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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (2/11/14) 1:38am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:   Argo
TV:   <none>
Books:  The Elements of Scrum

This is Ben Affleck's 2012 thriller about the extraction of six diplomats during the Iran Hostage Crisis.

It's been a long, long time since I've watched movies regularly.  So whenever I get back to watching a movie, I always feel a little bit wrong-footed.  Oh, right, they aren't setting up a world that can support episodic storylines.  Yeah, and it's going to be mostly focussed on one central character, and good lord where did these production values come from?

Honestly, just watching a movie was refreshing.

And I'm a sucker for anything set in the late seventies or early eighties.  It's an era that sits right at the edge of my conscious memory.  To my mind, there's always something strange and magical about its drab earth tones and questionable fashion choices, just because I'm seeing a world that's just out of reach.  And the production design, down to the old-timey Warner Bros. logo, was really convincing.

But: to the movie itself.

It was a fine little thriller.  It was neat to watch the screenwriter deal with the challenges of the source material.  The original story splits very naturally into parallel storylines in Tehran, Washington, and Hollywood -- so that's already a stress for the screenwriter; unless they're directed by Rohmer or Altman, movies (especially thrillers) tend to focus in on a single, central plot.  And of course, in act three, they have to invent sudden-death scenarios in each of the three locations.  (In real life, apparently, the diplomats just bought their plane tickets without incident and flew off to Zürich, which must have vexed the screenwriter to no end.)  And they had to intercut between them fluidly, in a way that didn't kill the film's momentum.

It all felt a bit forced -- "ah, right, this sudden-death plot point is happening because... this is what happens in a movie, not because it's what would happen in the real world, and not because of anything they've set up earlier in the story" -- but it was fun.

Meanwhile, they were stuck with a bigger cast than a thriller can really support, but the film did its game best to, say, give the six diplomats unique personalities.  It didn't quite get there, but it was fun to see it try.  Elsewhere in the movie, really strong and well-known character actors used their natural, charistmatic personas to make the most of smaller, sometimes-underwritten roles.  Lester Siegel is written as a pretty standard-issue jaded Hollywood producer, but put Alan Arkin in that role and it'll just sing.

I really liked Affleck's performance here, which is a surprise, since marquee-topping actors aren't always the best at directing themselves.  I felt like he did a good job with that very, very slight difference between playing a role blankly and underplaying it effectively.  I felt very strongly like Mendez was a spy who played things really close to the chest, and moments like the tiny little pause before his response to "Have you done a mission like this before?" (beat, "This would be a first.") let the character come through that.

I wouldn't say it's a movie that meant much to me, but it was well-constructed, it moved along, and it had a wonderful setting.  *shrug* My time wasn't wasted.

The Elements of Scrum by Chris Sims and Hillary Louise Johnson
This is a short book about Scrum, which is a form of Agile, which is a form of software methodology.  "Software methodology" is, in turn, a fancy term for "organizing things so that programmers can complete a project."

When Agile was invented, software projects were done like this: first, write a complete specification for what the program should do; then, set a bunch of programmers loose on writing it; finally, test the completed program and, once it tests out okay, send it off to sell to customers or guide the Apollo lander to the moon or whatever it's supposed to do.

This seems to make sense -- after all, it's how you would design, say, a car -- but this "waterfall" method often runs into problems with software.  For example, you'll design your program on paper, code it, complete it, and then the customers realize that no, they didn't want that at all.  Or you finish your program, but creating the whole project takes so long that, by the time you've finished, the market for it has already moved on.  Or halfway through, you discover a much more lucrative thing this program could do, but you're stuck doing the features everybody agreed on at the start.

As far as I can tell, the main idea with Agile is that it's iterative.  First, you finished the smallest, dumbest version of your software project.  Then, you get that in front of your customer, and get feedback from the customer.  Then, you go through and make a slightly better version of the project, using that feedback.  Then, it goes back to the customer again for more feedback.  And so on and so on, with the customer providing constant course corrections, and with the certainty that, if the project gets canceled, you'll at least have a working program finished and ready to go.

Put like that, it's a simple and sensible idea.  Out in the world, programmers tend to go a bit alpha-male about it, getting in big, territorial dust-ups over rival methodologies and holy wars about how, precisely, Agile is supposed to work.  After seeing so many of these keyboard swordfights over the years, it's easy to look at this behavior, roll your eyes, and sigh.  (Ah, young people.)  Anyway, this book falls victim to that, basically saying that everything up to the point of Ye Holy Agile just didn't work.  (You want to tap the breathless writers on the shoulder and gently remind them that those old, dusty methodologies got the aforementioned Apollo lander to the moon, sonny.)

But all that said, it does a fine job of summing up what Agile is, how to do it, and what advantages it offers.  And it's a quick read, clocking in (for me, a slow-ish reader) at around two hours.  It was a good little book that did what it set out to do, and it'll be interesting to see if I can put any of these principles into practice at work.

For next time, I'll bet I'll finally finish A Clash of Kings and switch over to nonfiction.  I've been watching more Cowboy Bebop, so I may have something to post about that next time, too.  Finally, I've been watching Synecdoche, New York, so I'll post some thoughts about that.

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Date:Tuesday (2/11/14) 1:43pm
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