That’s all, folks

July 30, 2008 at 6:21 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

To everyone’s relief, this’ll be the last post of the week. I’m heading to Norwich tomorrow for a friend’s wedding, and won’t be back ’til Sunday, where the chances of me posting anything coherent are negligible.

PS: No, you’re not permitted to reply ‘so what else is new?’

The face of female imprisonment

July 30, 2008 at 12:20 pm | Posted in Feminisms, Prison Reform | 1 Comment

After Sarah Campbell, aged 18, died from taking an overdose of sleeping pills in Styal prison – one of six women to die in that jail in 12 months – her mother vowed to fight against the harm done to vulnerable young women by the penal system. In the years that followed, Pauline Campbell tried to raise the profile of this issue by travelling the country and protesting outside an prison where a woman had died in custody. Tragically, just over two months ago she was found dead near her daughter’s grave, robbing the reform movement of one its most tireless, effective and high-profile voices. Of course, the fact you’ve probably never heard of her shows just pitifully low a profile this cause has.

The plight of women in our prisons makes grimacing reading. According to campaign group Women in Prison, of the 4,400+ currently in prison:

  • 70% have mental health problems.
  • 37% have attempted suicide.
  • 20% have been in the care system as children compared to 2% of the general population.
  • At least 50% report being victims of childhood abuse or domestic violence.

It’s a wretched state of affairs, made worse by the fact that so many don’t really need to be there. In 2004, the Prison Reform Trust reported that six out of ten women imprisoned while awaiting trial are subsequently acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence. Furthermore, the number of women being remanded into custody has more than trebled in a decade despite the fact that more than three quarters are charged with non-violent or minor offences. Few among the number of women prisoners pose a serious risk to society. As for the tired old question of whether any good comes out of their time in prison, Women in Prison also report that 65% go on to reoffend.

But statistics rarely reveal the full misery of life in prison, and so when this email appeared in my inbox promoting a book on the subject, I felt obliged to give it a plug:

Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time is the product of a 10-year quest by Susan Madden Lankford to reveal the personal despair, desperation, alienation, and fragile hopes of women behind bars. Lankford’s dramatic photos and vivid stories of life behind the concrete and steel facilities reveal an overcrowded, strained incarceration system increasingly unable to deal with the mental, emotional, and addiction problems women bring with them behind bars.


Her flesh- and-blood images of life behind the concrete and steel facilities that house these women present us with a cogent portrait of diffused lives, and a reflective glimpse of emotional and physical institutionalization. We hear not only the frank and graphic voices of both the jailed and the jailers, but also from rehabilitation counselors, attorneys, judges, medical professionals and psychiatrists. Their experiences and insights into the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population give new meaning to the slogan “No Child Left Behind.”

The book specifically looks at the lives of women in U.S. prisons, but when you read some of the material and look at the statistics, on this issue – as with many others – we share much more than just the same language. Let’s see if any of this sounds familiar:

  • In the past 10 years, the number of female prisoners has increased 138 percent. This is speculated to be from harsher mandatory sentencing laws, and increased arrest rates due to the “war on crime” and “war on drugs.”
  • Women prisoners spend on average 17 hours a day in their cells, with one hour outside for exercise. Compare to men prisoners, who spend, on average, 15 hours a day in their cells, with 1.5 hours outside.
  • Nationally, more than 200,000 children have mothers in prison, and 64 percent of incarcerated women have minor children.
  • Every single women’s facility in the U.S. is at least 160 percent above capacity, and on average 57 percent of women in State prisons claim physical or sexual abuse prior to incarceration.

Eerily, depressingly similar. You’ll find a fairly comprehensive overview of the injustices in the US prison system in this PDF by Amnesty, but if you want a set of vivid snapshots of life inside the system, this isn’t a a bad place to start.

More info here and here.

Some of my other posts on penal reform (or lack of it) can be found here.

Tough questions for Obama

July 29, 2008 at 9:34 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

Just to stave off any impression that we’re a bunch a simpering, hope-swilling sycophants ’round these parts, here’s a decent article by Radley Balko, who blogs at The Agitator, listing the top questions he’d like to ask Barack Obama. It’s a tough, probing and (mostly) fair list, which underlines some of the inconsistencies & flaws observable in the current frontrunner for President.

— In a speech to Cuban-Americans in Miami, you called the Cuban trade embargo “an important inducement for change,” a 180-degree shift from your prior position. The trade embargo has been in place for 46 years. Did denying an entire generation of Cubans access to American goods, culture, and ideas induce any actual change? Wasn’t the real effect just to keep Cubans poor and isolated? In communist countries like Vietnam and China, trade with the U.S. has ushered in economic reform, and vastly improved the standard of living. Why wouldn’t it be the same if we were to start trading with Cuba?

More here. His questions for John McCain are here.

Summer song blogging

July 29, 2008 at 6:48 pm | Posted in Distractions | Leave a comment

Because the weather’s nice, and too much politics makes you depressed:

Number one: a lovely al fresco performance by El Perro Del Mar:

Number two: because I’m little more than a twee little geek, a nifty animation someone made for a Belle & Sebastian tune:

Understanding British law, with Melanie Phillips

July 29, 2008 at 6:29 pm | Posted in British Politics, Idiot Hall of Fame | 1 Comment
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You’ll all know by now that policies are complicated things. They use Big Words and Complicated Jargon. They come in large PDFs, and not only do you have to read the whole thing, but you’ll need access to other reading materials to make sure you understand context, history and competing points of view. Phew, that’s enough to work anyone into a sweat – thank God no one actually writes about policy anymore!

Well, one brave woman still does. Ever the wonk, Melanie Phillips has forensically studied the details of the proposed changes in murder law and, for her policy-averse readers, managed to summarise it in just 34 words. To quote The Knowing One, the proposals:

as far as I can see, will mean that if a woman kills her husband she will get away with it whereas if a man kills his wife he will be convicted of murder.

See, before I read this, I was just being spoon-fed lies by demonic feminists who had me thinking the aim was – among other things – to remove the provocation defense so you couldn’t claim ‘she made me go to Matalan! And my mother-in-law’s such a bitch!’ as an excuse for murdering your partner. But no, apparently that’s just a smokescreen to allow more women psychopaths to roam the streets.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, there are lots of well-educated people who disagree with her – Harriet Harman, Baroness Scotland, Geoffrey Robertson QC and the solicitor who founded Justice for Women – and all of these people have a considerable amount of experience in practicing law, whilst Mel is but a meagre journalist who studied English at Oxford. But you, dear reader, would be forgetting Law of Melanie # 49: Just like with that MMR thing, if lots of well-qualified experts disagree with you, that simply means they’re all wrong.

Update: Turns out it’s also possible for very smart people to disagree with these proposals and still stop short of saying it’ll allow women to murder with impunity. Perhaps he just didn’t read the fine print as clearly as our Mel.

Race wars, trojan horses and an ant-American

July 29, 2008 at 11:52 am | Posted in U.S. Politics | 1 Comment
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It’s been a while since we checked-in with our hyper-literate friends at Clinton Supporters For John McCain, and my how they’ve grown. Sure, the website still has the headache-inducing design of someone who dropped-out of a web development course in the late ’90s and now spends his spare time producing Metallica appreciation pages, but look beneath the clunky exterior and you’ll find hard-hitting Youtube videos, biting satire and even their own internet radio station, streaming Barack-baiting commentary 24 hours a day.

Sadly lacking from the old site was a forum for fans to come together, share their anger at Hillary’s defeat and remind anyone who didn’t already know that Barry has the middle name of a terrorist. Thankfully, our prayers have been answered and the great unwashed now have the opportunity to spread the word. First, a shocking new revelation that could capsize his campaign:

huessin obama makes me sick!! He is a liar and his wife is a compltete racist! Hillary deserves the nomination, I can’t beleive that the dnc got away with this!! She was winning all the states in the final weeks and all of the sudden this disgusting ant-american wins the nomination? What a joke! (emphasis mine)

An ant-american? Why isn’t this news all over the internets? Say ‘NO!’ to six-legged insects in 08!!

Elsewhere, we hit-upon the disastrous catch-22 of Obama winning the nomination. First, the fact he’ll turn the White House into a mosque if he wins:

One you’re a muslim you’re always a muslim. Hussein Obama is a muslim and our country is in serious danger. I am sure all muslims in the world are laughing at us and sending money to hussein obama to be elected president. What’s wrong with those voters who are voting for him? Are they Americans? Do they love their country? Are they blind? We need to save our country. This could be the end of the USA. Barak Hussein Obama is a trojan horse.

The problem is ; not many people think he is a Muslim. They look at you like you are nuts for even suggesting that. I think he is a Muslim, in fact, I am sure of it. He always defends the Muslims. How can we talk about this very important issue without looking like we are crazy?

Well, ideally you need to get on the payroll of the Spectator. So we’ve already established that a victory for this ‘trojan horse’ will turn America over to Islamic fanaticism, but there’s an equally terrifying prospect if he loses – the blacks will go bonkers:

CBS reported that blacks will riot if Obama is not the next president. Now we have to do what blacks say or they will riot if it doesn’t get their way. I am not racist but I think we are pampering blacks too much. Everyone is afraid to say something about blacks because they willplay the race cards as OBama does. We’re all Americans and we should vote according to who is best qualified and not just because of the same race. Blacks are the racist now.

Which is all the provocation some people for their own Civil War reenactment.

Just let them come to my door or my town, I might go down fighting but at least I will know what I am protecting. My freedom. My 2 brothers already died in WW2 fighting for us and I will do the same .

I say let them riot the whites just need to buy more bullets… who do they think they are anyway… so should the whites riot if mccain don’t get in !!!!

After this election is over and this site loses all its relevance, there’ll be a lot of people on this forum with nowhere to go. I wonder if they’ve heard of Stormfront

Should ‘no’ better

July 29, 2008 at 8:09 am | Posted in Idiot Hall of Fame | 1 Comment

So why did the Mail print an article on stalking a 17-year-old which featured such a BASIC SPELLING ERROR?

As a journal of investigative journalism, The Daily Mail should ‘no’ better than to commit such an orthographical faux pas.

Someone’s ignorance is showing…

Waiting for defeat

July 29, 2008 at 8:07 am | Posted in British Politics, Gordon Brown, New Labour | Leave a comment
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Cartoon by Martin Rowson

I guess the main point in Nigel Wilmott’s CiF piece – that only by adopting a more progressive platform can Labour slowly claw back some for the activists & voters who’ve jumped ship – is a good one. Unfortunately, the chances of this happening before the next general election are pretty remote.

For one, who is around to kick-start this new progressive future? It’s highly unlikely that Jack Straw would reverse the government’s policy on 42 days detention or ID cards, that Alan Johnson would put an end to the encroachment of private companies in health provision, that David Miliband would perform a mea culpa on Iraq or advocate dismantling Trident, that Ed would have the Balls to slash the taxes of the low-paid by asking the super-rich to start paying more, or that James Purnell would abandon his own ghastly-sounding welfare reforms. At present, these men are the only plausible candidates for Labour leader and each one of them is tasked with executing policies which are only ‘progressive’ if you accept the Conservatives’ definition of the word.

Secondly, as I wrote earlier, none of these policies are particularly important to ordinary voters, and whilst I accept the logic that Labour’s first task should be to rally its own electoral base, you’re unlikely to stave off electoral armageddon without having been seen to take measures to put more money in people’s pockets. Then the next problem is that some of the ideas of doing this would upset the progressive elements you’re trying to win back. For example, many progressives care about green issues, and yet maintaining or even increasing fuel duty to encourage us to choose greener forms of transport would be nothing short of suicidal.

Labour’s ability to change is hamstrung by the fact they’re in government. The party can rebuild itself, it can become more progressive and it can win back many of those who’ve deserted since ’97. But I think the only way this’ll happen is from the opposition benches.

Replacing Brown – with what?

July 27, 2008 at 9:24 pm | Posted in British Politics, Gordon Brown, New Labour | 6 Comments
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Gordon Brown taken by Flickr user fotologic (Creative Commons)

Gordon Brown taken by Flickr user fotologic (Creative Commons)

Regular readers will be shocked by this, but I’m going to break my longstanding policy of forgetting to comment on Major! Breaking! News! and offer a few semi-lucid thoughts on whether Brown should be replaced as Labour leader.

The first comes via Luke Akehurst, who I once jokingly compared to Karl Rove, but is really nowhere near as evil:

What’s striking about the policy reactions to Glasgow East, such as the statement yesterday from Compass, is that many of them are just recitations of the writers’ pet hates, not attempts to address voters’ actual concerns. Voters are angry about the credit crunch, knife crime, unaffordable housing, fuel prices and fuel tax, and food prices. The Labour left are talking about hostility to ID cards, Trident, 42 day detention and public services reform and PFI, issues where the public support the Government or just don’t care.

I think this is probably true. From my own super-scientific research (sample size: my parents, plus assorted passers-by), I know that financial matters are the only thing that people who don’t have much money care about right now. Their mortgage is up for renewal and they face paying up to £200 a month more than they were. Their electricity & gas bills keep rising. It costs more and more to make the same car journeys. They’ve taken to shopping at Aldi or buying the brandless ‘economy’ goods at supermarkets. The pay increases they were offered by the council were so derisory their union took strike action.

These are not conditions that foster a contented electorate, and whilst they know their financial burden isn’t entirely the fault of the government, they also suspect that there’s nothing the government can do to make their lives better. Having realised this, it’s not surprising that people are wondering whether a change of government might improve things.

But the futility of removing Gordon Brown as Labour’s leader is that there’s not one thing his successors could do to put more money in people’s pockets without abandoning their spending commitments. Does anyone really think that if there was some magic sponge for the economy, this former Chancellor with a decade of experience wouldn’t have applied it by now? Of course not. So at this point we’re simply talking about a change of presentation, which is a little self-defeating when one of Labour’s main attacks against David Cameron is that he’s little more than a shallow & showy salesman.

I realise that Labour backbenchers are now more worried about losing their jobs than losing power, but considering there’s little his successor could change policy-wise, I can’t see how many net positives there are by replacing Brown with an Alan Johnson, a Jack Straw or a David Miliband.

To explain, let’s play a little game of ‘what if?’ Since no action seems possible over the summer recess, let’s imagine that Labour MPs force a leadership challenge soon after Parliament returns. Whilst the respective campaigns might get a fair amount of coverage, the Tories would incessantly repeat the accusation that at a time of economic turmoil which is hurting ordinary voters, the Labour party is ‘in disarray’, ‘turning on itself’, ‘fiddling whilst the country burns’ etc etc. Having finally chosen a new leader, that accusation wouldn’t go away, but it would be joined by a demand for a general election. Since we would have had two unelected Prime Ministers, his successor would be forced to agree, and probably before he had the chance to impose his or her ‘new vision’. Would this potential future help Labour hold any seats that weren’t already lost?

Suffice to say, I think the party’s going to lose with or without a change in leadership, but there’s a more damaging long-term consequence of having someone other than Brown lead the party to that defeat. If Brown’s kicked out of Downing Street in May 2010, it’ll give Labour a chance to rebuild and reconsider its direction without too much of a negative perception from the electorate. On the other hand, if they change leaders yet again, it’ll imply that Labour MPs were happy to forsake stability for turmoil at a time when they were supposed to be leading the country. If that’s the impression Labour leaves after three terms in office, it won’t be the Conservatives any more who talk at length about ‘decontaminating the brand’.

Quote of the day

July 25, 2008 at 1:17 pm | Posted in British Politics, Gordon Brown | Leave a comment

Anton Vowl on Gordon Brown’s losing streak:

You could forgive Brown for being a little confused. He’s done everything the Daily Mail wanted: reduced taxes for the rich, increased taxes for the poor, decreased civil liberties, targeted Muslims, put more and more people in jail, increased sentences for violent crime and taken discretion away from those handing out sentences, put more people in jail for lesser offences, criminalised everyone under the age of 21 – and now he wants to humiliate the poorest and most vulnerable people in society by making the unemployed do community service; essentially, giving the same punishment to a poor person that you’d give to someone who’d beaten up an old granny.

That’s a right-wing shopping list with everything ticked off. Yet Brown still isn’t popular, on the right or the left. He must be wondering what’s gone wrong.

More here

We shouldn’t be forced to vote

July 25, 2008 at 12:18 pm | Posted in British Politics, Election Reform | 2 Comments
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If only he hadn’t mentioned the C word.

There’s much in Kevin Penton’s Compass article which is totally agreeable. For a start, he’s right that there are measures Parliament can enact to try and increase the public’s participation in democracy, and he’s right to dismiss weekend voting as a stupid solution which would infringe upon our free time and send us to the ballot box in a foul mood. Of the alternatives he discusses, I’m happy to support fixed-term parliaments, making Election Day a public holiday, ditching first past the post and introducing individual voter registration. In fact, had he only mentioned these measures, he might have sent me skipping through a meadow with delight (well, figuratively speaking – I’m lacking access to a meadow at the moment).

But, as the song goes, then he went and spoiled it all by saying somethin’ stupid like… compulsory voting. Sure, if you want to guarantee high turnout in an election, the easiest way is to make it illegal not to vote, but let’s not pretend that it’s anything other than democracy by force. The main problem I have with advocates of compulsory voting is this: within their arguments is an implication that the problem lies with the voters, and therefore all we need do is introduce a law to shock them from their stupors and do their democratic duty. But this argument completely ignores the possibility that it’s our politicians who are the problem. For nearly over a decade the major parties have squabbled over the same centre ground, spoken to the country in the same stilted managerial speak and bickered over issues which don’t relate to ordinary people. Over the same period of time, we’ve seen turnout plummet. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

As contemptuous as I am of first past the post, the current system at least shows that for large swathes of people, politics is broken. Compulsory voting would achieve little more than papering-over the cracks, masking the discontent felt among the electorate and allowing the political status quo to remain unchallenged and unchanged. As libertarian blogger Ian_QT notes:

Compulsory voting provides a smoke-screen for the real reasons for antipathy towards the electoral process, reasons I have gone over many times before – specifically, that the political class is rightfully seen by so many as self-serving, corrupt and contemptuous of the people who elected them.

When there are other, more liberal reforms available to us, couldn’t we try those first, rather than trying to bring people to the ballot box by using a lasso?

A bad joke

July 24, 2008 at 10:17 pm | Posted in U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

Note to satirists: if the joke wasn’t funny the first time, chances are it won’t be funny the second time

In fact, you could argue that it’s not even a joke:

There is essentially nothing in this image that is not an exaggeration, or just a representation, of things that are true about John McCain: he is old, his wife once had a problem with prescription drugs, he is closely aligned with George Bush and he does support policies that violate the Constitution.  As a caricature, it works quite well.  As a parody of an image that is supposed to be mocking absurd claims about the Obamas, it completely fails, because the point of the New Yorker image is supposed to be that everything in it is ludicrous and false and obviously so and, more to the point, it is supposed to be exaggerating the absurd claims to their most extreme form.  (The problem with the original image, as I’ve said before, is that it did not exaggerate the claims, but simply repeated them.)

The more of these parodies people produce, the more literally audiences may take the New Yorker image.  For all of the people who dismiss the argument that there will be people who won’t “get” the satire of the original, there are an awful lot of supposedly clever sophisticates who seem not to understand how to reproduce what the image tried to do, which suggests that they didn’t really “get” it, either.

So…has this election reached its nadir yet, or can we expect a lot more stupid between now and November?

I don’t even know why I asked:

Open primaries

July 24, 2008 at 9:55 pm | Posted in British Politics | Leave a comment

In the past few months, we’ve heard a lot about what Barack Obama’s presidential campaign could teach British progressives (indeed, I’ve been more guilty of that than most), but too much has been vague hypothesising  and rueful ‘what ifs’, rather than a practical sense of how to get started. So I think Sunder Katwala’s support for an open primary to choose the next Labour candidate for Mayor of London is a really positive first step.

There’s much in the mechanics of the Obama campaign (and the US netroots in general) that we can admire and wish to transplant into British politics, but as none of it has ever been tried before, we’ve no idea whether it would work in a country that appears to have a more cynical, less involved approach to politics than you’ll find in America.

At the very least, having an open primary in London would give us the opportunity to road-test methods like online fundraising, organising and building a movement that tries to reach as many people as possible (ie, not just Labour activists) and bring them into the tent. If it doesn’t show any signs of success in Britain’s biggest city, then there’s not much hope for the rest of the country. However, if progressives do find some positive signs from the attempt, there’s hope that the process of choosing mayoral & parliamentary candidates could one day be more open, inclusive and, yes, democratic.

The positives of piracy

July 24, 2008 at 9:29 pm | Posted in British Politics, Music, Art, Etcetera | 2 Comments

Since Culture Secretary Andy Burnham was thinking about cracking-down on illegal file-sharing with legislation, today’s statement by the major internet service providers (ISP) could’ve been worse. Whilst the idea of ‘cease & desist’ letters to internet users is certainly intrusive, their promise not to ‘spy’ on their customers suggests they’re more concerned with being seen to be cracking-down rather than trying to eradicate all illegal downloading. It’s easy enough for an ISP to detect the use of a file-sharing client like BitTorrent or Limewire and then send some strongly-worded tut-tutting, but to completely stop downloading would’ve meant detecting all the ways users exchange music outside of peer-to-peer networks. To do this, they’d certainly have to spy on their customers’ browsing habits at a cost they won’t wish to incur.

So nothing much has changed; you can still download music illegally and with impunity, just so long as you don’t use a file-sharing client to do it. Regardless of your feelings about those who do the downloading, I think it’s important that we still have an online black market for two reasons. First, the method of legally-purchasing music is flawed and in a state of flux. When you shop at iTunes, most of the music is shackled by the widely-loathed Digital Rights Management, which places heavy restrictions on how and where you play your music and essentially devalues any music you buy. The sound quality of an iTunes track is also pretty poor. Search around for an illegal version, and you’re likely to happen-upon files that aren’t restricted by DRM, have superior sound quality and don’t cost you anything. Customers still aren’t getting the service they require, and I like that a black market exists to force them to raise their standards.

Secondly, copyright law in both Britain & the United States is stuffy and out-of-date when applied to digital media, as the celebrated academic Lawrence Lessig explains:

Think about your kids. After they get bored downloading all the music they can find, they’re going to discover the power – practically bundled into the machine if it’s a Mac – to remix the culture they’ve collected. They could add a bass track to a violin concerto. They could make a home movie and sync Tom Petty to the images. They could splice together a politician’s speeches to prove she’s a waffler. These activities will become second nature to the iGeneration and could well represent the next great digital revolution – exploding demand for machines, bandwidth, and software.

Yet these ordinary uses of these extraordinary technologies are all presumptively illegal today. Digital devices copy to create; to copy copyrighted content requires permission from its owner. And while the tradition of fair use with text is fairly mature, that tradition is much weaker with film, photographs, and sound.

By allowing record companies, online suppliers and antiquated copyright law to impose the rules on how we receive digital media, they also impose the rules on how we use it. For a technological revolution that was supposed to democratise media so that ordinary people could be the creators, the current situation  really does sell us short. The ability to share media freely, however morally-dubious it might be, shows that the internet is not yet controlled by the conglomerates, and that gives the rest of us more creative freedom than they’re currently willing to allow.

Johnny, rotten

July 22, 2008 at 2:01 pm | Posted in Idiot Hall of Fame | Leave a comment

For pretty much his entire career, John Lydon’s personified the very worst side of punk: the arrogance, the petulance, the needless, unthinking aggression. All of which you can get away with, I suppose, when you’re on the sunny side of 30. But when you carry this behaviour on to the age where your bus pass is but a few years away, you just seem like a twat who’s a bit short on class, manners and dignity.

I haven’t a clue whether Lydon racially abused Kelle Okereke, but I’d bet a large sum of money that he abused him. It’s just his way. Check out the astonishing self-regard in this statement:

Lydon responded: “We are in the middle of a wonderful tour. After 30 years we are achieving a true unity in our audience. They are multi-varied, all ages, all races, creeds and colours. When you are at a festival with bands who are jealous fools, lies and confusion usually follow.”


He added: “Grow up and learn to be a true man. When you have achieved as much as I have, come back and talk to me.


Pssst, Mr Rotten!! You’re a has-been punk on the wrong side of 50 who’s fluffing-up his retirement fund by touring that one successful record you made in the 70’s! At this point, you’re not in any position to lecture someone on either maturity or achievement…

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