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.

By most standards, Jason Kakert's Iowa Hemp for Victory page on Facebook is a modest grassroots political effort. He started the page in 2011, and this week it had only 58 "likes."

"This is just getting started out," the 31-year-old graphic artist said last week in his studio at the Bucktown Center for the Arts. "Right now this is kind of a one-man show."

But Kakert (a former River Cities' Reader intern) is an eloquent advocate for industrial hemp, and he's part of a movement that's gaining significant traction. Last month, the U.S. House - by a vote of 225 to 200 - passed an amendment to the farm bill that would allow "institutions of higher education to grow or cultivate industrial hemp for the purpose of agricultural or academic research," according to the amendment's summary. "The amendment only applies to [the nine] states that already permit industrial hemp growth and cultivation under state law."

The amendment is now attached to the House-passed farm bill, but its fate is uncertain at best; the larger politics of the farm bill dwarf this particular issue.

Yet the amendment's passage represented a major surprise victory for hemp advocates. As Tom Murphy, the national outreach coordinator and a board member of the not-for-profit organization Vote Hemp, said in an interview last week: "We were expecting a 50 to 375 defeat."

Admittedly, some of our previous short-fiction contests have been a bit cruel.

So we're making it easy for our 2013 contest, which runs through August 20. (Our favorite entries will be published in the September 5 issue of the River Cities' Reader.)

All you need to do is start with one of the beginnings below and finish your story in an additional 250 words. And we've been extremely generous, giving you 50 options!

I should probably wait to tell you that the previously mentioned beginnings come from the Bible, Moby-Dick, Infinite Jest, A Tale of Two Cities, The Color Purple, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone ... . And one - offered here in its entirety - might be the shortest story ever written.

Without whistleblowers - employees within government and big business, at all levels, who risk their livelihoods and sometimes lives - the American public (and world) would have no knowledge about many of the most outrageous, dangerous, and covert activities perpetrated upon society. This includes everything from fabricating false pretenses for going to war to war crimes (including torture) against prisoners and innocent civilians to lethal environmental abuses to fraudulent financial schemes that have devastated millions of families' life savings. In the past, the exposure of these egregious acts has often (but not always) brought reform, exposed criminality resulting in prosecutions, and perhaps most importantly saved countless lives. Sadly, in today's political environment, it is the whistleblowers who are being penalized for telling Americans the truth.

But for the threat of whistleblowers, ill-intended politicians and bureaucrats and their crony-capitalist private-sector brethren would operate in an oversight vacuum - free to abuse their power and engage in criminal activity at will. The contributions that whistleblowers make to an open and free society cannot be overstated.

How many more thousands of lives would have been lost if it were not for Daniel Ellsberg's infamous Pentagon Papers that exposed the Department of Defense's lies and manipulation that propped up the Vietnam War (MostDangerousMan.org)? How much more abuse would citizens suffer at the hands of corrupt police departments if it were not for Frank Serpico testifying about the rampant corruption inside the New York police department? These are, or should be, just two of the household names in the whistleblower pantheon.

The three categories for the River Cities' Reader's 2013 photography contest are "illumination," "future," and "brazen." The deadline for entries is May 21, and the rules are below. We plan to publish the winners in our May 30 issue.

The River Cities' Reader's dining survey was open from October 2012 through February 2013. Respondents needed to provide reasonable answers in at least 15 categories for their votes to be counted.

Vote in the current survey at RCReader.com/y/survey through August 31! Results will be published in the fall/winter Dining Guide.

Restaurant
1) Antonella's Ristorante & Pizzeria
2) The Faithful Pilot Cafe & Spirits
3) The Crane & Pelican Cafe

New restaurant (opened in 2012)
1) Crust - Stone Oven Pizza
2) Pepperjack's Restaurant & Lounge
3) Doc's Inn Bar & Grill
3) Goombazz Big City Eatzz

[Note: Commentary from the Reader's editor, published on this topic, can be found here.]

A riddle: What do you get if you add $209 billion to $54 billion to $15 billion?

If you answered "a lot," you're correct and not particularly inclined toward math.

If you answered $278 billion, you're adept at arithmetic and correct, if literal-minded.

If you answered the respective unfunded liabilities for Illinois' state-run pension funds, its retiree health-care system, and its pension bonds, you're correct and probably cheating.

And if you answered "a time bomb," you're probably most correct. Because while the numbers are important, they're constantly changing and open to interpretation, and the most important aspect of them is their magnitude. Whether it's cast as an $83-billion pension problem or a $278-billion benefits issue, the sheer size of it shows that it can't be solved with tinkering.

As part of its yearlong "Building Common Ground: Discussions of Community, Civility, & Compassion" program, the Bettendorf Public Library held a water-themed essay, poetry, photography, and songwriting contest. Several winners will perform their entries at the "Quad-City Water Lore" event on Monday, November 5, at 7 p.m. in the Bettendorf Room at the library (2950 Learning Campus Drive). A reception begins at 6:30 p.m.

They will be joined by Bucktown Revue emcee Scott Tunnicliff, Rock Island Lines creator Roald Tweet with Chris Dunn, former Quad Cities poet laureate Dick Stahl, turtle expert Mik Holgersson, riverboat pilot Harry "Duke" Pelton, and Quad-City Times columnist Alma Gaul. Musical entertainment will include the St. Ambrose Bee Sharp men's a cappella ensemble, the Quad-City Ukelele Club, Dwayne Hodges, and Jon Eric.

Thanks to the Bettendorf Public Library for its permission to allow us to publish the winners below.

Tony Ryan says his organization has an effective tool in the war on the War on Drugs: a T-shirt.

It reads: "Cops say legalize drugs. Ask me why." And people do.

Ryan served 36 years in Denver, Colorado's police department before retiring in 2003. He's now a member of the board of directors of LEAP - Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP.cc). The 10-year-old organization, he said, has 50,000 members, ranging from current and former law-enforcement officers to prosecutors to judges.

The former cop (who retired as a lieutenant) said that although he never worked in narcotics, he watched the effects of drugs - and drug enforcement - firsthand in Denver's poorer neighborhoods. "I saw a lot of drug activity," he said in a phone interview last week. "I saw the damage that is done by drug use and drug addiction, but I also saw the damage that's being done by the country's policy - in those days the War on Drugs. ... I'm of the mindset ... that the damage that has done ... is worse than what the drugs themselves cause."

Ryan will speak at and participate in an August 1 forum organized by Iowa state-representative candidate Mark Nelson. The event will be held at 7 p.m. at Central Perk (226 West Third Street in Davenport).

Hilltop Campus Village Director Scott Tunnicliff. Photo by Joshua Ford (JoshuaFord.com).

Walking through the commercial area of Davenport's Hilltop Campus Village last month, Scott Tunnicliff picked up trash. The garbage far outstripped his ability to carry it - two hands and a few pockets - but Tunnicliff persisted.

Similarly, the Hilltop Campus Village organization (of which Tunnicliff is director) has over the past three years spiffed up its neighborhood in lots of little ways that seem mostly cosmetic: crosswalks, banners, and decorative streetlights.

There are nine new streetlights on Harrison and 16th streets (installed in the past two years and funded by grants), and they and the crosswalks do serve a safety purpose, designed to make the area more pedestrian-friendly. But these improvements, along with 50 banners on Harrison and Brady streets, are nonetheless modest changes.

Still, said Kelly Wallace - owner of the two-year-old Estate Sale Shop in the old McKay Music building at 1326 Brady Street - they hint at renewal. "The little amenities that we're seeing make a big difference," she said. "That type of visual as people drive through gives the impression that it is something that's being revitalized. Many times, it starts with a flower pot full of beautiful flowers."

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