The forgotten ones

The WSJ recently did a story on the unusual island called “Rockall”. It included a great picture, which captures the romance of lonely isolated islands. Go to the link and enjoy the photograph.

But there’s a problem with the WSJ story, no mention of the tragic history of Rockall:

On 22 June 1904 Norge left Copenhagen under the command of Captain Valdemar Johannes Gundel. After taking on Norwegian immigrants at Oslo and Kristiansand, the ship set course across the Atlantic Ocean, travelling north of Scotland to New York City. She was carrying a crew of 68 and 727 passengers. Among the steerage passengers, there were 296 Norwegians, 236 Russians, 79 Danes, 68 Swedes, and 15 Finns. Half of the steerage passengers had prepaid tickets, paid for by relatives living in the United States.[6]

On 28 June, Norge ran aground on Hasselwood RockHelen’s Reef, close to Rockall, in foggy weather. She was reversed off the rock after a few minutes, but the collision had ripped holes in the ship’s hull, and water began pouring into the hold. The crew of the Norge began lowering the lifeboats, but the first two lowered were destroyed by waves. Only five boats were successfully launched out of the eight on board. Many passengers jumped overboard, only to drown. The Norge sank twelve minutes after the collision. Captain Gundal stayed with the ship as it sank, but managed to swim to one of the lifeboats.

According to author Per Kristian Sebak’s comprehensive account, more than 635 people died during the sinking, among them 225 Norwegians. The first survivors to be rescued, a group of 26, were found by the Grimsby trawler Sylvia. 32 more were picked up by the British steamer Cervonax, and 70, including Captain Gundal, by the German steamer Energie. Some of the 160 survivors spent up to eight days in open lifeboats before rescue. Several more people lost their lives in the days that followed rescue, as a result of their exposure to the elements and swallowing salt water. Among the survivors was the poet Herman Wildenvey . . 

It was the biggest civilian maritime disaster in the Atlantic Ocean until the sinking of Titanic eight years later, 


This story makes me sad. Imagine the WSJ doing a story about the specific iceberg that hit the Titanic, without even mentioning the Titanic.  Yes, the Titanic disaster was worse (1500 lives lost), but the difference wasn’t great enough to explain the disparity.  And who’s ever heard of the Doña Paz?  When that Philippine boat sank in 1987, 4386 souls lost their lives.  So it’s partly numbers and partly glamour.  Leonardo DiCaprio was not on board the Doña Paz.  Teenage girls still weep over the fate of the Titanic victims, but no one cares about those poor Norwegians who tried to cross over on a crappy boat.  Or the 852 (mostly Swedish and Estonian) passengers who died when the Estonia sank in 1994.

Countries are sort of like that.  China has slightly more people than India, and perhaps triple the GDP.  But the American government is 100 times more obsessed with China than India.  That’s how people’s minds work—they fixate on the number one example in any given category—and that distorts thinking. 

While Germany is the biggest economy in Europe, it’s actually not that much bigger that 3 other economies.  But because it’s the biggest, people wildly exaggerate its importance.  They seem to think Germany could rescue Europe with fiscal stimulus, or pay off the debts of the poorer European countries.  That’s crazy, but it comes from the single-minded focus on the top example in a category.

Speaking of China, Rockall was grabbed by the UK in 1955, at a time that no one else seemed interested.  China grabbed some tiny uninhabited islands in the South China Sea (note the name of the sea) at a time when nobody seemed to care about them.  Now Ireland is upset about Britain’s claim:

Though it doesn’t claim the rock as Irish, Dublin has never recognized British sovereignty, saying nobody should own the remote island.

I totally agree with Ireland.  Nobody should own an island this beautiful.

PS.  This post seems aimless, without purpose.  No one cares about a bunch of Nordics who would have settled in Wisconsin and Minnesota if they had lived.  People who would have voted for highly progressive policies in the 20th century and for Trump in the 21st century. 

So how can I get anyone to link to this post?  How about cute birds?  People love cute birds.  But Wikipedia suggests there is little animal life on Rockall:

The island’s only permanent macro-organism inhabitants are common periwinkles and other marine molluscs. Small numbers of seabirds, mainly fulmarsnorthern gannetsblack-legged kittiwakes, and common guillemots, use the rock for resting in summer, and gannets and guillemots occasionally breed successfully if the summer is calm with no storm waves washing over the rock. In total there have been just over twenty species of seabird and six other animal species observed (including the aforementioned molluscs) on or near the islet.

Guillemots?  That’s not enough.  But I don’t give up easily, and eventually hit gold with a Daily Mail article:

Nick was never much of a birdwatcher before coming to Rockall, but now that his principal companions are feathered, he is enjoying observing them. 

Kittiwakes, shearwaters, pigeons, puffins and guillemots fly past the rock, and gannets nest there.


PPS: Ball’s pyramid is also a cool island:

PS. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.



22 Responses to “The forgotten ones”

  1. Gravatar of am am
    24. December 2019 at 15:40

    Rockall and the 12 mile limit is about fish (and chips).

  2. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    24. December 2019 at 16:20

    That’s a jolting story about the Dona Paz.

  3. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    24. December 2019 at 17:42


    Nice post and Merry Christmas.

    One of my goals in life is to visit all of the most isolated and least populated (but not uninhabited) islands on the planet.

  4. Gravatar of Cove77 Cove77
    25. December 2019 at 00:01

  5. Gravatar of bill bill
    25. December 2019 at 00:31

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you too!

  6. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    25. December 2019 at 07:17

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (or as my oldest daughter says on her card “Happy Everything”).

    Scott——I really enjoy your writing, even though my paranoia (my belief is there is a really very fine line between paranoia and deep intuition. :-)) says you don’t much enjoy mine!

    Re: this article. You were doing quite well until you went off track with DiCaprio, China, India, Germany, and American obsessions etc. The essay was quite excellent and it did make me want to look up more accidents at sea—-we did not need your scolding.

    And yes, the juxtaposition of beautiful photographs with the story of tragedy was quite——maybe not brilliant (not the right word) —-but wonderfully human.

    I guess you can be paranoid and insightful too.

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. December 2019 at 08:51

    Thanks everyone. Happy Holidays!

  8. Gravatar of LC LC
    25. December 2019 at 11:34

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

  9. Gravatar of myang myang
    26. December 2019 at 06:56

    Happy Holidays Scott! I started following your blog a year ago and do appreciate your focus on basic methodologies on discussing economic/global issues. Although I spent a few years as a quant I think it is by reading you blogs I realized most “street talkings” are useless.

  10. Gravatar of Derrick Derrick
    26. December 2019 at 11:26

    As a Minnesotan I don’t approve of that P.S. Also, we voted for Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Primary. Also also, we need more snow shovelers and could use all the bodies we can get. Happy new year.

  11. Gravatar of Njnnja Njnnja
    26. December 2019 at 14:21

    Maybe Taleb is no longer right about people’s attitudes towards Extremestan. 100 years ago (and 50 years ago) people’s brains still thought as though we were on the savanna, with Gaussian distributions everywhere (even when they weren’t).

    But maybe humans have already (over-?) adapted to a power-law world, where the biggest really would be the only thing of concern. Is there anybody who comparison-shops more than 2 mobile phone OSs?

  12. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    26. December 2019 at 17:14

    “Leonardo DiCaprio was not on board the Doña Paz. Teenage girls still weep over the fate of the Titanic victims, but no one cares about those poor Norwegians who tried to cross over on a crappy boat.”

    Much the same way middle aged bloggers swoon at the beauty of rocks that stick out (50 whopping feet – gee, Earth doesn’t have many of these, eh) like Rockall “Island,” while no one cares about a frumpy rock that just reaches the surface, like Hasselwood Rock, even though it was the sinister Hasselwood and not Rockall that took out not only the Norge but the Helen (hence “Helen’s Reef”) some 80 years earlier.

    You’d think if anyone would notice the less photogenic but far more willful Hasselwood, it would be a blogger particularly disposed to the “we’ve had 80 years to learn our lesson about this rock, now all it takes is a little fog and we’re hitting it again” theme.

  13. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    26. December 2019 at 18:31

    OT, but who knows?

    “NEW YORK, Dec 26 (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve bought $825 million of agency mortgage-backed securities in the week from Dec. 19 to Dec. 24, compared with $1.806 billion purchased the previous week, the New York Federal Reserve Bank said on Thursday.

    In a move to help the housing market begun in October 2011, the U.S. central bank has been using funds from principal payments on the agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities, or MBS, it holds to reinvest in agency MBS.

    The New York Fed said on its website the Fed sold no mortgage securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae FNMA.OB, Freddie Mac FMCC.OB or the Government National Mortgage Association, or Ginnie Mae.”


    I wonder if anyone understands the Fed, or the macroeconomy, or monetary policy. I guess the Fed is “rolling over” on the hoard of mortgage debt it acquired back in the Great Recession.

    The Fed is also active in the “repo market.”

    My take is these actions add money into globalized capital markets, in which money is fungible commodity.

    Interesting question: In free markets, if someone can get 10% (annal rate) for lending money overnight, should not free markets answer the need? That is, capital would flow towards the 10% yield until it was eventually beaten down to a (risk-adjusted) global norm?

    Time to put on the tin-foil hat and think deeply….

  14. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    26. December 2019 at 18:38

    Add on:

    The Fed has added $376 billion to its balance sheet since September. My understanding is that the Fed has added additional sums to money markets through off-balance sheet transactions, but that is blurry. Temporary triple-reverse repos and whatnot.

    Money gnomes say that by yearend the Fed will have added $500 billion to its reported balance sheet.

    So…if we we believe QE is effective, then do we see a US economic boom next year? A triumphant Trump return to the White House?

    Or since capital markets are globalized, does an addition of $500 billion in cash to $400 trillion in global money markets amount to small potatoes?

  15. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    26. December 2019 at 20:07

    Ben Cole, my intro to micro professor made fun of macroeconomists. But if macroeconomics was simply jibber jabber why would macroeconomists inhabit such important positions in our society??

    I think macroeconomics is hard because of all the variables. So I was just banned from a macro blog on my first post because I posted a quote from a paper from Obama Council of Economic Advisers from December 2013 in which every prediction was embarrassingly wrong:

    Failing to extend UI benefits would put a dent in job-seekers’ incomes, reducing demand and costing 240,000 jobs in 2014.

    Estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and JP Morgan suggest that without an extension of EUC GDP will be .2 to .4 percentage points lower.

    In 2011, CBO found that aid to the unemployed is among the policies with “the largest effects on output and employment per dollar of budgetary cost”

    In over a dozen studies, economists have found that any disincentive to find new work that could result from extended UI benefits is, at most, small

    Expiration of extended UI benefits may also lead some long-term unemployed to stop looking for work and leave the labor force, reducing the number who could eventually find jobs as the economy heals

  16. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. December 2019 at 20:46

    anon, I knew about Hasselwood, but consider it a part of the Rockall archipelago.

  17. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    26. December 2019 at 21:20

    Ben Cole, in Krugman’s most recent column he posits “why didn’t we recover faster?”. His answer is “austerity”…even though his fellow left of center economists were proven wrong in 2014. So another reason macroeconomics is viewed negatively is because of the insidious influence of partisan politics in the macro field. We know the “stimulus” was too big and lasted too long in light of fracking being proven economical in 2009 and saving us (and eventually the world) from our energy crisis. And had fracking not been proven economical no amount of stimulus would have worked because the first law of thermodynamics unfortunately takes precedence over macroeconomic theories.

  18. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    27. December 2019 at 09:07

    Great post. Hope you had a great Christmas. I’ma try to be more charitable in 2020. Thanks for everything you’ve taught me and others over the past decade.

  19. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    30. December 2019 at 11:25

    Ball’s Pyramid is so odd looking! I’d love to see that up close. I recall learning about it about a decade ago. There’s a particular stick insect that lives there and I think is unique to the island.

  20. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    30. December 2019 at 11:48

    You know what’s even sadder that Rockall? Hasselwood Rock. Rockall gets all the glory, but it was Hasselwood Rock that actually ripped the hole in the hull of the Norge.

  21. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    30. December 2019 at 11:50

    … I see anon already covered my point about Hasselwood Rock, Lol.

  22. Gravatar of Thaomas Thaomas
    5. January 2020 at 09:36

    Germany is big enough to get the ECB to move to a PL + real GDP target or at least a NGDP target.

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