Tag Archives: Ask Brian Anything

Brian Answers: The Highest Moral

Welcome back, hypothetical reader! I’m feeling much better today, so let’s return to answering your questions. I’ve already answered one question about the NSA and another about writing advice.

Today, blog reader Alex C. asks:

What single moral principle do you believe in above all other morals you follow and why?

My answer is “the pursuit of beauty,” with beauty used in a much broader sense than normal.

Human life is beautiful. It’s one of the most beautiful things I know. So the pursuit of beauty means giving to charity, trying to save lives.

Happiness is beautiful. So pursuing beauty means finding ways to make people happy: other people, and yourself too.

Art can be beautiful, so I strive to make better art and improve my skill.

Work can be beautiful, so I strive to do better work.

Love is beautiful. We should search for love everywhere, cherish it where we find it, and create it where none exists. We should care for those close to us, and reach out to those who aren’t.

Truth is beautiful. We should hone our minds to be careful about the truth, to discover and follow what is real, to constantly challenge our own beliefs.

Many things are beautiful: the Pythagorean Theorem, sunrises, friendship, electricity, the planet Saturn; but also cold feet in the morning, the smell of dirt, the sound of a car engine. Even pain and death have their own austere kind of beauty. That doesn’t mean we should try to cause pain and death, but that we should look for what beauty in them we can find.

Of course, beauty is subjective, which is always the problem. Some things that I find beautiful (gay marriage, for example) are ugly to others, and vice versa. Things we find beautiful today may seem ugly in the future, and vice versa. So how do we know the things we’re pursuing are “truly” beautiful?

We don’t. We do the best we can, and we strive for the truth.

That’s my answer, anyway. What about you?

Brian Answers: Writing Advice

Ben Trube, a.k.a. The Bearded Wonder, offers up today’s question:

What single bit of writing advice would you give to yourself ten years ago?

Fear me, Younger Self! I come to you from beyond the misty barriers of time, speaking like unto an oracle, with the power of…ten extra years of doing stuff!!


This is an excellent question. Basically it’s asking: what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing in the past ten years?

I think I would say:

Know your characters better.

Sun Tzu said: “Know yourself. Know your enemy. In a thousand battles, no danger.”

If Sun Tzu had been less into battle-winnin’ and more into novel-writin’, he might have said: “Know your characters. In a thousand scenes, no danger.”

When I was younger, I built up elaborate plots with cardboard-thin characters. I tried to flesh out the characters in revision, but it never worked, because their actions were pre-determined by the elaborate plot. I was stuck.

Stories, I believe, need characters to be the foundation. You build your plot on top of them.

Now, plot is still important, and I still think you should write with an ending in mind. Otherwise you end up like Stephen King, with thousands of pages of stellar material that finally comes together with all the grace and elegance of a high school dance.

But your plot shouldn’t be so rigid that it squeezes the life from your characters. It should be loose enough to let them breathe, to assert themselves in your scenes.

And before that can happen, you have to know who they are.

One technique is to write character interviews. Just imagine sitting down with your character, asking them questions, finding out all sorts of things about them. What kind of jokes do they laugh at? What are they embarrassed about? What stories do they remember from childhood?

Above all: what do they want? And why?

Characters, I think, need strong goals to be compelling. Sometimes they don’t even realize what those goals are, but they still need to exist – and you, as the author, need to know them.

When things get difficult, which goals are your characters willing to sacrifice, and which will they cling to desperately until the end? And what is it about your character that makes those goals so compelling for them?

Think deeply, 18-year-old self.

But not so deeply that it keeps you from actually writing. Because if you’re trying to be a writer, that’s the most important thing. Keep writing.

I would’ve given you that as my advice, except you already know it, even at 18.

Thanks for the question, Ben! To all my hypothetical readers: what advice would you give your ten-years-younger self?

Brian Answers: The Benevolent NSA

All this week, I’m answering your questions! We’ll start the week off right with this one from Dave Higgins:

If you knew the government would remain benevolent for the remainder of human existence, and have perfect data security, would you object to them surveilling citizens?

This is a great question because it peers to the core of the privacy issue. Why are we upset about the NSA’s domestic surveillance program? Are we just worried about how it could be abused, or is there a more fundamental problem?

Let’s look at it from a few different angles.

First, of course, it would still be unconstitutional, and thus illegal. So I would still object on those grounds. But “illegal” is a much weaker objection than “immoral.” Let’s put the law aside for a moment.

Perpetual benevolence and perfect security suggest that the data collected won’t be misused for corrupt or overzealous purposes. This does, indeed, remove my main objection to the program. My biggest fear over surveillance is that the Executive branch could use its information to quietly blackmail Senators and discredit protesters. If we take that fear away, the picture looks much less grim.

Now, there’s still a question of privacy. I do feel that regardless of anything else, there is a fundamental right to keep personal things secret. We shouldn’t be watched against our will, and if we are, it’s a violation of human dignity.

But then, so is dying in a terrorist attack.

If we assume that the programs won’t be abused, and that they’re at least somewhat effective against terrorism, then I’d suck up my moral and legal concerns. So the short answer is: no, I wouldn’t object, in spite of my misgivings.

But let’s be clear that we’re describing a fantasy world. In the real world of imperfect human beings, the NSA’s insatiable appetite should worry anyone who believes in limited government.

Thanks for the question, Dave!

Ask Brian Anything!

It’s time for our third installment of Ask Brian Anything! Between now and the end of the week (midnight this Saturday, September 14), leave me a question in the comments. At the end of the week, I’ll round up all the questions, and once I’ve had a little time to ponder, I’ll post the answers.

No question is too personal, too bizarre, or too mundane. I will answer every single question I get. (Limit one per customer! But if you’ve asked a question in previous rounds, you’re welcome to ask again this round.)

You can browse previous questions and answers here. Previous questions have ranged from “Are we living in a computer simulation?” to “Where do you see the United States in twenty years?” to “How did you meet your wife?”

Ask away!

Brian Answers: Would You Live Forever?

Today, on our final Ask Brian Anything post, Shaila Mudambi wonders:

Do you want to be immortal and why?

If by “immortal” you mean that I would literally never die, ever, this would be pretty terrible. Fast forward a trillion trillion years: every other person or being everywhere is long dead, the stars have gone out, the universe is nothing but infinite frozen darkness – and there you still are, floating, powerless, alone, conscious for all of time. That kind of immortality is basically hell.

Generally, though, “immortal” means something a little more limited: you don’t die of old age or sickness, but you can be killed, by murder or suicide or just falling into a giant pit of molten sulfur. (Uh…for example.) This kind of immortality is much better, and if that’s what you mean, then my answer is an emphatic yes.

Imagine what you could do with a hundred thousand years!

You’d be master of anything you cared to study, just because you’d have so much time. A hundred years for calligraphy, a hundred years for computer programming, a hundred years to just read, and read. Think how much you could learn. Think how much money you’d have, with interest accumulating over the centuries.

Think how much good you could do in the world, with that much money and knowledge.

And think of getting to see what we mortals can only dream about: the future of the human race, the story unfolding as we write it. Will there really be a technological Singularity? Will we colonize other solar systems, and will we find life there? Will we ever have anything like world peace? In ten million years, what will we have evolved into? What is the ultimate potential of our species?

Yes, I would like to be immortal.

You hear a lot about the downsides of living forever – or at least, for millennia. Over and over and over, you watch your loved ones die. You get tired of life, weary of existing. You’ve seen too much. Et cetera.

On this, I call shenanigans.

Yes, those drawbacks exist, but I think the sheer potential of what you could learn and do and achieve vastly outweighs them all. What’s more, I think that the longer you live, the more strategies you could acquire for dealing with this accumulated sorrow, or existential weariness. You might, for instance, achieve Zen enlightenment, rendering the whole thing moot. The possibilities are so much vaster than our capacity to imagine them.

Now, through all of this, I’ve made the typical assumption that (semi) eternal life means (semi) eternal youth. But what if that wasn’t the case?

My good friend Adam asks:

Just to over simplify the situation a bit… assume for a second the singularity happens and you can become immortal… how will your answer to Shaila’s change if aging can not be reversed? Will you accept immortality at age 80 vs. 50?


The fact is, I’m an old man already, in spirit if not in body. I’ve never been athletic. I go for walks, not runs. I sit at home reading and writing. I love to travel, but when I do, I mostly walk around looking at things and trying new foods. I could do all of that just as well at 80 (and I fully intend to). Centuries more of that would still be a priceless gift.

That’s assuming I’m a reasonably healthy 80. I’d still be okay with having a fair number of health problems, too – but at some point, if things are so bad that you’re doing more suffering than living, immortality really would just be a burden. So in that case I’d say no.

But it would have to be pretty bad. Because immortality sounds friggin’ amazing.

Well, that concludes Ask Brian Anything Week. Thanks to everyone for asking, and for reading! What did you think? Is this something I should do again in, say, six months or a year?

And would you want to be immortal?

Brian Answers: What Would You Lie About?

Today’s Ask Me Anything question arrives courtesy of longtime reader Jo Eberhardt:

What is the one question you wouldn’t answer honestly, no matter what?

This question is especially interesting to me, because as it happens, I’m a very honest person. Maybe it’s just my upbringing, but for whatever reason, I’ve been honest nearly to a fault ever since I was a little kid. This, in turn, has made me think a lot about the ethical foundations of honesty, and when lying really is acceptable.

I can think of two major reasons for telling the truth.

First, there’s trust: the more honest people are, the more they can trust each other. And trust has a wide array of benefits, from personal relationships (like marriage) all the way up to international diplomacy. Without trust, society falls apart.

My second reason is more nebulous, and would be harder to defend in a pinch, but here it is: I believe there is something inherently beautiful, or noble, about the truth. I feel that one of the great purposes in life is to understand the universe, and to that end, truth is a step forward and lies are a step backward.

With that in mind, I would say that lies are justified when the ethical good they can do (or the harm that the truth could cause) outweighs the benefits above. The classic example (at the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law) is if you’re hiding some innocent person in Nazi Germany, and the Nazis come banging on your door, asking if you’re hiding anyone. Of course you lie, because the need to save a human life is vastly more important than anything else in that situation.

That’s an extreme example, but it can act as a guide for thinking about ethics.

(To be clear, I’m not nearly as saintly as all this makes me sound. I certainly have lied for no other reason than to cover my own ass. Not too often, and I’m not necessarily proud of it, but it does happen.)

So. That was a long-winded philosophical monologue in reply to a simple question that I haven’t even answered yet: “What is the one question you wouldn’t answer honestly, no matter what?”

The short answer is that I can’t think of a single specific question I would never answer honestly. Rather, it’s a whole class of questions that I would lie about, according to the guidelines above. So much depends on context, and especially on who’s asking.There are very, very few things I would lie to my wife about; there are many more things I would lie to a stranger about, though still relatively few.

Not sure if that was a satisfying answer, but I’m afraid it’s the only one I have. Thanks for the question, Jo!

Tomorrow is the last “Brian Answers” post. I’ll respond to questions from Shaila and Adam about immortality (w00t!).


Brian Answers: Where Are We Headed?

The next Ask Me Anything question comes from Zeev:

Let’s give you an all encompassing question.

“Where do you see the United States in 20 years?”

Will it still be a world superpower? Or more like the British empire past its prime with waning power over the rest of the world?

Where do you see the US citizens? Happy? Prosperous? are we a Plutocracy? an Oligarchy? how’s the wage gap? how’s our civil rights record looking?

Feel free to include any an all ideas that you have on the future, the previous were just suggestions and not mandates.

The year is 2032, I’m forty-seven years old, Sony’s just released the Playstation 9, and we’ve discovered we’re all living in a computer simulation. What else is new? Of course, nobody knows, but these are my (somewhat) educated guesses.

On the world stage, I think we’ll continue to be a superpower. As I’ve mentioned before, the U.S. spends as much on its military as the next nineteen countries combined, and has more aircraft carriers than the rest of the planet put together. I don’t see that changing drastically anytime soon. The biggest danger I see militarily is that we’ll spread ourselves too thin. However, the quagmires of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the far more successful and cheaper (in blood and money) action in Libya, have hopefully imprinted a distaste for entanglement on our collective psyche – at least for a while.

It does seem likely that our military dominance will become less overwhelming, due to the rise of countries like China, India, and Brazil. We worry a lot about China, and rightly so, but its leaders seem to crave stability more than anything. I don’t see them launching World War III, recent saber-rattling with Japan notwithstanding.

And there are other reasons for hope. In general, the world is slowly, slowly getting more democratic: witness the Arab Spring, the reforms in Burma, and last decade the revolutions in eastern Europe. Democracies tend not to fight each other, so this, too, is a sign of stability. Meanwhile al-Qaeda is weaker than ever – not that it was ever, statistically speaking, much of a threat. Americans on their home turf have always been more likely to be struck by lightning than killed in a terrorist attack.

Enough about geopolitics. What about at home?

For starters, the Republican Party is facing a pair of crises, and they know it. The first is a growing split between the moderates and the Tea Party; the second is demographics. Republicans are overwhelmingly losing the black and Latino vote, which is an ever-growing share of the electorate. I think they’ll find a way to adapt, but that will mean some significant changes to their platform over the next 20 years.

In terms of civil rights, marriage equality is perhaps the major battle of our time, and on that front, we’re making enormous progress. I’ve written about that recently, so I won’t belabor the point here. But I think same-sex marriage will be far less controversial twenty years from now, and thank goodness for that.

I’m painting a rosy picture so far, but of course we do face enormous challenges. Debt continues its long, slow spiral out of control, and despite all the talk recently about reining it in, I haven’t seen much hope that it’s going to happen. Our K-12 schools are failing even as our universities get more expensive. The threat of nuclear war, which has faded since the fall of the Soviet Union, never disappeared – and our drone strikes are winning us few friends in nuclear-armed Pakistan. (Although India is probably a more likely Pakistani target, if it comes to that.) And, of course, we’re still in the midst of a global economic crisis, and humanitarian crises in Syria and elsewhere.

Overall, though, I tend to be broadly optimistic. We’ve survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, two World Wars, and the Cold War. As problems emerge, we adapt. One way or another, we’ll figure it out. (See, I’m reciting platitudes – take that, dictatorships!)

I’ve written a lot, but of course I’ve necessarily left out a lot. I haven’t even mentioned privacy concerns or the exponential growth of technology. But my time and your attention are limited, so I’ll cut it short.

What do you think about the question or my answer? Leave me a comment!

Tomorrow I’ll answer Jo Eberhardt‘s question: “What is the one question you wouldn’t answer honestly, no matter what?”