Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Real Cost of Chrissie

Every year PNC publishes its Christmas Price Index, listing the current price for all the true love's gifts in the song 12 Days of Christmas. This year it was over $155,000, and thinking that isn't very relatable to the average American, every year blogging great Fred Clark publishes his own price index using another song, Robert Earl Keene's Merry Christmas from the Family.

As you can tell from the triple-barrelled name (with "Earle" in it, no less), it's a southern-fried good ol' boys kinda song, but the scenario is probably familiar everywhere: the celebrations are in mid-revel, the inlaws have placed unanticipated strain on the logistics, and somebody's going to have to head down to the local Kwik-E-Mart Stop-N-Go to pick up a list of items – 12 of them, in fact:

extension cord
can of bean dip
Diet Rites
box of Pampers
Marlboro Lights
can of fake snow
bag of lemons
Diet Sprites
box of tampons
Salem Lights

But the whole point of this list is that it's relatable, and I had no idea what half those items even were. So, this year I thought I'd have a go at calculating the Keene-Clark Christmas Price Index for myself. Not a huge chore – nobody knows what's on the shelves at the local convenience store better than me, I put most of it there myself. But since some of these things don't exist in Australia, I did my best to substitute a local equivalent. Fred, I hope these match up.

  • Ice was easy enough: 5kg bag, $4.20. Next.
  • Extension cord? Also easy. Coles own brand, $10.00.
  • Can of Bean Dip? I have no idea what "bean dip" is, or why it comes in a can (refried beans maybe? Seems a bit stiff to run Doritos through...), so I focused in on that one word, "dip," and went for a common brand that'll be appearing everywhere: Kraft French Onion Dip, $2.50.
  • "Diet Rites" is apparently a cheap knockoff brand of cola; it doesn't exist in Australia (and apparently it barely exists in the U.S. outside the deep south anymore), and although its rival RC can be found if you have some variety in your 24-hour convenience stores, it's not available anywhere near me. So I substituted another cheap knockoff cola brand: once again, Coles own! At 75 cents for 1.25 litres, easily the cheapest item on here.
  • Pampers turned out to be a brand of nappies, the rough equivalent here being Huggies. And a bulk 54-pack of those goes for $16.00.
  • Marlboro Lights are tricky given the black & white nature of Australia's tobacco advertising laws, since I'm not sure if this will count as advertising. I'll try and skirt the issue by not revealing the carton size and point out it was Keene who mentioned the brand, not me. Either way, $29.99.
  • Celery sold in 300g bags for $3.00. Presumably to go with that can of bean dip French Onion Dip.
  • You know noothin', can of fake snow. And you're just Impossible to find. I tried Target, I tried both supermarkets, I even tried The Reject Shop that's just opened: nothing, 404, zip. But I'm thinking that's okay actually, because real snow doesn't play a big role in an Australian Christmas either. So I substituted what everyone will absolutely be needing – a replacement gas cylinder for the barbie, which we can swap out for $25.00. Done.
  • Bag of Lemons: No dramas, $4.50.
  • Diet Sprite: $5.30 for a bottle. The difference between that and the price of Coles cola reflects the difference between buying a knockoff at a supermarket vs buying a name brand from a servo. Even though ours closes earlier than the supermarket.
  • Box of Tampons: Only brand we stock are U, in Regular or Super Slim. Either way, $5.00.
  • Salem Lights aren't available in Australia, so I had to choose an equivalent pack of cheap crap. And since this replacement brand was necessarily of my choosing and choosing a particular brand absolutely does count as advertising, I'm not going to mention what it was. But I will say it cost $20.99.
Which brings the total bill for our servo run to $127.23, which at current exchange rates works out as $92.20 in USD. That's remarkably close to Fred's 2013 total of $91.31, especially given the colossal just-quit-already tobacco prices in this country, so the only answer must be that Americans are paying too much for literally everything else. And paying for it with a minimum wage you can't legally pay a minor in this country.

There you go: I didn't set out to prove a point, but I have anyway. Happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Ashura and New Year to you all and enjoy whichever solstice it is you're celebrating, even if you end up being the one who has to go and get all this stuff.

And since all of this could be construed as Coles advertising, let me redress the balance: shop at Aldi instead.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Red Horizons

Ever wondered how a Soviet moon landing would've gone? Well don't wonder no longer.

That was done using freeware space simulator Orbiter, and I have to say, the dude Timm behind it sure knows his stuff. I downloaded Orbiter a week ago and wow, you basically have to know rocket science. Like music, the basics are not difficult to learn, but actually putting the specifics into practice will take a lot of, well, practice. In theory a low Earth orbit is just applied geometry – since gravity is a constant, X altitude just requires Y speed, right? In practice, working out exactly what Delta-V you'll need to circularise your orbit and therefore how much thrust for how many seconds to give you that Delta-V (and in which vector) will absolutely have you pulling your hair out. And don't even get me started on the complications if you get lazy and try anything without circularising your orbit first...

Ahem. Anyway, the Soviet moon landing. Highlights include:

0:00-1:27: Actually getting the N1 rocket to work. The N1 (from the Russian nossitel, or "carrier") was the Soviet equivalent of the Saturn V, except without the rockstar status, payload capacity, enviable reputation among cosmonauts or a single successful launch. The Soviet moon programme wasn't begun until 1965 – four years behind Apollo, and ten years behind the massive Rocketdyne F-1 engines that made Apollo possible. Without a heavy-lift engine of their own, the Soviets had to make do with lots of little ones instead. So in Block A, the N1's massive first stage, instead of five F-1s they had thirty NK-15s, designed to produce a single unified plume seventeen metres wide. On paper, the N1 was actually more powerful than the Saturn V.

I believe it.

Unfortunately, the N1 never got to set any records, because four out of four test flights ended in catastrophe. Block A was too powerful to test as a unit, so every launch was affected by vibrations breaking stuff, vibrations that didn't show up when you tested each engine separately (if you could be bothered – only two engines from each batch of six were fired up before being installed on a spacecraft). And as any regular Mythbusters viewer could guess, getting them all to light at once was a bitch. The internal plumbing was like a 90's screensaver, trying desperately to get enough kerosene fuel and oxidiser to thirty engines at once, kerosene that was non-rocket grade and prone to coking (i.e. covering everything in soot).

Please note that the things dragging it out to the launch pad are freaking diesel trains.

The net result was that no N1 launch even made it to first-stage separation. The most famous of these non-events was the second test (unmanned, they were all unmanned) on July 3, 1969 – only thirteen days before Apollo 11 was due to blast off. Just before liftoff, the liquid oxygen pump on engine #8 exploded, damaging the internals and creating multiple fuel leaks that triggered a secondary explosion just as the base cleared the tower. All the engines shut down automatically, as per safety precautions, all except #18 which remained lit throughout the flight (for reasons still unknown), causing the whole thing to lurch over like a skydiving sperm whale and drop back onto the pad. Whereupon it exploded, in a 5-kiloton blast, the largest non-nuclear explosion in history that was seen 35km away in Leninsk. Amazingly, only a tiny fraction of the onboard fuel actually burned – as little as 15% – and technicians on the pad half an hour later reported unburned fuel was still raining down. And thankfully, the escape tower did its job and got the crew compartment out of danger, so if there had been anyone on board they absolutely would have survived.

But of course none of that happens in the Orbiter video; this N1 actually flies. And it's a beautiful, beautiful thing, because although the N1 had feet of clay, the rest of it was actually pretty good.

2:29-3:10: Trans-Lunar Injection and the Three-Day Coast. Mostly glossed over in the video, but I want to turn a spotlight on it (I have Jeffrey Kluger's Lost Moon, the book that became Apollo 13, and the figures are really interesting). To become the first people to loft themselves out of Earth orbit, the crew of Apollo 8 had to initiate a prograde Delta-V of some 3,000m/s – or in English, they had to jam the throttles wide open and accelerate from the 28,000km/h needed for Earth orbit up to more than 40,000km/h – above 11km per second – to extend their orbit from a circle to a weird egg shape to a long, lassooing loop that encompassed the moon as well. Speeds like this were necessary because the second they shut down the engines, the Earth's gravity resumed tugging on them, bleeding off their speed like a car coasting uphill. For two days they steadily lost speed, dropping to 30,000km/h, then 15,000, until at the five-sixths distance the gravity of the home planet gave way to the Moon's where they were crawling along at barely over 3,000. With the moon's gravity pulling them in by the time they arrived on the dark side they'd have been up above 8,000km/h again, requiring a shortish four-minute burn to slow down and drop themselves into a nice, cosy lunar orbit. The Soviet machinery was a bit lighter than the Apollo versions, so the speeds could've been a bit lower, but overall they'd have been broadly similar.

For a closer look, check out Hamish Lindsay's Apollo 8 essay here.

All this would've taken three days, which – I can't stress this enough – all would've been spent inside a Soyuz capsule. Soyuz was not Apollo's four-bedroom mansion, it was a quaint duplex only designed for Earth orbit. It was like going to the Moon in a modified Gemini capsule (which idea actually was tossed around for a while). If not for that spherical rumpus-room at the front, it wouldn't have been any more spacious than the Smart ForFour Richard Hammond and James May spent 24 hours in – only for more than a week instead of just one day, and without a backseat to climb into when nature called.

4:18-5:00: EVA over to the LK. Cliches should generally be avoided, but like the T-34 tank, the Soviet lunar vehicles were crude but effective. The Americans docked the Lunar and Command Modules together so the crews could shimmy from one to the other any time they liked. The Soviets decided this was for childrens and told their crews to suit up, roll down the window and bloody well spacewalk out of their capsule and over to the lunar lander.

I'll say that again: a spacewalk in lunar orbit. Imagine. The. View. The Apollo astronauts said it looked like you could just reach out and touch the Moon, and that was while fighting for viewing space at the cabin-cruiser porthole they gave you in the CSM. With nothing but a visor between you and your destination, the view would've been utterly gobsmacking. Consider how the moment would've lived in your memory if you were one of the lucky few. Then consider the inconvenience of spending the rest of your life with a regulation extra-large wheelbarrow, which is what you'd need to cart around your massive brazen balls in a 1g environment. Because in case you didn't know, space doesn't really feel like floating, it feels like falling, because that's exactly what it is. You're falling back towards the surface of the Moon like normal, it's just that you also happen to be moving sideways so fast that by the time you get to the ground it's not there anymore, but curving over the horizon, so you keep falling forever. So now imagine your inner ear screaming that it's time to pull that ripcord and looking down to see half a gazillion overlapping grey craters spread out beneath you? I can't comment on Soviet tech, but NASA didn't invent the jetpack until 1984, and I don't see any tethers in the video. And of course, you have to do it again on the way back too. And no offense, but the hand rails were installed by communists.

And scaled correctly the Earth-Moon distance looks like this. They were a long, long way from home.

5:24-7:00: Descent of the LK. If Soyuz was a capsule, then the lander itself was more of a suppository. Called the LK for Lunniy Korabl, or "lunar ship," it was very much the poor man's LEM. It was only big enough for one cosmonaut, and the legs were just a sort of detachable guitar stand, using the same engine for ascent and descent. The advantage of the LEM's separate ascent and descent stages was that if something went wrong on the way down you could pull the abort handle, fire up the ascent engine and make a sharp exit: if a single thing went wrong with the single engine on the LK, that single cosmonaut was going to die. All the same, you just know Timm landed that bastard manually, because you would, wouldn't you?

Historically, a couple of LK's did fly, but only unmanned and only in Earth orbit – test missions launched by normal Proton rockets. More recently it's been given a cameo in 2011 film Apollo 18, which at least gives us a wonderfully realistic look rather than the unskinned model in Timm's video.

I haven't seen Apollo 18 in its entirety, but for what it's worth I don't recommend you do either. In theory a lunar mission offers plenty of material to the horror writer – sense of total isolation, staring unblinkingly at a hostile and uncaring the universe, etc, etc – so much potential! And what did Brian Miller give us? Aliens that look like rocks. I can't even.

12:13: A Hair-Raising High Speed Re-Entry. On the flight back to Earth, the speed equation works the same, but in reverse – it takes a very small rocket to get you away from the moon, but once big beautiful Earth gets ahold of you you're in for a wild ride. From a virtual standstill at the threshold, your velocity builds and builds, until you'd arrive back in the upper atmosphere with the same 40,000km/h you left with – about the same velocity as the Chelyabinsk meteor. And if you got the angle wrong you'd suffer the same fate as the Chelyabinsk – too steep and the G-force would crush the crew, use up the heat shield and probably break the ship up completely; too shallow and, as the movie of Apollo 13 was at pains to tell us, you ricochet off the atmosphere and never come back (except Apollo 13 would have come back, but that's another story). With 40,000km/h to wipe off in only 400km of atmosphere, the safe corridor between these two extremes is only 2.5 degrees wide.

For a final flourish, Timm brings it home by parachuting safely to a landing on actual land rather than an American-style splashdown: the Soviet Union had plenty of landmass so there was no incentive to put it down in an ocean somewhere. In Vostok 1 Yuri Gagarin actually had to bail out and parachute to the ground himself, a fact the Soviets tried to keep to themselves because Yuri had set a lot of records and the aviation rules said they only stood if you brought your craft down to a controlled landing. When they found out, the international community rewrote the rules so Yuri could keep his records.

A photo of the damn thing on the ground, in case you needed reminding how small it is.

Annnd that's about it, that's more or less how it would've gone. So what if they'd actually done it? Would the Americans have moved the goalposts again? Would we have seen Nixon pledging a mission to Mars, to boos all-round like Bush? It's a nice thought. Unfortunately that was never going to happen. The Soviet moonshot was partly hamstrung by a 1965 starting gun – way too late to compete with Apollo, which had been in development since 1961 using off-the-shelf equipment that had been in development since 1955 – and partly hamstrung by the death of Sergei Korolev, the heart and soul of the whole Soviet space programme. His death (in 1966, of complications following surgery for cancer) quite took the wind out of Soyuz's sails, his successor Vasily Mishin having neither the political clout to keep the funding coming nor the technical skill to solve the myriad problems coming up. It was on his watch that the N1s went four-for-four, and in the end his only contribution to manned spaceflight was the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project – scientifically worthless, but politically priceless. The Buran shuttle aside, it says a lot that parts of the International Space Station were launched in Soyuz capsules.

I really hope next year's launch goes well. I got a taste of space-excitement with New Horizons; I'm more than ready to watch every minute of a Mars mission. Bring it on.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

God of Medicine, Plague and the Sun Alike

It's always a bit eerie when you stumble onto the dark side of something wonderful.

Okay, so Apollo 11 blasted off from the Florida launch pad in 1969 by firing up five Rocketdyne F-1 engines – the big, stonking, bell-shaped bastards sticking out of the bottom of the Saturn V's first-stage booster. Collectively they burned 13 tonnes of fuel per second to generate the more than 3,400 metric tonnes of thrust needed to loft Apollo 11 up to an altitude of 67km and a speed of 8,300km/h – at which point the second stage would take over and get the astronauts up to the blistering speeds needed for Earth orbit. The F-1s did the heavy lifting of the Apollo project, struggling for forward motion where the gravity was most intense and the pesky nitrogen cloud we call the atmosphere was at its thickest, getting lesser rockets into a position to finish the job and have their moment of glory. At the time of writing they remain the most powerful rocket engines ever fired (though apparently we'll be launching something even bigger in 2017, so hello if you're reading it from that side of history), and still hold the payload record for hauling the 140 tonne Skylab into orbit.

Anyway, looking into the backstory of this Ahnold among engines, this snippet jumped out at me:
The F-1 was originally developed by Rocketdyne to meet a 1955 U.S. Air Force requirement for a very large rocket engine. ... The Air Force eventually halted development of the F-1 because of a lack of requirement for such a large engine. However, the recently created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) appreciated the usefulness of an engine with so much power, and contracted Rocketdyne to complete its development. – Rocketdyne F-1, Wikipedia
Huh. So the USAF had the need for a very large rocket engine in 1955. That's not suspicious at all.

On an unrelated topic, on 1 March 1954, the Americans ran the notorious Castle Bravo nuclear test, their first detonation of a dry fuel Teller-Ulam thermonuclear hydrogen bomb. It was remarkable because it was a fusion bomb – that is, rather than splitting the atom as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had, most of the energy was to come from fusing hydrogen into helium, hence the term hydrogen or H-bomb. Incidentally this is exactly the same process that makes the Sun shine, so it was quite impressive that the puny Earthlings had worked out way to bring a tiny part of the Sun to life inside their biosphere using languages that were only meant for telling one another where the good bananas were.

The main advantages of fusion were a much cleaner blast (less nasty radioactive fallout) and vastly greater energy yields for the size of the device. The catch was that fusion only becomes possible at really, seriously high temperatures – the kind where it doesn't really matter whether you measure it in Celcius, Fahrenheit or Kelvin, as long as you get the number of zeroes right. No problem, said the physicists at Los Alamos, we already have a device that can generate temperatures like that – the atomic bomb itself! Pack a normal fission bomb in one end of a tube, place the fusion fuel at the other end, a little engineering witchcraft and bam, the fission explosion should compress and ignite your very own fusion reaction. Thus, I view the fusion bomb as the moment where the nuclear weapon community officially crossed over into mad scientist/Bond villain territory, taking the greatest weapon the world had ever seen and using it just to light the fuse on their real bomb.

When that fuse was lit, the scientists shat an almighty collective brick. Thanks to a minor mistake, it turned out their 5-megaton device was actually good for 15 megatons – equivalent to fifteen million tonnes of TNT or, if you prefer, seven hundred and fifty Hiroshimas. Remember that saying about assumptions? The scientists had assumed that the enriched lithium-7 in the bomb would remain inert like normal lithium, not contributing to the end result; instead it had proved all too willing to join the party, like pouring a bottle of water to douse a small fire in the kitchen and finding out, too late, that it was actually nitroglycerin. One second after detonation, the fireball was seven kilometres across, and Castle Bravo became the most powerful nuclear weapon the U.S. ever tested.

And oh yeah, officially, this test was a secret. Somehow.

No, that's not a natural formation. That's the Castle Bravo crater.

The lithium assumption (either a band name or a Big Bang episode, your choice) meant the estimates on the fallout footprint were way off, with the result that Castle Bravo became the worst accidental radiation contamination disaster in U.S. history. Fallout gave residents of nearby atolls radiation poisoning and left their homes permanently uninhabitable. The crew of a Japanese fishing boat also came down with sever radiation sickness, and one of them died. But the test was judged a startling success, so I guess in the end it was all worth it: after a few more tests and development things had happened, the U.S. had a deployable version, the Mark 17 air-droppable munition. And it was implausibly, unfeasibly huge.

This thing would be the primary weapon for the new B-52 bomber, the jet-powered replacement for the "aluminium overcast" itself, the B-36 Peacemaker. Professional nutjob Curtis LeMay (the inspiration for General Ripper) had wrangled the B-36 fleet into something he called "Strategic Air Command" and now had them holding station just outside Russian airspace 24/7, waiting for the go-code from the President. But, you know, planes can be shot down, even ones that can take off from the continental U.S. and bomb any point on the planet. Sometimes it's handy to have options, you know? A nuclear bomber with no crew, no mercy and no brakes – that's the kind of thing that appealed to the kind of cold bright mind that thrived at SAC. Something like a rocket.

But you'd need a really big one.

The timing can't be a coincidence: the USAF puts out a request for a big sexy rocket engine right when they're starting to deploy their first-gen hydrogen bombs? Fat fucking chance. The F-1 was intended to toss Mark 17s at Moscow, I'm sure of it. But then a funny thing happened: in 1954, at the annual May Day parade, the Soviets showed the world a massed fleet of enormous jet bombers that looked perfectly capable of bombing the U.S. – Russian B-52s by another name. And so the American military-industrial complex went into full panic mode and started sucking hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars out of the system to pour into developing a fleet of high-altitude supersonic interceptors with which to shoot them down, stuff like the F-106 Delta Dart which the pilot could barely see out of, which was armed with a mad weapon, the AIR-2 Genie (fighting fire with fire? A hobby for invalids and children. Come back when you're ready to shoot down formations of nuclear-armed bombers using unguided nuclear-armed rockets).

You couldn't make something like the Cold War up.

Of course, it was all a con. The Russians really did have the bombers – a type NATO had given the reporting name "Bison" – but there was no massed fleet. The same four aircraft had made themselves look like a massive fleet using the oldest trick in the book – circling around unseen and flying overhead again, over and over and over. By the late '50s U2 spy planes were starting to give clues that the real Russian strength lay in missiles, triggering another panic about a so-called "missile gap" and hoovering up even more money to build the Polaris and Minuteman missile systems. The interceptor fleet was palmed off on the Air National Guard.

In the fuss, the mighty F-1 had been abandoned. Nuclear bombs were getting smaller and lighter with every generation, so a heavy lift rocket like the F-1 was seen as an unnecessary expense. Until along came NASA, which even with the unlimited funding they enjoyed in those days was in such an expensive business they had to economise a little, and if that meant taking an off-the-shelf engine from SAC, they'd take an off-the-shelf engine from SAC. And so the F-1 was dusted off and put through its development paces on NASA's dime, and was eventually pointed at the Moon in 1969 for its date with destiny in the mission we call Apollo 11.

It's a sobering thought: the first 168 seconds of greatest achievement in the whole of human history was completed using a device originally designed for mass murder.

I'm glad they found a more noble use for it. Something you can really set to stoner music.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Event Horizon was an Event, Critic

The Nostalgia Critic's done a review of Event Horizon.

And I'm surprised that I find myself having to call him out on it; he's not omniscient, but he does seem to "get" his material more often than not, his reviews are usually beautifully put together, and Tamara and Malcolm give him some serious acting talent to work with.

This one, however, seems more phoned in and disinterested, like he only did it to satisfy fan requests. I can't fault that – no-one's expecting him to make a classic every fortnight, and all credit it to him for paying attention to his fanbase – but I'm surprised a guy who brands himself the Nostalgia Critic has to be reminded to respect the context of a prior decade. His claim that EH goes halfway and then gives up might seem true today, but it certainly wasn't in 1997. In its day, Event Horizon had two things the Nostalgia Critic failed to mention:
  1. A Setup
  2. A Payoff
Let's explore those, shall we?

The setup was a surprising level of realism. Space had become safe and fictionalised by '97. Apollo 13 was '95, but it was kind of the only thing out there that had done its homework on space. All the rest of it – Independence Day, Total Recall, even Starship Troopers – all showed space travel as no different to taking the bus. Zero gravity is expensive to replicate (Apollo 13 used the Vomit Comet, a plane that climbs to altitude then plunges for 30 seconds to give you an experience of zero grav – apparently it doesn't matter how good you are, you will be filling that airsick bag the first time) so most just ignored it and went with another generic set. Space in the movies became comfortable, convenient, not-at-all realistic place to be.

Now watch those opening scenes from EH again: the crew has to be awoken from cryo-sleep because they're been coasting for months, giving us a profound sense of isolation (the same technique was applied to Wolf Creek, for the same reasons); despite that, we're only as far out as Neptune, a familiar part of Earth's neighbourhood and a seemingly achievable destination; we're shown a surprisingly realistic docking sequence; the technobabble explaining how the gravity drive works namedrops Hermann Weyl, a real mathematician whose work really did centre around the curvature used in special relativity; and they actually have to go to the trouble of switching the Horizon's artificial gravity on – a handwave perhaps, but at least it showed they weren't taking us for complete idiots. Even the Weir's uniform showing the Aboriginal flag has been merged into the flag of Australia was a nice grounding detail reflecting real (and, in the U.S., probably mostly unnoticed) social tensions. Functionally, the set design of Event Horizon might've been ripping off Alien, but the effect was more like The Martian. This movie starts by putting us firmly in our own universe.

And the payoff? Well, consider that in 1997, "horror" by and large meant Scream clones. The story of how Scream was supposed to bury the slasher genre once and for all but ended up reviving it instead is well-known today, but in '96 I and a whole generation like me were too young to've seen the movies it was mocking. Scream was my first slasher, and it stood on its own merits as a slasher; that it was also the Cabin in the Woods of its day didn't really register, but it was good enough that it didn't need to. I just took it as I found it, which was seriously enough that it was able to support its own parody, Scary Movie, in 2000 (and that one really hasn't aged well).

So Scream and all the movies that piggybacked it (the only one I can remember now being I Know What You Did Last Summer) revived the slasher genre, but ironically, by modern standards they pulled their punches quite a bit. Blood and gore was rather lacking. Plenty of people got stabbed or hacked to death, sure, but these moments were skipped over very quickly and the camera didn't linger on injuries much. And it wasn't a case of "Of course not, old movies are lame" either, all the classic slashers of the '80s were happy to give us a bit of splatter. There was nothing in Scream that could compare with Freddy Krueger's death scenes a decade earlier; even the blink-and-you-miss-it skinning flashbacks in Dredd were more than you'd get from a '90s horror movie.

This isn't to say hardcore splatter wasn't out there – the Hellraiser franchise was trucking on, somehow, for example – but if you wanted to see it you generally had to leave the mainstream, which was hard to do in the era of VHS. If you didn't know somebody with a fuckhueg video collection you had to know where the specialty shops were, or hope your local video rental place had something on the shelves.

Do you see where I'm going with this? It did go all the way, Critic. I know this won't impress those with the stomach for a Saw marathon, but in its day this was a horror movie that was actually horrifying. The infamous crew's log and the images Weir projected into Miller's head were seriously fucked up, and they flashed by so fast you were left thinking "what the hell did I just see?!" And it had an effect. The line "Where we're going, we won't need eyes to see," is basically a meme, and one redditor said that, when Sam Neill appeared here in Australia in ads urging us to eat more red meat, they found they were really not comfortable with Weir talking to us about meat. I get that today, after Saw and Hostel have created a genre so graphic they literally call it Torture Porn, Event Horizon must look like a boring movie with the good stuff mostly edited out. But it wasn't like that at the time; it was A Serbian Film.

Now, I'm not arguing that it was actually a good movie, the cast really did seem bored with it and the ghost stuff is pretty cringeworthy. But don't look at it from grimdark future of 2015 and scratch your head like it's a mystery why anyone was ever scared by it. Those quick cuts were the stuff of nightmares.

Also, the black guy survives. That's gotta be worth something.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Projection Rejection

Millennial-bashing seems to be a sport on social media.

Or as a few point out, every generation gets bashed, and we're just the first to have it happen on social media. Either way, the rhetoric is always the same: that we're lazy, entitled, irresponsible narcissists.

Usually I'd focus just on that last one and link you with this again, because it's one of my favourite articles ever and worth another read. But then I came across this on Frankly Curious.
There's really only one group that worries about Sharia law in the US: fundamentalist Christians.

Not surprisingly, it is a matter of projection. You know how it goes. Ever since Watergate, the Republicans have been obsessed with fake scandals involving Democrats because they just know the Democrats must be up to the same things they are. Or look at organized voter fraud. Every time an actual case comes up, it turns out to be Republicans. This is why Republicans know there is widespread voter fraud: because they're doing it! And when it comes to worries about Sharia law, it comes from the Christian nationalists — because they want nothing so much as to force Biblical law onto our nation.
That made me wonder, what if Millennial-bashing is a matter of projection too? Those four major themes – laziness, entitlement, irresponsibility and narcissism – don't they all apply equally to the Baby Boomer generation? These guys were molly-coddled by their parents before it was legal to coddle with Molly; the only reason we didn't call them helicopter parents was because helicopters had only just been invented; to a generation that had spent their childhood in the Depression and their adulthood amidst the carnage of WWII, these kids must've seemed the duck's guts.
You didn't suffer during the war, because you weren't born yet. Instead, you enjoy all the benefits of the war being over – a nice home, good schools, and so forth. But most important, your parents treasure you. They had waited until after the war to have you, and they want you to be the happiest child in the world. They shower you with attention, and they satisfy your every whim. You get used to getting your way. – Basics of Generational Dynamics
The only problem is they've carried that attitude all the way through their lives; they were the only generation that never grew out of it. And they really don't like anyone spoiling their rosy opinion of themselves. So could it be when they call us lazy they're trying to justify holding 58% of the wealth and shutting us out of the housing market? That when Joe Hockey cut back on the Dole and said, "The age of entitlement is over," it was the dying embers of a moral conscience trying to square with sponging $365,868* p.a. in government money? That when they call us irresponsible, they're hoping we don't ask why they've wrecked the environment and made sure they're the last generation to collect a pension? That when they call us narcissistic, they're trying to put aside that last botox injection?

As the noted sage Bernard Black said: "I've never seen such projecting. It's in CinemaScope with Dolby surround!" Bernard is my personal patron saint, if you wanted to know; I can tell you exactly who should be patron saint of the Boomers.

* That was just his parliamentary salary, that's to say, that's just what you, personally, were paying him; that was supplemented by his lucrative property investments and, presumably, whatever bribes the just-about-to-panic coal industry sent his way**. I'm sure he'd tell me he earned every cent of it, and who am I to disagree? A man who can bend spacetime far enough to apparently work 300 hours a week*** is clearly a genius who deserves everything he gets.

** Now he's ambassador to the U.S., that figure's gone up to $450,000, or just 150,000 middies.
*** Calculated using my hourly wage as a rough guide. If you really want to see what I'm taking home, go ahead.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

11 Stories

My second character in Oblivion was a Breton named Selene.

Spoiler warning. If you want to remain ignorant of Elder Scrolls plot twists... for some reason... don't read on.

My first character was fun, but because I went wherever and did whatever seemed good at the time, she ran out of skills before maxing out her attributes which left me kinda frustrated. But then I installed the Vile Lair plug-in and found the book Manifesto Cyrodiil Vampyrum, and then I had an answer. It didn't seem very realistic that one person could end up head of every major guild in Cyrodiil; after the first one it didn't feel like playing a character anymore, it felt like filling out a test sheet before you hand it in. But the manifesto held the answer, calling all vampires to "devote your pursuits to the procurement of influence, political and otherwise." That's what kind of character could "realistically" become head of all guilds: a vampire.

And so Selene was born. I deliberately made her a Breton because they were game-breakers back then, I set out to craft the ultimate character. And with care, patience and a little help from UESP, I did it. It's not easy to isolate individual skills in-game (you tend to use Block plus whichever weapon and armour skills you're currently using at the same time, obviously), but I managed to level up my skills in such a way that they'd trickle down to maximum bonuses to my attributes – levelling pre-Skyrim  was nerdy and complicated, kids, but it did mean that it was possible to build a perfect character.

Well, maybe not perfect, but I got damn close: Selene emerged from the process a virtual demigod. I took her through all the various questlines – including catching vampirism from our old friend Vicente Valtieri (I wanted it to be from someone who mattered) – and at the end was Archmage of the Mage's Guild, Master of the Fighter's Guild, Grey Fox, Grand Champion of the Arena, Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, Champion of Cyrodiil and, thanks to mods both legit and fan-made, a pirate queen and Countess of Kvatch as well. These disparate themes were woven together by the unifying vampire narrative – she was an evil chessmaster putting on an act for her comrades, using the political disruption of the Oblivion Crisis to end up head of every major faction in the province. Chancellor Ocato might've been nominally in charge, but like Octavian, she was the one doing the actual paperwork; his power depended entirely on what she was signing, and whether she chose to tell him.

Selene would stave off existential boredom by keeping herself too busy to think; tearing all over the province on her demon horse, spending a day at the Arcane University here, then a day at the Chorrol Fighters Guild HQ, sneaking out at night to steal shit in the Grey Cowl, bringing the good news back to the Cheydinhal Sanctuary... and, on her days off, ruling the rebuilt city of Kvatch and visiting with her friend Janus Hassildor, who needed a friend after the sad demise of his wife. Since none of the factions in Skyrim seemed to talk to the others, it was likely only Ocato realised she was taking up multiple seats on the Elder Council, and there wasn't much he could do about it anyway. Heading several guilds at once wasn't actually illegal, it just hadn't been done before.

And so, I imagined, the years wore on. Then the decades. Then the centuries. It was a satisfying story, the evil-but-benevolent dictator rising to ultimate power through sheer hard work. When Skyrim came out, set 200 years later, it wasn't clear how that story was meant to fit in with the canon history, but she must've been out of power by the time of the Great War, or the Thalmor never would've made it to the Imperial City. So where was she? I don't know, but I hope she was with her consort Hassildor. No I don't think there was anything between them, but sometimes, on the very long days, I liked to think he wished there was.

I thought about resurrecting her for Skyrim, but instead decided to let sleeping dogs lie. And I was glad I did. The Skyrim game mechanic was so different it wasn't really possible to build up a "perfect" character anymore; now it was a question of optimisation. That led me to decide I'd make ten characters instead, one of each race, and with a little planning (via a text-only spreadsheet) I was able to work out a way to sample every weapon type, magic type and Standing Stone blessing as well. The result was five characters I was very fond of, a couple I was reasonably pleased with, and one that I really never got a handle on. Here are their stories in no particular order.

Hamilcar, the Redguard
One of the earliest was Hamilcar. His story was of a mercenary no longer welcome in his homeland and forced to make a living in Skyrim instead. He arrived in Dawnstar by ship with nothing but the sword at his side (this character was aided by the scimitar and clothes set lying under a boat just downshore from Dawnstar). He worked in the mines to make a start, sold the Quicksilver for phat cash and smelted the Iron to make his first set of armour. He had enough septims from the sale of Quicksilver to buy the leather he needed, and even a couple of Corundum ingots to make the Banded versions of the breastplate and shield.

Now equipped, he went out into the big bad world and started ganking bad guys for money. And of course ended up where all such people end up, a member of the Companions, meaning this was the character who earned all the Werewolf traits as well. As a Redguard from the home of sword-singers, I was pleased that starting scimitar was the only sword he needed to carry – with his Smithing skill sharpening it, it was competitive all the way through the game. He also ended up using the Targe of the Blooded as his shield, because it looked wicked, and ended up the only one with a full Blocking perk tree – cannoning into bad guys and sending them flying was pretty fun.

I was still working out exactly who would have which Standing Stone blessing, because although Skyrim made them changeable, I wanted to treat them like the birthsigns in Oblivion and Morrowind (yes, I know you level up quicker using the Guardian Stones, but with ten characters I was hardly out to save time, was I?). It took a while but eventually I hit on giving him the Lady Stone; the bonuses to Health and Stamina regen were perfect for his trade, and in the fluff Redguards are prone to knightly orders. So, you know, chivalry, Companions, courtly romance... Lady Stone. It all sort of gelled, and I got a real kick out of what Bethesda had done: in the Elder Scrolls, your Knight in Shining Armour is probably a black man.

Zamagh, the Orc
Another favourite was this greenskin, because he had one of the best character arcs of all. Zamagh arrived in Skyrim from Cyrodiil, having been kicked out of wherever he was living before because he was too old. By their own custom, Orcs who reach a certain age without becoming chief, taking a wife and having children seek a glorious death while they can still die on their feet: Zamagh was expected to do this, but in his heart he knew it wasn't over. He wasn't too old; the strength of his body and the fire in his heart still burned strong. So he sought a land in turmoil where he'd be tested every minute, and set about settting himself up. I gave him the Steed Stone that makes you fast and strong because it seemed right for him to make light of burdens; and inspired by the Orcish Berserker Rage ability, I decided he should never defend, only attack, and put all his perk points into wielding warhammers and dual-wielding axes (the only time I dual-wielded, and it worked out pretty well; bleeding damage stacks up pretty fast when you're hacking like a mad bastard).

Full credit to Bethesda for the face algorithms too, this was one of the best I did: that brow had a slight hint of weary melancholy, until he put his helmet on, when he suddenly looked pissed off.

Zamagh was accepted into the strongholds, though never as a member, and then one day, it happened: he completed a quest and was granted Volendrung, the weapon of his lord Malacath. He known it the whole time! He wasn't too old, he was Malacath's chosen – spurned and ostracised even by other Orcs! With that weapon on his back, he was able to ask for the hand of a stronghold princess, and set up a home with her – three actually, since he became my Hearthfire house-builder (it would've been awesome if he'd been able to build his own Orc stronghold; I know there are mods for this, but I kept modding to a minimum with Skyrim because it took up so much more disc space than Oblivion). That's what success looked like for Zamagh: rejected by the strongholds of Cyrodiil, he became one of the biggest land barons in Skyrim. That he was also a close-combat monster was just a bonus.

Elenirya, the High Elf
I was surprised to find I don't have any screenshots of her, but that kinda shows the problem with her; she was just another a generic mage. She ended up Archmage of the College of Winterhold, of course, and it was fun to play a pure mage, but she wasn't that memorable. Except for one thing: High Elves have lots of magic but are especially vulnerable to magic, which I turned up to eleven by giving her the Apprentice Stone, which does the exact same thing. Doubled up on magicka and weakness to magicka, she pumped out spells like the motherfucking Chernobyl of Skyrim, but she died to harsh language, stiff breezes and sharp looks. You don't want to know what happened if a dragon showed up. Most of the time she could stay out of trouble by spawning a pair of Dremora Lords as meatshields, but it was really, really important she had those meatshields.

The premise I had in mind for her was why-oh-why would the Thalmor let one of their best and brightest defect to Skyrim?/Oh right because she's lesbian, but I couldn't get her to marry either Faralda or Nirya. Too bad.

Delas Reveni, the Dark Elf
The basic idea behind my Dark Elf was duality: culturally arrogant yet under Ulfric's boot, a proud people lacking a homeland to be proud of, great warriors and yet great wizards, good people who were former slavers. This duality led me to the spellsword path – steel vs magicka – as well as the duality of Restoration vs Destruction. Casting fireballs one minute, healing spells the next, I decided he'd be my Restoration-focused character (it wasn't until after him I realised how damn useful the Restoration tree could be). Since he'd mostly be using his magic in combat, I gave him the Atronach Stone so he could soak up some of that damage and the penalty to the recharge rate wouldn't be such a worry (so officially he was a mage that wore heavy armour rather than a warrior that could use magic). Since he needed to free his people, of course he joined the Legion to overthrow Ulfric, and in the game of course he succeeded and bought Hjerim and had a family and lived happily ever after in the free city of Windhem.

I loved the Dawnguard armour: equal parts steel and heavy raincoat, which seems appropriate for vampire hunters.

In the grand narrative in my head, though, that never happened: the Stormcloaks win the civil war in my canon, and he was wounded at the Siege of Whiterun, playing no further part in the war. Instead, he ended up a broken man, drifting, until he was suddenly recruited by the Dawnguard. This was a huge bit of luck, because though I didn't know it when making the character, the Dawnguard expansion had undead-only Sun Damage spells – spells that belonged to the School of Restoration! He arrived at the Dawnguard already a master of Restoration, the perfect character for vampire hunting, I had a blast burning vampires alive with magical sunlight and completing the Dawnguard questline. He ended up one of my favourite characters of all, and it happened purely by serendipity.

Angelique, the Breton
Angelique was a character who started out as one thing and ended up another, and was all the better for it. She was supposed to be the evil counterweight to Elenirya, a pure mage who conjured undead instead of Daedra, blasted lightning instead of fire, used the Star of Azura in its Black form, etc, etc. I liked the idea that they had classes together at the College and were bitter rivals until Angelique ragequit and went off to do her own thing.

In the event, what she became was a fucking medieval fantasy urban guerrilla. She was a Breton, so it made sense that she ended up siding with the Reachmen around Markarth, who in the fluff were mongrel half-bred Bretons anyway. When she helped the King in Rags escape Cydna Mine she inherited a full set of Reach armour, which she wore from then on. In a nearby dungeon she got her hands on the Eye of Melka, a Reach-style staff. So slowly she morphed away from being all about lightning bolts and necromancy and became more interested in sneaking and casting spell traps (the IEDs of Skyrim) to liberate the Reach from Nordic rule. She wound up with a lot of misused perk points, sure, but thanks to Quiet Casting by the end of the game the Markarth city guards could barely even roll over in bed without setting off a Fire Rune. Her Conjuration skills, built up while reanimating the dead, were put to good use summoning Bound Bows instead ("Weapons? No, of course I'm not carrying any weapons...") and the Soul Trap perk on bound weapons proved a handy way of filling Black Soul Gems.

In short, she was the perfect guerrilla terrorist; married to Ainethach for respectability, but living in Vlindrel Hall while he looked after his mine, she was a respected member of her community who happened to be working diligently to tear it down. Her necromancy, I now knew, was actually smoothing the way towards becoming a Hagraven (but again, minimal modding, so that finale never happened). Finally, her belated stealth abilities led me to one of the most hilarious tactics of the whole frickin' game: sneaking into a crowd of Markarth guards and using the Ritual Stone power to reanimate their dead comrades – all their dead comrades – then skedaddling as the chaos started. Oh, the joy, the sheer joy of them hacking their own late friends to pieces! When they tell you playing outside used to be more fun than video games, believe me, that's only because video games were shitty back then.

Kha-Azir, the Khajiit
Your standard Khajiiti thief: I even had him walk around in Fine Boots early on because I couldn't resist the pun. He was supposed to be under the Tower Stone – you know, born with doors unlocking under his touch, of course he grew up to be a thief – but when I got sick of the Tower Unlock prompt every time I went to pick a lock, I went back to the Thief Stone just for sanity's sake. Despite that, I ended up having a lot of fun with him: in any Elder Scrolls, the Thieves Guild questline is always the coolest.

Only gamers know how much work went into this trophy cabinet.

What really worked for this guy was that nearly all the thievery happens in the four major cities, so you can get there using the fast-travel carriages. That means you never need walk around the game world, never meet the rough characters and giant spiders it contains, and so never build up your weapons skills. That means as you level up and the baddies get tougher, you're left completely helpless in a fight and have no option but to leg it or hide – you know, like a thief.

Sleethea, the Argonian
Another fairly standard character, the cold-blooded Argonian assassin (har-har. Argonians are clearly warm-blooded or Skyrim would kill them to death). She was born under the Serpent Stone more for the "destiny unwritten" fluff than the paralysing-poison ability, which was very rarely used. Sleethea ended up being interesting and fun because she herself was roleplaying. From the start I dressed her up as just another civvie, getting Alchemy lessons from Lami and Arcadia and paying for them by chopping wood, but this was her harmless disguise; she was my Dark Brotherhood character. So in between all the interesting stealth-murder the Brotherhood has you do, I married her to Scouts-Many-Marshes and made her sleep in the Argonian Assemblage with the rest of them, undercover, unsuspected. I gave her one of the Dawnguard's Steel Crossbows (because a crossbow is just the weapon of an assassin, isn't it?) but didn't work much on her archery, since it was just a means to deliver poison. I also fully charged the Ebony Blade, which was one of the best decisions of the whole character: not only is Mephala the perfect daedra for a professional killer, the Blade's health-absorption properties gave her a fighting chance ob those rare occasions she had to stand up for herself, and the process of befriending and slaughtering key people to charge the blade felt absolutely in character.

She is of course the one who assassinated the Emperor Titus Mede II, which in my headcanon was the event that kicked off the whole Skyrim civil war. Then she moved Scouts-Many-Marshes to their new home, Windstad Manor, where she spends her days breeding fishes and growing deadly ingredients to grind into poisons while her husband wonders what the hell her real deal is.

Thaewen, the Wood Elf
Thaewen was my last character, and she never really took off. By headcanon she was in Skyrim to stir up some trouble, keep the province burning for her Thalmor masters. In the early game she had a Native American theme going; Mohawk, Fur Armour, a steel war axe to represent a Tomahawk, sneaking around shooting shit dead like a good Wood Elf should. I gave her the cannibalistic Ring of Namira to represent the Wood Elf custom of eating those they kill (it's in the fluff, look it up). But this weak build didn't last long, and after that she never really had a theme. I wanted to make her an Agent, a stealthy intel operative to be used by the Blades for assassination and sabotage, but the Blades only seemed to have use for front-line tanks (related: even in Oblivion I was disappointed there was no Blades Light Armour. Dressing like a ninja in blue-and-gold Blades silk would've been frickin' sweet). So she gravitated to the Dawnguard, then contracted vampirism, then joined the Thieves Guild and ended up finding her niche wearing Nightingale Armour, the permanent guardian of Nightingale Hall. I originally gave her the Shadow Stone (I know, how the hell do you see a shadow in the constellations?) which grants an invisibility spell, but given both the Twilight Sepulcher and Vampirism give you the same thing it ended up being redundant. On the plus side the Nightingale Armour bonus to Illusion magic complemented the Vampiric bonus to the same, but yeah, a muddled story that didn't really go anywhere.

Viggo, the Nord
At last, my prime character, and my favourite. Yes, a complete Marty Stu but at least I admit it; I wish I looked like him, and I wish I could go around having as much fun as him, ganking dragons and looting stuff. I gave him the Lord Stone, because the extra armour and magic resistance would be useful when fighting dragons, which he did, a lot. A true Nord, Viggo Dragonborn stopped Alduin, visited Sovngarde, joined the Stormcloaks and freed Skyrim from the Elf-bowing cowards in the Imperial City.

All pretty standard stuff; where it got interesting was with the Dragonborn expansion. I wanted Viggo to be the one to slay a Legendary Dragon and so earn the Steam Achievement (I got all the Achievements, by the way), but that required a ridiculously high level that was almost the maximum you could have. Since he didn't have any magic skills (the Voice stood in for his magic), I went through and reset all his skills and levelled them up again. That meant switching from Light to Heavy Armour – the standard Light Armours looked so cool and Nordic, I thought the Nords just have to be the one people that sends its warriors into battle in Light Armour: when Sovngarde awaits you're not scared of dying, they breed fast (Skyrim is the only province that's overrun with children) and they move fast even as an army; no wonder the Thalmor see them as their number one strategic threat. When I switched to Heavy Armour, however, the Dragonbone Armour surprised me by being kinda badass, and I loved the serrated Dragonbone Greatsword, which became his primary weapon from then on because awesome.

Anyway, killed the Legendary Dragon, did the Dragonborn quest, got feels from re-visiting Morrowind, then at the climax Hermaeus Mora (the driving force behind the whole quest; think a miniature Cthulhu, all gribbly things with tentacles) reveals I've finally become his greatest instrument? That's when it hit me; I knew how to end this story.

Too late, Viggo realised he'd accumulated too much power for one man. Too late, he realised unparalleled martial might + a knack for Dragon Shouts added up to someone who could remake the world however he saw fit. And now this godlike individual was caught in the coils of Hermaeus Mora, the Daedric Prince of Fate. There was only one way to beat him, and it wasn't by fighting; you can't fight fate. Any action, no matter how well-intentioned, would now be in His service. There was only one way to stop it: going totally passive. So, with sorrow in his heart, he climbed the Throat of the World one last time, joined Paarthurnax at the summit, donned the robes of the Greybeards (courtesy of some console commands from me), and submitted to the tyranny of the Paarthurnax's Way of the Voice.

And somewhere in Apocrypha, Hermaeus Mora screamed a Big No.

Damn, that was a story I liked playing out.

Mietta Sergianus, the Imperial
I think it's time they changed "Imperials" to "Cyrodiilics" or something since they don't really have an empire anymore, but ahem: born under the Lover Stone, because she'd have so many disparate skills to master (and also because it fills in for sleeping, which is handy for a character who'll be up all night), Mietta's headcanon story was an ambitious legate who requested duty in Skyrim to give her career a leg-up, then found out every ambitious legate in the Legions had thought the same thing and swarmed to the place like it was a bathtub drain. Ignored and looking for something to do with herself, she made herself available to the Jarl of Solitude, undertaking a dangerous and ultimately very important quest to cast the ghost of Queen Potema out of the catacombs. Except that on her way through she contracted Porphyric Haemophilia (no really, she did – I was so chuffed when the game came to the party like that), and, not recognising the symptoms, discovered too late what it meant. So began her new life in undeath, night eternal.

Obviously she became my candidate for the Volkihar questline, walking off with Auri-El's bow and Harkon's Sword. I like to imagine she and Delas knew each other in the Legion in the old days, former comrades gone full circle to bitterest enemies. I also like to imagine she became a surrogate daughter to Lord Harkon after Serana defected to the Dawnguard in the Delas story (again, I didn't know it while making the character, but she bore a striking resemblance to Serana). After a time as Harkon's wrist-hawk, she had the good fortune to be visiting Valeria in the Soul Cairn the day the Dawnguard stormed and sacked the castle. Mietta emerged days later to find the place empty and silent, and thought to herself: "What splendid luck. I am now the Mistress of Castle Volkihar and Queen of the Vampires by default, without having to do it myself, and it could be decades before the Dawnguard recover from their complacency and suspect anybody has moved back in. And by then I'll be ready."

So began her final form, which... heh, I said I wasn't going to resurrect Selene because perfection is impossible in Skyrim, but that's not strictly true. It's not impossible, just insanely time-consuming. Perfection in Oblivion was a matter of getting all the numbers up to 100; in Skyrim it's a matter of skill perks. Those are the limiting factor and end up defining your character. You get one perk each time you level up, and the average character will cease at roughly Level 50. For an especially developed character, maybe 60 or 70. If you're an autist who absolutely must grind up every skill, the standard game runs out halfway through Level 81.

Do you know how many skill perks there actually are? Two-hundred and fifty-three.

Obviously, even though the expansions technically allow you to level up indefinitely, there was no way I was going to grind that far up manually. Using the console I artificially gave her experience in all skills, then reset them and maxed them out again. From memory, I had to do this five or six times over for each skill, but it was worth it: in the space of an hour or so I'd made it to Level 253, had every single perk and so simulated multiple centuries of living and learning in Skyrim. The Vampire Queen was an out-and-out demigod; it took minutes of sustained attack for enemies to even make a dent in her massive health bar, and she could brush them aside any time with a couple of spells – if she could be bothered, for as a veteran of the Soul Cairn, she had summoning spells most necromancers had never even dreamed of. She was so powerful that she wasn't actually that much fun to play: after a couple of weeks I finally got sick of exploring the limits of the crafting system and finally uninstalled the game.

I still have their save files as a memento, even though I have no plans to play Skyrim ever again. I'm waiting for TES VI, whenever it comes out – hurry up with finish Fallout 4, would you Bethesda? – and have no interest in playing ESO, because playing an Elder Scrolls game with other people completely defeats the purpose for me. Besides, I have unfinished business with Morrowind.

But how cool is it that we can take this game engine, this thing which, really, boils down to killing things and taking their stuff – and use them to build narratives. Good narratives, some of them: the Orc who believed in himself when the world said he was too old; the Breton struggling to free her people and return them to their land; the Dark Elf who couldn't save his people, but found meaning again saving everyone; the Nord hero who made himself an un-hero to spite a god.

These are things like Terry Pratchett used to write about: the universe is actually a bunch of spinning rocks livened up with a handful of chemical and nuclear reactions. There's certainly nothing resembling meaning in all that; grind the thing down, sieve it all out as finely as you like and you won't find even the tiniest grain of something you could call "a story." We have to add that ourselves, indeed, can't help adding that ourselves, because it's what humans do. Because if we don't, awful things can happen. Because if we don't, what's the bloody point?

Hence all 11 stories above.

Hence also all god-knows-how-many stories in the Bible, including the ones in Daniel.

The universe has no inherent meaning my friends. And isn't that wonderful? We get to make our own.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Antiochus Epiphanies

This is the fifth part of a historical exploration of the beasts and empires of the book of Daniel. If you want to go through the first four parts (Living In The Past, Meet the Persians, What Really Happened At Thermopylae? and Meanwhile, In Judea...), go right ahead: expect much tl;dr and occasional moments of insight (as always, remember all dates are BCE and therefore count down, not up). Otherwise, let's get on with this post, where we finally get down to what the whole book of Daniel is about anyway.

Simple answer? It's about this arsehole:

His name was Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and if you know your Greek you'll have spotted the problem already. If not, sit tight, we'll be getting to that. But first you've gotta know how we got to him.

Daniel's Third Beast
We've already seen the lion with the wings of an eagle was actually a cherub, a common symbol of ancient Mesopotamian kingdoms including the Neo-Babylonians; we've also seen the great bear with three bones in its mouth, symbolising the Persians and their three principle conquests; now we can consider Daniel's third beast:
After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule. (Dan. 7:6)

As we know, after the Persian conquest of pretty much the entire known world, the former kingdom of Israel settled down under their new overlords and purred smug kittens for the next 200 years, picking up lots of Persian Zoroastrianism and incorporating it into Judaism. But then a minor tribal king named Alexander III – soon better known as Alexander the Great – put a serious ruffle in their fur by gathering up everything his father had put together and embarking on the mother of all road trips, as seen in Oliver Stone's 2004 flick ΛLΣXΛNDΣR (which actually spells "LLSXLNDSR" but we'll ignore that).

Why represent the Greeks with a leopard? Because the job was done fast. I actually spent a couple of hours once with Wikipedia open in one tab and Google Maps in the other, finding out what all the old locations are called today and following the route with the trip planner (not a bad hobby for a history geek). The exact hows and whys of Alexander's campaign aren't important to this blog however: suffice to say he took his army for a long walk, fought three major battles at the Granicus (334), Issus (333) and Gaugamela (331), and won all three, defeating the Persians in record time. From crossing the Hellespont in 334 until his death 323 was just eleven years. We couldn't conquer Iraq in eleven years; Alexander conquered Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. He did to the Archaemenid Persians what a strangler fig does to a tree: killed it dead and took its place.

So why four heads? Because when Alexander suddenly died, aged just 32, it caught off-guard everyone who'd assumed he had a few decades left in him, and kicking off the bloody rugby scrum history calls the wars of the diodochi, or Successors.

A Game of Diadems: the Wars of the Successors
The Greek sign of kingship was not a crown or throne, but a ribbon tied around the head known as a diadem. With the death of Alexander, it was suddenly the must-have fashion accessory in Babylon and all the best people were wearing it. A succession crisis is of course nothing unusual, but this one was made worse by the Macedonian army not having the long, stratified chain of command we associate with armies today. Instead they had a pool of officers called hetairoi, who were given command of this or that unit or combination of units on an ad-hoc basis. This flexibility had served them well in the war against Darius, but with their king dead and no recognisable heir (Roxana was still pregnant with Alexander's only child, which they didn't know would be a boy), none of them could pull rank on the others. When Alexander breathed his last it took them about eight seconds to realise each of them was now king of whatever he could take and hold. Civil war was inevitable.

For the next twenty-odd years the political scene was vibrant and exciting (as in, betrayal was common and a lot of people died), but by 306 they'd more or less sorted Alexander's conquests into four(ish) Successor Kingdoms: Lysimachus, one of Alexander's bodyguards, got Thrace; Cassander, a ravening wolfshead late to the party, got Macedonia and Greece; Antigonus, the governor of Phrygia, got Asia Minor and Syria; Ptolemy, another ex-bodyguard, got Egypt; and most important to our purposes, the former infantry general Seleucus got Babylonia.

Lump Greece, Macedonia and Thrace together, and you end up with four kingdoms that used to be Alexander's – the four heads of the leopard. This natural division of power might've been enough to keep the peace had the diodochi been less ambitious, but of course they couldn't leave each other alone. Seleucus was as guilty of this as anyone else, extending his (already enormous) landholdings as far as India, where he fought Chandragupta Maurya to a draw and walked away with 500 Indian war elephants as part of the peace deal. These were the ones with which he won the Battle of Ipsus, the culmination of all the political dickery since Alexander's death: seeing Antigonus growing too strong, Lysimachus, Cassander and Seleucus joined forces Voltron-style to stop him. Since it featured former brothers-in-arms hacking each other to death, Ipsus would've been a rather depressing affair if both sides hadn't been using war elephants, Seleucus matching 400 Indian elephants against 75 smaller and less-trained versions captured by Ptolemy in Ethiopia (they weren't "African elephants" as we call them today, since they were smaller than the Indian variety; likely they were a now-extinct sub-species native to the Red Sea area). Animal rights activists will disagree, but as a war nerd I find that kind of awesome; if you've gotta have an awful blood-draining feud, at least have it with war elephants.

That victory gave Seleucus control of much of Asia Minor, and also the nickname Nicator (the Victor). Greece was next on his hit list, and turning on his erstwhile allies he went on to defeat Lysimachus in the Battle of Corupedium (281), giving him control of nearly all Alexander's empire bar Egypt. But having brushed his fingertips on the throne Alexander had vacated, he was assassinated that same September, and with his death the last chance of reuniting the fractured Greek empire was lost forever. From here on it was diodochi all the way down.

Sigil: an eagle. Words: Incest is a Family Game
Victory at Ipsus had also brought Seleucus legal control of the province of Syria, which was understood to include everything from what is now the Turkish border right down to the Sinai peninsula. Unfortunately, ol' Ptolemy had already conquered Palestine and the Phoenician trade cities, so half of the territory was now in the hands of House Ptolemy. With Seleucus's death in 281, the people of Syria revolted, drawing the attention of both of the kings who supposedly ruled them – Seleucus's son Antiochus, known to history as Antiochus I Soter (Antiochus the Saviour), and Ptolemy's son Ptolemy II Philadelphus (Ptolemy the Brother-Loving, probably because of all the help he gave his two brothers in Macedonia). Meet the new gen; same as the old gen. What followed was the first of six (six!) so-called Syrian Wars, a series of on-again, off-again conflicts lasting more than eighty years that spilled a lot of blood, wasted a lot of money, maybe swapped Damascus back and forth like a cheap whore, but otherwise accomplished little. Caught in the middle, the Israelites recorded this sad little saga as a post-hoc "prophecy" in Daniel Ch 11, "The Kings of the South and the North."

Sigil: an anchor. Words: Speak Hellenic or Die
In the winter of 262-261 Antiochus I Soter was succeeded by his son, Antiochus II Theos ("God." Apparently he had the ego of all time and no concept of subtlety). In 246, he in turn was poisoned by his wife/cousin Laodice after divorcing her as part of a peace deal with House Ptolemy, whose condition had been that he marry one of their daughters, a certain Berenice. Says verse 6 of Daniel 11: "The daughter of the king of the South will go to the king of the North to make an alliance, but she will not retain her power, and he and his power will not last. In those days she will be handed over, together with her royal escort and her father and the one who supported her" (Berenice's father Ptolemy Philadephus died about the same time as she and Antiochus).

The throne passed to their son Seleucus II Callinicus (the Gloriously Triumphant), an epithet a trifle overdone considering he inherited the Syrian clusterfuck his father and grandfather had created and did little to solve it. He lost control of Asia Minor when the Gauls invaded and forged their own kingdom of Galatia; he fought off Ptolemy III, then his own half-brother Antiochus Hierax (the Hawk), until sometime in 226 he was killed falling off his horse. He passed the diadem to his elder son Seleucus III Ceraunus (the Thunderbolt – I bet he strutted that one), who reigned only three years before he was assassinated and the diadem passed to his younger brother, Antiochus III.

Having inherited the throne in in the year 222, aged just 18, Antiochus III went down in history as Antiochus the Great more because he was vain enough to briefly call himself the Basileus Megas, or Great King, the traditional title of the lords of Babylon. He didn't move the Syrian situation along very much either, but not for lack of trying. Daniel records:
His sons will prepare for war and assemble a great army, which will sweep on like an irresistible flood and carry the battle as far as his fortress. Then the king of the South will march out in a rage and fight against the king of the North, who will raise a large army, but it will be defeated. When the army is carried off, the king of the South will be filled with pride and will slaughter many thousands, yet he will not remain triumphant... (Dan 11:10-14)
In other words, the sons of Seleucus Callinicus (i.e. Seleucus Ceraunus and Antiochus the Great) will prepare for and fight the Battle of Raphia (217) near the great fortress of Gaza, and lose 10,000 soldiers in one day. Thus the Syrian situation briefly went from a stalemate to a bloody stalemate, buying House Ptolemy a respite while Antiochus the Great went off to do his conquering elsewhere. And at this he was rather successful, restoring the Seleucid kingdom almost back to the enormous boundaries it had enjoyed in Nicator's day.

A balanced, decently-trained military can do that for you.

S.P.Q.R. Bitches
But if his life wasn't complicated enough, he soon had to contend with an ambitious new player with a habit of backing their words with iron, a city-state nobody had ever heard of from a salt route in the arse-end of Italy: Rome.

The Romans were on the up, already masters of northern Africa, Sicily, Sardinia and Spain, and a lot of the cities Antiochus had been conquering had been shedding refugees that had fled to Rome and made all sorts of uninformed prejudicial remarks about House Seleucus. If that wasn't enough, he also had a Carthaginian refugee named Hannibal in his court egging him on. It wasn't long before Antiochus the Great was declaring himself "champion of Greek freedom against Roman domination," and invading Greece proper.

And of course, getting his arse kicked, because this was the war that gave Rome control of Greece. In the autumn of 192 the Romans sent an army under Scipio soon-to-be Asiaticus, younger brother of Africanus, who met the Seleucid army at Thermopylae and trounced them using the same goat path that had hamstrung Leonidas. Yes, that wasn't just fanfic, this was a thing that actually happened: Hannibal Barca had a hand in a military action where Alexander the Great's army fought Roman legions under the command of the little brother of Scipio Africanus – at Thermopylae. Which makes this the most awesome paragraph I have ever written.

After inflicting another defeat at Magnesia (190), the Romans offered harsh peace terms, requiring Antiochus's middle son to be sent to Rome as a hostage (they couldn't take the eldest son and heir, as the Romans allowed no reigning monarch to cross the sacred boundary into their city, and an heir could of course become a reigning monarch at any moment). Thus at last we meet our star, for this middle son was of course our friend, Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

At the same time, the Romans imposed a huge indemnity payment that the kingdom could ill-afford, which had severe knock-on effects and led to the first real violation of the Jews. To get this part of the story, you really need to ask your Catholic friends to borrow their Bible and read 1 and 2 Maccabees (if you don't have any Catholic friends, shame on you, you'll have to do a Google search instead). The Maccabees books weren't declared canon until 1546, i.e. in the middle of the Protestant Reformation – 2 Maccabees contains the scriptural justification for Purgatory, which Pope Paul III was keen to uphold and Martin Luther was equally keen to shuffle off (besides which he was a notorious anti-semite, so the history of those evil Christ-killing Jews probably wasn't a priority). Unfortunately, leaving Maccabees out of scripture meant these books sort of dropped off the radar entirely in Protestant languages like English, which was problematic because it left the latter half of Daniel open to schizoids like John Darby who think it's about the end of the world. But that's what happens when you read a coded message without the crib.

Anyway, the weird religious enclave formerly known as Israel had transferred from the lands of the Ptolemies to the lands of the Seleucids in 198, and the angels had held their breath. House Ptolemy had been highly tolerant of their peculiarities; House Seleucus surely would not. From the beginning, quite aware he ruled the most eastern of all the Successor Kingdoms, Seleucus Nicator had gone out of his way to make it the most zealously Hellenistic as well, working hard to sow unifying Greek culture all the way from the Levant to the Indus. Thousands of heartland Greeks had been uprooted and grafted into towns and cities across Babylonia, Greek was made the official language, and Zoroastrianism was abandoned in favour of the Olympians. The Jews gradually found themselves separating into two camps, the traditionalists with Hebrew/Aramaic names like Honi and Onias, and the Hellenisers who preferred Greek names, Honi becoming Menelaus and Yeshua, of course, becoming Jesus. The power struggle between them of course revolved around the Temple and who was currently serving as High Priest: the coffers in the Temple which contained the shekel contributions were marked with Greek letters, and the inscription forbidding strangers to advance beyond a certain point in the Temple was now in Greek, no doubt made necessary by the droves of festival-going Jews from across the known world who no longer spoke Aramaic. If the culture clash wasn't hitting home yet, Hellenism also meant eating unclean foods like goose and wild boar, and of course they were big on homosexuality, as I've outlined before:
In ancient Greece, a couple usually comprised of a conservative older man (the erastes, usually translated "lover") and a pretty younger man (the eromenos, or "beloved"), who was usually a teenager. This was intentional, as Plutarch noted: "Their lawgivers, designing to soften whilst they are young their natural fierceness... gave great encouragement to these friendships... to temper the manners and characters of the youth." ... Xenophon even wrote that many of them solemnified their relationship in a religious ceremony – virtually a marriage – which, since the cult of Herakles was especially strong in Thebes, took place at the shrine of Herakles's lover and comrade-in-arms, Iolaus.
This of course did not gel with "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable," which Westboro Baptist will remind you is Leviticus 18:22. In short, the traditionalist Jews felt themselves surrounded by creeping heresy, and it would've made the whole region a ticking time bomb had Antiochus not been wise enough to let them live, in the words of the historian Josephus, "according to the law of their forefathers."

When he died in 187, however, things changed swiftly. The throne passed to his son Seleucus IV Philopator (the Father-Loving), the middle son (now heir) Antiochus IV was returned home and hostage duty was passed to the youngest son Demetrius I Soter. But the Father-Lover was anything but kind to his father's memory. With the deadline for his next indemnity payment bearing down, in 175 young Philly sent a minister named Heliodorus to seize the temple treasury in Jerusalem.
But when he arrived at the treasury with his bodyguard, then and there the Sovereign of spirits and of all authority caused so great a manifestation that all who had been so bold as to accompany him were astounded by the power of God, and became faint with terror. For there appeared to them a magnificently caparisoned horse, with a rider of frightening mien; it rushed furiously at Heliodorus and struck at him with its front hoofs. Its rider was seen to have armour and weapons of gold. Two young men also appeared to him, remarkably strong, gloriously beautiful and splendidly dressed, who stood on either side of him and flogged him continuously, inflicting many blows on him. When he suddenly fell to the ground and deep darkness came over him, his men took him up, put him on a stretcher, and carried him away — this man who had just entered the aforesaid treasury with a great retinue and all his bodyguard but was now unable to help himself. They recognized clearly the sovereign power of God. (2 Mac 3:24-28)
Famously painted by Raphael in The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (1512)
According to 2 Maccabees he went home empty-handed, and I can't find any other evidence that says otherwise, but either he was ambitious or needed to conceal this fact, because when he returned to Antioch this same Heliodorus assassinated Seleucus and claimed the throne for himself. Heliodorus ruled briefly, using Seleucus's infant son (also called Antiochus) as a puppet, before Antiochus IV returned and promptly ousted Heliodorus and ruled as regent for his young nephew. This arrangement lasted about five minutes before he had the boy murdered, because you don't leave loose ends in the game of diadems.

Now ruling in his own name, in 170 Antiochus IV finally got something done on the Syrian front when he launched a pre-emptive strike against the Ptolemies and made it as far as the city of Alexandria itself, something nobody had managed since, well, Alexander.
He will be succeeded by a contemptible person who has not been given the honour of royalty. He will invade the kingdom when its people feel secure, and he will seize it through intrigue. Then an overwhelming army will be swept away before him; both it and a prince of the covenant will be destroyed. After coming to an agreement with him, he will act deceitfully, and with only a few people he will rise to power. When the richest provinces feel secure, he will invade them and achieve what neither his fathers nor his forefathers did. He will distribute plunder, loot and wealth among his followers. (Dan 11:21-24)
The "prince of the covenant" was probably High Priest Onias III, who was murdered that year (others translate it "confederate prince" and see it as a reference to Ptolemy VI Philometor, but I disagree because he wasn't destroyed; he outlived Antiochus by a considerable margin). knowing Rome would step in if the status quo was disturbed, Ptolemy VI was allowed to keep the throne as a Seleucid puppet – an arrangement which lasted only until the Seleucid army pulled up stakes, because as soon as they were gone the Egyptians turned around and hailed the younger brother Ptolemy VIII Euergetes (Gross Belly, so named after his morbid obesity) their pharaoh instead. The brothers Ptolemy decided to rule jointly rather than start a civil war, an example the rest of the successor kingdoms really could've learned from.

In 168 Antiochus launched a second invasion of Egypt, aiming to finish the business once and for all, and this time the Romans acted. "At the appointed time he will invade the South again," Daniel says, "but this time the outcome will be different from what it was before. Ships of Kittim will oppose him, and he will lose heart." It's referring to one of the most famous diplomatic incidents of all time: Rome elected to send Gaius Popillius Laenas, a single proconsul (i.e. one of last year's consuls, the office you occupy when you're fresh out of office) escorted only by lictors, the civil servants carrying fasces (bundles of sticks) that were the physical representation of power in Rome. As he came down the Canopic branch of the Nile, Antiochus found his path blocked by Laenas and his retinue – no army within five hundred Roman miles, remember – who sweetly told him to turn his army around and go back to Antioch, or consider himself in a state of war with the Roman Republic. This act always seemed to bluff eastern kings, who didn't know what to make of it. Antiochus asked for time to discuss it with his war council; Laenas stepped forward and drew a line in the sand all the way around Antiochus, and said: "Before you cross this circle, I want you to give me a reply for the Roman Senate" – the implication being that Rome would declare war if the king stepped out of the circle without committing to leave Egypt immediately. Weighing his options, Antiochus slunk away with his tail between his legs.

The Abomination of Desolation
The term “abomination” (Hebrew toevah or siqqus) appears more than a hundred times in the Old Testament and refers to a great sin, one usually punishable by death. In Daniel the phrase is ha-siqqus misomem (שִׁקּוּץ מְשׁמֵם), literally, "one who makes desolate." Siqqus is always connected with idolatry, and paired with misomem seems to indicate that something has been destroyed, made worthless, the ultimate desecration. That's a big clue as to what was about to happen.

While he'd been in Egypt, the rumour had got out that Antiochus had been killed, and the Jews took the opportunity to have a bit of a rebellion. Their leader was the deposed High Priest Jason, who had his own reasons:
[The Jews] were divided into two parties, the orthodox Hasideans (Pious Ones) and a reform party that favoured Hellenism. For financial reasons Antiochus supported the reform party and, in return for a considerable sum, permitted the high priest, Jason, to build a gymnasium in Jerusalem and to introduce the Greek mode of educating young people. In 172, for an even bigger tribute, he appointed Menelaus in place of Jason. In 169, however, while Antiochus was campaigning in Egypt, Jason conquered Jerusalem – with the exception of the citadel – and murdered many adherents of his rival Menelaus. (“Antiochus IV Epiphanes,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica 2003 Deluxe Edition, Britannica Corp, 2003, referenced on ChristianCourier.com)
Jason's 1,000-man rebellion attracted swift vengeance:
When these happenings were reported to the king, he thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery. (2 Mac 5:11-14)
The numbers might be inflated, but the plot is accurate: the traditionalist faction's consciousness of their status as a people apart made them too independent for the Seleucid kingdom. The solution? Abolish Judaism, which Antiochus made his mission from this moment on. He was well placed to do this, because like all all the Seleucids he had an epithet, Epiphanes, that couldn't have been more perfect for baiting the Jews.

"Epiphanes" means god made manifest.

In the diodochi world virtually every statue proclaimed someone "Saviour of Mankind and God Made Manifest" – to the eastern mind, standard laudatory stuff. But when "god manifest" came to the land of YHWH, shit had to get real. That same year, 167, Antiochus banned circumcision, started gathering and burning copies of the Torah, and built the Akra, a fort in the middle of Jerusalem to keep the city under heel (hence, "he will worship a god of fortresses" in Dan 11:38). But the main event came when he deliberately profaned the Second Temple, placing an idol of Zeus on the altar of burnt offerings and ordering the sacrifice of a pig* – an unclean animal – to rededicate the Temple to Zeus.

To reiterate: He put this...

...and this...

...in this.

Can we even begin to imagine how this went down? This was the famous Abomination of Desolation, the ha-siqqus misomem, the ultimate sacrilege; this was the "time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations." Antiochus IV Epiphanes, stand revealed and take a bow: the King Who Exalts Himself, he of Many Blasphemous Names, the Little Horn (*giggle* "I do miss the old names...").

The traditionalist Jews would not – could not – take this insult lying down. Opposition rallied around an elderly villager from a priestly family named Mattathias, and his five sons: Judas called Maccabeus, Jonathan, Simon, John and Eleazar. Mattathias destroyed the Greek altar that had been set up in his home village of Modein, and killed Antiochus's representative – kicking off the Maccabean Revolt, a war that was to last the next 24 years.

We don't need to know the outcome of the revolt, however, to comprehend the book of Daniel. We don't need to know that the traditionalists ultimately won, gaining an independence for Israel that lasted until the Romans came in 63, although it was a Pyrrhic victory that failed to excise Hellenism from the Holy Land and set the stage for King Herod – we don't need to know all that, because the authors of Daniel didn't seem to know that. After tracking accurately from Nebuchadnezzar right down the centuries, the "prophecies" of Daniel abruptly stop right here during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes; it seems to know nothing of the reconstruction of the Temple, or of the tyrant's death in 164. Daniel was written (or collated – we'll get to that another time) with the message "Hang in there, God has it all under control," while the tyrant was still in power, still applying the jackboot, with no victory or hope of victory anywhere in sight. It's like Anne Frank writing, "stay strong, this evil will not last," from within the barbed wire of Auschwitz. It's a book from Saturday, not Sunday, and it faces the despair full on and never flinches.

As someone who knows a bit about despair, I find that heroic.

So if the Daniel is ultimately about Antiochus, why does it waste our time talking about Nebuchadnezzar? Because tyrants don't take criticism well; it's one of the things that makes them tyrants. If you want to talk some smack about a mad dictator, it's safer to do so in code.
The authors of Daniel – it's a compilation of varying voices, stories and languages – couldn't safely talk directly about their oppression under Antiochus Epiphanes, so instead they wrote about Nebuchadnezzar. And lest their readers miss the point, they added that whole latter half with its dreams and visions reminding us that empires come and empires go and that this latest oppressor and conqueror too will fall, just like Nebuchadnezzar did.

You're familiar with this approach if you've ever watched the television show M*A*S*H. That classic sit-com was set during the Korean War, but it wasn't really about Korea – it was about Vietnam. Vietnam was still too current, too raw and too polarizing to address directly when M*A*S*H was originally written and broadcast. The Korean War on the show provided a kind of surrogate or parallel that allowed us to talk about and deal with something we couldn't otherwise have discussed. – Fred Clark, TF: Must be the clouds in my eyes, Patheos.com
This is probably still going on today, literally this very day; I can imagine an isolated Jewish family somewhere in Syria, huddling desperately while ISIS thugs are kicking in doors all over town, one of the parents abruptly saying, "Have I ever told you how savta got away from Hitler...?"

Not all oppressors are mighty

But Daniel doesn't quite end there. Looking to the future, the authors of Daniel saw another beast, another empire to come. It turned out they weren't much mistaken.

* Intriguingly, it seems a swine was the appropriate offering to Zeus Epoptes, i.e. Zeus the Watcher or Zeus the Overseer, just the deity you'd want on side if you were trying to get a rebellious province back in line. More poignantly, it was also made as a burnt offering – in Greek, a holókaustos. The cult of Zeus Epoptes was located back in Attica, however, so it might not have made the trip to the lands of the Seleucids. And in any case I cannot credit that Antiochus didn't know exactly what he was doing.