Original image
Getty Images/David Ramos

16 Things You Might Not Know About Uber

Original image
Getty Images/David Ramos

Uber Technologies, the increasingly popular yet controversial ridesharing app, has so far infiltrated 58 countries around the world in its five-year lifespan and shows no signs of slowing down. The number of new drivers joining the ranks of Uber chauffeurs doubles every six months, and last week the company officially surpassed the $50 billion mark in funding. But for all its popularity, the upstart has had (and will probably continue to have) a bumpy ride, enraging established taxi companies by elbowing its way onto their turf and demonstrating the potential problems with the still nascent sharing economy. While commuters and government decide how to deal with Uber, here are a few things you might not know about the company and the drivers that make it go.

1. Drivers don’t get discounts.

When Barrett, an UberX driver in Tennessee, answered his phone to speak with me, he was walking a mile to the airport to avoid having to pay for a cab. Uber drivers don’t get any discounts or special treatment when they’re passengers, although Barrett does say the company sends drivers discounts for car maintenance like tire rotations and oil changes. 

2. It made life hell for a design firm.

A NYC design firm registered the name Uber Inc. way back in 1999. When the car service with a nearly identical moniker joined the scene, the design firm’s founder became inundated with phone calls aimed at the taxi company, which didn’t (and still doesn’t) provide a customer service phone number. Uber Inc. received 500 phone calls in four months from frustrated passengers and even drivers looking for their paychecks, according to the New York Post. One driver even accidentally sued the design firm for an on-the-job injury. The steadfast Uber Inc. has kept its name, but owner Herta Kriegner told mental_floss she is “still handling phone calls for Uber Technologies and still receiving mail (court orders, requests for wage garnishment, etc.) regarding their drivers.” A Google search lists the company as “not the uber technologies ride share or car service company.”

3. Uber babies get special onesies.

At least one human has breathed its first gulp of air in the back seat of an Uber cab. In March of this year, Zanna Gilbert gave birth to her daughter in a Nissan Altima, which her husband hailed through the Uber app. The baby and mother were both fine, and Uber gave the driver free Knicks tickets for his excellent handling of the situation. The company also paid to have the car cleaned. The baby got a special Uber-branded onesie

4. Cars can be no more than 10 years old.

And they must have at least four doors. “They do a personal inspection of the vehicle before you can drive,” Barrett says. “They check for exterior damage, cleanliness, wear and tear.” In some cities, the inspection is performed by a fellow Uber driver with a high rating who’s been deemed responsible enough to deserve the title of “Pro Driver.” 

“If someone signs up as a potential driver within the vicinity of your turned-on app, you'll get notified and be tasked with going to ‘vet the driver,’” Barrett says. “This means we take their picture, inspect their vehicle, snap pics of their insurance and driver’s license. We essentially serve as the middleman to corporate to ensure they're who they say they are after the background check passes. We're the final step as they also do a test drive with us to officially clear them for driving. It's a 30 minute or so process and we get $20 for our time in vetting the drivers.”

5. Some drivers rent their cars. And their phones.

For anyone who wants to be an Uber driver but doesn’t have a car that meets the requirements, there are options. A company called Breeze lets ride-share drivers rent a car for $195 a week, plus a $250 one-time membership fee. Uber also has a leasing program that connects drivers with partner dealerships. 

Drivers who don’t have an iPhone can rent one with basic coverage from Uber for $10 a week. 

6. The tip isn't “included.”

This is a big misconception about UberX, stoked by one of the company’s biggest selling points: customers get in, get to where they’re going, and get out without needing to exchange any cash with the driver. Instead, the app connects directly to a passenger’s bank account and charges them the for the ride. Drivers keep 80 percent of that fare and give 20 percent to Uber. That’s it. In fact, the company discourages UberX drivers from accepting tips on first offer, instructing them to take the money only if a passenger insists. Rand, a driver in Southern California, says maybe one in 10 passengers offer a tip.

"I cannot tell you how many times my passengers have told me, 'oh yeah, the tip is included in the fare,'" UberX driver Cole told CNET. "I have to kindly explain to them that it's not included and the fare is only calculated on time and distance."

Lyft, another ride-share company and one of Uber’s top competitors, has a built-in tipping system that drivers love. Barrett, like many Uber drivers, also drives for Lyft. He says 40 percent of the money he makes with Lyft comes from tips alone. “Seventy-five percent of my rides all leave tips,” he says.

More: 13 Secrets of Amazon Warehouse Employees

7. Many drivers prefer working for Lyft.

And not just because the company encourages tipping. “I can’t recall any communication [from Uber] that suggested, implied, or implicitly stated their appreciation for me as a driver,” writes Greg Muender. “This is the result of a culture that values ambition over anything else.”

Lyft is considered by many drivers to be less corporate, more communicative, and appreciative of their services. “The culture is goofy, fun, unique, and irreverent, just like a true bud,” Muender says. “You’re encouraged to be yourself and have fun.”

And trying to get in touch with a human at Uber can be difficult, even as a driver. “You get lost in the corporate hierarchy,” Barrett says. “I don’t even know who would fire me if I had a bad rating or I had an incident.” 

8. Drivers are probably giving you five stars ...

Uber utilizes a rating system as a way of encouraging good behavior on behalf of passengers and drivers. Both parties can rate one another on a five-star scale at the end of a ride. The drivers I spoke with said they almost always give customers five stars unless they’re obnoxiously drunk, late, or exceedingly rude. JC, an UberX driver in Texas, says he once gave a rider a low rating because of how they spoke to their mother, who was also in the car. “He was super disrespectful to his mom, and it was really unbecoming,” he says. “I might have given him like a two.” 

9. ... But your rating doesn’t really matter.

Uber veterans who pride themselves on their highly-coveted five-star rating may be a bit deflated to learn that really, your rating is mostly irrelevant. It doesn’t ensure better service or a faster pick-up time. In fact, most drivers don’t even look at your rating before accepting you as a passenger. “I’ll accept a ride that comes in regardless of rating,” JC says. That’s because drivers only have a few seconds to accept an incoming ride request before it gets passed along to the next closest Uber car, and most drivers would rather make a few bucks off of a rude passenger with three stars than make no money while holding out for a five-star rider. “I’m just in the habit of, when I get a request, that’s money in my pocket, so I click accept,” Barrett says. 

The Uber ride request alert, by the way, is reminiscent of an annoying fire alarm. “The request sound is a big loud ‘beep-beep,’” Rand says. “I’m always panicked when it comes up. It makes your blood run cold. The Lyft sound is a harp music and metronome.” 

10. But how you rate the drivers does matter.

If a driver’s average score drops below a 4.6, they could be “fired” (i.e. their account will be deactivated).

More: 10 Hotel Secrets From Behind the Front Desk

11. Drivers are also judged by their "acceptance rate."

Uber tells drivers that they should accept 80 percent of all the ride requests they receive, but "the closer to 100 percent the better." And while one of the biggest draws of Uber is that drivers get to set their own hours, they’re encouraged to drive as much as possible. “If you drive 50 hours a week you get 10 percent on top of what you made that week as a bonus,” Barrett says. Most are on the road for fewer than 15 hours a week, according to Uber data. 

12. They don’t know where you’re going

The Uber app lets passengers designate a destination, but drivers aren’t privy to this information until they pick someone up. This means it’s entirely possible a customer could have a destination that’s hours away. Earlier this year, one man took an Uber car from Scranton, Pa. to Buffalo, N.Y., a 6-hour, 278-mile trip. Granted, he alerted the Uber driver of his travel plans before getting in, and had already been turned down twice. The trip cost him $583.69. 

13. They’ve probably picked up a prostitute.

“Once I picked up what I’m pretty sure was an escort and took her to a client,” Rand says. “Apparently it’s a common thing for pimps to use Uber to send their women out.”

In 2011, a controversial data deep-dive from Uber’s data scientists found a correlation between neighborhoods with a higher number of prostitution crimes and an increase in Uber rides. “Areas of San Francisco with the most prostitution, alcohol, theft, and burglary also have the most Uber rides,” they wrote in a blog post. “Be safe, Uberites!” The post was deleted following some criticism, but seems to be back online now.

14. Celebs take Uber, too.

While working during the Coachella music and arts festival, Rand says he got a ride request from a man named Dre. “I said 'I’m looking for Dree?' And he said 'It’s Dre. Doctor Dre,'" Rand recalls. "I had heard the name but I didn’t know who it was. He wasn’t performing at Coachella but for a private party and the whole way out he asked for the audio cable to practice his set list. It took us a half hour of driving around to find the house because they couldn’t find directions.”

15. Drivers try to match the music to the passenger.

“I have a series of set stations to match the personality of each hotel,” Rand says. “Hipsters get hip music, the older crowd gets mellow music, the country club riders get oldies.”

More: 19 Secrets of UPS Drivers

16. They’re not just in it for the money.

The average hourly rate for UberX drivers across the country is about $7 higher than that of other taxi drivers and chauffeurs, according to Uber data. That comes out to about $20 an hour in Boston, $30 in New York. However, Uber dropped its rates by up to 30 percent in 16 cities last year, and drivers felt it. “It was really good pay when I first started,” says Rand, who first got behind the wheel for Uber in October 2013. He could make $15,000 driving part-time from January through May, but that number was reduced to $3000 after the price cut. Uber says most drivers (roughly 80 percent) had full- or part-time jobs before they started driving on the Uber platform, so they’re not joining out of desperation for cash. Instead, some of the biggest draws are the flexible hours and the opportunity to meet interesting characters. “It’s about the people now, not the money,” Rand says. 

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
Original image

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]