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My Favorite Documentaries: Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

Fast, Cheap and Out of ControlOne of my all-time favorite documentaries is Errol Morris's 1997 film Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. As a punctuation nerd, I disagree with the lack of a serial comma in its title, but we'll let that slide. Anyway. This film is about humanity, the nature of life on earth, and how humans interact with their world. It covers a lot of ground.

One problem with Fast, Cheap and Out of Control is the naive marketing that surrounds it. The DVD box seems to think the film is a wacky look at some kooks -- it reads "...a fascinating portrait of four obsessed eccentrics. ... [A] kaleidoscopic look at the very thin line which separates madness from genius." Well...no. First, dismissing the interview subjects as "obsessed eccentrics" devalues the insight they have (and it's also a bit offensive). Second, this is a movie about how humans understand other forms of life -- animals, plants, even robots. This movie asks what it means to be human, and what separates humans from animals, plants, and robots. The line between madness and genius doesn't have anything to do with it.

Much more, including video clips, after the jump.

Using interviews with four men -- a "wild animal trainer" (aka lion tamer), a topiary gardener, a robot designer, and a naked mole rat expert -- Morris shows different modes of interaction with nature. While the lion tamer is all about control, respect, and dominance, the topiary gardener lives a dedicated, solitary existence concerned with patient nurturing. The naked mole rat expert is studying how organisms function in societies (in other words, he's looking at the function of the larger society-as-organism), and the robot designer is examining "life" at its most basic level -- in order to create artificial organisms. All of the men are very cognizant of the influence of the external environment on an organism -- how a creature is shaped by its environment. Through interviews and stock footage, Morris makes us ask: is the difference between humans and other organisms (animals, plants, and robots) our ability to control our environment, rather than responding to it? And if we're going to control our environment, how do we go about it -- do we live in symbiosis, do we dominate, do we create our own artificial life and artificial environments? Of course, we do all of these -- it's our nature.

There aren't many decent clips on YouTube of this documentary, unfortunately. You can watch the trailer at Video Detective, or a few (very low-resolution) clips at Sony Pictures Classics (scroll down to the bottom). I did manage to find one YouTube clip of Errol Morris talking about Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which is worth a peek:

And here's an example of the marketing that surrounds the film -- trending towards the wacky, but also mentioning the depth of the subject:

I'd recommend this PG-rated film to anyone -- I don't think you need to have any special interest in a topic area to enjoy it. I suppose the main qualification for enjoying this film is an interest in deep thoughts (and not just those by Jack Handey). You can rent it from Netflix or rent it from Blockbuster. Thanks for reading, and please keep the suggestions coming -- I've got a list of over 50 documentaries to watch based on your feedback!

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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The Prehistoric Bacteria That Helped Create Our Cells Billions of Years Ago
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We owe the existence of our cells—the very building blocks of life—to a chance relationship between bacteria that occurred more than 2 billion years ago. Flash back to Bio 101, and you might remember that humans, plants, and animals have complex eukaryotic cells, with nucleus-bound DNA, instead of single-celled prokaryotic cells. These contain specialized organelles such as the mitochondria—the cell’s powerhouse—and the chloroplast, which converts sunlight into sugar in plants.

Mitochondria and chloroplasts both look and behave a lot like bacteria, and they also share similar genes. This isn’t a coincidence: Scientists believe these specialized cell subunits are descendants of free-living prehistoric bacteria that somehow merged together to form one. Over time, they became part of our basic biological units—and you can learn how by watching PBS Eons’s latest video below.

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