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Crew and passengers from more than 50 countries stuck on ship moored off San Francisco, as global infections pass 100,000 mark

Nearly half of the 46 people tested for coronavirus onboard the Grand Princess cruise ship moored off San Francisco have returned a positive result, vice president Mike Pence has said, and the fate of its more than 3,500 passengers and crew from more than 50 countries remains unclear.

Pence said 21 positive results had been recorded 19 crew members and two passengers and that those that will need to be quarantined will be quarantined. Those who will require medical help will receive it. He urged elderly Americans to consider carefully taking future cruises during the crisis.

There is little detail as to where quarantined and sick passengers will be taken. Previously, military sites have been used to quarantine holidaymakers from the Diamond Princess, moored off Yokohama. On the Grand Princess, some passengers have already complained about the handling of the situation, saying they learned of the coronavirus cases from media reports, and there are concerns for one passenger who has stage 4 cancer.

There are 2,422 guests and 1,111 crew on the vessel, with more than 140 Britons and four Australians among them.

Meanwhile, Florida reported two deaths, the first US fatalities outside the west coast. Health officials said two people in their 70s who had travelled overseas died, one in Santa Rosa County and the other near Fort Myers. The US death toll is now 16.

Globally, the virus has now killed nearly 3,500 people and infected more than 100,000 across 92 nations and territories. Italy and Iran have become the latest hotspots with sharp rises in confirmed cases, recording 4,636 and 4,747 respectively.

In China, 99 new cases were confirmed, and 29 deaths as of midnight Friday. In official data released on Saturday, Chinas exports fell 17.2%, the biggest drop since February 2019 during the trade war with the US, and imports dropped 4%.

The US government plans to take the Grand Princess to a non-commercial port where all the passengers and crew would be tested, however, President Donald Trump said on Friday he would prefer not to allow the passengers onto American soil.

I like the numbers being where they are, said Trump, who appeared to be explicitly acknowledging his political concerns about the outbreak: I dont need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasnt our fault.

Closer to the epicentre of the global outbreak, Hong Kong further sealed itself off from the outside world, with authorities advising Hongkongers against all non-essential travel abroad, and making all arrivals complete a health declaration form.

Previously, the measure, which will come into force from Sunday, was required only for mainland Chinese passengers. The city has reported 106 cases and two deaths in the past six weeks, according to its health officials.

In Australia, authorities are working to trace about 70 patients of a doctor who continued to see patients despite falling ill with coronavirus-like symptoms. He fell ill in the US during a flight from Denver to San Francisco on 27 February before flying back to Melbourne and working throughout the following week. He was later confirmed to have the virus and Toorak clinic, where he works, has since been closed.

Victorias health minister, Jenny Mikakos, said: I have to say I am flabbergasted that a doctor that has flu-like symptoms has presented to work, Mikakos said.

A Revolutionary Guard member disinfects a truck to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in the city of Sanandaj, western Iran. Photograph: Keyvan Firouzei/AP

Equally astonished were police in Sydney, who appealed for calm after a brawl broke out between three women in a supermarket over toilet paper amid continued panic buying. We just ask that people dont panic like this when they go out shopping, said acting inspector Andrew New from New South Wales police. There is no need for it. It isnt the Thunderdome, it isnt Mad Max, we dont need to do that.

There is no need for people to go out and panic buy at supermarkets, paracetamol and canned food or toilet paper.

In the meantime, passengers aboard the Grand Princess remained holed up in their rooms as they awaited word about the fate of the ship. Some said ship officials only informed them of the confirmed coronavirus cases after they first learned about it from news reports.

Passenger Kari Kolstoe, a retiree from North Dakota has stage-4 cancer and is particularly concerned. Kolstoe, 60, said she and her husband, Paul, 61, had looked forward to the cruise to Hawaii as a brief, badly needed respite from the grind of medical intervention she has endured for the past 18 months.

Karie Kolstoe has stage 4 cancer. Photograph: Kari Kolstoe/Reuters

Now facing the prospect of a two-week quarantine far from home in Grand Forks, she worried their getaway cruise will end up causing a fateful delay in her next round of chemotherapy, scheduled to begin early next week.

Its very unsettling, she said in a telephpone interview from the ship on Friday. Its still a worry that Im going to not get back.

Besides the implications for cancer treatment is the fear of falling ill from exposure to a respiratory virus especially dangerous to older people with chronic health conditions and suppressed immunity. Im very at risk for this, said Kolstoe, whose rare form of neuroendocrine cancer has spread throughout her body. Me staying on here for a lot of reasons isnt good.

Steven Smith and his wife, Michele, of Paradise, California, went on the cruise to celebrate their wedding anniversary. They said they were a bit worried but felt safe in their room, which they had left just once since Thursday to video chat with their children. Crew members wearing masks and gloves delivered trays with their food in covered plates and left them outside their door.

To pass the time they have been watching television, reading and looking out the window, they said. Thank God, we have a window! Steven said.

An epidemiologist who studies the spread of virus particles said the recirculated air from a cruise ships ventilation system, plus the close quarters and communal settings, made passengers and crew vulnerable to infectious diseases. Theyre not designed as quarantine facilities, to put it mildly, said Don Milton of the University of Maryland. Youre going to amplify the infection by keeping people on the boat.

Another Princess ship, the Diamond Princess, was quarantined for two weeks in Yokohama, Japan, last month because of the virus. Ultimately, about 700 of the 3,700 people aboard became infected in what experts pronounced a public-health failure, with the vessel essentially becoming a floating germ factory.

In the US, officials in Austin cancelled this years SXSW festival, a major tech and music conference, amid coronavirus concerns. SXSW, which draws 400,000 visitors, was scheduled for 13 to 22 March.

Austins mayor, Steve Adler, said: Ive gone ahead and declared a local disaster in the city and associated with that, have issued an order that effectively cancels SXSW.

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The actor and his wife Rita Wilson now in self-isolation and feeling a lot better, says their son

Actor Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, have been discharged from an Australian hospital but remain in self-isolation as they recover from coronavirus.

Their son, Chet Hanks, posted a video message on Instagram about his parents being released from hospital after they tested positive last week. He said their health had improved and people needed to stay calm.

They are still self-quarantined obviously, but they are feeling a lot better so thats a relief, Chet said in the video post. I just want to say, anyone else out there that has loved ones, or if you yourself are inflicted with the virus, my prayers go out to you, because a lot of people are suffering other than my parents right now. I just wish everyone a swift and speedy recovery.

Hanks is in Queensland filming a Baz Luhrmann biopic about Elvis Presley. Production has ceased for two weeks; Hanks is not believed to have infected any other cast or crew. Singer-songwriter Wilson recently performed in Brisbane and Sydney.

Hanks issued a statement last Thursday saying he and Wilson had gone to hospital after feeling run down. He said they would comply with all Australian health restrictions relating to the virus.

While in hospital, Hanks tweeted his gratitude to the medical staff caring for them. The post, which included a photo of two pieces of toast smothered in Vegemite, sparked a furious social media debate about the correct amount and application of the popular spread.

Wilson asked Twitter to help her compile a music playlist for those in isolation, calling it Quarantunes.

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Eerily beautiful show reveals frustrating fragmentation of writers classic essay

First published in 1979, The White Album, Joan Didions collection of essays and journalism about the 1960s, has become a modern classic of New Journalism.

Didion uses a highly stylised cadence and a fragmented, mosaic style of storytelling to illustrate the times. But her voice is also a metaphor: language breaks down, the world is breaking down, shes having a breakdown.

This is the second of Didions landmark works to be taken to the stage, the first being The Year of Magical Thinking a memoir about the death of her husband which opened on Broadway in 2007.

The White Album is a tougher proposition. While the theme of Didions book is the search for and failure to find a narrative, on the stage, this failure of narrative can be disorienting and unsatisfying for theatregoers.

Which is perhaps the point.

The director Lars Jan and the Early Morning Opera have brought The White Album to the stage after almost eight years of trying to obtain the rights. They eventually secured them with the promise to Didion that the text of the books first, eponymous essay would be performed in its entirety. We promised to do every word. We werent going to cut anything we were going to start with the first word and end with the last, Jan said in an interview.

The fragmented scenes take a form like chapters and cover Didions perspective on key moments during the late 60s. Photograph: Lars Jan/Sydney festival

The first words of that essay We tell ourselves stories in order to live have become famous in their own right and, when delivered on stage by the actor and co-creator Mia Barron, they produce chills.

The fragmented scenes take a form like chapters and cover Didions perspective on key moments during the late 60s the trial of Huey Newton, a Doors recording session, the San Francisco State College student protests and the Manson murders as well as her own psychiatric assessment and the packing list she uses when shes on assignment.

It is essentially a monologue Barron reciting the wordy text from memory broken up with asides or quotes from a Greek chorus of hippies, protesters, musicians and activists, played in large part by members of the audience, led by surreptitious instructions fed through earpieces, who volunteered beforehand to be part of the show. Jan has also previously said that it was not necessary for Barron to actually embody Didion: She is using the words of the text to create a character, to speak those words instinctively, he said.

Mia Barron, second from left, inside the glass house. Photograph: Reed Hutchinson/Sydney festival

But it can take a bit to reset expectations about character. Didions writing like her persona can be aloof (she is famously described as a cool customer by a hospital social worker in The Year of Magical Thinking). When I met her once in New York, she exuded a frostiness and imperviousness that was highly intimidating, an effect heightened perhaps because she is so physically slight.

Barrons narrator is a more substantial, earthy presence, appearing more relatable and solid than the real-life Didion, who in the text is in the process of a crack-up; in her perpetual motion between New York, California, Hawaii and reporting trips to various cities, she is herself yet another metaphor for a country in which the centre cannot hold.

The music and stagecraft of this production enhance the apocalyptic late 60s vibe. A stark, modular, literal glass house dominates the stage. Designed by P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S architectural firm, it is a stand-in for the recording studio in which Didion met the Doors; her house on Franklin Avenue, Hollywood; student campuses; and finally, a bloody shootout. But despite the eerie beauty of the staging, seeing one of my favourite essays performed in this way revealed flaws I had not seen in the text before.

Didion is the master of cadence, creating a lyrical power in her mesmerising arrangement of words, but she has no discipline or focus. Characters slide in and out, and stories that would have enriched our understanding of the times remain, frustratingly, only partly told. The fragments when performed together do not make a whole, and she is its unstable centre.

Then there are the times we are living through now. During the performance, I couldnt help but contrast Didions times with now. From within, our times seem to be even more chaotic, fragmentary and evil than Didions 60s. Weve lost any illusion we had of a centre not least, of a centre that can hold. Weve long been without a narrative. Perhaps, if Didion is right, there never was a narrative to begin with.

Joan Didions The White Album is at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, as part of Sydney festival until 12 January

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Im a true cynic, but in a world that feels increasingly grim, its good to have someone to admire

Im a true cynic who has never believed in role models. Im wary of the Inspiring Woman Industrial Complex and its exhortations for us to Lean In or Eat, Pray and Love. Heroism is a label I would bestow lightly, if ever, knowing how the milkshake duck quacks for us all, eventually.

And yet there is something about the chaos and awfulness of 2019 that has softened me up for inspiration. You could be forgiven for almost flinching at breaking news alerts at this point our politics is so woefully scandal-ridden, our leaders are so comically terrible. Traits we were raised to believe were wrong lying, cruelty, greed are embraced wholeheartedly by leaders like Donald Trump. In many parts of Australia, we end the year shrouded in smoke and ash.

So in Gotham-esque times, Ive found myself looking for heroes. Not people I worship or believe are without fault, but people who have helped push back against the tide of hopelessness and despair; people bringing courage, excellence, compassion, defiance and, in some cases, just pure joy into the world.

Heres a very incomplete list of some who made my year tell me yours in the comments.

Volunteer firefighters

Australias unprecedented and seemingly intractable bushfire crisis has taken a heavy toll in lives and homes, buried cities in smoke and ignited anger over our lack of action on climate change. What is usually our happiest time of year has been marked by tragedy, dread and mounting anxiety.

Every day of this emergency, though, thousands of firefighters primarily volunteers have acted with selflessness and bravery. Everything that was already burning was burning even more, everywhere you looked was burning, was how the captain of the RFS brigade in the NSW town of Balmoral described the horror around his team on Friday. The firefighters that were here, they were not only were they fighting for their own lives, they were fighting for this community.

There are necessary political debates going on about how sustainable the current volunteer model is but in the meantime we are awed and grateful.

Megan Rapinoe

Megan Rapinoe (right) celebrates scoring her sides first goal of a July 2019 game with team-mate Alex Morgan. Photograph: John Walton/PA

The Pose said it all: arms outstretched and smiling face turned to the sun, both basking in her own success, taking up as much space as she could and inviting the world in for an embrace. Megan Rapinoe, the co-captain of the US womens football team, was one of the biggest sporting stars of the year. She led her team to victory at the World Cup and was named the tournaments top scorer and best player. But she transcended the game and gave even non-soccer fans a jolt of hope with her fearless advocacy leading her teams campaign for equal pay, refusing to sing the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and being unapologetically, joyfully open about her sexuality, posing nude with her partner, Sue Bird.

She became a Twitter target of the president when she stated matter-of-factly, Im not going to the fucking White House in the event of a World Cup victory. Instead, her team got a parade in New York City, where she partied hard, basked in her success and used her speech to plea for a better world. This is my charge to everyone, she said. We have to be better. We have to love more. Hate less.

TikTok teens

Most social media platforms have long been colonised by brands, Nazis and your older relatives sharing political disinformation, but TikTok has not only been a shelter from the storm, its been one of the most fun corners of the internet. The low-fi, high energy short video-making app is a geyser of creativity, nihilist humour, dancing and politics, driven primarily by teenagers displaying astonishing wit (and incredible moves).

Feroza Aziz, a 17-year-old Muslim American from New Jersey, became one of the biggest TikTok stars of the year with a short make-up tutorial that quickly segued into a PSA about the imprisonment of millions of Uyghurs in China.

A still from Feroza Azizs Tiktok make-up tutorial. Photograph: Tiktok

For the Walk a Mile challenge, users attempted to wear household objects loaves of bread, pencils, chairs as shoes while prancing around their houses. While Australia burned, and Scott Morrison slipped out of the country to Hawaii, teens took their revenge by roasting our absent leader. As an adult you can sometimes feel like an awkward chaperone at a high school party on the app uninvolved and uninvited but you always leave thinking the kids are all right.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shook up American politics when, at just 28, the political novice challenged her local Democratic congressman with an insurgent, grassroots campaign. She promised to deliver for the working class and communities of colour and won.

In 2019, she underscored how she pulled off that victory with her relentless work ethic, passion for social justice and deftness at politics in the internet age. Most notably, she has transformed usually staid congressional committees into a spectator sport. She filleted Mark Zuckerberg during his recent appearance, exposing the hollowness of Facebooks claim to act in the interests of democracy or its users privacy.

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‘So you won’t take down lies?’: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez challenges Facebook CEO video

Politics is tough on women, especially women of colour, but AOC hasnt shrunk or changed herself she is unyielding about her values and about who she is (the Instagram makeup tutorials are a delight). In the process, she is changing the game. Her confidence is infectious, too. One of my favourite onscreen moments this year was AOC in her tiny New York apartment, geeing herself up before a debate in the Netflix documentary about her campaign.

I need to take up space. I can do this, she tells herself.

Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X channels Little Richard and Prince at the MTV awards. Photograph: Getty/Rex Shutterstock

There were plenty of pop-cultural thrills in 2019: watching Jennifer Lopez pull off an all-time comeback in Hustlers (and shaking her perfect butt), watching Lizzo bring relentless energy and joy to every music awards show (and shaking her perfect butt), the Little Women trailer (butts very much obscured by civil war-era fashions, but perfect nonetheless).

Up there has been the Lil Nas X ascendancy. This year the teen rapper rose from obscurity at least outside social media to dropping the hip-hop country mash-up Old Town Road, which sat atop the singles charts for a record-breaking 19 weeks. Gay, funny, deft at social media, dazzling on a red carpet, Montero Lamar Hills (his real name) success story has been described as akin to A Star is Born, but starring a teen in Atlanta with a dream and a SoundCloud account. Old Town Road is not my favourite song of the year, but its catchy and fun and silly and impossible not to sing along with. It also seems to hotwire the happiness receptors in the brains of small children show me a club on this planet that goes harder than an elementary school hosting Lil Nas X.

Complex (@Complex)

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US rapper accuses Jessica Chiha and her online retailer The Little Homie of knowingly infringing on his trademarks

An Australian woman says shell fight US rapper Jay-Zs copyright lawsuit because she thinks she should be able to use the Grammy winners name and lyrics to sell childrens books.

Jessica Chiha and her business The Little Homie are being sued in the federal court by the US billionaire, legally named Shawn Carter, who accuses them of knowingly infringing on his trademarks and misleading conduct.

We are unbelievably disappointed to find ourselves caught in a legal battle with someone whose music we love and adore, Chiha said in a statement on Thursday.

She said The Little Homie was created so parents could connect with their children through something they love during the transition to parenthood and her love of hip-hop and the artists I grew up listening to.

The online retailer raised $8,000 on Kickstarter to publish the AB to Jay-Z picture book, which refers to well-known rappers to teach the alphabet, and has since expanded to include a colouring book and clothing.

Other artists featured include the Notorious BIG, Pharrell Williams and Snoop Dogg.

The book reportedly came to Jay-Zs attention after controversy broke over accusations of cultural appropriation and racism in 2017 when a customer asked if the company was black-owned.

The back of the book includes the quote If youre having alphabet problems I feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems but my ABCs aint one.

Jay-Zs song famously opened with If youre having girl problems, I feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems but a bitch aint one.

To have someone like Jay-Z file legal proceedings is daunting beyond belief and hugely dispiriting, Chiha said.

We maintain we have done nothing wrong and intend to give it everything weve got for common sense and common good to prevail, to the extent we can fight the fight.

Its that persistence to keep trading that has landed the company in court.

Documents filed earlier this month by the rappers Australian legal counsel note Carter asked Chiha to stop in March 2018 and again in July this year.

Letters were sent between lawyers until September.

Unless restrained, the respondents threaten to and intend to and will continue to engage in the conduct referred to above, the statement of claim reads.

The lawyers said the retailer and director deliberately and knowingly attempted to trade off the reputation of the rapper, who is married to singer Beyonc.

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Standup comedian also takes aim at callout culture that sees public figures held to account by audiences

Dave Chappelle has come under fire for his latest Netflix special in which he claims he does not believe Michael Jackson sexually assaulted young boys, and makes jokes at the expense of Jacksons accusers.

In a standup set that seemed designed to provoke precisely the backlash that it was critiquing, Chappelle took aim at a prevailing callout culture that sees celebrities being held to account by audiences and in the media for perceived or actual crimes and for the offensive things they say.

He talked at length about the allegations of sexual assault against Jackson, who died in 2009, made by James Safechuck and Wade Robson in the HBO/Channel 4 documentary, Leaving Neverland.

Chappelle described the allegations in detail before complaining about the graphic descriptions in the documentary itself, and then said he didnt believe Jacksons accusers because actor Macaulay Culkin, who also spent time with Jackson as a child, hadnt made accusations of his own.

Acknowledging that he was saying something that Im not allowed to say, Chappelle also joked about how making such statements made him a victim blamer.

If somebody come up to me like, Dave, Dave, Chris Brown just beat up Rihanna! Id be like, Well, what did she do? Dave! Michael Jackson was molesting children! Well, what were those kids wearing at the time? he said.

But you know what, even if he did do it its Michael Jackson. I know more than half the people in this room have been molested in their lives. But it wasnt no goddamn Michael Jackson, was it?

Chappelle also compared the Jackson allegations with those made by multiple women against singer R Kelly, which he said he did believe.

Robson and Safechuck, Jacksons accusers, responded to the comedians set, with Robson saying: He can say whatever he wants. It reveals him, not us.

Robsons lawyer Vince Finaldi said of Chappelle: Its unfortunate that he has chosen to use his platform to shame sexual abuse victims, and spread his ignorance of sexual abuse and the way it is perpetrated upon children, in an attempt to resurrect his career.

Sticks & Stones is Chappelles third Netflix special, the first two of which were also widely criticised for their apparent homophobia and transphobia.

Chappelle appeared to predict the backlash to Sticks & Stones, which was released this week, suggesting in the set that such backlash was the reason his public appearances were few and far between.

Thats why I dont be coming out doing comedy all the time, he said. Im goddamn sick of it. This is the worst time ever to be a celebrity. Youre gonna be finished. Everyones doomed.

Later, he said: Doesnt matter what I say. And if you at home watching this shit on Netflix, remember bitch, you clicked on my face. Celebrity hunting season. Doesnt matter what I say, theyre gonna get everybody eventually. Like look, I dont think I did anything wrong, but well see.

John Branca, an executor of the Jackson estate, told TMZ he agreed with Chappelle.

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Jerry Foxhoven was fired from his job at Iowas social services agency after quoting Tupac too much. Here are some of the rappers best lines to use at work

What role should the late, great rapper Tupac Shakur play in the day-to-day life of a public servant? Its a question 66-year-old Jerry Foxhoven, until recently the director of Iowas social services agency, might have mixed feelings about.

Foxhoven was ousted from his post in June the day after sending an email containing Tupac lyrics to employees of the Iowa Department of Human Services. For those in the know, this wasnt an uncommon occurrence. A renowned Tupac superfan, Foxhoven was known for sending emails to his colleagues that included lyrics from Tupacs songs and for hosting listening parties dubbed Tupac Fridays in his office. He even celebrated his 65th birthday with thug life frosted cookies. Its just that this time, the email went to all 4,300 staff.

While it might seem incongruous for a white bureaucrat in his 60s to stan the 90s hip-hop legend, a closer look at Tupacs work reveals a social poet whose work is remarkably compatible with the everyday office grind. Here are 10 lyrics and quotes from his oeuvre that wont hopefully get you fired.

1. How long will they mourn me?

How Long Will They Mourn Me?

It seems not long at all in Foxhovens case, but who hasnt wondered aloud to colleagues, often and insecurely, about your intra-office legacy? No? OK. Me neither.

2. Theres no way I can pay you back / But the plan is to show you that I understand / You are appreciated

Dear Mama

Tupac was talking about his mother, but this line works equally well for managers who are unable or unwilling to offer above-minimum wage increases to their staff.

3. Picture me inside the misery of poverty / No man alive has ever witnessed struggles I survived

Thugz Mansion

A helpful negotiating counter to the above.

4. Lets change the way we eat / Lets change the way we live / And lets change the way we treat each other


Changes is perhaps Tupacs most elegant track. A profound critique of race relations in the US, and a stirring indictment of injustice. It also sort of sounds like an HR manager talking about the new ergonomic chairs and hot-desking system.

5. Dont blame me / I was given this world I didnt make it

Keep Ya Head Up

Useful for failed projects, missed deadlines, basically anything for which youre trying to shed responsibility.

6. Just got the message youve been calling all week / Been out here hustling on these streets, aint had a chance to speak

Unconditional Love

Tupacs answer to sorry I missed you, Ive been tied up in meetings.

7. Our future is our confidence and self-esteem

In this quote from a 1996 interview, Tupacs belief that your own self-worth will be societys measure of your value sounds weirdly like the heading of a Powerpoint presentation about meeting KPIs.

8. The seed must grow regardless of the fact that its planted in stone

The Rose that Grew from Concrete

Tupac emerged from a difficult upbringing through the Digital Underground an American alternative hip-hop outfit from Oakland, California and, like this line, much of his oeuvre relates to making something from nothing.

Also good for convincing the intern to take on a project you know has no way of succeeding.

9. Please dont cry, dry your eyes, never let up / Forgive, but dont forget, girl, keep ya head up

Keep Ya Head Up

Tupac went through several tumultuous chapters in his personal life; prison, gun violence (obviously) and that time a teenage Rashida Jones dissed him in an open letter published in the Source. Through it all, though, his lyrics never wavered on calling out social injustices and reframing them as life lessons for other black youth.

This line, in which he exhorts his audience to persist through dark times, is also useful when awkwardly encountering a colleague crying in the stairwell.

10. Theyve got money for war but cant feed the poor

Keep Ya Head Up

Extremely deep. Perfect for Christmas parties.

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As Australias first trial for psychedelic therapy for terminally ill patients gets under way, a growing movement says it could also help other conditions

In August 2016 I went to New York for the first time. On the second evening, as the sun slipped behind the building across the street, I was sitting on a long couch on the top floor of an old church. All around me instruments were scattered on the floor singing bowls, tuning forks, rainsticks, Tibetan bells. At the foot of a wall carpeted completely in moss, dripping like the jungle in the baking heat, was a large bronze gong.

On the table in front of me two small ceramic bowls contained a capsule of 125mg of pure MDMA and a chilli guacamole with three grams of powdered magic mushrooms stirred through it. I eyed them nervously. I was terrified that I was going to lose my mind but I was more scared that nothing would happen at all, that I was too broken for even this radical treatment.

Id left Australia to take psychedelics with a therapist. Almost a decade of regular talk therapies for depression had done little to explain why I still felt so numb, trapped and terrified. A few months earlier Id tracked down a guy online who said that, while it wasnt a magic bullet, he might have something that would help. I cant name him because its still completely illegal.

He was sitting across from me and after Id swallowed the contents of both bowls he handed me a padded eye mask and suggested I lie back on the couch. I heard him move across the room in the steamy darkness as I tried to relax and focus on my breathing. Moments later I heard the first strange notes from the gong.

2016 was a breakthrough year for psychedelic therapy, not just for me. In May, a study from the Beckley Foundation in partnership with Imperial College London found that two-thirds of their participants with treatment-resistant depression were in remission a week after a therapy session with psilocybin, the active chemical in magic mushrooms. One participant said: I found I felt more connected, to myself, other people, nature, life in general. I felt alive, rather than distant and isolated and cut off.

In November 2016 two US university studies jointly published their findings: 80% of the terminally ill patients who had similar psilocybin sessions experienced significant reductions in depression and anxiety.

The following week the US Food and Drug Administration announced that it was approving the final phase of trials of psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) using MDMA.

Meanwhile, in Australia nothing. At the end of 2015 Psychedelic Research in Science and Medicine (Prism), a non-profit research association formed in 2011, had its second application for a study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy knocked back by Deakin University. The email from the deputy vice chancellor for research said: The university will not engage in research that has the potential to damage its reputation as an ethical organisation.

Dr Martin Williams, president of Prism and a medicinal chemistry researcher at Monash University, got the message loud and clear. We realised then that it was going to be a hearts and minds operation on our behalf, that we were going to have to be an advocacy organisation and play the long game, he says.

The momentum has been building for decades overseas. In 1986 Rick Doblin, a trainee therapist with a PhD from the Harvard Kennedy school, founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (Maps) to overturn the decision by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to criminalise MDMA use. Initially a drug used in the 1970s by American therapists to enhance their clients feelings of trust and openness during sessions, MDMAs effects had become too popular to contain and, like LSD a couple of decades before, it broke through into wider culture leading to a blanket ban on recreation and research.

Doblin, a shambling sun-bear of a man with a perpetual smile, initially launched an appeal against the DEA decision through its own legal channels, and won. However, the DEA disregarded the ruling so Maps opted for medicalisation taking MDMA through several phases of clinical trials to establish its safety and therapeutic efficacy. I just knew from personal experience, from working with patients, that MDMA was so different from the way the government was trying to present it, so much better, that eventually the truth would come out, says Doblin. Did I think it would take 32 years? No.

It was only last year that the full results of six phase-two trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy were published, in Lancetand the Journal of Psychopharmacology. Of 107 patients with treatment-resistant PTSD who were administered the drug in two or three seven-hour sessions, with therapists, eye mask and music, 68% were in remission at the 12-month follow-up. Its about twice the success rate for the gold-standard treatment for PTSD: prolonged exposure therapy.

MDMAs therapeutic properties emerge from a combination of factors. Its most acute effect is to significantly dampen the activity of the amygdala, the part of our brain that regulates fear response. While it relieves anxiety and stress, MDMA also sharply increases the brains supply of serotonin and oxytocin, the neurotransmitters primarily responsible for mood regulation and social bonding.

A recent study in Nature suggested that MDMA can temporarily return the brain to an early development state of exuberant brain plasticity that fosters renewed social reward learning. The American psychiatrist Julie Holland says: You basically couldnt design a molecule that is better for therapy than MDMA.

A former firefighter, Ed Thompson, was overdosing nightly on a combination of booze and benzos when he entered a Maps trial in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. The trauma of losing nine colleagues as they fought a warehouse fire beside him, the worst firefighting loss in the US since 9/11, was compounded by a chronic illness afflicting his twin baby daughters.

My body felt like it was going to explode from the inside out … I was underwater and drowning, he told me last year. After three all-day MDMA sessions with two therapists beside him, he no longer met the criteria for PTSD. It was just an incredible time of healing.

In 2017 the US Food and Drug Administration declared MDMA a breakthrough therapy, and Doblin expects it to be a legal medicine in the US again by 2021. Phase-three trials have begun at 15 sites in the US, Canada and Israel and will roll out across Europe this year after agreement with the European Medicines Agency.

In Australia a proposal for an MDMA trial with just four participants is slowly moving through the approvals process, this time at Edith Cowan University in Perth. Stephen Bright, senior lecturer in addiction studies at the university and vice president of Prism, says it supports the trial, and the wider community is increasingly open to the idea. The public are generally receptive, he says. All the stuff Im talking about depression, trauma, addiction they have been touched by in some way. At the end of the day, the evidence says that psychedelic therapy is effective at treating a range of conditions.

Nigel Strauss, a Melbourne psychiatrist and trauma specialist who worked with Prism on its failed proposal, says the way psychedelic therapy works is a challenge to prevailing medical assumptions. Psychedelic drugs are a whole change of perspective, he says. These are meaning drugs, and the whole concept of meaning eludes people and they think its hocus-pocus. These are concepts that dont fit easily into medical science at the moment particularly in this country.

But something has shifted. In January St Vincents hospital in Melbourne announced that Australias first trial of psilocybin-assisted therapy for 30 people with terminal illnesses will start in coming months. It is believed the mind-expanding and mystical properties of the psychedelic experience might be especially effective at relieving the existential angst and hopelessness that often accompanies a terminal diagnosis. When youre working with psychedelics you can reliably expect these deeply embodied transformational moments, says Rosalind Watts, a clinical psychologist working on the Beckley/Imperial trial.

Williams, who is co-investigator on the St Vincents study, which Prism has helped organise, says what has been called the psychedelic renaissance overseas is more like the dawning of a new age in Australia, where there is no history of psychedelic research. Its definitely a major step forward because as long as we achieve positive results from the research, then we expect to move that into therapeutic practice in a period of time perhaps five to 10 years, he says.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. Sandy McFarlane, the director of the centre for traumatic stress studies at the University of Adelaide, wonders if psychedelics researchers have been drinking the Kool-Aid: Adequate evidence from carefully controlled trials is yet to be published, particularly by individuals who are not advocates of the therapy. Let the data speak for itself as with any treatment.

Gillinder Bedi, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne who has previously run US studies of the pharmacology of MDMA, agrees that some advocates are a bit much: They are the true believers. Scientists are a little bit uncomfortable with the language that gets used. I dont think that [organisations like Maps] understand the effect of coming from the counterculture on the people outside it.

For Bedi their findings are almost too good to be true: The results Ive seen are unique the effects are really clear. Its just that theyve been in small studies and theyve been conducted by people who have massively vested interests in the whole thing Theres a part of me that goes, Why did your data end up so neat and nice? Im not sceptical about the rigour of the science, Im just confused more than anything.

But Bedi insists that contrary to its reputation MDMA is safe to use therapeutically: Its pretty clear now that we can administer it in a controlled environment with appropriate supervision pretty safely. Psychedelics studies exclude people with a history of psychosis or mania, as well as those with certain medical conditions that the drug effects could exacerbate. If its given to people who are well screened beforehand, those risks can be controlled.

The Prism team was cagey about the St Vincents study until the moment it was announced, but Williams has noticeably relaxed his attitude discussing psychedelics in the Australian context. I think theres been a broad shift in the public discourse, which has been this ongoing process, probably since the results of the clinical trials in the US and Europe were first communicated, he says. Its thanks to the great groundwork of Maps and others overseas that were at the point we are now at all.

A new non-profit called Mind Medicines Australia launches next month to coordinate training more therapists to meet the potential demand. Williams and Strauss are planning a study of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression, modelled on UK research.

For more than a decade, the Beckley Foundation has developed groundbreaking psychedelic research in partnership with Imperial College London. They produced the first brain scans of the LSD and psilocybin experience which suggest that, rather than amplifying neural activity as expected, psychedelics appear to selectively inhibit the default mode network, which regulates executive brain function like a disciplinarian teacher. When psychedelics take it out of the picture for a period, a whole bunch of new connections and neural activity fires up like exuberant children, allowing a wider range of phenomena to reach conscious awareness. Brain scans of long-term meditators have shown the same pattern.

The novel neural connections facilitated in the psychedelic state can lead to lasting changes. A 2018 Beckley/Imperial study using data from their previous depression trial measured significant increases in the personality domain of openness three months after the single high dose of psilocybin.

It replicates similar findings from Johns Hopkins University in the US. Albert Garcia-Romeu, who is leading another Hopkins psilocybin study, told me that openness goes hand-in-hand with reductions in symptoms such as rigid negative thinking. [It] has shown association with overall happiness and quality of life, so in that regard I think it can be an important piece of the puzzle in terms of psychedelics therapeutic potentials, he says.

Ian Roullier, a participant in the Beckley study of treatment-resistant depression, described how he experienced it: Depression is a very narrow, restricted state and taking psilocybin really helps you to zoom out a lot more I felt a lightness within myself and more of a freedom. Like MDMA for PTSD, psilocybin has just been given breakthrough therapy status for treatment-resistant depression and large-scale trials are being rushed through across Europe.

For me, about an hour and a half after I lay down in New York, I took off the eye mask and sat up to a world transformed. For as long as I could remember there had been a wall of glass between the world and me, trapping me in a numb limbo that a litany of talk therapy and medications couldnt touch.

Like magic, the wall was gone. Everything I looked at had a new clarity and immediacy as I drank it in. It was as though an iron knot of tension in my forehead, which contracted my whole body in its clenching grip, had suddenly dissolved. I felt calm, confident and connected. I didnt feel like I was tripping I felt like myself for the first time in years. It was the purest relief Id ever known.

Almost three years later Im back living in Fremantle but its all changed. I had spent past Western Australian summers in bed, staring at the wall with the blinds down. This year Im up at five most mornings making the most of the rising sun: gym, swim, long walk on the beach, and in the studio by eight this morning to finish off my edits before uni. Id always wanted to write but the words wouldnt come, and while I still have to work bloody hard to keep the show on the road, its all flowing now.

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Dutch artist Julian Hetzels installation Schuldfabrik took a provocative look at the age of excess

In a fashionably minimalist shopfront in Adelaide, a woman is washing my hands. She gently pours water over them, presenting me with a bar of soap, while she explains its healing properties. As she pats them dry, she places my palms in a praying position.

So far, so Lush. But while the whitewashed walls and posh glass display cabinets may look familiar, this isnt any ordinary cosmetics company. The soap I am trying creamy in texture, snow-white in colour, satisfyingly chunky in shape is made from human fat.

I am taking part in the installation Schuldfabrik, created by Dutch artist Julian Hetzel, which first premiered in 2016 in Austria and is currently showing at the Adelaide festival.

Eager to examine societys views towards excess as well as the taboo against using products siphoned from humans Hetzel asked liposuction patients to donate their fat to the project. This was then turned into soap, stamped with the logo SELF, and wrapped in modish monochrome packaging. It is currently being sold in the pop-up shop for $35 a bar.

As Neil Armfield, joint artistic director of the festival, put it: Its very good soap.

It doesnt make the experience any less confronting. True, scientists across the world are looking at ways we can utilise human waste: from converting faeces (usually ejected into space) into a potential food source for astronauts to turning sewage into fertiliser. But as someone Jewish, I couldnt stop thinking about Nazi Germany, where legend has it scientists boiled down concentration camp victims into soap. (The truth of this is hotly debated, but the use of Jewish bodies to benefit the Third Reich through medical experimentation and forced labour is undisputed.)

Julian Hetzel, creator of Schuldfabrik. Photograph: Russell Millard/Adelaide Festival

Hetzel, however, is more interested in interrogating first-world guilt, and what to do with the surplus of resources we have, than exploring what his art says about history.

Shuld the German word that lends the artwork its title has two meanings: guilt as a moral duty and debt as an economic obligation. What if there was a way, akin to carbon trading, of absolving guilt by creating positive outcomes for society from the byproducts of quick-fix weight loss? Schuldfabrik asks. In other words, Hetzel seems to be saying, if fat denotes gross overabundance, can it be used to help others who have less?

In Schuldfabrik that question is treated practically. Proceeds from soap sales go towards digging wells in a village in Malawi. Thats not all: for every bar of soap sold, another is donated to the village. In one fell swoop, Schuldfabrik claims to provide both clean water and a tool for hygiene. (The simple act of hand-washing, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can help prevent the spread of diarrhoea and respiratory infections, which kills 3.5 million children annually in the developing world).

Reflecting this, the installation starts in a confessional where I am placed, alone, in a claustrophobic pitch-black stall. Beforehand each audience member in our small group is interrogated by a stern lady in a lab coat. Do you drive to work in a car? Do you recycle? Do you know where your dress was made? she barks at one woman. The woman looks down, runs her fingers across her hem, and admits, sheepishly, that she doesnt.

We are then led to another room where a plastic surgeon from The Hague explains the procedure of liposuction, before demonstrating on a hyper-real sculpture of a man. She inserts a needle into his flabby, hairy belly, drawing liquid fat into a nearby container. All the while, she discusses how changing ideals of beauty have fuelled the cosmetic surgery industry.

Photograph: Russell Millard/Adelaide Festival

In the factory, there are other rooms too: a laboratory where the process of soap making is explained (the ingredients, we read, contains 10% human fat, combined with other vegetable oils); a room where two non-Anglo men labour in a sweatshop to produce packaging; and a room where bubbles foam down from the ceiling, gathering on the floor in eerie human-looking shapes, to booming classical music.

Finally, we are ushered into an office where the companys CEO explains his mission, safely positioned behind a glass window. For 20 minutes he waxes lyrical, his corporate terminology belying a chilling messianic zeal. At one point, illustrating the virtuous circle of up-cycling on the window with a white marker, he creates the shape of a Christian cross, raising his hands like Jesus: Wash the pain away!

Soap may seem like an everyday object, readily accessible for a dollar in Woolworths. For centuries, however, it was considered a sign of richness: a soap tax in 18th century England meant the product was reserved for the wealthy. More recently soap has remained a luxury for many: less than 0.1 percent of households in Ethiopia and just 34.7 percent in Swaziland have access to soap and water, according to a 2010-13 survey.

Schuldfabrik promises personal betterment while offering a solution to the consequences of poverty. But Hetzel probes the very resolutions he offers. Is saving people in developing countries through buying an expensive artisan product just another excuse for consumerism? Are we doing it simply to feel good about ourselves? (In this case, the conundrum is theoretical: the numbers of soap produced and sold through Schuldfabrik will barely make any real dent in Malawi; in my group just one woman made a purchase.)

There are other issues, too. Fatness is treated in Schuldfabrik like a privilege; but in the West, and in many developing countries across the world, obesity levels are worse amongst the poor where the cost of fresh, healthy food is prohibitive. Unlike in the movie Fight Club, in which Brad Pitts character steals fat from a liposuction clinic to make and sell soap, these patients agreed to the use of their body for art. Yet the very fact that this fat needs to be got rid of in the first place not to mention the underlying presumption that this is, finally, a way for obese patients to be productive conjures up the words of Cat Paus, a researcher in fat studies at Massey University, New Zealand, who once told me: Fat bodies are believed to be lazy, inactive, unattractive, asexual, unhealthy, unsuccessful and unhappy. Do something good! The artwork seems to say. Donate!

During my afternoon ablutions in Adelaide, a baptism, of sorts, I thought about the cost of cleanliness. Who gets access to hygiene and who doesnt. The price of human waste. And the way we treat fat bodies as well as others viewed as unwanted or worthless in society. Exiting the shop, I glanced at large black letters emblazoned on the wall. From people for people, it read.

Guardian Australia was a guest of Adelaide festival

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She loves to talk, hates to fly and wants to make it clear she takes no responsibility for the state of US politics

Be grateful you didnt sit next to Fran Lebowitz on the plane from New York to Melbourne. The trip was the longest flight she had taken, and therefore the longest time she managed to go without a cigarette. When I ask if it is her first time in Australia, she says: That makes it sound as if theres going to be a second time. She surprised herself by not being taken off the flight in handcuffs for assaulting fellow (first-class) passengers or smoking in the toilets.

I was like a child on the plane, asking the flight attendant, Are we there? And she said, Are you nuts? Weve only been flying for four hours. The only people who live in Australia are those who came to Australia and couldnt face the trip back Im actually one of those people.

Lebowitz has been invited to Australia several times but, as a longtime smoker, 30 hours on a flight without a cigarette was out of the question. But she was persuaded to perform shows (which quickly sold out) at the recent All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House, and a Wheeler Centre talk in Melbourne. She got through the flight without being arrested by chewing lots of gum and being able to smoke during a brief stop in LA.

Before our meeting, I spot her standing on the footpath smoking, naturally in her sartorial uniform of Levi 501s, a white shirt and custom-made dark blazer. She glances up the street, towards Melbournes Fawkner Park, as if shes not quite sure where she is or how she got here. (She later asks me what day it is.)

Once we sit down to talk its immediately apparent that talking is what Lebowitz does best. Thats a big call, given the New Yorker is an author, social commentator, public speaker and even actor, appearing in shows such as Law and Order. Shes such a good talker that when I go to a nearby restaurant to do some work on my laptop after our interview is over, she sees me, sits next to me and talks for another hour. (Let me know if Im disturbing you, she offers politely).

But first, during her interview with Guardian Australia, Lebowitz wants to make it clear that she takes no responsibility for the state of American politics. She had just arrived in Melbourne and was having breakfast in her hotel when a man next to her saw she was reading the paper. And this guy started talking to me, I was reading something about Trump, and he said, You elected him! And I said I did not!

Lebowitz becomes indignant. I mean, I did not. Its not my fault. I know you [Australians] are very upset about it. But we are more upset. Even my friends I have a lot of friends in New York who are not American were blaming me. I spent a year of my life before the election, going around the country, talking about this stuff. Its not my fault. I am blameless. I am not a perfect person. I am not blameless in life but I do not know one single person who voted for him.

Fran Lebowitz at Diane von Furstenbergs International Womens Day celebration in March. Photograph: Angela Pham/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

Echoing the reported opinion of former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, Lebowitz thinks the biggest danger of Trump is that he is a moron. Everyone says he is crazy which maybe he is but the scarier thing about him is that he is stupid. You do not know anyone as stupid as Donald Trump. You just dont.

Lebowitz is still shocked that Trump won. Part of the shock is that she was living so fully in a liberal New York bubble. I had zero belief he would win. I have never been so wrong in my life. And being right is something I cherish. Its really important to me to be right.

Its one of three nights burned entirely into 67-year-old Lebowitzs memory on a par with the Kennedy assassination and 9/11. I remember every single second of the whole day voting, everything the whole day.

She voted and went to lunch, and on the way home she felt like New York was getting ready to welcome its first female president. She walked past a party being set up, hosted by Harvey Weinstein. They said, See you tonight, Ms Lebowitz! But she didnt attend that party, opting instead for the party of the then Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter.

Everyone was in a great mood and there were these huge American flags draped everywhere. Everyone was drinking champagne.

From time to time over the night, Lebowitz popped into the kitchen to look at the election map on TV and, with each visit, became increasingly nervous. The map was turning red.

A friend, the contributing editor at Vogue, Andr Leon Talley, who had been on a strict weight-loss regime all year, entered the room. I had been with this guy in restaurants all year and he was like, Fish, just a little salad, no dressing! There were all these chocolates and cookies and stuff [on the table] and he started eating them without even looking.

Then Im smoking as usual but at a certain point I realised Im smoking two cigarettes and Andre had eaten all the cookies. Graydon had in his hands two martinis and a waiter said You want another? and he said Yes! He couldnt even hold them. At a certain point [another] friend of mine said, Im going home, I cant take this Im not tough enough. Im going home to take drugs. This is a man my age, a very distinguished man.

Lebowitz went home to SoHo through neighbourhoods usually busy with nightlife. But there was no one in the streets it was nothing. It was like grief inside those houses. It was horrible. I felt that strongly affected emotionally for at least a month. My level of rage, always high, is now in fever pitch all the time.

Lebowitz believes naked racism is behind Trumps election. He allowed people to express their racism and bigotry in a way that they havent been able to in quite a while and they really love him for that. Its a shocking thing to realise people love their hatred more than they care about their own actual lives. The hatred what is that about? Its a fear of your own weakness.

The other hot button issue right now is guns. Lebowitz nearly chokes on her mineral water when I ask her if she has one.

Fran Lebowitz: I had zero belief Trump would win. I have never been so wrong in my life. Photograph: Stewart Cook/REX/Shutterstock

Of course I dont have a gun! She is scathing of gun owners. Who are these people that love guns? These people who love Trump and they love guns, these are the most frightened people I have ever seen in my life. Whos after you? They live in the middle of nowhere. I live in New York city and I dont have a gun. No one I know has a gun.

In the early 70s, when I was more vulnerable in every way, it was really dangerous. I could have gotten a gun but I never got one. I was an 18-year-old penniless girl in the middle of a dangerous city and I was never as afraid as these men in Texas, living in a state of terror. Her voice drips with disdain.

What does she think of the teenaged activists taking on Congress over gun control?

I do feel that this very young generation people who are teenagers today and in their 20s are so much better than the generation right above, people who are in their 40s. When I was in my 40s and these people were coming up, making music and taking drugs, I thought, These people are horrible. But when these new young people started coming up, I was pleasantly surprised. I mean they read books. When I am on the subway and I see a person reading a book, they will be 24, and the person on the Kindle is 44.

Young people love her. Young men come up to her in Macys and tell her she has to change her views about men in shorts; others have created songs and memes about her.

While Lebowitz loves to talk, she sees herself as a private person.

Publicly, I dont really talk about myself in a very personal way and I wish other people wouldnt either. I mean, partially this is because people my age were raised that way. We were raised not to talk about ourselves. But I dont really think about myself any more. Its one of the upsides about getting old. Ive lost interest.

Todays young people have always lived in an environment where people asked them what they thought, she says.

When I was a child no one ever asked you a question and I mean no one. Children were told what to do. From morning to night, instructions No one ever asked about yourself, that is for sure. Unless you had a fever, and even then they took your temperature and told you how you felt. I dont feel well. Yes, you do.

Apart from taking part in the Trump resistance, Lebowitz says she has considered running for mayor of New York except she doesnt want to do any early starts. I would consider being the night mayor and starting at 4pm, she says.

Youre a nightmare already, I joke.

Yeah, I dont need to be elected to be a nightmare.

She looks out to the quiet, leafy Melbourne street, contemplating the flight home to that city she embodies in so many ways. You know what, she says. I cant do that trip again. Its nice here. Ill get someone to send my stuff.

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