Self-advertisement: My other blog

I’m spending this summer on an island in the Pacific, trying to learn and document a language with less than 50 active speakers. I will publish my results (word list, grammar, and audio/video recordings) openly to a blog created for the purpose – where I will also report on the process and my experience in general. So have a look if you like this sort of thing 🙂

https://aleksandersavesalanguage.wordpress.com/


Bible study 155 – Deuteronomy 3

Moses recounts how the Israelites conquered the Bashan kingdom. He adds that King Og of Bashan was a giant with a four meter long bed, and that “In fact his bed, an iron bed, can still be seen in Rabbah of the Ammonites.”

Deuteronomy 3:24
“O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your might; what god in heaven or on earth can perform deeds and mighty acts like yours! (…)”

Full text.


Bible study 129 – Numbers 12

Aaron and his sister Miriam complain that Moses has a foreign wife (presumably Zipporah from Midian), and say that they can be prophets too. God gathers them in the tabernacle and explains that while they may see prophetic dreams, Moses is the only one God speaks to directly. To drive the point home, he also gives Miriam tsara’at temporarily. (I’m guessing the only reason Miriam is in the story is so she can be punished instead of Aaron, who does silly things all the time without being punished.)

Numbers 12:11
Then Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, do not punish us for a sin that we have so foolishly committed.”

Full text.


iPhone 7 will hopefully pave the way for wireless headphones that work

This morning, my parents heard on the news that the new iPhone 7 won’t have a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. They were confused. Why would Apple do that? Surely it will only lead to frustrated users? What good could possibly come from removing one of the most useful features of a phone?

I don’t know if Apple will profit from this, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want a phone without an audio jack slot myself (yet). But in the long run I think this move will probably massively benefit everyone who uses audio devices, because Apple will finally make wireless headphones work.

The current condition of the wireless audio equipment market is absurd. The technology to reliably transmit high-quality audio wirelessly, and to play it without using too much battery, has been available for years. And yet, almost everyone uses wired headphones in their phones and laptops; wires with limited reach, that get caught up in door knobs, that tangle up into a mess every time you put them away.

The laptop I write this on has an external USB sound card connected to it, because the audio jack for the internal sound card is broken. See the video above to understand how it broke. Clearly, wireless headphones have some qualities that are superior to corded ones. And yet, they all suck.

Today’s wireless headphones are usually one of three different types:
1) USB dongle
2) Bluetooth
3) Standalone transmitter

The first type, the USB dongle, is really simple to use, but also not very flexible. The audio signal is sent digitally through the USB port to the dongle, which transmits it wirelessly to the headphones, where the signal is converted to analog audio. USB dongles usually work by just plugging them in, with minimal settings and connections to worry about, so this is almost as simple as plugging in an audio jack cable. The huge downside is that you need a USB port, which none of your cell phones have and most sound systems also lack.

Bluetooth is supposed to be the solution for this. By now, pretty much every sound-outputting device on the planet supports Bluetooth out of the box, and a Bluetooth headphone is supposed to be able to connect to any of these. The latest versions of Bluetooth can also carry fairly high-quality audio. The only problem is that Bluetooth is a huge mess and never works as it should. It was not mainly designed for audio transmission, but basically tries to be a universal solution for everything wireless (mouse, keyboard, file transmission etc.), and (in my experience) pretty much fails at all of it. First you need to “pair” your device and your headphones. Maybe there are some high-end super expensive headphones where you just have to press one or two buttons, but I have never been able to do this smoothly. It inevitably takes five minutes to pair them the first time, and since most headphones can only be paired to one or a few devices at the same time, you have to go through this process fairly regularly. When they are paired, the device and the headphones are supposed to connect automatically when they get in each other’s range. Unfortunately, about halv of the time they won’t connect automatically, and I have to go into weird menus and try several times and finally just unpair and pair again and repeat until I can finally listen to that damn song. And even if I manage to connect them properly, there are still problems. Whenever I connect my Android to the car sound system (after unpairing and pairing etc.), the car usually decides that I only want to use it for calls, and I have to manually force it to play all audio through the car speakers. At which point it suddenly starts playing whatever music or audiobook I was last listening to before connecting, without waiting for me to press any “play” button. Which is great sometimes, and really incredibly annoying most of the time. Especially when I get into the car with my phone with Bluetooth on, and it inexplicably manages to do all of the connecting etc. by itself, and after one and a half minute of driving suddenly starts booming out trance music on the highest volume.

And all of this is a huge shame, because if Bluetooth was properly designed from the start, with strict standards and a strong emphasis on ease of connection, I bet almost nobody would still be using corded headphones today. Instead, many manufacturers have started making the third type of wireless audio device I listed above; the one with a standalone transmitter, which is connected to the audio source through a standard audio jack cable. I actually thought it was a joke the first time I saw one of these: what is even the point of a “wireless” solution if you need the same audio cable (plus power cables!) to make it work? And then I went ahead and bought a pair, and I am super happy with them and use them all the time. The only problem, of course, is that I can only use them in the house, near the transmitter. Whenever I go out, I still use corded headphones.

Back to Apple. Why would all these problems suddenly be solved by Apple making their own wireless headphones? First, Apple makes things that just work. Macs are plug-and-play. iPads don’t crash. You don’t have to go into some deeply hidden settings on your iPhone to enable flash on the camera. Second, Apple removing the headphone jack suggests they are committed to making wireless headphones that work. If Apple’s wireless headphones work as badly as normal Bluetooth headphones, people will be unable to easily listen to music and watch YouTube, and will be frustrated at Apple. So they have to work well, and Apple have probably poured a ton of resources on making a system that works as simple as plugging in an audio cable. Third, iPhones have a huge userbase. In September when iPhone 7 launches, the number of consumers who own wireless headphones will suddenly rise by an order of magnitude, and in half a year everyone still using uncool corded phones will look like they still live in the stone age. Demand for wireless headphones that work will surge, more money will be spent in R&D departments in companies all over the world on them, and hopefully the industry will agree on some robust standards really quickly. In two years, everyone will be using wireless headphones for almost all purposes, because they are as easy to connect as corded headphones, the battery lasts for a day or longer, and they are available in all price classes. Only grandmothers and audiophiles will still be seen with cables out of their ears.

At least this is what I hope will happen. Unfortunately, Apple chose not to bundle their wireless earphones with the iPhone, instead selling them separately for a really stiff price. Those who choose not to buy them can still use the included Lightning port adapter, and plug their normal corded headphones into the charging port. So Apple aren’t really forcing anyone to switch, just giving them a light nudge. Also, their wireless technology is based on Bluetooth (and their earphones compatible with other Bluetooth devices), so it’s not some new revolutionary way of doing wireless audio transmission.

But I wish Apple good luck with this one, and hope we can finally get rid of these silly cords.


Job hunting in Japan

I recently started working at a large Japanese company as a regular employee. While I have virtually no job experience from any other countries to compare with, I feel quite certain that a large number of aspects of working in big Japanese corporations are not to be found many other places on earth, especially not in Western countries. Considering how common this kind of job is here in Japan (with its 126 million first-world citizens) however, I thought it fitting to share some of my experiences. In this post, I will describe the process of actually finding a job in Japan. First, a little background.

Large Japanese companies

Although consisting of a relatively small landmass, about the same size of Norway, Japan’s population density is closer to that of Belgium, its population much larger than any country in Europe. Its economy is the third largest in the world (the second largest until surpassed by China in 2010). A number of huge companies employ a sizable part of the population, but they exert an even larger influence and control over the economy.

Japan's location in the world.

Japan’s location in the world.

This influence has been even stronger in the past. Many Japanese companies can trace their roots back to the time around the Meiji Restoration (明治維新 meiji ishin)  or earlier, when Japan in 1868 appeared on the global stage after 250 years of near complete isolation and official discouragement of advances in technology and production. Many former samurais of the disbanded feudal system, a well-educated class, used the final lump-payment of their pension to start businesses in various industries, many of which flourished in the fresh market, together with the businesses which had held monopolies for centuries. The Meiji government invested huge amounts in heavy industries, which led to a strong relationship between the corporate and the political world, a relationship which continues to this day.

Iwasaki Koyata (岩崎 小弥太, 1879-1945), the 4th leader of the Mitsubishi zaibatsu, and his family. The zaibatsu has its roots in the time of the Meiji Restoration. Even today the Mitsubishi Group employs 350.000 people in everything from shipbuilding to telecommunications.

Iwasaki Koyata (岩崎 小弥太, 1879-1945), the 4th leader of the Mitsubishi zaibatsu, and his family. The zaibatsu has its roots in the time of the Meiji Restoration. Even today the Mitsubishi Group employs 350.000 people in everything from shipbuilding to telecommunications.

Relationships of this kind tend to favour large companies with vast resources. Indeed, in Japan four enormous zaibatsu (財閥), conglomerations of companies, appeared in the late 19th and early 20th century: Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Yasuda and Mitsui, together with many other smaller zaibatsu. These groups consisted of companies in all key industries, including banking, and were therefore self-sufficient in raw-materials and funding. They were attempted disassembled after the Second World War, but partially reappeared as keiretsu (系列), less closely knit versions of the zaibatsu, in the second half of the 20th century, a period when the Japanese economy reappeared from the devastations of war to become one of the largest in the world in the course of a few decades. This unprecedented growth was stunted when the bubble popped in the 1990s, which has left Japan with a stagnated economy ever since. This further weakened the keiretsu, their power today not comparable to the zaibatsu of pre-war Japan. Many of the large companies of old still exist, however, and although undoubtedly set to change if they are to survive in the new economic environment, much of their peculiar culture still has a strong presence.

The hiring process

Hiring new employees in Japan differs greatly from the process in Western countries.

In general, there are two different ways to be hired for full-time employment, with two distinct processes. One way is new graduate employment (新卒雇用 shinsotsu koyou), for students who are soon to graduate, and the other way is for everyone else. To put it in simple terms, if you want a normal job you’ll want to be in the first category.

The standard way to get hired is to start job hunting (就職活動, shuushoku katsudou) when you are in your last year of education, or earlier. For undergraduate students in universities, this is normally their fourth year. If you are lucky, you will find a company that agrees to hire you the moment you graduate. If you do not, chances are you will opt to stay another year at university, pay for another full year of expensive education without actually taking any courses (because you already have enough credits to graduate), for the express purpose of staying in the new graduate employment process. This is how badly people want to not end up in the second category. You can become a fifth year student (五年生 gonensei), and even a sixth year student (六年生 rokunensei), and still stay in the standard process, but if nobody has hired you by then, potential employers will likely assume there is a good reason for it, and your chances plunge.

If you decide to graduate university without having found a job, you are no longer eligible for the standard process, and will have to apply through the graduate employment (既卒雇用 kisotsu koyou) process. By now you might as well take a year or two off to move to Wien and practice ballet, because your job interviewers in Japan will want to know why in the world you don’t have a proper job already, and you should have a good excuse for this. If you do not, your chances of getting a good job are minuscule, and it may be hard to find one at all. Changing occupations (転職 tenshoku) also falls into this category, and can be a challenge. Partly because of strict labour laws and partly because of culture, fluidity in the Japanese labour market has traditionally been very small; employees are expected to stay in their jobs for a long time, preferably their whole life (終身雇用 shuushin koyou, permanent employment). Moving to a different company to improve your career is accepted to a certain degree, but if you were fired from your old job, finding a new one can be extremely tough (then again, labour laws makes it very hard to fire employees against their will in the first place). Your only option may be to take a part-time job (アルバイト arubaito, from German Arbeit), which is often in practice a full-time job with lower per-hour pay, no insurance or benefits, and no job security.

Most students (well over 90% ), however, do manage to find a job the first way, and for them the process is very streamlined, if physically and mentally exhausting. Students start looking for companies which they find interesting or where they can expect a high salary. When they find one, they send them an entry sheet containing their basic personal information and why they are interested in the company. Notice that they do not apply for a specific position in the company, but for the company itself; although some companies allow the applicant to choose one of two-three “sections” within the company, typically divided between those who studied humanities (文系 bunkei) and those who studied the sciences (理系 rikei) in university. Students commonly send entry sheets to tens of companies to keep their options open, but eventually narrow their scope to 3-5 companies which they will focus on. Since many companies, especially the traditional ones, expect the entry sheets to be hand-written, this provides many hours of tedious night-time labour for the applicants.

A sample entry sheet. Below the personal information, there are questions such as "What was your research subject in university?" and "Is there anything you feel you won't lose to anyone in?".

A sample entry sheet. Below the personal information, there are questions such as “What was your research subject in university?” and “Is there anything you feel you won’t lose to anyone in?”.

Applicants listening to a company presentation session at a job fair.

Applicants listening to a company presentation session at a job fair.

The next step is to attend the company’s presentation session (説明会 setsumeikai, explanatory meeting) to hear about what the company does, how many graduates they hired last year and how high their salary is now. These sessions can take place in the company’s offices, or in front of the booths in one of the big job fairs, where tens, or even hundreds, of companies try to attract students to apply for them (The Tokyo Summer Career Forum, for instance, has more than 200 participating companies each year). In either case, the dress code is strict: black suit and tie for the boys, and a black jacket and black skirt for the girls (both with a white shirt underneath). While slight variations on this might be acceptable (a dark grey suit for example), most attendants buy a standard job hunting suit specifically for the purpose.

A job fair in Makuhari, Chiba, outside Tokyo in 2011.

A job fair in Makuhari, Chiba, outside Tokyo in 2011.

In the first phase of interviewing applicants are numerous. This is one reason for holding group interviews.

In the first phase of interviewing applicants are numerous. This is one reason for holding group interviews.

Usually, the presentation sessions are accompanied by a test of some kind, commonly an aptitude examination (適性検査 tekisei kensa), which include questions about math, language and logic, and aim to assess the general aptitude of the applicant. The most common standardized aptitude examination is the SPI, and there are a myriad of books with strategies and example questions to help applicants prepare for these tests. Other tests include writing down your motives for applying to the company (even if already included in the entry sheet), or more hands-on tests, like figuring out the answer to a problem in a group where everyone has different pieces of information. A friend of mine who was at a company’s headquarters taking a test was placed in front of a telephone, and was suddenly asked questions in English from the person on the other end. (My friend, who did not understand a word, panicked and immediately put down the receiver, giving up on the company.)

A naiteisho, proof of the applicant having been accepted to the company.

A naiteisho, proof of the applicant having been accepted to the company.

Based on the information in the entry sheets (especially the box titled “Name of university”) and the results of the tests, some of the applicants are later invited to attend the first interview (一次面接 ichiji mensetsu), which is often a group interview with several applicants. A portion of these are later invited to the second interview (二次面接 niji mensetsu). This can go on for a few more rounds, until a select few attend the final interview (最終面接 saishuu mensetsu). A few days to a few weeks after this, the lucky ones receive a naitei (内定 unofficial decision), basically a promise to the applicant that he can come to work for the company the next spring. Many universities have agreements with certain companies, so that students receiving a recommendation (推薦 suisen) from their professor can skip the whole process until the final interview, and are guaranteed a job there.

Most Japanese companies only hire new employees once a year: on April 1st, the start of the fiscal year. Even if the applicant has nothing else to do until that date, she often has no choice but to wait. Many smaller companies are less strict with this as with many other things than the big companies. The big companies, however, are lately also striving to become more flexible, and many have extended their hiring period – to twice a year, adding October 1st (autumn hiring (秋採用 aki saiyou)). Since the vast majority of applicants are still in university and graduate in February/March, however, April 1st remains by far the most common date to enter a company, and for the large companies the results are huge groups of employees entering at the same time: Hitachi, for example hired 600 people in 2013, presumably most of them on April 1st.

Although the student is now guaranteed a job, it might not be with the company she was most interested in, and so an ambitious applicant may ask if she can wait a short while before accepting the naitei. If she is to receive an answer from a more attractive company shortly, she can wait for that result before accepting the first company. If not, she can play the dangerous game of declining the first naitei, hoping to get a better naitei later in the year. If she fails this, she risks having to start the process all over again next year, including moving graduation yet another year forward in time, as discussed above.

If the applicant accepts the naitei and attends the naitei ceremony (内定式 naitei shiki), she can spend the rest of the year relaxing and going out drinking with her friends, because she likely has few or even no classes at university. Most university course plans have all obligatory subjects during the first three years, so students can focus their time on job hunting outside of university – while paying the same tuition fee, of course. Every step in the process above is typically preceded by hours of preparation, and repeated for several companies. When counting in the fact that the applicant’s success or failure in this particular year of their life can decide how their entire future will unfold, the resulting physical and mental stress is overwhelming for many.

Hundreds of students gathered to celebrate them being accepted into their company, to start working next spring.

Hundreds of students gathered to celebrate them being accepted into their company, to start working next spring.

Of course, a young Japanese graduate’s life is not over if she fails to gain a job through the strict route described above. There are foreign companies (外資系 gaishikei), there are small companies and fringe industries who are not strict with the hiring process, some part-time jobs are really not that bad, and she could even start her own business. But the fact remains that the vast majority of Japanese are employed through a variation of the process as outlined in this post, and failure to abide by its strict rules will quickly lead to being permanently removed from it. On the other hand, once you do get your hands on a naiteisho, you are set for life.

New job

 


The only sensible measure against global warming

Introduction and claims
For the past ten years or so, an enormous amount of resources have been spent in the name of combating global warming. In the following text, I am first going to make two simple claims concerning the way these resources have been used, and then explain my reasoning. I am going to apply my claims specifically to the measures the North-European kingdom of Norway has taken and should be taking (among other reasons that will become clear later, because I am a Norwegian), but they can be applied to many other countries as well.

My first claim is this: There are basically only two measures that makes any sense for Norway to take when it comes to global warming.
1) Either Norway sets a specific goal as to how much oil (and natural gas) she is going to produce in the long run (and enforces it with restrictions or taxes directly on the oil), or
2) she does nothing.
All other alternatives, and this sadly includes basically every measure that has ever been taken to reduce CO2 emissions, have a large chance of being completely without any effect whatsoever on the climate, and a waste of resources in that respect. These are also the only two alternatives that would make Norway’s environmental policy and natural resources policy consistent.

However, no Norwegian mainstream politician has ever taken the idea of reducing oil production directly seriously, and there is no serious debate about whether or not to do this in the media. My second claim is that this is completely mind-blowing, because it is obvious that my first claim is true, and politicians (and others) should therefore have realized that this is the only feasible solution a long time ago. The rest of this text will attempt to show that it is obvious that my first claim is correct.

 

Reasoning
Measures taken to limit CO2 emissions in Western countries the last years have been extremely varied. We have put taxes on gasoline and gasoline driven cars (both are extremely expensive in Norway), production of and research in electrical or hydrogen driven cars has been subsidized, efforts to minimize electrical consumption have been made, research into alternative fuels (such as bio fuel) and energy production has been subsidized, rainforests have been replanted (while natural regrowth of old farmland in Norway has been stopped for different reasons), and so on. While these measures may have had many different beneficial effects, they were all made specifically to reduce the effects of global warming on our planet, and so their success-rate should be estimated based on only how well they achieved in this area.

Norwegian gasoline is very expensive because of high targeted taxes, leading many people to consider alternative fuels

Let us imagine that Norway increases her taxes on car gasoline. This will lead to Norwegians tending to choose other fuels or different means of transportation, which will lead to less gasoline consumption, which will lead to less greenhouse gas emissions, which will lead to less global warming on earth. Right? Wrong. Only if we are really lucky, this will lead to less immediate gasoline consumption, but it seems just as likely that it will not. The infrastructure to produce the amounts of gasoline that we are consuming today are already in place, and the reduction of demand in one place will only reduce the price of gasoline, which will make it a more viable alternative in other industries or in other parts of the world. Perhaps jet fuel in Asia will become cheaper as a result, and more tourists will travel by plane from China to India. Thus, the gasoline consumption in general is not even likely to be reduced in the short run. I will come to what happens in the long run in a bit.

One measure that has been implemented to some extent might reduce CO2 emissions in the short run, and that is direct taxation on the CO2 emissions themselves. The European Union has implemented this strategy in the form of CO2 quotas for some years, with varying results. It is a much better solution than the measures listed in the first paragraph, because it goes directly to the source of the problem. A tax on gasoline would lead to oil being used for different purposes with the same result with regards to CO2 emissions, but when you tax the CO2 directly, either usage becomes less profitable, and consumption of oil (and other CO2 emitting fuels) goes down. When CO2 emitting energy sources become less profitable, research into alternative sources will seem more attractive to investors, who will spend more money on it, and the result will be new, CO2-clean energy sources, which will lead to even more people switching from reliance on oil. If implemented correctly, a tax (or quotas) directly on CO2 would be the ideal solution to the global warming problem.

However, there are at least three practical problems with this scheme. First, countries don’t follow these international agreements. The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, bound countries to keep their greenhouse gas emissions to some percentage of their 1990 emission levels. The percentage is different from country to country, but it averages at a reduction of about 5%, which does not seem like an impossible goal. The chart below shows that about a third of the countries increased their emissions significantly. A fair share reduced theirs by a lot, but closer inspection will reveal that these are former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe, and their reductions likely have much more to do with the transition from a communist to a capitalist economy, rather than the protocol signed seven years later. The countries that have increased their emissions are overwhelmingly rich, developed countries, in other words the only countries that would have the surplus resources to make real changes with the protocol in mind. Norway in particular has a goal not to increase her emissions by more than one percent as compared with 1990 – and she has instead increased them by about 30 percent so far. So, if a direct tax on CO2 emissions was implemented, and the taxes were set high enough to actually make a difference (again in the short run; we will come to the long run problem soon), it is almost certain that some countries would not follow these rules.

List of nations that signed the Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas mitigation treaty. The white bars show their reduction target compared to 1990 levels, while the black bars show how much they had actually reduced their emissions by 2009

This leads us to the second problem: Many countries would not be participating in the scheme in the first place. As noble as the EU initiative may be, its effectiveness is extremely curbed as long as it is designed to only apply to a fraction of the world’s countries. It is the same problem as with the car gasoline and the jet fuel outlined earlier in this text; even if EU somehow reduced its oil consumption by a huge amount, this would only lead to cheaper oil on the world market, and the US, China and India would consume even more, largely balancing the reduction away.

All we have talked about until now, are the problems with reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the short run, and it has become clear that this is not a simple problem to solve with the kind of measures that are used today. However, I will admit that some carefully thought-out strategies and intelligent international treaties might possibly solve the first two problems to a certain extent, and reduce the emissions in the short run, perhaps even significantly. But the third problem is that, unless the first two problems are solved almost entirely (which no one is even imagining to enterprise at the moment), there is a significant chance that these treaties, and all the resources spent to set them into effect, will have no impact on the amount of CO2 released in the long run, whatsoever. This is the central point of this text, and the point that has eluded almost all commentators and those in power, even though it means that almost all measures taken until today to reduce global warming quite possibly will have virtually no positive effect on global warming itself.

German coal plant. Coal is still a very popular source of electric energy

Let us return to Norway, and its policy of high gasoline taxes. Let us say that they with this measure somehow manage to reduce oil consumption in general in the short term; in other words, the number of barrels of oil consumed, and thereby produced, per year goes down. So far, so good. In ten years, the number of barrels produced will be lower than the number of barrels that would have been produced had the policy never been implemented. The same in fifty years. By now, many applications that currently use oil will have switched to different energy sources. But other industries will continue to be using oil; barring a world-changing revolution in energy production technology, oil is going to be used in significant amounts for the foreseeable future. And in a hundred years or so, there is a significant chance that we will have pumped up and burned all the oil that can be practically extracted. It is possible that alternative fuels will become so popular before then that it will not be profitable to extract all the oil, but at this rate it does not seem likely. The result? We will have used the same amount of oil, and emitted the same amount of greenhouse gases, only over a longer period of time. Granted, we may by this avoid a high amount of warming over a short amount of time – but we will simply substitute it by a moderate amount of warming over a long period of time. There is no reason to believe one is better than the other, and it has certainly not been the goal of the anti-global warming campaigns to choose one over the other.

The Laffer curve. The high point in the middle is the point where more taxes would lead to so much less production of wealth that tax revenues would go down

So, as long as there are consumers somewhere that want to use oil for something, oil companies are going to continue to extract oil until there is nothing left. That is, unless there are restrictions on how much they can extract. Actually, Norway has very high taxes on oil extraction. And that is exactly what I recommended as a solution earlier, right? Wrong. For these taxes to have any effect on how much oil is extracted in the long run, they would have had to be adjusted as it became apparent how much oil is actually extracted under a certain tax-level. The taxes on oil-extraction in Norway seem rather to be based on something akin to the Laffer curve: they are aiming at the point were actual tax revenues are the highest, since taxes higher than this point would curb oil production too much, and reduce the final revenues. In other words, Norway’s strategy concerning oil production is, for all intents and purposes, to produce as much as possible, as fast as possible, as long as possible. Considering that extracting all oil would mean that all global warming measures would have been for nothing, it is obvious that this goal is completely incompatible with Norway’s environmental policy. All of Norway’s oil may have been extracted in 50 or 100 years, and by then all global warming measures will have been for nothing.

What Norway needs to do if she wants to combat global warming is to set a goal of some sorts regarding oil production, and enforce it, and then do nothing else to combat global warming. I do not care about the details about this goal. I do not care about exactly how she enforces it (although I think the candidates are quite obvious). She can set a goal to stop production completely by 2030; she can set a goal to reduce production by 50% by 2020; she can decide to extract only 50% of the available oil, or 0%, or 70%. She can enforce this by quotas on exactly how much each company can extract every year, or by taxes that are continually adjusted to meet the goal. I do not have a strong opinion on what this goal should be, because the question of how much resources we should spend to combat global warming in not trivial. My point is that this is the only measure that is guaranteed to have any effect whatsoever on total greenhouse emissions.

The above implies that only the governments of countries that produce raw fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal) can realistically have any real influence on total greenhouse gas emissions (in the case that fossil fuel reserves are eventually exhausted). This is true in general, but I also believe Norway is in a globally unique position to influence the climate. Norway is one of the biggest oil and natural gas producers in the world. It is the third largest oil producer by capita in the world, barely beaten by Kuwait and Qatar, and the second largest natural gas producer by capita. Norwegian oil prices also have a big influence on other countries; Norway is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world in absolute numbers, and the third largest natural gas exporter. A decision by Norway to only extract, say, 50% of her available oil reserves would with 100% certainty have a significant effect on global warming. The measures taken today will with a significant probability have absolutely no effect.

A map of countries that produce oil, and approximately how much they produce

Moreover, Norway is one of the richest countries in the world by capita, only beaten closely by countries such as Luxembourg and Qatar. Of course, the source of Norway’s wealth is largely the very oil in question, and so it is up for debate how high oil extraction reductions Norway should feel compelled to enforce over how long time; to much too quickly could ruin the economy. But my point in this paragraph is not that Norway is the country in the world that has the conditions to have the largest impact on global warming. My point is that Norway is probably the country in the entire world with the best conditions to do something about global warming, or the country in the best position to do her share, if you wish. The rest of the world is currently facing huge economic problems (Europe and the US), or exponentially growing energy demands (India and China). Curbing vital industries at this point could be disastrous for them, even if one could argue that they have a moral duty to do so anyway. Norway, however, could set a reasonable cap on how much oil to extract the next ten years, designed so that it would only have a moderate impact on her economy. And here is an important point worth noting: This negative impact on her economy is inevitable, if we want to do anything at all about global warming. In fact, our cap on oil extraction is likely to have the smallest impact on the economy that is possible to achieve, when comparing lost money units to degrees Celsius that the temperature did not rise as a result of the measures. Economic theory suggests that limiting the source (crude oil) directly will be more efficient than limiting its final products (gasoline, electricity, plane tickets), since the market will take care of the intermediate calculations (this is also the reason why a tax on CO2 directly would be the ideal solution, as mentioned above, if implemented correctly). And this is concerning the possible short-term effects; as shown above, caps on oil extraction is probably the only measure that will actually have any effects at all in the long term.

A white Christmas: one incentive to stop global warming

I have so far not talked about the second alternative I suggested in the introduction: to do nothing. This is also a completely feasible alternative, because the effects global warming will have on our future lives are far from clear. Much of the fear of global warming we see around the world likely comes from a basic fear of change; it snowed in my city on Christmas eve when I was a child, so it should snow there on every Christmas eve in the future as well. Although our children may experience the geographical areas where they live differently than we did, that does not mean they will live worse lives. There is little reason to believe that the world temperature we have right now is the “ideal” temperature for human life. Whether global warming is leading to more extreme weather is pure speculation at the moment (the data is far from consistent), and from a lay person’s perspective it certainly seems no more likely that the weather should become more rather than less extreme after an increase in the arbitrary mean temperature that we have experienced for the last few thousand years (which is wildly variable over the globe and by the season). After a period of adapting, it is quite possible that variables such as total farm-output or tons of caught fish could turn out to be higher at higher temperatures. None of this is clear, the economists are divided, and at any rate people should be entitled to a white Christmas in their home town if they are willing to spend the outrageous amounts of resources necessary to get it. My point is simply that this is also a feasible alternative, far superior to almost all measures implemented at the moment, since it will quite possibly have basically the same effect on the climate, but without spending outrageous sums of money.

 

Conclusion
I do not advocate spending more or less resources to combat global warming; how much to spend is a far from trivial question, and needs to be decided together with experts. Neither do I advocate that we should stop all projects and measures taken to combat global warming; research into different fuels will have to be conducted at some point, and the sooner the better. Similarly, taxes on gasoline will make people think about changing to different fuels now better than later. Such measures might make the inevitable transition from oil to other energy sources smoother. Planting rainforest in the Amazon will help keep some of the biodiversity on our globe. Many of these measures will have hugely beneficial effects, and should not be stopped. But none of these measures should be taken in order to combat global warming, because as I have demonstrated in the above text, there is a large chance that they will have no effect on global warming, while there exist simple alternatives that are guaranteed to have an effect on global warming, and are no less cost-efficient (probably more).

Perhaps the jaguar can be saved by replanting rainforests, but it might not help against global warming

Although this text is about 4.5 A4 pages, my basic argument is very simple, and requires no special knowledge on the subject: There is a large chance that humanity will expend almost all the extractable fossil fuels on the earth, and if we do, all measures against global warming will have been for nothing. The only reasonable way an oil-producing nation like Norway can solve this, is to make an effort not to extract all the extractable fossil fuels. All other suggested measures are inane. I contend that this is quite obvious, and it is beyond me why this is not seriously discussed in Norway. I am certain that good arguments can be posed against even my claims, but similar claims have not even appeared (to my knowledge) in the public debate. Instead, discussions about global warming continue to revolve around what politician vows to spend the most resources on schemes that quite possibly will not help in combating global warming at all.


The 1453 Siege of Constantinople

Although films concerning wars are not uncommon in cinema history, depictions of full-scale battles were rather sparse until recent years. Especially since the 2000’s, however, large battles and sieges have become more commonplace, probably both because of technical advances (the large numbers of soldiers in modern war-movies are computer generated), and the ever-expanding budgets of blockbuster Hollywood films. Examples include the huge battles seen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001 – 2003), but also historical battles, such as in Troy (2004, the Trojan war), Kingdom of Heaven (2005, the siege of Jerusalem in 1187) and 300 (2007, the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE). Historical fiction can leave a strong impression, because the consumer knows that what he reads or sees really happened, and possibly had strong, direct consequences that are still visible today. The story behind Kingdom of Heaven reveals the seed of some of the conflict we see in the Middle East today, and some historians claim that we can thank the effort of the 300 Spartans (and the other thousand or so Greeks not portrayed in the film) for the existence of Western civilization today. If a historical film also contains its share of drama, suspense and Hollywood clichés, it has the potential to be quite a success. I believe there is one such historical battle which contains all the necessary ingredients to become a successful epic film; the siege of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottoman Empire. Not only was this in absolute terms one of the largest and most extensive city sieges undertaken until modern times, but the eventual fall of Constantinople is a momentous event in European, even in world, history, and is by many historians regarded as the end of the thousand year long Middle Ages; not to mention it was also the end of one of the most influential and enduring political entities in history, the Roman Empire. Add to this all the suspenseful events leading up to and during the siege, and a person gallery closely resembling that of a Hollywood movie, as recorded in letters and diaries from the Byzantine side inside the walls, and it is quite baffling that there exist to date no films (to my knowledge) concerning this, by any definition, truly epic battle.

From the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven

From the 2004 film Troy

The city of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) was founded by Greek colonists under the name of Byzantium in the 7th century BCE, but was with time incorporated with the rest of the Greek cities into the Macedonian, and later the Roman Empire. By the 4th century CE, the Roman Empire was declining in the west, and its new important frontiers and trade relations were in the east. The Roman Emperor Constantine I (lived from 272 to 337), the first Christian emperor, also known as Constantine the Great and widely regarded as one of the greatest of all the Roman Emperors, moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to the (by then) much more central port city of Byzantine, rebuilt it and possibly had it renamed to Nova Roma (New Rome) or something similar. However, it quickly became popularly known as Constantinople, «City of Constantine». By chance, the last Roman Emperor’s name was also Constantine (XI), and he would die a true (Hollywood) hero’s death in the city built by the first Emperor Constantine, more than a thousand years later.

Constantine I (272 – 337), Roman Emperor

Constantinople thrived, and so did the Empire, although the western part of it, including Rome, gradually fell out of its hands; its new power base was the Balkans and Anatolia. Confusingly, modern histories often refer to this later period of the Empire as the Byzantine Empire (alternatively the Eastern Roman Empire), even though this was the name of the city before it became the capital; but to people at the time, it was simply the continuation of the already long-enduring Roman Empire (and I too shall refer to Constantine XI’s empire as this). However, both the emperor and the population of Constantinople and most of the Empire’s territories spoke Greek, and the culture was Hellenic, albeit with strong Roman influences and traditions. Strong walls were built around the city, reinforced and added to many times, and although Constantinople was besieged many times in its history, it was only successfully entered once before 1453; by the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The crusade was originally sent to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim rule, but the Roman Catholic crusaders unexpectedly ended up invading the great bastion of the Greek Orthodox Church, Constantinople, instead, entering through the sea walls along the Golden Horn. They subsequently completely sacked Constantinople, gathering a legendary amount of loot, and burned down most of the city. The Emperor escaped, however, setting up an exile government, and eventually reconquered the city from the disorganized Latin crusaders. Although much was rebuilt, and the sea walls strengthened, the city never quite recovered from this blow, and the relations between Constantinople and Rome understandably became quite sour. From now on, moreover, the entire Empire was in a slow decline. Efforts were made to patch up the schism between the east and west, to unite against the new Balkan nations and the growing Muslim threat from the east. However, there was much opposition both in Rome and Constantinople to such plans, and not much progress was made.

Extent of the Roman and the Ottoman empires in 1450

By the middle of the 15th century, Constantinople had been Imperial capital for more than a thousand years, but the Empire itself seemed to be in its last throes. Apart from the Peloponnese peninsula on the other side of the Aegean Sea, it only held Constantinople and its suburbs. Its power was now largely an illusory one based on prestige, and the Imperial army could no longer fight any wars; especially now that the Turks of the Ottoman Empire had taken almost all its possessions in Anatolia to the east, and large parts of the Balkans to the west, and therefore completely surrounded Constantinople. When the 19 year old Mehmed II was throned as the leader of the Ottomans, many were relieved, hoping that the young sultan would not present much of a threat. Mehmed immediately set his sights on the old Imperial capital, however, and against his advisers’ wishes started preparations for a huge siege.

Location of Constantinople and the Sea of Marmara

The above historical background is relevant for the story of the siege, and so a film could present some of it (depending on which events during the siege it emphasizes) through a quick narration, or perhaps flashbacks, but the main story would start now, sometime between 1451 and 1453, the year of the siege. Our main character and hero is Constantine XI, emperor in the city founded by Constantine I (though they were of different dynasties, and so he was not an actual descendant). Most accounts describe him as an able and calm emperor, quite fitting for his name, which is connected to the English “constant”, but also can be translated from Latin as “steadfast”. When Mehmed started construction of a fortress on the Bosporus north of Constantinople in 1451, in order to control travel between the Black Sea and Constantinople, Constantine understood that the Sultan’s plans were to conquer Constantinople, and with it the remains of the Roman Empire. Constantine proceeded with asking the western Christian nations for assistance, eventually promising union between the two churches more or less on the Catholics’ terms. A half-hearted Catholic-Orthodox union was proclaimed in December 1452, and the Pope agreed to help assemble a fleet to assist Constantinople. It took a long time for the various Italian city-states asked to reach an agreement on the details of any expedition, however, and the only sizeable relieving fleet that was eventually sent, by Venice, did not set sail until late April, long after the siege had started. This would be a good occasion for a film maker to show the contrasts between the bureaucratic, constantly bickering Italians, and our valiant and flexible Greek heroes in Constantinople. While the Vatican, though militarily quite powerless, at least wholly supported Constantinople in their struggle, many in the other Italian merchant city-states probably had mixed feelings, as a large portion of their income already came from trade with the Ottomans. Although several of their trading colonies (like the Genoese Pera, on the other side of the Golden Horn) were enjoying Imperial protection, they were reluctant to directly confront the Ottomans, fearing retributions. Most people outside of Constantinople were also largely ignorant of the urgency of the threat, unable to imagine the more than thousand year old Imperial capital, well-fortified, suddenly falling into Muslim hands.

Constantine, therefore, largely had to make due with the forces he already had – about 7000 soldiers, guarding what had once been one of the largest cities in Europe, although now only housing around 80.000 citizens. He was facing one of the strongest empires in the world at the time, capable of supporting armies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, fanatical Muslims who saw Constantinople as their last real obstacle to freely entering Christian Europe; led by Mehmed II, in Western accounts often described as a fanatical and irrational sultan. The emperor was advised that his city was lost, and that he should leave it and create a Roman government in exile, as successfully executed by the emperor during the fall of Constantinople to the crusaders in 1204. Constantine, however, had no illusions that he could present a threat to the Ottoman Empire without his capital, once the most magnificent city in Europe. He decided that this time, it was all or nothing; he would rescue Constantinople, or he would fall with it, and the Empire with him.

Constantinople during the siege

Although grim, the situation was not completely hopeless. The defenders were few in numbers, but the defensive constructions in and around Constantinople were formidable, and the city was called by some the best-defended city in Europe. Constantinople borders to the Sea of Marmara, which connects the Dardanelles (and thereby the Mediterranean) with the Bosporus (and thereby the Black Sea), to the east and south, and the bay called the Golden Horn to the north. The sea walls along the Sea of Marmara were strong, and made a naval assault from there extremely difficult. The walls along the Golden Horn, although reinforced, were not as secure, but Constantine ordered the entrance of the bay closed with a huge chain, or boom, which was virtually indestructible. In addition, the city was surrounded by the so-called Theodosian land walls, built by Emperor Theodosius II some 1000 years earlier, and reinforced many times since. Put together, these walls constituted one of the strongest fortifications built by man in pre-gunpowder times. The Imperial navy consisted of few, but well-armed ships with experienced crews. The Ottomans, like most empires originating from Asian nomadic tribes, had little experience on and interest in the water, but quickly assembled a rather large fleet in order to blockade the port and hinder outside forces to relieve Constantinople. Their seamanship was, however, far inferior to that of the Imperial navy. All put together, although Constantine could not hope to crush the attacking forces, he prepared a defence to hold out long enough for help from the west to arrive. A ship was sent to forage for supplies in Sicily, and to again plead for assistance. A few months before the siege began, in January 1453, our second protagonist entered the city; Giovanni Giustiniani, from the Italian merchant city-state of Genoa, arrived with a force of 700 well-armed and trained men. Although the Genoese senate was still discussing what kind of help to send to Constantinople, Giustiniani had used his own private funds to raise a small force and help the city. An expert in the defence of walled cities, he was warmly welcomed by the Emperor and immediately set to command the defence of Constantinople. Shortly before the siege began, on 3 April, a small ship with a crew of twelve was sent towards the Dardanelles to look for the relieving western fleet.

The chain of the Golden Horn, on display in the Istanbul Military Museum.

By April 1453, Ottoman troops were pouring into the area around Constantinople, and the harbour was effectively blocked by more than a hundred Ottoman ships; the twenty or so Imperial and Venetian ships left were in the safety behind the chain in the Golden Horn. The actual number of Ottomans participating in the siege were at the time estimated to be anything from 160.000 to 300.000, although modern estimates put it closer to 80.000. Any number would allow a film maker to create a true (computer animated) “Muslim horde”, moving (and later attacking) in a disorganized and barbaric fashion, in accordance to all available accounts. Accompanying the army was also Mehmed’s “secret weapon”; a giant cannon reportedly pulled by 60 oxen and guarded and maintained by 400 men, transported 240 kilometres to the site of the siege. It was designed and created by a Hungarian engineer known as Orban. He is supposed to have a first gone to Constantinople to offer his services, but when they had neither the funds nor materials he required, he instead turned to Mehmed, promising he could build a cannon capable of bringing down the walls of Constantinople. The result was the largest cannon ever produced until then, and one of the first really effective against strong masonry. Sieges until now had largely been a battle of attrition between the attacker and the defender, the side with the least supplies eventually surrendering. The installation and commencement of firing of the new Ottoman cannon quite literally rang in a new era of European siege warfare, and marked the end of pre-gunpowder warfare in Europe: gunpowder weapons were supplanting swords and bows, and fortifications had to be rebuilt to stand a chance in a siege.

From Wikipedia: “The Dardanelles Gun, cast in 1464 and based on the Orban bombard that was used for the Ottoman besiegers of Constantinople in 1453; British Royal Armouries collection.”

When the several hundred kilograms heavy cannon balls started pounding on the Theodosian walls in early April, they immediately started doing serious damage. However, this early heavy cannon required hours to reload and prepare, and the defenders managed to repair any breaches that were made between the shots, or at night. Although the defending army did not number more than 7000, its regular inhabitants, knowing this was a battle of survival, were also an indispensable support, supplying the soldiers at the walls and repairing any breaches made by the cannon balls. Several attempts to scale the walls with ladders were made by large numbers of Ottoman irregulars, but the Ottoman attackers were easily cut down. Unable to make any advances without a proper breach, Mehmed grew impatient after a few weeks of bombardment, and ordered miners to commence operations in order to weaken the walls from below. The following events could be a decent side-story to a filmization of the siege. The Ottoman sappers, though numerous, were inexperienced, and progress was slow. In Constantinople, moreover, there were experienced miners, and they started counter-mining operations. Spotting the Ottoman mine entrances from the walls, they managed to dig into their mines before they reached the walls, and subsequently sent soldiers in to kill the miners, burn the tunnel supports, or flush them with water. By late May, tenths of tunnels had been dug and destroyed, and Mehmed ordered the operations to stop. Nothing had been accomplished, apart from wearing out the defenders.

From Wikipedia: “The siege of Constantinople, contemporary 15th century French miniature”

That, however, was not a negligible victory. Although almost no one in Constantinople had been killed during the siege, not even during the scaling attempts, many had been wounded from missiles, and everyone were exhausted. Food supplies were low, and Constantine knew they could not sustain a siege forever. Spirits were therefore raised when a group of four western galleys were spotted in the Sea of Marmara on 20 April. It turned out to be the Imperial galley sent a while earlier to forage for supplies, now full of food, followed by three Genoan ships, filled with well-armed soldiers. The ships were sailing straight for the Golden Horn, the wind blowing them faster than the Ottoman ships could pursue them. Suddenly, though, the wind changed direction, and the three ships were stuck, unable to move. The armada of Ottoman ships encircled them, and started attacking. The much more experienced Imperial and Genoese soldiers, however, managed to push back every wave of Ottomans trying to board them, and set fire to the enemy ships with the famous inflammable mixture “Greek fire”. But with every repulsed Ottoman ship, several new ones were ready to replace it. Finally the wind started blowing in the right direction again, and the three ships managed to wrestle themselves out of the myriad of enemy ships, and barely slipped into the safety behind the chain of the Golden Horn. Mehmed was understandably furious that his comparably huge fleet had not managed to stop even one of the three ships from penetrating his blockade and reaching the city, and exiled his top admiral. Many of the western soldiers had been injured, but few had been killed, and the city received a much-needed supply of men, weapons and food.

This, however, was one of the last good news to reach Constantine. Even with the new contingent, his defence could do little more than wait for a real relieving fleet from the west. Mehmed, too, was growing impatient, and especially of his fruitless efforts to enter the Golden Horn. The chain stretched over the strait was too strong to break by ramming, and Constantinople was therefore able to freely communicate with Pera, the Genoese colony on the other side of the bay, to which the other end of the chain was fastened. Although Pera was officially neutral in the conflict, it was in their interest that Constantinople should be the victor in the conflict, and both information and supplies flowed between the two cities. As long as the communication was done in relative secrecy, Mehmed was reluctant to attack the city directly, as that might provoke the Genoese to answer much more strongly militarily than they had until now. By late April, he therefore launched a new plan to get into the Golden Horn (and the careful Hollywood director would include that the idea quite possibly came from an Italian, and not a Muslim). On April 22, the few men on the sea walls facing the Golden Horn witnessed a truly fearful sight: in a show of pure and raw strength, thousands of Ottomans were pulling the better part of the Ottoman armada, tenths of huge ships, down the ridge towards the bay, one by one. The soldiers of Constantinople could do nothing but watch as the Ottomans set their ships back on water, this time on the inside of the bay, and suddenly the entire sea wall was in danger. Although the Greek and Italian ships in the bay managed to avoid battle and hide near the boom, where they were better covered from the walls, Giustiniani, the Genoese commander of the defence, now had to distribute soldiers from other parts of the city to defend this long sea wall as well. A small fleet was assembled from Constantinople as a response to the Ottoman move, aiming for a surprise attack on the remaining Ottoman ships in the Sea of Marmora. However, the usual resentment between the Venetians and Genoese, and between both of them and the Greeks, led to demands for postponement from the Genoese, and the secret was eventually leaked to the Ottomans, probably through the Genoese in Pera. The Ottomans were prepared when the expedition finally came, and it was a disaster: ships were lost, men were killed, morale in Constantinople dropped, and the resentment and bickering among the Italians soared. Both Constantine and Giustiniani had to intervene to ask the leaders of the respective camps to uphold a modicum of cooperation, for the sake of the effective defence of the city.

But the worst news was yet to reach them. On 23 May, a ship was sighted in the Sea of Marmara. The Ottoman ships tried to stop it, but it narrowly escaped through the chain into the Golden Horn, docked, and its captain was received directly by the Emperor. Everyone in Constantinople were full of hope that this was the first ship in a relieving fleet from Italy, arriving at the last minute to save them. Constantine quickly understood, however, that this was the same ship he had sent to search for such a party well over a month earlier. The ship had travelled to the Dardanelles and searched for any signs of an incoming fleet, but had found none. (A Venetian fleet was on its way and would have reached them a while later, but it arrived too late.) When they understood their expedition had been in vain, the crew of 12 had almost unanimously decided it was their duty to return to Constantinople and inform of this. This essentially amounted to reporting to the Emperor that his city was doomed, and their decision to return, as pointed out by the only member of the crew that was against it, more or less sealed their own fates as well. According to witness accounts, the Emperor wept at the news.

Whether the city was now truly beyond rescue is a matter of dispute among historians, though from surviving accounts it appears that this was a generally held belief. In either case, there does not appear to have been much defeatism in the city, despite the circumstances. Although Mehmed suggested terms of surrender, allowing free passage out of the city to the citizens if they were to hand their city over, few people were in favour of such a solution. After two months of fighting and destruction, they did not want to give it up just like that. Either way, few seem to have had much faith in Mehmed’s promises, although such promises were traditionally upheld by Muslim conquerors. The offer was declined, and Constantine continued to do everything in his power to strengthen his defences.

By late May, although the defenders were fatigued and their defences weakened, not much actual progress had been made by the Ottomans. The Golden Horn was in their hands, but they were hardly any closer of getting into the actual city. Mehmed knew he could not keep up the siege forever, and started planning the final offensive. The siege cannons aimed concentrated fire on the places of the Theodosian walls that were considered especially weak, and after a while of continuous fire, on May 29 the army was sent into the breaches. The first waves were irregular Anatolian Muslims and some Balkan Christians, and their lack of experience and weapons made them an easy match for the defending Imperial soldiers. The numeric superiority of the Ottomans made little difference in the small breaches, and wave after wave was thrown back at every point. Giustiniani was everywhere, redistributing soldiers to where they were most needed and keeping up morale. The emperor himself also inspected the defence in full armour, at times participating directly in the fighting. Finally the attacks dried up, and the Imperial soldiers could pull back to their posts, while the breaches were quickly patched up. But the soldiers were exhausted. Not only had they been starving and set to laborious reparations on the wall every night for weeks, but they had been fighting an exhausting hand-to-hand fight for four hours. And just then, when they thought they could take a rest, Mehmed sent in his trump card.

From the 2007 film 300. As in the breaches of the walls of Constantinople, the valley of Thermopylae took away the advantage of superior numbers of the attackers.

The Janissaries were the Sultan’s elite force. Taken from their Christian parents in occupied lands when they were young, they were brought up to be loyal Muslim soldiers since childhood, and their discipline and fighting skills were of an altogether different sort than that of the Anatolian irregulars (a fact which would make for yet another subtle reference to Christian peoples’ superiority in a Hollywood filmization, but this time with racial undertones). The thousands of Janissaries were now sent towards the walls, moving orderly and surely forward, in contrast to the earlier irregular attackers. Holding them back proved difficult for the exhausted imperial soldiers, and the fighting at every breach was fierce. The Ottomans even sent forward a large wooden siege tower, which managed to set some men on the walls, but was successfully destroyed by the defenders.

From Wikipedia: “Siege of Constantinople as depicted between 1453 and 1475.”

Exactly what went wrong where is not known for certain. Some accounts tell of a small, forgotten gate by the harbour that was left unlocked, and through which a small force of Ottomans managed to get in. Perhaps the defenders at some part of the wall were simply overcome by the sheer force of the Janissaries. Whatever happened, the accounts seem to agree on that the next catastrophic event, coming at a crucial point in the battle, finally and decidedly sealed the fate of the city. Giustiniani, who had been running untiringly up and down the walls all day, cheering up the defenders where he could and reinforcing were necessary, was hit by a stray crossbow bolt (for Ottoman bolts tended to be stray bolts, as opposed to their well-aimed Christian counterparts). It was a serious wound, eventually mortal, and he fell down. Perhaps the morale of his soldiers might still have been rescued had he stayed on the walls, but the tired and exhausted man, knowing he was dying, asked to be carried off the battlefield, and ferried to safety. His commands were obeyed, and he escaped in a Genoese boat to the Genoese island of Chios, to die a few days later. The news of their commander’s fate, however, quickly spread among the troops, and the defence collapsed. Suddenly Ottoman Janissaries and irregulars were pouring through and over the outer walls of the city, and when the retreating Imperial soldiers forgot to lock the gates of the inner walls after them, Ottoman soldiers finally flowed into the Imperial capital. They slashed down the fleeing Imperial soldiers, and any other human beings they saw for that matter; men, women and children. Looting of the city began even before the defenders had been properly crushed; Mehmed had promised every soldier a fair share of whatever was looted, and every soldier was eager to get their hands on as much as possible.

Watching the havoc, Emperor Constantine probably understood the consequences of what he saw better than anyone. Having prepared and maintained the defence of the city for months, he had known for a long time, with more and more certainty, that this was the more than likely outcome. Yet he had not escaped as his predecessors had, he had not surrendered as many other cities had. He had been steadfast as a rock, as his name implied, and had made no compromises. He would make none now either, to the very last. He ripped his royal ornaments off his armour, and as a normal soldier threw himself into the battle, as a final, defiant act against the flow of history. He was killed as an anonymous soldier, his body never identified; and when he fell, on 29 May 1453, he fell together with the thousand year old capital, whose name he shared; he fell together with the 1500 year old Roman Empire; he fell together with 2200 years of Roman identity; he fell together with the definite hegemony of Christianity in the Balkans and Anatolia; and in many ways with the entire Ancient world of Europe.

With the fall of the emperor, our storyline is more or less at its end. The camera can move upwards, showing from above the total and indiscriminate brutality of the plundering Muslims, killing women and children, desecrating churches, and burning the houses they have emptied of treasures. If the film had a narrator, perhaps the director can have him escape on one of the Ottoman ships left unguarded when the greedy Muslim sailors wanted to take part in the sack; and show their relative easy escape as most of the Ottoman fleet were preoccupied with looting rather than stopping fleeing Christians. He can then safely ignore the part where Mehmed sent Janissary soldiers to defend specific churches and towns within the walls who had surrendered to him, from looting; when he stopped the looting after a day, instead of letting it last for the traditional three days; and then proceeded with giving asylum to the surviving Christians in the city (only a fraction were killed in the siege and subsequent looting), and left many of their churches to their own disposal. He then made Constantinople his empire’s capital, rebuilt it with new universities to which he invited both eastern and western scholars who would preserve knowledge of the classical world until modernity, and made it yet again one of the most magnificent cities in the world; incorporated the old Imperial administration into his Ottoman administration, reformed the Ottoman bureaucracy, let the Orthodox church continue its functions; and in general turned out to be quite a tolerable emperor to live under, even for the Christians; certainly preferable to most of the following Ottoman emperors, who would be less forgiving to their Christian subjects. Constantinople in fact received lighter treatment than most other cities that resisted Ottoman forces, and there is reason to believe that Mehmed would have held his promises had Constantine surrendered his city.

But a film maker can pick and choose, and for the siege of Constantinople there is much to pick from. The above narrative only includes the main events of the siege, and all of those also have several versions. The fall of the great city came as a shock to Europe, and was a scarring event for all the surviving participants. As a result, a large number of memoirs, letters and other texts from Italians who managed to return home, or Greeks who managed to escape to safety in Europe, have survived until today, narrating the story in considerable detail. The exact manner of Constantine’s fall, for instance, is not known for certain (and it is for me unclear exactly who lived to tell of his final heroic act); but his body was probably never found, much to the aggravation of Mehmed, and it is completely possible (perhaps even likely) that the story is true. Moreover, Muslim accounts of the siege are much more sparse. Without better sources of information, many such stories remain in the “official” history of the siege, as told by even modern history books, and it would be completely legitimate to present them as true in a film.

As has been noted already, the story is a strong one not just for its dramatic content and huge scale (though Christian deaths were comparably small, perhaps 4000, Ottomans deaths, although unknown, were undoubtedly much larger), but also for its lasting impact and consequences, visible even today. Greek and Italian scholars escaping to Europe are said to have fuelled to the Renaissance. Although the Islamisation of Anatolia and the Balkans had started much earlier, and would arguably not have been slowed down even if Constantinople had been successfully defended, the final fall of the Roman Empire decidedly marked the end of western hegemony in the area. The Christian states of the Balkans and Eastern Europe would fall under Ottoman rule one by one in the following decades, and Christian Europe would have a constant threat from the east to worry about for centuries to come. Greek communities, surviving from the days of Aleksander the Great or even earlier, would live on for many more centuries; but they were gradually more and more repressed, until the early 20th century, when an increasingly nationalist Ottoman empire organized the Greek genocide, putting perhaps a million Greeks to death. Almost the entire remainder of people with Greek heritage in the Ottoman empire (who were until then still largely living in Greek villages speaking Greek with other Greeks) were traded off for Muslims living in Greece in 1923, in one of the largest forced migrations in human history. The conflicts between Muslims and Christians in the Balkans, that continues to this day, are also a direct consequence of the influx of Muslim settlers, especially after the fall of Constantinople.

A more visible and less violent artefact of the battle, is the Hagia Sophia. Built in in the 6th century and one of the greatest accomplishments of Christian architecture, Mehmed II did not have it demolished as a centre of infidel worship. Instead, he had it turned into a mosque, further improving the structure, and it has been maintained until today, from 1931 as a museum.

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Once a Catholic cathedral, Orthodox cathedral and Muslim mosque, it is today a secular museum.

This summary of the Siege of Constantinople is based on the books Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization (2009) by Lars Brownworth and The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (1965) by Steven Runciman, and various Wikipedia articles (mainly http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_constantinople).