The right to forget, or, that one terrible road stop

I predict that soon the conversation will turn from the right to be forgotten to the right to forget.

Why so? Well, now Google Maps now tries to remember places I’ve been and include them in the maps it shows me. The trouble with this (ignoring any petty privacy, commercialisation, misc concerns you may be about to mention to me) is that there are some places that should be forgotten. In particular, all of Western Sydney’s commerce is now represented to me by one service station that we stopped at on a family trip because someone needed to use the loo, but couldn’t, because its loo was splattered with largely unspecified bodily fluids.

Get it together Google! This is even worse than the way my Youtube suggestions are now and forever filled with Thomas the Tank Engine videos because of an unfortunate and lengthy phase my son went through. I insist on not navigating Sydney in future primarily in terms of which horrible public toilet I am nearest.

 

Product review updates: Shoeboxed & GoGet

I had some success in 2012 at subscribing to things that made my life a bit easier to organise, so, a couple of updated reviews.

Shoeboxed (original review)

Update February 2017: this service is now known as Squirrel Street, and their smallest monthly pricing is significantly higher than it was in 2013. However much of the review still applies.

Original 2013 update:

What: a service where you package up a bundle of papers to be scanned, and they scan them, do some basic data entry (vendor, date, total amount, total GST) and store them on their website for you.

Current impressions: it’s still a pretty good fit for our needs: whenever a piece of paper enters our house that we have any belief we may need to access for paperwork purposes, we ship it off to them for scanning, data entry and shredding. The big test was doing our 2011/2012 taxes, and it was great to just enter a search term and have the document we needed show up among the top hits. We’ll keep using it for the foreseeable future. We don’t even really need the numerical amounts entered, since we don’t do personal bookkeeping at anything like that level.

I’ve also started forwarding them PDF receipts I get in the mail, and those work well: the PDF is pulled out and added to the data entry queue the vast bulk of the time. They’re much less good with HTML/text email receipts; it’s a harder problem though.

The major downside that has emerged is the length of time the processing takes, at least on the entry-level plan that we are on. It takes about two weeks from popping the envelope into the mail to the scans being available, and the delay is the scanning itself, not the data entry, so we can’t even access the raw images during this period. (There’s two ways to tell: one is that data entry for documents we upload in electronic form is usually complete within hours, the other is that the scans eventually show up in our “uploaded documents” queue waiting for their own data entry, and that happens about 24 hours before we get the “envelope processing now complete!” email.)

This is slower than the pricing plan states. It is mostly annoying for my business receipts: I do do double-entry bookkeeping for those, and in order to stay on top of things I like to do bank reconciliations sooner than 2 to 3 weeks after spending the money. I expect though that most businesses would subscribe to one of the higher volume plans (ours is 50 scans a month) which also have faster turnaround times.

GoGet car sharing (original review)

This has been a great replacement for car ownership, for us. Neither of us commutes by car (it would be a thoroughly silly way to pay for a regular commute), and we don’t even use cars every single weekend. But we do travel a lot to places where it is either essential or nice to have a car for the weekend, and make shorter trips to places that are a pain to wrangle a young child, associated supplies, and ourselves to on public transport (eg, Sydney’s beaches).

It’s also nice to have access to the vans. I’ve only done amateur furniture removal once this way, but they’re nice and roomy (we got two couches and a double mattress into one trip) without being as difficult to drive as the trucks one gets from rental companies. Also potentially much cheaper for small things, to be hiring by the hour!

For whatever reason, the contention for them has not been as bad since around about April. We can almost always get our first or second choice of car with as little as an hours’ notice. This is excepting the local iMax (8-seater) which you have to book up to 6 weeks in advance, but we very rarely need an 8-seater, luckily. We also regularly are later than we planned to be, and only once have I had to hurry back because someone else had booked the car for the next hour: every single other time we’ve been able to extend the booking into the free next hour. Several more cars have been added to the neighbourhood since around then.

We’re getting used to the child car-seat issue. It helps a lot that one of the nearby cars now has a car seat in it. We still often have to fit or re-fit the seat; I now believe the commonly cited statistic that around about 70% of self-fittings are incorrect. Ours definitely aren’t as tight as a professional fit sadly, but at least unlike everyone else we don’t have the back of the child’s belts wrapped around the adult belt that holds the seat itself. However, fitting a seat is a lot less onerous than carrying a seat to the car (while persuading a toddler to walk with us) and then fitting it! It will be good to have him in a booster though.

It’s not especially cheap: our monthly spend is somewhere between $200 and $500 (the high end in months like December and January, with multiple visits to different family in different cities). And we’re definitely using cars more often than we would if we had to sort out an entire car hire from scratch from a daily company every single time.

If there was one feature I really wish they’d add, it would be the ability to conditionally cancel a booking. The present situation is this: if you cancel with 48 hours before the start of the booking, it’s cancelled and you do not pay anything and the car is available for someone else to re-book. After that, you simply cannot cancel (not even any portion of your booking that is more than 48 hours in the future). What I’d like is the ability to do something like cancel at any time, thereby having the car available for booking by someone else, and, if there was less than 48 hours’ notice, incur the difference between my original hourly fee and any hourly fees they were able to get from any new bookings for that car. Then they have the same situation as now with regard to not losing my booking fee, but the neighbourhood is not locked out of the unused car for the duration of my abandoned booking. We felt this keenly when we had to walk away from our entire Easter weekend trip at the last minute due to acute illness.

We don’t intend to purchase a car again any time soon.

Book Week: Looking For Alibrandi

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

This is part of Tansy Rayner Roberts’s Blog Book Week challenge, about favourite childhood reading, how we read these books, and why we remember them.

I haven’t forgotten that I promised to do Ruth Park’s My Sister Sif and I still intend to, but while I’m tracking it down for a re-read, I’ve another Sydney novel in the interim: Melina Marchetta’s Looking For Alibrandi.

Spoilers for Looking For Alibrandi abound!

Warning: self-harm is a plot element in this novel, and it’s discussed in this entry.

Background/plot summary: Looking For Alibrandi is a 1992 young adult book by Australian author Melina Marchetta. Seventeen year old Josephine Alibrandi is in her final year of a expensive private Catholic high school, preparing for the HSC (the Higher School Certificate, which is the statewide final school exams in NSW). She is a scholarship student, the daughter of Christina Alibrandi, a single mother who had a child at sixteen and was exiled from her Italian-Australian family until her father died, in the recent past from the novel’s point of view.

Christina insists that Josie has a relationship with Christina’s mother, Josie’s Nonna Katia, but Christina’s own relationship with Katia is strained due to their long estrangement and Katia’s coolness to her throughout her childhood. At the beginning of the novel Josie is more concerned with school problems in any case: her quartet of outsider friends fight for recognition in their upper class Anglo-dominated school. Josie is school vice-captain to her mortal enemy, perfect blond Ivy, daughter of a wealthy surgeon, as captain.

But Josie’s home life suddenly undergoes another change. Josie’s father, Michael Andretti — son of Christina’s childhood next door neighbours, now a barrister — moves back to Sydney for a year to be welcomed briefly into unknowing Katia’s home as one of the family. Josie confronts him and they agree to have no contact, only to ring him from school frantically to extricate herself from a legal threat by a classmate’s father. After this they have an initially uneasy but gradually warmer relationship. In the meantime, Katia begins telling Josie stories of her immigration to Australia and her married life in rural Queensland in total social isolation, until the arrival of her sister from Sicily. Josie begins to see Katia as more of a person and less of an oppressively tradition-bound stereotypical grandmother.

Events at school also demonstrate to Josie that she’s not as much of a complete outsider as she thought, including a revelation by the principal after some irresponsibility towards younger students on Josie’s part that she was in fact voted school captain at the beginning of the year but that it was awarded to Ivy, who the principal felt was more responsible. While at the beginning of the novel Josie wants nothing more than a relationship with John Barton, her solidly upper-class debating friend, she ends up with Jacob Coote, captain of a nearby public school, as a boyfriend, and has to navigate being middle class to his working class.

It eventually becomes clear to Josie as Katia’s stories of her past continue that Katia’s Anglo-Australian friend Marcus Sandford was in love with her, and eventually Katia slips up and Josie works out her grandmother’s secret: Marcus and Katia were lovers and Marcus was in fact Christina’s biological father, which accounted both for Christina’s father’s loathing of her and of his swift condemnation of her when she became pregnant as a teenager.

Josie very briefly reaches a feeling of peace with herself and her story before her tranquillity is suddenly destroyed again: her friend John Barton commits suicide the night before the HSC exams begin, and she is told this by Ivy, who was even closer to John, crying out the front of the school. In the aftermath of this Jacob Coote breaks up with Josie, not sure what he wants from his future himself in the wake of knowing Josie’s relative class privilege and John’s death in spite of his class privilege. The novel ends with Josie about to find out her university entrance ranking, still relatively at peace with herself, but less sure of her place in the world and her ambitions.


Photograph of Martin Place in Sydney, looking west
Martin Place by Alpha, CC BY-SA

I think I read Looking For Alibrandi a couple of years after it was published: definitely when I was in high school. I recall it being a book that you had to wait some time for at the school library. (It gets assigned as an English text now, but I never read it in that context.) It has crushes and alcohol and uneasy relationships with friends and a pretty intent focus on high school academic achievement, all of which were pretty familiar to me, even if the rich competitive Sydney folk weren’t so much. (At some point John Barton despairs over his poor ranking in a mathematics competition compared to Sydney Grammar, a reference I understood better when I knew former Maths Olympians from Grammar while at uni!)

Again, it’s very evocative of Sydney: I in fact live now pretty close to where Christina and Josie lived in Sydney. There’s a speech day in Martin Place, truanting at the Sebel and a few other landmarks although it’s not quite as firmly inner west as Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son (the latter of which is about twentysomethings, and with which I identify even more closely as someone who went to Sydney Uni).

To be honest, as a result of this book I even have a sneaking fascination with Stanmore Maccas, where Josie gets a part-time job briefly, and I felt rather betrayed when the movie version changed it to Oporto!

John Barton’s death was “that bit” in the book, as in “have you got to that bit yet? Oh, you’ll know what I mean when you get to it.” It was my main frame of reference in the aftermath of the actual suicide of someone I knew at school, while of course not fitting exactly.


Again with the fanon style questions: this is the twentieth anniversary of Looking For Alibrandi‘s publication. If we took 1992 as the year Josie was seventeen, she is now thirty-seven. Did she end up doing a law degree like her father, but which she had begun to doubt she was as interested in as she’d thought? Did Christina and Michael reunite, as the novel implies they are considering? Did Josie and Ivy end up with an unexpected friendship, as they are stumbling towards? Did Josie, who would have won Least Likely To Leave Well Enough Alone if Australian schools did yearbooks, attempt to track down Marcus Sandford?

I don’t have as strong a fanon in my head for this as for Playing Beatie Bow but if I had to guess, Josie did Arts/Law and dropped out after the Arts component (quite a lot of people in combined law degrees do this). I have no idea what she’d do instead though. I think there’s too much hurt between Christina and Michael to reunite, although probably Josie and Katia both pushed strongly for it. I don’t know what to make of Josie and Ivy! And I would put money on Josie telling herself that she doesn’t mean anything by nosing around in the S section of the phonebook and so on, and of course meaning something by it, finding out that, as always, people’s lives aren’t as simple as she thought.

Book Week: Playing Beatie Bow

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

This is part of Tansy Rayner Roberts’s Blog Book Week challenge, about favourite childhood reading, how we read these books, and why we remember them.

I’m going to write about two Ruth Park books this week, Playing Beatie Bow and My Sister Sif.

Spoilers for Playing Beatie Bow ahoy!

Background/plot summary: Playing Beatie Bow is a 1980 older children’s book by New Zealand/Australian author Ruth Park. In it, fourteen year old Abigail sees a strange young girl (thin, wearing odd clothes, “furry” shorn head) watching her babysitting charges play, especially when they play “Beatie Bow”, a ghost game. One day she gives chase to the girl and finds herself in Sydney in the same area, only in 1873. She quickly incurs a head injury after being knocked down in the street by Samuel Bow, a war veteran who himself has a brain injury and “takes spells” (flashbacks) as a result. It emerges that the strange girl is his daughter, Beatie, who had found herself several times in the twentieth century watching a game featuring her own ghost.

Photograph of a street in The Rocks, Sydney, circa 1900
The Rocks, circa 1900, State Records NSW, CC BY

While both parties hide their knowledge from each other for a while, the Bow and Tallisker (Beatie’s mother’s name) families who share a house in the Rocks know that Abigail is from a different time and will not help her return to the twentieth century. It emerges that some of the women in their family have a psychic Gift as a result of their Orkney heritage, and that every fifth generation it is imperiled, with a prophecy that of the adults in that generation, one is to be barren and one to die, risking there not being another generation. When this happens, the family is visited across time by The Stranger, in this case Abigail, who is destined to save enough of them to continue the Gift. The family has recently had scarlet fever and only a few members of the fifth generation survive: Beatie; her older brother Jonah; and her younger brother, Gilbert, yet to recover his health after the fever; and their cousin Dorcas (“Dovey”). Abigail is initially desperate to return home, but falls in love with Jonah, a sailor, when he has shore leave, and is more conflicted, especially since Jonah is betrothed to Dovey.

Eventually Samuel Bow causes a house fire, from which Abigail saves Dovey and Gilbert. She returns to the twentieth century that same day, under the care of Beatie, still cross with Abigail for pursuing Jonah. Shortly after returning she researches the family history in the newspapers, which suggests that Jonah probably died at sea shortly after she left. She then has a vision which shows that Beatie became a scholar, and that Jonah married Dovey but indeed died young at sea. She tries and fails to warn the family across time. Abigail is overwhelmed with grief that she cannot speak of.

Before long her own parents reunite after years of separation and move with her to Norway. In the final pages of the novel, she returns to Sydney five years later to discover by chance that the Crowns, her former babysitting charges, are descendants of Gilbert Bow through their mother, and (it is heavily implied) Abigail begins a relationship with their uncle Robert Bow after the novel ends. She realises that instead of her role as The Stranger being to save Dovey from the fire for Jonah as the family had believed, it was to save Gilbert.


I think I received Playing Beatie Bow as a gift from a book-loving relative. I wasn’t born when it was written, and probably read it in about 1992 or a bit later, when I was slightly younger than Abigail is for most of the novel. I remember finding the twentieth century portions rather strange for a while: this relative was in the habit of giving me high quality very recent books, and I didn’t realise for a while that the book was more than a decade old and the portrayals of Abigail’s high school experience (secondhand, as she thinks of them with contempt over summer) were using slang and events from the late 1970s! At the time I knew almost nothing about the 1970s, so it sounded rather as if Park had made up a bunch of plausible sounding teenage slang.

Photograph of George Street, The Rocks, at night, showing mostly well-kept pubs and restaurants
The Rocks in 2009, by Richard Taylor, CC BY

Abigail’s teenage alienation was a bit of a foreign country to me at the time. The novel begins with her spending the summer being angry about all sorts of things: her father leaving her mother for another woman, which has alienated Abigail so much she has changed her given name to one that isn’t connected with her father’s affection; her peers at school and their teenage crushes; her mother’s decision to re-partner with her father after his long-lived relationship with another woman. Interestingly, a big part of the novel is Abigail, via falling in love with someone else’s fiancé, coming to a realisation that there’s more going on with love than people falling in love to spite her. The coda at the end in which Abigail has demonstrably grown up emotionally in her nine-odd months in 1873 and then her five years in Norway was also important to me: the Norway part of the arc, being realism, maybe more important than the time-travelling.

It was probably also one of the first encounters I had with a critique of the idea that history is a uniform progression from worse conditions to better conditions (yeah I know, a pretty obvious misconception in hindsight): this critique is put into the mouth of Jonah who is utterly uninterested in the magic that awaits his world in the twentieth century.

Sydney always makes novels memorable for me, too. I didn’t grow up in Sydney, but rather in regional NSW, and as a teenager it tended to signify freedom to me. I was always very excited to have a book with a strong Sydney-centric sense of place: besides Playing Beatie Bow I think only Melina Marchetta’s novels were as evocative for me. (Only Looking For Alibrandi was actually published when I was a child, I was 22 and already lived in Sydney when she published Saving Francesca, and a new mother in my late twenties when The Piper’s Son came out.) Playing Beatie Bow is very thoroughly set in The Rocks around Argyle Street, and grounded in the local geography to the point where I believe it’s possible to identify the set of stairs that led Beatie into the twentieth century and Abigail into 1873.


Fan service insight for other dedicated Beatie Bow readers: there’s very brief speculation by Robert Bow at the end of the novel that his niece Natalie Crown, Abigail’s former babysitting charge and the only other person who could see Beatie watching them play, has the Gift, but otherwise the form the Gift takes in Gilbert’s descendants and what it means to have it with very little cultural connection to the Orkneys and its supernatural origins there, is totally unexplored.

I worked this over several times when I was younger: if I was counting the generations correctly, the fifth generation of Talliskers/Bows/Crowns after Gilbert ought to be Natalie and her brother Vincent, which should make them subject to the “one to be barren, one to die” curse (by the way, the inevitable “cursedness” of being childless is called out in the novel, by Beatie who deeply wants to be, and ends up being, the childfree one). If Abigail and Robert had children, the fifth generation would contain their children also. This last is of course a stretch given that about the first week of Abigail and Robert’s relationship is shown in the novel, but hey, fanon calling.

In addition, in the novel, Granny Tallisker, who had the strongest Gift, spends some time trying and failing to work out why on earth Abigail is their Stranger, since they expected someone with a family relationship. Neither of them at that point knows about the relationship with the Crown children, or for that matter that Gilbert is to live. But if a family relationship is required, Abigail doesn’t have this it unless she goes on to partner with Robert Bow.

In any event, whatever happens to Robert and Abigail, it seems that the Crowns are due a Stranger at some point in their lives. I was always surprised that Park didn’t write a sequel, given this (although as an adult, I can see why it would be difficult to preserve the tone with one novel set in 1873 and the other in the late twentieth century). In my fanon, a somewhat older Beatie ends up being their Stranger, in a reciprocal relationship to that Abigail had with her family.

Product review: GoGet carsharing

We’ve been non-car owners again for a few weeks and members of GoGet car sharing for a month or so. These are my initial impressions.

This is against a background of our car being primarily used for occasional errands, and weekend excursions either locally (to the beach etc) or to regional cities. We also used to use our car for our son’s daily childcare run, but since we moved, his new childcare is in walking distance. I wouldn’t recommend GoGet to anyone who has a daily errand, this review is largely comparing it to having an occasional-use personal car.

Good things compared to car ownership:

  1. most areas where there is a car at all, there’s more than one. An out-of-action car does not mean “no car use at all until car repaired”
  2. they take care of on-road costs and insurance. Of course, this is bundled into subscriber fees, but it both flattens them over the year and works out cheaper for our usage. I think in theory they aim for a car for every 10 subscribers or so? We’re on the Frequent member plan, so I guess you could say our on-road costs are $360 a year.
  3. they take care of repairs. Again, bundled in, but flattened and so on.
  4. they take care of having a free parking spot by paying the council for guaranteed spots.
  5. (maybe arguably good) they turn the fleet over far more often than most people I know replace their cars.

Good things compared to car rental:

  1. the cars are just sitting there, in our case quite close by. You just get online, book, and walk up and take one. You only sign away your life in triplicate once. You don’t have to budget in a trip to the car rental place, a wait in a queue, a briefing on the terms and conditions and an inspection of the car.
  2. the insurance is reasonable rather than the typical car rental deal with a $3500+ excess unless you pay them 1/2 the rental cost again. With GoGet, if you can wear a $1500 excess it’s built in to the base pricing, or you can pay about $18 per day to bring it down to $300.
  3. you have to return the car with at least 1/4 of a tank of fuel, which is a lot easier to achieve than the full tank rental companies require.
  4. both the possibility of hourly bookings and the hour saving in pickup time make them way more useful for errands and so on.
  5. close to instantaneous bookings, subject to availability, whereas rental companies often struggle with sub-24-hours-notice requests

Bad things:

  1. Bookings start and finish on the hour. In pathological cases (say you need a car from 1245 to 1315) you pay for two or three hours of use in order to use the car for an hour or so.
  2. They’re for-profit, presumably this could be done cheaper not-for-profit. This is a bad thing-asterisk though: as I know very well, NFPs don’t magically appear out of thin air. Someone would still have to set up an entire car sharing company except with only a salary to motivate them.
  3. GoGet’s big thing is “we pay for fuel”. And they do pay in the sense of providing fuel cards, but they also have a 39c per kilometre usage charge for bookings that aren’t a day long booking. 40c per kilometre adds up fast!
    In theory the day booking rate (24 hours and 150km free for $68) kicks in as soon as your per-hour spend exceeds the day rate, for most cross-metro trips you’re probably going to nearly hit that.
  4. (potentially) GoGet does not accept any member who has a major traffic offence in the last 10 years of driving, and all applications for membership are at the discretion of their insurer. This contributes to the cheaper insurance compared to car rental, but it obviously disadvantages people who do have a traffic record or a history of at-fault accidents.
  5. not an enormous amount of choice wrt make and model, less than many larger rental centres. Really your choice boils down to little-medium-big in whichever make and model are nearby. (For us little == Toyota Yaris, medium == Hyundai i30s and i30 wagons, and big == Hyundai iMax.)
  6. some contention for them. Our experience is that with weekends, we really need to plan our trip the day before to have a good chance of a single car in Glebe being free over the entire block of time we need, and it’s probably worse in suburbs with less cars (Glebe has at least 10, and Pyrmont and Ultimo another 15 or so). Long weekends are worse because people take them away, and the iMaxes get booked really early most weekends.
  7. lack of flexibility with end time. That is, if we want to go somewhere and book a car accordingly but then someone invites us to dinner or whatever, we may not be able to stay because the car needs to be back. We haven’t had to try for last-minute use extensions yet, so we don’t know how often we will find that the car has 3 hours free just after our booking.
  8. if something goes wrong with your booking, they give you a $25 credit on your account, which unless the error is very minor is really not enough. To be fair, they do shift the booking to another car if they can, but on weekends this would be hard, see 6.
  9. fitting children’s car seats is a pain in the neck.
  10. their setup has an annoying feature whereby if it is the very first time that you in particular have used a given car in the fleet, the booking needs to take place about 15 minutes before your slot, so that the car can download your access data. Less important once you’ve used the car nearest to you for the first time.

In the medium term, this is likely to be a sufficiently good replacement for our occasional-use car.

Quakers Hill nursing home fire

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

Anyone concerned about family members at the Quakers Hill Nursing Home can call 1800 227 228 for information.

I was horrified to wake up this morning to the middle of a radio news bulletin about a fire at Quakers Hill Nursing Home in Sydney. From latest bulletins it seems a fire alarm sounded at about 5am and despite fast firefighting response (6 minutes according to the radio) the fire had become massive. As of the 8:30am bulletins police are advising that 9 people have died and that 20 more people are being treated for burns injuries. The reports are still not very coherent but the firefighters do seem to be reporting that some residents were killed or hurt partly because they were not able to self-evacuate.

I’m so sorry for everyone involved, especially residents who were killed or injured, and their family members and loved ones. How utterly horrible.

Update 6:30pm: news reports this afternoon are of 3 deaths and a number of people critically ill. I am not sure whether earlier reports were higher or whether I simply misheard. Sadly, reports are also that the fire is being treated as suspicious.

Childcare

I just got a call from a childcare centre who has had my son’s name down for nineteen months. I’m not even sure if they were offering him a place, most likely they are just culling their waiting list in preparation for the 2012 enrolment season. Nineteen months long waiting lists, on the very edge of the metropolis.

I’m sure there’s plenty of info out there already about the economic inefficiencies generated by private childcare in countries like Australia and the US where supply doesn’t meet demand and there’s little government intervention in the market. One of the most noticeable for us is geographic lock-in. If it takes a year or more to get our son care at a new location, we can’t move, until, oddly enough, all of our children are school age and thus likely to be badly disrupted academically and socially by a move. The next most obvious is all the mother-work in this. Applying to 20 centres (… many of which ask for a $20 waiting list fee). Ringing them all once a month or more just to keep a tick next to our name as “really wants a place”. (It likely doesn’t advance you up the list, what with all the other mothers ringing monthly too, and they certainly don’t give us any actual news until a place actually appears.)

I should put in a little bit of background for people from countries with at least some government provided childcare. Childcare in Australia for children 8 weeks to 5 years is provided by for-profit and non-profit suppliers in a private market. Waiting lists for first born children in Sydney (younger siblings of an enrolled child often receive some preferential treatment) who aren’t in certain disadvantaged and at-risk groups are somewhere in the realm of nine to twenty four months. (Employers are supposed to keep permanent jobs open to a returning mother for a year.) Costs are in the realm of $70 to $110 dollars per day for infants (median maybe $90?) and $60 to $100 per day for children over age two. There are government subsidies on a sliding scale that for some families might halve this cost.

The alternatives are local government certified “family carers” caring in their own homes, who have similar waiting lists, nannies at around $200 per day, or family. I don’t see a lot of solutions aside from nationalisation: the private market obviously sees no need even for centralised waiting lists and for whatever reason it certainly doesn’t see the need to create enough places to meet demand. All I have is a couple of lessons:

#1 you do not put your child’s name down at birth you put it down when you are pregnant, if they let you, and if they don’t, take the forms to the hospital with you and post them from there within hours of your child’s birth. (Sydney hasn’t quite reached the stage that I am told New York City is at, of ringing them all to give them notice that you have stopped using contraception, and might therefore require their services at some point in the next two years.)

#2 most childcare places open up in January and February, with enrolments in October. It’s obvious why when you think about it: (southern) January is when the five year olds leave to start kindergarten, so it’s the time when by far the most vacancies are created. That doesn’t mean put the kid’s name down in October for a place the following January, it means putting them down as early as possible and then concentrating your phone calls in October.

This can be frustrating depending on your child’s month of birth. Born January or February? You may well have to keep them out for a full year. Born November or December? You may have to enrol them much younger than you would have been comfortable with if you are lucky enough to be offered a place (although only for a day a week, already enrolled children almost always get the pick of newly opened spots on other days).

For the record, my January-born first son got a place that July, in a centre that had recently re-opened after bankruptcy and was taking immediate enrolments. That same centre, whose youngest enrolment at the time was a child 9 weeks old, is a year later asking us to re-confirm 2012 enrolments four months ahead because of their enormous waiting list. They currently have no children born in 2011 enrolled, implying a waiting list of 9 months at the very least We’re ourselves presently awaiting results of the 2012 enrolments closer to the city, to see if we get to move closer to my husband’s work in the next 12 months, or if we’re staying out here for the foreseeable future.

Endangered Sunday: grey nurse shark

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

I’m hoping to blog a little about SCUBA diving here occasionally. I dived on Wed December 29 for the first time in a year and a half (diving is contraindicated in pregnancy and was practically difficult with a young baby to care for and a body rearranging itself too often for a wetsuit fitting).

How did I elect to return to diving? Shark diving!

This is much less adventurous than it sounds, although definitely stressful or impossible for people with a shark phobia. (I’ve also dived with sea snakes—which are, yes, very very venomous, and quite inquisitive and tame so you get very near them, but they’re not aggressive at all—just don’t ever make me touch a slug in the garden because that is my critter limit!)

I’ve been in the water with a lot of sharks: leopard sharks, wobbegongs, Port Jackson sharks, grey and white tipped reef sharks and grey nurse sharks. This isn’t done in cages as you see with great whites, we’re in the ocean together. The trick is the size of the mouth: if a human limb doesn’t fit in there, there’s not much of a problem. Most species of shark are after much smaller prey than humans, the main exceptions are species that hunt seals. It’s also good to know that sharks generally sleep during the day (Port Jackson sharks look like very large cuddly toys, sleeping on the seafloor), and that they find the loud noise of SCUBA rather intimidating, although I have also dived at night when the reef sharks were hunting, but again, their prey is small. (Diving at night, also not as difficult as it sounds, but extremely cool.) I’ve also dived with seals, there’s a fairly simple rule for that, which is that if you notice none of the seals are in the water, you probably ought to follow their example and get out too.

What’s a scary thing I’ve encountered diving? That dreaded apex predator homo sapiens. I was not pleased to find that I’d been diving in murky water below people spearfishing one time. I hope they could see me better than I could see them.

Homo sapiens is of course the big threat to today’s Endangered Sunday species, the grey nurse shark or carcharias taurus. These are big, scary looking sharks (adults are between 2 and 3 metres in length), and if I wanted to impress you with my shark braving skills, I could show you this:

Dentition of a Grey Nurse Shark
Grey Nurse Shark, Dentition of a Grey Nurse Shark (Carcharias taurus). Magic Point, Maroubra, NSW, by Richard Ling, CC BY-NC-SA

Image description: a grey nurse shark is seen from in front and below, its head and fins lit from below, emphasising the teeth visible in its jaws.

Grey nurse sharks are quite timid, docile sharks. There’s a group living in a cave just off Magic Point at the south end of Maroubra at a depth easily accessible to recreational SCUBA divers. It is a very popular site with divers in Sydney. On the 29th there were five sharks in the cave. We didn’t join them: the cave is a protected habitat. It’s not quite up there with Michael McFadyen’s 2008 sighting of 26 sharks, but more than I’ve seen there on the six or so times I’ve dived the site.

The grey nurse shark is listed as critically endangered on the east coast of Australia, with the population estimated at somewhere around 1000 individuals. In 2009 it was reported (the original article is Ahonen et al. (2009)) that there is also low genetic variability on the east coast and that it likely does not interbreed with the west coast sharks .

Grey nurse sharks are ovoviviparous: they give birth to live young (-viviparous), which have grown inside eggs (ovo-) and hatched inside the mother. The two shark pups a female births are the result of adelphophagy: pre-birth cannibalism. Each of the surviving shark pups has consumed its siblings until it was the sole surviving pup in its uterus (of which the mother has two). This process takes up to a year and results in a reproductive rate that means the return from critically endangered levels is going be slow if it happens at all. There is some research into an artificial environment for the sharks to mature to birth size in. These environments have been successfully tested on dwarf wobbegongs.

Here are two more pictures of grey nurse sharks taken at Magic Point. Doug Anderson took these lovely shots of, I think, the sharks in the cave (the angle isn’t quite wide enough to tell on these two):

carcharias taurus, Maroubra, Sydney by Doug Anderson, CC BY-NC
carcharias taurus, Maroubra, Sydney by Doug Anderson, CC BY-NC

Image description: a large and a small grey nurse shark, close to the bottom of the ocean, side on to the camera. A school of fish is in the foreground.

carcharias taurus, Maroubra, Sydney, by Doug Anderson, CC BY-NC
carcharias taurus, Maroubra, Sydney, by Doug Anderson, CC BY-NC

Image description: four grey nurse sharks are clearly seen side-on between one and three metres above the ocean floor. The outlines of two more sharks are in the background, in dim light, presumably in the cave.

Both Doug Anderson and Richard Ling have shots of the sharks with hooks in their mouths: not happy and A Grey Nurse Shark (Carcharias taurus) with hook and exit wound in the jaw.

So there you have it, big, scary looking but not dangerous: a perfect diver’s day out. May their numbers continue to increase and the number of hooks and wounds seen in their jaws fall.


Ahonen et al. (2009) Nuclear and mitochondrial DNA reveals isolation of imperilled grey nurse shark populations (Carcharias taurus) in Molecular Ecology Volume 18, Issue 21, pages 4409–4421, doi:10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04377.x)