For our 2014 short-fiction contest - co-sponsored by the Bettendorf Public Library - we're celebrating banned and challenged books. Our 20 prompts are all drawn from famous (and sometimes infamous) novels that school boards, governments, or other arbiters of taste and morality didn't want people to read.

The deadline for entries is September 2.

We'll publish winners and favorites in the September 18 issue of the River Cities' Reader - just in time for Banned Books Week, which this year runs September 21 through 27.

We're also planning an event featuring readings of winning and favorite stories at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 25, in the Bettendorf Room of the Bettendorf Public Library. More details will be announced later.

Steve Zuidema, the co-owner and brewmaster at Davenport's Front Street Brewery, called the byzantine state laws regulating alcohol distribution "laughable now. But getting them changed is going to take some lobbying and some money, because I think the distributors have a great lobby."

He was talking about the Iowa Wholesale Beer Distributors Association, and for proof of that organization's influence in the state legislature, look at the situation faced by the Mississippi River Distilling Company in LeClaire.

If you're wondering what beer distributors have to do with producers of distilled spirits, you're on the right track.

Jarrett Crippen as the DefuserIf you're the parent of a child who's a voracious consumer of comic books, don't make the mistake of worrying that he or she won't grow up to be anything. That child could, after all, grow up to be an artist. Or an educator. Or a detective. Or ... a superhero.

At least, those are a few of the career titles held by Dominic Velando and Jarrett Crippen, two adult comic-book lovers who will be presenting workshops at this year's QC Planet Comic & Arts Convention on July 13. The fifth-annual event will, of course, boast dozens of comic-book, action-figure, and graphic-art vendors with publications and collectibles for sale, plus adult and children costume contests and a silent auction held throughout the day. But it will also feature educational presentations by Velando and Crippen, who, in a pair of recent interviews, shared some thoughts on public art, eccentric teachers, Stan Lee, and the perils of aging into one's Spandex.

Rachel HartmanRachel Hartman, the April 28 guest in Augustana College's River Readings at Augustana series, is the author of the 2012 young-adult novel Seraphina. It's a fantasy tale of royalty and knights and the faraway kingdom of Goredd; of a mysterious murder and supernatural powers and fanciful beings named Loud Lad and Pelican Man.

More specifically, it's a story of the 16-year-old girl of Hartman's title, a gifted music instructor who's harboring a bit of a secret: She's not actually a girl. Or rather, she's half-girl, and half-dragon. And she's hardly the only dragon in town.

It turns out Goredd, as we learn on the book's eighth page, is a kingdom where dragons are able to assume human form, even if they don't have much understanding of, or use for, human emotions. Yet if you ask Hartman how she landed on the idea for Seraphina, and for her transformable creatures in general, she'll no doubt admit that inspiration didn't come from mythology or legend or previous works of fiction. It came from an inability to illustrate dragons.

Socibot and the infininty mirror. Photo by AJ Brown Imaging."Look into my eyes and keep still," Socibot says to me in its pleasant but mechanical voice. Before I can do anything to comply with the command, the Putnam Museum's machine continues: "I would say you are a 44-year-old man." I laugh. "Your face is happy," it says.

Clearly, Socibot needs to learn that when it comes to age, it's better to guess low - as I'm on the cusp of 43, thank you very much.

This was a demonstration of Socibot's facial-recognition feature, but the talking, moving head is no one-trick robot. It does impressions - including of some famous cinematic artificial intelligences (2001's HAL 9000, Arnold Schwarzenegger's cyborg from the Terminator series). It can play card games using QR codes - which can also be employed to tell visitors about other features in the Putnam's new Science Center.

But mostly, it shows the complexity of human expression. Using the "compose" touch-screen interface, users can program Socibot to communicate - not merely typing the words it will speak but controlling its voice and nonverbal cues that impart meaning, from the movement of the eyes and head to flushed cheeks to the set of the mouth.

This teaches the challenges and skills involved in getting machines to complete multifaceted tasks. Nichole Myles, the Putnam's vice president of education and exhibits, noted that Socibot allows visitors to "experience what early coding and programming is."

And because the Science Center is geared to children - with the goal of getting them interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers - Socibot has also been programmed to chide users who try to put inappropriate words and phrases into its mouth.

Socibot is undoubtedly one of the most sophisticated (and expensive) components of the STEM center, and you could spend a few hours trying to fine-tune the proper expressions involved in, for instance, Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" monologue.

But given the breadth and depth of science-related experiences available at the Putnam's Science Center, to spend too much time at one station would be wasting opportunities. There's the feature that visibly demonstrates turbulence; the lift-yourself-up pulley; the airways fountain; ferrofluid; the gravity wall; the lever tug-of-war; the 3D-printing station; robot vision; the dinosaur dig scheduled to open this summer ... .

I've spent a lot of time as a kid, a kid at heart, and a parent at children's museums and science centers, and the Putnam's STEM center is a marvel - especially considering how quickly it came together and how little it cost.

I come to praise local television news, not to bury it.

Okay, there won't be much praise, and there will be some burying.

Hunger is a human problem with millions of faces, but two related numbers can illuminate the size of the problem in the Quad Cities - and the heartwarming community generosity that's fighting it.

The first number: Christian Care served nearly 56,000 meals last year at its meal site, according to Executive Director Elaine Winter. The second: "Our budget [for food] is about a thousand dollars a year," she said.

The site at 2209 Third Avenue in Rock Island serves 19 meals week. (There's no lunch on Saturday or Sunday.) On average, then, it was feeding more than 57 people per meal. The cash cost per meal? Less then two cents.

What this one site illustrates is that food assistance beyond what taxpayer-funded government programs provide is a real, persistent need in the Quad Cities. And the community - through churches, charitable organizations, and individuals - has been meeting the need.

The bad news is that hunger appears to be growing.

The grim math for Hope Creek Care Center is pretty simple. Changing it is not.

Right now, the 245-bed Rock Island County-run nursing home in East Moline is paid $127.48 by the State of Illinois for each Medicaid recipient it houses. The cost to care for each person, said Administrator Trudy Whittington, is $200 a day.

And because by law government-run homes can't turn away Medicaid recipients, typically more than 60 percent of Hope Creek residents are on the state/federal public-aid program.

So Hope Creek is nearly $4 million in the red each year from that disparity alone, and the current property-tax subsidy for the nursing home doesn't cover it. And that doesn't even consider other factors related to state government - such as late reimbursements and delays in approving Medicaid applications.

In that context, Rock Island County officials on October 10 bluntly announced that "after providing an option for the long-term-care needs for residents of our county since 1839 in one capacity or another, the county is looking to divest itself from the nursing-home business due to forces beyond our control that have made that commitment impossible to continue. ... The Rock Island County Board will take official action at their November 19 meeting to explore the potential of leasing or selling Hope Creek Care nursing home."

That statement brought immediate backlash - by the union representing Hope Creek workers, and by people concerned about the fate of Medicaid recipients who live at Hope Creek or might need to in the future. The county quickly retreated, and County Board Chair Phil Banaszek appointed an ad-hoc committee to look at other options.

Whittington said selling or leasing Hope Creek is Plan D and Plan E at this point - but the county would be remiss if it didn't do its homework on those alternatives. "We have to start looking at what Hope Creek's options are," she said last week. "If we don't do something, those may become our only options. ... That is ... our last resort."

The Rock Island County Board could as soon as its November 19 meeting take some sort of action on Hope Creek. The most likely course is approving a referendum question for the November 2014 ballot to raise property taxes in 2015 to further subsidize Hope Creek.

Sandra Steingraber. Photo by Dede Hatch.

Sandra Steingraber has bachelor and doctorate degrees in biology and a master's in creative writing. "I had long been a biologist by day and poet by night," she said in a phone interview earlier this month. "I kind of kept my writing world and my science world separate."

And that was her intention when she set out to write the book that would become Living Downstream. "It was going to represent my best attempt as a biologist to summarize the links between cancer and the environment," she said.

But the poet in her ended up transforming the project into something unusual: a deeply personal story intertwined with a scientific one, as Steingraber discusses her own cancer in the context of the troubling relationship between chemical pollution and the disease. The hook of the book, she said, is "the life behind one of the data points in the cancer registry, namely my own."

Steingraber will be speaking at St. Ambrose University on October 22 as part of the school's Sustainability Project, which includes events throughout the academic year. Her lecture, she said, will apply the "conceptual theme" of Living Downstream (originally published in 1997, with a second edition and film adaptation released in 2010) to fracking - induced hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas and petroleum.

Kelly Daniels. Photo by Joshua Ford (JoshuaFord.com).

In ninth grade, Kelly Daniels was called to the principal's office, where his father was waiting. Dad took Kelly and his younger brother Ole for a drive, and after a while, he said, "I figured you should hear it from me first."

He said he woke up in jail. And: "To be honest, it was kind of a relief when the guard finally told me I killed Barclay." And then: "You can cry if you want."

But Daniels didn't cry. What he felt instead was "something that still kind of amazes me," he said in an interview earlier this month. "It was a strange reaction. It just seemed like all of a sudden my life brushed against the news. 'This is a big deal.'"

He felt something similar when he emerged from a week-long fever that nearly killed him in Honduras: "There was this same sense ... of my life being like a book."

And now it is - and a good one, too. Daniels, an associate professor of English at Augustana College, earlier this year published his memoir Cloudbreak, California. (He'll celebrate its release with a party from 6 to 10 p.m. on Friday, September 27, at the Bucktown Center for the Arts, and he'll also read from it as part of the River Readings at Augustana series on January 16.)

Pages