Note 50: Potpourri

No overarching theme or mega-essay this week. Just lots of random thoughts.

As I wind down the work week and reflect on how scatterbrained I feel at the moment, I’m reminded of the mental metric that I use to judge whether a period of time has been well-spent or wasted. Because unlike normal human beings, I’m terrible at looking back what was accomplished, because I’m more focused on the things that I didn’t get done instead of the things that I did. So, my workaround for this problem is to reframe the evaluation to ask myself, “For time period X, how much would it suck if I were plopped back down at the beginning of the period Groundhog Day-style and had to do it all over again?” If I think to myself that it would be no big deal to repeat it again, that’s a pretty good indicator that I didn’t accomplish much (which is fine, in the right contexts and times, like vacations). If I start to dread the thought of a do-over, that’s a pretty good indication that something useful was accomplished, even if I can’t recognize it directly.

This has been one of those “glad it’s over and I don’t want to go back” weeks. In addition to my regular meetings and phone calls with clients (and the actual work that I have to do to not appear like a slacker), this week’s also focused on wrapping up suitable drafts to send to an editor for inclusion in an upcoming book about social media research methods. I have a couple of clients attacking that problem from different angles, and I helped write one chapter about how a client from American University and I deployed a web browser extension a few years ago to passively collect online political news consumption. For another client at Columbia University, we’re submitting a chapter about making the most of Google Takeout-style mechanisms on social media sites (thank you, Europe and your GDPR) where we walk users through the process of requesting their own data, and uploading it to our infrastructure to evaluate how particular events (I’m being vague because we’re still running the study) influence users’ behavior on social media sites. I have some more work to do on both drafts before the end of the day, but both of them are close to submission, which is a relief.

In addition to the big picture stuff, I’ve been squashing a ton of issues and small to-dos that have accumulated while I focused on megaprojects like book chapters and shared infrastructure development across a few projects. I’ve been procrastinating for a weeks now, but I finally drafted and sent the letter to another client’s institution telling them that I wasn’t planning on purchasing more insurance to meet their cookie-cutter requirements, since that purchase would cost me more than the institution’s paid me to date, and its peer institutions have zero problems with the level of coverage I maintain for work that’s as risky, if not more so, than what I was doing for them. Adventures in business-ing.

Outside the office, I’ve also been dealing with some HOA drama as well. I’m not going to get into the nature of the infraction, but our Board is in the unenviable position of levying a fine on one of our members for the first time. The infraction is fairly serious, and I’m simply not comfortable “winging it”, so I’ve been reaching out to other associations in our neighborhood to hear about how they handled similar circumstances, so I have some precedence to point to when we finally decide the matter in a special meeting Monday evening.

That said, I will be wrapping up this week with some major wins.

Yesterday afternoon, American University finally dropped the press release about the work I’ve been doing with Dr. Ben Stokes to create an authoring platform for non-expert users to create and deploy interactive text messaging games out in the real world. This work focuses on enabling experiences that allow people like librarians and museum curators to craft outdoor games that encourage residents to learn more about their local area and to develop closer connections with their neighborhoods. You can read the press release here.

This week’s second major win was when I was able to demonstrate to a client some demonstration code that successfully queried an Epic electronic medical record system for a patient’s information, and was able to push new information back into their record. I’m going to be vague about the specific client and project until we’re farther along, but in the last five years, I’ve had other prospective clients ask for the same kinds of features, and now I have that infrastructure available to begin integrating some of the research systems I’ve been writing to actual health infrastructure. This opens up new markets and opportunities for me, and I look forward to leveraging that in the next cycle of client projects.

Finally, this week was a great one for my rocket stock portfolio, which will be the first non-navel gazing topic of the week.

Rocket stonks!

In my last Note, I laid out my reasons for investing a decent part of my retirement portfolio into the very speculative embryonic space sector that’s only really taken shape in the last couple of years. Given that it’s been a busy couple of weeks for rocket stocks, I figured I’d check in with how that was going.

The first major news was bad news as Astra’s long-awaited launch of their newest rocket went sideways. Literally.

I watched this on the bus ride home after finishing the Chicago Leukemia Cup Regatta (we finished 6 of 10), and I was very confused about what happened. The rocket ignited, flew sideways, and finally then started ascending. I knew that Astra was pioneering some novel mobile launch capabilities, and until the mission as terminated a couple of minutes later, I thought that the rocket’s “moonwalk” might have intentional.

What actually happened is that one of the engines shut down prematurely, and the rocket righting itself was the automated software compensating for the failure (which is pretty impressive). Given that the rocket didn’t have all the engines firing as intended, and that initial sideways shuffle, it left its permissible flight zone and had to be destroyed. (Leaving that permissible zone is serious business as Virgin Galactic is discovering after Richard Branson’s joyride to the edge of space left its assigned zone.)

The launch failure on Saturday zapped around 25% from Astra’s stock price, which sent my portfolio from jittering around the profitability line pretty deeply in the red. The stock has been slowly recovering, but given the importance of this mission, it was a big setback for the company. That said, the silver lining here is that we did get to see how well the rocket handled an unexpected launch failure, and its failure did not destroy its launch pad.

Redeeming the portfolio this week has been Rocket Lab and their announcement that they are branching out from the launch business to try and become a resource for additional space infrastructure and services. They also had their first public earnings report as a public company, which showed a loss (not a surprise at this point), but indicated that the company is healthy and investing in the right things, and executing on its launches successfully, the latest being the “It’s a Little Chile Up Here” mission, which - like its namesake the Hatch green chile - warms my heart as a fellow from New Mexico. The day after their quarterly report, RKLB stock went to the financial moon, jumping a third or more before yesterday’s profit-taking shaved a little under 10% off its market cap.

Looking at my portfolio now, I’m down around 28% on my Astra stake (less than that actually, as I also have warrants that came with the original SPAC shares), up 71%(!) on my Rocket Lab shares, and my latest purchase, Virgin Orbital SPAC shares, is a fraction of a percentage up. Overall, Rocket Lab’s strong week has overwhelmed Astra’s bad last week, and my rocket portfolio is solidly profitable with 9% gains overall. Given that Astra is pulling the rest of the portfolio down, should they be successful, I anticipate a bump like Rocket Lab experienced this, and those gains will increase accordingly as my Astra stake outweighs the others significantly. (I purchased additional shares when the price was depressed earlier this year to bring down the average price I overpaid for my initial enthusiasm for being able to finally buy my first rocket stock. That second Astra tranche is profitable, even now.)

Liberation in the mobile app world

In another Note, I wrote about how broken the mobile app economy was owing to shenanigans on Apple and Google’s part. I wrote about my views on the Epic Games v. Apple lawsuit, where I was firmly on the side of Epic in wanting Apple’s anti-competitive behavior in how they manage their App Store economy to stop.

Wish and you will receive.

Yesterday, we received news that Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers issued a permanent injunction against Apple:

[Apple is] permanently restrained and enjoined from prohibiting developers from including in their apps and their metadata buttons, external links, or other calls to action that direct customers to purchasing mechanisms, in addition to In-App Purchasing and communicating with customers through points of contact obtained voluntarily from customers through account registration within the app.

Epic didn’t escape unscathed, as the Judge ordered it to pay 30% of its revenues from its alternative in-app payments system (approx. $3.5 million) to Apple as compensation for breaching its contract with them. Epic is appealing the decision, and this is where I get off their bus.

The order doesn’t give Epic everything that it wants, but it is a BIG victory for mobile developers, because we’ve had to pretend in iOS apps that Apple’s In-App Purchasing (IAP) was the only way anyone could purchase anything and Apple’s reviewers would reject apps that even mentioned that web-based alternative payment systems existed. Furthermore, developers were prohibited from reaching out to users to make them aware of that the alternatives.

If Judge Gonzalez Rogers’ order stands, in 90 days, mobile developers will be able to start linking users out to alternative payment portals and avoiding Apple and their artifically high payment fees. (Rent-seeking if there ever was an example of it.) More importantly, this opens the door for alternative monetization methods that avoid Apple’s veto altogether.

In my personal case, I’ve been working on transitioning some of the legacy projects I maintain from advertising- or sales-oriented models toward ones that use the patron model that’s been successful for many Patreon creators. The idea is that patrons can support your project on a monthly basis at various tiers with various levels of rewards for the different tiers. In theory, I could have replicated this model with Apple’s IAP subscriptions, but whether Apple would permit that on their store would be an open question that they would not answer until I’d built out the whole system myself (a non-trivial undertaking) and I submitted the app for review. I’d estimate that the odds would be against the app being approved, even if I only used Apple-approved infrastructure.

With this ruling, I can spend all of five minutes embedding a “Do you like this app? Consider supporting it on Patreon!” link in Fresh Comics where I can use the infrastructure that Patreon’s perfected over the past half decade for a fraction of the cost that I would pay Apple. And since I can associate my local Fresh Comics accounts with Patreon support levels, I can implement enhanced features for patrons that would have been frowned upon by Apple. Non-patrons can get the regular Fresh Comics experience, but patrons can receive enhanced features such as larger information release windows (see comics 90 days in the future instead of the current 30 days), website logins, and purchase discounts from advertising partners. I was planning on doing this on a smaller scale for the website alone, but this ruling opens the doors to additional possibilities as long as Apple doesn’t engage in shenanigans that violate the spirit of the ruling, while hewing to the letter of it. And given that Google’s become just as evil as Apple in this regard, this ruling will be a very nice one for Android developers to wield as well.

We’ll find out in 90 days whether and how this ruling sticks, but for me, it gives me the opportunity to resume monetizing a number of legacy apps in a way that actually earns enough money that they can resume being a core part of my business instead of an afterthought. Given how severely Apple and Google have hobbled their respective app store economies, this might be something that sets off a renaissance in mobile app development, as developers become free to try and monetize how they see fit, instead of Apple and Google forcing one-size-fits-all-badly down everyone’s throats.

I’ll check back around the end of the year days to report back how this plays out.

Deciding whether to cheer for Biden’s vaccine mandates

As someone who’s a big fan of vaccine mandates, I was glad to hear that Biden was mandating that all federal worker and federal contractors be vaccinated or find employment elsewhere. As the fellow at the top of the executive branch, he has that power.

With regard to some of his other pronouncements, I highly recommend you go over to The Racket News and read David Thornton’s excellent article investigating whether Biden is overstepping his bounds on things like having OSHA draft regulations for companies forcing them to adopt mandate or testing regimes. (Subscribe to The Racket News as well - it’s an excellent grass-roots publication.)

I’m pretty much on the same page as David, but one question that he left open was whether these pronouncements would set a precedent that will bite us in the ass one of these days. The example I laid out in the comments asked whether this action that I approve as a matter of policy is one that I can endorse as a matter of acceptable use of power, using the example of a hypothetical President Donald Trump, fresh off a 2024 victory over Kamala Harris, who similarly instructs OSHA to mandate that companies must offer employees hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin treatments, as a reward to his supporters in the stupidest culture war EVER.

Like the conservatives who should be nervous about adopting Texas’s new abortion law as a template for infringing on other rights - say, like limiting individual gun rights - I wonder whether this is an expansion of executive power that’s not worth the health gains it will produce in reducing our unvaccinated population.

In both cases, I expect that the biggest barrier to enacting Biden’s mandates and hypothetical Trump’s HCQ/IVM mandates will be the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). The APA ensures that regulations enacted by executive branch agencies make sense and are not “arbitrary and capricious”. The APA mandates that any new regulation (the OSHA mandates in this case) be published in the Federal Register and a period is open for the public to submit comments about the proposed regulation. The agency is required to respond to comments before enacting the new rule. After the rule is enacted, the APA permits judicial review of the rule, allowing courts to strike down the regulation as its enforcement is “arbitrary and capricious” or the content itself failed to conform to “substantive evidence”.

Now, I’m not a lawyer and I may be getting out over my legal skis here, but any challenge to either mandate is most likely to succeed at the judicial review step. I can’t find anything that suggests that rulemaking will fail if the administration decides to ignore public comments. There will be plenty of public comments around the OSHA rule and I’m skeptical the inevitable negative comments will dissuade the agency from enacting the rule, given the pressure from the President himself. On the judicial review front, the “arbitrary and capricious” standard seems to apply to enforcement of existing rules, not to the establishment of the rules themselves, which leaves the “substantive evidence” standard as the fulcrum on which this issue turns.

It will be difficult for courts to rule against Biden’s mandate, given the amount of scientific evidence for the efficacy of the vaccine. The evidence is behind Biden’s actions, so I predict that the mandate will withstand judicial review on the bases provided by the APA. In the case of hypothetical Trump’s HCQ/IVM mandate, there’s much less and much weaker evidence to support its efficacy in the intended context of addressing COVID. I expect that the odds are much higher that the HCQ/IVM mandate gets struck down on those “substantive evidence” grounds.

However, Biden’s mandate isn’t in the clear yet. While it may clear the APA hurdles, it may face Constitutional hurdles for violating the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause:

… nor [shall any person’s] private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The Biden administration will argue that it has the Constitutional authority to impose a broad vaccine mandate. However, these powers have traditionally been exercised not by Federal authorities, but by the States. The Federal government is one of enumerated powers that can only do what is explicitly delegated, where States enjoy reserved powers where they may govern everywhere except where explicitly forbidden. This is why it’s legal for a Governor to enact an eviction moratorium in cases where Presidents are prohibited. If the administration cannot justify that it is empowered to respond to the pandemic in this manner at the Federal level, then it will be difficult to avoid the Takings Clause when employers are forced to surrender their own resources to implement the administration’s public policy.

(I also expect States to sue against this mandate on Constitutional grounds that the Federal government is usurping their reserved powers to manage a pandemic, as has been the case throughout American history. That may become the topic of a future Note if the lawsuits steer in that direction.)

Finally, it’s worth noting that the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or “Obamacare”) was held as Constitutionally permissible under Congress’s power to tax. However, the ACA was an actual law passed by Congress, not an agency regulation, so I don’t think that the ACA mandate precedent will speak to the OSHA mandate as much as we might expect. (Especially after SCOTUS already dinged POTUS for usurping Congress’s powers with their ill-fated eviction moratorium.)

In any case, I imagine that we’re due for some intense and creative legal wrangling as this works its way through the courts. I’m bearish on the OSHA mandate surviving in its current form, but we’ll just have to wait and see everyone in court.

Book report

The Girls from Planet 5 by Richard Wilson (★★★☆☆): Published in 1955, this book is a semi-farcical alien invasion story encapsulating the Fifties’ “War of the Sexes” cultural food fight that was rendered largely moot by the Sexual Revolution a decade later. Wilson’s tale begins an alternate future Earth, where men and all their toxic masculine traits have been kicked out of every leadership position of note, and women around the world run their countries in an era of peace and prosperity, brought on by their superior feminine values.

Except in the state of Texas, which rejected the matriarchy, and remains a good old-fashioned man’s land while it tenuously remains a state in the American union. We follow the journey of a male reporter, who passed over for a promotion in favor of a woman in Baltimore, relocates to Texas and begins reporting from there. As that’s happening, Earth is visited by several large spacecraft (just like “Independence Day”) and Earthlings have to figure out whether the new visitors - attractive young women from a colony that split off from Earth before written history - are friends or foes.

I’m not going into the book much more than that, because it really doesn’t matter. It’s less a compelling science fiction story than a clumsy complementarian allegory arguing that each sex has its rightful place and that place is with men in charge. Its a literary time capsule containing the angst from that conflict mid-last century, and is more interesting as a historical curio than anything persuasive. We can look at it now as an anachronism, just as I expect readers in 70 years will read our current allegories about gender and sexuality in a similar way. It’s an amusing read, but not one that I can really recommend unless obsolete sexual culture food fights are your thing.

In terms of my overall reading goal, I am now nine books behind schedule (60 of 101). I have a couple of quick “popcorn” books on deck, including some audiobooks and F. Paul Wilson’s latest book, Double Threat. The Girls from Planet 5 was a slow one me to get through (mainly because of the lack of a good “hook” to pull me along), but I need to get cracking through the last quarter of the year. Less Facebook and more Book-book!

Interesting reads

ULA stops selling its centerpiece Atlas V, setting path for the rocket’s retirement (The Verge)

Fossil fuels are dead (and here's why) (Charles Stross)

The RQ-180 Drone Will Emerge From The Shadows As The Centerpiece Of An Air Combat Revolution (The Drive)

How I reluctantly became an inflation crank (Full Stack Economics)

A Short Quiz for My Students in Lieu of Asking About Their Vaccine Status or Requesting That They Wear Masks (McSweeney's Internet Tendency)

A Secret Society Of Chicago Bakers Meets Every Month — And It’s Keeping Beloved Bakeries Alive (Block Club Chicago)

How the largest direct air capture plant will suck CO2 out of the atmosphere (The Verge)


After I send this Note out to the printers, I’m going to indulge in a bit of virtual reality this afternoon and go pirate hunting in Elite Dangerous with my Vulture. It’s a small-class fighter that punches above its weight, and despite having the resources to purchase the end-game Anaconda, I’m just having too much fun with my pirate-popper.

One of the new tricks I’ve learned is how to pipe podcasts into my VR headset so I can listen to commentary while tracking down ne’er-do-wells in the 34th century. On the playlist today is an almost 4-hour deep dive into X-Men’s Charles Xavier on the CEREBRO podcast. This week’s guest is national security reporter Spencer Ackerman, who had a great episode late last year on the Magneto episode. It’s a strange crossing of the streams, and Ackerman has some interesting thoughts (and a new book) on how 9/11 twenty years ago gave rise to much of our current dysfunction.

Fly safely and have a great week, CMDRs.