplies the features of it for a purpose it is not suited for, nor effective. Useless and misunderstood, but very unlikely to be dangerous. However, it looks cool, and makes for good ad copy.
posted by bonehead at 10:27 AM on November 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

What could possibly be the use of a drill equipped only with hand grips that can completely unpredictably generate so much torque it cannot possibly be gripped by hands?

Drilling a 2-3/4" hole through a 6x header, or several studs stacked together at a window framing, as an example.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:30 AM on November 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

In woodworking, the drawknife. In skilled hands, can be used to quickly reduce stock by a controlled amount. To everyone else, it digs in, balks, slips, gouges and causes flesh wounds of great depth and variety.

In groundskeeping, the Yorkshire Billhook. It's basically a cut-off medieval weapon with axe blades front and back. It's far too easy to let a rebound from a springy branch cause the back blade to embed in a shin or (as happened to a friend) forehead*. But it has no equal for dealing with heavy thorny bush limbs in giant Yorkshire-style laid fences.

In text processing perl -pi with no options. It lets you quietly overwrite input files with output files. Your regexes have to be perfect, or you're digging through your backups. (The same might be said for small/embedded Linuxes like Puppy or Yocto that run everything as root.)

*: he's okay now, btw, but has one helluva scar.
posted by scruss at 10:49 AM on November 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Essentially every production-level machine tool will do what you tell it to. A large shear will not hesitate to sever fingers and limbs. Waterjet cutters can blow straight through most things - they use a garnet abrasive and extremely high pressure water as a carrier. CNC Mills can be accidentally programmed and destroy clamps and vises at the minimum.
posted by Dmenet at 12:19 PM on November 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you want to buy caffeine as a supplement, you can get it at the chemist's, parceled out inside 100-200mg capsules.

Alternatively, you can bulk buy powder by the kilogram online (or you used to, until recently).

You shouldn't do that though, because (1) there's no real need for it, unless you really want to caffeinate your hummus or mashed potatoes, (2) a tablespoon is enough to kill you and (3) household scales aren't accurate enough to distinguish between a high dose and a lethal one.
posted by rollick at 12:21 PM on November 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm surprised nobody's mentioned chainsaws, which aren't that esoteric and which do have some safety features but which still let you get yourself into a lot of trouble doing things that don't intuitively feel all that dangerous. Getting good intuitions about how branches will behave when you cut them — how they'll fall, whether they'll bind the saw, whether they'll spring back when a heavy piece is cut away — takes some time, and until you get there it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between "I am using this tool safely" and "I am being very stupid."
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:24 PM on November 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Extending the Hole Hawg analogy used with Unix/Linux CLIs, both Cisco IOS (and the IOS that runs on ASR series routers) and the Juniper JunOS command line are very powerful tools. Also the sort of CLI where you can issue a single command that will bring down a whole router. This is why ISPs have extensive test/development/training and staging environments in addition to production routers.
posted by thewalrus at 12:30 PM on November 8, 2016

Hair products, especially relaxers and bleaches. The for-the-consumer stuff is usually not as strong as the peel-your-skin-off pro grade goop.
posted by sparklemotion at 1:27 PM on November 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Dewalt makes a handheld bandsaw I'm not very fond of that works well.

A buddy's Husqvarna pro chainsaw is 1/2 the weight of my Farmboss, has more torque on a longer bar and runs chains optimized for cutting vs safety, I've never borrowed it.

The old Gravely two wheel tractor's and machinery would chew up the work, and hurt you bad if gave them half a chance.
posted by ridgerunner at 2:09 PM on November 8, 2016

Came in to complain about the original Neal Stephenson point but jeb has nailed it. So I'll echo nebulawindphone regarding chainsaws. An essential piece of farm equipment, however if you don't know what you're doing with a chainsaw, they are incredibly dangerous and easy to misunderstand.
posted by wilful at 3:08 PM on November 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I give you the handheld chopsaw. It's pretty much an arterial laceration machine in untrained hands.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:45 PM on November 8, 2016

I've always though that GREP or similar regular expression tools fall into this category. I remember running a reg ex over a nested directory structure of several thousand HTML files. I was looking for a particular markup string and with the plan that I would find it and replace it with a similar better string that would do something important like update the image banner across the whole site. I can still remember pressing 'ok' on the operation and then realising that I had ever so slightly misstyped the reg ex that I was searching for...

Putting that toothpaste back in the tube took a lot more effort than it would have to re-code the site manually, particularly after I realised that the nightly backup had failed.

Since then, the development company I worked for always referred to grep as the 'swiss army chainsaw' of development tools. Insanely powerful, incredibly flexible and limited only by the fact that it will do *exactly* what you tell it to.
posted by tim_in_oz at 9:03 PM on November 8, 2016

Chainsaws can be dangerous but the top-handled (one-handed, climbing, in-tree or arborist) chainsaw is the most dangerous and there have been calls to ban them outright. They are designed for a pro to use in awkward positions and have a short bar with a lot of power and few safeguards. They can be lethal in a kickback, especially when used one-handed. The better ones such as a Stihl 200 or 201t are sold with lots of warnings that they are intended for professional use only.
posted by bz at 11:10 PM on November 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Emperor SnooKloze's handheld chopsaw + bz's chainsaw = the Lancelot woodcarver. A friend lost the tips of three fingers to one of those, and we're still finding bloodstains around the workshop.
posted by scruss at 5:33 AM on November 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Is it too late to suggest miliwatt laser pointers ("Do not look into laser with remaining eye")?

And what about the first year's production of the Hummer, which was still way too military a vehicle for any civilian to need on the nation's highways and mall parking aprons?

Those huge, restaurant-grade Viking and Wolf stoves that some people put in their kitchens, not knowing just how fast a 30k BTU open burner will ruin food, pans, and arm hair.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:20 AM on November 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

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