On Being Creative for a Living

I have a friend who’s grown somewhat bored with video games. I suggested Minecraft to him, but he replied that he just isn’t the creative type. It’s true — he’s always been a fan of numbers and physical labor, but he’s no artist in any traditional sense.

I, however, am a professional artist of sorts, being the Managing Editor of TidBITS and author of various Take Control books. Granted, I’m no Stephen King, but even technical writing needs a certain amount of panache or no one would want to read it.

They say ideas are cheap, which is true, but when you’re looking to fill a publication with content every week, you tend to go through ideas like toilet paper. Thankfully, we have some excellent authors at TidBITS who come up with their own ideas, and if something interesting and relevant is in the news, then the ideas are presented for the taking. But when the well is dry, I often find myself going to extremes to come up with ideas.

Maybe it’s as simple as trying out a video game or an app to see if it’s worth writing about. Other times, I have to do more to shake my brain cage. For instance, I recently switched email providers from Gmail to Fastmail, partially for personal reasons, but if I’m being honest, it gave me something to write about.

I find myself always hunting for that next article in everything I do. I take a walk to the store — maybe that’ll give me an idea for an article about fitness tracking? I agree to do a podcast, because maybe I’ll get an article idea during the discussion. I go for a drive, I go to the store, I watch TV and think, “Can I write about this?” Maybe I even write a blog post about the nature of creativity in order to get the juices flowing.

I suppose I’m lucky to be a tech writer who screws up his email to find inspiration. I wonder how many country singers get a divorce just so they can sing about it? We’ve lost so many musicians and comedians to drugs and madness, likely often set off by a quest for inspiration. Chris Farley often channeled John Belushi in his performances, and he ended up suffering the same terrible fate. It’s no wonder so many actors seem to live on the lunatic fringe — being required to tap into the spectrum of emotion must lead to some strange places. Much of Stephen King’s early work was driven by his battles with addiction, and I would argue that the horrible automobile accident that nearly ended his career actually rejuvenated it in the long run, because to write of horror and fear effectively, you have to know them firsthand.

It’s funny, because I used to work boring jobs where I strove for opportunities to be creative. And I’m fortunate to have found a profession that lets me channel that creativity. But when all is said and done, work is work, and work is tiring.

I guess it’s for that reason that I don’t care much for creative games myself these days. For me, relaxation is now an absence of creativity. Fire up the Playstation and be told who to shoot. Turn on the football game and zone out in the endzone. Cook a new recipe, following the instructions. Be a drone now, in this moment of quiet, so that I can find inspiration again tomorrow.

My New Job

Adam Engst, TidBITS:

It gives me great pleasure to share the news that Josh Centers has agreed to join TidBITS Publishing Inc. full time as the managing editor of TidBITS, effective immediately.

Today, I became managing editor of TidBITS -- a lifelong dream come true. I devoured tech mags as a kid, and after deciding that I wasn't meant to be a coder, majored in journalism with the intention of eventually working for one. That dream eventually died, until my 29th birthday when I realized, with much panic, that my life was going nowhere fast.

I started this blog last August with the intention of writing about how to follow one's dreams. But I got sidetracked along the way. I started writing about tech stuff, and pretty soon, high profile people in the tech journalism community started to notice. So in spite of this detour, I ended up fullfilling the blog's mission after all.

Adam and Tonya Engst, the husband and wife duo behind TidBITS, are two of the sweetest, kindest people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing, and it's a thrill to be working for them. I'm their first full-time employ, so thanks to them for taking a chance on me.

And of course special thanks to Glenn Fleishman, my champion and mentor, without whom this wouldn't have happened.

Last, but not least, thanks to my mom. We've had our ups and downs, but she birthed me, raised me, and put me through school after my father, the blue collar Tony Stark, passed away. I've had a lot of great friends, supporters, and mentors over the years, but without her, I would literally be nothing.

A Roundup of Podcast Clients

Yours truly, writing for TidBITS:

As a daily commuter, podcasts are my lifeblood, so I’m particular about the software I use to listen to podcasts. I’ve been listening to podcasts since Adam Curry popularized them a decade ago, and I have yet to find the perfect podcast client.

What began as a review of Instacast 3 evolved into a sprawling, Siracusa-style overview of the most popular iOS podcast clients. While I'm very proud of this piece, a reader later pointed me to Pocket Casts, a little-known but excellent podcast app. It shares a design language with Tweetbot, and has one of the most optimized download engines I've seen in its class. The more I used it, the more delighted I am by it. For now, it's my personal favorite.

UPDATE: The TidBITS article has been updated to include Pocket Casts.

5 iPhone Apps We Could Do Without

Me, TidBITS:

Bundled apps. There’s no question that some are essential, whether we’re talking Mac OS X or iOS. Safari? Sure. Mail? No problem. But while most of the less useful apps that Apple bundles into Mac OS X are out of sight, out of mind in the Utilities folder (when was the last time you used, or even noticed, Grapher or Audio MIDI Setup?), it’s harder to avoid the iPhone’s crufty default apps. They might have been worthwhile — or at least novel — when the original iPhone shipped, but now they sit firmly unused on many iPhones, taking up valuable space. I can’t help you delete these apps (it’s impossible, so just toss them in a folder labeled “Barnacles” and squirrel it away on your last home screen page), but I can make some recommendations for how to put them to use or replace them with something that’s more useful.

This was a controversial article, but I stand by it. Also, if you ever wondered what I sound like in person, now's your chance to find out.

Thanks again to Adam Engst at TidBITS.

DataMan Pro Back in the App Store

For those of us suffering excessive data usage in iOS 6, there's good news. DataMan Pro, which had been previously pulled from the App Store, is back. What sets it apart from the regular version of DataMan is that it can track usage on a per-app basis.

It's currently on sale for $4.99 until Black Friday. If you're having data overages, it might well be worth it. I haven't had enough time with it yet to pass a verdict, but the interface seems a bit unfinished. For example, the "Back" buttons lack text.

Regardless, I remain optimistic. Per-app data usage statistics are desperately needed in iOS, and right now this is the only way to get them.

If you're on the fence, check out Adam Engst's overview on TidBITS.

Update: The developers have informed me that the back buttons have been intentionally left blank to accomodate the date text. I hope they can find a better solution, because even if it's an intentional design decision, it gives the impression of being half baked.

Glenn Fleishman Investigates iOS 6 Data Consumption

Glenn Fleishman, TidBITS

This isn’t “CellularDataGate,” but it’s clearly affecting more than just a handful of people, and could involve folks paying dozens to hundreds of dollars in excess data usage for what might be an iOS bug or a bug in Apple-provided apps.

Glenn has compiled an exhaustive list of excessive data usage reports. He even mentions yours truly.

As for my own data usage, it seems to be nearly back to normal after wiping my iPhone and starting from scratch. While today wasn't a typical weekday, I used Maps, Siri, Facebook, Twitter, Safari, and even watched a little Youtube over cellular and only used about 75 MB.

As a side note, the official Twitter app is a turd. When the time comes to add more apps, the first one will be Tweetbot.

What's disturbing is that I'm using about 2 MB of cellular data at home every night, despite a strong Wi-Fi connection. However, it's a small amount of usage, so I'm going to let it slide for now.