The Cure for Writer's Block

I get asked all the time: "How do I get over writer's block?" As someone who's made a living writing for several years now, I can tell you that there's a simple solution.

No, really.

Are you ready for it?

Just keep writing.

That's it. Just write. Whether you feel like it or not. Because at its core, writing is work. Does the electrician not wire your house because he's not feeling "inspired?" Does the plumber not fix your toilet because he can't generate ideas? You wouldn't accept this from any other profession, so why is it acceptable for you?

And if you can't do the work, maybe it's not the field for you. That's okay, the world needs accountants, carpenters, electricians, engineers, and nurses. All honorable jobs, probably moreso than writing. There's too many writers already, go do something you're better suited for that people need.

I've written plenty of articles and book chapters when my inspiration was dead. Was it my best work? No, but it wasn't that much worse than my best work. At least in writing, people don't stray far from their aptitude level unless they really work at it. You might do a little better, a little worse, but the important thing is to get it done.

The first job of the carpenter isn't to make your house pretty. He first has to lay the foundation and set the studs so you can have a wall. Concrete and 2x4s aren't pretty, but that's what drywall and paint are for. It's the same with writing. Frame the house (write the words) and then you can make it pretty later (in editing).

So stop making excuses and get back to work.

Hammer and Forge

Since July, I've been taking blacksmithing classes with the Fiddler's Grove Blacksmiths Association. I have an interest in traditional woodworking, but the only way to obtain many of the tools for it outside of antique shops is to forge them yourself. As Carl Sagan once said, "If you wish to make apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe."

Here are some pictures of the shop, and two of my recent projects: a letter opener and a hot dog fork.

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.

Marvel Unlimited Recommendations

I get asked for recommendations all the time by new subscribers of Marvel Unlimited. It’s a huge, sprawling, poorly curated service, and with more than 50 years of content, it can be overwhelming for even experienced readers.

Here are some of my recommendations, separated by character/team.


With his only superpower being “shoots a bow,” Hawkeye was never anyone’s favorite Avenger. That is, until Matt Fraction’s brilliant 2013 series Hawkeye, which follows what Clint Barton does when he’s not being an Avenger.

Hawkeye could easily be a show on AMC. It’s down to earth, funny, and tragic. It’s the comic that pulled me back into comics, and something to be cherished — especially since it’ll soon be over.


You may be tempted to start back with the very first issue from 1963. Avoid this temptation, as it’s not only mediocre, but lacking most of the characters you know and love.

Instead, skip straight to Giant-Size X-Men #1, which introduced fan favorites like Nightcrawler, Storm, and added Wolverine to the team. That’ll give you a bit of historical background.

From there, you could cut directly to Uncanny X-Men #94, which follows Giant-Size X-Men #1, but more importantly, is the beginning of writer Chris Claremont’s run on the series. Claremont wrote X-Men for 16 years, creating some of the most loved stories and characters.

But, it took him a while to get into the swing of things. Feel free to skip ahead to Uncanny X-Men #125, which is the start of the Proteus storyline, leading into the Dark Phoenix Saga — perhaps the greatest X-Men story ever.

From there, feel free to keep reading until Claremont leaves in the early ’90s. However, don’t be surprised to find that the quality drops significantly after his departure.

If you want just a small sample of Claremont’s genius, try Uncanny X-Men #141-142, which comprises The Days of Future Past storyline, the basis for the most recent X-Men movie. It’s only two issues, and if you don’t like DoFP, then you probably won’t enjoy X-Men.

If you want to see Claremont with almost complete creative freedom, I highly recommend the one-shot X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, where the X-Men face off against racist televangelist William Stryker. (Which was the basis for X-2. See a pattern here?) GLMK takes a frank look at the issues of race in X-Men, which is supposed to be a central theme, though often forgotten.

But let’s say you want something more modern. I can offer two suggestions: Grant Morrison’s trippy New X-Men from 2000, or Joss Whedon’s followup, 2004’s Astonishing X-Men.

I highly recommend Whedon’s run. It’s short, smartly written, and just plain fun.


Today, Wolverine is so popular that he is often reviled by fans, but the reason he came to be that way is Frank Miller’s 1982 limited series, simply titled Wolverine. It was the basis for the recent movie, The Wolverine, and tells the story of the burly Canadian’s travels through Japan to save the woman he loves.

Another Wolverine solo story I highly recommend is the uncannonical Old Man Logan from 2008, in which a much older, now pacifistic Wolverine, sets off on a cross country trip to save his family from the Hulk Gang. If that sounds like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, you would be right, but it’s a fun, if heartbreaking story.


He was always sort of a ghetto Spider-Man — and a bit of a joke. That is, until Frank Miller took over in Daredevil #168, introducing ninjas, assassin and love interest Elektra, and Daredevil’s mentor Stick. Miller took a book that was close to cancellation and turned it into one of Marvel’s most loved franchises.

Even after Miller left in 1983, Daredevil has remained one of the better-written books in the Marvel lineup.

Captain America

I’m not a huge Captain America guy, but you’d be remiss not to read Ed Brubaker’s Captain America from 2004, which includes, among other things, the Winter Soldier storyline that was the basis for this year’s hit movie.


I have an uneasy relationship with everyone’s favorite wall crawler. He’s always been one of my favorite characters, but Marvel loves running him through the muck — replacing him with clones, undoing his marriage, turning him into some kind of mystical spider-demon freak, you name it.

My general advice is to stick to Spider-Man stories from the ’70s and ’80s, and completely skip the ’90s.

But one gem I particularly love is his original showdown with the alien symbiote Venom, starting in Amazing Spider-Man #299. Venom has all of Spider-Man’s powers and then some, and on top of that, he’s bigger, meaner, and scarier. Todd MacFarlane’s Venom, with his creepy smile, stalks Peter Parker’s loved ones in search of revenge.

While later artists added ridiculous flourishes like a foot-long tongue covered in green slime and multiple heads, it’s MacFarlane’s original that still gives me chills.

If you want something a bit newer, the recent The Superior Spider-Man is a lot of fun. The story is that Doc Ock has taken over Peter Parker’s body in a bid to save his own life, but in the process takes on Peter’s sense of responsibility, and he decides to become the “superior” Spider-Man that Parker could only dream of being. Imagine Spider-Man with all the sensibilities of a Venture Bros. villain, with the requisite spy robots, goon army, dirty tricks, and massive battle mechs. It’s Breaking Bad meets Spider-Man, and it’s blast to read.

Other Notes for New Readers

You might see a lot of titles under the “Ultimate” banner. Be aware that these take place in an alternate universe, as a sort of soft reboot of traditional Marvel franchises. I advise against these for new readers; while they started off well, they’ve been mishandled to the point of unreadability. Sure, there are some gems, but I’ll leave you to discover them after your feet are wet.

You might want to investigate Deadpool, who is seems to be more popular all the time. Deadpool is a violently, often comically, unstable mercenary. He’s not to every taste, but a decent place to start is the recent Deadpool series by Gerry Duggan and comedian Brian Posehn. It starts off rather schlocky, but later in, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” gains an incredible amount of depth.

That’s a decent list of where to get started. Of course, this isn’t a definitive list. I’ve missed a lot of stuff like Avengers, Iron Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy, mostly due to my X-Men bias. But regardless, this should give you a decent survey of the Marvel universe. Happy reading, True Believer!

"The NSA and You" at Macworld/iWorld

This year will be my first at Macworld/iWorld, a show I've wanted to attend since I was a kid. Being my first trip to Macworld/iWorld, and actually my first trip to California, I resisted colleagues who encouraged me to host a session there.

But when I was invited to speak about NSA mass surveillance, which I've covered to some degree on TidBITS, I couldn't resist.

But ultimately, I'm not an expert on these matters, so that's why I assembled a panel of the foremost experts on security, privacy, Apple, and mass surveillance:

  • Rich Mogull, who is our security editor at TidBITS and CEO of Securosis. Rich is the leading authority on Apple security.

  • Joe Kissell, another fellow TidBITS editor, who has authored dozens of Take Control books, such as "Take Control of Your Online Privacy." Joe knows more about the Mac and iOS than just about anyone.

  • Kim Zetter, who writes for Wired's "Threat Level," where she has covered mass surveillance, online security, and civil liberties.

  • Quinn Norton, an independent journalist who has been embedded in Occupy Wall Street, Anonymous, and was even invited to advise the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Quinn is one of the most daring journalists working today, and is something of a hero of mine. I'm beyond excited that she agreed to be on the panel.

  • Parker Higgins, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which for decades has been working to defend our digital rights.

I'm honored that such great people have agreed to participate in the panel. It should be a lively discussion.

If you'll be in the Bay Area on Friday, March 28, be sure to swing by Moscone at 1 PM.

Here's my interview with Chuck Joiner of MacVoices about the panel. It may be the darkest episode of Chuck's show ever, as we get into some pretty deep stuff.


More on Why the U.S. Is Falling Behind

In my last post on the topic, I somehow forgot to mention Aereo, which has already been outlawed by judicial decree in some jurisdictions. Its fight against broadcasters is headed to the Supreme Court, where the (supposedly tech friendly) White House is lobbying against it.

Meanwhile, Marginal Revolution has some frightening statistics on our crumbling infrastructure. Also, we now have measles outbreaks in San Francisco and New York City, thanks to ignorance and complacency.

Quinn Norton, writing on Medium, has published a powerful piece on how money rules all in the United States:

There is no place with more personal debt and heavier patterns of obligation than the Land of the Free. We are free to try to get expensive degrees to get jobs that barely exist, we are free to spend most of our lives paying student loans, we are free to lose everything we may have gained the moment we get sick. Along the way we can buy more things and get into more housing debt than almost anyone in the world, making our freedom one of consumption — consuming and being consumed by the systems we are born to.

We are free to vote in gerrymandered districts, and free to vote for two federal parties that are largely identical. We are free to vote on machines and systems that it is often illegal to audit for security purposes. We are all free to talk at once, and listen to no one at all. We are free, ever free, to chase as many dollars as we can, all the way to Hell.

It’s time to call America what it is: a kleptocracy, run by corporations and governments with only cosmetic distinctions. It is full of good people whom the kleptocrats keep fighting against each other, as they have for over 150 years, and will until the good people drown in rising saltwater or epic storms, or simply die, exhausted and used up.

Is there any way to fix this?

Why the U.S. Is Falling Behind

"Hey, we developed a commercially viable electric car!"

Government: BAN IT!

"Hey, here's a newer, better alternative to traditional cabs!"

Government: BAN IT!

"Hey, here's an alternative to cigarettes that is much less harmful!"

Government: BAN IT!

"Hey, we'll test your genetics and warn you if you're at risk of disease!"

Government: BAN IT!

"Hey, we have a flying robot that can deliver packages to your house!"

Government: BAN IT!

"Hey, here's an alternative to hotels!"

Government: BAN IT!

How can we possibly maintain a competitive economy when our federal, state, and local governments outlaw every new innovative technology and service?

Take Control of Apple TV

It’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog, and there’s a couple of reasons for that. First, I’ve had my hands full with the baby. Second, while having my hands full with the baby, I wrote a book, Take Control of Apple TV, that’s available now.

I’ve been a big fan of the Apple TV for years, toying with it, tinkering with it, and slowly replacing every other set-top box in our home entertainment system with it. Its small footprint, ease of use, integration with the Apple ecosystem, and endless expandability (via AirPlay), made it our family’s ideal living room device. We use it for Netflix, iTunes content, to view baby pictures, as a home audio device — just about everything.

Now, for only $10, my years of Apple TV experience can be yours, in an easy-to-browse format. I start from the absolute basics and work you up to more complex hacks that unlock the hidden power of the Apple TV. I’m particularly proud of the “Apple TV at the Movies” chapter, which walks you through controlling video on your Apple TV, how to customized subtitles, and even how to rip DVDs and Blu-rays for viewing on your Apple TV. TidBITS members who got access to the early draft of the book said that chapter alone justified their membership fee.

So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Bradley Chambers, co-host of the Out of School podcast said, “It’s written in such a way that you don’t have to be an Apple nerd to understand what he is talking about. In other words, it’s highly approachable and very well written.”

Thanks to Bradley for that kind review, as well as my editors: Adam Engst, Tonya Engst, Kelly Turner, and Jeff Carlson for making my text shine.

If you own an Apple TV, or are thinking about buying one, be sure to check it out.

Guy Incognito

Tuesday, August 13, 2013, at 7:58 PM, after only 24 hours of labor and an emergency c-section, my wife Hannah gave birth to our first child.

IMG_0647 - Version 2.jpg

His name is James Harrison Centers. (His friends call him Harris.)

He weighed 8 pounds, 1 ounce, and was 21 inches long.

He's the best thing that ever happened to me.

This is an homage to John Gruber's announcement of the birth of his son, Jonas.