James Cridland

Notes from Brisbane vol 9: TV news and SIP phones

More strange Australian language and idioms

“First in, best dressed”: first come, first served. (I looked entirely nonplussed when someone said this to me. My Aussie partner was amazed I’d never heard it before.)

“Council”, not “The council”. In the UK, we’d say “That sign? The council put it there.” In Australia, it’s “That sign? Council put it there. Why? You’d have to ring Council to find out.”

And then there’s all the strange financial language. A “super”, not a pension. “Bulk-billed”, a doctor, dentist or optician who you can get paid-for by Medicare, Australia’s health system. “No gap”, which I think means that all the bills are covered by Medicare. And so on. The world of finance is different everywhere.

Television news

After 44 years in the UK, I’ve got used to watching the news at the end of the night: a kind of bookend to the day. After all, both the BBC and ITV have news at 10.00pm.

But, as Dan Barrett points out here, television news in Australia is earlier. Much earlier: most air it between 6.00pm and 7.00pm, and there’s not a news bulletin in sight after 7.30pm. As a result, it’s surprisingly hard to watch the TV news.

The TV news isn’t on the commercial broadcasters’ catchup services either: it’s produced regionally, of course, and I suspect the catchup services only work for programmes out of Sydney. (There are also some legal issues with putting news on a catch-up service).

So, when I do watch the broadcast TV news, it’s ABC News Queensland, which is available on iView for 24-hours after broadcast. I’ll normally watch the first few stories and then switch it off. I’ve no idea what I’m missing out on.

Incidentally, 7 News uses the same music as NBC, which is a little strange (“The Mission”, written by John Williams). I only know this because we watched bits of the Olympics, and 7 put a 60-second news update in some breaks.

Importing stuff

I was keen to replace my aging Nexus 7 tablet with something that will last me a while, and ordered an Asus Chromebook Flip from amazon.com; with some trepidation. I’d ordered before from a US retailer to the UK, where everything over £15 is charged VAT and some additional costs. Not so here: you can buy anything you like from overseas and if it is less than AUD$1,000 there’s no extra GST to pay. Yay. (Update: in 2019, this is no longer the case. Boo!)

I ordered it on Wednesday 17th August, and it told me that it would arrive on September 2nd. It was actually delivered on Thursday August 25th. Impressively fast, considering I bought the cheapest delivery option.

Note for next time: when amazon.com offers to bill in AUD$ rather than in USD$, say ‘yes’; unusually for this kind of thing, that would have saved me AUD$10 or so.

Coffee shops

The coffee in Brisbane is better than almost anywhere I’ve ever been: proper fancy coffee is available all over the place from local, independent coffee shops. The absence of chains is refreshing and, to this London-coddled Brit, a little bewildering. No consistent Eat, Pret or Caffe Nero: instead, lots of local businesses.

What’s particularly nice is the local businesses are properly local. At the bottom of our otherwise entirely suburban road, on the deck of a local hairdresser, is a nice man called Nic and his coffee business. After four months of being in business, he knows most of his customers by name. In the suburban road round the corner from my daughter’s day care is another similar place; and a local park has another. These properties were all, once, local grocery stores: knocked out of business by supermarkets, cars, and changing shopping habits.

This comes with a lack of consistency: some places aren’t good, though most are; some places are cash-only, some aren’t; some have wifi, most don’t; and a wild variation of prices, too. But the most unexpected thing is the opening times. All these places appear to close at either 12.30pm or at 2.00pm: there’s pretty well nowhere open after that. As a coffee-shop worker, I find that very strange.

There are a few chains. The Coffee Club is probably the biggest: a cafe and coffee chain that someone on Reddit liked to an airline: airline coffee, airline food at airline ticket prices. They’re not entirely incorrect. And yes, we’ve Starbucks here too, but almost none of them: Australia remains Starbucks’ biggest corporate mistake. There are just two in central Brisbane; and the other three in the Brisbane area are in two glitzy out-of-town shopping centres and one… hospital.

SIP phones

I have a UK telephone number — 020 7100 1811, since you wondered — through Sipgate. I’ve had it for some time, but for the last six months I’ve been trying to use SIP software clients on my Android phones, with varying success. Many of them worked when making calls, but my success actually receiving calls was pretty limited: either they didn’t ring at all, or I got no incoming audio when I answered.

After one call — which diverted to my Australian mobile and cost me £10 for twenty minutes — I decided there must be a better way.

So, I bit the bullet: and ordered a Yealink SIP-T21P phone. AUD$110, it plugs into my router (which also sits on my desk). It works flawlessly: it rings instantly, I’ve not noticed any digital artifacts at all, and it works and sounds… just like a telephone.

This is probably one of the times when a piece of bespoke hardware does a rather better job than a do-everything smartphone.

The phone also has an Australian land-line number on it, in case it’s useful (not sure it will be, but it’s costing a grand total of AUD$5 a year, so not sure I care much). Since we have cable internet here, we had no reason to get a traditional telephone line, so didn’t; our mobiles have enough free minutes to make it entirely pointless to spend money on a landline. However, a recent application for a credit card ground to a halt when the online form required a home landline; so perhaps this’ll help those kind of things in future.

The internet

Easily my most-read news source? The Guardian Australia — it has an unusual mix of Australian and British news, and is well-written; the website’s technically good as is the app. So, I’ve just become a Member, and am paying AUD$100 a year for it. I am now, officially, a Guardian reader.

Credit cards

I haven’t had a credit card for the last nine months. But I discovered that if you walk into a hotel and give them a debit card as a deposit, that causes problems. Recently I turned up at a hotel, they took $200 off the card, and would only give me the $200 back on check-out after they made me wait for fifteen minutes while they sent someone up to the room to check if I’d stolen the television.

So, after nine months operating a bank account here, I went to the bank and asked nicely for a basic credit card. Computer said no.

There’s no such thing as a credit score in Australia — at least, not in the same way as there is in the UK. Instead, the bank makes a decision based on looking at two years’ worth of your tax return. Which, of course, I don’t have. So I was sent away, credit-card-less.

Instead, and for you to know if you ever need a credit card: if you have an American Express card already in one country, Amex will give you a new one if you move country, without any paticular hassle: since (unusually) they really are the same company across the world, rather than lots of different banks with the same brand: here’s looking at you, HSBC, “the world’s local bank”. So, well done, Amex. I can now check into hotels without being treated as a criminal.

Paying with cards

And, while we’re at it… contactless payment is accepted everywhere here in Australia. It’s known in stores as either “paywave” or “paypass” — the trademarks given to the process by VISA or Mastercard. The limit is a sensible $100 (about £60), above which you can still pay via contactless but you need to put your PIN in.

One thing I simply don’t understand is, when handing a card over to make a purchase, the shopkeeper always asks “is paywave okay?” Yes, of course it is. Why ask? Occasionally I ask why everyone asks that: it turns out that some people get really annoyed if the store uses paywave without asking first. I cannot think why. I’ve now learnt to pre-empt this by handing the card over and saying “Paywave?”

Use the chip on your debit card, and you are asked “Cheque, Savings or Credit”. There are buttons on the machine to press to select which (even for overseas cards, by the way). My bank account is one I’d probably call a cheque account — it’s the normal everyday account that everything goes into and out of. It isn’t a savings account, an account with a higher rate of interest which you generally leave money in. But no, according to these machines, I have to press “savings”. I don’t know why, and my first few weeks were spent pressing the wrong button and looking confused. Oh, and you press “credit”, even on a debit card, for some larger purchases. Yep, I know.

My bank has an Android app which lets me “paywave” with my phone (technically Paypass, since I’ve a Mastercard). My Amex comes with Android Pay enabled as well. If I’m holding my phone, I’ll pay that way: and since I also use Stocard, a loyalty-card app, it happens more often than I first thought.

So, that’s all fun. Off to London in two weeks, and I really want to get myself a plastic fiver.