TIME

Road Service Gets an On-Demand Makeover

Getty Images

Tow trucks and phone apps are tapping data to give you a jump-start

The ice storm that hit Nashville this February was the worst in 20 years. Freezing rain glazed the roads, so when one of Michael Cunnyngham’s employees discovered he had a flat tire, there was already a long queue of auto-club members ahead of him who had put in calls for help. “They said they’d be there in an hour. Then it was two hours,” recalls Cunnyngham, who runs a tech company. “Then it was the end of the day. So I thought, There has to be some Uber for wreckers,” he says, referring to the popular ride-hailing app. His search results turned up Urgently, a Virginia-based startup that indeed bills itself as the Uber of roadside assistance. He called the employee and told him to download the app. “I get a really happy message from him not more than a few minutes later saying somebody’s coming,” Cunnyngham says. Within 30 minutes, the tire was fixed. “You couldn’t ask for a better experience,” he says.

Roadside assistance is a $10 billion market in the U.S.–and now tech companies are revving to disrupt it, replacing call centers with dispatch algorithms designed to locate the best nearby vehicle that can help with a lockout or winch a car out of a ditch. Entrepreneurs like Urgently CEO Chris Spanos believe that motorists need an on-demand alternative to paying for insurance plans they might not use or blindly calling tow companies in their time of need, with little way to tell if they’re being overcharged. “You should only pay for service when you need it,” he argues. But taking on an industry behemoth like AAA, which has 55 million members, is going to be a long haul–especially because AAA is mapping out innovations of its own.

Urgently and its main competitor, the Santa Monica, Calif.–based Honk, both offer flat rates, promise quick response times and provide maps in their apps that show users where their rescuer is with real-time updates. These companies are positioning themselves as not just a snappy service for the smartphone crowd but also a new revenue stream for towing companies. While AAA, which is a not-for-profit corporation, says it does not release exact figures for how much its contractors get paid, tow-truck operators have said it’s in the neighborhood of $25 per call. Kwame Scott, owner of Scott’s Towing in Suitland, Md., says he makes about $75 if that same call comes through his Urgently app. Like Uber, these startups are taking about a 25% cut and handing the rest over to the drivers. “If technology can get into towing, then, hey, swell. We’re in,” Scott says.

Honk CEO Corey Brundage says the company started getting a series of call-and-cancel orders last year that they traced to AAA employees. “We do mystery-shop to see how services compare,” says AAA spokesperson Yolanda Cade. She emphasizes that America’s famous motor club has been around for 100 years and responds to “more than 30″ million calls per year; members typically also receive travel discounts or other membership perks. AAA is a federation of 43 motor clubs around the country, which can customize what they offer. In late 2014, the Mid-Atlantic club started running RescueMeNow, a web-based on-demand service for nonmembers, which comes with a follow-up contact enticing users to join. The Southern California club has meanwhile been providing a “service tracker” that shows a real-time map in the AAA app. Some car manufacturers also offer roadside assistance as part of their warranties.

Silicon Valley investors and several national companies are betting on the new guard. Honk announced a $12 million fundraising round in March, soon after Urgently announced that its app will be part of AT&T’s connected-car platform, AT&T Drive. Still, towing providers like Scott aren’t sure how revolutionary these apps will be. He says that while he might get $75 for a job placed through Urgently, he’d get $100 if the customer called him directly. “It hasn’t become a major part of my business,” he says. “But it’s a nice addition.”


This appears in the May 11, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME Alcohol

Teens Who Watch Boozy Movies Are More Likely to Drink, Study Finds

healthiest foods, health food, diet, nutrition, time.com stock, red wine, alcohol
Photograph by Danny Kim for TIME; Gif by Mia Tramz for TIME

There may be a dark side to Bridget Jones' cute coping sequences

Watching James Bond elegantly guzzle that martini may be having adverse effects on adolescents. A new study from the journal Pediatrics found that 15-year-olds who have watched more alcohol being consumed in films than their peers are more likely to have tried alcohol, more likely to binge drink and more likely to have alcohol-related problems.

“Alcohol is a drug and it has potentially adverse effects, not only for individuals but also for family and friends,” says lead author Andrea Waylen, a lecturer in social sciences at the University of Bristol. “It’s not very often that we see the adverse effects of alcohol portrayed—like vomiting, rotten hangovers,” she adds. “In my view, we don’t really get an accurate representation of what alcohol is like.”

The new paper used data from a longitudinal study in the United Kingdom that surveyed 5,163 15-year-olds on a wide variety of topics. They were asked about their drinking habits and whether they had seen a random selection of 50 popular films, from Bridget Jones’ Diary to Aviator. Waylen and her colleagues used those answers to quantify their exposure to drinking by adding up the minutes in each film that showed alcohol use. (The original study was done in the mid-2000s, when those movies were hot off the reel.)

After controlling for factors ranging from parents’ alcohol use to gender and social class, the researchers found that the kids who had been exposed to the most cinematic swilling were 20% more likely to have tried alcohol and 70% more likely to binge drink. They were more than twice as likely to have a drink more than once per week and to suffer from alcohol-related problems, such as encounters with the police or letting their drinking interfere with school and work.

The recommendation of Waylen and her colleagues is that film ratings take into account heavy drinking; such films, Waylen suggests, would then be more likely to be rated for adults only. In the study, she notes that between 1989 and 2008, 72% of the most popular box office films in the United Kingdom depicted drinking but only 6% were classified as adult only.

A review of top-grossing American films conducted in 2009 found that 49% of PG-13 rated films and 25% of PG-rated films showed more than two minutes of alcohol use. The study concluded that the current rating system was not adequate for parents trying to limit their kids’ exposure to drinking (or smoking, for that matter).

Similar studies conducted in the U.S. and Germany have found connections between kids watching boozing in film and then drinking in real life. Other studies have found similar associations for risky behavior like tobacco use, dangerous driving and early sex.

“My guess is that there needs to be a level of identification with the drinker in the film,” Waylen says. And she believes kids are more likely to identify with consuming characters “in films where alcohol use is made to look cool, get you friends, win the girl or boy.”

Her conclusion is that the officials rating movies need to take demure sips of wine and rowdy spring break chugging contests more seriously. “Adverse outcomes from alcohol use are a large societal public health problem,” the study concludes, “and rating films according to alcohol content may reduce problem-related alcohol use and associated harm in young people.”

TIME Barack Obama

See Obama’s 20-Year Evolution on LGBT Rights

  • 1996: Obama supports domestic partnerships and same-sex marriage—at least according to the paper trail 

    Then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, shown in a 1999 file photo.
    Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty Images Then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, shown in a 1999 file photo.

    In one campaign questionnaire that Obama filled out when running for the Illinois state Senate, he states that he supports domestic partnerships and adding sexual orientation to the Human Rights Act, the state’s civil rights law. He also says that he supports affirmative action for gays and lesbians.

    In another questionnaire for Chicago LGBT newspaper Outlines, Obama says he supports same-sex marriage. In 2009, a copy of his typed responses was unearthed and printed in the Windy City Times. “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages,” reads the questionnaire bearing his signature at the bottom. Later, Obama aides will dispute that he actually filled out the questionnaire himself.

  • 1998: Obama is ‘undecided’ about same-sex marriage

    Barack Obama Windy City Times
    Windy City Times Windy City Times, Vol. 24, no. 17

    Seeking reelection in Illinois, Obama fills out another questionnaire for Outlines, which the Windy City Times published in 2009. This time he says he is “undecided” whether he supports legalizing same-sex marriage or repealing an Illinois law prohibiting it.

  • 2004: Obama supports civil unions and civil rights for gays and lesbians—but insists that marriage is not a basic civil right

    “Marriage is between a man and a woman,” Obama says in an interview on Chicago public television during his U.S. Senate campaign, adding, “but what I also believe is that we have an obligation to make sure that gays and lesbians have the rights of citizenship that afford them visitations to hospitals, that allow them to transfer property to each other, to make sure they’re not discriminated against on the job.”

    He says homosexuality is not a choice and “for the most part, it is innate.” Obama distinguishes marriage from other civil rights, saying, “We have a set of traditions in place that I think need to be preserved.”

  • 2004: Obama opposes the federal Defense of Marriage Act while running for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. He also opposes same-sex marriage

    Barack Obama, US Senate candidate for Illinois, is greeted by delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Boston on July, 2004.
    Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images Barack Obama, US Senate candidate for Illinois, is greeted by delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Boston on July, 2004.

    The Defense of Marriage Act, signed by Bill Clinton, allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages legally established in other states. It previously prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, until the Supreme Court ruled that provision unconstitutional in 2013.

  • 2006: Obama questions his own opposition to same-sex marriage

    Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope" is displayed at a bookstore in New York City on July 14, 2008.
    Chris Hondros—Getty Images Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope" is displayed at a bookstore in New York City on July 14, 2008.

    In his memoir The Audacity of Hope, Obama recounts a story of how a lesbian supporter called him up after he had said he opposed same-sex marriage in radio interview, citing his “religious traditions” as part of the reason. She had been hurt, feeling he suggested that she and people like here were “bad people.”

    He wrote: “And I was reminded that it is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided … that Jesus’ call to love one another might demand a different conclusion.”

  • 2007: During the Democratic primary, Obama reaffirms support of ‘strong civil unions’ that offer all the rights that come with opposite-sex marriage

    During an August debate sponsored by groups like the Human Rights Campaign, he also says, “individual denominations have the right to make their own decisions as to whether they recognize same sex couples. My denomination, United Church of Christ, does. Other denominations may make a different decision.”

    Obama implies that he personally sympathizes with LGBT people, saying, “When you’re a black guy named Barack Obama, you know what it’s like to be on the outside.”

  • 2008: As a presidential candidate, Obama pledges to repeal DOMA and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ which banned the service of openly gay troops in the U.S. military

    Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama talks with Pastor Rick Warren during the Saddleback Forum in Lake Forrest, Calif. on Aug. 16, 2008.
    Alex Brandon—AP Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama talks with Pastor Rick Warren during the Saddleback Forum in Lake Forrest, Calif. on Aug. 16, 2008.

    He also says, repeatedly, that he is against gay marriage. “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian — for me — for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix,” he tells pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Presidential Forum in April.

  • 2009: Obama signs the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act

    President Barack Obama hugs James Byrd Jr.'s sister, Louvon Harris during a White House reception commemorating the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, in Washington on Oct. 28, 2009.
    Manuel Balce Ceneta—AP President Barack Obama hugs James Byrd Jr.'s sister, Louvon Harris during a White House reception commemorating the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, in Washington on Oct. 28, 2009.

    The hate crime law, which Congress had first introduced in 1997, gives the Justice Department jurisdiction over crimes of violence in which a perpetrator has selected a victim because of sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as many other characteristics.

  • October 2010: Obama starts ‘evolving’ on gay marriage

    At a Q&A session with progressive bloggers, Obama says that while he has been “unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage,” times are changing and “attitudes evolve, including mine. And I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with and think about because I have a whole host of friends who are in gay partnerships. I have staff members who are in committed, monogamous relationships, who are raising children, who are wonderful parents.”

  • December 2010: Obama signs a bill repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

    President Barack Obama signs the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 into law at the Department of the Interior in Washington on Dec. 22, 2010.
    Jewel Samad—AFP/Getty Images President Barack Obama signs the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 into law at the Department of the Interior in Washington on Dec. 22, 2010.

    The same month, he reiterates at a press conference that his stance on same-sex marriage is “constantly evolving.” By July, the Commander-in-Chief formally certifies that the military is ready for the open service of lesbian, gay and bisexual troops. Open service for transgender troops remains verboten.

  • February 2011: Obama instructs the Justice Department to stop defending DOMA in court, saying that he believes it is unconstitutional

    “While both the wisdom and the legality of [DOMA] will continue to be the subject of both extensive litigation and public debate, this Administration will no longer assert its constitutionality in court,” Holder said in a statement.

  • May 2012: Obama becomes the first president to support same-sex marriage

    After Vice President Joe Biden announces his support for same-sex marriage, Obama is forced to move up a planned announcement of his change in position. In an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, Obama says he has changed his mind. “At a certain point,” he said, “I’ve just concluded that — for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that — I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

  • July 2014: Obama signs an executive order protecting LGBT employees working for government contractors

    President Barack Obama holds hands with Edie Windsor after she introduced him during the Democratic National Committee LGBT Gala at Gotham Hall in New York City on June 17, 2014.
    Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images President Barack Obama holds hands with Edie Windsor after she introduced him during the Democratic National Committee LGBT Gala at Gotham Hall in New York City on June 17, 2014.

    The order applies to a group of workers that, at around 28 million, accounts for about one-fifth of the American workforce. “America’s federal contracts should not subsidize discrimination against the American people,” he says. The federal government, as well as the majority of states, do not have blanket prohibitions on LGBT discrimination.

  • December 2014: The Obama Administration interprets the Civil Rights Act as supportive of LGBT rights

    The Department of Education articulates a clear stance on gender identity, while the Department of Justice announces that all its attorneys will interpret the federal ban on sex discrimination to include discrimination against transgender Americans.

    “Under Title IX,” a memo from the Department of Education reads, a school “must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity in all aspects of the planning, implementation, enrollment, operation, and evaluation of single-sex classes.”

    “This important shift will ensure that the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are extended to those who suffer discrimination based on gender identity, including transgender status,” Attorney General Eric Holder said.

  • January 2015: Obama becomes the first president to use the word ‘transgender’ in a State of the Union address

    President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20, 2015.
    Mandel Ngan—Pool/Getty Images President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20, 2015.

    “As Americans, we respect human dignity,” he said. “That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.”

  • April 2015: Obama says that conversion therapy for minors should be banned

    US President Barack Obama makes his way to board Air Force One under a rainbow upon departure from Kingston, Jamaica on April 9, 2015.
    Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images US President Barack Obama makes his way to board Air Force One under a rainbow upon departure from Kingston, Jamaica on April 9, 2015.

    Conversion therapy attempts to “correct” homosexual or transgender feelings. Obama’s response comes after thousands signed a White House petition in honor of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender girl who committed suicide by walking into traffic after being forced to go through such sessions, according to notes she left. Two states, California and New Jersey, have outlawed the practice.

    Read Next: Meet the New Generation of Gender-Creative Kids

TIME Environment

California Drought Leads to Historic Toilet Policy

The California Energy Commission mandated on Tuesday that new toilets and faucets sold in California must conserve water

California officials working to combat the state’s four-year drought are taking aim at everyday practices that use billions of gallons of water each year: flushing toilets and running faucets.

The California Energy Commission took emergency action on Tuesday by mandating that all toilets, urinals and faucets sold in the state must conserve water. That means only low-flush toilets and low-flow sinks will be allowed for sale after Jan. 1, 2016, regardless of when they were manufactured. The mandate applies to both public places and private residences.

“We’re seeing serious dry spell here in California,” says Amber Beck, a spokesperson for the commission. “And we need to make sure we are not only saving water right now but in the coming years.” These regulations come less than a week after Governor Jerry Brown imposed the state’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions, aimed at cutting the state’s usage by 25%.

The commission’s action will set historic efficiency standards for appliances in the Golden State, which are much stricter than the voluntary standards laid out in the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense conservation program. As of 2016, all urinals sold in California can use only one pint of water or less per flush; the current standard is one gallon, while the EPA will put its WaterSense stamp of approval on any urinal that uses half a gallon or less.

The commission estimates that the new standards will save 10 billion gallons of water in the first year, and more than 100 billion gallons as old appliances are replaced by new ones over the coming years. As of January, there were more than 45 million faucets, 30 million toilets and 1 million urinals operating in California.

Read next: California’s Water Crisis by the Numbers

TIME LGBT

Missouri Town Repeals Protections for LGBT Residents

Courtesy of PROMO Signs hung at a business in Springfield, Mo., express support for upholding a local non-discrimination measure for LGBT residents, which was repealed on April 7, 2015.

Like recent political battles in Indiana and Arkansas, the fight pitted some religious groups against the LGBT community

Residents in Missouri’s third largest city narrowly voted Tuesday to repeal protections for LGBT residents that had been put in place six months before. The vote in Springfield drew passionate campaigners on both sides, pitting a group of socially-conservative Christians worried that their faith was being steamrolled against supporters of LGBT rights, echoing recent political battles over religious freedom restoration laws in Indiana and Arkansas.

“There’s absolutely disappointment. And there’s absolutely sadness,” says Stephanie Perkins, deputy director of PROMO, a statewide organization that promotes LGBT rights. The election was close and the side fighting to uphold the non-discrimination law was leading for a time, but in the end the law was repealed with 51% of the vote.

In October, Springfield city council voted 6-3 to approve a non-discrimination measure that had first been introduced more than two years earlier. That update to the city’s civil rights law made it illegal to discriminate against people in housing, employment or public accommodations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

That means that in the hypothetical case of the baker who is asked to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, the baker would be in violation of the law if he or she refused based on disapproval of homosexual relationships. Advocates say the measure would also prevent more “life-altering” discrimination that often goes unreported without a law on the books that prohibits it. “People do get fired for being gay and transgender. People do get evicted from their homes. They do get denied services,” Perkins says. “That’s why these laws are important.” A report from the liberal think tank Center for American Progress puts numbers on these issues.

The organization spearheading the effort to repeal the law, Christians Uniting for Political Action, could not be reached for comment. A leader in their group, Calvin Morrow, previously published this statement articulating his support for repealing the law:

There are many people in Springfield who disagree with the homosexual lifestyle and yet treat everyone the same. If people leave Springfield because many disagree with their lifestyle, they will find those same people wherever they go … Christian businessmen all over the country are being sued for not participating in gay weddings. To serve those types of celebrations violates their consciences … Do we suspend free speech for Christians and use police powers to force compliance?

Lawsuits against such businesses are uncommon, but they resonate with the electorate in Springfield, a traditionally conservative and religious city in the Southwest part of the state. Headquarters for the Assemblies of God are located there, and churches are found on corner after corner. While many religiously motivated residents voted to repeal the law, some congregations came out in support of the measure. Morris has said that position “does not line up with doctrine.”

While those who campaigned to uphold the law were saddened by the results of the election, Perkins says that the experience was heartening overall. Nearly 200 local businesses came out in support the of law, while some evangelical congregations made it clear, for the first time, that they welcomed LGBT worshipers. “In Springfield, to stand up and say that out loud is scary,” says Perkins, who lives in the city.

A statewide non-discrimination measure similar to the now-defunct Springfield law is currently being considered in the Missouri legislature. Advocates like Perkins hope that people brought out to campaign in Springfield might be able to channel their support to that fight. “No one I’ve talked to have said they wanted to give up,” she says. “Yes there’s disappointment, but it’s nothing compared to the hope that has been created in this community.”

TIME language

Preserving American Language Is Worth Paying for

Katy Steinmetz is a TIME correspondent based in San Francisco.

As Wisconsin's basketball team plays in the Big Dance, the Dictionary of American Regional English based at the university in Madison prepares for its last

As the University of Wisconsin gets ready to take the court in the NCAA championship on Monday night, with the potential to rain down glory on the Badger State, a guillotine is threatening to come down on one of that school’s greatest contributions to American history.

The Dictionary of American Regional English, based at the university’s flagship campus in Madison, is preparing to turn off the office lights for good because its funding has dried up. This project, which has spanned half a century, has dared to capture all the ways Americans speak English—the slang we use for food in different parts of the country, the nostalgic gibberish we say in childhood games, the sound of a Bostonian uttering the word car (much less referencing one near Harvard Yard).

“We’re simply running out of time and money,” says editor Joan Houston Hall, estimating that the project’s budget will dwindle to $100,000 by summer, or less than 20% of its usual annual budget. If everyone, including her, is laid off or politely asked to retire, that’ll be enough to keep one editor on staff and “wind things down” after that.

DARE, as it’s familiarly known, contains records of words that no other dictionary in the world does, gathered over the course of decades by field workers going door-to-door in the United States. DARE’s catalog, which its staff is working to update and expand online, is as much a part of our folk culture and history as Johnny Appleseed or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And the editors want to do it all over again, setting out to survey America about the words we use today and how we say them.

There is no telling how many phrases the editors led by Hall have already saved from a quiet extinction, by preserving them in DARE’s first, and perhaps last, edition. (The final volume was published in 2012, nearly 50 years after fieldwork began). Creating a record of American speech is just like preserving pop art paintings or Prairie School architecture or early jazz recordings—except that it’s much easier to forget that fragments of our language are historical objects. A child may yell “all-ee all-ee oxen free” for all of their youth and never stop to think why they said it or whether people will continue to say it after them.

To get a sense of what DARE editors collect, imagine a Duke basketball player and a Wisconsin basketball player from the 1960s. The Wisconsin player might say the Duke player is meaner than dirt. The Duke player might respond that the Wisconsin player didn’t have enough sense to pour piss out of a boot. If a person nearby sneezed, the polite Wisconsin player would likely say, “Gesundheit,” while the the Duke player would say, “Scat!” On court, while the Wisconsin player heaved the ball, the Duke player would chunk it. If the Duke player gave up, he could holler calf rope, and the Wisconsin player would cry uncle.

Now imagine that it’s 2015 and the Wisconsin player wanted to mess with the stenographer at a news conference. He might drop in a distinctly American word like cattywampus—or other regional terms that mean bent out of shape, like whomper-jawed, wop-sided and skew-gee.

Recording the myriad words that Americans have used and continue to use for dragonflies or peanuts or an abundance of something—oodlins, as they say in Kentucky—is a historical job but also a contemporaneous one, which must continually be done as language ebbs and dies and gets reborn. DARE, says Vocabulary.com Executive Producer and linguist Ben Zimmer, is “the most important record that we have of the way Americans speak and how Americans reflect society through language.” The Wisconsinite says gesundheit, after all, because that part of the country was once packed with German immigrants.

The editors at DARE are trying to share their work, putting audio of interviews done around the U.S. online and paying staff to add new words to a database that has no outward limit. In an ideal world, cataloging American speech every 50 years would be something we did like a census. Few things transport us back in time like a well-placed groovy or cat’s pajamas. Yet the lack of funding is threatening to make DARE an epic one-off project rather than an ongoing one.

The money that the DARE team needs to keep going for a year—about $525,000—is a drop in the bucket compared to the University of Wisconsin’s $3 billion budget and is small compared to the $12 million in revenue that its men’s basketball team netted last year. Yes, the school is facing tough 13% budget cuts over the next two years if Governor Scott Walker’s budget plans come to pass. But on this exciting eve for Wisconsin, when a college basketball program appears as strong as ever, it’s worth sparing a thought for a few small rooms at the same university where people are starting to look for new jobs. And if you happen to be a billionaire who loves language or American history, perhaps there are a few thoughts that might come after that—before DARE goes kaput.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

‘Madam, I’m Adam': Meet the Reigning World Palindrome Champion

His name is actually Mark, though his brothers have been known to call him Kram

Eat poop tea.

When he was a kid, Mark Saltveit would sit in the car with his two young brothers, bored silly during 500-mile drives on family trips. Eventually he and his siblings turned to palindromes to pass the time. They had learned about these delightful strings of wordplay in school, a row of letters that read the same backwards as forwards. Poop, to the grade-school boys, was of course the consummate example. And when they worked out “Eat poop tea,” they felt like the Albert Einsteins of palindromy—until they realized that it didn’t quite work.

“We were crushed,” laughs Saltveit, now 53, as he recalls the cruel realization that the actual mirror image would be Eat poop tae. But during a bout of insomnia during his 20s, he remembered how he had filled the hours in the family car. Saltveit broke out the dictionary and embarked on what would become his life’s work. Within hours, he had written his first palindrome, at a length that most people couldn’t achieve in a month, or maybe ever. He called it “The Brag of the Vain Lawyer:”

Resoled in Saratoga, riveting in a wide wale suit, I use law, Ed. I, wan, ignite virago, tar a snide loser.

Within three decades, he would become the reigning world palindrome champion.

Saltveit is the star of a new documentary short that filmmaker Vince Clemente is hoping will inspire people to pay for making the feature-length version, as he follows the world’s leading palindromists up to their showdown at the next world championship in 2017. A Kickstarter campaign to fund the initial stages of A Man, a Plan, a Palindrome went live this week. The short debuted in March at—where else—the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an annual gathering of people who like to debate whether puzzles are better solved using .3 mm or .7 mm lead in mechanical pencils.

“I am drawn to niche worlds. I feel that they need to be explored,” Clemente says. “If you are a palindromist, you are an artist and a genius. There is no doubt. The amount of skill that goes into each one is beyond calculation. Sure, when one is done anyone could look at it and say, ‘Duh, that was easy.’ And I think that is a sign of great artistry.”

Doc, note, I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

In a rare cultural moment, some of the world’s greatest palindromists have just been given the Hollywood treatment — even if palindromes aren’t even mentioned in the film.

These men are the stars of The Imitation Game, which tells the story of the mathematicians who unraveled Nazi codes during World War II. Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), plays a background character in a biopic that focuses on Alan Turing, but he is the stuff of palindrome legend. Taking a break from his work, Hilton puzzled out the above palindrome over five hours. The skills these men brought to code-breaking, says Saltveit—who may know more about the cultural history of palindromes than any other living person—are the same skills one needs to mentally run through all the possible letter combinations that might build out a grammatical, coherent sentence in opposite directions.

“The amazing thing about Peter Hilton is he did this all in his head,” Saltveit says. “But that was his gift. That’s why he was famous even among the code breakers, because he had that ability.”

Constructing a palindrome starts with the middle, Saltveit explains. In the case of Hilton’s famous work, that was:

never prevents

That leaves a “ts” dangling on one end that must become “st” at the end of a word on the other. So one runs through all the words they can think of that end in “st”—last, vast, past, amast. When Hilton decides that a fast jibes well with never prevents he then knows he has to work with this:

a fast never prevents a fa

And on he goes, running through his mental Rolodex of words that being “fa,” until he has created the deceptively straightforward three-sentence masterpiece, without so much as a pencil or a piece of paper.

As an avid student of palindrome history, Saltveit was bequeathed rare copies of the journals of British mathematician and word-artist Leigh Mercer, who died in 1977. While people don’t generally know his name, they’re probably familiar with his most famous palindromic creation:

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

In the journals, it’s clear that he also worked from the middle outward. On one page, Saltveit says, is this revealing fragment:

Panama, a man a p

Saltveit, of course, used this same method when he took home the world’s first World Palindrome Championship title.

He and the other few but proud souls who can call themselves true palindromists (pronounced pal-IN-droh-MISTS) gathered in Brooklyn, New York in March 2012. Each was called to the front of a ballroom at the Marriott, in front of about 700 or so eager audience members, and given a choice of three challenges: write a palindrome that contains an x and a z; write a palindrome about someone who has been in the news in the past year; or write a palindrome about this competition.

They were given 75 minutes to craft up to three palindromes off-stage, as the audience was entertained with other wordplay. The winner was to be decided by audience vote. Each attendee had a little sign they could use to convey their approval or disapproval: It read “huh?” on one side and “wow!” on the other.

Saltveit, who is also a freelance writer, stand-up comedian and editor of the Palindromist magazine, was going up against the likes of cartoonist Jon Agee, who Saltveit describes as the only person to ever make money off this art. Agee was and is a formidable foe, a man who understands how to balance the ridiculous and sensical in just the right measure. He is the author of this book and its famed, eponymous palindrome:

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A great palindrome, in Saltveit’s estimation, is a little weird. It should be basically grammatical and follow some rules of natural language, but more important is telling a story or creating an absurd image in the reader’s head. Take this example, he says:

Enid and Edna dine.

“It’s a perfectly good palindrome. There’s nothing flawed with the English. It’s just boring,” he says. Now tweak it just a little bit, swap a verb and a name, and you’ve got this:

Dennis and Edna sinned.

That’s basically the same palindrome, he says, “but it’s a heck of a lot more interesting.” Much like this one:

Sit on a potato pan, Otis.

“There’s no such thing as a potato pan and nobody has ever told anybody to sit on a pan anyway. So the absurdity of it is its strength,” Saltveit explains. “You’re almost kind of showing off how far you had to jump to make this work, like you really had to push yourself to heroic bits of cleverness to pound your way through. And that’s the trade-off, versus being smooth. You can be too smooth.”

So when Saltveit sat down for his 75 minutes, he started with the already silly, vivid phrase trapeze part. Like other palindromists, he keeps his own “dictionary,” a collection of tens of thousands of mirror-image fragments that he encounters in daily life—reading every sign, advertisement and text message forwards and backwards. Sometimes, in fact, he so busy inverting letters that he neglects to read them forwards at all. It can become so distracting that he makes himself stop for a time.

When he emerged with the six other contestants, Saltveit revealed a palindrome that—in its charming, barely sensible senselessness—could not be beat:

Devil Kay fixes trapeze part; sex if yak lived.

The “wow!” signs sprung into the air. “The audience went for the dirty one, which is not surprising,” says Saltveit. “I threw in a y just to show off.”

Part of what Clemente’s documentary seeks to record is the training that Saltveit and other palindromists are already doing in advance of the 2017 championship, with about two years left on the clock. In Portland, Ore., Saltveit is already running himself through timed trials, asking his wife to throw him a topic—any topic—and seeing what he can come up with. (I asked him how she felt about this hobby of his. “I was completely open about my palindromy before the marriage.”) Unlike most palindromists, Saltveit also has a personal trainer who has crafted a regimen of progressive exercises designed to increase the blood flow to his brain.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who professes to love words not donating a few dollars to see what else these brains get up to—and whether Saltveit can defend his title. There is a rich history of palindromes to weave into the tapestry. Saltveit has traced their origins back to the Hellenistic era, when people stood in the shadow of the world’s first library and stumbled across these magical, symmetrical strings of letters that they believed must be the blessings of god and the curses of demons. As God tells Moses from the burning bush when a man dares to challenge his identity, in what is a word-unit palindrome in Hebrew: I am who I am.

“There’s so much more to explore and share,” says Clemente. To donate to the campaign, visit the Kickstarter page here.

TIME politics

This Map Shows Every State With Religious-Freedom Laws

See when each law was passed

The national outcry over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has turned attention towards the 19 states with their own versions of the law and the others that are considering similar measures. The timeline below shows when each state passed legislation, starting with Connecticut in 1993. Click on a state for links to the laws or pending bills.

The fight over RFRAs dates to 1990, when the Supreme Court ruled against an Oregonian named Al Smith, who was a quarter American Indian. He had argued that his use of peyote in a Native American Church ritual—an act that cost him his job—should be protected by the First Amendment. He lost, and the ruling made it easier for the government to place restrictions on the freedom of religion.

That precedent didn’t sit well with state or federal governments. In the fall of 1993, Bill Clinton signed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which restored the standard the Court had overruled. “Those whose religion forbids autopsies have been subjected to mandatory autopsies,” Vice President Al Gore said at the signing ceremony outside the White House. This legislation, he said, was something “all Americans” could be behind. And many of them did, including Republicans, Democrats, evangelicals and progressive civil rights advocates.

MORE: The Battle of Indiana

The new law demanded that the government have a “compelling interest” before infringing on religious freedom and that the government must use the “least restrictive” means of doing so. If, for example, a state law required that all vehicles have electric lights, the government might have a compelling interest in making sure Amish buggies were as visible as cars on the highway. But the least restrictive means of compelling them to follow the law could be to make sure they used reflective silver tape, rather than force them to embrace technology.

In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal law applied only to the federal government. So more states quickly passed their own RFRAs to restore similar provisions at state levels.

But the political context has changed drastically since then, and many social conservatives are now championing religious freedom bills as a way to protect them from having to provide service to LGBT people. Critics worry that states will use such laws to combat existing non-discrimination measures in court, providing legal cover for stores that refuse to serve gay customers or businesses to fire LGBT employees.

Read next: Arkansas Governor Asks for Changes to Controversial Religious Freedom Bill

TIME States

The Debate Over What Indiana’s Religious Freedom Act Is Really About

Demonstrators gathered at the Indiana State Capital to protest the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indianapolis on March 28, 2015.
Nate Chute—Reuters Demonstrators gathered at the Indiana State Capital to protest the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indianapolis on March 28, 2015.

More than a dozen other states have considered similar measures this year, which critics tar as "anti-gay"

Opponents of Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act believe that while the law explicitly says one thing, it is designed to do another.

Supporters say the measure is meant to do just what it sounds like: make sure the government doesn’t impinge on the religious liberty of Hoosiers. But many gay rights advocates, politicians and civil liberty organizations believe the law will aid discrimination against lesbians and gays in the Midwestern state—giving businesses, landlords or employers legal grounds to treat them differently based on a religious opposition to homosexuality.

When Gov. Mike Pence signed the bill into law on Saturday, Indiana joined 19 other states that have similar “RFRAs,” while Indiana is one of 31 states that does not have a state-level non-discrimination law that covers sexual orientation and gender identity.

“The boogeyman that wants to attack religious adherents has just not arrived in Indiana,” says Jennifer Drobac, a law professor at Indiana University who signed a letter from academics expressing concern about the bill. “This is all coming on the heels of the same-sex marriage debate.”

The law prohibits the government from infringing on a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs unless the government has a “compelling interest” and that infringement is the “least restrictive” means of protecting that interest. The language of the bill defines a “person” as not just an individual, but essentially any business or organization.

Many religious freedom laws are modeled on a 1993 federal law signed by former President Bill Clinton. Pence has explicitly likened Indiana’s new law to that measure. Back then, Democrats lauded the bill as righting wrongs done to Americans who had been forced to follow the letter of laws that contradicted their beliefs—like a man whose religion forbids autopsies being forced to undergo that procedure, or an American Indian who loses his job for taking part in a ritual that involves peyote.

Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett, who supports the law, says Indiana’s measure has the same aim of protecting such people. In an op-ed in the South Bend Tribune, he gives the example of a Muslim prisoner who should be able to wear a beard, as his religion dictates, despite prison regulations against facial hair. Garnett was among the signatories of another letter from academics expressing support for the bill and arguing that Indiana’s Constitution “protects religious liberty to a considerable — but uncertain — degree.”

MORE: What You Need to Know About Indiana’s Controversial Religious Objections Law

Opponents of the bill point out that more than 20 years from the time Clinton signed the federal law, the political context has changed.

Some social conservatives have championed religious freedom bills as way to exempt businesses like bakeries or florists from providing services to same-sex couples who are winning the right to marry in places where that practice isn’t politically popular. Lawmakers in Indiana worked but failed to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2014, months before the state was forced through court rulings to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Advocates who oppose the law say it appears like a “Plan B.” Eunice Rho, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, says that amendments to the bill that would make it clear that it can’t be used to undermine civil rights laws were repeatedly offered. “The proponents of the legislation proclaimed, over and over again, that this can’t be used to discriminate, this is about religious freedom. So we said, ‘Great. We’re in agreement on that. Let’s put it in the bill,'” she says. “And all of those amendments were voted down.”

In addition to Indiana, lawmakers in more than a dozen other states have considered “religious freedom” bills in 2015. Sometimes such measures crop up alongside non-discrimination legislation that LGBT rights advocates continue to push in legislatures across the states. While federal law prohibits discrimination based on attributes like sex and race, there is no federal anti-discrimination law that protects people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The same is the case in 31 states, where there is no law prohibiting employers from firing someone or landlords from denying someone housing solely because they are gay or transgender.

In Michigan, the Christian Coalition’s Keith den Hollander recently testified against an LGBT non-discrimination bill and said it amounted to “religious persecution.” David Kallman, speaking on behalf of the socially conservative Michigan Family Forum, framed the stakes this way: “Why should that baker or photographer be forced against their religious beliefs and conscience to participate in [a same-sex wedding]? And if they refuse to because of their religious conscience, to be put out of business?”

Such opponents of non-discrimination laws sometimes seek “religious freedom” bills as a counter attack, giving that hypothetical business owner grounds to challenge non-discrimination laws and protections against being sued.

MORE: 5 Things to Know About Indiana Gov. Mike Pence

While Indiana has no state-level LGBT non-discrimination measure, several cities including Indianapolis do. Those are the places where such laws could go head to head in court when the act takes effect on July 1. Legal experts say it’s unclear how the courts in Indiana would rule. “It does not say that members of religious minorities will be successful if they seek exemptions,” Garnett, the Notre Dame law professor, wrote, “only that they are entitled to a day in court.”

Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel at Lambda Legal, which advocates for LGBT rights, also expresses uncertainty about what precedents might be set in court. But, she says, regardless of what happens in the legal sphere, there is also a “social effect” that could lead to more discrimination.

“People’s conduct is shaped by their understanding of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in terms of human interactions, what the social standards are,” she adds. “That bill now embodies a state policy that religion is a legitimate reason for turning away customers because of who they are.”

As Indiana has dealt with backlash from passing the new law—ranging from grassroots protests to announcements that companies would be taking their business elsewhere—North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said he wouldn’t be signing a similar bill. In Georgia, a committee meeting to consider a religious freedom act on Monday was canceled, for the time stalling a measure that already passed the state senate.

In Florida, a state that has passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the legislature is considering a LGBT non-discrimination bill. A group working to pass the measure released a study in late March suggesting that having an environment that is potentially “hostile” to LGBT people was costing the state around $362 million per year. Several organizations and businesses have expressed dismay at Indiana’s new law, which may end up being costly for the Hoosier State. Conventions are relocating, businesses are putting expansions in the state on hold and even the NCAA has expressed skepticism about the political climate.

Some Indiana politicians are calling for the state’s civil rights law to be updated so that people are explicitly protected on the basis of sexual orientation. Pence has meanwhile said he’s open to legislation that will further clarify what the new religious freedom law can do. Rho, of the ACLU, says there are few limitations about which acts the law could be used to defend based on religious conviction—whether it’s firing a woman for using the pill or kicking a couple out of an apartment for cohabiting before marriage.

“I’m definitely worried about gays and lesbians, but I’m also worried about women who want to access birth control,” says Indiana University’s Drobac. “This is a stupid law … We need to repeal this law immediately.”

Read next: Uproar Over Religious Freedom Law Trips Up Indiana’s Governor

TIME politics

San Francisco Lawmakers Propose Tougher Restrictions on Airbnb Rentals

Airbnb
Airbnb

The proposal would take a trailblazing regulation measure passed last year and make it more restrictive

At a meeting of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, a local lawmaker returned to an issue that sparked long and contentious hearings in 2014: regulation of the city’s short-term rentals facilitated by Airbnb and similar companies.

“This law is a mess,” David Campos, one of the 11 board members, said of a measure passed last year that legalized short-term rentals. “It’s a mess that needs to be cleaned up. And we need to clean it up as soon as possible.”

Campos introduced legislation that would place stricter limitations on how often people can rent out rooms or homes, putting a “hard cap” of 90 days on every property, regardless of whether the host is present. It would also require companies such as Airbnb to share data about rentals, ban rentals in certain neighborhoods that have been zoned for no commercial use and give disturbed neighbors—like ones living next door to people who rent out units illegally—the right to sue for damages.

A spokesperson for Airbnb said in a statement to TIME that the new proposal is just creating tension over an issue that was settled in 2014.

“Elected officials spent three years debating all aspects of this issue before passing comprehensive legislation, but some folks still don’t think you should be able to occasionally share the home in which you live,” said Christopher Nulty. “We should all be striving to make the law work but these ad hoc rules and this new bill just make things more confusing.”

Campos’ measure has been co-sponsored by two other members of the board.

Under the law passed last year, residents in San Francisco are allowed to rent out their properties an unlimited amount of days if the host is present, while there is a 90-day cap on un-hosted rentals. The different limits were aimed at maximizing the economic potential for residents who depend on sites like Airbnb for income, while making it impossible for landlords to put rental units on those sites full-time. Before the law passed, all short-term rentals were technically illegal; rentals shorter than 30 days were banned.

MORE: 5 Things You Never Knew About the Sharing Economy

The problem, Campos says, is that the city planning commission, which is charged with enforcing the law, says there’s no method of determining when hosts are at home sleeping in their own beds, meaning they cannot monitor whether people are respecting the limits. Campos called the law a “paper tiger” that is “unenforceable” because it has no teeth.

Local lawmakers have pushed for limits on short-term rentals to make sure the sharing economy doesn’t cannibalize existing housing stock. “The concern is you take your unit off the market,” says Supervisor Jane Kim, who supports a 90-day cap.

In recent years, San Francisco has been in the midst of a housing crisis, with the amount of people wanting to live in the city exceeding the apartments that are available—which has sent rental prices skyrocketing. The law was partly aimed at stopping landlords from taking much-needed units off the market because renting them out every night on sites like Airbnb was more valuable than collecting a monthly check. It also legitimized a business popular with tourists and locals.

Kim points out that 90 days per year breaks down to about a week per month, or could be the length of a summer when a college student is out of town. It’s sufficient for what one might consider “regular” hosts who use Airbnb, she says. “If you’re doing more than 90 days, you’re running a business,” she says. Kim believes that people in that camp should apply for a bed-and-breakfast license, which requires hosts to meet more requirements like installing exit signs.

With the aim of making oversight more feasible, Campos’ proposal would require platforms like Airbnb to give the city data about how often properties are being rented through their sites. “Without that data, there’s simply no way of knowing,” Campos says. He adds that Airbnb has responded to previous requests for such data by demanding the city subpoena them and notes that Airbnb has fought such subpoenas in states like New York.

Under the current law, which went into effect in February, all hosts must register with the city before listing a property on a site like Airbnb. Campos says that as of two weeks ago only a few dozen residents have registered, while there are “thousands” of rooms and units being listed on short-term rental sites. In an attempt to incentivize compliance with the law, the proposal would also fine hosting platforms that list unregistered units in San Francisco to the tune of $1,000 per day.

“All of us support short-term rentals,” Campos said of the board members during Tuesday’s meeting. “We know that short-term rentals are part of San Francisco, that they are here to stay … That said, I think that those of us that have been talking about this believe there should be reasonable, fair regulation of this industry,” he continued. “The law that was passed last year does not constitute what we would like to see.”

Read next: Baby, You Can Drive My Car, and do My Errands, and Rent My Stuff…

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com