Last Sunday, I published my first notebook on Observable. It’s fairly basic, but I’ve been playing with Observable for a while and, in the spirit of the New Year, I decided it was time to put something out there, no matter how small or imperfect.

Moving on from Bl.ocks

I used to use Mike Bostock’s D3 library and his Bl.ocks site to experiment with and teach myself about different ways of visualising data. But I found myself fiddling with my workflow a lot and, for various reasons that perhaps I’ll elaborate on another time, a lot of my experiments remained unpublished.

Observable is the next best thing after Bl.ocks. You can get experimenting straight away, easily creating your own new notebooks or forking other people’s code directly on the site – or pinching just the bits of other people’s code that you want, without the need for a lot of local set-up and testing. In short, you can get straight to work.

My first published notebook is very simple.

Pynchon and lists

I came across a comment by Justin Vaughn in a discussion thread about lists of Edward’s Tufte’s site. (Tufte’s site is a wealth of interesting content about content, by the way.) In it, he pointed out that Thomas Pynchon was a great user of lists within his prose.

I was aware of this already. I remember once showing a friend of mine Mason & Dixon, marvelling at what I thought was the lovely opening passage:

Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,– the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking’d-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel’d Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,– the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax’d and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy December, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.

My (former) friend exclaimed “But that’s just a list!”

I couldn’t really disagree. But I’ve always liked lists, particularly if they’re well-written.

I’d been thinking about lists for both work and my own pet projects a lot recently.

Justin Vaughn’s comment referred specifically to a passage in Gravity’s Rainbow which showcased a monster list containing within it its own lists and that got me thinking further…

Some reflections

When I first read Pynchon’s books it created a sense of giddiness and something, I suppose, like synchronicity. I think that’s in part because the prose takes you deeper and deeper into absurd and sometimes funny levels of detail, before pulling suddenly and sharply up to a higher level again.

It’s a bit like walking while holding a map which you are studying intently the contours of, only to lower it and find yourself on a cliff edge looking down at distant rocks. Even though you have a detailed map, the sudden change of perspective and scale is ironically disorientating.

In my Observable notebook on a passage about Slothrop’s desk in Gravity’s Rainbow, I try to show how this effect is achieved.

I’ve structured the passage as a set of nesting lists in HTML but created a way to toggle between one view where the prose appeared as normal and another where the list structure was visible.

At some point, I’d like to explore both Pynchon’s prose further (I hadn’t revisited it in years and wonder if it will have the same charm?) and the idea of using Observable to explode texts and look at literary devices through different structures.