Interstellar Extends Life as we Know it, Maybe

Interstellar 2It takes a while to get into the flow of Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s latest film odyssey. But that’s not a problem because with a running time of 2 hours and 49 minutes you don’t need to be in a hurry. Mr. Nolan combines a number of narratives and even more visuals into a celestial maze of chaos and hope that holds the survival of human life in the balance.

The story opens as Cooper, played with an easy intensity by Mathew McConaughey, is working his farm somewhere in rural America. It’s set in a world ahead of today and the climate, or blight as it is called, has infiltrated our atmosphere and has been systematically killing off all the food even as it grows in the fields. Things have become so dire that just about all that can be grown now is corn. Cooper lives with his son, Tom and daughter Murphy (Murph). Cooper was a pilot and I think an astronaut, but we don’t get a clear picture. He is a widower and relies on his father-in-law, Donald, played by John Lithgow to help raise his kids.

Murph is a bit of a prodigy and Cooper is an engineer; both are off the IQ charts. The space program has been shut down and funds diverted to trying to solve the food problem, so farms are the new “caretakers” of the future of human existence. Cooper turns his skills to making the farm equipment run autonomously with computer programs and sensors.

One day the field equipment goes haywire and they all head back to Cooper’s house and stop. This the first clue we get that magnetism and gravity will play a very large role in unraveling this interesting weave of a story. Murph claims there’s a ghost in her bedroom and indeed when a super dust storm comes through, a message is spelled out on her hardwood floor. Mr. Nolan has bridged us into an M. Night Shyamalan movie for a few moments. Common, everyday images and goings on, but very much askew. Quickly he moves on.

In a wonderful sonic transition we are launched into space with Cooper commanding the Endurance with three scientists on board, including Ameila Brand (Anne Hathaway). I have always been fascinated at how many people are not fans of Ms. Hathaway. In my opinion her performances are both fragile and strong, and she comes through once again. An interesting debate at a cocktail party might be who was the best space woman; Ryan Stone from Gravity or Amelia Brand. I know Ripley is seething right now. Despite a brief sidetrack, Brand, not unlike Ryan, finds herself being thrust into the role of keeping the mission on track, no matter what.

Interstllar 1

The Endurance mission is a follow up to the Lazurus Project, which years ago sent brave souls through a wormhole to investigate a number of potential planets on the other side for human colonization. Endurance was to also navigate through that same wormhole and then determine which planet or planets they should visit to see what their previous explorers had found. They are looking for a new earth. Their findings would be radioed back where Ameila’s father, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) could analyze the data. He was preparing to make something quite amazing happen.

Murph has grown up, now being played by Jessica Chastain, and has turned her intellectual skills to helping solve the larger problem of re-colonization. She has teamed up with Professor Brand and they feverishly and tirelessly work to make his theory real.

As you can imagine, a variety of events occur on the mission and a significant amount of time has passed. The Endurance flight members are caught in a time warp thanks to the physics of the wormhole. One minute on the planet they first explore is equal to seven earth years. Things become more dire on earth.

Writing much more would require a spoiler alert notation, which I am always reluctant to do because I prefer my readers see the films. So I’ll leave the story and subsequent details about the ending here with one additional thought. Professor Brand recites a poem written by Dylan Thomas as the Endurance mission breaks through the gravitational pull of the earth.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The technical aspects of the film are nothing short of astounding. From earth to space to the wormhole to the depths of the horizon of a black hole known as Gargantua, our eyes are transported to new worlds. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema has lensed a work of art. Mr. Van Hoytema brought us the deep digital look of Her last year and has now propelled film beyond escape velocity into a new dimension. One could compare his work to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The lights of the wormhole for example. Perhaps it was a homage.


The climax before the climax is fascinating. Mr. Nolan dips us into a condensed world. One where everything exists at all times. All realms of existence available in a single life moment. This story push makes us think harder while at the same time helping us believe what we are seeing. It helps us accept the core of the story.

Hans Zimmer’s score at times also evokes 2001, but he was challenged to score earth, space and a a third dimension wrapped in a dimension that already had five layers. It works, but the visuals overpower the score.

Highly recommended to those with a mind as open as the vastness of space and time.

Agile Development in Training

Many firms are giving Agile Development a go, and it’s easy to understand the corporate motivation. Get to market faster with the highest value projects. In our company we’re in the 2009 planning cycle and struggling with the prioritization process and a crushing number of initiatives. All projects are scored for value to the firm and a level of effort is assigned by the IT department. As you would expect the highest value projects take the longest. And there are many more on the spreadsheet than we have resource for. So the direction from the top was to go back and see if the highest value/large projects can be scaled back to a small or medium and preserve most of the value. That way we deliver more to the company sooner. Makes total sense

The challenge is getting everyone on board to go back, open up the proposals and do the hard work to throw requirements overboard. Oh yeah, only throw out the appropriate requirements. We aren’t as skilled as we need to be to pull this one off. It seems what the top guy needs is agile development.

The Waterfall Process
The Waterfall Process

We all know the waterfall project development process can’t live in our fast paced world and doesn’t perform in practice because most of the players don’t spend the necessary time thinking and planning. The idea that you can completely polish off one stage and enter the next without going back is unrealistic. The result. It takes too long and no one is really happy with the outcome, especially IT who now has to maintain it.

Agile allows the various disciplines to focus and control their areas of expertise, while interfacing with everyone else. Coding begins immediately and is delivered to the team for review many times during the project. Small changes are made quickly vs. the entire code base having to be scrapped. In the waterfall world you have no choice but to ship it. That means you’re the proud owner of home built on a sacred burial ground; forever doomed. In agile you only toss out small bits of code and keep the project moving. You are never forced to ship the first pass.

In the Cooper Journal email I received today, Alan Cooper, a brilliant programmer and user experience guru, bills his firm as providing Product Design for a Digital World. We’ve used them for persona creation and their work is top drawer. In the email there was a link to Mr. Cooper’s keynote address recently given at the Agile 2008 Conference. It was a fascinating and thought provoking perspective on agile development, how it should be done, and how it differs from the waterfall process. This one slide really caught my eye as a thinking tool.

Approaching Agile Development
Approaching Agile Development

He continues to deconstruct AG, laying out the various states of mind and stages (agile and fragile). But he goes far beyond technology and process, delving deep into human psychology to explain the various roles necessary to make agile successful and why. It’s the people, their emotions, motivations and desires that drives success out of AG. Overlapping those skills in a rapid cycle environment makes a difference.

I could never refactor his keynote, so I won’t even try. See for yourself, view the keynote slides and Mr. Cooper’s speaker notes here. He has entitled the address The Wisdom of Experience. It truly is. Enjoy.