Jim Letourneau's Blog

Investing, Technology, Travel, Geology, Music, Golf. I think that covers it.

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Al Gore Unhinged

For the record ...The political champion of the natural world received that sophomore D in Natural Sciences 6 (Man's Place in Nature) and then got a C-plus in Natural Sciences 118 his senior year. (source)

I'm just a geologist but I'm calling bullshit on Gore's bullshit. Sunspots and volcanos matter.

Rex Murphy sums up Gore's rant best - Gore’s meltdown might just be the moment when the people of the planet saw the carney show for what it was. (source)

Collecting Patents Goes Mainstream

Many Silicon Valley types bemoan the existence of patents. They are believed to stifle innovation in the technology universe. Certainly the value of new products can be diminished by stray patent claims. I don't own any patents myself so I'm not fully informed on the debate. However, I do know that former Alberta tech stock rocket Wi-Lan (WIN.TO) has been methodically spinning their patent portfolio into gold.

The CantechLetter interviewed CEO, Jim Skippen just before the announcement of the Wi-LAN's takeover of Mosaid Technologies (MSD.TO).

Then I came to Wi-LAN, which at the time had no revenues, no employees, it only had about twenty patents, it had no cash in the bank and look at where we are today. Almost a billion dollar valuation, two-hundred million in the bank, almost 1500 patents, and 250 companies that have signed licenses. It's a very dramatic Canadian success story. If you listed the top ten Canadian tech companies by market cap, I believe we are number five or six. I think sometimes the media doesn't give us the due that they should, just in terms of how successful we have been in such a short period of time.

If you're curious about Wi-LAN's remarkable growth and patent-licensing, read PART 1 and PART 2 of the Cantech Letter interviews.

On Mutual Funds

The financial services industry has a stranglehold on the average North American investor. They are unlikely to let go, even in the face of scathing criticism from David F. Swensen, the chief investment officer at Yale University. His recent New York Times opinion piece, The Mutual Fund Merry-Go-Round, takes aim at the mutual fund industry.

For decades, the mutual fund industry, which manages more than $13 trillion for 90 million Americans, has employed market volatility to produce profits for itself far more reliably than it has produced returns for its investors.

It pays for investors to educate themselves about alternatives. They do exist.

The Big Picture on Mississippi Nitrate Levels

The USGS just released the results of a comprehensive study on nitrates in the Mississippi watershed. No Consistent Declines in Nitrate Levels in Large Rivers in the Mississippi River Basin

The largest anthropogenic sources of nitrates are septic tanks, application of nitrogen-rich fertilizers to turfgrass, and agricultural processes. (source)

The study determined that nitrate levels at Clinton, Iowa, increased 76% from 1980-2008. While Iowa corn has been a major source of US ethanol supply, it comes at a cost.

As in most of the U.S., surface water in Iowa is never safe to drink untreated, contamination by agricultural runoff including nitrates, herbicides, pesticides, and animal waste is common. (source)

The bottom line is that nitrate transport to the Gulf of Mexico was 10% higher in 2008 than 1980 in spite of a few localized decreases due to conservation practises. The Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans. High nutrient levels (like nitrate) from the Mississippi contribute to hypoxia, or dead zones, in the Gulf of Mexico.

State and federal partners serving on the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force are striving to decrease nutrients transported to the Gulf to reduce the size of the hypoxic zone to less than 5,000 square kilometers (about 2,000 square miles) by 2015. This is roughly the size of Grand Canyon National Park!

When someone starts gesticulating about groundwater problems caused by shale gas wells, or the Gulf of Mexico being destroyed by BP, don't forget to remind them of the Big Picture on Mississippi Nitrate Levels.

Airline Treachery

The masterminds at United  (aka United Breaks Guitars) are now marketing a MileagePlus Explorer Card. I'm annoyed for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, they know I live in Canada so I'm surprised they'd be sending me an offer that is nearly impossible for me to take advantage of.

Secondly, one of its great "features"  is a free checked bag if you pay for your flight with the card. Since free checked baggage was standard with most airline flights until a few years ago, I'm having a hard time getting excited. Thanks for nothing United.

Apple Screws Kobo (and Kindle)

I love Kobo for digital books. Their application works seamlessly across multiple devices, prices are reasonable and they have badges. While my inbox is not the ultimate arbiter of what is going on in the digital book world, two recent Emails point to the "cage match" nature of the business.

Two days ago I received a great offer from Apple's iBookstore:

For a limited time, we're offering three excellent books for free. Get The Great Bridge by Pulitzer Prize-winner David McCullough, Jolie Blon's Bounce from mystery master James Lee Burke, or In Her Shoes by women's fiction favorite Jennifer Weiner. Simply download the free iBooks app and read these titles today on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch.

Apple isn't known for giving things away.

Today's Email from Kobo didn't have anything free for me. In fact it announced a lessened utility of their iPhone and iPad apps.

We would like to inform you that we have made changes to our iPhone and iPad apps in order to conform with new rules imposed by Apple. The biggest change for our customers is the removal of the ability to shop from within our app.

Thanks Apple.

By the way, I think iTunes is toast. I'm using Rdio more than ever for my music. When I get a moving pictures urge, Netflix and Hulu Plus come first.

I've never bought an eBook reader so all of my reading is on the iPad. If I can't find a title on Kobo, my second choice is the Kindle app. I see that the just released Version 2.8 of the Kindle App removes the Kindle Store button.

Thanks again Apple.

Apple's bullying ways point to the high stakes involved in the rapidly growing e-book market and is part of a larger move to ensure that they get their hefty 30% cut of anything sold on their iOS platform. It will be interesting to see how long Apple can maintain this. The big boys of eBooks are heading for some bloody battles.

Be Resources Flunks Math

Be Resources (BER.V) shot to the moon on Friday, July 22. Shares opened at $0.095 and closed at $0.75 after trading 49,329,863 shares! They only have 44,696,583 shares outstanding.

They reported outstanding rare earth grades from their Warm Springs project in New Mexico. Specifically, the calculation of total rare earth oxides (TREO) got screwed up badly. On the "best" hole, DH3, the TREO number has been revised from 19.58% down to 1.95%.

The raw assay data received from their lab was correct, but this information has not been released.

Ultimate responsibility for this painful error falls to David Tognoni, PE, the company's president and chief executive officer. According to the requirements of National Instrument 43-101, a qualified person needs to make sure that these kinds of errors don't happen. Togoni is responsible for verification of the data and the contents of both the initial and corrected news release although it appears that the actual calculations were done by a consulting geologist.

As a rule of thumb, most geologists are not math wizards (its not just me). The initially reported results were so outstanding that it might have been a good idea for somebody check their work before releasing it to a rare earth hungry market.

This appears to be the result of incompetence as I can't imagine how anyone associated with the company being able to profit from this without getting caught. However, the majority of Be Resources' new shareholder base are going to be calling for management's blood when trading resumes.

Polaris Music Prize - The Buried Gems

The Polaris Music Prize is a boon to obscure Canadian bands who make interesting music. They have a fighting chance to gain attention through participating in the Polaris Music Prize (see below).

Polaris recognizes and markets albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history. it is is adjudicated by selected music journalists, broadcasters and bloggers.

Anyone who listens to the entire long list of nominated albums is going to be a Canadian music expert. In the interests of that brevity thing, I'm only considering the short list nominees.

After looking through the track order vs number of plays on Rdio, I've dug up the buried gems (if any) for each album. These are songs that people have added to their virtual or mental playlists. They can't be the first track of the album or the title track of the album as those are pretty obvious starting points when checking out a band. The buried gems show up as a disruption in the pattern of declining number plays by track order.

Maybe these tunes were played on CBC Radio 3 or CKUA or a campus station somewhere inspiring people to check them out.

  • Braids - Native Speaker: Native Speaker is track 4 - nothing buried

  • Destroyer - Kaputt: Kaputt is track 6 - nothing buried

  • Galaxie - Tigre et diesel : (first track, Piste 1 has double the plays of any other song on the album... no buried gems here but very listenable out of the chute)

  • The Weeknd - House Of Balloons: not listed on Rdio but major YouTube plays

The first song on each of these albums always had the most plays. Even title tracks receive fewer plays than the first song of an album.

Album Track Order vs Number of Plays on Rdio

I've long noticed that when musical choices are presented in a vertical list, the top track is always picked first. This was easily observed on MySpace where most bands streamed 4 tracks for their fans to listen to.

With streaming music services poised to replace services like iTunes, I thought it would interesting to check out how album track order influenced the number of times the track was played. I used the 2011 Short List Nominees for the Polaris Music Prize as a sample. Then I used data from the streaming service Rdio to determine the number of times a track was played. The band The Weeknd isn't listed on Rdio so they were omitted.

All albums had the same pattern where the first listed track was played the most on an album and the last listed track was played the least. The ratio between the number of first track and last track plays varied between 2.06-3.90. These distributions look like they would fit a power law.

Hit songs pop out when the pattern of declining successive track plays is interrupted. For example, Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" hit song "We Used to Wait" pops out on the graph with 17,390 plays. Even the obscure bands with no mainstream radio airplay (what a quaint term) managed to have "hits" on their albums. I suspect that great albums by Pink Floyd will have flatter curves than hit machine cogs like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.

Today a hit means that a streaming music listener has added a track to his or her playlist (either mental or digital).

From my experience, I'll start playing an album with the intention of listening to all of the songs and then I get interrupted. A phone call, conversation or the end of a walk all lead to the same place, an abrupt termination of an album listen.

Track sequencing is a critical component of putting together an album of songs. For artists with a song that they want the world to hear, it would be best if they didn't put it in last place.


This is a powerful trend. When the album title track is not the first track listed, the first track of an album received more plays than the title track. Also this data was collected Tuesday AM so any change in listener trends will make these specific results unrepeatable.

Nexus Benefits Increasing

When travelling through my home airport in Calgary (YYC) there are usually 2 or 3 lineups; ticketing, customs and security. Internet checkins and a carry on bag eliminate the first lineup. Weary international travellers have often noticed the fast lineup on the left hand side where the Nexus card holders scoot through customs. A  Nexus card is a must for frequent international travellers as it eliminates long customs lineups. That leaves the final lineup, security. Now Canadian travellers with their Nexus card get to skip the que as well. This is a relatively new development so the next time you're travelling within Canada, don't forget your Nexus card!

I didn't bring mine today but even the normal security lineups are much faster than they used to be. Life is good :)