How to Use This Book: Intro

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In this section, we answer the burning question: “So, why DID they put that in an HTML book?”

Who is this book for?

If you can answer “yes” to all of these:

  1. Do you have access to a computer with a web browser and a text editor?


    If you have access to any computer manufactured in the last decade, the answer is yes.

  2. Do you want to learn, understand, and remember how to create web pages using the best techniques and the most recent standards?

  3. Do you prefer stimulating dinner-party conversation to dry, dull, academic lectures?

this book is for you.

Who should probably back away from this book?

If you can answer “yes” to any one of these:

  1. Are you completely new to computers?

    (You don’t need to be advanced, but you should understand folders and files, simple text editing applications, and how to use a web browser.)

  2. Are you a kick-butt web developer looking for a reference book?

  3. Are you afraid to try something different? Would you rather have a root canal than mix stripes with plaid? Do you believe that a technical book can’t be serious if HTML tags are anthropomorphized?

this book is not for you.

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[Note from marketing: this book is for anyone with a credit card.]

We know what you’re thinking

“How can this be a serious book?”

“What’s with all the graphics?”

“Can I actually learn it this way?”

And we know what your brain is thinking

Your brain craves novelty. It’s always searching, scanning, waiting for something unusual. It was built that way, and it helps you stay alive.

Today, you’re less likely to be a tiger snack. But your brain’s still looking. You just never know.

So what does your brain do with all the routine, ordinary, normal things you encounter? Everything it can to stop them from interfering with the brain’s real job—recording things that matter. It doesn’t bother saving the boring things; they never make it past the “this is obviously not important” filter.

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How does your brain know what’s important? Suppose you’re out for a day hike and a tiger jumps in front of you—what happens inside your head and body?

Neurons fire. Emotions crank up. Chemicals surge.

And that’s how your brain knows...

This must be important! Don’t forget it!

But imagine you’re at home, or in a library. It’s a safe, warm, tiger-free zone. You’re studying. Getting ready for an exam. Or trying to learn some tough technical topic your boss thinks will take a week, 10 days at the most.

Just one problem. Your brain’s trying to do you a big favor. It’s trying to make sure that this obviously non-important content doesn’t clutter up scarce resources. Resources that are better spent storing the really big things. Like tigers. Like the danger of fire. Like how you should never again snowboard in shorts.

And there’s no simple way to tell your brain, “Hey brain, thank you very much, but no matter how dull this book is, and how little I’m registering on the emotional Richter scale right now, I really do want you to keep this stuff around.”

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Metacognition: thinking about thinking

If you really want to learn, and you want to learn more quickly and more deeply, pay attention to how you pay attention. Think about how you think. Learn how you learn.

Most of us did not take courses on metacognition or learning theory when we were growing up. We were expected to learn, but rarely taught how to learn.

But we assume that if you’re holding this book, you really want to learn how to create web pages. And you probably don’t want to spend a lot of time. And you want to remember what you read, and be able to apply it. And for that, you’ve got to understand it. To get the most from this book, or any book or learning experience, take responsibility for your brain. Your brain on this content.

The trick is to get your brain to see the new material you’re learning as Really Important. Crucial to your well-being. As important as a tiger. Otherwise, you’re in for a constant battle, with your brain doing its best to keep the new content from sticking.

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So how DO you get your brain to think HTML & CSS are as important as a tiger?

There’s the slow, tedious way, or the faster, more effective way. The slow way is about sheer repetition. You obviously know that you are able to learn and remember even the dullest of topics, if you keep pounding on the same thing. With enough repetition, your brain says, “This doesn’t feel important to him, but he keeps looking at the same thing over and over and over, so I suppose it must be.”

The faster way is to do anything that increases brain activity, especially different types of brain activity. The things on the previous page are a big part of the solution, and they’re all things that have been proven to help your brain work in your favor. For example, studies show that putting words within the pictures they describe (as opposed to somewhere else in the page, like a caption or in the body text) causes your brain to try to make sense of how the words and picture relate, and this causes more neurons to fire. More neurons firing = more chances for your brain to get that this is something worth paying attention to, and possibly recording.

A conversational style helps because people tend to pay more attention when they perceive that they’re in a conversation, since they’re expected to follow along and hold up their end. The amazing thing is, your brain doesn’t necessarily care that the “conversation” is between you and a book! On the other hand, if the writing style is formal and dry, your brain perceives it the same way you experience being lectured to while sitting in a roomful of passive attendees. No need to stay awake.

But pictures and conversational style are just the beginning.

Here’s what WE did

We used pictures, because your brain is tuned for visuals, not text. As far as your brain’s concerned, a picture really is worth 1,024 words. And when text and pictures work together, we embedded the text in the pictures because your brain works more effectively when the text is within the thing the text refers to, as opposed to in a caption or buried in the text somewhere.

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We used redundancy, saying the same thing in different ways and with different media types, and multiple senses, to increase the chance that the content gets coded into more than one area of your brain.

We used concepts and pictures in unexpected ways because your brain is tuned for novelty, and we used pictures and ideas with at least some emotional content, because your brain is tuned to pay attention to the biochemistry of emotions. That which causes you to feel something is more likely to be remembered, even if that feeling is nothing more than a little humor, surprise, or interest.

We used a personalized, conversational style, because your brain is tuned to pay more attention when it believes you’re in a conversation than if it thinks you’re passively listening to a presentation. Your brain does this even when you’re reading.

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We included more than 100 activities, because your brain is tuned to learn and remember more when you do things than when you read about things. And we made the exercises challenging-yet-doable, because that’s what most people prefer.

We used multiple learning styles, because you might prefer step-by-step procedures, while someone else wants to understand the big picture first, while someone else just wants to see a code example. But regardless of your own learning preference, everyone benefits from seeing the same content represented in multiple ways.

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We include content for both sides of your brain, because the more of your brain you engage, the more likely you are to learn and remember, and the longer you can stay focused. Since working one side of the brain often means giving the other side a chance to rest, you can be more productive at learning for a longer period of time.

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And we included stories and exercises that present more than one point of view, because your brain is tuned to learn more deeply when it’s forced to make evaluations and judgments.

We included challenges, with exercises, and by asking questions that don’t always have a straight answer, because your brain is tuned to learn and remember when it has to work at something. Think about it—you can’t get your body in shape just by watching people at the gym. But we did our best to make sure that when you’re working hard, it’s on the right things. That you’re not spending one extra dendrite processing a hard-to-understand example, or parsing difficult, jargon-laden, or overly terse text.

We used people. In stories, examples, pictures, etc., because, well, because you’re a person. And your brain pays more attention to people than it does to things.

We used an 80/20 approach. We assume that if you’re going to be a kick-butt web developer, this won’t be your only book. So we don’t talk about everything. Just the stuff you’ll actually need.

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Here’s what YOU can do to bend your brain into submission

So, we did our part. The rest is up to you. These tips are a starting point; listen to your brain and figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. Try new things.

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Cut this out and stick it on your refrigerator.

  1. Slow down. The more you understand, the less you have to memorize.

    Don’t just read. Stop and think. When the book asks you a question, don’t just skip to the answer. Imagine that someone really is asking the question. The more deeply you force your brain to think, the better chance you have of learning and remembering.

  2. Do the exercises. Write your own notes.

    We put them in, but if we did them for you, that would be like having someone else do your workouts for you. And don’t just look at the exercises. Use a pencil. There’s plenty of evidence that physical activity while learning can increase the learning.

  3. Read the “There Are No Dumb Questions.”

    That means all of them. They’re not optional sidebars—they’re part of the core content! Don’t skip them.

  4. Make this the last thing you read before bed. Or at least the last challenging thing.

    Part of the learning (especially the transfer to long-term memory) happens after you put the book down. Your brain needs time on its own, to do more processing. If you put in something new during that processing time, some of what you just learned will be lost.

  5. Drink water. Lots of it.

    Your brain works best in a nice bath of fluid. Dehydration (which can happen before you ever feel thirsty) decreases cognitive function.

  6. Talk about it. Out loud.

    Speaking activates a different part of the brain. If you’re trying to understand something, or increase your chance of remembering it later, say it out loud. Better still, try to explain it out loud to someone else. You’ll learn more quickly, and you might uncover ideas you hadn’t known were there when you were reading about it.

  7. Listen to your brain.

    Pay attention to whether your brain is getting overloaded. If you find yourself starting to skim the surface or forget what you just read, it’s time for a break. Once you go past a certain point, you won’t learn faster by trying to shove more in, and you might even hurt the process.

  8. Feel something!

    Your brain needs to know that this matters. Get involved with the stories. Make up your own captions for the photos. Groaning over a bad joke is still better than feeling nothing at all.

  9. Create something!

    Apply this to something new you’re designing, or rework an older project. Just do something to get some experience beyond the exercises and activities in this book. All you need is a pencil and a problem to solve...a problem that might benefit from using HTML and CSS.

Read me

This is a learning experience, not a reference book. We deliberately stripped out everything that might get in the way of learning whatever it is we’re working on at that point in the book. And the first time through, you need to begin at the beginning, because the book makes assumptions about what you’ve already seen and learned.

We begin by teaching basic HTML, then standards-based HTML5.

To write standards-based HTML, there are a lot of technical details you need to understand that aren’t helpful when you’re trying to learn the basics of HTML. Our approach is to have you learn the basic concepts of HTML first (without worrying about these details), and then, when you have a solid understanding of HTML, teach you to write standards-compliant HTML (the most recent version of which is HTML5). This has the added benefit that the technical details are more meaningful after you’ve already learned the basics.

It’s also important that you be writing compliant HTML when you start using CSS, so we make a point of getting you to standards-based HTML before you begin any serious work with CSS.

We don’t cover every single HTML element or attribute or CSS property ever created.

There are a lot of HTML elements, a lot of attributes, and a lot of CSS properties. Sure, they’re all interesting, but our goal was to write a book that weighs less than the person reading it, so we don’t cover them all here. Our focus is on the core HTML elements and CSS properties that matter to you, the beginner, and making sure that you really, truly, deeply understand how and when to use them. In any case, once you’re done with Head First HTML and CSS, you’ll be able to pick up any reference book and get up to speed quickly on all the elements and properties we left out.

This book advocates a clean separation between the structure of your pages and the presentation of your pages.

Today, serious web pages use HTML to structure their content, and CSS for style and presentation. Nineties-era pages often used a different model, one where HTML was used for both structure and style. This book teaches you to use HTML for structure and CSS for style; we see no reason to teach you outdated bad habits.

We encourage you to use more than one browser with this book.

While we teach you to write HTML and CSS that are based on standards, you’ll still (and probably always) encounter minor differences in the way web browsers display pages. So, we encourage you to pick at least two modern browsers and test your pages using them. This will give you experience in seeing the differences among browsers and in creating pages that work well in a variety of them.

We often use tag names for element names.

Rather than saying “the a element,” or “the ‘a’ element,” we use a tag name, like “the <a> element.” While this may not be technically correct (because <a> is an opening tag, not a full-blown element), it does make the text more readable, and we usually follow the name with the word “element” to avoid confusion.

The activities are NOT optional.

The exercises and activities are not add-ons; they’re part of the core content of the book. Some of them are to help with memory, some are for understanding, and some will help you apply what you’ve learned. Don’t skip the exercises. The crossword puzzles are the only things you don’t have to do, but they’re good for giving your brain a chance to think about the words in a different context.

The redundancy is intentional and important.

One distinct difference in a Head First book is that we want you to really get it. And we want you to finish the book remembering what you’ve learned. Most reference books don’t have retention and recall as a goal, but this book is about learning, so you’ll see some of the same concepts come up more than once.

The examples are as lean as possible.

Our readers tell us that it’s frustrating to wade through 200 lines of an example looking for the two lines they need to understand. Most examples in this book are shown within the smallest possible context, so that the part you’re trying to learn is clear and simple. Don’t expect all of the examples to be robust, or even complete—they are written specifically for learning, and aren’t always fully functional.

We’ve placed all the example files on the Web so you can download them. You’ll find them at

The Brain Power exercises don’t have answers.

For some of them, there is no right answer, and for others, part of the learning experience of the Brain Power activities is for you to decide if and when your answers are right. In some of the Brain Power exercises, you will find hints to point you in the right direction.

Tech reviewers (first edition)

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Louise Barr

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Joe Konior

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Valentin Crettaz

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Corey McGlone

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Barney Marispini

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Marcus Green

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Ike Van Atta

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David O’Meara

Our reviewers:

We’re extremely grateful for our technical review team. Johannes de Jong organized and led the whole effort, acted as “series dad,” and made it all work smoothly. Pauline McNamara, “co-manager” of the effort, held things together and was the first to point out when our examples were a little more “baby boomer” than hip. The whole team proved how much we needed their technical expertise and attention to detail. Valentin Crettaz, Barney Marispini, Marcus Green, Ike Van Atta, David O’Meara, Joe Konior, and Corey McGlone left no stone unturned in their review and the book is much better for it. You guys rock! And further thanks to Corey and Pauline for never letting us slide on our often too formal (or we should just say it, incorrect) punctuation. A shout-out to JavaRanch as well for hosting the whole thing.

A big thanks to Louise Barr, our token web designer, who kept us honest on our designs and on our use of HTML and CSS (although you’ll have to blame us for the actual designs).

Acknowledgments (first edition)[1]

Even more technical review:

We’re also extremely grateful to our esteemed technical reviewer David Powers. We have a real love/hate relationship with David because he made us work so hard, but the result was oh so worth it. The truth be told, based on David’s comments, we made significant changes to this book and it is technically twice the book it was before. Thank you, David.

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Don’t let the sweater fool you—this guy is hardcore (technically of course).

At O’Reilly:

Our biggest thanks to our editor, Brett McLaughlin, who cleared the path for this book, removed every obstacle to its completion, and sacrificed family time to get it done. Brett also did hard editing time on this book (not an easy task for a Head First title). Thanks, Brett; this book wouldn’t have happened without you.

Our sincerest thanks to the whole O’Reilly team: Greg Corrin, Glenn Bisignani, Tony Artuso, and Kyle Hart all led the way on marketing and we appreciate their out-of-the-box approach. Thanks to Ellie Volkhausen for her inspired cover design that continues to serve us well, and to Karen Montgomery for stepping in and bringing life to this book’s cover. Thank you, as always, to Colleen Gorman for her hardcore copyedit (and for keeping it all fun). And we couldn’t have pulled off a color book like this without Sue Willing and Claire Cloutier.

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Brett McLaughlin

No Head First acknowledgment would be complete without thanking Mike Loukides for shaping the Head First concept into a series, and to Tim O’Reilly for always being there and his continued support. Finally, thanks to Mike Hendrickson for bringing us into the Head First family and having the faith to let us run with it.

Kathy Sierra and Bert Bates:

Last, and anything but least, to Kathy Sierra and Bert Bates, our partners in crime and the BRAINS who created the series. Thanks, guys, for trusting us even more with your baby. We hope once again we’ve done it justice. The three-day jam session was the highlight of writing the book, we hope to repeat it soon. Oh, and next time around, can you give LTJ a call and tell him he’s just going to have to make a trip back to Seattle?

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Tech reviewers (second edition)

We couldn’t sleep at night without knowing that our highpowered HTML & CSS reviewer, David Powers, has scoured this book for inaccuracies. Truth is, so many years had passed since the first edition that we had to hire a private detective to locate him (it’s a long story, but he was finally located in his underground HTML & CSS lair and research lab). Anyway, more seriously, while all the technical faults in this book sit solely with the authors (that’s us), we can assure you in every case David tried to make sure we did things right. Once again, David was instrumental in the writing of this book.

We’re extremely grateful for everyone on our technical review team. Joe Konior joined us once again for this edition, along with Dawn Griffiths (co-author of Head First C), and Shelley Powers (an HTML & CSS “power”house who has been writing about the Web for years). Once again, you all rock! Your feedback was amazingly thorough, detailed, and helpful. Thank you.

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Acknowledgments (second edition)

Our biggest thanks to our chief editor, Mike Hendrickson, who made this book happen in every way (other than actually writing it), was there for us the entire journey, and more importantly (the biggest thing any editor can do) totally trusted us to get it done! Thanks, Mike; none of our books would have happened without you. You’ve been our champion for well over a decade and we love you for it!

Of course it takes a village to publish a book, and behind the scenes a talented and friendly group at O’Reilly made it all happen. Our sincerest thanks to the whole O’Reilly team: Kristen Borg (production editor extraordinaire); the brilliant Rachel Monaghan (proofreader); Ron Strauss for his meticulous index; Rebecca Demarest for illustration help; Karen Montgomery, ace cover designer; and last but definitely not least, Louise Barr, who always helps our pages look better.

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[1] The large number of acknowledgments is because we’re testing the theory that everyone mentioned in a book acknowledgment will buy at least one copy, probably more, what with relatives and everything. If you’d like to be in the acknowledgment of our next book, and you have a large family, write to us.

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