Jason Becker
October 2, 2023
October 1, 2023

Hi Jason,

I totally agree with you on the “more money helps, but don’t expect much” messaging being both a) true and b) not a great story to tell! And I also appreciate your point about the sheer number of school boards not only contributing to the problem of just having too many elected positions, but that there is not enough talent to go around. I suspect that Americans react to poor governance by adding even more oversight (further diluting the talent pool!) rather than cutting the number of elected positions, leading to even worse governance and on and on in a negative feedback loop.

Since I may only have time for one more of your responses, I did want to get your thoughts on mass transit given your interest there. You may know this, but for outside readers: I’ve commuted via MARC train to DC for nearly 10 years. When I started working in DC, that was 4 days a week in the DC office (1 WFH), gradually moving to 3 days a week (2 WFH), then the pandemic (full WFH), and over the past 18 months, roughly 1 day a week in office. Just this week, I received the announcement that our DC office would close and I will be full-time WFH beginning in December. Remote work is its own interesting issue, though I’ll briefly say that I worked remotely for Brown University while working in Iowa for nearly 5 years in 2009-14, and it was really tough. However, the changes in technology, company acceptance, and the sheer percentage of remote co-workers has really made a tremendous positive difference in my work life.

OK, so back to mass transit. I see, on the one hand, mass transit enthusiasts (with whom I sympathize) discuss all the benefits of robust options, and being clear about the need for increased transit frequency to encourage more riders. I read recently about the potential revival of the Red Line in Baltimore, which would finally connect the western and eastern regions of the metro area, which have been significantly underserved for decades. On the other hand, I look at MARC ridership numbers since 2016, and I have significant concerns about the continued viability of commuter rail in the region absent massive infusions of cash. Going from an average of roughly 800k riders per month pre-pandemic to a post-pandemic high of 338k in May 2023 is alarming. I’ll admit that the last time I rode MARC this month had higher ridership than typical, but let’s be really optimistic and say ridership rebounds to 500k per month. A drop of 40% doesn’t seem sustainable to me, but I see a disconnect between transit advocates and the numbers (and my personal experience). MARC trains aren’t infrequent, and I’m not sure there’s capacity on that line, which serves Amtrak as well, to add more trains. MARC has also, for some reason, stopped running their electrified trains and is all-diesel, which is bad both environmentally and travel time-wise. What’s going to happen when Maryland runs out of pandemic aid and has a budget crunch?

I don’t want to overinterpret my experience, though. Perhaps commuter rail’s ridership issues are exacerbated by having ridership that is more likely to shift to remote work. It also appears the federal workforce, compared to other sectors, has disproportionately allowed WFH, and federal workers make up a significant percentage of MARC ridership. Is the future about more investment in intra-city (as opposed to commuter or long-distance) mass transit? Would love your thoughts on this (but please don’t use the word Maglev or I will cry).

Best, Jacob

Hi Jacob

It’s interesting how important feedback loops are in building systems. We see the strains of unexpected pathways all across our current government structure.

I suspect that Americans react to poor governance by adding even more oversight (further diluting the talent pool!) rather than cutting the number of elected positions, leading to even worse governance and on and on in a negative feedback loop.

This is definitely a part of what’s going on. Our inability to build infrastructure is, of course, about a reaction to horrible abuses by government and industry, followed by tons of rules and procedures to avoid those problems, generating new problems.

Proceduralism and legalism are the poor tools we’re strangled by as they act as restraints on abuse.

So let’s talk rail.

Here’s my overall take– moving people with cars first and primarily is a mistake. Moving people with trains works under certain circumstances, which the US largely fails to create. Moving away from electrification with MARC rolling stock is a great example. Instead of electrifying the few, infrequent spots that needed diesel, MARC invested in worse trains that lead to worse speeds and worse service. We standardized on the wrong thing.

I think commuter rail in Baltimore is largely doomed. The distance is too short, and the trains are far too infrequent and too slow. MARC has never had sufficient evening or weekday service. It’s never had service not focused on the heavy commute at 9 and 5. It’s got too many stops on rolling stock that’s far too slow. Baltimore to DC is possible with conventional rail in 25 minutes. It should be the case that trains have been running for decades by now, departing at :00 and :30 on the clock face and getting to DC in 25 minutes. But it hasn’t and it has broken transit. It’s helped to fuel suburban sprawl around DC. It’s just a mess. And of course, Baltimore City itself doesn’t help by having very poor access by public transit to Baltimore Penn. I don’t think we’ll see it “work” in our lifetimes the way that it should. But I do think we should invest anyway, because I think it just takes decades of investment to undo decades of supporting car culture.

Baltimore itself should be focused almost entirely on building better transit within Baltimore and the parts of Baltimore County that should be Baltimore City, except racism. I don’t think that relying on the DC connection and commute is a strong strategy for Baltimore. That’s not how I feel about Providence and Boston, meanwhile– Providence needs the strongest possible connection to Boston to thrive– but Baltimore both stands better on its own with a stronger metro area and has secondary connections to Philadelphia and New York. We should let Amtrak get its shit together on high speed rail along the current alignments in the Northeast Corridor and benefit from that. MARC just needs EMUs and regular service. Baltimore needs to be far less reliant on cars and focus on quality of life.

I once did some back of the envelope math that determined that simply by using bad rolling stock and having 3-4 stops that are largely empty in completely empty places south of the city, the Baltimore Light Rail takes 20-25 extra minutes to get from BWI to the Convention Center. The Nursery Road Light Rail stop makes the Boston suburbs look like transit-oriented development.

I’m pretty concerned about all the Red Line proposals right now. All of the routes have some significant curves that will impact speed which impacts frequency. The vision for tunneling seems to make some tough choices. I’m not convinced Maryland knows how to manage a project like this and do that kind of tunneling inexpensively. Bus rapid transit seems like a terrible idea, but I don’t see the red line as proposed connecting the Light Rail and Subway in such a way that makes for a coherent transit system. It’s clearly a necessary step, and I’m still mad we’re at least a decade behind now, but I also think it’s still too small with no plan for follow through to have the impact we need. I find myself agreeing with some of the advocacy saying that light rail is not enough – we should instead use heavy rail like the subway and MARC, especially with two explicit station connections to the MARC, and save on rolling stock orders and maintenance.

I’d like to see a bigger plan. Could Baltimore push for a better North-South corridor (studies are ongoing, probably should be along Greenmount to York up to Towson, in my opinion) at the same time? Could we explicitly staff up our transit agencies with experts on cut-and-cover tunnels and become the only place on the East Coast that knows how to build with Spanish costs? Could we then export this expertise as part of our investment?

It’s all going to be too expensive and take too long because it’s too small. More is more with transit, but we’re not willing to do that kind of thinking.

That said, if we don’t force denser zoning and construction out at CMS, Security Square, SSA, and the I-70 Park and Ride I’ll be furious. No more trains to parking lots in the County that just lead to people complaining that people from the city can access them.

Thanks for your letters this September!


For reasons unknown to myself, I decided to write a long Day One journal entry about how hurt I was when I didn’t get any play time my senior year in high school on the volleyball team.

I had what felt like a years long, close personal relationship with my coach that shattered. Neither of us were ever direct and honest about the situation. She never told me I wasn’t going to get play time or gave me feedback on how to improve. She never seemed to even consider that my senior year, even our last game, I might want to take the court. We lost every game that season and not even when a match was clearly forfeit did she put me in.

Not once.

Its one of the few things that I look back on even nearly 20 years later that still feels raw. Writing about it in detail helped a little, but as I write this follow on public post I can still feel how raw it is.

I stopped playing volleyball for 17 years after that. I did not even allow myself the thought of playing in the most social of recreational leagues. Volleyball and rejection became synonymous. I’m glad I have spent more time playing volleyball the last couple of years while I still physically can. I love it just like I did before my senior year. But I still carry some pain, dulled though it is, about the whole thing.

September 30, 2023

I cannot understand the GOP’s lack of support for Ukraine. It’s a humanitarian disaster. But then again, so is all of the GOPs social policy, so why should foreign policy be any different?

The mobile photo experience on Threads is a remarkable bit of design.

In which Matt Bruenig continues to beat the drum of “you’re not careful about defining your counterfactuals when an overly simplistic view seemingly supports your priors”, this time about co-habitating child raising.

If 90 republicans were going to vote against it anyway, there should have been aid for Ukraine included. Full stop. Pathetic.

September 29, 2023

Now that I have had access to pattern matching, control flow in every other language feels ridiculous.

September 26, 2023

I’m dealing with a very particular kind of stress. I’m not overwhelmed, instead, everything feels heavy. There is so much happening, much of which needs my deep attention, thought, and work. Everything is complicated and tiring. There’s no time for ease. It’s temporary, but the end is not in sight.

September 25, 2023

Yom Kippur Diary Entry 1: it’s 11:38 and the first edges of hunger and caffeine headache have started to creep in simultaneously.

September 24, 2023

I wish the coffee shop had a webcam I could check to know if I’m going to be able to work there or take my cup to go.

September 23, 2023

Jackass at the Apple Store erased Elsa’s trade in without even opening the new phone, and now it appears to be near impossible to transfer her eSIM with ATT who is just crapping out.

Me, every time before getting a vaccine, “This will be fine.”

Me the next day every time, “Oh my lord my arm hurts and I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.”

September 22, 2023

Sometimes I forget about how important it is to write about how I’m feeling. Especially when there are things going on that you have no control over, I find writing it out can be more therapeutic than even talking it out with a friend or mental health professional.

September 20, 2023

Hi Jason,

I agree that the awards in speculative fiction are great - they’ve been helpful to me in exploring genres that I don’t have a lot of experience with. The Hugo Awards, for example, led me to N.K. Jemisin, Arkady Martine, and Cixin Liu, all of whom I’ve enjoyed. Interestingly, I’ve found that the big literary fiction awards - Pulitzer, National Book Award, Booker Prize - have been misaligned to my taste in fiction. I’m not entirely sure why that’s happened (it’s probably just me getting old). I’m also a reader who will endure through a book I’m not enjoying, particularly if it’s a “classic.” I do need to wean myself from the notion of a canon (the perils of majoring in English!), though there have been books where the struggle has been productive for me and I’m glad I persisted to the end. If only I knew which challenging books would result in that feeling! I’m also with you on a significant chunk of non-fiction books being more well-suited to a long-form article, particularly books that take on current events. It’s unfortunate that there’s not a strong market for non-fiction books too long for a magazine but too short for a full-length book, a sort of non-fiction novella category.

You really had to poke the bear by mentioning school boards. That said, I’ll start with the positives. I truly believe that the vast majority of school board members have good intentions. This is almost exclusively an unpaid, volunteer position. Don’t get me wrong, volunteers are essential. So many of our institutions rely on enthusiastic amateur volunteers to keep them running. This is certainly true in the institutions to which I belong, whether I’m in an active role like co-chairing a social justice committee at my synagogue or leading my neighborhood HOA, or primarily a passive member, like my kids’ schools’ PTAs or community sports leagues. There’s an assumption with these roles that a) everyone is acting with good intentions and b) the complexity of the role/institution is low enough that an amateur can do it without payment. School districts are…not that. I don’t have to tell you about the system complexity and financial complexity of school districts. These are not systems that should be overseen by well-meaning amateurs. However, we have this historical legacy of elected school boards, so what to do? I think the best option would be to, when possible, assign oversight of school districts to elected executives like mayors and county executives. Here in Baltimore County there is clear frustration from the county executive that he has little control over the largest budget item. This also ties into the concern that there are too many elected positions in the United States, which creates policy choke points and low-information/low turnout decisions by the public. This Atlantic piece bluntly states it: Americans Vote Too Much. Alas, a key hurdle here is that a lot of people believe that additional elected positions lead to better, more considered policy decisions, rather than (in my view) confusion about accountability and multiple choke points that stifle good decision-making. Recent attempts to streamline decision-making, like mayoral-led school districts, seem to have fallen out of favor, perhaps due to the unpopular decisions that many mayor-led systems had to make (e.g., school closures).

How do you feel about school boards? Other problems I failed to identify or different ways of looking at them?

Sticking with school governance, I’ve been wondering for the past two years about the roughly $190 billion in federal COVID relief funding to schools, which according to this Chalkbeat article works out to about $4,000 per student. While I know there were certain required set-asides to address learning loss and a few prohibitions, it seemed to me pretty much a blank check. I’ve struggled to find good information on how the funds are being spent or any impact on student outcomes, which is concerning! So I’ll end with a question for you: What do you think will be the long-term impact of the biggest one time infusion of funding into K-12 American education?


Hi Jacob,

I find all of the non-speculative fiction awards similarly frustrating. They’re just not the kind of strong indicator I might like a book that I get from the Hugos or Nebulas. I used to believe in finishing any book I have started, but lately, I’ve been more willing to put something down. Sometimes it’s just not the right time, sometimes it’s just not the right book. I can always go for other attempts, but if a book just stops me in my tracks, it’s time to move on. I’d rather be reading than not reading because of some sense that I should always finish my book.

I think that assumption of complexity– and that an amateur can contribute effectively– permeates huge portions of our American system. A lot of “small d” democracy and volunteerism is built on visions of a society of small towns centered around just a few institutions everyone took part in. That’s why we vote too much (I also loved that article), but it’s also why we have some bad assumptions. I think by ceding control to volunteer amateurs, elected or not (and they’re barely elected), we signal that it is possible for amateurs to do a good job!

I think a core problem with the municipal control piece is that most municipalities, organizationally, are less complex than schools. The web of local, state, and federal funds, statutory requirements, and complexity of service delivery means that most school operations are simply harder than running county or municipal governments. So while I like moving the elected accountability in some sense, from an organizational perspective, the municipal functions would probably be more easily absorbed by the school systems than the other way around. There’s this huge frustration among mayors and county executives and city councils that the schools are a “black hole”– but in truth, the schools are more transparent, have more sophisticated practices, and have more difficult jobs to do– at least in my experience.

I think my core issue with school governance, and boards in general, is less that they exist and more that there are far too many. I think it’s probably about reasonable for Maryland to have county level boards and districts. I think it’s a disaster that Nassau County, New York is over 50 districts or that Rhode Island has 39. I’d like to see consolidation of districts, at least from a governance stand point, and I’d like to see more of their governance move up to the states. There’s no current state capacity, but it’s absolutely not to our advantage that we have so much variation in our school system. The only thing having lots of school districts truly guarantees is inequitable funding of schools, and that’s not the kind of variance worth chasing. But there’s also just not enough talent out there for 15,000 school boards and 15,000 superintendents and central offices. Regional service providers covering some core operations don’t go far enough.

I do think that ESSER was pretty much a blank check by design, and yet, I also think it will have virtually no impact. The data how dollars were spent will, I think, become clear in about 12 months. We’re just about to the end, which means the expenditures should all have been recorded and can be analyzed. We do an “ok” job of this on the Relief Funds tab for districts on the Arizona School Finance Portal – we decided to show the spending on relief funds by “function” code in Arizona. For the most part, it’s a pretty good indicator on the school district activities. We do have the data by object (the “what”) as well.

Ultimately, districts with lots of money largely couldn’t help themselves and hired staff, from what I could see. Some of those staff are just going to go away, some they struggled to hire in the first place, and some may stick around in states like Maryland where additional state funding is sufficiently backfilling ESSER investments. Those that received less funding were more likely, it seems to me, to use it for backlogged capital expenses where possible. Neither of these were necessarily bad uses of funds, but I don’t think that we will really see much impact from any funding that isn’t permanent. Districts just can’t plan to restructure what they do and how without reliable, recurring revenue. And I don’t think there’s a whole lot we can do that is one time, on the margin, with persisting impacts.

This is all conjecture just based on conversations I’ve been having. It’s strange to be on the side of “more money helps” while also saying “like this, don’t expect much”. It’s a horrific position to defend.

I guess this is my pessimistic prediction: the capital projects backlog will continue to be long, but things will be less bad than they would have been. The current interest rate environment is going to make it even harder to chip away at things like build quality, and the ESSER funding may delay that being a total disaster long enough for interest rates to decline a bit.

Sorry for the late response! We had our all-company, in-person meeting last week at the Belvedere followed by our Education Finance Summit at the Maryland Center for History and Culture. I flew up to NY directly from the conference for Rosh Hashanah at my parents and… things got away from me.

Looking forward to your next letter.


September 19, 2023

In some ways I am very online, yet there will be no trace of the most important things about me and my life when I’m gone. The best parts of me… the relationships I have…everything good about me will never be recorded. I just have to hope and accept that it exists in those I love.

I am not a developer, but boy do I love writing code to solve problems. Maybe one day I should be one.

September 17, 2023

My beige flag is ordering takeout on a rainy day for lunch, feeling like crap after eating it, taking a nap, and eating the leftovers from lunch for dinner.

September 16, 2023

The responses to Matt Mullenweg’s recent post on how Tumblr was early to a lot of core social features of the web are intense. Lots of complaints about some horrific redesign that has supposedly happened. So I opened up Tumblr, as I do about once a month, and it looks the same?

If anything, Automattic hasn’t done enough. Tumblr is still impenetrable to folks who are not deep power users, and the power users are still convinced that all change is bad. Meanwhile, the platform has one of the worst targeted advertising systems I’ve ever seen (or simply the worst quality ads filling their slots I’ve ever seen) while at it’s core being an absolutely incredibly good social blogging system1.

I cannot tell what has changed there, and that’s bad. I have spent years wanting to use Tumblr without ever getting it to work. I’m their best shot at conversion, and since the Automattic purchase, nothing has happened that actually helps me become a regular.

Tumblr is all wasted potential. It should have been Instagram. It should have been Twitter. It should have been Mastodon. It has always had everything it needs technically, but has failed to put it together to win from a product perspective. Tumblr should be a case study for anyone in B2C product management. The only problem is, I’m not sure any of us would know how to fix it.

  1. Theming Tumblr remains the sore point here, with a horrible, outdated, incredibly hard to work with set up for amateurs. I cannot believe how little attention theming has gotten, considering that selling themes could be a huge business. It’s easy to say this from the outside— theming on a blog system like that, and making theming better, has the potential to break everything and might amount to a rewrite. But so what! It seems like that’s the rewrite that is sorely needed. ↩︎

I don’t want to give away any more details because, as one outspoken hater put it, “The problem with ‘wacky’ movies is when you summarize the plot, it sounds fun. And it’s not fun.”

From the Vulture’s report out of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The names you need to know to understand how depraved the Republican party has become are Ken Paxton and Meagan Wolfe.

September 15, 2023

First major piece of work done for the day at 7:45am. I’ll either keep this going or crash in 2 hours.