Why Johnny Can’t Code Redux

David Brin  David Brin

A long time ago (BK – Before Kids) I was lucky enough to meet David Brin at Ad Astra, the Toronto Science Fiction convention. It’s easy to meet people who have opinions. It isn’t often that you meet someone smart enough to explain to you exactly why the opinion is right. David Brin is one of the few I’ve met who are that smart.

A long time ago in Internet Time (2006) David wrong an article for Salon called Why Johnny Can’t Code. It’s a great article, and I recommend everyone read it, and share it.

Got reminded about the article when Michael (our oldest – he’s 28 now) and I were out yesterday picking up plumbing parts – the downstairs bath tub faucet was leaking hot water.

While he was driving (I wasn’t in shape to drive yesterday – heck, I barely managed to get into the car) we were talking about games. Michael is good at games. Really good. And he reminded me of one of the reasons why.

Apparently (I’d forgotten) a long time ago I’d taught Michael how to use a hex editor to view (and change) save game files. We’d done a lot of fooling around with the old Gold Box AD&D game Pool of Radiance, making things like a ‘Shield of Fireballs +5’…

Why does this all hang together?

Because it is getting harder for kids to learn how to code as David Brin pointed out, and it is getting harder for kids to learn how to use a hex editor too. I’m serious. The big growth area for games is phones and tablets. Have you ever seen a hex editor for IOS or Android? How about for any of the Playstation or XBox game consoles?

So we are moving further into a culture where people use things that they don’t understand, can’t play with to understand, and where it is often illegal to play with stuff in that matter (read up on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act – it makes it illegal to modify ‘copyrighted works’ without the consent of the ‘owner’ and yes, this does include save game files).

Which is sad. Really sad.


Wayne Borean

Tuesday June 2, 2015



National Security Agency Wins – Groklaw Shuts Down


On Tuesday August 20, 2013, PJ announced that Groklaw would shut down. To quote her final post:

The owner of Lavabit tells us that he’s stopped using email and if we knew what he knew, we’d stop too.

There is no way to do Groklaw without email. Therein lies the conundrum.

What to do?

The whole NSA spying on emails thing came out of left field to most people. I knew a fair bit about it before it hit the news – I’d been corresponding with a variety of people who were nibbling around the issue from various directions. The problem was that they were all working on different angles, and everything seemed to lead into one direction, which seemed like pure paranoia.

Unfortunately it wasn’t.

Continue reading “National Security Agency Wins – Groklaw Shuts Down”

Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus – Commentary


American Patent law is a mess. When a small section of law ends up being appealed to the United States Supreme Court so often, it is an indication that:

  1. The law is badly written
  2. Powerful interest groups are trying to bend the law
  3. There is a lot of money at stake

This is the seventeenth patent case the court has ruled on since 2005. The Supreme Court has broad powers to choose which cases that it takes. It selects cases that it believes will have a significant impact on the law in the United States. That it has taken so many patent cases implies that the Supreme Court sees problems with the Patent System.

Continue reading “Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus – Commentary”

Copyright Wars Volume 4 is now Published

Copyright Wars Volume 4 Cover Page
Copyright Wars Volume 4 Cover Page

Copyright Wars Volume 4 has now been published. It was rather fun reading the old posts, and looking at the things that have changed, and have not changed since I originally wrote the articles.


Wayne Borean

Saturday December 3, 2011

Copyright Wars Volumes 1 & 2

The Author and his Deceased Editor
The Author and his Deceased Editor

Greetings and salutations! On September 1, 2011 I had the great pleasure of publishing the first two volumes of my Copyright Wars series. They are up on both Amazon and Smashwords, and should be available on the Kobo, IBook, Diesel, and Sony Reader platforms in a few days. I published them under my imprint. Yes, I’m legally a Canadian publisher, you can find me listed on Collections Canada.

Continue reading “Copyright Wars Volumes 1 & 2”

The Intellectual Property Bubble – The Next Danger To The World Economy?

Do companies no longer compete on price and features? Is it all about competing with competitors in the courtroom rather than the marketplace? Is this an economic model economists understand? Do patent trolls contribute anything to the well being of anyone but themselves? Does Paul Allen suffer if someone copies one of ‘his’ ideas?

I am not an economist. From my naive perspective it works like this. I make more of something than I need but there are things I need that I do not have so I am quite happy to swap some butter for some honey. Sooner or later the swapping got a bit cumbersome as there were more and more articles that needed to be traded to get what you wanted. Hence money was invented. A brilliant labor saving invention (I believe the patent may have run out but don’t quote me).

Now people want money not for producing things but by thinking about a way to produce things. In other words, through the sweat of my brow, I make stuff that other people are prepared to pay me for and then part of my income has to go to people who provide me with nothing apart from ‘we thought of that also’. That last sentence didn’t come out right. I’m not personally paying patent trolls, we all are and what do we get in exchange? Nothing. They don’t actually make anything that we want!


Every Time You Buy Something

Manufacturers include legal fees as part of their costs, so whenever you go to buy something, say the USB stick at your corner store, the cost of legal fees is included. I personally believe that if the USPTO was shut down, and all patents invalidated, that this would jump start the United States economy, and help get a lot of people back to work. In addition to the ‘Housing Bubble’, and the ‘Sub Prime Mortgage Bubble’, and the ‘Internet Bubble’ we are currently facing an ‘Intellectual Property Bubble’, and when it blows up, the United States is going to be hurt – badly.

The Intellectual Property Bubble

Sorry folks, but it’s definition time. A ‘Bubble’ happens when trade in an item exceeds it’s intrinsic value. A good basic indication that a bubble is occurring is when the words ‘market prices will continue to rise’ are heard. There are certain cases when this may not be an indication of a bubble. But generally when a majority think that prices will not come down, and there are no structural reasons for the price rise, a bubble is occurring.

Bubbles are destructive, i.e. they destroy wealth. If, at the height of the United States housing bubble you paid $500,000.00 for a house, and the house is now worth $300,000.00, the bubble would have destroyed $200,000.00 of your personal wealth. Destruction of wealth  on this sort of a scale is damaging not only to the person involved, it is also devastating to the economy as a whole, as the money you have lost would have most likely been used for other goods and/or services.

While I’ve said that Bubbles destroy wealth, this is not accurate. What Bubbles do is transfer wealth, but unlike in a normal transaction, the transfer is effected without the buyer gaining any value in return. In effect a Bubble is a legalized form of theft.

Let’s consider another example, the Dot Com Boom. During the Dot Com Boom, there was a huge run up in share prices for technology companies. In many cases the companies in question had no product or business plan. So why did anyone buy shares in them?

Simple – there was a huge push by investment banks, who earned fees for taking companies public. It didn’t matter to the investment bank if the investment was good or not, just as long as they earned their fees.

And of course there is an immense amount of money worldwide which is looking for a place to be invested. This money flowed into these companies, pushing up share prices, which attracted other investors, who bought from the initial investors. When the prices crashed as reality sank in, the later investors suffered catastrophic losses.

This also poisoned the market for new Initial Public Offerings, so the money flowed elsewhere. The 20th century suffered a series of bubbles, which culminated in real estate bubble.

So Where Is The Money Now?

That’s a damned good question, and one that I can’t answer for sure, however I can make some guesses. Let’s look at Intellectual Ventures. Intellectual Ventures is a patent holding company. From their website:

Intellectual Ventures is the global leader in the business of invention. We collaborate with leading inventors, partner with pioneering companies, and invest both expertise and capital in the development and monetization of inventions and patent portfolios. Our mission is to energize and streamline an invention economy that will drive innovation around the world.

Intellectual Ventures is one of many companies that is investing in Innovation according their their press releases. Another is Acacia Technologies. These companies are buying up patents, and attempting to license them.

If you check the business news pages, there have been a series of articles about patents, and their value to the economy. Articles that seem more like cheer leading, than rational thought.

But patents aren’t the only issue. There have been enormous pushes to strengthen copyright laws worldwide. There have also been attempts to push Trademark law into places where it has never been used before.

I believe that what we are seeing is money looking for a place to go, and finding it. And I think that when the immediate profits are made, the money will go somewhere else, and the move will once again pull value out of the system for everyone else.

Now I could be totally wrong. In effect this article is me thinking out loud, and looking for feedback. It’s based on things that I’ve been seeing over the last four or five years, which disturb me.

So if you have any comments, please leave them.


Wayne Borean

Tuesday January 18, 2011

Intellectual Property Primer – Part One – Trademarks

This is the first of a series of posts on what ‘Intellectual Property’ or ‘IP’ is, and what purpose the concept serves. The series was inspired by the realization that the vast majority of the people currently discussing Intellectual Property Issues on the internet have very little knowledge of the subjects they are discussing, or have specialized knowledge of a particular sub-section, and are trying to generalize their specialized knowledge in ways that are inappropriate.

By attempting to educate everyone, hopefully we will be able to raise the level of discourse, and address some of the common misconceptions. In many ways I’m one of the better able to undertake this task, While I’m not technically an expert, over my years in industry I’ve worked with all three of the concepts that make up ‘Intellectual Property’. The term Intellectual Property in itself is a misnomer. There isn’t anything ‘Intellectual’ about a Trademark, even though Trademarks are the most important type of IP, which is why I prefer the term ‘Intangible Property’.

There are three different types of Intangible Property – Trademarks, Patents, and Copyrights. These are vastly different concepts used in different ways. A large part of the confusion on the internet is caused by a misunderstanding of the three terms, even though the terms themselves are very simple. The laws covering the concepts are far more complex. If you have legal issues which involve Trademarks, Patents, or Copyrights, I strongly suggest that you hire a legal professional. This may sound strange coming from someone who has been very critical of legal professionals many times in the past, however my criticisms have never been of the profession itself. All of my criticisms have been of specific statements and actions by the professionals involved, which I disagreed with.

This is a simplified explanation, meant for the layman. For an in depth explanation, you need to see an expert.


In many ways Trademarks are the oddity of the Intangible Property group. While both Patents and Copyrights cover creative acts by artisans, artists, or authors, a Trademark is actually a form of consumer protection. Trademarks are an ancient concept, which can be traced back to the Roman Empire, where weapons manufacturers marked their production. Each manufacturer used a unique mark, which allowed the Roman Legionnaire to know who’s weapon he was using.

Because each of the different manufacturers used different materials and methods to manufacture the weapons that the legionnaire was using, a sword from one manufacturer might be more suitable for use in one situation than a sword from another manufacturer (for example the cold in Northern Britain could mean that one make of sword would be more susceptible to cracking in wintertime use). Obviously being able to pick the correct weapon for the situation was important to the man on the spot. It was also important to the Empire as a whole. Being able to identify and remove from service weapons that had proven not suitable for use contributed to the stability of the Empire.

Criminals immediately recognized the importance of Trademarks. The use of the mark of a highly reputable weapon manufacturer meant that a cheaply made sword could be sold for a higher price. Of course if the real manufacturer found out, the criminal could end up dead. Since there were (as far as we know) no trademark laws at the time, the only answer to trademark abuse was to take action yourself. Or hire the historical equivalent of Tony Soprano to take action for you.

And of course when the concept of a trademark was invented, the vast majority of the population was illiterate. The word ‘Apple’ spelled out would have meant nothing to most people, but the symbol of an apple with a bite missing would have been easily understood. This is why many trademarks today are symbols, though words and phrases are used as well.

Today, unlike in Roman times most countries have laws regulating trademarks. The laws vary from country to country, but one point that is common is that you aren’t allowed to trademark someone else’s concept. This is supposed to protect both the consumer, and the trademark owner.

In other words, if you set up a business, I’m not allowed to trademark your business name, even if you haven’t filed for a trademark. Trademark Trolls, who trademark a business name, and then threaten to sue the business owner, are a rising problem in part because of the costs of fighting an improper trademark suit, and also because there is no effective punishment for filing an improper trademark. And calling in Tony Soprano isn’t legal, even if it might be effective.

Trademarks are extremely valuable to consumers. If you hate Apple products, it’s of value to you to see their trademarked logo, so you can avoid buying. If you love Apple, their trademarked logo is also of value to you, as you know the product is by a manufacturer you like. Both ways, you the consumer, win. Even if you don’t care about the company right now, the easy identification allows you to buy the product, evaluate it, decide if you like it, and then avoid or search it out in future.

Trademarks are often confused with Branding. Branding is an attempt to give a product or company an image. Everyone has seen the Mac-PC commercials. Mac is this cool dude, while PC is a stodgy goof. The idea being, that if you buy a Mac you are cool. Oh, the commercials also cover the other advantages of buying a Mac, such as their superior security model, but the main aim is to make you think that buying a Mac will make you cool. It won’t make you cool of course. But they try to make you think it will.

A memorable trademark is often simple. Everyone in North America knows what the Golden Arches stand for, whether they like eating at McDonald’s or not. The Apple with the bite out of it. The Three Pointed Star which represents Mercedes Benz (Daimler Benz outside of North America).

Trademarks, a consumer protection measure, shouldn’t be considered similar to Copyrights. Copyright is a limited term monopoly given to the author or artist who produces a work. Trademarks, a consumer protection measure, shouldn’t be considered similar to Patents. Patent is a limited term monopoly given to an inventor for an invention.

Trademarks on the other hand, are forever. As long as the mark is in use, it remains the property of the holder (it can also remain their property if it’s not in use for periods of time, check the law in your jurisdiction). The Disney Company holds a trademark on Mickey Mouse. It will still be valid, even if the copyright on a work that features Mickey Mouse expires. Never mind the patent on the camera that was used to shoot the film.

Remember – Trademarks are the oddball of Intangible Property. Unlike Copyrights and Patents, a trademark doesn’t represent a creation, even though creativity was involved in choosing the mark, and designing the logo.


Wayne Borean

Sunday October 17, 2010