batch vs. loop

There was an article in the September 2023 issue of Wired Magazine, called “I’m a Batch Guy in a Loop World,” by Paul Ford. When I read it I wanted to write about it and link to it, but it wasn’t on the Wired website.

I figured that maybe there was a delay between some articles being in the print issue and being posted on the website. So, I waited for a while, but, as I write this, the article is still not there.

So, I’m going to talk about it anyway.

The main point of the article is that people used to interact with computers mostly in “batch” form. For example, you’d come up with an idea for a computer program, you’d code it in a language like FORTRAN (which I sort of learned way back when), creating a stack of punch cards, which you then passed to somebody who could run the program by feeding your punch cards into the computer, sometimes sooner and sometimes later.

Some time after that, you’d get your stack of cards back, along with a printout showing a series of error messages which could lead you in the direction of figuring out why your program wasn’t working. (I’m generalizing out of my own school days, obviously.) (In theory, of course, it was possible that the printout might show that your program had actually worked — but I wouldn’t know that from my own experience.)

A lot of modern interactions with computers are not “batch” at all, but “loop.” You do something in real time, and the computer reacts right away. You click on a link, you go to the place that link points to. You change a color in a graphic, you can print it out or post it on the Web right away. You post something on social media, you can get a response or a Like in seconds.

Like Paul Ford, who wrote the Wired article, I’m kind of a batch guy. Blogs are a “batch” experience. You come up with an idea, write the post, edit and polish it (I hope), and then post it. You can even set it to post later, at a time you choose. I knew a blogger once who had trouble sleeping one night and wrote several blog posts — I think at least four or five — setting each one to post on a different day over the following few weeks.

Novels are an extreme “batch” project, like movies and symphonies and plays. It took James Joyce seven or eight years to write Ulysses.

I do some “loop” stuff. Sometimes I comment on YouTube videos, and sometimes I get a quick response or a Like or whatever. I’ve even had a few of my comments quoted in later videos. All of that is fun, but it’s very ephemeral. As I said before, I’ve had this blog for 24 years and I’ve made over a thousand posts. I’ve written two novels and a bunch of short stories and novellas. When Inherent Vice came out, I studied it for six months, writing about it in depth, here and on the Pynchon wiki. Those are things I take some pride in.

If I’d ever written a FORTRAN program which had actually worked, I’d take some pride in that also.

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