Kathy Sierra, author of the popular “Head First” series from O’Reilly, asked a question: Is your book, manual, website remarkable (or recognizable) at every scale?

There’s a game I used to play where you take a really small image from the painting of a famous artist and try to identify it. The trick is to see how small a sample you can use before you can no longer recognize either the painting or the artist. It’s amazing just how identifiable a Van Gogh or a Monet or a Kandinsky or a Miro is, just from the tiniest slice. It’s a wonderful game to teach yourself to really see the way the artist used color, texture, light, shapes, lines, etc.

Now, take the nearest computer book on your shelf and open it to a random interior page somewhere in the middle. Can you tell who the publisher is just by looking? Can you tell who the author is? Go a little further and start reading a paragraph. Now can you tell?

That’s the problem.

Kathy raises an interesting point. As a book author, I would hope that each book I write stands out from the others on a specific topic. In fact, I, and my royalties, are dependent on this to some extent.

However, Kathy places the burden for uniqueness almost purely on the visualization of the books–what each looks like when opened to a random middle page. This tends to emphasize a more visual learning technique, and though this approach works for some people, it doesn’t work for all. Studies conducted in the past have shown that each of us has a preferred learning style: a method of learning that facilitates how quickly we absorb new material. Tests, surveys, and other assessment techniques are used to help us identify our learning style, and how we can best make use of it.

One such technique, the DVC Learning Survey, breaks learning styles into Visual/Verbal, Visual/Nonverbal, Tactile/Kinesthetic, and Auditory/Verbal. According to the survey results, I am a strong Visual/Verbal, which means I learn best when material is presented visually–as bullet points or diagrams–and in writing.

With another, the Felder-Soloman Index of Learning Styles survey, I am barely Reflective, strongly Intuitive, evenly divided between Verbal and Visual, and mildly Global. This means I tend to learn better by thinking things through rather than hands on; that I prefer concepts over concrete facts; and work from the big picture to the details. This is fairly consistent with the results of the DVC survey.

(You can take the DVC survey yourself –name and other information not required; the Index of Learning styles can be found here. Other studies and self-tests are listed in this helpful summary page.)

These styles, while quite accurate overall, aren’t immutable; the context of a learning situation can alter which style works best. For instance, when working with code I prefer learning by example, which is more Tactile/Kinesthetic on the DVC scale. Based on this, I prefer books that provide numerous small, easy to accomplish examples that allow me to quickly learn the material being presented.

When I’m trying to create one of my homemade books, though, I work almost exclusively with diagrams (which is Visual/Nonverbal). The bookbinding books I like the most are those with clear illustrations, preferably using photographs demonstrating the techniques.

It is a combination of basic learning style and behavior in certain circumstances that makes each of us learn in different, unique ways. However, publishers can’t target the individual; not and make a profit. All they can do is create a specific book brand that caters to a group of people, and make sure the books within that brand are consistent.

A case in point: O’Reilly has many well known brands of books, and each has a different audience. Among the more well known brands is the “In a Nutshell” series, which differs, dramatically, from those that Kathy writes: the “Head First” series. The former is pure text, little diagraming, and focuses largely on specific facts and must-know information, given with little verbal embellishments. The Head First books, though, make heavy use of humor, whimsey, and graphics. Oddly enough, on any particular topic, both types of books probably provide the same amount and type of information–the only difference is the presentation.

There are those who love the Nutshell series; there are those who prefer the Head First series. There might even be people who like books from both, but which series they’ll purchase a book from is dependent on the topic.

Regardless of style, though, the key element is the material offered: if it isn’t quality, no amount of pretties will make it better. I agree with Danny Ayers (author of a book I’m currently reading, “RSS and Atom Programming”–an excellent and comprehensive read with lots of examples), who wrote:

Style and branding is important to the consumer. It’s certainly significant when it comes to purchase decisions, and undoubtedly influences their response to the material when reading.

But generally I do think Kathy is over-concerned with presentation. She talks of it being a way to make a memorable impact, make the book remarkable. She does touch on an author’s “information style”, yep, that’s more like it – surely the most significant thing is the content. That’s what should be remarkable, the rest is icing. Unless it’s visually-oriented, a good book/manual/website should still be good typewritten on A4.

The ‘information style’ that Danny quotes is a reference Kathy made about how the writing of the books seems to be similar, regardless of which series the book is in. However, again, this is most likely driven out by the topic — computer books have a certain ‘feel’ to them, and the topic can influence the writing.

When Danny writes about SPARQL, the RDF query language, he uses a different tone and style then when he writes about Sparql–his cat. When I write about RDF, I don’t use the same tone or style of writing as I do when writing about the Ozarks. It’s not that we’re deliberately suppressing our unique styles; it’s that when writing about technology, it’s difficult to pack a great deal of personality into a paragraph, and still be able to provide coverage of the topic.

This leads me to another part of what Kathy mentioned: how granular can one go and still be able to recognize a specific person’s writing. Since she mentioned ‘paragraph’ I decided to visit the archives of some webloggers who I read regularly and pull a paragraph–just one– from each to re-publish here sans name.

These are all people who I’ve referenced in posts in the last year. Can you identify the weblogger? I’ll provide answers annotated as references in a day or so.

(If you recognize yourself — hush up! Don’t tell! You’ll spoil the game.)

1. Jeneane Sessum

These are the times when I wish we had that place in the woods where we could bring each other ginger ale with ice, and warm soup with saltine crackers, maybe a medium cheese pizza late at night, a boxload of books, read to eachother, and tell wonderful stories about trips into town, the curious people we’d meet, with bags full of the weekly staples and furrowed foreheads, staring at us in wonder, wanting to ask: “Ya’ll aren’t from this neck of the woods, are you?”

2. The much missed Jonathon Delacour

I accept that male bloggers are less likely to link to female bloggers: whatever the topic being debated, technology-related or not. But I referred to “men’s alleged reluctance to link to women bloggers” because running through the entire discussion is the unstated assumption that, even though men might not be actively colluding to ignore women, the situation could be turned around if they were made aware of their “unfair” (albeit unconscious) behavior. Yet it is abundantly clear (to me, anyway) that linking practices have far less to do with gender than with deeply ingrained human behavior.

3. Lauren from Feministe

One aspect of blogging that fascinates me is the presence of an individual through words. On the Internet, if you cease writing, you cease to exist. You are only able to exert your Self if you remain an active participant. When you stop writing regularly, you cease to exist through a lack of writing and updates and a loss of readership. The audience’s presence becomes a type of motivation for writing, especially because it plays to our egos and narcissistic tendencies when a respected audience gives positive feedback. This idea interests me so much because I never thought that moving around charged particles on this plastic box could create community or help me grow as a person.

4. Joseph Duemer

The spider has now descended for the fourth time to the top of the legal-sized clipboard I use for a mouse pad & I’m pretty sure that he is engaged upon a huge engineering project: to anchor a web between the ceiling of my study & the shiny metal clip at the top of the clipboard. Because stuff gets moved around on my desk all the time the spider’s efforts are doomed to failure. I am not a good enough Buddhist to refrain from moving the clipboard until the spider moves on, but I am willing to wait & see what the situation looks like in the morning.

5. Yule Heibel

Because of course, when the men play, it’s called avant-gardism and innovation and it’s celebrated as another way to move the particular forward and make it all even more terrifically universal. But it’s always the male-controlled particular that’s advocated, it’s that particular which is allowed to modify the universal or collective bindingness. The female particular is brushed off as …well, as too particular. So tedious. So …male-bashing: this latter epithet is supposed to be the kiss of death, the ne plus ultra, but it’s really the final reveal of the man who has nothing left to say, sort of like a sad codpiece covering …nothing very much.

6. Sheila Lennon

Despite the lofty language, it’s Napster with fish, although simpler: You can’t control the type of fish you get. But if you could, if you could search the network for angelfish, for example, and even peek at what other fish the angelfish-owners might harbor, and bring them to your system, you’d have Napster. Fish files, music files, video files, it’s all just data.


’ll say more about this when I blog about reputation, which I hope to do this evening or tomorrow morning, but the cardinal point in all this is that the impetus for widespread acceptance of DigID will come when it feels like using a credit card. That is, no matter how porously insecure physical-world credit card transactions are (and there’s no mistaking their comically insecure character), a credit card feels safe to most users. A credit card resides in my pocket; I can choose to use it or pay with anonymously cash (sometimes—but the ideology of security tends of conceal the exceptions); my credit card has whoop-de-doo security features like a magnetic strip and a laser-etched hologram, a confirmation code printed on the opposite side, and my own signature right on it. These contribute to a sense that somehow physical-world credit cards are secure, but digital identity isn’t. Give Jack Public the feeling that DigID works like a credit card, and you’ll be most of the way home.

8. Don Park

I wonder why most blogs have no ads? We are not shy about recommending things, places, and products on our posts, so why not have ads for the recommended things, places, and products on our blogs? If it can be done easily and without losing control, bloggers can make money without selling out.

(Try this yourself with some of the webloggers you read. It’s interesting to read through people’s writing and seeing how much their voice changes from post to post, year to year.)

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