Hard line

James A. Landau JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Fri Jul 5 15:56:01 UTC 2002

In a message dated 07/05/2002 11:14:11 AM Eastern Daylight Time,
faber at HASKINS.YALE.EDU writes:

> the delay in getting to his "hard
>  line", in a context where it was clearly opposed to cell phone. Is this a
>  locution that others have encountered?

I haven't heard this specific usage, but as long as I have been in the
computer business (since 1965) "hard" and "soft" have always been used as
antonyms, with "hard" meaning or implying permanence, and "soft" meaning or
implying "temporary, easy to modify".

For example, a long-ago article on computers in South America talked about
problems with "soft hardware" and "hard software", that is, in South America
computer installations (this was long before microcomputers) had trouble
keeping up with manufacturer's changes to hardware, while on the other hand
they were not getting current updates to software.

The ROM (read-only memory) on your PC is also called "firmware"---it is
supplied by the vendor, and is not supposed to be modified (hence is hard)
yet can be easily modified by the vendor (so it is softer than hard, hence
"firm").  There is a double-entendre here, although the coiner of "firmware"
may not have realized it----firmware can also be changed by the "firm" that
issued it.

A nonce usage from a programmer back in 1971---at an exhibit of new railroad
technology, he referred to those displays using traditional steel rails as
"hard rail" and those using concrete etc. as "soft rail".

Software is soft, right?  Not necessarily.  Consider a "parameter" in your
program, such as the number of departments in your company.  You can set up
this parameter as part of the program, or you can set it up in a table where
it can be easily changed.  The former is called "hard-coding" since it
requires a skilled programmer to go into your program to modify it, and
therefore is more permanent.  No, I have never heard "soft-coding" for the
latter.  In the FAA we call it "adaptation" and make a religion out of it,
but I don't know if that is a widely used term.

If the wiring between two pieces of equipment is soldered in place so that it
takes a competent electrician to change the connections, it is said to be
"hard-wired".  Sometimes the usage is somewhat metaphorical, to mean
something like "difficult to change", as in "he was hard-wired for coffee
breaks".  Again, I don't know the antonym for "hard-wired"; perhaps
"switchable".  (Hmmm.  Instead of knee-jerk liberals, we have hard-wired

I suspect the hard-versus-soft metaphor goes back to whoever invented the
term "software".

                                 - Jim Landau
                                   Systems Engineer
                                   FAA Technical Center (ACB-510/BCI)
                                   Atlantic City Int'l Airport NJ 08405 USA

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