Sunday, September 20, 2015

Disappointing Season of the Great Food Truck Race

America has a very complicated relationship with food, especially in terms of taste and culinary standards. We are truly a nation of Zagat Guides and dollar menus. Some Americans appreciate and craft true culinary masterpieces, and they seek out artisan talent in the food they eat. Others de-value food - and really themselves - as worth no more than a buck and will shove anything in their mouths as long as it contains sugar, salt, and fat. That said, you would expect culinary icons and purveyors of fine food like Tyler Florence to appreciate and promote culinary excellence. That's clearly not the case with this season of the Food Network's Great Food Truck Race.

Let's be clear:  the boys from Utah selling some "Waffle Love" are not by any measure - other than simple sales - a contender for the "Best Food Truck in America." The title of "Best" should indicate some degree of talent, beyond simple sales. And, that's why I've been quite disappointed in this season of the Truck Race, specifically because Tyler (in a mystifying move for a culinary artist) included three un-skilled waffle makers alongside some obviously talented chefs. Tyler and his producers found five really interesting and unique food trucks who can create numerous eclectic dishes filled with flavors. And then they threw in a group of rather simple boys who sell a basic waffle covered with Nutella or some cookies spread and whipped cream. Sure it sells - but then so do Twinkies and Chips Ahoy cookies. Sales are not the indicator of quality - people eat crap in this country. By Tyler's apparent measure for this contest, McDonald's sells the "best hamburger" in the country. And, we know that no one, including Tyler, would ever put the Golden Arches on a "best" list when talking food.

On this week's episode from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tyler could not have found more ways to dishonor the efforts and talents of the two legitimate food trucks - Pho-Nomenal and GD Bros. Throughout the contest, the Waffle-kids have not won a single cooking challenge when it came to be judged on quality and talent. And Tyler "warned" them that they needed to "take it seriously" because it's going to matter. But it didn't. They were not judged on quality - they were judged on how many chick/waffles they can sell to hot rod owners in Tulsa, OK. Give us a break, Tyler. Those car show people would choose chicken & waffles any day of the week and twice on Sunday. It was crass and cluless for Tyler to ask Pho-Nomenal and GD Bros "why you lost the challenge." It wasn't their food or their marketing Tyler. It was because people at a car show in Tulsa have very simple tastes, and they would never try something remotely "foreign." Send the Waffle-makers to Chinatown or the Village, and we would have a different result. The only reason that GD Bros lost was because it was in Tulsa.

Now, let's be clear. I'm not saying the Waffle-dudes don't have a thriving business. Heck, Dairy Queen and Entenmanns make millions. But they don't top the lists of "Best" ice cream or pastries. Because they're really not that good - they're just sweet in a nation with a big sweet tooth ... and expanding waist lines.

So, the Great Food Truck Race will end next week in St. Louis. And the Waffle-kids will win by making a lot of money selling a product for which they have invested almost no skill. They will profit from selling processed foods, and the talented ladies from Pho-Nomenal will lose out despite whipping up culinary excellence and promoting it with marketing skill. And Tyler will basically ignore any shred of respect for the culinary world by awarding these guys a title of dubious authenticity. Let's hope next season Tyler tries to restore some culinary integrity to the show he promotes.

Two American Ninja Warriors Conquer the Course - NBC & Pom too Cheap to Pay Them Both

Seven years we've waited. Finally, after seven long years of amazing dedication and performance on the courses of NBC's American Ninja Warrior, fans of ANW were finally able to cheer not one but two champions who finally conquered Stage 3 and then Stage 4 where they both "climbed Mt. Midoriyama." It was truly an epic moment of athletic achievement. The reality show focusing on the most difficult obstacle course in the world originated years ago in Japan and became a phenomenon several years ago as "Ninja Warriors" like Brian Arnold and Brent Steffenson and Joe Moravsky and Kacy Katenczero wowed the nation with their incredible runs on the course. But, year after year the competitors and fans were disappointed when no one could seem to conquer the course to be named a true "American Ninja Warrior."

And then it happened.

Three-year competitor Issac Caldiero was the first to ever complete the dreaded Stage 3, and then a few minutes later sophomore ninja warrior Geoff Britton also completed the task. It was a truly epic evening watching two truly awesome competitors do the seemingly impossible. Of course, after completing Stage 3, the warriors still needed to "climb Mt. Midoriyama," the final challenge of climbing a 75-food rope in less than 30 seconds. It would be a challenge, but we knew they could do it. And then, just before the commercial break, the hosts of the show dropped a bombshell by revealing a seemingly never-before-known-or-announced rule:  the winner of the $1million prize would be the person who "scaled the rope the fastest." Many of us were dumbfounded as the commercials ran, thinking, "What?" (or even "W-T-F!?")

After seven years of not awarding the cash prize (which was only a half million previously) and title, many viewers imagined that NBC could, would, and should "pony up" the prize for both winners. At the very least, second-place finisher Geoff Britten could have been given a smaller cash prize - like perhaps the $500K that was the previous award. Considering other shows give out million dollar cash prizes every year, it seemed like not an unreasonable expectation that NBC could compensate both winners. Considering NBC is a mega-corporation with yearly revenue of $26 billion, and they have earned copious revenue from the advertising over seven seasons, the Powers-That-Be like producer Kent Weed could have compensated Geoff Britton for his brilliant performance. And, while POM Wonderful is not the financial behemoth that NBC is, the fruit drink maker does share some responsibility as the primary sponsor. POM has been conspicuously silent. But the fans haven't, as the outpouring of support for Geoff and seriously lobbying for some cash for him has blown up Twitter. One group has even started up a GoFundMe site for Geoff with the intent of average fans paying him something if the corporate kings won't.

For those who compete and for the fans who follow the competitions, American Ninja Warrior is much more than an obstacle course or a reality show. This competition is about the pursuit of excellence. Period. It is an ideal deeply embedded in our culture, and it harkens back to the days of the early Olympics in Ancient Greece or the stories of epic heroes like Odysseus and Beowulf. This is about being the absolute best and beating the challenge just to prove that we can. American Ninja Warrior is a contest of human greatness, and in the words of Geoff Britten, "I didn't do it for the money." And, that is what makes people like Geoff and Isaac and thousands of others all the more impressive.

And, now, with the course finally conquered, it's time for Ninja Warriors to ask:

What's next?

For Isaac Caldiero, the answer is easy:  "A tougher course."

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Flawed PARCC Test Claims ZERO Illinois High School Students Are Advanced

As if the PARCC test wasn't problematic enough with parents refusing to allow their kids to take it and states dropping the PARCC test like a bad habit. Now, with the recent setting of "cut scores," there seems to be even more reason to question the authenticity of PARCC. To begin, the secretive and obscure "PARCC Rangers" have met and set scores, but failed to reveal what they are. And, in a blow to state-by-state comparability, it appears PARCC may have different results and ratings for different states - which makes no sense whatsover. As the scores have come out, the story worsens and the plot thickens. This dubious nature is nowhere more clear than in Illinois.

According to the data released this week by the Illinois State Board of Education, the percentage of Illinois High School students who "exceed expectations" in math is ... wait for it ... ZERO. That's right - according to the geniuses behind the PARCC assessment, in the fifth most populous state in the country, with some of the top schools in the country like New Trier HS in Willmette and Stevenson HS in Lincolnshire, there are zero advanced students. Zero! That is patently absurd, and such results only expose the flawed and inauthentic nature of PARCC, its methodology, and its value as a measure of student achievement.

This is not simply a matter of Arne Duncan's nasty, misguided, and pathetic claim that Common Core simply exposes to suburban white mothers that their children "aren't quite as smart as they thought." That alone was a desperate attempt to bully and manipulate parents and media. No, this is far worse. This is a calculated and deliberate disaster of educational malpractice. Many of these "proficient at best" students in Illinois will gain admission to the top colleges in the world, and they will achieve incredible results as doctors and scientists and engineers and coders and innovators and mathematicians and researchers ... and more.

I cannot imagine why any parent would ever subject their children to being "judged" by such an egregiously flawed measure.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

In Avon, CO? Check Out Loaded Joe's for Coffee, Snacks, & Drinks

Fall is the most under-rated time in the mountains, as its reputation for being mud-season leads many to look elsewhere to vacation while they wait for the snow to fall. Each fall, the Cherry Creek School District breaks for a week, and during that week I can't wait to head for the mountains. This year, we're spending time in Avon and Beaver Creek, and while we were tooling around town, we discovered a gem of a coffeehouse and restaurant called LOADED JOE'S. After a brisk walk and short round of disc golf, we were looking to warm up at the foot of the mountain in the heart of Avon. One look at the menu outside Loaded Joe's and I knew I had to try their warm "Snickers" espresso beverage - a warm foamy concoction of espresso, dark chocolate, caramel, hazelnut, and steamed milk. Served in a deep mug that warmed both hands, I sipped this dessert coffee and gazed up the hill through the "garage door" windows at the mountains of Beaver Creek. We also enjoyed several other drinks from the menu - the Milky Way, Spanish Coffee, and Con Pananna were all delicious and warming. I would add that I asked them to lighten up on the sweetness which allows the coffee/espresso to come through more strongly. For snacks, we munched on the sweet potato fries, cooked to crispy perfection, and the salty, marinated, grilled brussel sprouts that were the most interesting snack I've had in a long time. And the portion was huge, which meant the rest came home to be heated from breakfast. The service was great and the whole atmosphere was fun. Can't wait to go back in the evening for beers and the open mic night. Loaded Joe's is worth the visit while in Avon or Vail.

Friday, September 4, 2015

SAT Scores Expose the Flaw in Education Reformers View of Schools

For those paying attention, the latest news on nationwide SAT scores came out this week, and the news was unstartling. Scores are pretty much flat, or dropping a bit, and the reality is that all efforts aimed at improving test scores for high school students fall dismally short - as dismal as some of the scores themselves. Fordham's Michael Petrilli offers some interesting observations about the obvious "age gap" for school achievement:

What makes this so disappointing is that NAEP shows respectable gains for younger students, especially in fourth grade and particularly in math. Yet these early gains seem to evaporate as kids get older.

And, the problem is, of course, the same across the country. We can make gains in lower grade levels among some specifically targeted populations. But that success will dissipate come ninth grade. And the focus on standardized tests as a measure of achievement is certainly suspect.

Ultimately, the solution is this:  Reformers need to re-think testing & test prep as the key to equitable education. Scores tail off in high schools because it's a one-size-fits-all BS/BA-focused system that emphasizes and rewards only academic, standardized-test based skills. Offer multiple pathways to adulthood, including graduation to trade schools at age sixteen, and that will be a step toward the schools we want and need.