The story behind the song #4: Two Tribes

January 26, 2014

Let’s go

When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score (Score no more, score no more)

When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score (Workin’ for the bad guys)

Cowboy number one, a born again poor man’s son (Poor man’s son)

On the air America, I modelled shirts by Van Heusen (Workin’ for the bad guys)

Hear me more

When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score (Score no more, score no more)

When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score (Workin’ for the bad guys)

Switch off your shield

Switch off and feel

I’m workin’ on lovin’

I’m givin’ you back the good times

I’m shippin’ out, out

I’m workin’ for the bad guys


Tell the world that you’re winning, love and life, love and life

Listen to the voice sayin’ follow me

Listen to the voice sayin’ follow me

When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score

When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score

We’ve got two tribes (We got the bomb, we got the bomb)

Somethin’ this good died


Are we living in a land where sex and horror are the new gods?


When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score


Today, America apologised for being late for World War 1 and World War 2, but promised to be really punctual for the next one.

My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.

These jokes from the satirical show Not The Nine O’clock News and President Ronald Reagan capture the atmosphere of the world in the early eighties. The Cold War was in its fourth decade. Although we didn’t know it at the time, the Soviet Union was in its death throes. It was a great tine to be Kremlinologist as Soviet leaders were dropping like flies. In the space of two years they had had three leaders Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko. The last one didn’t last long either. He would be replaced by Gorbachev after just over a year in the job. At the same time we saw the rise of two Western leaders who did not want to coexist peacefully with the USSR. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were Cold Warriors. Conflict seemed inevitable. And remember, we were still living in the age of MAD, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction; you destroy us – we will destroy you. Each side had the capability to destroy the planet many times over. How did we ever get up every morning?

The fear of nuclear annihilation was reflected in popular culture. In 1982 When the Wind Blows, a graphic novel, by British artist Raymond Briggs, shows a nuclear attack on Britain by the Soviet Union. The novel’s protagonists, a retired couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, face the aftermath of a nuclear conflict with a WWII mentality. Briggs offers a searing critique of the government’s civil defence plans. In 1993 the film War Games, a young teenager, played by Mathew Broderick, hacks into the Pentagon nuclear defence system thinking he is in a computer game, and almost starts Armageddon. Red Dawn a 1984 movie had World War III start with a surprise Soviet and Cuban invasion of the United States. Fortunately a heroic band of teenagers including Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen were able to fight off the commie invaders. It would have been even easier if Sheen hadn’t drunk all the Molotov Cocktails. Curiously, this masterpiece was remade in 2012. The baddies were going to be the Chinese, but this would have hit receipts at the Chinese box office, so it was the North Koreans who invaded. However, more than films I remember television. ABC’s The Day After (1983) and the BBC’s Threads (1984) spring to mind. The latter in particular, with its vivid depiction of what happened to the city of Sheffield in the aftermath of a nuclear war, was a social phenomenon in the UK. Music also got in on the act with Nena’s 1983 hit 99 Luftballons, in which a young woman accidentally triggers a nuclear holocaust by releasing balloons. This was the cultural zeitgeist at the time five Scousers emerged on the scene.

The group was Frankie Goes to Hollywood (FGTH). Their frontman Holly Johnson (vocals) was accompanied by Paul Rutherford (vocals, keyboards), Peter Gill (drums, percussion), Mark O’Toole (bass guitar), and Brian Nash (guitar). According to Johnson they got their name from a page in The New Yorker magazine, featuring the headline “Frankie Goes to Hollywood, with an accompanying picture of Frank Sinatra.

1984 was their annus mirabilis. Let’s be honest what really set the group apart was not their music, but their brilliant marketing strategy. In Paul Morley, a former music journalist at the NME had founded ZTT (Zang Tumb Tuum) Records along with record producer Trevor Horn, and businesswoman Jill Sinclair. With their use of slogans, T-shirts, and homoerotic videos, FGTH were able to generate enormous controversy in the UK. They were undoubtedly aided and abetted by the BBC, who banned their first single, Relax. The song had been at number six in the charts, but after censorship had worked its magic, it went to number one, where it would stay for five consecutive weeks. I had forgotten the story of how it came to be banned. On 11 January 1984, BBC Radio 1 disc jockey Mike Read was playing the record on his show when he noticed the front cover design; he was outraged by the “overtly sexual” nature of both the record sleeve and the printed lyrics. He actually removed the disc from the turntable live on air. This is the type of publicity you just can’t buy. Perhaps Read should have saved his outrage for Jimmy Savile, who he would have been working with at the time:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Although it was on its way down, Relax was still in the charts when FGTH released their new single in May 1984. Two Tribes had first been performed as a John Peel session in 1982. But it would be some two years before it would actually be released. The song’s title derives from the line “when two great warrior tribes go to war“, from the film Mad Max 2. The song featured the distinctive voice of Patrick Allen, the voice of the Protect and Survive public service films, which had been released a couple of years before:

If any member of the family should die whilst in the shelter from contamination, Put them outside, but remember to tag them first for identification purposes.” This was not satire; reflected real government advice. They also used the voice of Chris Barrie as Ronald Reagan:

You may pronounce us guilty a thousand times over, but the goddess of the eternal court of history will smile and tear to tatters the verdict of this court – for she acquits us.” This was an allusion to Adolf Hitler’s concluding speech when he was tried for the Beer Hall Putsch in 1924.

I have stressed the importance of marketing. But we should not forget the brilliant job producer Trevor Horn did in the studio.   There was a standard issue plus a total of five remixes including the first 12-inch mix (“Annihilation”), which started with an air-raid siren and the “Hibakusha” mix a limited edition appearing on the Japanese-only Bang! album in 1985. They used images of the group wearing American and Soviet-style army uniforms. The original cover art featured a Soviet mural of Vladimir Lenin and images of Reagan and Thatcher. And then of course there was that video.

Directed by two ex-members of 10cc Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, the video featured a wrestling match between lookalikes of Reagan and Chernenko Ultimately, the audience – consisting of other world leaders – were brought into the fight, and eventually Earth was seen to explode. Due to some violent scenes – Reagan and Chernenko biting, gouging etc – the unedited video could not be shown on MTV, and it had to be replaced with an edited version.

Two Tribes went straight into the UK charts at Number One and stayed there for nine weeks. This was a considerable success in its own right, but what made it more impressive was the continuing success of Relax. With the release of Two Tribes its sales had begun to increase again, to the extent that FGTH held the top two spots in the UK charts during July 1984, a feat that had not been achieved since the 1960s. The album Welcome to the Pleasuredome was also a number-one hit. However, Frankiemania was over almost as soon as it had begun.  By the time their second album, Liverpool, came out in 1986, the band’s audience had virtually disappeared.

Now the Cold War is a distant memory. We won. I do like to speculate what would have happened if we had rewound the video and played it again. Would the result have been the same? How close did we really get to Armageddon? Anyway, history did not end in 1989. Now we live in a multi-polar world. The threat of nuclear annihilation does not feel as overpowering it did back then, but the world also feels like a less stable place. I will definitely be preparing for the North Koreans. They ain’t gonna take me alive.

Protect and Survive

January 26, 2014

Here are a couple of videos from the British government’s Protect and Survive series:

Here is the Wikipedia entry about the campaign:

Protect and Survive is a public information series on civil defence produced by the British government during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is intended to inform British citizens on how to protect themselves during a nuclear attack, and consists of a mixture of pamphlets, radio broadcasts, and public information films. The series had originally been intended for distribution only in the event of dire national emergency, but provoked such intense public interest that the pamphlets were authorised for general release. Following the government’s abandonment of its nuclear civil defence policy in the 1990s in response to the altered geopolitical situation, it was tacitly acknowledged that Protect and Survive had little real value beyond providing the public with something ostensibly positive to focus its energies on in the last days before a nuclear war, thus theoretically minimising civil unrest.

Planet Container: How modern shipping transformed our world

January 19, 2014

But who looks behind a television now and sees the ship that brought it?  Who cares about the man who steered your breakfast cereal through winter storms?  How ironic that the more ships have grown in size, the less space they now take up in our imagination. Ninety Percent of Everything, Rose George

On June 14th last year a ship was named at the Daewoo shipyard in Okpo, South Korea. As far as I know there were no royals there, but the launch of the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller is an important landmark in shipping history. Ane Mærsk Mc-Kinney Uggla, the youngest daughter of the late Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller, the Danish shipping magnate after whom the ship was named, did the honours:

As you sail the waters of the world, may your journeys be smooth and your tasks successful. May you bring happiness to your crew, may you be a safe haven for all who board you and may you bring pride and prosperity to all. I wish you Godspeed!”

What is so special about this vessel? The ship which has the largest cargo capacity in of any ship yet constructed, is the longest ship in service worldwide as of 2013. It is 399 metres long and can carry up to 18,270 containers. It’s not just about size though. The ship is characterised for its energy efficiency and environmental performance. Its maximum speed of 23 knots reduces her fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by 20% compared to the previous most efficient cargo vessel. Maersk are planning to phase in 20 identical vessels over the next couple of years. During normal operations, she will be manned by a crew of just 19.

container ships

We have, of course, been shipping goods for millennia. But what has been taking place in the last half century is on a totally unprecedented scale. And we have one invention to thank for that. Malcolm McLean, a visionary trucking executive, developed the first container specification in 1955. He went on to found Sea-Land Service, whose SS Ideal X, a converted World War II oil tanker, would become the first commercially successful container ship. During her first voyage on April 26, 1956 the Ideal X carried 58 containers from Port Newark, New Jersey, to Port of Houston, Texas. After five days it arrived in Texas, where 58 trucks were waiting to be loaded with the containers. Modern container shipping had been born. The patent was “given” to the world for free in order to increase adoption. In recognition for his massive contribution to world shipping McLean was named “Man of the Century” by the International Maritime Hall of Fame.

The standard container is a box that is 8ft wide by 8ft tall by 20ft or 40ft long. They are generally made of 2mm thick corrugated steel, but other materials like aluminium, fibreglass or plywood can also be used. The external corners are designed for easy stacking and lifting, using a standardised twist-lock mechanism. What’s more they are multi-modal; they can be transported from a ship to a truck to a train. It seems such a simple idea. Yet it would soon revolutionise the global supply chain.

How are goods transported these days? Cargo that used to arrive in assorted cartons, crates, bales, barrels or bags now comes in factory sealed containers. It is impossible to tell what is in each unit. The only clue is the ID number, which is used to track the progress of its contents around the world. The design of the ships is also different. Gone are all the individual hatches, holds and dividers of the traditional general cargo vessel. Nowadays, the hull of a typical container ship is like a huge warehouse divided into cells by vertical guide rails. It is here where the containers are stored. Every single cargo, be it t-shirts, laptops or plastic ducks, can be handled by exactly the same cranes. Algorithms and computer systems help plan the most efficient and practical storage schemes. All this means the ships can get in and out of port quickly.

As well as reducing the time it takes to ship goods around the world, containerization has slashed the cost of shipping, making it practically free. This has been one of the principal motors of international trade. This is the frictionless world economists like to talk about. Before the container you had to pay a lot to actually transport anything. So it wasn’t really worth your while financially to transport something when most of your profits would be eaten up by transport costs

The logistics of the shipping industry are staggering. 90% of everything we wear, eat and consume is carried by ships, many of them container ships like the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller. There are more than 100,000 ships at sea carrying all the solids, liquids and gases that we need to live. It is estimated that there were more than 530 million containers in the world in 2010. Such is the precision of the tracking system that a two-week voyage can be timed for arrival with an accuracy of less than a quarter of an hour. This has been a boon for guaranteed delivery and just in time manufacturing. Raw materials arrive in sealed containers less than an hour before they are needed in the production process. And such is the efficiency as a method of transport that it actually makes more sense to send Scottish salmon to China to get filleted and then bring it back and refreeze it and sell it. It is containerisation that explains the fact that 90% of flip flops are made in China. Indeed it is the Asian superpower which has benefitted from this revolution. It is impossible to understand China’s role as the world’s workshop without the shipping container. It should be no surprise to discover where the busiest container port in the world is located – ShanghaiChina handles 29,069,000 containers annually.

This revolution has not been all plain sailing. Not until 1961 did the International Standards Organisation finalise global standards for containers. Ports, railways and shippers baulked at the cost of developing the ports and railway infrastructure needed to handle container ships and for the movement of containers on land by rail and road. Trade unions were worried about massive job loss among port and dock workers at ports, as containers were sure to eliminate several manual jobs of cargo handling at ports. Their fears have been confirmed.

This illustrates the fact that no invention is all positive. There is no doubt that working on a container ship is a hard life. In this container age the majority of the sailors are from countries like the Philippines. But compared to what they could earn in their own countries the salaries are probably not so bad. The anonymity of the container has made it the vehicle of choice for smuggling narcotics, tobacco and even humans. We cannot overlook the ecological impact. It is estimated that between 2,000 & 10,000 containers a year fall off ships and are lost at sea. In 1992 a container with 28,800 Bath Toys fell into the Pacific Ocean. This incident was chronicled by Donovan Hohn in his 2011 book Moby Duck:

From a low-flying plane on a clear day, the packages would have looked like confetti, a great drift of colourful squares, exploding in slow motion across the waves. Within twenty-four hours, the water would have dissolved the glue. The action of the waves would have separated the plastic shell from the cardboard back. There, in seas almost four miles deep, more than five hundred miles south of Attu Island at the western tip of the Aleutian tail, more than a thousand miles east of Hokkaido, the northern extreme of Japan, and more than two thousand miles west of the insular Alaskan city of Sitka, 28,800 plastic animals produced in Chinese factories for the bathtubs of America—7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles, and 7,200 yellow ducks—hatched from their plastic shells and drifted free.

There are other ecological costs. I have heard that the carbon footprint is similar to that of the airline industry. What is less known is the acoustic pollution from the noise of the engines and the propellers. This can be a huge problem for whales, which survive by communicating with sound. Some humpback whales now have 10% of their acoustic range.

I realise that that there are problems, but I think on the whole the container has made the world a better place. I find this miracle of modern logistics truly amazing. Trade is a force for good. Millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty thanks to global trade. I am sure that ships in the future will be more ecological. So, I think we should all raise a glass to Malcolm McLean, one of the unsung heroes of our modern globalised world.

A couple of shipping videos

January 19, 2014

The world biggest container ship:

Container shipping the world in a box:

I confess – a guide to police interrogation

January 11, 2014

gene hunt

I can still remember at school assemblies when the headmaster would ask us who had stolen this or that or who was responsible for some particular misdeed. I always used to feel guilty, even though it had nothing to do with me. This came to the mind the other day when I was reading an article by Douglas Starr in The New Yorker – The Interview: Do police interrogation techniques produce false confessions?

The windowless room, the two way mirror, the good cop/bad cop routine – we are all familiar with these police interrogation tropes from books, TV and films. It can make for great drama, but it has little to do with really goes on in police interrogations. In my opinion the real story is just as interesting. In the article Starr looks at two contrasting interrogation techniques.

The Reid technique is the most commonly practised method of questioning subjects in the USA. It was created by a former Chicago policeman named John Reid in the late 1940s. Its proponents argue that is very useful in extracting information from uncooperative suspects. However it has been widely attacked for eliciting false confessions. The term “Reid Technique” is indeed a registered trademark of the firm John E. Reid and Associates, which offers training courses in their method. Starr signed up for one of their basic training courses in Boston. It lasted three days and cost five hundred and eighty dollars.

One of the basic premises of the technique is that you should be looking for signs of anxiety. There are definite echoes of polygraph testing in the methodology. However, I am rather sceptical about our ability to tell whether someone is lying or not. Aldert Vrij, a professor of psychology at the University of Portsmouth, in England, found that working in the police force does not necessarily improve the ability to detect lies. Indeed, those who said they paid close attention to nonverbal cues actually did the worst. Another experiment by Kassin showed that both students and police officers were better at telling true confessions from false ones when they listened to an audio recording of an interview rather than watch it on video. In the experiment, the police officers performed less well than the students but expressed greater confidence in their ability to tell who was lying. What an unfortunate combination!

The next phase—Interrogation—involves trying to push the suspect to confess.  Lying about the evidence is considered legitimate. If the suspects continue to protest their innocence, you steer the subject toward a confession by downplaying the moral consequences of the crime without mentioning the legal ones. This is known as minimization. No matter how repugnant the crime, you can come up with a rationalization that makes it easier for the suspect to admit it. The standard Reid Technique manual suggests a way an interviewer can minimize rape:

Joe, no woman should be on the street alone at night looking as sexy as she did. Even here today, she’s got on a low-cut dress that makes visible damn near all of her breasts. That’s wrong! It’s too much temptation for any normal man. If she hadn’t gone around dressed like that you wouldn’t be in this room now.

It is true that the Reid technique does not employ violence. It is nothing like what you see on the television or in movies. However, it is a highly manipulative process, which employs tricks and deception. It may not be the best way of finding the truth. The interrogator’s refusal to listen to a suspect’s denials creates feelings of hopelessness, which can only be relieved by the act of confession.

There is an alternative to the Reid technique. Its origin is in a series of scandals involving false confessions that rocked the legal establishment in the 80s. In 1984 the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) was introduced. The act sought to find a balance between the powers of the police in England and Wales and the civil liberties of the public at large. What is relevant to today’s topic is that PACE requires that all interrogations conducted in Great Britain be video-recorded. Videotaping interrogations in Britain has drastically reduced the number of complaints filed against interrogators. It is true that some suspects may be to talk when being recorded, but recorders can be turned off at the suspect’s request. Under PACE interrogators cannot deceive subjects or employ any sort of trickery to elicit information from them. Nor can psychological tricks, such as minimization be used.

They also introduced a new more ethical non-coercive interviewing model known as the PEACE. This is an acronym for Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure, and Evaluate. Despite the touch-feely sound of it all it is used on even the most hardened criminals.

The linguistic content of PEACE is interesting. It is similar to what journalists do, employing open-ended questions to gather information. Confessions are not directly sought; interrogations are now seen as another step in the investigation process. One series that reflects this way of interrogating is the British crime drama Scott and Bailey. The language is in marked contrast with the more confrontational Reid method:

If we were to look to at the CCTV, who would we see in the car?

I’m really struggling with how both phones could be on the train at the same time.

But the differences are not just about form. The Reid model is predicated on the supposed connection between anxiety and lying, PEACE posits that no such link exists. What is true is that lying creates a cognitive load. The more you lie, the more balls you have to keep in the air. By constantly going over the details the suspect will eventually start to contradict himself. It seems to take its inspiration from that classic idiom, give them enough rope and they will hang themselves.

What’s the track record of this technique in terms of confessions? The Reid Company says that they have an 80 percent successful confession rate, but what does that really mean? If someone confessed and was then convicted, we don’t know if it was a genuine confession since confessions seem to trump almost all other evidence. If there is a confession, juries will convict. One alarming statistic comes from the Innocence Project, an organisation that has used DNA evidence to clear convicts who have been victims of miscarriages of justice. Of 311 people freed, 84 were shown to have confessed falsely. What about PEACE? There is apparently a widespread belief amongst British police officers that the number of confessions dropped as a direct effect of the implementation of PACE. On the whole, it seems that there has been no dramatic drop in the number of suspects who confess during interrogations since its introduction. I think the PEACE model is the best way to get at the truth. But, I think I still enjoy watching Gene Hunt beating the crap out of some unfortunate suspect.

Every single death in Breaking Bad

January 11, 2014

Here is a compilation of the 272 deaths in the five series of Breaking Bad. If you haven’t finished watching the series, don’t watch it because there are spoilers.