Review of Joker

Slight spoiler alert, I reveal some details about the movie. Best to watch it first before reading on.

The 2019 movie “Joker” is available on Netflix and my review of it is long overdue. To say that this is a somewhat controversial movie would be an understatement. Reviewers seem highly polarized in their opinions. Roughly half the reviewers thought the movie absolutely sucked, while the other half thought it was a truly great movie. There were some who literally feared mass shootings, and there were some who praised the movie for addressing important issues related to how society deals with mental healthcare.  

A few mental healthcare specialists have pointed out that Joker does not offer a realistic portrayal of mental disorders. Some even went so far as to write to newspapers to express their concern that the factual misrepresentation of mental disease in Joker might damage the public image of real people with psychiatric conditions. On the other end of the specutrum, we find specialists who reflect more favourably on the movie and who succesfully argue in a peer-reviewed journal that Joker actually does a pretty decent job of depicting traumatic brain injury.

Going beyond the fascinating—but otherwise irrelevant—factual accuracy of the movie’s portrayal of mental illness, one reviewer of Joker wrote that a movie must first of all be interesting. And in his opinion, Joker wasn’t. I think that’s a bit odd. Allright, Joker isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. That’s understandable. But considering the polarizing result, the mass media attention, the controversy surrounding Joker, it could certainly be argued that Joker is anything but uninteresting. Quite the contrary. Admittedly, much of the reason for that is the Oscar winning performance of Joaquin Phoenix. His version of Joker really steals the show. Perhaps that’s why the movie’s title is simply “Joker” and not “A Treatise on Social Injustice, Economic Inequality, and the Rise of the Commedia dell’Arte in pre-Chiropteran Gotham”.

Now about the movie itself. Right from the beginning, we see that Gotham is sick. The news playing on a radio in the background informs us that Gotham city is turning into one big rat-infested trash heap because of a long strike by garbage collectors. Arthur Fleck, a traumatized rent-a-clown, goes to work as a sign-spinner on a busy street in front of a store going out of business. He does so next to a porn movie theater bearing a sign saying that it’s “healthily air conditioned” inside. So this movie is not just about mental disorder, it’s about a whole city that is out of order. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s heavy melancholic cello music (also Oscar winning) is perfect. The mood is further enhanced by the cinematographer’s use of a green filter, casting a sickly hue in every shot. Frequent use of low aperture results in a tasty ‘bokeh’—or differential focus if you prefer—in some key scenes, creates a strong sense of introversion. To me it emphasized the narcistic, self-centered aspect of Arthur’s personality, as well as his sickness.

It’s hard to imagine this movie being as successful as it is with any other actor playing Joker than Joaquin Phoenix. His performance was simply amazing, the best I’ve seen in a Hollywood movie in quite a while, and in my view justly rewarded with an Oscar. The way he uses almost every muscle fiber and makes his bones stand out in his lanky sinewy body really works perfectly. He makes Arthur look broken, malnourished, bruised… The heavy smoking completes the image of sickness. In the opening scene, Arthur applies clown makeup and with his fingers pulls the corners of his mouth into a smile while a glistening tear runs over his cheek. That’s Arthur before he is Joker. He does it again after his transformation in the end. The movie has a certain symmetry.

Arthur’s main goal in life is to become a comedian. But as we follow him on his journey along that path, we soon realize how crazy that is. When Arthur visits a comedy club during amateur hour, seeking inspiration for his material, he writes weird notes such as ‘sexy jokes alwaze funny’ while laughing completely out of sync with the rest of the crowd. It suggests Arthur has no intuition of comedy. Instead he just copies jokes and behavior from other people as if they were recipes in a cookbook, to be served at the right time. Arthur’s ambition of becoming a comedian is so ill suited to someone with his mindset that it is a bit ironic. Like a person with a pathological lack of empathy for other people’s wellbeing desperately trying to become a grief counselor or nurse. Arthur even copies the moves for his entrance on the Murphy Show from a previous guest by watching a recording of the show. The stark contrast between the aspiring comedian, and the psychotic, halucinating, mentally unhinged trauma survivor works really well.

Arthur’s unusual collection of mental conditions, which is what some reviewers seems to find problematic or even controversial, is not the most important aspect of the movie. Instead, I feel the most relevant thing is more how his milieu reacts to his conditions. Arthur’s curious collection of mental problems may or may not be accurate, but it still lends itself perfectly well for a valid commentary on how modern society treats people with mental problems. Arthur’s lack of support from social workers, the way people react to him in public, his virtually non-existent treatment by specialist healthcare professionals, the outrageous cutbacks, ending his medication, social isolation, his lack of eductation, living in a badly maintained apartment building where he takes care of his mother and watches TV… It’s a desperate situation to be in. And there are elements that feel pretty close to real life. Inadequate funding for mental healthcare is a real issue in the Netherlands, for example, where it was recently reported that waiting lists to treat young people dealing with serious mental conditions can now be as long as two years. That waiting period even applies to young people asking for help to deal with suicidal depression. For some on that list, help comes too late…

But there is of course more to the Joker origin story than just the city’s socio-economic problems and the critique of mental healthcare in modern society. The connection between Arthur and Thomas Wayne is also explored, in an interesting way. And there is sort of a twist there too, which I won’t spoil here. But I don’t think there’s enough in this movie to warrant a sequel, despite the somewhat open ending. Then again, do we really need to see yet another Bruce Wayne turn into yet another Batman? I don’t think so. In that sense, Joker is certainly a refreshing change. Thus, the ending of this movie is good enough. Arthur is sitting at a table across an employee of the Arkham asylum. Arthur’s laughing, but it is perhaps the first time his laughter is not caused by the brain trauma. When the employee asks him what’s so funny, he replies “You wouldn’t get it.” It’s the perfect answer, coming from a man who never understood a joke in his entire life. I rate Joker 8/10.

Are humans supposed to eat meat?

Ever heard of the expression “Better than sex”? There are really only two things in this world that expression applies to. One of them is heroin, a well-known highly addictive drug. And the other is food. The importance of food in life, art, and culture cannot be overstated. The earliest cave painting by man dates back about 40,000 years and depicts a hunting scene. The depiction of food in art unquestionably predates the painting of voluptuous reclining nude women, reposing in chaise longues and partially draped in velvet. And did you ever wonder how Ruben’s nude models came to be so voluptuous? Or why the Venus of Willendorf seems to have a BMI in the upper range? The answer is again food. That is why food is connected to affluence and fertility. Just like sex and drugs, food—especially energy rich food—activate our brain’s reward system. Is that not why we often enjoy certain foods even when we’re not really hungry? We use food to train tigers to jump through rings of fire, and food is used to condition distant relatives of wolves to fetch our Sunday morning newspaper. That should tell you something. Countless ex-drug addicts and many generations of pious celibates exist, but the only people I know who do not eat are either dead people or supermodels. Food is what sustained your growth in your mother’s womb. Food is life.

Eating food is something all of us have done since the day we were born. Of course most of us don’t immediately move on to a menu of foie gras d’oei and confit de canard, accompanied by some fine bottle of châteaux clos vougeot for example. Instead, most humans begin life by eating what their parents feed them. Home cooked food, mostly. Some recipes acquired during the lifetime of the parents, others passed down through generations. Recipes for boiling vegetables, recipes for making salads, recipes for stir-frying noodles, and recipes for preparing meat. Everything and anything. There isn’t much that walks or crawls on this earth that isn’t eaten in one culture or another. Humans are really typical omnivores, a lot like baboons or chimpanzees. You’d be hard pressed to find a culinary culture on this planet that does not include nuts, fruits, vegetables, roots, and some form of animal protein. So imagine my surprise when I encountered a page on the PETA website boldly asserting that humans are not supposed to eat meat.

Of course I understand that PETA is an organisation that promotes animal rights and welfare, and that slaughtering animals is not a practice that agrees with those principles. But unorthodox claims such as theirs must be supported by plain facts. Anything less basically implies the use of  dezinformatsia to promote some kind of agenda. So how do their biological and evolutionary arguments stand to critical analysis? Recently I have tried to find that out.

Their first argument against eating meat is that most humans can’t stand the sight of blood, intestines, and raw meat. This, in my humble opinion, reflects a cultural bias. Because most humans do not live in highly developed Western countries, where the consumer of meat is shielded from the modern industrialised slaughtering and butchering process. Indeed, there are plenty of cultures on earth that still hunt for food, eat raw meat, and some even drink blood. Check out this video of the Massai drinking blood and eating raw meat, and note how none of them vomit, pass out, or seem otherwise disgusted by their meal.

 

If people from Western cultures can’t stand the sight of a slaughtered animal, then it is probably because they never see an animal butchered anymore. In the book Ozma of Oz (1907), the protagonist Dorothy Gale stumbles upon a lunch-box tree that grows containers with ham sandwiches. You may perhaps laugh at the idea—and admire the creative genius and humor of the author—but in Western society this way of thinking about where meat products come from is actually not far from the truth anymore. However, let me assure you that for most people on earth the sight of a slaughtered animal signals the potential for a tasty dinner.
 
The next point PETA makes is that humans don’t have carnivorous teeth or claws, and therefore are not built to kill and tear apart animals. Nonsense I say. I would argue that humans have the biggest, sharpest canines in the whole animal kingdom. I have included a picture below to demonstrate the typical size and nature of a specimen that would put even the greatest predators to shame. 
My, what big teeth we have!

A fairly typical example of the kind of tooth humans use to tear into flesh, though much bigger specimens exist. For comparison; a Bengal tiger’s canines are only about 10cm in length.

 

Clearly, our species is perfectly capable of dealing with cadavers. Humans have used tools and cooked their food at least since the stone age—which began about 2.6 million years ago—and evidence of the first spears dates to at least half a million years ago. And there is also plenty of scientific literature showing that our proclivity for the omnivorous lifestyle is very much a part of our evolutionary heritage, as this Nature article highlights for example. It remains an open question to what extent meat was part of the early hominid diet, and it is beyond question that excess consumption of animal products in the Western diet is a an important contributing factor to what have come to be known as ‘lifestyle-diseases’. Yet that is far more a problem of recent industrialisation and the ensuing cornucopia of meat in our modern world, than a biological problem with eating meat per se.

But then PETA continues with the argument that “Our digestive system doesn’t like meat”. Here they again demonstrate that they don’t quite understand biology that well. Yes the gastro-intestinal (GI) tract of humans is not as short as that of carnivores, but neither is it as long as that of herbivores. And there exists at least one scientific publication noting that humans have low gastric acid pH values that are on par with those of predators and scavengers. Another paper compared the acid levels between the beagle (a domesticated carnivore) and humans, finding that human gastric juices are actually more acidic. Yet another paper compares a particular property of the GI tract—the coefficient of gut differentiation—for a number of species ranging from predators and scavengers to herbivores and omnivores. In that study, humans are ranked among the omnivores. Thus the omnivorous diet of humans is not just a lifestyle choice, it is clearly a biological fact.
 
The PETA page goes on with the statement that meat may cause food poisoning in humans. To that I would say “And vegetables don’t?” People can become violently ill from peanut allergies, deaths from eating unripe tomatoes still occur in a few cases each year, and some individuals risk their lives by mistakenly eating poisonous mushrooms or a rotten potato salad. Except for maybe a few edible fruits—which the plant offers only because it benefits the plant’s reproduction—nothing in nature wants to be eaten, and almost every organism will basically try as hard as possible to kill you if you give them half a chance. That is why completely immunocompromised people don’t live long; they die of infections that no normal human would ever have to worry about. Plants, unlike animals, can’t run away, so they stand their ground and synthesise powerful toxins to avoid herbivory. Eating badly prepared, poorly selected, or rotten fruits, vegetables or mistaking a toadstool for a safe mushroom can make you just as sick as eating bad meat. In 2017, a then 74 year old Dutchman nearly died after eating some apricot seeds that he’d bought at a health food store. So just because something isn’t an animal doesn’t mean its safe to ingest. Eating correctly prepared meat, on the other hand, is pretty much just as safe as eating anything else that doesn’t contain toxins and food-borne pathogens in quantities that could cause illness. 
 

And PETA also asks the question “If humans were meant to eat meat, why do meat-eaters have a 32 percent higher risk of developing heart disease than vegetarians?” Well, that is perhaps because people who eat meat are often consummate bon vivants who al to frequently overindulge, overwhelmed as they are by sudden bouts of joie de vivre. In other words, they eat too much. It’s that inconvenient reward system of the human brain again, overruling reason. And no one ever said living the good life would be a long life. And if just eating veggies is so awesome, then why don’t we naturally gravitate towards a plant-only diet? Why don’t children eat only the boiled vegetables, while leaving the fried chips and grilled meat untouched? How many parents have arguments with their children because they only eat cabbages and carrots, but avoid hotdogs, pepperoni pizzas, and barbecued meats? I vividly remember how my mother would not put her mouthwatering pancakes with bacon and thick syrup on the table until I first ate my spinach. And when I was about five or six years old, I came downstairs to the kitchen one early morning, used a chair to climb on the counter, and started eating brown sugar straight from a jar. Why didn’t I go for the bowl with tomatoes? Examples from my own life are just anecdotal evidence of course, but a quick glance at the literature shows that most humans are born with a preference for energy dense food. That is why it may take some time before a child ‘learns’ to eat Brussel sprouts, whereas sweet confectionaries and junk-food are instantly appreciated by all. And once a society becomes sufficiently wealthy that anyone can afford to eat steak every day of the week, then some people will actually do just that.

An increasing amount of research is finding that the differences are not just related to differences in experience with foods, but that there is also a genetic component involved in taste. There are innate differences in sensitivity to bitter taste, for example. And there may be an epigenetic component as well. For example, a recent study found altered DNA methylation patterns in Dutch people who were prenatal when their mothers lived through the Hunger Winter during the second world war. That particular cohort experienced a number of associated health problems later in life, including obesity and metabolic diseases. Thus, while I would certainly agree that humanity ought to eat less meat, we should also appreciate that there are inborn biological factors that determine our eating habits, our gustatory senses, and our metabolic constitution. But there are ways to encourage a healthier balance in our diets. The UK has famously imposed a sugar tax in an effort to stem the tide of obesity that threatens to put an increasingly huge burden on their healthcare system. It would be just as easy to tax meat for the same reason, and other reasons as well (animal husbandry also contributes to climate change, for example).

So should humans eat meat? Well, my problem is with the word ‘should’. From an environmental perspective, assuming a certain set of strict moral and ethical standards regarding animal life, the answer is no. But from a biological perspective the answer is yes. Yes, we ‘should’ eat meat, but we should do so in moderation just like every treat in life. Not more than once or twice per week. Because while eating meat is a part of our evolutionary history, the amount of meat we have only recently begun to consume every year certainly is not. As with all things in life, neither excess nor shortage are good.

Having answered the original question, I would like to end with a note on some of the references I often see in the kind of pro-vegan writings I have found online. Beware of statements that begin with “a professor from Harvard” or “a distinguished surgeon in Kansas”. When a sentence begins with throwing around academic titles and fancy research institutions, I have found that what follows is typically either some misinterpreted fact or a plainly incorrect one. You want an example? Alright. The PETA page that prompted me to write this post at some point refers to an article on Huffpost: “Shattering The Meat Myth: Humans Are Natural Vegetarians“. The author of that piece—Kathy Freston—cites an essay written by a Dr. Milton Mills, titled “A comparative anatomy of eating”. And what do you see when you read that essay? No references of any kind, and an absolutely shameful load of twaddle on human evolution and physiology. And that from an alumnus of the medical school of Stanford (apparently). Go figure… 

 

Baking an apple pie: How anyone can debunk disinformation surrounding the covid-19 vaccines

Vaccines cause autism. The covid-19 mRNA vaccine will change my DNA. Vaccinations could lead to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Getting covid-19 is no worse than the flu. I tested positive for covid-19 months ago, so I don’t need to be vaccinated anymore.

The above are some of the common misconceptions about (covid-19) vaccines. I cannot stress enough that NONE OF THEM are true. What do I mean by ‘true’? By ‘true’, I refer to scientific truth. That means that my sources for this claim meet the kind of rigorous systematic testing criteria that also enabled us to have airbags in our cars, to develop advanced MRI scanners, and to put satellites in orbit around this planet. And they work, so why should this be any different?

You probably cannot begin to rightly apprehend just how tempting it is to call ‘stupid’ those who believe just such crazy pseudo-scientific nonsense and the conspiracy theories surrounding the covid-19 vaccin development. Especially considering how such Luddites so very often contradict themselves, making use of most of the technological conveniences modern life has to offer, yet bashing just the kind of scientific research that has made all that technology possible to begin with… Indeed, it would be all too easy to call such people ignorant fools. But I am not going to do that. Instead I think it would be far better to try and convince with arguments how I think what I think.

To begin with, we live in the era of information, all kinds of information. An overload of information even. I understand that. Thanks to the internet, anyone can write anything, anytime. From Einstein’s theory of relativity, to just about any random crackpot’s nutty theory about the merits of inserting ripe blueberries in your ears before you go to sleep. It is all available to anyone and everyone, anytime. And even in science, there is the occasional bit of nonsense published. Sometimes deliberately. And sometimes even scientists are duped. Therefore people who have never enjoyed the benefit of training in the scientific method—as I have—may understandably have great difficulty in knowing what to believe. I understand that. So instead of going off on a rant and calling such ‘citizen scientists’ idiots, I am going to explain—as plainly as I can—a simple first way to discriminate between abject non-sense and ‘truth’ in a scientific sense.  It is my sincerest hope that any reader will use this information to their benefit, and (as a bonus) you get to impress people by knowing a lot about any subject you find really interesting, including which researchers are leaders in that field. How awesome is that?

The first step in any scientific endeavour begins with a question. That question typically does not fall from the sky, but is very often rooted in some kind of observation. For example, you may observe that a particular species of bird migrates annually. And that they find their migration route without fail every year. You may then wonder: How do these birds navigate to the same location every year?

The process involved in trying to find answers to such questions is a lot like a recipe: a set of instructions you can follow that will in the end result in a tasty apple pie. Because you will scarcely have been the first individual to observe that some birds migrate, for the same reason every academic student—no matter the discipline—at some point in their eduction will begin with a review of current literature on a particular well-defined subject. 

The first step then is to search for a general principle. All birds are animals. So what is known generally about migration in animals? In order to know that, it would be a good starting point to find out which scientists are knowledgable on the subject of animal migration. That means looking at  the research output on animal migration, typically in the form of publications in scientific magazines. But what to look for? How do you find out who’s hot, and who’s not? Answering this sub-question is a lot like asking: What are the best apple pie recipes out there? 

So how does one identify the best apple pie recipe? Naturally you try to find the one everyone’s using, the one that’s mentioned most, published in the finest cook books. So it goes with science as well. There is a metric for that kind of thing called the ‘citation index‘, which tells you how many great ‘recipes’ a publisher of scientific research publishes. And for any specific article you can also see how many times other researchers have cited it. So when you find the most cited article on bird migration, published in a highly ranked scientific magazine, then you can be pretty sure you’ve found a good one. That would be analogous to finding one of the best apple pie recipes from the best publisher of cook books. But what’s the catch? Are these fine cookbooks and recipes all free?

Of course not. You’ll often need cash to buy the best cook books, with apple pie recipes from the Marco Pierre White’s of this world—you know, with a little Knorr bouillon. Regarding scientific journals this is referred to as a ‘pay wall’. But there are ways around that. An increasing number of  publications are open access these days, and if they’re not you could try sci-hub, or (better still) simply email the author kindly requesting a copy. Having written all that, I also realise that not everyone can understand scientific articles, even if they could access them. In fact, that is the only point the ‘apple pie’ recipe falls short. Because while almost anyone can bake a pie, you’ll need more than a kitchen to understand a scientific publication.

But even if you have difficulty deciphering the scientific jargon used in scientific publications, there are other heuristics you can use. You can more than likely trust statements that are supported by multiple scientific experts in a particular field. Like in a television interview, for example. This is especially true during the corona crisis. Because our understanding of this novel pathogen is still incomplete, and treatment strategies are still woefully inadequate, getting a covid-19 vaccine is absolutely vital in our effort to recover from this pandemic. The scientists know that too, and that’s why you see and hear them more often on TV and radio these days.

So if you’re currently not planning to get vaccinated, then read the solid scientific publications for yourself, be critical as all good scientists are, and then re-evaluate your position on the covid-19 vaccines. If the matter is too complicated, then at least just find out who the experts are and listen to them. The good information really is all out there. Just be honest, be intellectually curious, and see if you still feel the same way after properly educating yourself—or after reading what experts have to say on the matter. I hope it will change your mind, and that you’ll decide to get vaccinated. And after all that long hard reading, definitely don’t forget to reward yourself with a nice warm apple pie… but, uhm… not like in that movie though… or maybe… if that’s your thing… okay, awkward… :P