Thomas Pynchon's recent novel Bleeding Edge is set in New York City, after the dot.com bust of 3/10/2000 and shortly before the World Trade Center attack of 9/11/2001.
The central figure is Maxine Tarnow, who runs a small fraud-investigation outfit called Tail 'Em and Nail 'Em, and many of her clients and her friends are associated with the failed, failing, or somehow-surviving start-ups of Silicon Alley. As a result, a lot of the local linguistic color in this novel is geekish in nature.
For example, at one point, late in the novel, Maxine is wandering through the online worlds of DeepArcher, a sort of immersive shared-reality video game without any scores. DeepArcher is important to the plot because it was created by some of Maxine's friends, is the subject of an acquisition attempt by Gabriel Ice of hashslingerz, the villain of the piece, and at this point has just been open-sourced by its developers.
Open source has certainly brought some changes. Core is teeming these days with smartasses, yups, tourists, and twits writing code for whatever they think they want and installing it, till some other headcase finds it and deinstalls it. Maxine goes in with no clear idea of what she’ll find.
Onto the screen, accordingly, leaps a desert, correction, the desert. Empty as the train stations and spaceport terminals of a more innocent time were overpopulated. No middle-class amenities here, beyond arrows to let you scan around the horizon. This is survivalist country. Movements are blurless, every pixel doing its job, the radiation from above triggering colors too unsafe for hex code, a sound track of ground-level desert wind. This is what she’s supposed to pick her way across, dowsing a desert which is not only a desert, for links invisible and undefined.
Not yet in despair, off she goes, zooming and swiveling, up and down dunes and wadis of deep purity finely touched with mineral tints, beneath rocks and ridgelines, empty stretches in which Omar Sharif continues not to come riding in out of a mirage. It should be just one more teen-sociopath video game, except it’s not a shooter, so far anyway, there’s no story line, no details about the destination, no manual to read, no cheat list. Does anybody get extra lives? Does anybody even get this one?
She pauses in the uneasy melismas of desert wind. Suppose it’s all about losing, not finding. What has she lost? Maxine? Hello? To put it another way, what’s she trying to lose?
Structures begin to emerge ahead, carrion birds appear in the sky. Now and then, far off, human figures, robed and hooded, still, wind-ruffled, taller than the perspective would call for, stand and watch Maxine. No attempts at approach or welcome. Ahead, past the baked-mud district that now rises around her, she can feel a presence. The sky changes, beginning to pick up saturation, edging into SVG Alice Blue, the landscape acquiring a queer luminosity, moving toward her, picking up speed, rushing in to envelop her.
"SVG Alice Blue" is indeed one of the 147 color names defined in the Scalable Vector Graphics Specification. (SVG 1.0 was only released by W3C on 9/4/2001, so only someone seriously plugged in to web-design geekery could have known about "SVG Alice Blue" at the time of Maxine's exploration; and I'm not sure even that the 147 color names in SVG 1.1 were part of the 1.0 release; but this is a cyber-fantasy in which mere secular time is a fungible quantity, after all…)
There's a technical allusion earlier in this passage that requires a bigger metaphorical leap: "the radiation from above triggering colors too unsafe for hex code". How could colors be "too unsafe for hex code"?
Well, one common way to represent digital colors is in terms of 8-bit (0-255) levels of Red, Green, and Blue; and these RGB triplets are most conveniently coded as six hexadecimal digits, e.g. SVG Alice Blue is #F0F8FF — Red=240, Green=248, Blue=255. The full range of in-principle available colors is then 224 = 16,777,216.
So what's "too unsafe for hex"? There are real-world colors that a given monitor can't create, but any modern monitor will emit some light spectrum in response to any 24-bit RGB color specification, whether expressed in hex or any other base. However, back in the day, as Wikipedia explains, there was a notion of "web-safe colors":
At one time many computer displays were only capable of displaying 256 colors. These may be dictated by the hardware or changeable by a "color table". When a color is found (e.g., in an image) that is not one available, a different one has to be used. This can done by either using the closest color, which greatly speeds up the load time, or by using dithering, which results in more accurate results, but takes longer to load due to the complex calculations.
There were various attempts to make a "standard" color palette. A set of colors was needed that could be shown without dithering on 256-color displays; the number 216 was chosen partly because computer operating systems customarily reserved sixteen to twenty colors for their own use; it was also selected because it allows exactly six equally-spaced shades of red, green, and blue (6 × 6 × 6 = 216), each from 00 to FF (including both limits).
Now 216 is a lot smaller than 16,777,216 — but Pynchon's idea here seems to be that Maxine is experiencing colors that are "unsafe", i.e. not directly realizable, even in the 24-bit color space. His psychophysics is questionable, I think, but his amygdala is in the right place. This metaphor is right on target for a somewhat freaked-out web-design geek in 2001.
It's not clear, however, just who this web-design-geek observer/narrator is. There's a lot of free indirect speech in this novel, e.g. the opening paragraph:
It’s the first day of spring 2001, and Maxine Tarnow, though some still have her in their system as Loeffler, is walking her boys to school. Yes maybe they’re past the age where they need an escort, maybe Maxine doesn’t want to let go just yet, it’s only a couple blocks, it’s on her way to work, she enjoys it, so?
But Maxine herself is a forensic accountant, who hangs out with web designers but doesn't do anything of the sort herself. It would be unexpected for her to know about web-safe colors or SVG color names, but a lot of cyber-concepts and cyber-lingo have somehow leaked into her interior monologues.
Sometimes the cyber-lingo is a little off, and it's hard to tell whether this is because Pynchon himself got it wrong, or because he's depicting a character who got it wrong.
There's an interesting example of this not-quite-right local linguistic color at the end of the novel's description of a party sponsored by an internet company that Gabriel Ice has recently acquired:
Ms. Maxine Tarnow-Loeffler
The pleasure of your company is requested at
The First Annual
Grande Rentrée Ball, or
Saturday night, the eighth of September, 2001
<ha ha only serious/>
In search of clues, Maxine enlists her ex-husband Horst to accompany her to this event. The party-description passages are expectedly fun — Pynchon is good at this sort of thing:
One cannot help noticing a certain emphasis tonight on instant nostalgia. Nineties irony, a little past its sell-by date, is in full bloom again down here. Maxine and Horst are swept past the bouncers at the door in a vortex of fauxhawks and fades and emo hair, mops and crops and Japanese princess cuts, Von Dutch trucker-cap knockoffs, temporary tattoos, spliffs hanging off lips,Matrix-era Ray-Bans, Hawaiian shirts, the only shirts in sight with collars, except for Horst’s. “Good grief,” he exclaims, “it looks like Keokuk around here.” Those in earshot are too hip to tell him that’s the point.
Even though the dotcom bubble, once an eye-catching ellipsoid, now droops in vivid pink collapse over the trembling chin of the era, perhaps no more than a vestige of shallow breath left inside it, no expense tonight has been spared. The theme of the gathering, officially “1999,” has a darker subtext of Denial. It soon becomes clear that everybody’s pretending for tonight that they’re still in the pre-crash fantasy years, dancing in the shadow of last year’s dreaded Y2K, now safely history, but according to this consensual delusion not quite upon them yet, with all here remaining freeze-framed back at the Cinderella moment of midnight of the millennium when in the next nanosecond the world’s computers will fail to increment the year correctly and bring down the Apocalypse. What passes for nostalgia in a time of widespread Attention Deficit Disorder. People have pulled their pre-millennial T-shirts back out of the archival plastic they’ve been idling in—Y2K IS NEAR,ARMAGEDDON EVE, Y2K COMPLIANT LOVE MACHINE, I SURVIVED . . . Determined, as Prince can be heard repeatedly urging, to party like it’s 1999.
The Soviet-era sound system, looted from a failed arena somewhere in Eastern Europe, is also blasting Blink-182, Echo and the Bunnymen, Barenaked Ladies, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and other sentimental oldies while vintage stock quotations from the boom-years NASDAQ crawl along a ticker display on a frieze running the full perimeter of the ballroom, beneath giant four-by-six-meter LED screens onto which bloom and fade loops of historical highlights like Bill Clinton’s grand-jury testimony, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” the other Bill, Gates, getting a pie in the face in Belgium, the announcement trailer for Halo, clips from the Dilbert animated TV series and the first season of SpongeBob, Roman Coppola’s Boo.com commercials, Monica Lewinsky hosting SNL, Susan Lucci finally winning a Daytime Emmy for Erica Kane, with Urge Overkill’s song of the same name deejayed in as accompaniment.
Or again, with the obligatory Pynchon pop-song pastiche:
Reaching the top floor at last, Eric and Maxine enter the godfather of postmodern toilets, a piazza-size expanse of Belgian encaustic tiling in ocher, pale blue and faded burgundy, recycled from a mansion on lower Broadway, with three dozen stalls, its own bar, television lounge, sound system, and deejay, who at the moment, while a six-by-six matrix of dancers perform the Electric Slide across the antique tiling, is playing Nazi Vegetable’s once-chartbusting disco anthem
In the Toilet [Hustle tempo]
Such a weird ’n’ wack-y feeling, wit’ your
Brains up on th’ ceiling, in the
[Girl backup]—In the toi-let!
Coke and Ecstasy and weed,
Never know when you might need
Them in the toi-let
(All in-that, toi-let!)
Just come in to take a peek, end up
Stayin’ for a week, down in the
Toi-let! . . .
An indeterminate number of pages later,
Does Nora Charles ever have to put up with this sort of thing? Even Nancy Drew? The parties they go to, it’s all catered hors d’oeuvres and beautiful strangers. But let Maxine try to step out and enjoy herself a little, forget it, it always ends up like this. Weekday-type obligations, guilt, ghosts.
For some reason, however, she manages to stay all night and close the joint down. Horst, perhaps from secondhand smoke, regressing to his old party-animal ways, is affably all over the place. Maxine finds herself tangled in and presently refereeing nerd disputes she can’t understand a word of. She nods out in the toilet once or twice, and if she dreams at all, it’s hard to separate from the great invisible wheeling around her, decelerating, board-fading to all-but-silent black and white, till it’s time at last to CD tilde home.
"CD tilde home"?
Maybe this was a current expression on Silicon Alley in 2001 — please let me know if you have any knowledge or evidence of such a usage. But I've never heard it before , and it looks to me like an ungrammatical combination of three half-understood pieces of unix lingo.
The command "cd" (which needs to be lower case — it won't work in upper case) is short for "change directory", and is normally followed by an absolute or relative path name. Used without a following argument, its default is the value of the HOME shell variable (which would be written out as $HOME, and whose value is normally the user's home directory).
In unix, the "tilde" (i.e. the grapheme ~, ascii U+007E) is a shorter way of referring to the user's home directory in pathnames. Thus if my home directory is /home/myl, then ~/.profile translates for me to /home/myl/.profile. The command "cd ~" will take you home, just as the command "cd" does.
(In URLs, the tilde will sometimes find a user's web directory, e.g. http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/, but I don't think this is relevant here.)
And "home", aside from being where the heart is, is the term for the unix directory associated with each user. In most modern unix systems, this is normally /home/USERNAME; in Mac OS X, it's normally /Users/USERNAME. There's a shell variable $HOME (must be all caps) whose value ought to be that directory, and so the command "cd $HOME" will take you to your home directory, just as "cd" and "cd ~" will.
But "CD tilde home"? On a standard unix system, as of 2001 as well as today, the command "CD" will get a response like
-bash: CD: command not found
Interestingly, the cd command ignores all arguments except the first one, so e.g.
cd /usr/bin foobar
will simply take us to /usr/bin. As a result,
cd ~ home
will take us home — but so will "cd ~" or just plain "cd".