Nacho Radio's Dave Levora (left) and Darren Pitra

On his morning show on January 14, Darren Pitra asked with mock exasperation: "Haven't we learned enough?"

Just a year ago, the answer to that question would have been simple: Absolutely.

Pitra and Dave Levora have been on-air morning-show partners for nearly 11 years - as "Dave & Darren in the Morning" - so it's no surprise that these old radio pros have an easy rapport, or that they breezed through the show of comedy and conversation without a lull.

There was a bit about a beer brewed with smoked whale testicles, a recurring motif of the perils - sometimes self-inflicted - of being a bus driver, and evidence of both men having way too much familiarity with the live-action Flintstones movies. They roped me in as a guest - sorry, listeners! - and asked off-the-cuff questions that were thoughtful and insightful without ever getting too serious. Their routine is smooth and comfortable - a warm welcome to the day for listeners tuned in to their favorite radio station.

Except that the show wasn't on the radio at all, instead a podcast on Dave & Darren's NachoRadio.com - which was launched in October after Pitra and Levora lost their jobs at Rock 104-9.

So the learning must continue.

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro's Promise Land seems to invite preconceptions.

First, there's the white kitty hanging perilously from a rope on the book cover, cheekily recalling the famous "Hang in There" inspirational poster.

Then there's the subtitle: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture.

Flip to the first page of prologue. The book opens: "Ten years ago, I tagged along with my father to a weekend conference on how to write self-help books." Yes, it really was a self-help retreat for self-help-guru wannabes.

From those elements, you might expect an arch, cynical take-down of a movement and the industry that feeds it (or feeds off it).

Lamb-Shapiro will be the January 27 guest in the River Readings at Augustana series, and you're hereby advised to not judge this book by its cover or its opening sentence. It's so much richer than that.

Drew Starenko in his downtown-Davenport studio.

The realization, Drew Starenko said, came while building a home addition by himself in the early 1990s.

He was in his early 30s, he said, and "I was lugging these sheets of plywood up to this roof, and I just kind of stepped back after that and ... said, 'When I'm 50, 55, I don't think I'm going to be able to do this sort of thing.'"

The construction work was never his intended career path, although he'd been doing carpentry since the age of 16.

But if carpentry wasn't a viable long-term occupation, what could he do?

Starenko knew he wanted to work with his hands. He had pre-med and art degrees from Augustana College, and a master of fine arts from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

He had been lured back to the Quad Cities because of some teaching work, but local institutions of higher education weren't hiring full-time art faculty. He had a young family and didn't want to uproot it in pursuit of teaching jobs. And he wanted to stay in the Midwest - which provided much of the inspiration for his art.

So he decided to put his pre-med degree to work - and chose to become a nurse instead of a physician's assistant because it was a quicker path to a job. "I had a daughter and a family," he said.

And nursing, he figured, would also give him time to focus on painting.

From that fundamentally practical choice, a remarkable career began. Starenko is a Certified Registered Nurse First Assistant rather than a surgeon, and he didn't design the equipment or perfect the technique that together make recovery from heart-bypass surgery much easier for patients these days. But he is a local medical pioneer who has directly or indirectly improved hundreds of lives across the globe.

Sheryl WuDunnThe 2009 book Half the Sky is filled with stories that are heartbreaking and inspiring - and often both. The Pulitzer Prize-winning husband-and-wife team of Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn gives you precisely what you'd expect from a book subtitled Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. There are lots of anecdotes supporting the idea that women across the globe face horrific violence, discrimination, and marginalization. That's countered by personal stories that provide hope for change. And both are supported by statistics and academic studies.

"We think that one of the greatest moral challenges of our time is the gender inequality and the brutality that many women and girls face around the world because of their gender," said WuDunn - who will present a lecture version of the book on October 21 at St. Ambrose University - in a recent phone interview. "We also think one of the most effective ways to address a lot of the inequality is through educating girls and bringing them into the formal labor force ... . And we talk about a lot of these issues by telling stories of women who have been facing these challenges, and of other women and men who have come up with solutions."

But the book is also surprising - in ways that are both very small and very big.

Our challenged-books-themed "I'm with the Banned!" short-fiction contest drew 52 entries, and we're pleased to present 22 of our favorite stories here. Authors were required to include one of 20 prompts from frequently banned or challenged books (the full list is at RCReader.com/y/fiction) and were limited to 250 words beyond that.

We'll be hosting a reading of winning and favorite entries at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 25, at the Bettendorf Public Library (2950 Learning Campus Drive). We hope to see you there to help celebrate Banned Books Week!

It's long been an article of faith with me that the seemingly perpetual growth in the number of state-sponsored gambling outlets is poor public policy. Common sense says that the amount of money people will spend on these games has a ceiling - one that we've almost certainly reached by now.

If that's correct, then further expansion of legalized gambling is a fool's errand, as the money generated by it won't increase meaningfully. Once gambling has reached a saturation point in a region, revenues will just get shifted from gaming company to gaming company and state to state and local government to local government.

But like all articles of faith, I had no proof for my hypothesis. So I decided to test it, and the Quad Cities market seemed like an excellent laboratory.

What is now the Isle of Capri casino in Bettendorf opened in April 1995 - making us a three-casino community. (I'll refer to the casinos by their present names throughout this article.) We now have almost two decades of gaming information with the three-casino marketplace, and a handful of variables allow us to see what happened here when this happened there: the December 2008 move of Jumer's from downtown Rock Island to Interstate 280; the recession that hit in 2007-8; new casino competitors in eastern Iowa in 2006 and 2007; and the 2012 introduction of video-gambling machines in Illinois outside of casinos.

What I found didn't exactly support my hypothesis of a Quad Cities gambling pie with a fixed size. Rather, the data suggest there are ways to add new customers to the local gambling market - but that the pie has nonetheless been shrinking for a decade.

The July 9 Rock Island Argus/Moline Dispatch article announcing a verdict for Benton Mackenzie on drug charges began like this: "Even as the 12 jurors shuffled into the courtroom to announce their verdict, Benton Mackenzie could already sense his fate. Guilty."

As storytelling journalism quickly establishing a mood and then getting to the point, it's pretty good.

Yet with the basic facts of the case never in dispute, the verdict had long been almost a foregone conclusion because of a pre-trial ruling in May - which the Illinois-based newspapers mentioned in trial coverage but didn't actually cover. Judge Henry Latham ruled that Mackenzie couldn't claim he grew marijuana out of medical necessity to treat his cancer.

The Quad-City Times, on the other hand, did cover that ruling, and did a decent job explaining the precedent behind it.

But the Benton Mackenzie coverage from both entities, while voluminous, overlooked or ignored frameworks in which daily events could be understood, processed, and put into a more-meaningful context. The story is ultimately not just about one man with terminal cancer facing a criminal trial. Nor does it merely illuminate the general issue of medical marijuana.

Rather, it's a heart-wrenching, complicated example of something larger: how the justice system deals with an area of rapidly changing law - one that is itself chasing a swift change in public attitudes following decades of calcified prohibition policy.

On Monday July 14, 2014 Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba hosted a roundtable discussion at the Davenport Public Library. The purpose of the meeting was to address the influx of migrant children coming in from Central America into the United States and how a Quad Cities based "Caring Cities" campaign could assist.

The meeting was approximately 50 minutes long. This video has been edited down to 17 minutes.

In attendance and identified on the video are:
Mayor Bill Gluba, City of Davenport
Glenn Leach, Davenport Catholic Diocese

Mike Reyes, League of United Latin American Citizens

Cheryl Goodwin, President Family Resources
Mr. Ortiz, Outreach and Community Enrollment Coordinator for Community Healthcare
Rick Schloemer, Scott County Housing Council
Stephanie Lynch, Doctoral Candidate University of Iowa
Amy Rowell, Director of Moline World Relief
Byron Brown, Retired ARMY, CEO at TGR Solutions

[Note: Not every individual seated at the table is identified by name in the video. We are happy to update this story with any missing participants.]

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.

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