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Australia now has a template for forcing Facebook and Google to pay for news

Words: Natasha Lomas - TechCrunch - 16:17 31-07-2020

Australia is closing in on a legally binding framework to force adtech giants Facebook and Google pay media companies for monetizing their news content when it’s posted to their social media platforms or otherwise aggregated and monetized.

Back in April the country’s government announced it would adopt a mandatory code requiring the tech giants to share ad revenue with media business after an attempt to negotiate a voluntary arrangement with the companies failed to make progress.

Today Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has published details of a first pass at that mandatory code — which it says is intended to address “acute bargaining power imbalances” between local news businesses vs the adtech duopoly, Google and Facebook.

The draft follows a consultation process before and after the release of a concepts paper in May, in which the ACCC sought feedback on a range of options. More than 40 submissions were received, it said.

Under the proposed code the ACCC is suggesting a binding “final offer” arbitration process as a way to avoid platforms seeking to drag payment negotiations. Under the proposal they’d get three months’ “negotiation and mediation”, after which an independent arbitrator would choose which of the two parties’ final offer is “the most reasonable”, doing so within 45 business days.

“This would ensure disagreements about payment for content are resolved quickly. Deals on payment could be reached within six months of the code coming into effect if arbitration is required,” the ACCC writes.

The code also aims to enable groups of media businesses (such as local and regional publications) to collectively negotiate to get a better deal out of platforms use of their content.

On the enforcement front, the draft proposes that non-compliance — such as not bargaining in good faith or breaching minimum commitments — can lead to infringement penalties, with the maximum set at $10M or 3x the benefit obtained or 10% of a platform’s turnover in the market in the last 12 months (whichever is greater). So Facebook and Google could potentially be on the hook for fines running to many millions of dollars if they are found to have breached such a code.

The scope of the code’s application looks broadly enough drawn that it seems intended to try to prevent platforms from dodging payment by simply switching off a single news-focused products (such as Google News). Google did just that in Spain instead of paying for reuse of news snippets there (and it remains switched off in the market). But the ACCC’s proposal also applies to Google search and Discover so Google would have to forgo showing any Australian news content to avoid the revenue share — which is a far bigger switch to flip.

Another interesting aspect of the proposal would require the platforms to give news media businesses around a month (28 days’) notice of algorithm changes that are “likely to materially affect” referral traffic to news and/or the ranking of news behind paywalls; and also for “substantial” changes to the display and presentation of news, and advertising directly associated with news.

Another notable requirement is for platforms to give news media businesses “clear information” about the data they collect via users’ interactions with news content on their platforms — such as how long people spend on an article; how many articles they consume in a certain time period; and other data about user engagement with news across platform services.

This aspect of the proposal looks intended to tackle the problem of dominant platforms using their market power to maintain their grip on the attention economy by being able to monopolize access to data by blocking content producers from being able to access information about how Internet users are engaging with their work.

Platforms like Facebook have sought to centralize others’ content to their advantage — applying market power to encourage content to be posted in a place where only they have full access to interaction data. This breaks the link between news producers and their own audience, making it harder for them to perform analytics around articles or respond to changes and trends in consumption behavior.

Being cut off from so much user data also makes it harder for media outlets to cultivate closer relations with consumers of their product — something that looks increasingly vital for developing successful additional revenue streams, such as subscription offers, for example.

“There is a fundamental bargaining power imbalance between news media businesses and the major digital platforms, partly because news businesses have no option but to deal with the platforms, and have had little ability to negotiate over payment for their content or other issues,” said ACCC chair, Rod Sims, commenting on the proposal in a statement.

“In developing our draft code, we observed and learned from the approaches of regulators and policymakers internationally that have sought to secure payment for news. We wanted a model that would address this bargaining power imbalance and result in fair payment for content, which avoided unproductive and drawn-out negotiations, and wouldn’t reduce the availability of Australian news on Google and Facebook.”

“We believe our proposed draft code achieves these purposes,” he added.

Google and Facebook could not work without the content that newspapers, e-commerce, marketplaces and others provide. If you agree with the premise that they have platform monopolies & control the traffic, then regulation & taxation are inevitable. https://t.co/gYLUPZLICP

— Johannes Reck (@JohannesReck) July 31, 2020

The proposal contains more suggestions aimed at breaking down the power imbalance between the two adtech giants and news producers. One element would require them to publish proposals for recognizing original news content on their services — which sounds like an ‘exclusive’ label (to go alongside ‘fact-checked’ labels platforms can sometimes choose to apply).

The pair would also need to provide news media businesses with what the ACCC dubs “flexible user comment moderation tools” — such as the ability to turn off comments on individual stories posted to a platform.

The theme here is increased agency for news businesses vs Facebook and Google so they have a better chance to shape public debate happening around their own content — platforms having also gobbled up the sorts of conversations which used to happen via a newspaper’s letters’ page.

In terms of eligibility, the ACCC says media businesses would be eligible for payment for platforms’ content reuse if the online news content they produce “investigates and explains issues of public significance for Australians” or “issues that engage Australians in public debate and inform democratic decision-making; or issues relating to community and local events”.

Other criteria include adhering to minimum levels of professional editorial standards; maintaining a “suitable degree” of editorial independence; operating in Australia for the main purpose of serving Australian audiences; and generating revenue of more than $150,000 per year.

The code, which would initially only apply to Facebook and Google (though the ACCC notes that other platforms could be added if they gain similar market power), is not intended to capture any non-news content producers, such as drama, entertainment or sports broadcasting.

In a statement responding to the proposal Google expressed deep disappointment. Mel Silva, MD of Google Australia, said:

Our hope was that the Code would be forward thinking and the process would create incentives for both publishers and digital platforms to negotiate and innovate for a better future – so we are deeply disappointed and concerned the draft Code does not achieve this. Instead, the government’s heavy handed intervention threatens to impede Australia’s digital economy and impacts the services we can deliver to Australians.

The Code discounts the already significant value Google provides to news publishers across the board – including sending billions of clicks to Australian news publishers for free every year worth $218 million. It sends a concerning message to businesses and investors that the Australian Government will intervene instead of letting the market work, and undermines Australia’s ambition to become a leading digital economy by 2030. It sets up a perverse disincentive to innovate in the media sector and does nothing to solve the fundamental challenges of creating a business model fit for the digital age.

We urge policymakers to ensure that the final Code is grounded in commercial reality so that it operates in the interests of Australian consumers, preserves the shared benefits created by the web, and does not favour the interests of large publishers at the expense of small publishers.

Facebook had far less to say — sending a line attributed to William Easton, its MD for Australia & New Zealand — which says it’s reviewing the proposal “to understand the impact it will have on the industry, our services and our investment in the news ecosystem in Australia”.

In terms of Australia’s next steps, further consultation will take place on the draft mandatory code during August, with the ACCC saying it will be finalised “shortly after”.

More details about the draft code can be found here.

While regulation being applied to big tech now looks like a given in multiple jurisdictions around the world — with US lawmakers alive to the damage flowing from a handful of hyper-powerful homegrown tech giants— the question of how fair and effective it will be is very much up in the air.

One potentially problematic element of Australia’s approach with this news ad revenue share is that it does not appear to tackle Facebook’s and Google’s abusive model of surveillance capitalism — which remains under regulatory scrutiny in Europe — but seems set to further embed the media with data-mining business models that work by stripping consumers of their privacy to target them with behavioral ads.

Critics contend that a myriad of harms flow from behavioral advertising — from time-wasting clickbait at the low end to democracy-denting disinformation and hate speech at the other. Meanwhile other less intrusive types of ad-targeting are available.

A section of the proposed code that touches on “the privacy of platform users” notes only that: “The draft code’s minimum standards require digital platforms to provide clear information about the data they currently collect through news content. However, the code does not include any requirements for digital platforms to increase sharing of user data with news media businesses. Accordingly, the code does not have an impact on the privacy protections currently applicable to digital platform users.”

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Intimations by Zadie Smith review – a wonderful essayist on the lockdown

Words: Tessa Hadley - The Guardian - 06:30 01-08-2020

T here are probably going to be a lot of lockdown books. Or maybe not: maybe as the new world becomes the new normal we’ll want to hurry forward, away from our first intuitions of change, shedding them behind us because nothing’s so stale as the news from last week. But whichever way it turns out, I think this collection of little pieces by Zadie Smith will endure as a beautiful thing. Although it’s born out of the pandemic and the lockdown, it feels like a doorway into a new space for thought.

Smith is a wonderful essayist; she’s a natural. She writes as she thinks, and she thinks crisply and exactly, not in abstractions, but through the thick specificity of people and places, fragments of story. She doesn’t lay down the law, she argues with herself, so that the movement of her writing feels like the zigzag passage of perception inside a quick mind, not in love with its own opinions, uneasy with certainty. “Talking to yourself can be useful,” she says in her foreword. In her other essay collections – Changing My Mind Changing My Mind and Feel Free – Feel Free – she’s a brilliantly assured cultural critic: we need to know what she has to say about books and art and music, and all the politics and life mixed up with those. She’s glamorously immersed in contemporary culture as well as richly intellectual and well read, her inner landscape encompassing “Kafka and Prince … Malcolm X and Aneurin Bevan”. But Intimations feels more intimate than those earlier collections. The book that came to mind sometimes as I read was Doris Lessing’s London Observed, which I loved 30 years ago. That, too, was a compendium of city-fragments, gathered up inside the same humane, keen curiosity, the same writerly close attention, the same empathetic flare of response to other lives.

Intimations is a slim volume – just six essays, most of them only six or seven pages long, the penultimate one is an assembly of smaller sketches, “screengrabs”, portraits of individuals encountered on the street or in the park. The book’s leanness feels like part of its aesthetic; its thought-space is uncluttered and unfussy, and everything is lightly, delicately done. Most of the pieces are from New York, where Smith teaches at New York University, but some are from London. Some of the encounters and observations are pre-lockdown; then there’s the scramble to get out of the city to a friend’s place upstate, with a plan to return home to London. There isn’t all that much explicitly about the pandemic, or the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and yet everything feels conceived under the pressure of those things happening, pushing out new meanings from old subjects. A legless, homeless man in a wheelchair holds forth on his phone on the craziness of white folks: “I ain’t running from no cold. I survived worse. I survived WAY worse shit than this.” A geeky, sweet young IT guy at the university floats beside Smith on a hoverboard. A Jamaican friend of “Sadie” and her family back in Willesden, London, is insisting that her doctor bring on her menopause, at 58. “I’m walking right in there and DEMANDING he brings it on, right now, because this is just silly business at this point.”

Smith doesn’t presume to speak for these other lives – she’s uncomfortable, in fact, about having used “Myron”, the homeless man, for her purposes in a short story once. But she listens to them and watches them, alert to how others speak, how their lives speak, how they make their living. At one wincing moment, going out to get cash for their escape from the city, she crosses paths with an elderly female neighbour. Under normal circumstances Barbara is an “ideal, rent-controlled city dweller who appears to experience no self-pity, who knows exactly how long to talk to someone in the street, who creates community without overly sentimentalising the concept – or ever saying aloud the word ‘community’”. But everything is different now, and the woman’s voice has changed:

Thing is, we’re a community, and we got each other’s back. You’ll be there for me, and I’ll be there for you, and we’ll all be there for each other, the whole building. Nothing to be afraid of – we’ll get through this, all of us, together.” “Yes, we will,” I whispered, hardly audible, even to myself …

One of the endearing characteristics of Intimations is how much time Smith spends feeling uncomfortable, or confessing her own timidity or passivity, even treachery. She won’t make any special claim for herself because she’s a writer. “I write because … well, the best I can say for it is it’s a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have.” She can’t really believe – can she, this hungry reader? – that there’s “no great difference between novels and banana bread”. And yet this self-doubt is the core of her moral intelligence – and seems like a significant source, too, for her fiction-making. It is by not being certain we are right that we come closest to truth.

Her essay “Suffering” begins with how the misery of lockdown is “very precisely designed, and different for each person”:

The writer learns how not to write. The actor not to act. The painter how never to see her studio and so on. The artists without children are delighted by all the free time, for a time, until time itself begins to take on an accusatory look, a judgemental cast, because the fact is it is hard to fill all this time sufficiently, given the sufferings of others … Older people, surrounded by generations of family, dream of exactly the same empty couch that is, elsewhere, right now, at this very moment, the purest torture for some lucky, desperate, fortunate, lonely, selfish, enviable, self-indulgent, privileged, bereft student.

Everybody learns to deplore the irrelevance of what hurts them, “next to ‘real’ suffering”. But who is to adjudicate which suffering is most “real”? A 17-year-old kills herself because she can’t see her friends. How absurd: how could she? She isn’t “a nurse with inadequate PPE and a long commute, arriving at a ward of terrified people, bracing herself for a long day of death”. But nonetheless she felt it, and she killed herself. Suffering “has an absolute relation to the suffering individual – it cannot be easily mediated by a third term like ‘privilege’”.

In “Debts and Lessons” Smith identifies the qualities she’s learned from, in her parents and family and friends and teachers. From Tracy Chapman: “‘All that you have is your soul.’ Therefore: liberty.” From a school drama teacher: “A task is in front of you … The more absurd and tiny it is, the more care and dedication it deserves.” Novels, banana bread. She thanks contingency: the accident of birth that meant, among other things, “that my school still sang the Anglican hymns, at least for a little while, so that the ancient diction of my country came to me while very young, and fruitfully mixed with the sounds of my heritage”. This is a generously grateful book. And all of her royalties, incidentally, go to charity.

• Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day is published by Vintage. Intimations by Zadie Smith is out from Penguin (£5.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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Coronavirus: What are the rules for face masks or face coverings?

Words: - BBC News - 14:36 28-07-2020

Wearing a face covering is now compulsory in shops, supermarkets and while ordering takeaways in England.

The rule has been in force since 24 July.

Face coverings must be worn in enclosed public spaces in England - this includes shops, supermarkets, shopping centres, banks, building societies and post offices. It extends to train and bus stations and airports.

Customers must wear a face covering before entering any shop and keep it on until they leave.

Those who fail to do so could be fined up to £100, or £50 if they pay within 14 days. The rules will be enforced by the police, not shop workers, and only ''as a last resort''.

Shop workers do not have to wear coverings.

Retailers differ over their approach:

In Scotland, it's been a requirement to wear face coverings in shops since 10 July. Anyone not wearing one can be fined £60 (reduced to £30 if paid within 28 days) for a first offence. People with certain medical conditions or disabilities are exempt, along with children under five.

In England, face coverings do not have to be worn where it would be ''impractical'' to do so.

That includes restaurants, pubs and gyms.

They must be worn in a shop or cafe when buying food and drink to take away, but can be removed if you sit down to eat and drink.

They are also optional in:

In Wales and Northern Ireland you do not currently have to wear a face covering in shops, or takeaways.

In Scotland, they are compulsory in shops and libraries. But the rules do not apply in takeaways, cafes, coffee shops, restaurants, pubs or in banks and building societies.

Some people do not have to wear a face covering. They include:

You can take off your mask if:

Children under three should not wear face masks as they could cause choking and suffocation, Public Health England says.

Since 15 June, anyone travelling by bus, train, ferry or plane in England must wear a face covering, if they are not exempted.

If it is "reasonably necessary" for you to eat or drink, you can remove the face covering to do so.

People can be refused travel if they don't follow the rules, and can be fined as a last resort.

Public transport excludes cruise ships, school transport, taxis and private hire vehicles.

In Scotland, it is compulsory to wear face coverings on all public transport.

This is also the case in Wales. These coverings should be three layers thick.

The wearing of face coverings on most buses, trains and ferries became mandatory in Northern Ireland on 10 July.

The government has been careful to use the term "face covering" rather than "face mask" - with surgical masks kept for medical use.

The BBC has created a guide on how to make your own face covering. The government has issued its own advice too.

World Health Organization (WHO) advice says non-medical face coverings should be worn in public where social distancing is not possible.

Coronavirus is spread when droplets are sprayed into the air when infected people talk, cough or sneeze. Those droplets can then fall on surfaces.

The WHO says there is also emerging evidence of airborne transmission of the virus, with tiny particles hanging in aerosol form in the air.

Homemade cloth face-coverings can help reduce the spread from people who are contagious but have no symptoms or are yet to develop symptoms.

Scientists in Singapore suggest the contagion risk is especially high in the 24-48 hours before an infected person is even aware they might have the disease.

Taking a face covering on and off can also risk contamination, the WHO says.

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This is an epic adventure, 11 women canoeing for 40 days in the wilds of Canada

Words: Hannah Maia - The Guardian - 06:00 01-08-2020

Sat 1 Aug 2020 02.00 EDT

M uskeg is a delight unknown to many and it’s not easy to identify. Step in it and it creates a farting noise, then engulfs your leg. If you’re lucky you will only sink up to your ankle, but often much more of you goes in. It consumes shoes, it rips off socks and sometimes you need help to get out. It’s a dark tar-like substance, probably with a lot of beaver poo in it.

I don’t know what the exact botanical definition is, but essentially muskeg is a floating peat bog. It’s sphagnum moss and a lot of decaying vegetation. It’s a large thing of mud that’s stinky and out here in the taiga of northern Quebec. I’m surrounded by it. The coniferous forests of this subarctic region are crisscrossed with thousands of lakes, rivers and bogs, and the spongy ground often conceals sinkholes, which makes walking arduous and a little dangerous.

Right now I’m in a canoe, safe from muskeg for the time being. I’m paddling the Eastmain River with 11 other women, and ahead of us are seemingly endless white-tipped choppy waves. My hood is cinched tight as rain drips from my nose. Relentless headwinds rock and roll our small wood and canvas vessel while the gunnels sit low in the water under our heavy load. Despite the fact we are paddling downriver, the wind is so strong that if we stop paddling, we are pushed back upstream.

I am bowman, sitting in the front of the canoe, and though one of my responsibilities is to keep a lookout for rocks under the surface of the water, I find myself occasionally allowing my wind-stung eyes to close. My paddle strokes barely falter as I collect micro-sleeps. It’s repetitive and trance-like, and in those moments I realise it’s one of the first times I can’t hear anyone singing.

This is an epic adventure, 40 days in the northern reaches of Quebec, travelling with traditional tools including wood-canvas canoes and fire irons for cooking over an open fire. It is a trip filled with unknowns for me, but there is one thing of which I’m sure: the 11 young women I’m travelling with, nine of whom are teenagers, will not see each other at their best. They are bug-bitten, cold and boob-deep in muskeg bog and have to carry an incredibly heavy canoe on their heads.

My primary role on this trip is filmmaker, but I ask myself numerous times how on earth I got here. As with most of life’s grand adventures, the seeds of it were planted many moons ago. I’d received an email out of the blue from a stranger in the US. Maxine had seen a recent film of mine about the size of my thighs, swimming in cold water and learning to love my skin again, and wanted to tell me about young women doing hard things in a magical and remote region of Quebec.

As I delved into this story, I wanted to find out why an all-girl group would gather every summer on a small island and paddle for six weeks through a wilderness of streams, lakes, rivers, mudholes and muskeg bogs. Ultimately their sights are set on Hudson Bay.

At the heart of this story is a summer camp – but not the kind most people know. This one is called Keewaydin, the second-oldest operating summer camp in North America. Its vision hasn’t changed since it was established in 1893: “a program focused on wilderness canoe tripping, with minimum time spent in base camp”. In its first 105 years only boys got the chance to go tripping, but in the past two decades girls have joined the ranks. I’m interested in how something established more than a century ago to promote manliness and “roughing it in the woods” can be relevant for teenage girls today. I wonder what kind of teenage girl would want to forgo life’s luxuries to spend a summer in the wilderness – but also know that, as a teenager, I probably would have been one of them.

Fast-forward two decades and I am one of them. I’m also more than twice their age, hurtling toward 40; the youngest of the nine girls is only 15. The girls’ youthful shrieks, goofiness and boundless energy are a constant reminder that I am – relatively – old. Whereas their teenage bodies seem to rebound from precarious twists and tumbles over rocks and tree roots, I’m acutely aware that a twisted knee on a portage (an overland trail where we carry our canoes and gear between lakes or to avoid an obstacle in a river) might mean lingering pain for months, not just a day or two.

The style of tripping is counter-cultural, its essence slow and purposeful. The group equipment is the same style as that used over 100 years ago. We cook on open fires and the loads we carry are canvas duffel bags and wannigans – large, sturdy wooden boxes. Gear is portaged using tumplines – leather straps worn on top of the head, aligning the weight down the spine rather than on shoulder straps. And we paddle in beautiful wood-canvas canoes following centuries-old routes.

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say Canada was born on the back of a canoe. The First Nations people built birch-bark canoes and then showed the non-indigenous people who came over how to travel in them. Birch-bark canoes were in turn used as the template for the wood-canvas canoes developed in the 19th century, when demand for boats outstripped the supply of birch bark.

Demand for canoes had risen because in 1670 King Charles II of England signed a Royal Charter governing trading rights in the Hudson Bay watershed. The charter served as the original articles of incorporation of the Hudson’s Bay Company and stated that the company was to control all lands whose rivers and streams drained into Hudson Bay – an area comprising more than 1.5m square miles, about 40% of modern-day Canada. Of course, it’s a dubious claim that the King of England’s signature on a piece of parchment could effectively bestow sovereignty over such a vast land and ignore the indigenous people who already occupied that land. Regardless, the charter did lead to the establishment of large outposts where pelts and furs were traded.

Consequently, much of the story of Canada’s fur trade unfolded along its many great waterways, with canoes the dominant transportation carrying goods and fur to the ports of Hudson Bay. Indigenous hunters, early explorers and adventurers tirelessly paddled their canoes in search of furs, travels that led to the mapping of Canada’s lakes and rivers.

It’s on these trails and transportation routes that we travel today. As we paddle the majestic Eastmain River we’re in indigenous Cree territory. When searching for a portage, we look for a blaze on a tree made with a single axe cut, or even strips of a bandana marking the path.

Having spent the past 10 hours paddling, lumbering and lumping our canoes and gear, we are beat. At the start of a dank and buggy portage we have decided to bushwhack our own campsite and I have found a hummock with a spot just big enough to fit my tent lengthways between two large mossy rocks. As I pitch my tent, I wonder what the point of it all is. Where is all the fun? Why are these teenagers here? Then through the bushes I hear one of the girls exclaim, “It’s perfect!” In that moment I realise two things. First, the camp spot they have just found is anything but perfect. And second, it’s all about perspective. I really admire these girls for their cheerful optimism – and their non-stop singing.

On several days we wake at 5am and don’t get to the next campsite until 8pm, still with several hours of chores to do – chop wood, erect the fly, make dinner, bake bannock (a type of bread inherited from early settlers and fur traders) for tomorrow’s lunch, pitch tents, wash pots and dishes … sleep. I watch in awe as young women carry heavy loads down mini rock cliffs. But the best bit is witnessing the fun, laughter and lightness thatbubble up when women get together far from the stresses of everyday life. It’s empowering to be surrounded by women all proud and happy to be using their body for strength. To be sweaty and dirty is expected.

This is not a trip fuelled by adrenaline – although paddling through large rapids in a wooden boat and catching a metre-long pike does provide that. It’s really about appreciating the slow purposefulness of wilderness travel.

One day, mid-paddle, there’s a seminal moment when I take off my bra, deeming it surplus to requirements. Adios chafing! Slowly, I realise I’m beginning to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable. I’m not resisting any more. I’m finding my groove. Despite the hard work, I begin to enjoy canoe travel and the rhythm of life on water. From the seat of my canoe I am often fully immersed in introspective feelings, which leads to a lightness on my shoulders and an ebbing of my woes. With days following a pattern, we find our rhythm. Life becomes simple and fundamentally essential.

There are easier ways to take a canoe trip. Sending your child off in a hand-built canoe, with wooden boxes filled with heavy tin cans just as they did more than 100 years ago, might seem a little contrived. But if you’re going to travel on lakes and rivers, through vast landscapes and be among the quiet and the weather and all of it … why not give yourself time to be in that space? If our only goal is to go from A to B as fast and easily as possible, then perhaps some value is lost.

I enjoy my time unplugged and in the wilderness – my chance to tap into that elusive something that seems to be missing from our modern lives. And I’m proud to be part of a small club of people who not only know what muskeg is but have been stuck knee-deep in it.

This is an edited extract from Tough Women Adventure Stories, published on 13 August (Summersdale, £9.99). Hannah Maia’s film, Wood on Water: An All Girl Canoe Tripping Documentary, is due for release this year

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Two U-turns and a lot of chaos: it's been a painful week for Boris Johnson

Words: Denis Campbell and Kate Proctor - The Guardian - 06:00 01-08-2020

A week is a long time in a coronavirus pandemic – a fact the government has learned all too painfully. Avoiding a one-week delay to lockdown in March would potentially have halved the death toll, it has previously emerged.

Which goes some way to explain why there have been not one but two screeching U-turns this week – on travel to Spain and lockdown measures for 4.6 million people in northern England – both announced late into the evening and imposed within hours. The ensuing chaos and anger have been palpable, and all point to one thing: that the government is very, very worried about a resurgence of the virus on UK soil.

It began at 4.30pm last Saturday afternoon with a video meeting of the cabinet’s Covid-O – or coronavirus operations – committee. There were ministers from six different departments, plus Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, ministers from the Scottish and Welsh administrations and key officials.

The mood was a sombre. Chaired by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, the issue at hand was what to do about Spain, Britain’s favourite summer holiday destination, to which 1.8 million people planned to fly in August. Should it remain one of the countries with which the UK has an “air bridge”, with no need to isolate for 14 days on their return, or did it need to now be classed as unsafe?

Whitty was unequivocal. The number of new infections in Spain had risen 75% over the previous 48 hours and were up in 15 of Spain’s 19 regions. More importantly, 10 Britons who had tested positive for coronavirus since 1 July had been in Spain in the two weeks before their test.

Hancock told the meeting that while Spain had instigated regional lockdowns in the worst affected areas, many nightclubs were still open, unlike in Britain. A third of the 281 active outbreaks in Spain had been linked to social gatherings, including nightclubs.

The idea of U-turning on a recent green light for Spain’s air bridge involved obvious embarrassment for ministers and anguish for holidaymakers. But the nightmare scenario of those 10 cases being followed by hundreds more as the summer unfolded impelled those present to act, and act now.

The drawbridge to Spain was pulled up, with the change announced at 7.30pm, hours before it took effect. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, had enough insider knowledge not to have started his planned holiday to the country – but he feared a backlash if he avoided the pain experienced by other UK tourists, so he flew out to Spain only to return, purple suitcase in hand, a couple of days later.

On Tuesday, Jet2 accused the government of giving information that was “contradictory and often comes with little or no notice”. Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister, branded the U-turn “unjust”.

For the first time, and echoing a front-page warning in the Guardian that day, Boris Johnson said there were signs of a second wave of the pandemic in Europe. The next day Luxembourg was added to the unsafe list; cases in Belgium were being watched closely.

The growing caution was underlined when, on Wednesday, a series of medical experts addressing the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus laid bare their concerns over a second spike.

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, warned that concern among hospital bosses and GPs was running very high. “There’s real concern about winter and the compounding factors there, but also about an earlier spike,” he said. Scientists recently said that in a worst-case scenario, winter and beyond could see a combination of normal respiratory illness and resurgent Covid-19 leave 120,000 people dead.

Jose Vazquez-Boland, chair of infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh, said mounting evidence showed that, after months in which both transmission and infection rates in the UK had fallen, “what we are facing is a comeback of community transmission after removing the lockdown measures”, adding: “There will be a resurgence of new cases every time social restriction measures are lifted as long as the virus remains in circulation.”

Thursday saw more painful news for the government – official confirmation from the Office for National Statistics that England had the worst excess death toll in Europe in the first half of the year. Then came two changes in tactics.

That morning, on the advice of the four home nations’ chief medical officers, the length of time anyone who shows symptoms had to isolate rose from seven to 10 days. “It was a clinically led decision; ministers weren’t involved. The CMOs said: ‘We have to do this and do this quickly,’” explained a Whitehall source.

The afternoon brought a meeting of the Gold committee of key government and public health officials, which Hancock again chaired. Again there was dispiriting news.

Evidence from Public Health England and the Joint Biosecurity Centre showed a worrying rise in infections in north-west England. This time, locally imposed guidance would not be enough – the force of the law was needed.

Shortly before 5pm, Hancock called the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, to alert him that a ban would be imposed on individuals from any household in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire or east Lancashire from meeting up with people from another household indoors. The profound impact of this was clear: it was the eve of Eid, and many of the areas subject to the ban have large Muslim populations.

At this point, Burnham was grateful for the communication from central government but that gratitude would not last. It was another four hours before Hancock announced the change – in a tweet and video clip after 9pm, with the measures to be imposed at midnight.

One West Yorkshire local authority chief executive was still trying to get the final details from Whitehall officials on the new rules for the region when the changes started to be unveiled on Sky News.

Confusion reigned about what the new rules would mean, amid rumours that all pubs and restaurants in the region were to be shut. The Department of Health and Social Care finally issued an explanatory note to the media at 11.19pm.

“Our frustrations came later on in the evening if I’m honest,” Burnham said. “I think with hindsight there is much more that should have been done to inform the public properly.” As recriminations surged on Friday, Johnson hastily arranged the Downing Street press conference that some said should have been used to announce the northern England measures in the first place.

Amid new figures showing nearly 5,000 new infections a day, this time action would be England-wide: a swathe of openings planned for 1 August would be shelved, including casinos and bowling alleys, and pilot sports events would be postponed for at least two weeks, he announced.

“We have to act rapidly in order to protect those we love. With those numbers creeping up, our assessment is that we should now squeeze that brake pedal in order to keep the virus under control.”

One official said ministers were right to act at speed, despite allegations that the gradual rise in cases could have led to smoother communications. “Given how quickly the virus can transmit, it doesn’t do to wait.”

Others took a different view. Johnson had sought to give the impression of a government taking decisive action after carefully weighing up new evidence. But soon after his press conference ended, another official, reflecting on events of the week, said simply: “It’s a shitshow.”

Additional reporting: Pamela Duncan and Severin Carrell

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Football's first fa’afafine: trans rights trailblazer Jaiyah Saelua on stardom and sisterhood

Words: Gabriel Faatau'uu-Satiu - The Guardian - 22:00 31-07-2020

Jaiyah Saelua is a footballer first.

The first openly transgender woman and fa’afafine to compete in a Fifa World Cup qualifying match for men, she has become a global champion for the rights of transgender and fa’afafine athletes, and now - almost disbelievingly - finds her life portrayed in an upcoming Hollywood film, directed by Oscar winner Taika Waititi, to be released later this year.

But the game remains her primary and abiding love.

“I was always very fast,” 32-year-old Saelua says matter-of-factly, “and not afraid of being around the boys. Soccer gave me the space to be me.”

Salua first found that space on the wings of a quiet field in Fatumafuti, American Sāmoa, two decades ago. In the years since, she has carved an extraordinary space in the world game.

Fa’afafine, Saelua’s identification since adolescence, is an umbrella term in Sāmoa for people who identify as a gay man, a trans woman, or as nonbinary but with female characteristics: “more than an identity,” Saelua explains, “it’s a way of life”.

Her journey in the game began, aged 11, when her school in Fatumafuti, on the easternmost point of Tutuila Island, formed its first soccer team.

They won the championship in their first year: Saelua was the competition’s most valuable player. “I was very competitive: I hated losing,” she says.

Three years later - aged just 14 - Saelua was drafted to train with the senior national team. Two years after that, aged only 16 and still at school, she played her first international match. Saelua was in the starting eleven by 2011.

But the travails of the American Sāmoa national football team have not been easy. In 2001 - when Saelua was just a child - the team became infamous for the worst loss in the history of international football, defeated by Australia 31-0.

Haunted for more than a decade, and determined to qualify at the 2014 Fifa World Cup, the team was reformed under the coaching of Thomas Rongen, a Dutch-born, American-based former professional, hired by the Football Federation of American Sāmoa to expunge the demons of that loss.

That team - which by now included Saelua - won their first World Cup qualifying match, a 2-1 victory over Tonga in the Oceania confederation, in their most successful attempt to reach the finals yet.

They did not progress to the next round, but their endeavours were the subject of a documentary which brought Saelua to global attention.

(In an extraordinary coincidence, Saelua’s first coach at school in 2000 was the national team’s goalkeeper, Nicky Salapu, who, a year later, had to retrieve the ball 31 times from his own net in that infamous and demoralising loss. “After winning,” Saelua says of the qualifying victory she played alongside Salapu, “I was mostly happy for Nicky who got to make amends with the past, something that had haunted him for a long time.”)

For Saelua, football star and fa’afafine have been easy worlds to inhabit simultaneously. She’s known no other way.

“It’s very common, actually, for fa’afafine to play sports … Sāmoan society has no limits on what fa’afafine can pursue in life. In anything we choose to do, society in the islands will always view us as assets.

“Every time we stepped on the field, we were judged by our performance as athletes, and not by the way we swung our hips, or how we ran, or how we celebrated.”

Saelua says there was no single defining moment when she realised she was fa’afafine, rather it was a slow process of gradual understanding.

“Early on, I started to realise that I was attracted to other boys in my school. I began socialising with other fa’afafine who were already unapologetically out.

“Being from a culture that was so accepting and nurturing of fa’afafine, it wasn’t hard for me to accept who I was and live my life as an out fa’afafine.”

Football has opened the world to Saelua, but it has also exposed her to parts of it less accepting.

“Quite frankly, I didn’t realise how easy we had it here in American Sāmoa until I was an adult living abroad as a ‘transgender’ woman. That in itself speaks volumes to how different cultures can be in regards to accepting diversity in their respective societies.”

“For someone who identifies as both, being transgender doesn’t make you less fa’afafine having now physically transitioned into a woman. You are still fa’afafine both before and after the transition because you are still and always were Sāmoan.”

She carries lightly the obligations of her unique position in world sport.

“I have become somewhat of an icon for transgender inclusion in sport, and so came the responsibilities of using this platform to help the rest of the world accept, respect and appreciate people like myself.”

When he won the Academy Award for his 2019 screenplay JoJo Rabbit, Taika Waititi told his audience: “I dedicate this to all the indigenous kids in the world who want to do art, and dance, and write stories: we are the original storytellers”.

They were words that resonated with Saelua and with Kaimana, the fa’afafine actor of Sāmoan heritage cast to play her in Waititi’s upcoming film Next Goal Wins.

In Sāmoan culture, the legends of the islands are passed down through oral traditions, preserved through the cultural institutions that have safeguarded them for generations, such as the fa’amatai, the chiefly system of governance in Sāmoa, or the fāgogo, an ancient Sāmoan performance art.

These are storytelling methods that have existed since the beginning of Sāmoan history: to transform a Polynesian narrative to Hollywood film script needed a director familiar with the often subtle complexities of Pacific storytelling.

“Working alongside Taika was a privilege,” Saelua says, “to share space with a fellow Polynesian who understands the intricacies around Pacific cultures.

For his part, Waititi insisted Saelua’s story could only be told on film by a fa’afafine actor: “it was vital,” he told Rolling Stone, “we wouldn’t have approached it in any other way... we were always going to cast a trans-person, fa’afafine in the role”.

Kaimana, who only uses one name, found herself, in her first screen role, directed by an Oscar winner.

“The moments that were the best, was when he said to do whatever you want, it was so freeing ... he was my first. And people were telling me, ‘this is not common, this is not how it’s normally done’. I feel so blessed to work with someone like Taika.”

Kaimana had assumed the rest of her castmates, including Elisabeth Moss, Oscar Kightley, Dave Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Uli Latukefu, and Semu Filipo were similarly ingenue.

“I thought everyone on board were new actors. I was so wrong. I found out one-by-one as I talked to each of them. I was like, ‘oh, is this not your first?’ I felt so silly for being naive. They were incredible and I fell in love with each and every single one of them. The passion they shared and the time spent to learn their craft was incredible. They’re an amazing bunch of storytellers.”

Kaimana’s co-star Filipo, a New Zealand based actor of Sāmoan and Tokelauan descent, said indigenous voices were critical to telling the Next Goal Wins story authentically.

“When I looked around on set at the cast and crew of Next Goal Wins, I saw Poly faces telling a unique Poly story, directed by a creative Maori genius. Giving light, laughter and love in support to our fa’afafine sisters.”

Kaimana and Saelua had never previously met, but once Kaimana was cast, they spent time together and realised they shared mutual friends, and a bond formed of common experience.

“I’m excited to see another fa’afafine sister ... in the role,” Saelua says.

The pair shares a similar conception of the differences between the west’s transgender and the fa’afafine of their shared cultural background.

“The difference between fa’afafine and transgender are loosely defined by the spiritual and physical,” Kaimana says. “Those that identify as transgender express their physical gender differently from their assigned sex at birth. Whereas fa’afafine, we inherently recognise that we carry energies of both sides. The way we choose to express ourselves physically is irrelevant to the identity of a fa’afafine.”

Saelua sees the complementary identities as something akin to a superpower.

“Being fa’afafine and transgender is a privilege. Because I can show the world my strength from overcoming obstacles, while being Sāmoan and a woman.”

(read more)

Sir Alan Parker obituary

Words: Ronald Bergan - The Guardian - 18:08 31-07-2020

In 2013, Alan Parker, who has died aged 76, received the Bafta fellowship award “in recognition of outstanding achievement in the art forms of the moving image”. Parker was praised for his energetic style, his keen visual sense and his storytelling skills, and for resuscitating the movie musical. He was also credited with having broken down the barriers between the American and British film industries and paving the way for fellow Brits – with Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson, and Ridley and Tony Scott having come from advertising like himself – to pursue Hollywood careers.

Although Parker directed only two bona fide British productions – Bugsy Malone (1976) and Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) – in 1998 he was appointed chairman of the board of governors of the British Film Institute (BFI) and in 1999 first chairman of the Film Council. And yet, a little more than a decade earlier, Parker had made a television documentary called A Turnip Head’s Guide to the British Film Industry (1985) in which he tackled “the pomposity, stupidity, pretension and avarice of the film industry”.

He believed that British films were too parochial and not commercial enough in concept, recalling that, as a child, whenever he visited his local cinema and the film opened with an image of a red London bus, he knew he was “in for a lousy time”. Parker set out to change all that. Some of his attitudes derived from his working-class upbringing and the battles he had to advance himself. If any theme is to be found in his eclectic oeuvre, it is a sympathy with the underdog.

Parker was born during a German wartime air raid, on a housing estate in Islington, north London. His mother, Elsie, was a dressmaker and his father, William, a house painter. He became interested in photography at an early age, which led him, after leaving school at 18, to take a job as an office boy in the post room of an advertising agency.

He then got work as a copywriter. “The great thing about advertising, from a British point of view, is that it didn’t have a kind of class distinction as other jobs had,” Parker recalled. “If you were half bright, they gave you a chance. I was very fortunate that they gave me that chance.” One London agency he worked with was Collett Dickenson Pearce, where he first met David Puttnam and Alan Marshall, both of whom would later produce many of his films.

In 1970, Puttnam bought the rights to a handful of songs by the Bee Gees, which were incorporated into a story for a feature film, Melody (1971). Parker, who wrote the screenplay, came up with a tale of two children at a south London comprehensive whose friendship is tested when a pretty girl enters their social orbit. It was directed by Waris Hussein, and Parker did some second-unit direction for the film, as well as shooting the montage sequences.

But before making his feature film debut as a director, he made two shorts, Our Cissy and Footsteps (both 1974), and a TV drama, The Evacuees (1975), for the BBC. The latter, written by Jack Rosenthal, about the experiences of two young Jewish boys evacuated from Manchester to Blackpool during the blitz, won a Bafta award and an International Emmy. It was also proof of Parker’s expertise in directing children.

This was consolidated with his first feature, Bugsy Malone, a slick musical with children playing American gangsters of the 20s, one gang armed with cream cakes, the other with splurge guns. “My script was a cinematic pastiche, with echoes and references to Astaire, Raft, Kelly, Cagney, Brando and Welles,” Parker recalled. “It’s not so much an homage as a collection of fond memories of double bills that I had devoured as a kid at the Blue Hall rerun cinema in Upper Street in north London.” The routines were well staged and the “gangsters” talented and likable.

Midnight Express (1978) was loosely based on the true story of Billy Hayes, a young American jailed for drug smuggling in Istanbul. The movie, relentlessly directed by Parker, graphically depicted how Hayes (Brad Davis) was beaten up and tortured in prison. There were sympathetic critics who interpreted the film as less about the Turkish prison system than about a general fear of otherness. Some years later, Oliver Stone, whose screenplay won an Oscar, apologised for “over-dramatising” the story.

In contrast, Fame (1980), which again showed what Parker could do with song-and-dance routines, followed eight young people for four years at the High School of Performing Arts in New York. “Something wonderful is happening to me, mama,” says one of the budding stars. “I’m growing up.”

For Parker, Shoot the Moon (1982), a divorce drama starring Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, was “the first grown-up film that I’d done”. A robust dissection of modern marriage sympathetic to both sides of the battle, the film was convincing in its depiction of the minutiae of bringing up families. “It was a painful film to make for me because there were echoes of my own life in it. It was about a breakup of a marriage, and the children in the story were quite close to my own children in age.” Parker’s first marriage, to Annie Inglis, whom he had married in 1966, ended in 1992.

Although Parker considered the filming of Pink Floyd: The Wall “one of the most miserable experiences of my creative life”, this surreal extended pop promo, starring Bob Geldof as a disintegrating rock star, did well at the box office. The causes of unhappiness were the constant clashes with the Floyd vocalist and bassist Roger Waters, who wrote the screenplay, and the political cartoonist and illustrator Gerald Scarfe, who did the elaborate animation sequences.

Birdy (1984) seamlessly transposed the novelist William Wharton’s post-second world war traumas to a post-Vietnam setting. It concerned the devastating effects the war had on two young friends, Al (Nicolas Cage), physically injured, and Birdy (Matthew Modine), psychologically damaged, who believes he is a bird. Treated with sensibility and skill, the film contains some exceptional sequences, such as Birdy’s dream of flying over Pittsburgh.

Angel Heart (1987), a tense thriller, was set in the 50s in New Orleans where a private eye, played by Mickey Rourke, is trying to locate a missing person for a sinister client, played by Robert De Niro. His trail leads to voodoo rites and its link with sexuality, evil and darkness.

Mississippi Burning (1988) was about a couple of contrasting FBI agents (Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe) in a small southern town in 1964, investigating the disappearance of three civil rights workers. In Come See the Paradise (1990), the FBI were the bad guys helping to round up and imprison Japanese Americans during the second world war.

Parker returned triumphantly to the musical with The Commitments (1991), based on the novel by the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, on the efforts of a ragtag group of Dublin musicians to launch a successful band. Laced with superb songs sung with passion, and vibrant performances by a cast of unknowns, it won Bafta awards for best film, best director and best adapted screenplay. “I wanted to do this film because I identified with the kids in the film,” Parker claimed. “They came from the north side of Dublin, a working-class area, and I came from the north of London, a very similar working-class area. I suppose deep down that the dreams and aspirations I had when I was a kid are very close to theirs.”

Parker’s unbroken run of box-office winners was halted temporarily by The Road to Wellville (1994), a hit-and-miss satire about the health crazes at the turn of the 20th century, mainly perpetrated by Dr John Harvey Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins fitted with large buck teeth), he of cornflakes fame.

Parker had another success with Evita (1996), adapted from the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber stage hit. It turned out to be a glitzy entertainment, with wall-to-wall songs (well sung by Madonna in the title role) and sparse dialogue delivered in awkward recitatives. But whatever the quality of the content, the look was impeccable, as with all Parker’s films. In fact, Parker often used the same team – directors of photography (Michael Seresin and Peter Biziou), editor (Gerry Hambling) and production designer (Brian Morris).

Parker’s second film shot in Ireland, Angela’s Ashes (1999), based on the true story of Frank McCourt’s poverty-stricken childhood, failed to delve below the surface. Even more at fault for superficiality was The Life of David Gale (2003), which follows a Texas University professor (Kevin Spacey), an advocate for the abolishment of capital punishment, who finds himself on death row after being convicted of the rape and murder of another activist. The overwhelmingly negative critical reaction to the film convinced Parker to leave his filmography at 14 features. He said in 2017: “We have gone through the era of the producer, the director, now we are in the era of the studio executive. None of which bodes well if you’ve always had complete control of your work.”

Parker was knighted in 2002. He is survived by his second wife, Lisa (nee Moran), whom he married in 2001, their son, Henry, four children, Lucy, Alexander, Jake and Nathan, from his first marriage, and seven grandchildren.

• Alan William Parker, film director, producer and writer, born 14 February 1944; died 31 July 2020

• Ronald Bergan died on 23 July 2020

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Coronavirus: What are the rules on weddings?

Words: - BBC News - 12:35 17-07-2020

Wedding ceremonies of up to 30 people are now allowed to take place in England again.

From 1 August, 30 people will also be allowed to attend a reception afterwards. At present, receptions can only be attended by six people outside or two households inside.

In some circumstances, depending on the size and location of the ceremony.

Weddings or civil partnerships with up to 30 guests have been allowed since 4 July in England.

They had been banned under almost all circumstances since lockdown began on 23 March, prompting 73,600 weddings and same-sex civil partnership ceremonies to be postponed.

Northern Ireland has allowed outdoors weddings with 10 people present since early June. Wales and Scotland also now allow wedding ceremonies to take place, but social distancing must be observed, and big gatherings are not allowed.

As weddings typically bring lots of families and friends into close contact, they are particularly vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus. The government has published guidelines on how to have a ''Covid-secure'' wedding in England.

The government says it is working with the weddings industry to see how receptions could take place safely in the future.

If you feel your day will be too different from the one you wanted, it is generally better to postpone rather than cancel it.

Check alternative dates with your venue as soon as possible, and then ask your suppliers if they would also be able to switch.

Couples ''do need to be understanding of what venues and suppliers are going through at the moment", says Henrietta Dunkley of Ellis Jones Solicitors. She specialises in dispute resolution, and is due to get married in August.

Many venues will have lost significant sums of money because of the pandemic

Many venues and suppliers are likely to have lost significant sums of money, so try to find a solution that works for everyone, she advises.

For example, if the wedding was on a Friday or Saturday or in peak season and the venue can't offer an equivalent date, it's generally reasonable to ask for a fee reduction, or an upgrade in the service you will receive.

If your ceremony was due while weddings were banned, you should generally be entitled to a full refund if you don't want to postpone.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) says in most cases this would be if:

An exception is the costs a business has incurred on your behalf already, such as a wedding meal tasting or a dress fitting.

As a result, venues and suppliers may be entitled to keep all or part of your deposit, but consumer rights law states they must give you a breakdown of costs.

Even if a wedding can't take place, couples may need to pay for some of the services already received

If your wedding is coming up and is technically allowed to take place, that's where things become trickier.

Read the small print in your contract to check the rules on cancellation or date changes of the businesses you are using. And then ask them what they are prepared to offer.

Under consumer rights law, contract clauses that could be deemed unfair may be unenforceable, even if you previously agreed to them. Any ''non-refundable'' deposit can only have been a small percentage of the total price.

Most wedding insurance does not cover a ''government act", so it is unlikely to pay out if the lockdown affected your wedding.

A few wedding insurers are paying out now under some circumstances. For example, John Lewis suggests it will refund you if restrictions mean your wedding cannot be held and you can demonstrate you have tried to recoup the money from your venue and suppliers.

It's a good idea to check the rules on cancellation or date changes

Many, if not all insurers are not selling new wedding policies, so this only covers existing agreements.

If not, you may have to register a claim with the administrator or can claim up to £30,000 per supplier from your credit card company for services not rendered, under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act.

If you paid on debit card you may be able to secure a refund under the chargeback scheme.

Businesses are not allowed to profiteer from the pandemic, meaning they cannot just hike up their prices.

Ms Dunkley says some couples have found venues are charging them far more for a postponed wedding than if they tried to book the same date as a new customer. This is unlikely to be deemed reasonable.

However, she adds it is fair for an equivalent wedding in 2021 to cost slightly more, because of inflation - the rise in costs for goods and services over time - and to reflect an increase in supply costs.

The CMA has set up a taskforce to investigate harmful pricing practices during the pandemic. Consumers can fill in this form if they feel a business has treated them unfairly.

Some insurance policies will pay out if your supplier or venue goes bust.

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Coronavirus: What closes in a local lockdown?

Words: - BBC News - 11:44 17-07-2020

From Saturday, efforts to contain coronavirus will focus on local lockdowns.

Local authorities in England are being given new powers to stop people gathering, while the government will be able to impose ''stay at home'' orders.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said coronavirus can now be controlled "through targeted local action", because more is known about how and where it is spreading.

Local lockdowns could take place anywhere - from a hospital, factory, school or one business in a building - to a whole city.

Local authorities will be given powers to:

Next week, details of how the government will be able to enforce local restrictions will be published.

Ministers will have the power to:

Covid testing in a Leicester park

The government's strategy is to target local clusters or outbreaks.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said action is being taken against more than 100 local outbreaks of coronavirus in England every week.

A cluster is a group of cases in one place like a hospital, factory or school. When clusters are linked, this is called an outbreak.

The government uses data on numbers of cases in a particular place to help decide what action should be taken. More cases are now being identified through testing.

England has more than 250 testing centres, and a dozen walk-in centres are being set up.

If a cluster or outbreak occurs, extra testing equipment, including mobile units, is sent to the affected area. Door-to-door testing may also take place.

While some restrictions have been eased in England since 4 July, in Leicester:

Residents also have to stay at home as much as they can, and non-essential travel to, from and within Leicester should also be avoided.

People or businesses that repeatedly flout the new law could receive fines of up to £3,200.

At the time the lockdown was imposed, Leicester's seven-day infection rate was "three times higher than the next highest city". It has since fallen.

Police have powers to enforce a local lockdown. For example, if they believe that somebody is staying away overnight, they can tell them to return home.

Police can also fine people for breaking the rules, and they may also issue a "prohibition notice" directing somebody not to do something.

But if a Leicester family wants to go clothes shopping in Nottingham, for example, there is nothing legally to stop them.

Instead, the government hopes people's sense of civic responsibility will see them follow guidance to stay at home

Public Health Wales said that a local lockdown was under consideration after the recent outbreak in Anglesey. However, First Minister Mark Drakeford said that any decision would be not be taken lightly.

In Scotland, public health teams work for the NHS, rather than councils, and the Scottish Government says it is developing a "responsive system of community surveillance" at a national, regional and local level to identify outbreaks quickly.

In Northern Ireland, the government says that any potential clusters or outbreaks will be handled using "appropriate infection control" in line with its normal guidelines for handling the outbreak of any disease.

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Coronavirus: What are the UK's travel rules and which countries can you visit?

Words: - BBC News - 09:21 28-07-2020

The UK government has warned people planning a foreign holiday that "no travel is risk-free" at the moment, and says they should factor in the risk of having to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return.

It follows a decision at the weekend - which caught many holidaymakers by surprise - to reintroduce quarantine for people entering the UK from Spain.

The Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBS) - the body set up by the government to monitor coronavirus - advises which countries should be on the quarantine list, and which should be exempt.

The JBS looks at range of factors, including:

Spain was removed from the list of exempt countries following "a significant change over the last week in both the level and pace" of coronavirus cases, the UK government said.

The Covid-19 infection rate in the country is currently 39.4 cases per 100,000, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. This compares with the UK's rate of 14.6.

People already in Spain can stay for the remainder of their holiday, but must self-isolate for two weeks after returning.

The rules apply to travellers arriving in the UK from anywhere in Spain.

For those with holidays coming up, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is advising against all but essential travel to any part of Spain, despite calls for the Canary and Balearic Islands to be exempt from quarantine rules.

Travellers are exempt from quarantine if they arrive in England, Wales and Northern Ireland from countries which - according to the government - pose a "reduced risk" from coronavirus. These include:

Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, BES Islands, Croatia, Curaçao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominica, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, France, French Polynesia, Germany, Greece, Greenland, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Malta, Mauritius, Monaco, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Réunion, San Marino, Seychelles, South Korea, St Barthélemy, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Pierre and Miquelon, Slovakia, Slovenia, St Vincent and the Grenadine, Switzerland, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Vatican City, Vietnam

Those entering the UK from the common travel area - the Republic of Ireland, the Channel Islands, or the Isle of Man - have always been exempt from the quarantine rules.

The 14 British Overseas Territories are also exempt.

Health measures like quarantine are set by each UK nation separately.

Wales and Northern Ireland have introduced quarantine exemptions for the same countries as England. Scotland is also allowing exemptions, and has updated its own list of countries with which it is now allowing travel without quarantine.

You will still have to isolate for 14 days if you arrive back in the UK from Canada, the US, much of Central or South America, and some countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Travellers from Sweden, Portugal, Russia and anywhere else not on the list also have to quarantine.

The list will be kept under review, and the government says it ''will not hesitate'' to remove a country if conditions worsen there, as it has done with Spain.

Equally, further restrictions may be placed on UK travellers if its infection rate rises.

Travellers leaving the UK could still face restrictions - including quarantine - when they arrive in one of the exempted countries.

About half the countries and territories on the list have restrictions for arriving UK visitors. These include:

But these restrictions may change.

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Hacking the Pleroma: Elixir, Phoenix and a bit of ActivityPub

Words: tbonesteaks - lobste.rs - 03:00 01-08-2020

Pleroma "is a microblogging server software that can federate (= exchange messages with) other servers that support the same federation standards (OStatus and ActivityPub). What that means is that you can host a server for yourself or your friends and stay in control of your online identity, but still exchange messages with people on larger servers. Pleroma will federate with all servers that implement either OStatus or ActivityPub, like GNU Social, Friendica, Hubzilla and Mastodon." (stolen from Lain's blog post).

Recently I modified my Pleroma instance to support bot services: parse a posted message, take an action, post the result. To get there I had to learn Elixir, the language in which Pleroma is written, as well as Phoenix, the web framework Elixir uses, and a little bit about ActivityPub, the protocol for exchanging messages. What I want to explain here in particular is the architecture of Pleroma, so that you can hack it more easily, for fun or if you want to participate in the development.

As Pleroma is written in Elixir you'll need to learn that language to some extent. If you are familiar with Ruby (or Perl, for that matter) and with the idea of functional programming (everything is a function), then it is quite easy to learn and understand. The documentation and guides are very good.

If you've never hear of functional programming, the main difference with e.g. Ruby or Java is that Elixir does not use an object-oriented programming model. Instead, there are functions that manipulate data structures and other functions. A particular consequence of the functional model is that there are no for- or while-loops. Instead, there are what is called higher-order functions which e.g. apply another function to a list. Elixir programs also make a lot more use of recursion.

Another point about Elixir as a web programming language is that it is built on a system where processes communicate by passing messages to one another, and it is built in such a way that if a process dies it will normally be restarted automatically. This approach makes it very easy to offload work to separate worker processes etc.

All this comes courtesy of Erlang, the language on which Elixir is built, with its powerfull OTP framework for building applications and its BEAM virtual machine, which manages the processes.

A lot of the groundwork of Pleroma is done by Phoenix, a very easy-to-use web server framework. Essentially, what happens is that the end user accesses the application using a specific url, typically via a web browser, and based on this url the application performs a number of actions, which in the end result in a change in the state of the application and usually in what is shown in the browser window.

In Phoenix, there are five stages or components between the connection and the resulting action by the application:

The endpoint is the boundary where all requests to your web application start. It is also the interface your application provides to the underlying web servers.

Pleroma's endpoint is web/endpoint.ex . If you look at the source you see several occurrences of plug(Plug...). Plug is a specification for composable modules in between web applications, and it is very heavily used in Pleroma. For example, to serve only specific static files/folders from priv/static:

plug (

Plug.Static ,

at : "/" ,

from : :pleroma ,

only : ~w(index.html static finmoji emoji packs sounds images instance sw.js)

)

Another very nice feature of Phoenis is that you can edit your code while your server is running. It gets automatically recompiled and the affected processes are automatically restarted, courtesy of the Phoenix.CodeReloader:

# Code reloading can be explicitly enabled under the

# :code_reloader configuration of your endpoint.

if code_reloading? do

plug ( Phoenix.CodeReloader )

end

Routers are the main hubs of Phoenix applications. They match HTTP requests to controller actions, wire up real-time channel handlers, and define a series of pipeline transformations for scoping middleware to sets of routes.

Pleroma's router is web/router.ex . The key function in the router is the pipeline which lets you create pipelines of plugs. Other functions are scope, get, post, pipe_through, all of these let you match on the url and whether you are dealing with a get or post request, and define appropriate pipelines of actions. For example, federated ActivityPub requests handled as follows:

scope "/" , Pleroma.Web.ActivityPub do

pipe_through ( :activitypub )

post ( "/users/:nickname/inbox" , ActivityPubController , :inbox )

post ( "/inbox" , ActivityPubController , :inbox )

end

where the pipe_through(:activitypub) call is used to insert a custom pipeline:

pipeline :activitypub do

plug ( :accepts , [ "activity+json" ])

plug ( Pleroma.Web.Plugs.HTTPSignaturePlug )

end

Controllers are used to group common functionality in the same (pluggable) module.

Pleroma makes heavy use of controllers: almost every request is handled by a specific controller for any given protocol, e.g. MastodonAPIController or ActivityPubController. This makes it easy to identify the files to work on if you need to make a change to the code for a given protocol. For example, the ActivityPub post requests in the Router are handled by inbox function in the ActivityPubController:

def inbox (%{ assigns : %{ valid_signature : true }} = conn , params ) do

Federator . enqueue ( :incoming_ap_doc , params )

json ( conn , "ok" )

end

Views are used to control the rendering of templates. You create a view module, a template and a set of assigns, which are basically key-value pairs.

Pleroma uses views for "rendering" JSON objects. For example in web/activity_pub/activity_pub_controller.ex there are lines like

json ( UserView . render ( "user.json" , %{ user : user }))

Here, UserView.render is defined in web/activity_pub/views/user_view.ex for a number of different "*.json" strings. These are not really templates, they are simply used to pattern match on the function definitions.

The more conventional usage to create HTML is also used, e.g. the template web/templates/mastodon_api/mastodon/index.html.eex

is used in web/mastodon_api/mastodon_api_controller.ex via the view

web/mastodon_api/views/mastodon_view.ex :

render ( MastodonView , "index.html" , %{ initial_state : initial_state })

Templates are text files (typically html pages) with Elixir code to generate the specific values based on the assigns, included in <%= ... %>.

For example, in Pleroma, the Mastodon front-end uses a template for the index.html file which has the code

< % = Application . get_env ( :pleroma , :instance )[ :name ] % >

to show the name of the instance.

Ecto is not a part of Phoenix, but it is an integral part of most web applications: Ecto is Elixir's main library for working with databases. It provides the tools to interact with databases under a common API.

Ecto is split into 4 main components:

Ecto.Repo - repositories are wrappers around the data store. Via the repository, we can create, update, destroy and query existing entries. A repository needs an adapter and credentials to communicate to the database

Pleroma uses the PostgresQL database.

Ecto.Schema - schemas are used mainly to map tables into Elixir data (there are other use cases too).

Ecto.Changeset - changesets provide a way for developers to filter and cast external parameters, as well as a mechanism to track and validate changes before they are applied to your data

Ecto.Query - written in Elixir syntax, queries are used to retrieve information from the database.

Because Elixir, like Erlang, uses a processes-with-message-passing paradigm, client-server relationships are so common that they have been abstracted as a behaviour, which in Elixir is a specification for composable modules which have to implement specified public functions (a bit like an interface in Java or typeclass in Haskell).

If we look at the Federator.enqueue function, its implementation actually reduces to a single line:

GenServer . cast ( __MODULE__ , { :enqueue , type , payload , priority })

GenServer is an Elixir behaviour module for implementing the server of a client-server relation. The cast call sends an asynchronous request to the server (synchronous requests use call). The server behaviour is implemented using the handle_cast callback, which handles cast calls.

In Pleroma.Federator , these are implemented in the same module as the enqueue function, hence the use of __MODULE__ rather than the hardcoded module name.

Elixir borrows the concept of a "supervision tree" from Erlang/OTP. AN application consists of a tree of processes than can either be supervisors or workers. The task of a supervisors is to ensure that the worker processes do their work, including distributing the work and restarting the worker processes when they die. Supervisors can supervise either worker or other supervisors, so you can build a supervision tree.

Elixir provides an Application behaviour module and a Supervisor module to make this easy. The Application module requires a start() function as entry point. Typical code to create a supervision tree is

Supervisor . start_link ( children , opts )

where start_link() spawns the top process of the tree, and it spawns all the child processes in the list children.

Pleroma uses a convenient but deprecated module called Supervisor.Spec which provides worker() and supervisor() functions, for example:

children = [

supervisor ( Pleroma.Repo , []),

supervisor ( Pleroma.Web.Endpoint , []),

# ...

worker ( Pleroma.Web.Federator , []),

# ...

]

Every worker has this own start_link function, e.g. in web/federator/federator.ex we find:

def start_link do

# ...

GenServer . start_link ( __MODULE__ , ... )

end

This means that the Federator module borrows the start_link from the GenServer module. This is a very common way to create a worker.

Mix is the build tool for Elixir, and its main advantage is that the build scripts are also written in Elixir. Some key mix actions are provided by Phoenix, for example to build and run the final Pleroma application the action is mix phx.server.

After this brief tour of Elixir and Phoenix I want to give an example of adding simple bot functionality to Pleroma. See my fork of Pleroma for the code.

My bot parses incoming messages for @pixelbot, extracts a list of pixel from the message, modifies a canvas with the new pixels and creates a PNG image of the result. It then posts a link to the PNG image.

Because updating the canvas and creating the PNG image could be time-consuming, especially if the canvas were large, I put this functionality in a separate server module, and added this to the list of workers for the main Pleroma application:

children = [

...

] ++ if ! bot_enabled (), do : [], else : [

worker ( Pleroma.Bots.PixelBot , [ get_canvas_size () ], id : PixelBot ),

]

The bot takes the size of the canvas from my config.exs using the helper function get_canvas_size(). The id: PixelBot allows to access the worker by name.

When the application starts, it launches the PixelBot worker ( bots/pixelbot.ex ). The worker calls its init() function (part of the GenServer behaviour) which loads the last canvas from a file.

One of the protocols used for federation is ActivityPub. The specification is long and not so easy to read. However, for the purpose of hacking Pleroma it mainly

helps to understand the structure of an ActivityPub action (in this case a post):

activity = %{

actor : user_url <> ,

data : %{ "actor" => user_url ,

"cc" => [ user_url <> "/followers" ],

"context" => instance_url <> "/contexts/" <> context_id ,

"id" => instance_url <> "/activities/" <> activity_id ,

"object" => %{ "actor" => user_url <> ,

"attachment" => [%{ "name" => image_file_name , "type" => "Image" ,

"url" => [

"href" => instance_url <> "/media/" <> uuid <> "/" <> image_file_name ,

"mediaType" => "image/png" , "type" => "Link"

}

],

"uuid" => uuid }

],

"cc" => [ user_url <> "/followers" ],

"content" => content_str ,

"context" => instance_url <> "/contexts/" <> context_id ,

"emoji" => %{},

"id" => instance_url <> "/objects/" <> object_id ,

"published" => now , "summary" => "" , "tag" => [],

"to" => [ "https://www.w3.org/ns/activitystreams # Public" ],

"type" => "Note"

}, "published" => now ,

"to" => [ "https://www.w3.org/ns/activitystreams # Public" ],

"type" => "Create"

}, id : id , inserted_at : ndt ,

local : true ,

recipients : [ "https://www.w3.org/ns/activitystreams # Public" , user_url <> "/followers" ],

updated_at : ndt

}

instance_url = "https://pynq.limited.systems"

user_url = user_url <> "/users/pixelbot" `

image_file_name = "canvas.png"

content_str = "Canvas:

<> instance_url

<> "/media/" <> uuid <> "/" <> image_file_name

<> "\" class='attachment'>"

<> image_file_name

<> ""

In Pleroma this activity is linked to the Ecto repository Pleroma.Repo ( repo.ex ) in the module Pleroma.Activity ( activity.ex ), which defines a schema.

The bot only supports ActivityPub. As we have seen above, in Pleroma incoming messages are handled by inbox function in the ActivityPubController (in web/activity_pub/activity_pub_controller.ex ), so I put in a little hook there to detect if a message is for @pixelbot and has an actual message body (content):

def inbox (%{ assigns : %{ valid_signature : true }} = conn , params ) do

headers = Enum . into ( conn . req_headers , %{})

if is_map ( params ) and Map . has_key? ( params , "nickname" ) and Map . has_key? ( params , "object" ) do

if params [ "nickname" ] == "pixelbot" and is_map ( params [ "object" ]) and Map . has_key? ( params [ "object" ], "content" ) do

content = params [ "object" ][ "content" ]

GenServer . cast ( Pleroma.Bots.PixelBot , content )

:ok

else

:nok

end

else

:nok

end

As you can see, the content of a message for @pixelbot is passed on to the PixelBot worker for processing using the GenServer.cast(Pleroma.Bots.PixelBot,content) call.

The PixelBot worker parses the message to extract any pixels from it ( bots/pixelbot/parse_messages.ex ). If there are any, it updates the canvas (which is just a list of lists). It and writes the content to a file, and calls an external program to create the final image.

Finally, the bot posts a status to the public timeline ( bots/pixelbot/pixelbot_post_status.ex ). The status contains the current time and a link to the latest canvas. The function pixelbot_post_status() creates the status and wraps it in the correct structure required by ActivityPub.

It also gets the user object based on the nickname via Pleroma.User.get_cached_by_nickname(nickname) . Like the activity, this user object is defined via a schema and linked to the Ecto repository (in user.ex ). So user in the code below is a complicated object, not a url or nickname.

Finally, the function calls ActivityPub.create() which creates the activity, and in this case that means it posts a status.

def pixelbot_post_status () do

now = DateTime . to_string ( DateTime . utc_now ())

nickname = "pixelbot"

user = Pleroma.User . get_cached_by_nickname ( nickname )

visibility = "public" #get_visibility(data)

instance_url = "https://pynq.limited.systems"

user_url = user_url <> "/users/pixelbot" `

image_file_name = "canvas_512x512.png"

to = [ "https://www.w3.org/ns/activitystreams # Public" ]

cc = [ user_url <> "/followers" ]

context = instance_url <> "/contexts/pixelbot-dummy-context"

object = %{ "actor" => user_url ,

"attachment" => [%{ "name" => image_file_name , "type" => "Image" ,

"url" => [%{ "href" => instance_url <> "/pixelbot/" <> image_file_name ,

"mediaType" => "image/png" , "type" => "Link" }],

"uuid" => "pixelbot-dummy-uuid"

}],

"cc" => [ user_url <> "/followers" ],

"content" => "Canvas at " <> now <> " <> instance_url <> "/pixelbot/" <> image_file_name <> "\" class='attachment'>" <> image_file_name <> "" ,

"context" => context ,

"emoji" => %{}, "summary" => nil , "tag" => [],

"to" => [ "https://www.w3.org/ns/activitystreams # Public" ], "type" => "Note"

}

res =

Pleroma.Web.ActivityPub.ActivityPub . create (%{

to : to ,

actor : user ,

context : context ,

object : object ,

additional : %{ "cc" => cc }

})

Pleroma.User . increase_note_count ( user )

res

end

This is only a part of the Pleroma source tree, it shows on the files mentioned above.

/lib/pleroma/

├── activity.ex

├── application.ex

├── notification.ex

├── object.ex

├── plugs

│ ├── authentication_plug.ex

│ ├── http_signature.ex

│ └── oauth_plug.ex

├── repo.ex

├── user.ex

└── web

├── activity_pub

│ ├── activity_pub.ex

│ ├── activity_pub_controller.ex

│ ├── transmogrifier.ex

│ ├── utils.ex

│ └── views

│ ├── object_view.ex

│ └── user_view.ex

├── common_api

│ ├── common_api.ex

│ └── utils.ex

├── endpoint.ex

├── federator

│ └── federator.ex

├── mastodon_api

│ ├── mastodon_api.ex

│ ├── mastodon_api_controller.ex

│ ├── mastodon_socket.ex

│ └── views

│ ├── mastodon_view.ex

├── router.ex

├── templates

│ ├── mastodon_api

│ │ └── mastodon

│ │ ├── index.html.eex

├── web.ex

├── web_finger

│ ├── web_finger.ex

│ └── web_finger_controller.ex

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