Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Best Movies We Watched During 2010

Once again, I'll give you my movie recommendations from what my wife and I watched this past year. We primarily see movies on Netflix or Hulu, not in theaters, so my list is always out-of-date. However, we tend to get into some pretty esoteric and oddball choices, so you may benefit by finding some hidden gems among this list.

Here we go!

The Ramen Girl

This is a beautiful, sweet, quiet movie that we loved. I'm sure it was made more emotional by the fact that the leading actress, Brittany Murphy, died last year. She was known for several forgettable movies that she had done (Clueless, Riding in Cars with Boys), but this was one seriously talented actress we lost. Her performance in this movie (Ramen Girl) is heartstopping. The story is that a slacker American girl comes to Japan where her life is turned upside down. She takes comfort in visiting a little soup kitchen across the street. She decides she will start working with the soup chef, much to his chagrin. The soup chef (played by Toshiyuki Nishida) is a crusty old bastard, very cruel to the young girl but a great soupmaker. He's so good that people sometimes laugh or even cry when they taste it. The movie is about the long road to learning how to cook ramen, which in Japan is apparently a big deal (don't think of American ramen noodle packages I guess). The journey of learning for her is excruciating, but eventually...well, let's just say she perseveres. This was a top movie for us in 2010. Lovely film, excellent performances, you'll never forget it.

As It Is In Heaven

This Swedish movie was nominated for an Oscar back in 2004. It is the story of an orchestra conductor who migrates back to his tiny home village after a health crisis. He tries to decide what to do and eventually connects with the church choir. The musical number near the end of the movie is very moving. I guess it is a typical story of someone looking for a second chance in life, but the desolation of this little village really gives it a strange, beautiful flavor.

Whip It

Compared to my first two selections, this is a better known film, but still amazingly good. Ellen Page, of Juno fame, stars as a young misfit girl whose mother wants her to do pageants but she knows it just isn't where she belongs. She falls in with a crowd of rowdy girls who participate in a semi-illegal roller derby league. The young girl learns how to skate and becomes a pretty good roller derby player. The team and player nicknames are hilarious (prompting us to try to come up with 5 or 6 more after the movie). If you want a happy-go-lucky sports movie with a bunch of crazy women, this is your movie for sure.

Inglourious Basterds

We like blockbuster movies just as much as the indie films. Quentin Tarantino's latest movie is absolutely incredible. Brad Pitt stars as the leader of a particularly brutal brigade of soldiers in World War II. As you would expect with Tarantino, the violence is graphic and gratuitous. The movie is so interesting and the various plotlines so intricate that we were completely absorbed. If you're one of the five people who haven't seen Inglourious Basterds, you ought to do yourself the favor and rent it. Get it on Blu-ray if you can.

Pirate Radio

Philip Seymour Hoffman, who we always like, stars in this movie about a pirate radio station off the coast of England during the 1960s. Apparently, these stations moored in international waters were where many of the newest artists' music appeared during that turbulent decade. Of course, the government did everything they could to shut them down, but the pirates carried on until the new music started making it on the traditional radio stations. The cast is hilarious and the story is fun. This film is 10 out of 10 in every way.

The Reader

Another movie focused on World War II. Kate Winslet is consistently good, but her work in this movie is outstanding. She plays a young woman who has an affair with a very young boy. Along the way, they become friends as well as lovers, but suddenly she is gone. The boy discovers that she has been accused of some heinous war crimes and he tries to find a way to get her off the hook. It is an emotional rollercoaster, especially because Winslet's character is a strange combination of sexy, gruff, cold and vulnerable.


Another well-known pick here. What can I say that hasn't been said? Gabourey Sidibe, who plays the young girl, is a wonderful actress. She embodies the resolve of someone who is going to make it through life no matter who stands in her way. But the real star is Mo'Nique. Her character, the mother, is a monster. Somehow she completely becomes that monster, probably because she (the actress) was abused as a child and that rage and hurt must be still simmering. Every time you think the young girl is going to catch a break, she gets knocked down again (usually by her own mother). Life in poverty is very rough. Although this is a fictional plot, I'm sure it is representative of life in America, and I was glad to be able to see it and begin to appreciate my own life just a little bit more because of it. The scene at the end of the movie, in the welfare office with Mariah Carey (yes, that Mariah Carey) is probably one of the most emotional scenes I've ever witnessed.

The Blind Side

Sandra Bullock received a much-deserved Oscar for her role in this movie. It is another tear-jerker, to be sure. Sandra's character is a mother who adopted a young African-American boy. He becomes an excellent football player and his white parents are with him every step of the way. I don't want to ruin the plot twists, but suffice it to say that the family runs into a lot of trouble with the boy's football career, to the point where he might not be allowed to play at all. Another great sports movie, teaching us lessons about kindness and about family. Bullock's character is that steely, persistent Southern woman who has a heart the size of Texas.

Swimming Pool

Speaking of plot twists, holy cow! Okay, so this is a story of a famous British mystery writer who decides she needs a break from it all. She visits her publisher's villa in the south of France, a beautiful place with a nice pool in the back. While she's there, the publisher's daughter also drops in and then things start to get complicated. But the left turn that the movie takes in the last five minutes is so subtle, so jarring that you might not even get it until the credits are finished (like it was for us). It took us five or ten minutes after the movie was done before we figured out what we had just been subjected to. The movie is nice enough, but the reason it is on this list is that wacko plot twist at the end.


A very delightful German movie about a small town where the men are so lazy they let the infrastructure of the town get dilapidated to the point where their water wells stop working. This pushes the women of the town to the point of madness. The women make a pact that no woman will have sex with her husband until they fix the water situation. In the face of all of this, a young couple are hoping to have their first sexual encounter. The timing of their tryst coincides with the no-sex protest, of course. You'll really enjoy this film. Do what you can to get your hands on this DVD or get it on Netflix streaming. What a delight!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Smart Grid Trends for 2011

Pike Research (free registration required for download of report), the energy consulting firm in Colorado, has issued a report with their view on smart grid trends for 2011. Includes:

  • An increased focus on smart grid security

  • "The Bakersfield Effect," which is the name for the luddite backlash against smart grids, will continue and amplify as smart grids are rolled out and become more visible

  • Standards (like USNAP) will begin to catch up with deployment

  • A "data tsunami" will be created from all the data coming from smart grid systems, requiring massive investment in data management and analysis

As a software consultant, the last point is very interesting. I hope my employer is able to jump into this field as opportunities accelerate.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Smart Grid - The Next Platform for Software Development

Smart meter

Apple has led us into the world of platforms and app stores. Seven years ago, who would have thought of a cellular phone as a software development platform? And yet, we know now that these new platforms are absolutely the future of consumer-oriented and enterprise software (as we've discussed on this blog). No vendor can introduce a new electronic device without all of us asking "Do you have an SDK (software development kit)?" You'd better. Amazon introduced the Kindle e-book reader a few years ago and developers complained until Amazon created a platform for custom apps on the Kindle. Ford and Microsoft build a complete driver-support system for Ford vehicles called Ford Sync. "Can I build an app for that?" Turns out you can.

It is exciting enough to envision everything we'll be able to create on these platforms that already exist. That's what my last blog post was about. But what are the platforms yet to arrive??? The biggest one on my horizon is the smart grid. The smart grid is an electricity grid that is soaked in information technology. Instead of today's grid, which simply transmits electrical current one-way with no information, the smart grid contains nodes that can talk with one another. Each power meter becomes a smart meter. Each appliance in your house (fridge, stove, television) becomes a smart appliance.

And guess what??? Each meter and appliance becomes a platform. Where you can run apps!

I'm just sitting here imagining a future conversation between two home owners.

"I just downloaded an app for my fridge. I've only been using it for 3 days but it has already been saving me $5 a day in energy costs!"

"Oh yeah? Was the app created by the fridge company?"

"Heck no. Probably done by two guys in a garage somewhere."

Everything that's happening on our phones today will start happening in our cars and our houses. Why not? We couldn't sit around waiting for AT&T or Blackberry/RIM to innovate? Let somebody else move technology ahead.

Smart meters are a reality in more and more places. Westerville, the city where I live, has been implementing them. Astoundingly, the effort has been stalled (for now) by technology luddites questioning the value of them. The luddite issue will be a tough one all across the U.S. until people are sufficiently educated on the technology.

Predictably, Google is already at the forefront of this not-yet-an-industry. They've built Google Power Meter, an open source information hub that talks to smart meters. Open standards will be important, and companies are getting behind an open standard protocol called Open Smart Grid Protocol that will allow devices/nodes to speak to each other. They've said that Google employees who've started using it have noticed a 17% decrease in personal energy costs just by virtue of knowing what power they're consuming and when. Imagine what they could do with app stores full of power-saving apps!!

(Photo courtesy