Interview: Carey BunksCarey Bunks may not seem like somebody you would expect to be writing manuals for an image editing application like the Gimp. He is a Senior Scientist at BBN, working in areas like sonar, active noise and vibration control, and network security. He has a PhD in electrical engineering, and specializes in signal processing. He is also a graduate of the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Clown College; his other book is entitled The Lasso - A Rational Guide to Trick Roping.
Nonetheless, he not only wrote the well-respected Grokking the GIMP, but he released the whole thing under an open publication license. The book may be downloaded in its entirety from GIMP-Savvy.com, though serious GIMP users are likely to want to pick up their own copy of the nicely-produced volume, published by New Riders.
We thank Mr. Bunks for his great willingness to be interviewed. Without further ado...
Why did you decide to write "Grokking the GIMP?"
Well, it was grown organicly from an initially very small seed. I first started using the GIMP in early 1996, which was way before the first stable version of the GIMP was released. I was writing a scientific paper, and I had some photos I wanted to include, but that were of such poor quality I wanted to do something to improve them. I had heard about the GIMP, so I downloaded it, compiled it, and fired it up. It didn't take much time to discover how to open a photo and to access the menu functions.
Right away it looked as if there were a few GIMP functions that could help, such as items like Color Balance, Brightness-Contrast, and Hue-Saturation. The kick was that in fooling with these functions, everything I tried on my photos seemed to make them look a lot worse! Having had a background in signal processing, and having done a lot of work on image processing, this really annoyed me. This is how I got the original itch -- and I needed a scratch real bad!
So I set out to learn what I was doing wrong. I read a pile of Photoshop books, researched the question online and in articles, and then, after gleaning bits and pieces, and filling in a lot of holes myself, I finally came up with what I felt was a pretty coherent understanding of what photo touchup is about. It isn't rocket science, but on the other hand, because most Photoshop books are based on tips and tricks, it wasn't clearly and conceptually explained anywhere.
Because there seemed to be a serious need, I synthesized all I had learned into a nice web tutorial called "Photo Touch Up and Enhancement in the GIMP," which still lives, by the way, at http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Haven/5179/.
As time went on I learned more about the GIMP, and as I became more familiar with it, I began to unravel many of its other functional mysteries. Making selections, the use of layers and masks, and, so importantly, the use of colorspaces and blending modes. These topics are all essential to mastering the GIMP, and it became clear to me, after a while, that I had more than enough material for a book.
Is there a difference between your book and other books on the GIMP? What makes it unique?
Typically there are three main types of computer books: introductory, reference, and meta. An introductory book gives the reader a tour of the subject and perhaps provides a collection of ready-made solutions for standard problems. This is akin to giving someone a fish -- they can eat fish today, but unless they're just there to taste, it's not sure they'll have the know-how to be eating tomorrow.
Nevertheless, introductory books are important, and they are facilitating portals to an application. Most folks want to be introduced to an application through an introductory book. There are several very good ones on the GIMP. I personally like Michael Hammel's book, "The Artist's Guide to the GIMP". I also like Joshua and Ramona Pruitt's book, "Teach Yourself GIMP in 24 Hours".
By contrast, a reference is typically telephone-book in size and covers most every aspect of a subject, but usually not in depth, nor in context. This type of book is an invaluable reference...after you are sufficiently expert in the subject. In my opinion, Olof and Karin Kylander's book, "GIMP: The Official Handbook" is the best of breed in this category.
Finally, a meta book is one that describes its subject in context, developing concepts and describing how components interact. A meta book doesn't give you a fish -- it teaches you how to fish. In my opinion there are precious few meta books for Photoshop, and I consider my book to be the first for the GIMP. My frustration in learning about photo touchup and enhancement is evidence of that -- that was the reason I wrote it, I was scratching my itch.
It's important to understand that not all tools in the GIMP are created equal, and that some tools are much more powerful than others. "Grokking the GIMP" strongly emphasizes the 10% of the tools that are used 90% of the time, giving a clear explanation why these are the best. In addition, through the presentation of nine major image editing projects, "Grokking the GIMP" illustrates concepts, tools, and how they interact together.
"Grokking the GIMP" was released under an open publication license and is available in its entirety at gimp-savvy.com. Why did you choose an open publication license and, in your opinion, why don't more authors choose this option?
About a year ago I read the Tim O'Reilly interview with LWN. He was not particularly sanguine about the commercial prospects of open publication books (see http://lwn.net/1999/features/oreilly/). However, at about the same time, I read Eric Raymond's paper "The Magic Cauldron" (see http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/magic-cauldron/), and this greatly influenced my final decision. After reading Eric's paper, I was convinced there could be some pretty good commercial reasons for releasing a technical reference under an open publication license.
In a sense, a book is a meme that competes for territory in its ecological environment. By making the book freely available, the ideas it presents, and its structural organization have a better chance at gaining wide acceptance. This is particularly true if the book has good content, and the market ecology for the book is not already oversaturated.
Initially, under an open publication license, a book gains a much wider audience than a normal book would. Of the many people who are exposed to a book in this way, some decide to purchase it. This may be a small fraction of all the people who read the book for free, but if the balance is right, I believe you end up selling many more books than if the book were only distributed through more traditional channels.
Thus, deciding to release "Grokking the GIMP" under an open publication license was a bit of a gamble, especially because there are so few examples of books distributed in this way. However, now that it has been out for a while, I firmly believe that this was probably the best thing I could have done for it.
By the way, I'd like to point out that the Kylander's book on the GIMP is also under an open publication license (see http://manual.gimp.org). The fact that there are two GIMP books available for free is rather remarkable. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that the book market for the GIMP is relatively young, so it makes sense in the model I discussed above.
As for other authors, the advice I would give them is that it's important to carefully consider the market environment for their subject. I wouldn't, for example, try and write an open publication license book about Perl today. It's a subject area already overly-saturated by other books. However, in a new subject area, where there is only a little competition, it could be a very good strategy indeed.
How do you feel about the open publication license at this point? Do you feel it has impacted your book sales?
It's a little early to draw any definitive conclusions, but for now it appears that the release of the book under an open publication license has been a good business decision. I think that book sales have indeed been impacted, and in the positive direction. If the sales rank figures at Amazon.com are any measure, "Grokking the GIMP" has been the best selling GIMP book since its open publication release on the Gimp-Savvy.com website.
Are you receiving contributions back to the book?
Actually very few. A couple of typos have been reported, and that's about it.
Will you be putting an updated/corrected version of the book online? Or will such updates be tied to the paper publication schedule?
I'm pretty sure that the book will be updated online before the paper version is scheduled to be reprinted. However, I have a good rapport with my publisher, and I feel that New Riders Publishing has made a serious commitment to open source. I'm confident that the publisher believes in keeping the content current.
The book's title "Grokking the GIMP" is a little esoteric. Where did the title come from, and what does it mean?
The title was the brainstorm of my development editor, Jim Chalex, at New Riders. As soon as he suggested it, I loved it. The word "grok" comes from a Robert Heinlein book "Stranger in a Strange Land" written in 1961. In the novel, the term is the Martian word to drink, but also philosophically means to deeply understand. Today, the word is used mostly by computer hackers, so it seemed like a great choice for the book.
By the way, one of the great things about working with New Riders was their willingness to be flexible. Initially the executive editor wanted to nix the title because grokking is not exactly a mainstream word. However, after floating the concept at the Atlanta Linux convention last year, and getting a positive response, decided to flout convention and to go with "Grokking the GIMP."
For a lot of people, first getting started with the Gimp feels a lot like assembling an automobile from a big pile of parts, without a manual. It's very hard to know where to start. Where would you recommend that Gimp beginners - those who don't know photoshop either - begin to get going with this tool?
Gosh, for me, working out the assembly instructions was half the fun! I do sympathize, however, because the flip side of this type of fun can be a good dose of frustration, and to be totally truthful I, too, had some frustration when I first tried using the GIMP.
Anyway, with regards to your observation that people feel lost and without direction when using the GIMP is quite the norm. There are over 300 tools and filters in the GIMP, and for the novice, its often difficult to see the forest through the trees. In a nutshell, the effective use of the GIMP requires knowing some concepts about image manipulation. It's totally analogous to having to know some grammar to properly use a word processor. If you don't, the content of your beautifully formatted document will be a little crufty.
It's been so long since we had to worry about learning the craft of writing. This makes for the false impression that a word processor's user interface makes the whole process of writing transparent. We've forgotten that we need a vocabulary and some notions of the rules of how to put it together. To properly use the GIMP, you need to know the vocabulary and grammar of image manipulation. Choosing the correct image techniques and knowing which GIMP tools to use is essential to getting good results.
So in answer to your question, I'd say that it depends on what the reader is interested in. If it's a high level tour of functionality, to get a taste of what the GIMP can do, I would recommend one of the introductory books. Michael Hammel's "The Artist's Guide to the GIMP" is good, and Joshua and Ramona Pruitt's "Sam's Teach Yourself GIMP in 24 Hours" is also a fine book.
After the introductory tour of the software, when the user really wants to begin understanding the language of image editing, "Grokking the GIMP" is really the only book out there that explains the GIMP from a conceptual context. Fortunately, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand this stuff, and once you get the ideas, the rest becomes so much easier.
Finally, for the user that has a reasonable level of image processing sophistication, a reference book such as Olof and Karin Kylander's "GIMP: The Official Handbook" would be a great resource for exploring the GIMP in greater depth.
Would the Linux world be better or worse off if PhotoShop were to be ported?
Speculation always has its risks, but I'd bet that the Linux community would be much better off with a port of PhotoShop. Having it would immediately open a lot of pre-press doors to the Linux platform, including ICC (International Color Consortium) calibration profiles and proprietary color systems (such as Pantone). Because Linux is an especially low cost, highly reliable, and flexible platform, these additional image handling features would attract a lot of people from the pre-press industry to our favorite platform.
Furthermore, I think that once PhotoShop were available, many more pre-press professionals would see the value of interacting with the GIMP. The GIMP has greater flexibility, provides more built-in functionality, and costs $600 per license less than PhotoShop. I can imagine a design house's workflow that does all the selections and compositing tasks in the GIMP, and only the final color adjustments in Photoshop. This could perhaps offer a significant economy in that only a few Photoshop licenses would be needed -- the rest of the workflow being assumed by the GIMP.
What is, in your opinion, the most important new feature in Gimp 1.2? What's the most important missing feature?
Probably the most important new functional feature of the GIMP is the Paths dialog. Bezier paths are one of the most powerful selection tools, and the Paths dialog adds an essential resource for editing, saving, and importing Bezier paths.
I'd also like to note, however, that there have been enormous improvements and refinements of the GIMP's user interface. Version 1.2 supports tearoff menus, drag-n-drop color selections, drag-n-drop copy and paste, quick masks, and a lot more. It's important to mention that there have been significant developments for both input and output devices. Drawing tablets are now supported, and Robert Krawitz' excellent print plug-in allows direct output from the GIMP to your color printer.
As for the feature the most sorely missed in the GIMP, it is, without question, the lack of CMYK support. Although there are some technical difficulties associated with implementing CMYK support in the GIMP, I think this feature is high up in the list of functionalities likely to be added in the near future.
The photo archive on gimp-savvy.com seems like a worthwhile resource. Do you have a lot of users?
Gimp-Savvy.com is getting about 1.5 million hits per month, of which 85% are for the photo archive. Because of this, I'd say that it must be filling a need that hasn't already been addressed elsewhere. Even though all the photos on Gimp-Savvy.com are already available elsewhere on the web, the value-added of this archive is the ease with which one can browse thumbnails or keywords, and, in general, to search for images that correspond to the user's needs. This includes an information retrieval system that can take either keywords or a similar image as the input to a query.
In addition to the ease of navigation, I think that the community indexing feature intrigues many people. It's fun and it gives a lot of control to the user. I've noticed in my web logs that there are certain IP addresses that regularly come back to Gimp-Savvy.com to index images. Those individuals are performing a very useful service to the community, and I thank them!
There does not appear to be any mechanism in place for others to make contributions to the photo archive. Is there a reason for that?
There is absolutely a reason for that. I wanted to avoid having to carefully monitor what type of content might be contributed to the site (I'm pretty lazy when it comes to repetitive tasks ;-). You can imagine what types of image contraband might show up if the site allowed unsupervised contributions.
Do you have any other interesting book projects in the works?
Well, a book writing project is pretty intense -- especially if you're also working a regular job. I actually had to take some time off from my job to finish "Grokking the GIMP," and I think it will be some time before I feel like investing as much effort in a similar project.