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Personal essays

Seeing Colors - Essay from Newsletter 23

A Different Perspective

Emphasizing what’s important

I’m updating my books and it’s causing me to reconsider a lot of decisions. In some cases, the subject matter or our understanding of it has changed and so there are content updates.

But I’m also trying to clean up the look and feel of the books and make them easier to read on different devices.

One of the biggest problems I have is that I present my code differently than many books. In this post I’ll use non-code/non-technical examples.

For example, suppose I’m discussing the text:

“This is a big deal.”

Now I change this to be “This is not a big deal.” I will emphasize the added word to make sure you notice it.

“This is not a big deal.”

Or if I change a word or phrase I emphasize this change to direct your attention to it and I de-emphasize previous changes to focus on what’s new.

Eating cake for breakfast is not a big deal.”

In my books I use colors not bold for these highlights because I’m often highlighting things in different ways.

Traditionally, programming books use syntax coloring. This would be the equivalent of coloring all of the nouns red, all of the verbs green, the adjectives blue, the adverbs… It just doesn’t do anything for me.

We should only call out differences when they are important. Unless I am teaching linguistics or grammar, parts of speech are unlikely to be important.

Seeing the differences

As I said, in my books I use colors to call out these differences. Generally I use a blue for existing code, red for highlighted code, a gray for comments, and a fourth color for response the computer gives.

A reader wrote me to say, “I have color blindness and can’t see the difference between the existing code and the new code.”

He recommended an app that I could use to view my books as people with different forms of color blindness would see them.

Once I could see the code as he saw it, I was able to make the changes. I don’t like the new colors as much as I liked the old colors but so what. The code listings now communicate well for this population I’d never thought about.

Until that email, I’d never really thought about how people who are color blind experience my book.

The “p” word

I have a lot of problems learning new material. It doesn’t come fast or easy to me. I have to put in the work, find my metaphors, draw diagrams, write code, and sit with it for a while to see the point.


None of my difficulties come from color blindness. I see colors just fine.

Unfortunately, the word for this raises hackles and gets people defensive right away. Even my mentioning the word “privilege” is going to cause some of you to unsubscribe. I’ll miss you, but I understand.

Here’s what I want you to understand.

Me seeing colors fine meant that I never considered what it meant to not. It doesn’t mean every area of my life is fine. It doesn’t even mean my life is better than someone who is color blind. All it means is that I have the privilege of going through life seeing some things clearly that they can’t distinguish.

I don’t feel guilty that I can and they can’t.


Now that I’ve been made aware that there’s something I can do to make their life better, I try to remember to do it.

When my reader reached out and said you might want to consider people with red-green color blindness, I didn’t respond, “all readers matter” or “blue-yellow color-blind readers matter.” I looked into what I could do about it.

No one wins

So I sometimes have the same code examples but highlight the part of the code I want to discuss. So, for example I might have:

This looks great.

This looks great. and

This looks great.

And in the sections before each of those versions of the same sentence I will discuss the highlighted part. Again, I use colors to do this.

One of my friends wrote that he was reading my book and he thought I might have made a mistake and used the same code snippet three times.

I looked at the page he was talking about and it was the same code but in each of the different versions I had emphasized different parts in red.

Did he have a color blindness I didn’t know about?

Before I could ask him, he followed up with a screenshot. He was reading it in Apple Books in Night mode. The background was black and the text (except for links) was white. All of my code highlighting was gone.


I opened programming books by other publishers. In Light mode they all had great colors and different ways of calling attention to things. In Night mode all of these differences disappeared.

No readers matter.

My books are written as epubs. This means that each section is essentially a web page. So I looked up Apple’s support for Dark Mode (when the entire screen is set to dark) and it is quite good. With very little effort my pages looked great with white text on a black background with colors for code and highlighted code.

Then I packaged them up in a book and opened it in Books and all of this coloring disappeared. I’d just previewed it on a Mac and an iPad and it looked great. Once it was opened in Apple Books it was white text on a black background.

I found a hack online and used it but I worried because there was no documentation from Apple.

I contacted Apple and filed a bug report. Nothing.

What do you do when the system is keeping anyone from getting served?

I’ve used the hack and continue to try to get a response from Apple.

It’s all we can do.

Notice when groups are being excluded. Care, even when the harm doesn’t effect you. Listen when someone describes how they are harmed even if you can’t see it.

For me I try to remember that it isn’t that all readers matter, it’s that each reader matters.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 23. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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