Tag Archives: Ask Brian Anything

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?

Yes.

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?”

Brian Answers: Is This the Real Life?

A little while ago, I put out the welcome mat to ask me anything and be guaranteed an answer. And you responded. What’s more, your questions were so intense, so thought-provoking, that I decided that cramming all the answers into one forty-minute post would be a crime (or at least a misdemeanor).

With questions this good, each one deserves its own post in answer. So all this week, I’ll be answering questions.

Here’s the first, from my good friend Ben Trube:

Okay Brian, I know you’re the right person to ask this question:

“Are we living in a computer simulation?”

Some potential source material and my inspiration for the question: NPR article

This is a great question, and as the article points out, people have been asking it long before The Matrix came out – indeed, long before computers were even invented. The puzzle of whether reality is “real” has kept philosophers busy for about as long philosophy has existed.

And the answer is simple: it’s utterly impossible to know. We can’t even speak meaningfully about how likely it is that we’re in a computer simulation.

Here’s why.

There are certain properties we would expect a computer simulation to have: finite computing resources, logic errors, and so on. Conceivably, you might design experiments that could test for these properties. So why do I say it’s impossible to know?

Simple. Because all of our ideas about how computers work are based on computers in this reality, which – if we’re a simulation – might be nothing like how computers operate in the “real” reality.

Our parent reality might have totally different laws of physics. It might even have different laws of logic. Two and two might not equal four. Since our entire lives have passed inside this reality, we have to concede that we have absolutely no basis for even speculating about any other reality.

So if our experiments didn’t find evidence of a computer simulation, that could just mean that we have no idea what “real” computers are like. Conversely, if we did find evidence, it could just mean that our reality happens to have properties of what we think of as a computer simulation; it says nothing about whether our reality matches the properties of a “real” computer simulation, which is unimaginable to us.

The NPR article you referenced quotes philosopher Nick Bostrom as saying that we’re “almost certainly” living in a computer simulation. But he makes the same logical error I just described: all his reasoning presupposes a “real” reality with the same properties as our own. There’s just no basis for such an assumption.

Okay, so we have no idea whether we’re made of baryons or bytes. A follow-up question might be: does it matter? Occam’s Razor says that if a hypothesis makes no observable predictions (that is, if “real” reality and simulated reality are subjectively identical) then it’s not worth worrying about.

But that’s a pretty big if. It could be, as in The Matrix, that waking up from the simulation has profound implications. It’s a question worth asking.

And a question that’s impossible to answer – just as Neo can never know that Zion is the real world, and not just another Matrix.

What do you think? Am I right, or did I miss something? Let me know in the comments!

Tomorrow, I’ll answer Zeev’s question: “Where do you see the United States in 20 years?”

Ask Brian Anything!

I’ve been yammering on this blog for an awful long time now. I figure, maybe it’s your chance to talk.

So here’s the deal: between now and the end of the month, ask me absolutely anything you want! I will answer every single question I get. (Limit one per customer. Ahem.)

I’ve done this once before, and y’all asked plenty of questions. We got a question on programming, a question on Star Trek, a question about how I met my wife, and even a question about questions.

This time, as before, the sky is the limit. What am I saying? The multiverse is the limit, where the multiverse is defined as everything that is a thing and/or not a thing. Ask me about the new Hobbit movie, or artificial intelligence, or my silver 2006 base-model four-cylinder Honda Accord, or the Wheel of Time and its last book which comes out January 8, or the relationship between pi and Euler’s number, or wombats, or…

You get the picture.

Leave your questions right here in the comments section of this post. The deadline is November 30.

My life is an open book. What do you want to know?

Ask Brian Anything: The Answers!

Can I just say one thing? You guys rock. It is currently, in this blog, rock o’clock.

I said you could ask me anything, and y’all wrote in no fewer than seven questions, on subjects as wildly varied as computer programming, poetry, T-shirts, and personal history. We’ve even got a question about questions. So meta, I love it!

And as promised, I’ve got answers for all of them. So let’s get started…

Ben Trube asks:

Opinion question: Which do you think is the more current relevant language C++ or C#? C# is newer obviously, but in your experience is it as powerful as applications written in C++? Do you think C++ will be around for another 10 years or so?

Well, looking at C++ vs. C# isn’t really comparing apples to apples. C++ is a powerful but bare-bones language with lots of optional libraries. Technically C# is too, but in practice, 99% of C# programs are written with the .NET framework. So we’re sort of comparing a language to a library.

Bare C++ is faster and more portable than C#/.NET, but it has a steeper learning curve, and it’s much easier to screw up your memory by playing with pointers. C#/.NET also has a huge number of objects that make it simple to do a very wide range of tasks.

Personally, I prefer C#, just because it’s a little more user-friendly. Though at the moment I’m using C++ for my artificial intelligence project because the Lego robot API was written in C++. As to which is more relevant, that’s hard to say; they’re both getting extremely wide use right now. But yes, I think C++ will definitely be around for at least another ten years.

Evlora asks:

What is the most useful question and it’s answer? The most useful question there is?

My wife suggested “Will you marry me?” as the most useful question (for me), but it’s possible she’s a little biased.

The most useful question I can think of is “Can you explain that more?” Everyone we meet walks around all day with massive amounts of knowledge and experience locked in their skulls, and it’s amazing what you can learn just by asking.

Whether it’s a nurse giving you an EKG, a mechanic replacing your brake pads, or even just a friend showing you some new project they’ve started, why not push them a little? Try to see the world from their point of view, figure out what they’re doing, then ask if your guess is right. People love talking about what they’re good at, so you can learn a lot this way.

This is especially true in the business world, and we’re all in the business world, even if you’re just trying to get a poem published. Asking any business partner – a client, an agent, a boss, a customer – to elaborate on what they mean is not only enlightening for you, it also makes you come across as engaged, proactive, and intelligent.

When someone’s explaining something and I don’t understand part of it, I make it a point to always ask, even if I know I’ll sound stupid.
Everyone has their areas of ignorance. The key is trying to make them smaller.

Shaila Mudambi asks:

Did you ever think about becoming a full time writer?

I should start by distinguishing between “full-time writer” and “professional writer.” Full-time means you quit your job and support yourself solely on your writing, which is an awfully tricky proposition. The typical advance on a first-time novel is somewhere around $5,000 (before taxes), and typical royalties are exactly zero. Add to that a complete lack of health insurance, and I’ll keep my day job, thank you.

But have I thought about becoming a professional writer – i.e., writing novels on evenings and weekends, and getting them sold for really reals? Absolutely. This was my deepest desire for a very long time.

Recently, as I describe in this post, I just got burned out. I had been working on the same novel for years, and I wasn’t feeling the love anymore. Switching to short stories didn’t help. After more than a decade of writing fiction, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I just got tired. Currently, the artificial intelligence project fills the hole in my life that writing left.

Will I go back to novel-writing? Maybe. Probably someday. I don’t know. But for now, this blog scratches my writing itch just fine, and I’m sticking with it.

Zeev asks:

If you were to pick any character from any Star Trek series or movies to interview, who would it be?  Bear in mind you have to take into account personalities, for instance if you ask Q a question he might just laugh and transform you into a cucumber.

This is a great question, because the Star Trek universe offers so many fascinating choices: Spock, Odo, Picard, the Borg Queen. (Although given the parameters of the question, that last one might not be a great idea.)

In the end, though, I have to go with Data.

He can't say can't, and he's still smarter than you.

Partly because he wouldn’t turn me into a cucumber. Partly because of my fascination with AI. Partly because he’d have so many great stories to tell: constructing his own daughter, traveling back in time, being voluntarily decapitated, feeling his first emotion, hacking into the Borg Collective, talking shop with Geordi LaForge, tap dancing with Dr. Crusher.

But the biggest reason for picking Data is that he’s the most badass character in the Star Trek universe, and he doesn’t even know it. You’ve gotta respect that.

Oh, and while I’m at it, I’d have him explain quantum gravity. ‘Cause we all know string theory ain’t payin’ the bills, and I’m not getting any younger over here.

Nandita Chandraprakash asks:

How did you meet your wife? 😀

I vividly recall that brilliant autumn evening, unnaturally warm, as I wandered barefoot over the pebble-strewn shores of Nova Scotia. I caught the scent of her perfume like an errant zephyr, and as I looked to the east, I saw her: crowned by the stars, framed by the wandering auroras of the setting sun…

Heh, just kidding. Betsy and I met in Honors Calculus our freshman year of college.

Chaitra Baliga asks:

Whats your opinion on messages written on t-shirts? 😛

Love ’em! A lot of my own T-shirts (which are mostly too small for my tree-like body) have messages on them, like:

  • Stand back! I’m going to try SCIENCE!
  • HELLO My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
  • XKCD (in a college-style font)

You do not by chance happen to have six fingers on your right hand?

As you can tell, I’m a tiny bit of a geek.

In fact, back in my Coffee With Sargeras days, I even got into the business of designing and selling T-shirts myself. The most popular of these was emblazoned with the words “Spider Pride,” which is an inside joke that would take way too long to explain. I never got rich on them, but I sold a couple dozen, all told.

Alex Caswell asks:

Are you willing to send me an e-mail or a post with just an oversized collection of your poetry on it?

Like throwing gasoline on a flame.

Actually, a lot of my poems are already out there on the web. As you know, my old Elfwood page is still around, though I haven’t updated it in years, and a bunch of my poems are up there. Many are from my high school (and even middle school) days, and plenty of them are cringe-inducing by current standards, but you’ll find some good ones too.

My DeviantArt page (also long-abandoned, though not quite as old) has more poems. There’s some overlap with the Elfwood material, but a good amount of it’s unique.

On my old Coffee With Sargeras blog I wrote a lot of haiku and a few longer poems, though most of that was just goofing around.

And of course, clicking the Poems tag right here on this blog will give you some of my most recent work.

So, that should be a pretty good start. If you read all that and you’re still hungry for more, I’ll see what else I can dig up!

BONUS! Question #8, from my wife, Betsy:

If you could grant yourself some new ability – something amazing, like a super power or immortality – what would it be?

Omniscience. I want to know everything.

I hesitated with this one a little, because knowing everything can be scary. Every moment of torture in history, every awful thing yet to come, you’d have to carry all that around with you. But the potential upside is literally unimaginable, and I’m just too curious. I’d have to take the plunge.

There you have it – all your questions, answered. Thanks so much to everyone for playing along.

Now here’s my question to you: was this fun? Any interest in doing another round of question-and-answer sometime? Let me know in the comments!

Ask Brian ANYTHING!

This is your big chance to ask anything you want about the exciting secret world of Brian D. Buckley, Esq.! Why, the opportunities are limitless!

You could ask for my insightful, penetrating analysis of global current events:

What are your thoughts on the new Dark Knight Rising trailer?

SO GOOD

…or you could ask about my work habits:

How can you dedicate forty minutes of every day to rambling, egotistical blatherskite?

Sheer, ironclad discipline.

…or about my political views:

Who should be the next President of the United States?

Donald Trump’s hair.

You could ask something deeply personal:

Have you ever had a chicken gizzard surgically grafted to your endocrine system?

HA HA NEXT QUESTION

…or just blatantly use me to do your homework:

To what extent can the modern-day Republic of Turkey be considered a successor state of the Ottoman Empire, and what role did Mustafa Kemal Atatürk play in the transition?

Seventeen.

Okay, but seriously, here’s the deal. Between now and next Wednesday, May 9, ask me any question you want in the comments. Then next Thursday, I’ll post actual, legitimate answers, right here at the Buckley Blog.

And, GO!