January 5th, 2016

Milwaukee Art Museum Renovation

Much of the exhibit space at the Milwaukee Art Museum has been closed for months while being repaired and renovated. These spaces were re-opened this month, and on Saturday the 26th, we went to check it out. We were pleased and impressed.

Basically, the major improvement is much better use of space. The two parts of the older building make up large rectangular areas only really broken up by a central stairwell, so, theoretically, one could cram in as many dividing walls to hang things on as one could and still leave space to see the larger pieces. The Art Museum didn’t go that far, but there does seem to be more wall space for hangings, but enough open space to appreciate what is on view. The total number of pieces on exhibit has been increased from 1500 to 2500. Critics have been very complimentary toward the renovation, including a significant article in the New York Times of December 28th. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/29/arts/design/milwaukee-art-museum-reinvigorates-with-renovations.html?emc=edit_th_20151229&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=23107975&_r=1)

This effect is most noticeable in the lower-level contemporary art area. The very austere high-ceilinged spaces make excellent locations for the frequently large modern paintings and installations. Beyond the familiar Warhol and Lichtenberg pieces that have been mainstays of the collection, there are now many more very interesting pieces on display. (A daunting number of which are titled “Untitled,” which makes me realize that it would be very easy to curate a large exhibit on that theme--.)

The upper level, housing the historical collections, has been broken up into intimate rooms, with wall colors and treatments that support the theme of each room. We were glad to see that a version of the “Layton Gallery,” which seeks to recreate an art exhibit as it would have looked at the time of the Museum’s founder, has been preserved, as have iconic exhibits such as the 19th Century German painting collection.

The Milwaukee Art Museum will never have the size or scope of something like the Art Institute of Chicago, but it has always been a very good museum and now is much improved. Its collection gives a nice overview of the history of Art from ancient to modern which is accessible within a leisurely day.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

On Sunday, Dec. 27th, we went to see the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. We were pleased and satisfied with it, although not perhaps thrilled. (I would like to know the reactions of someone who came to it never having seen any of the prior installments--.)

Quite a bit has been said and written about this film’s similarities to the priors, in particular A New Hope. I think almost all of this is intentional, not just in putting in characters and visual references from earlier movies, but in overarching theme and plot. I rather suspected/hoped that this would be the case after viewing the much-maligned The Phantom Menace. The plot of that film, with its discovery of the talented young one, and the battle culminating in the destruction of the enemy’s flagship by an attack from within its defenses, also echoes the theme and plot of A New Hope, and seeing this recur again makes me “hope” that this also was not an accident nor a failure of invention. Remember, that George Lucas supposedly had nine episodes plotted out in “The Adventures of Luke Skywalker,” and it is just possible that even those years ago, an overarching plot had been envisioned, in which the cycle of time returns on itself in a spiral, not quite coming back to the same point. Those who fail to learn the lessons of history—the always short-sighted “Sith”—build ever larger and more terrifying super-weapons, only to have their technological Goliaths destroyed by the Light Side’s Davids. *

At the beginning of The Force Awakens, the galaxy is in a state of low-intensity warfare, pitting a renascent “Republic” against the remnant Empire lead by the “First Order”, with the “Rebellion” staging an anti-Empire insurgency. The McGuffin this time is not a set of plans, but a star map showing the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, who has become a hermit. Incidents surrounding the attempts to recover the data heat up the war, causing the First Order to activate its “Starkiller Base,” a planet-cracker that is an order of magnitude more dangerous than either version of the Death Star.

The next generation of heroes are caught up in the tide of events. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the Rebellion/Republic’s ace fighter pilot at least signed on for this. “Finn,” (John Boyega) a reluctant Storm Trooper dragooned into the Imperial forces as a child, finds an opportunity to desert. And Rey (Daisy Ridley) is an orphaned scavenger inhabiting a Tattoine-like desert world when Fate, perhaps literally, seeks her out. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a conflicted Vader-wannabee, the genuine next generation of Dark Lords.

They have time to establish themselves firmly as the protagonists of the film before the old guard, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), “General” Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and R2-D2 (now apparently a genuine robot, as Kenny Baker is listed only as “R2-D2 Consultant”) put in appearances.

The plot cycles through an arc familiar from Episode 1, and especially Episode 4, but with enough variations and diversions (and one very significant surprise) to make it fresh, fun, and entertaining for the aficionados.
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More thoughts on “The Force Awakens” (contains spoilers)

I laughed about the science-fantasy violations of the laws of physics in A New Hope back when it first came out. Beam weapons that end at three feet, and will cut anything except each other? Six energy beams that cancel vectors and merge? (I always thought that Lucas missed the boat on light-sabers: instead of glorified samurai swords, imagine fighting with weapons that can’t be parried or blocked, except with the Force itself. Then, you’d have to be a Jedi to duel with one, since a battle would be an aerial dogfight of Force flying and Force pushing as each tried to get inside the other’s guard without getting tagged in turn. I originally speculated that the lightsaber was actually a “Force” blade with the laser effect there merely so you could see where it was, but material published since is to the effect that the blade is a contained plasma effect and it’s well established that you don’t have to be a Force user to wield a lightsaber, although it helps--.)

In a number of ways, The Force Awakens is even worse, and in possibly damaging ways. The biggest one is the change in hyperspace travel. In the Starkiller battle sequence, not only do the Rebels have real-time intelligence of what’s happening at Starkiller Base (weapon status, etc.) which has to be light-years away, but then, the fighter wing is launched and instantaneously transitioned to the Starkiller planet. In the previous episodes, hyperspace voyages took days if not weeks. I suppose it’s possible that, in the 30 years since Return of the Jedi hyperspace drives might have progressed, that doesn’t explain how the Millennium Falcon (that hasn’t even had the interior cleaned in 30 years, evidently) can do the same trick (let alone operate--).

Spaceship hulls are evidently composed of something with a strength approaching Larry Niven’s monocrystalline “hullmetal*”. On Jakku, we see the hulks of at least two Star Destroyers that have crashed there, but retain most of their hull integrity, very surprising for vessels that were presumably built in space with no capability for landing. And, again, the Millennium Falcon seems well-nigh indestructible, surviving Han Solo’s below nap-of-the-Earth approach to the Starkiller, which shears off a sizable forest of mature trees, as well as Solo’s controlled flight into terrain landing.

Which makes one wonder, why don’t they make Storm Trooper armor out of that stuff? The standard plastic/ceramic seems to be totally useless. If you are a Captain, like Phasma, not only do you get issued a name instead of a number, you can have metal armor, which is way heavy (based on the footstep sounds) and probably power-assisted, but she still gives up immediately just because a pistol is pointed at her helmeted head. So, what good’s the armor?

Of course, blasters, or their ammunition, seem to have been upgraded, too. Bolts even from Rey and Solo’s pistols detonate with the effect of a concussion grenade, sending troopers flying, which makes one wonder what the minimum safe range for use is? If Solo had shot Greedo with a bolt like that, Greedo would have splattered, the table would have gone through the roof, and Solo probably would have been blown backward through the wall.

The Starkiller is frustrating, since it’s one of those descriptions where the ludicrous explanation could have been vastly improved with a few added words of dialog. As written, the Starkiller uses the entirety of its star for power, literally causing the star to “vanish” at peak power. The star magically reappears after the dirty work is done. Instead, one could have said that the Starkiller uses the entire output of the star, causing it to become briefly invisible due to sucking up all the visible light. Given the science-fantasy milieu it’s not reasonable to expect the production to bother with a science consultant, but couldn’t they have a “does this make any sense at all?” consultant?


Better known as the “General Products hull material”, it is made of energetically reinforced nano-scale macro molecules. Transparent to visible light, and highly durable, the nearly impervious state allows for vehicles and structures to be built to withstand ridiculous amounts of punishment. GP hulled ship Lying Bastard crash landed on the Ringworld floor while moving at over 770 miles per second. It was also blasted by a large ultraviolet laser, the Ringworld's meteor defense, triggered by the Ringworld in its own sun (Stasis field triggered in defense as well).
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