Jason Becker
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.

September 14, 2023

I’m actually quite good at most of the individual parts of my job. I just absolutely fail at balancing all of the parts of my job. Yet, I suspect if I focused on only one or two of the things I do, I’d be bored half to death.

September 13, 2023

When your desperate to go to sleep but need to wait for that laundry cycle to complete…

My social battery has less capacity post COVID. It also charges more slowly. I have also realized that there are some people in my life who do not deplete it at all.

September 12, 2023

Absolutely incredible thunderstorms here in Baltimore again and it’s the best.

September 11, 2023

Gracie is still quite old, but having more good days than bad. The good days are not as good as they were 6 months ago, but she’s got some happy life left in her.

It makes things like what happened this morning so much more meaningful to me. She has gone through many phases of level of independence– sometimes never being ok being alone, other times liking to be on her own. When she was first getting sicker, she spent quite a bit of time alone on the second floor in the living room. She was tired and seemed less interested in everything. It was one of the signs that felt like the end was near.

Lately, while still tired, she’s spending most of her time during the day with me. This morning, even with her grandma on the second floor eating and messing around in the kitchen, when I left from upstairs to get a coffee, she followed me to the second floor. When I returned, she waited at the stairs to see if I was going up, and when I did, followed me right into my office.

She didn’t want to be pet or paid attention to– or at least she didn’t give any indications of that. She just wanted to lie down in one of her three spots (in her bed, by my feet under the desk, or across the doorway) while I do my thing.

There are lots of ways that dogs can show their love and affection. Gracie is different with Elsa than she is with me. She’s different really with everyone. Her spending time with me is the perfect way to show her love. I’ve always been a “quality time” person. Somehow, she gets that about me.

Gracie lying across her gray bed with sunlight highlighting her fur. To the left is a bookshelf with hardcover comics.

I have had a full beard for 15 years and I’m not sure I’m any better at maintaining it now as I was then.

September 10, 2023

Talking with Rufo and engaging deeply with his work leads to an inescapable conclusion: Exaggeration and hyperbole are not just incidental to his intellectual project. They are his project.

From one of many take downs of Chris Rufo that won’t matter one bit, because he’s a gifted carnival barker whose audience doesn’t care if he’s (at best) a liar.

September 9, 2023