I saw Traffic on cable last night, and I can’t remember when I’ve hated and loved the same movie so much.

What I liked: This was a serious movie dealing with an important topic, a topic that always fascinates me. It attempts to depict the complexity of the situation and the fruitlessness of America’s War on Drugs. The brutality of organized crime, the corrupting influence of the drug trade, and the impossibility of effective interdiction… It’s all there.

Toward the end, when Michael Douglass as the US drug czar has a crisis of confidence at a press conference, he sums it up very nicely by saying something like: “The War on Drugs is a war on our own family members, and I can’t do that.” Then he just walks away, quitting his job. Very unrealistic, but a point nicely made.

The film also indicates (correctly) that our drug policies are weak on treatment, focusing instead on interdiction. Why do we focus on the supply from outside of our borders instead of on demand from inside our borders.

What I disliked: The scene where Douglass’ (white) daughter gets fucked (literally) and hooked up on smack by her (black) drug-dealer boyfriend really made me wanna puke. I really felt the movie fell down in the depiction of drug use. In a way, it was cool that they primarily showed privileged upper class white kids using drugs, as that really dramatizes the quandry. But all the film’s depictions of illicit drug use are so extremely abusive in nature — I feel this misrepresents things. It’s my understanding that the majority of cocaine use (cocaine being the big focus in this movie) is fairly benign and casual, just like the majority of alcohol use. Addiction is a serious issue, but it’s also something that happens to a minority of users. Thus, again, the absurdity of the drug war. Traffic seems to reinforce the idea that drugs really are destroying this nation’s youth, which I think is an overblown myth.

Other gripes: Douglass asks who has his job in Mexico, and seems shocked when told there is no analagous position — yet. But that shouldn’t be a shock. The “drug czar” position is a very weird and uniquely American appointment, and Douglass would have to know this. The drug czar has little power, anyhow; I believe he’s more of a figurehead, who’s merely supposed to coordinate the efforts of the various gov’t anti-drug forces.

Also, many of the questions posed by the film (like why we focus on interdiction so much) are unanswered, even though the answers are not that hard to find.

Of course, if Traffic gets people to think, to ask questions, then so much the better.


Here’s a brief recap of my trip to Finland:

I went to a conference in Tampere, Finland. It was ED-MEDIA 2001, and since it relates to my field (educational media) the university paid my way — good thing, cuz summer flights to Norden are expensive!

(Norden is a Swedish word for the Nordic region of the world. You might wonder why I don’t just say Scandinavia. Well, Scandinavia may or may not include Finland, depending on context, Finland being different from the Scandinavian countries in a few important ways. So Norden is a better word.)

The conference was good, over 1,000 people from all over the world. An inordinate number of Australians, I thought.

(I expected to see more Linux at the University of Tampere, since Linus Torvalds is Finnish. But it was all Windows. And many people brought Mac laptops for their presentations. But I digress.)

(As long as I’m digressing, I might add a word of warning about Swordfish, in theaters now. If you go and see this film, which I don’t recommend, you might as well leave after the first ten minutes. It’s all downhill from there. However, that first sequence is spectacular, and almost worth the price of a matinee admission, if you can persuade yourself to get up and leave after the big explosion. Otherwise, you will find your intelligence insulted most egregiously.)

(Oh, and the connection would be? In the film, there’s a hacker from Finland named Axel Torvalds.)

Tampere was fun too (I’d been there once before) especially because it didn’t really get dark at all. It’s not quite as far north as I used to live in Sweden, so I think it probably did get dark sometime around 2:00 AM. But I was asleep, so I missed it. I had to sleep with a blindfold to shut out the light.

I stayed at a hostel run by the YWCA and I met a Spanish guy who used to study in Tampere. He showed me around to a couple of cool bars. I’d have thought he’d know Finnish, but no; apparently many courses at the University are taught in English, so he never learned the language. I can’t imagine that.

Did you know there are only 21 letters in the Finnish alphabet? And they even have two letters we don’t have: ä and ö. Also there are no gender distinctions in Finnish. Not surprising, I suppose, that they have a female president. But the language is exceedingly difficult, nothing at all like the other Nordic languages. In fact, it’s not even Indo-European. It’s Uralic. So most Finnish words are completely unrecognizable to me.

Suomi is the Finnish word for Finland. Weird, huh?

The closest relative language is Estonian. Estonia is right across the Gulf of Finland to the south. It’s a popular vacation destination for Finns.

I also visited the world’s only continuously operating Lenin museum. Do you know where Lenin met Stalin? Do you know where Lenin hid out when he was on the lam from Tsarist forces? Tampere, Finland! In fact, Tampere was the capital of Red Finland during the Finnish Civil War. I hadn’t even known there was an (attempted) communist revolution in Finland.

After the conference I took the train back to Helsinki to meet Päivi. She lived with my family in Greenwood, Indiana back in the early 80s. I met her and her family when I was living in Sweden — they took me to visit Moscow. But that was in 1985. I don’t think I or anyone in my family had communicated with Päivi for 15 years.

She’s an architect now. Married, no kids yet, but working on it. She and her husband just bought a house before I arrived, but they haven’t moved in yet.

Pävi and I both remarked on how very natural and easy it was to get reaquainted. After so much time, it was strange that we could just sit down and talk, almost as if no time had passed at all, though we certainly had a lot to catch up on.

We also got together with Päivi’s family. To me it seemed that her parents, Erkki and Raili, hadn’t changed at all since I last saw them. In fact, they reminded me a lot of my own parents.

We all (including Päivi’s sister Marja, who had just returned from a year in Los Angeles) went out to their summer cottage, which is in the forest not far from Helsinki. It reminded me very much of Door County, Wisconsin.

After the weekend, I spent Monday bumming around Helsinki. Beautiful city. If you’ve never been to Norden, I highly recommend it. Everything is clean and modern; the people are beautiful; with the strong dollar things aren’t too expensive. In the summer, it’s pleasantly warm and sunny. Almost everyone understands English. But most impressive of all is the way they have their whole society set up. Little crime. Almost no poverty. Universal health care. Universal retirement pensions. They say because of the harsh climate people have been forced to help each other more.

I swear, if it wasn’t for the fucking winters, I’d seriously consider trying to immigrate. Probably to Sweden, since I know the language. Finnish is too damn hard. Did I mention they have no articles? Apparently they have prepositions, but they also have postpositions. And nouns have fifteen cases!

Maybe I’ll have a chance later to describe my trip to the Scottish highlands.

Update: I’ve scanned and posted photos from this trip.

July 7, 2001

London — The overnight sleeper train was expensive but definitely worth it. Trains and planes are the way to go — fuck a bus, except for getting around a city.

It’s around 8:00 AM, foggy and damp. I’m in Regent’s Park, making my way to Leinster Square the slow way — by walking. Leinster Square is where I’m staying tonight, so I’m in no rush.

Navigating through London, especially on foot as opposed to public transit, is a fun puzzle in itself. London streets make the warped grid of New Orleans look almost sane by comparison. I bought a detailed street map — it’s a 300-page book.

Gotta start looking for a place to take a crap…

Ah… free, quasi-sanitary public restrooms. Xy would appreciate this. Not to mention the elaborate flower gardens.

July 6, 2001

Edinburgh — I’m sitting on a bench on a hill in a park looking across a small valley at the most incredible array of stone buildings. When I got off the bus here three days ago, the site of Edinburgh made up for the eight-hour overnight ride, which sucked big-time.

But I haven’t spent the last three days in Edinburgh. I’ve been barreling around the Highlands on a bus tour. Saw Loch Ness, the William Wallace Memorial, Glencoe, the site of the battle where Robert the Bruce defeated the English, the site of the battle where the Jacobite Rebellion was crushed, the castle filmed in Highlander, some neolithic ruins, and lots of astonishingly beautiful scenery. Stayed at two hostels; the one on Skye was pretty shabby but the one at Ft. Augustine rocked. We took a walk up to Loch Ness and met a member of the local fire brigade. They were practicing for a rowing contest to be held the next day; their handmade craft was labeled FART which stands for Fort Augustine Rowing Team.

I didn’t take a camera on this part of the journey — mailed it home from Helsinki — but I don’t think I could have captured the expansive grandeur of the Highlands.

I really wish Xy could have been along to see it. I was the only singleton on the bus, and though everyone was nice enough, I was a little lonely sometimes. But moreover, I think Xy would love Scotland, so maybe I can manage to drag her here someday.

It’s been cold and misty most of my time here. I bought a sweater in Portree which is keeping me warm and toasty now.

But Glencoe was so amazing — I expected Gandalf or someone to come walking down the mountainside.

Back to these buildings in Edinburgh: They’re dark, heavy, Gothic, oppressive even — especially with the thick fog.

Later: Ate at a French restaurant I found by chance. Had duck in a raspberry sauce the way it should be prepared — made me realize just how bad the duck at Court of Two Sisters really was.

July 3, 2001

Helsinki — I’ve been riding one of the public bikes around the city this morning. You put in a ten-mark coin as a deposit, which unlocks the bike. Then you ride around wherever you want, with your coin wedged in its slot in your handlebars. When you return it to any of the public bike racks, which are located all over, you insert the lock back into the handlebars and retrieve your deposit.

The bikes themselves are kind of clumsy, with only one speed and spongy tubeless tires that can never go flat — all designed for very low maintenance. One size fits all, which means that my bike is too small for me, and the distinctive design and garish day-glo colors make you very conspicuous. But still it’s a pretty cool idea.

Later, on the bus to the airport: The couple behind me is having an incredible knock-down drag-out. She’s Thai; he’s a Finn. They’re speaking in heavily accented English. It’s the kind of fight where you say “How did I get stuck with such a stupid person like you?” and “Just leave me alone — I don’t need you anymore.”