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

This past weekend, we brought our daughter to Davenport's Putnam Museum and did the full tour. We saw Flight of the Butterflies 3D on the Giant Screen, walked through the new Bodies Revealed show, and saw all the cultural-, regional-, and natural-history displays that visitors have known for decades, from the mummies to the Asian artifacts to Bix's cornet.

But what kept Emily's attention was the Spark Learning Lab, a modest career-themed room with the goal of preventing high-school drop-outs.

Our daughter is five and in no danger yet of dropping out of any school - or pursuing any career beyond princess-ing. And the Spark Learning Lab is geared toward fifth- and sixth-graders. But she loved the lab's drawing program with the dual touch screens (one on the computer and one where the picture was being projected), the construction-plank set (which she's playing with on this issue's cover), and the feature that allows visitors to build tube structures and - with the help of a blower - either launch table-tennis balls or keep them aloft.

One station in the room lets visitors connect batteries to simple electrical devices, and another shows how structures they build with Lincoln Logs or those aforementioned planks might fare in an earthquake. The "concentration station" fosters communications skills, as one person describes a block structure and a partner tries to build its twin using verbal instructions alone.

If you want to see where the Putnam is headed, you can look at the conceptual drawings - posted in several locations - of its planned STEM learning center. The $1.5-million project is currently in the fundraising phase, and the museum expects to open it in June 2014. Putnam President and CEO Kim Findlay said adding the STEM center to the Putnam now is "the right time and the right thing for the community and the museum."

But you'll get a hands-on sense of the Putnam's direction in the Spark Learning Lab. Larger-scale hints are available in the interactive components of the current Destination: Space exhibit, with its compressed-air tennis-ball launcher, and a bicycle wheel and rotating platform demonstrating angular momentum.

Implicitly and explicitly, all of these draw a line from playful exploration to science to careers, and that's what the STEM center will do on a much grander level. It's an attempt to transform the nearly-century-and-a-half-old Putnam from "nice to necessary," to use a phrase that's common in the museum field these days.

At a recent visit to the Family Museum's new Fox Hollow, there was a robber at the grocery store, grabbing (fake) money and announcing his deed. This probably wasn't what leaders of the Bettendorf museum wanted to happen with their renovated facility, but dictating any aspect of open-ended play is antithetical to the enterprise.

So Museum Director Margaret Kuhl laughed when told about the Fox Hollow crime wave.

"We don't have any police officers on duty," she conceded. "Maybe somebody from the fire department could have helped. ... We have that neighborhood concept of everybody looking out for each other."

Donald Ray Pollock

Because there's no rational response to a terminal cancer diagnosis, Willard Russell's course of action following his wife's death sentence doesn't seem as strange as it should.

In Donald Ray Pollock's novel The Devil All the Time, it's a prayer log in the woods, "the remains of a big red oak that had fallen many years ago. A weathered cross, fitted together out of boards pried from the back of the ramshackle barn behind their farmhouse, leaned a little eastward in the soft ground a few yards below them." Willard goes there every morning and evening "unless he had whiskey running through his veins," Pollock writes, and he often takes his son Arvin.

Lest that sound peaceful and perfectly pious for a man who had little use for the church after what he'd seen in World War II, allow Pollock to set the scene as the condition of Willard's wife deteriorates: "Maggots dripped from the trees and crosses like squirming drops of white fat. The ground along the log stayed muddy with blood."

This is in Part One of The Devil All the Time. Out of desperation, Willard begins offering blood sacrifices at the prayer log - animals he killed or scraped off the roads. "But even he had to admit, they didn't seem to working ... ," Pollock writes. "There was one thing that he hadn't tried yet. He couldn't believe that he hadn't thought of it earlier." And that is when Willard decides to kill his landlord.

If a government body wants to spend tens of millions of dollars for a construction project, there are lots of ways to gauge the public temperature.

It's hard to imagine a more roundabout approach than the one chosen by the Rock Island County Board.

Last week, the board voted to put a referendum on the April 9 ballot, and if your eyes glaze over while reading it, that might be the goal. The measure asks: "Shall the County Board of The County of Rock Island be authorized to expand the purpose of The Rock Island Public Building Commission, Rock Island County, Illinois to include all the powers and authority prescribed by the Public Building Commission Act?"

Of course, most people don't know what the Rock Island Public Building Commission is, or that it even existed - let alone its current or potentially expanded authority.

And there's no way to know from the words what the endgame is. There's no mention of a new or renovated county courthouse or county office building, or of a location, or of a price tag - which could be anywhere from $13 million (the low estimate for a new court facility alone) to $50 million (the high estimate for a new courthouse and county office building in downtown Rock Island).

In short, the referendum appears designed for maximum obfuscation - a seemingly innocuous question about an obscure public body. The move could easily be interpreted as a deceptive attempt to gain public support for something the public otherwise might not support.

Two events in the past few months raised the profile of foods with genetically modified ingredients - and also put a spotlight on how messy the issue can be.

The first was the publication in September of a study led by Gilles Eric Séralini involving the herbicide Roundup and herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready corn (technically known as NK603) - both Monsanto products. Rats in the study developed tumors, died prematurely, and suffered organ damage.

The second was the defeat in November of California Proposition 37, whose ballot summary read that it would have required the "labeling of food sold to consumers made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways."

There was a lot of heat with both events.

The Séralini study and its PR roll-out were met with an intense backlash from genetic-engineering apologists and much of the scientific community, and the European Food Safety Authority - among other scientific organizations - rejected its validity, saying it featured "inadequate design, analysis, and reporting."

In California, Prop 37 opponents - including Monsanto Company, E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Company, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association - spent more than $40 million to defeat the labeling ballot measure.

Yet combined and detached from the rhetoric and motivations on all sides, these two events neatly summarized the national and international debate over foods with genetically modified ingredients. Are they safe for human consumption? And should the government require the labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients - the way nutrition and ingredient labels now note the presence of allergens?

Depending on whom you ask, the answer to the first question ranges from "absolutely" to "we don't know" to "absolutely not." And the answer to the second question is largely - but not wholly - determined by the answer to the first.

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