Tag Archives: Ask Brian Anything

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!


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?


…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?


…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?


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!