Speaker by Various Artists


I am a Really Useful Engine

by Rebecca Gray

A couple of weekends ago, we were getting ready to go try out the new section of Te Araroa tramping track between Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay. Very nice views, I recommend it, though probably not on a really windy day.

I went to look for a backpack and my partner said “don’t worry, all our things will fit into this pack that I’ll take”.  And I was like... “but, but IF I DON’T CARRY ANYTHING I WON’T BE USEFUL."

And it was mostly a joke, and we continued to make jokes about it (“you can put the poles in the pack if you like”; “NO I WILL CARRY THESE BECAUSE NOW I AM USEFUL”). But it was also a little bit not a joke. How dare I let someone else contribute more than me, when I could just as easily do my share?

We all have different comfort zones with this sort of thing, but some of us genuinely feel uncomfortable taking money for nothing, sitting around while someone else looks after us, or generally not appearing to work as hard as we could. This may be the sort of learned cultural hangup that my brothers blame on Presbyterianism. I blame Thomas the Tank Engine.

I was very keen on Thomas and Friends ever since pre-school age. My innocent memories of the Isle of Sodor and its benign dictator the Fat Controller were rudely questioned in recent years. Some critics have made a pretty valid observation that these stories conveyed unsubtle messages about gaining all your self-esteem via labour in a conservative, imperialist system. No seriously, do not read this article if you want your memories to stay untarnished. Buuut…

Our hero, Thomas, and his friends jockey for positions just below that of the bullying aristocrat Sir Topham Hatt but never seek to rise to his level. The stern, dour little Englishman in top hat and tails dangles meaningless honors like getting to "carry the most special special" to divide and conquer the trains...

The trains, complicit in maintaining this unjust system, humiliate each other for the small scraps of praise the little tyrant doles out rather than banding together (no unions on Sodor)...

once you have engaged in Thomas cultural criticism, there's no going back. It's nearly impossible to listen to lines like "being strong was only good if you were also really useful, and he had to be really useful" without hearing something sinister.

(Jessica Roake)

Oh man. Actually I’m pretty sure unions were represented in the stories, but it was only the trucks – who were plain looking and probably had less posh accents – who sometimes went on strike. They were portrayed as trouble-makers with bad attitudes.

I have been thinking a bit recently about what kind of “work” is valued differently, and why. Whole books can be written about the undervaluing of caring work or the persistent assumption that women will undertake “unpaid emotional labour”.

Then there’s the treatment of people who can’t work: if society sees receiving aid as a sign of weakness then they can be further disadvantaged. Sarah Wilson writes about this on her blog Writehanded

It’s this (beneficiary-bashing) rhetoric that makes me, and so many others, feel like ‘less-than’ for needing what we’re entitled to. It’s so ingrained in kiwi culture that, for me, it’s now internalised self-doubt, and sometimes even hate.

(Sarah Wilson)

This blog has drawn attention to just how frustrating and dispiriting it can be to deal with the welfare system while suffering from a chronic disease. Blogging looks like a voluntary activity, but Sarah is also a professional writer and what she is doing here looks very valuable: it may result in much-needed change. I hope she is getting some payment for her efforts.

I recently stumbled upon an advice column that expressed the trouble society seems to have with accepting that people who don’t earn money make valuable contributions, and indeed that people who are not able to do what looks like “work” are still valuable. A brief excerpt:

Sometimes, the thing that people Do, the thing that is their work in the world, is not something our culture (or our country) is willing to pay for.  Emotional labor and artistic work are two big examples of that, advocacy and activism are others. These are real and valid and utterly necessary kinds of work.

That’s true alongside the fact that not all humans have the same capacity for work, for various ability-related reasons, and our idea of what constitutes enough work for someone to avoid being tagged with “lazy” is predicated on this tremendously ableist model.

(S. Bear Bergman, via Bitch Media)

Our work in the world is not always something that we will be paid or widely recognised for. While volunteering recently, I met someone who has restructured her whole work life to concentrate on voluntary social support work.

What she is doing seems immensely valuable. It involves helping vulnerable people who might not otherwise get enough support. She wants to do it and is able to do it because her husband has a well-paid job. Due to circumstances (i.e. the need to pay bills), some people who are equally good and capable and motivated simply cannot make the choice to do such a good thing.   

Payment is clearly not the only way we gain value from what we do. As Thomas and his friends apparently thought, the sense of prestige and satisfaction attached to certain types of work means that we choose it without prioritising financial benefit.

I recall, when working in an embassy, editing speech notes for a diplomat who was going to talk at a university. He planned to say to the academics that their careers had something in common: they were a path that would not lead to high financial reward but brought great opportunities to contribute and engage with exciting ideas. Now, it’s fair to say that neither of these careers are terribly paid, but at the same time he wasn’t wrong to imply that people who are smart enough to get into diplomacy and academia could probably earn more in another sector.

I confess that I am still utterly mystified by the full rationale behind why certain types of work are paid more than others. This 2008 comic about payscales at American colleges recently resurfaced, and prompted some frustrated eye-rolling (spoiler: football coaches paid more than 10x what professors are paid).

My current musings are general but also self-interested. I’ve been doing various kinds of study-related talking and writing while preparing for my final PhD thesis exam.

In the meantime I’ve been searching for non-academic job options. My professional identity is thus switching awkwardly between "experienced research adviser, can pass for a real adult when talking to a bank manager" and "aspiring junior academic, will do anything for kudos/ attention/book vouchers". 

Dr Miya Tokumitsu has written about how exhortations to “do what you love” can lead to workers being exploited (think unpaid internships in socially desirable fields) while the majority of the less-educated workforce, who may not have a choice about whether they love their job, are disrespected. Tokumitsu observes that this issue is particularly prevalent in academia:

Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

(Miya Tokumitsu)

I think it’s fine if we do a bit of work for free. Most of us who want careers that involve coming up with new ideas do. If people only created while being paid, then independent voices would not be heard, start-ups wouldn’t start, and artists would not create enough to get to a point that people wanted to pay them. Our world would be a much more boring, much less progressive place. But it’s also totally fine if we have to sometimes make a call about spending our energy on the stuff that keeps us fed.

I wonder whether the deeper difficulty we face is with allowing ourselves to concentrate our efforts on things that other people might not see as “really useful” work. I picture a spectrum of social pressure around career work that on one end is all about the conventional, materialistic trappings of high-earning success, and on the other about being inspiring and exciting and the sort of person that others want to quote and create with (often with little money involved - this is more about recognition).

But in the middle there must be many people who will not be widely recognised in either financial or reputational ways. They may be contributing massively to the people around them, but most of us will never notice. They may be on the brink of figuring out something amazing, but in the interim their work doesn’t make much sense to anyone else.

It’s nice to be validated as “useful”, but we can spin ourselves into all sorts of angst by attaching our self-esteem to jobs. Thankfully we are not engines. We are so much more complex and more wonderful than that. It helps to recognise that we contribute and produce in many areas of our lives. When we find ourselves being lectured by the narrowly work-obsessed little Fat Controller in our head, we sometimes need to tell him to back the hell off. He doesn’t have the full picture.

Rebecca Gray is a PhD student at the University of Otago and blogs at Choose Your Story


Confessions of an Uber Driver II: How we doing?

by Ben Wilson

So you're back for another ride? Liked the service last time? Or maybe the price? Used your promo code to get $20 off your first ride and realized you could have gone all the way to the airport on it? Were pleasantly surprised to been offered a free bottle of water, a breath mint, the use of the cranking sound system via the aux cable? Were you shocked that the driver got to your house before you managed to get out the front door? That the end of the trip involved just getting out and walking away, while you pondered whether to tip the driver by giving them a 5-star rating? It all seems a bit too good to be true...so you ask the question I get asked every night: Are you guys doing OK out of this?

At this question, I usually pause, reflectively. The 5-star rating seeker in me, that customer service-oriented inner voice, screams caution. This might not be a question that the rider really wants an honest answer to. What they really want to hear is that somehow, magically, by the power of technology, that we're doing more than OK, we're doing famously. They really want to believe that I love everything about the job, and by proxy, that I love them. That this is that magic win-win promised by futuristic technology, that new economy that we all think must be just around the corner.

I'm pretty sure what they don't want to hear is a long-winded discussion of the economics of driving a taxi. It's an old, established and quite boring industry, and a discussion that many of us have had once before with a particularly animated and boring, probably racist, old taxi driver in a trip where we made the mistake of being bored and asking about his life. Surely Uber has nothing to do with that?

But unfortunately, I'm a really bad liar. So I give the best truth that I can manage: I don't know for sure. The reason is because it's complicated. When your business involves a fairly random process like picking up rides, and the prices are also fairly random due to surge pricing, and the competition for it, and your costs are things that take a long time to get a handle on, and the number of customers and competing drivers is in constant flux, the honest truth is that it's hard to be sure.

It was hard to be sure before I began the job, too. Uber staff never made any promises. They just said that the long run averages were $30/hour. Of course I asked "Before or after my costs?", to which they answered "Ummm. Before. You're responsible for your costs, they're all different, so we don't know those". They could guess at most of them, but they don't. There's probably quite a good reason for that. The story isn't one they'd want to be telling you.

I was hoping to make this a data driven post, full of the statistics I've been collecting, but unfortunately, that kind of thing takes time, and the many people sending us those numbers need to be given a bit more time to finish their work.

Us? Who is us? Well, it's pretty much the large group of drivers who are furious and ropeable about Uber deciding without consultation to just drop the prices. The number of different ways of expressing the concept of being anally violated that I've heard in the last 3 weeks surpasses all of my life beforehand. Mostly this is because English is not the mother tongue of most of those expressing the sentiment, so it gets that strange flavour of something you know is an expression in another language, mangled in translation into something even more lurid.

Yes, the vast bulk of drivers who have anything to say about it at all, have nothing good to say about it. They feel as the local dairy owner might if their supplier came in and said that they were going to put all of the prices in the shop down by 20%, but weren't going to charge any less for the goods to you. You just have to suck up a much lower margin, because obviously demand will rise to fill the gap. Oh, and at the same time, we're also opening about 300 new dairies, in unzoned residential areas, to help meet all that demand. They tell you this as they walk around your shop putting your prices down.

So, since I can't fill you with data goodness just yet, I'll just give you my n=1 data, which is all that most of us have, since we've never been organized as a group before. My own long run average hourly rate for working pretty much only the dodgiest busiest hours on offer has been $27 paid out before costs. Taking off 15% GST, 5% for my PSL, 20% for the cost of gas and maintenance, we're down to $17.56/hour before any fixed costs.

Then there's compliance costs, insurance and depreciation costs on top of all that. I can't even break those down to an hour rate at this point, but my best guess is coming to an hourly rate of around $14 before tax. I have a particularly cheap car, so my insurance and depreciation costs are much less than would be normal. I would be surprised if anyone leasing a newish vehicle was getting much more than $10/hour before tax.

At this point, if I've been pressed, there's often a slight gagging noise into the free water that I forgot to put in there as a cost. This doesn't sound like the space-age miracle that somehow turned a well paid job (taxi driving used to be considered well-paid) into really well paid job. Quite the opposite, it sounds like a space-age miracle that has somehow turned a well paid job into a poorly paid one with much better service.

The cynical will usually leave it at that. It's a believable story - why should taxis not be exploited? Surely that tallies with noticing that 99% of them are driven by people who are clearly immigrants, often with poor English? Aren't they always exploited? But there's the strange anomaly of being driven by a guy who is clearly well educated and local. What's that about?

When pressed as to why it is that I'm not earning 10 times as much money doing something else, the answer is actually much less difficult. It's because I value the ability to pick the time that I work very highly, and Uber gives a flexibility around that like nothing else I've ever done. I'm a really busy guy, I just don't have time for part time jobs that would demand shift hours from me. I can't fit that in with my other commitments at the moment. It's a short term thing, probably. And as I explained in my last post, it's actually pretty enjoyable work, for me.

This is only tenable for someone who already has money, as I do, and whose partner has a job. For the other guys, that 95-99%, it's not tenable. They are making below minimum wage, and all the flexibility to pick their hours gives them is the ability to pick far more hours than people really should be working in a job operating a dangerous machine. They don't complain to customers because the rating system means that they literally risk their only job by complaining.

So, I think I'll go with my favorite tactic recently, in answer to your question. "How am I doing? A lot better since you got in! How are you doing? Do you mind DJing? I'm a bit over my playlist".


A simple strategy for Trump to win the Presidency

by Kirk Serpes

As things stand right now, Trump would lose hands down by a landslide to Hillary, mostly likely taking the Republican Party with him.  People hate Hillary but they hate him a lot lot more.  Not just white-American liberals, a lot of conservatives, libertarians, and of course every single minority group – or as he would call them “the blacks and the Hispanics”.

Basically he can’t beat her in fair fight in the existing electoral battlefield.  To win he’ll need to take a page out of Sun Tzu and get Hillary to take him on in his terms.  After about a few minutes thinking I scared myself a bit by how easy that would be to do.

First is taking away Hillary's biggest asset, the grassroots army of the Democracts.  Without them she cannot win. I learned this firsthand in 2012 when I volunteered in North Carolina.  Not only was the actual act of enrolling and voting difficult, so were the people. Apathy was rife and you had to go out there day after day and annoy people to vote, even though it was immensely in their interests to vote.

The Obama campaign had something like two million volunteers, and an intentionally undisclosed number of paid staff - many of whom worked pretty much 12-hour days every single day of the week for months on end, all so they could get their people who support them to actually vote for them.

Naturally, motivation is an issue, even with a largely poplar, inspiring and charismatic candidate like Obama.  Even small changes in enthusiam towards your candidate (or party) can add up over time to mean less volunteers recruited, less doors knocked, less phone calls made and ultimately less voters at the polls.

Hillary's biggest weakness is her relationship with her party base, and conversely that’s Trump’s strength.  Her unfavourability rating would be the highest in history if not for Trump. Conventional wisdom in the US elections is that both sides tack to their base (left and right) in the Primaries, but to the middle in the General. Trump isn’t going to do that.  First because he’s physically incapable of not being an asshole, and second because it’s good strategy.

With two highly unpopular candidates the middle is not really in play this time around.  The swing voters who generally don’t like or pay attention to politics are going to like it even less with two crappy choices, and most won’t show up on election day, and neither will a lot of people who are highly politically engaged but also hate their choices. Which, let’s be honest, is always going to hurt Democrats more than Republicans – but even more so now.

To win, both sides will have to rally their respective bases and make sure they actually turn out and vote. And guess whose base is more vulnerable?  Hillary could make one of history’s greatest strategic mistakes by tacking to the right after she wins the nomination.  The Democratic base would have their worst fears about her confirmed and while some might still volunteer and vote, Democratic turnout would be much much lower than it needs to be.

I hope she’s not stupid enough to do that, but even if she isn’t, Trump could actually provoke her to do so – and he’s very very good at getting people to talk about his agenda, helped in no small part by a news media that chases clicks over common sense.

We’ve seen it before, with Obama’s birth certificate.  He relentlessly repeated the message that Obama was actually Kenyan and the media took the bait.  I imagine that somewhere in some polls the powers that be in the Democratic party started noticing the issue come up more and more with voters, so in an attempt to defuse the situation they simply released Obama’s Birth Certificate, thereby neutralising that issue.  Great it worked that time.  But it’s not always that simple.  

It wouldn’t take a lot for Trump to simply lie and make up some ridiculous claim about Muslims or Mexicans that would leave Democrats with a difficult choice: appear “tough” on some minority group or ignore him.  And as we’ve seen before both in the US and in Australia, left wing leaders would rather send refugees to concentration camps than appear “weak”.

One well placed claim about Clinton being weak on “terror” with a dash of media repeating his lines verbatim for a few weeks and you have a swing in a few key demographics in Florida or some other swing state and the next thing you know Hillary lurches to the right to try and get back those “moderate” voters.  Of course the more she jumps to his agenda the more she’ll lose the support of the Democratic base and live up to the untrustworthy label that the rest of the country and the world already sees her as.

His strength is that he “says what he means” of course, so it essentially in one move both sets the narrative of the election and demoralises his opponents base.  And before you know it we’re all going to be driving around in packs of cars hunting for guzzoline in the wasteland that is planet Earth after he starts a nuclear war with China over a parking ticket.

To win, Hillary will basically need to learn how to not take the bait and not be drawn into battles she cannot win.  She will have to show consistency so that her base trusts her.  And she’ll need to show her real toughness to the rest of the country by using humour and wit to emasculate him in front of his supporters.  It might actually make sense for her with the support of the rest of the party to refuse to debate him at all.  The fact that he’s on the same stage would make them look like equals, which is the last thing anyone needs right now.

She does have a lot of cards up her sleeve if she wishes to use them though.  The first being her pick for VP.  That’s a chance to bring someone on board who can balance her weaknesses and hit Trump where it hurts, his fragile ego.  And then she also has a really fantastic team behind her, of Obama, Bill, Warren and even Sanders.  Together they have the potential to wipe the floor with this clown, and also win back a lot of seats in the House and Senate (see my previous post).  All they have to do is not fuck up.


Talking past each other: Ideological silos and research

by Rebecca Gray

Last week I went to two evening launch events that had some subject matter in common. 

The New Zealand Initiative hosted a panel debate relating to its new report, The Health of the State, which sets out to examine the evidence for “lifestyle regulations”. The panel featured report author Jenesa Jeram, Treasury Chief Economist Dr Girol Karacaoglu, Maori Party Co-leader Marama Fox, and former ACT party leader Jamie Whyte.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for an industry-sponsored think-tank with a libertarian bent, the New Zealand Initiative’s report comes to the conclusion that taxes and restrictions on products that cause health problems (sugar being an example) are a bad idea or not justified by a strong enough evidence base.

The following evening, Unity Books hosted a launch for Dr Robyn Toomath’s new book, Fat Science.  Perhaps unsurprisingly for an endocrinologist, diabetes specialist and longtime advocate for action to stem New Zealand’s increasing obesity rate, Dr Toomath comes to the conclusion that a lot of the factors leading to obesity are genetic. The modifiable factor, in her view, is that the current environment promotes obesity so it is very hard now for those predisposed to it to avoid weight gain and related problems, and therefore there should be changes to the physical and market environment.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the findings (or about the implicit assumption that being fat = a problem. I totally agree that shaming people for being overweight is awful and counterproductive - but I don’t think that was happening in either of these cases). The thing I am interested in is the framing: both sets of authors and publishers talk about choice and personal responsibility, but go off in completely opposite directions. They both talk about economic theories about choice and market regulations, but come to different conclusions.

Robyn Toomath says that “making weight an issue of personal responsibility is not only ineffective but harmful to overweight people and has allowed industry to get off the hook”. The New Zealand Initiative are of the view that any “paternalistic” regulations or “policies to protect people from themselves” should be questioned as threats to liberty. The foreword states: “until recently the assumption still remained that in principle, at least, consumers should be free to choose for themselves. This general principle now seems under threat by increasing attempts to regulate lifestyle choices”.

The threat, according to the New Zealand Initiative, is the government intervening too much (spurred on by pesky “interventionist” public health lobbyists using dubious science to justify their claims?). The threat, according to Robyn Toomath, is the rampant marketing of unhealthy products which the government is doing far too little about (held back by their ties to business-funded lobby groups?). These two are never going to agree. I know whose analysis I have more faith in. But I think it is worth considering both points of view.

I haven’t seen a huge amount of reaction to Robyn Toomath’s book yet, apart from some Radio NZ interviews and an opinion piece by National Party pollster David Farrar disagreeing and saying that personal choice was the point. But the reaction to the New Zealand Initiative report was quite predictable.

They got support from people like alleged Dirty Politics proponent Carrick Graham and pro-smoking/ anti-regulation writer Christopher Snowdon. Meanwhile Radio NZ presented the report’s claims within an article showing both sides of the debate, and attracted a bunch of comments along the lines of “of course they’d say that, they are a corporate lobby group, why are you even giving them airtime”.

This was the general vibe among left more left-wing politicians such as Green Party health spokesperson Kevin Hague too. Some commentators did address the report’s assertions as well as the organisation’s assumed inherent bias: Geoff Simmons from the Morgan Foundation promptly provided a succinct rebuttal of the main claims

There was not a lot of overlap in terms of the attendees at both events, which I thought was a bit of a shame. The sad thing, I think, is that people on each side of these kinds of debates are so ideologically opposed to each other that they can’t respect each other as people let alone as intellectuals.

Maybe that’s why I believe that the person whose ideals I relate to did a better job of presenting the relevant evidence? My tribal bias kicking in? I hope not, but I’m sure my experience at each launch event influenced my willingness to engage with the writing.

The New Zealand Initiative event certainly achieved the stated aim of provoking debate. I was appalled by pretty much everything Jamie Whyte said (possibly more appalled by the smug, “Richard Dawkins minus the science”, way he said it). I found the debate interesting but trending towards a debating club-style “let’s make clever arguments” vibe rather than addressing the actual health issues.

Some hostile undercurrents seemed to come through whenever a libertarian-aligned audience member addressed Marama Fox and her efforts to use personal reflection from her community to explain her position on health policies.

Robyn Toomath’s impassioned concern and Andrew Dickson’s personal and professional endorsement of her work the following evening came across as more genuine - but then, I was more relaxed at that event, standing in my favourite book shop surrounded by friends and colleagues.

The New Zealand Initiative ran their report by a number of academics and industry people before finalising it, but none that I could see were public health specialists - and certainly none of the 70 professors who recently called for a sugary drinks tax  were consulted. But I wonder whether those professors would even have agreed to be involved if they were asked?

The New Zealand Initiative do state that they are keen to talk to anyone who wants to discuss their findings, and to develop more networks in new (for them) topic areas such as health. I applaud this aim, but I wonder whether they will be able to overcome the suspicion of their motives that many experts and commentators outside their network hold.

I don’t think that anyone who produces research for a business-aligned organisation goes to work rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of sacrificing the proletariat’s well-being on the altar of big business. Neither do I believe that the “interventionists” among the public health workforce live for opportunities to impose their puritan morals onto the populace by curtailing their choices.

It’s a shame when we reduce each other to caricatures. Those of us on the public health side risk falling into self-parody if we keep blaming everything on “neoliberalism and corporate cronyism!!" just as those on the other side may fall into self-parody by overusing complaints about “nanny state” and “political correctness gone mad!!”. We do usually have a bit of common ground, but we're not going to find it by standing on opposite sides of an ideological divide throwing buzzwords at each other.

Rebecca Gray blogs at Choose Your Story.


Confessions of an Uber driver

by Ben Wilson

My first confession is that I'm an Uber driver. Actually, it's my only confession. It's been 65 days since my first Uber passenger.

It's a confession that has to be made, mostly because it surprises anyone who knows more than nothing about me. I'm not your typical Uber driver. Uber passengers point this out to me, pretty much every ride. I've heard every euphemism for "middle aged white man", and also for "not a middle aged white man", you can imagine as passengers struggle to convey their surprise that I'm ... "normal".

Their bafflement only increases as it becomes plain that I'm intelligent and educated and not broke, and don't have any (obvious) unusual personality quirks or physical attributes that would make other employment difficult. There's typically an "aha" moment when I divulge that I'm a student, although the bafflement tends to return once it gets down to what I'm a student of, and what I did before I was a student.

It's been a very strange part of the job to be finally doing something where practically every person I come across is interested in what it involves. Even more strange to be intensely grilled about my life as if I was the most fascinating person on the planet. It's through the rabbit hole to then get a 5 star rating and a nice comment about how much they enjoyed the experience.

So what's being an Uber driver like? I can honestly say, no joke, that it's most fun job I've ever done. Basically, I spend hours in conversation with people from all walks of life, listening to music, finding out what's going on and where, hearing about their careers or lives or whatever it is they want to talk about. Then I get paid for it.

Oh, and I drive people to where they want to go, for a very reasonable price, in a timely manner, safely and comfortably. That's the most basic part of it, the fundamental function, of course – but you knew that. That's the bit that I can't stuff up, the bit I absolutely have to get right. That's the bare minimum. That's the part that's so automatic, I kind of forget to mention it.

I've never been in a position to steer conversations so much as I get every night in my car. Oh, sorry, minor detail – I drive mostly at night, particularly the busiest nights, Friday and Saturday. Let me steer you guys now, to where this ride is meant to go. This, strangely, is not the first Uber ride where I've been the one to pick the destination, as the driver. Not even the first one this week.

So how about these massive price drops that happened on the other day? In case you didn't know, Uber made a whole bunch of changes in Auckland and Wellington last Thursday, all announced simultaneously. As drivers we found out no sooner than our riders, that as of ... that instant ... all Uber rides were now 20% cheaper than the day before.

Yes, I found out about my 20% pay cut only hours before it came into effect. Some of my fellow drivers found out about it in the middle of their shift. They suddenly discovered that the smallest possible ride they could give was now for $4, before costs, where earlier in the shift it had been $4.80.

These rates are being trialled. It's only for a month and, simultaneously, they brought in something I found interesting: 'Guaranteed' Hourly Rates. Auckland-only.

Also brought in simultaneously was an announcement that they had lowered the standards for driver entry. This is not just for Christchurch, where they had already done that. This is in Auckland and Wellington too, where up until yesterday, drivers had basically the exact same compliance standards and costs as taxi drivers, with only one exception: Uber runs the meter.

This was always of dubious legality in this country, but no one has yet been successfully prosecuted. This is hardly that unfair, since the meter Uber does run is a very fair and extremely competitive one, which is also back-checked against the meter held by the customer in their own pocket. It's pretty clear to anyone but the most petty bureaucrat that, as a metering system, it's a good one, and the law just hasn't kept up.

Furthermore, it's an opt-in system. You had to call the Uber to you using the app. You had to agree to the terms and conditions to even install it. In every fair sense, there is an agreement between the customer and the provider about what the fare structure will be, which is all that is technically required for a Private Hire Service.

In the letter of the law, however, this kind of service is meant to agree to a fixed price beforehand, or an hourly rate. Metering the kilometres traveled is not allowed. Only taxis may do that. The definition of a taxi is very strict.

How do I know all these rules? Therein lies what I really wanted to bring to your attention. To become an Uber driver, I had to get a P endorsement. It's not a particularly difficult thing to get, I just had to pass a course, have held a full NZ drivers license for two years, pass the practical driving test again and pass a full police check which involved scrutiny of my driving record. (Both here and overseas - I had to get all my records from my time in Australia 16 years ago, both from VicRoads and from the Federal Police. It took a few months, and cost about a thousand dollars, $400 of which were reimbursed by Uber.)

The course itself was a two-day affair, and naturally very simple. I had to learn what the law was for passenger drivers. All of the laws, including laws that don't cover my situation. I had to learn the laws of shuttle buses, and tour buses and school buses, and dial-a-driver services, and taxis, as well as Private Hire Services involving Small Passenger Vehicles, which is what Uber does here. The most complex of these by far is taxis. A great deal of the course was about what they are and are not allowed to do.

Quite a bit of the course was also dedicated to the simple issue of customer service and rights, particularly the rights of the disabled, and how they should be dealt with. Also, a lot about how to fill out log books and all the dangers associated with tired driving, and a whole lot of very stern (and righteous) warnings about the severity of the punishments you can face by not complying with log book laws and other compliance matters.

As of yesterday, drivers for Uber are no longer being required to get a P endorsement. I'm curious what you guys all think about that.

Uber drivers, from now on, could turn up without the proper license that the law says they must have, in a vehicle that also does not have the certification that the law says it must have. It will be enough to have a WOF, where I had to get a COF for my car. They no longer need to drive under a Transport Service License (TSL). They will not need commercial insurance. They will not need to keep a log of their driving hours.

Well, so says Uber – although obviously NZTA and the police beg to differ. Their position is that they will fine the hell out of people doing all that, anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 for the first offense. I'm really quite nervous about what tonight is going to be like, despite being as 100% compliant as it was possible to be yesterday.

For interest, a COF was really easy to get for my car, because it's a sedan - I only had to make one alteration, disabling the kiddie locks (or I could optionally have put a red sticker on the door saying it had a working kiddie lock). I glued them up, proved to LTNZ that I had a proper TSL that I was working under, and they gave me a COF, and I began work that day. Modifications to non-sedan shapes are bit more onerous. Vehicles like Priuses (which are most of the Uber fleet) have to have a proper certified luggage barrier to prevent luggage killing passengers in the event of an accident. Seven-seater vans need to essentially have the sliding door seat removed to make the entry way clear enough that passengers can be got out easily in the event of an accident.

As of yesterday, no such assurances will be necessarily made about a vehicle you book with Uber. You will have to check for yourself, if you are worried. Hint: It's called a Certificate of Fitness, not a Warrant of Fitness. If it has one of those, it's functionally the same as a taxi. If it doesn't, all bets are off.

The pay cut, I have no real objection to. Not yet anyway. It's a suck-it-and-see moment. Maybe the rising demand will cover the 20% less earnings per trip. I'll be working 20% more, but since I enjoy the work, I'm not expecting that to be that much more terrible. Although this nagging back pain that's reared its ugly head might temper that some, if I pretty much won't be able to spend as much time outside of the vehicle as I used to.

But these safety related cuts ...? Guys? Just to get drivers on the road faster, we're now going to be breaking the safety laws? Because the neverending stream of people signing up for Uber at the office every time I go there just isn't enough? Or is it the cost of reimbursing them for the course?

The changes are naturally, welcomed by most riders. The Herald responded fairly positively, although the reporter also noted that the Government has undertaken a sweeping review, and reports the proposed changes, but unfortunately only mentions the things that are already the law. The actual changes remove some of the lesser requirements.

Unfortunately, there's a bit of a disconnect between Uber's policy and all of this. Ridesharing is specifically mentioned in this Ministry of Transport Q&A, and it specifically says that the service must pass all the same compliance as any other Small Passenger Service. In other words, drivers will still need P Endorsements, COFs, an organisation that is their employer, etc.

These changes, of course, have not yet come into effect. Probably in 2017. So right now, the law is still as it was. It's still illegal to drive someone “for hire or reward” without having a P Endorsement in this country. All Uber drivers, up until Thursday, had one of those. I have one.

I'm going to cut this ride off here. You can have another one if you like, there's plenty more to say about this strange phenomenon known as Uber, and no time to say it. Please leave a comment! I want to know what the hive mind thinks about this, so I won't mediate with my own opinion on it – you have some of the facts now.

It's my intention to make this the first of a series of posts on the topic of Ubering, should enough interest be generated. Future possible topics: uberASSIST. Surge Pricing. How much we get paid. Tricks and traps. Best ride anecdotes. The future. The perfect playlist. Taxi Wars. Is it safe? The rating system.

Cheers guys. Have a mint. Please, don't chunder in here. 5 stars are given out liberally.