Essential Versatility

Question: Do you find essay writing more fun than novel writing?

Crosley:  They both have their restrictions. The grass is always non-fiction or fiction, fictional on the other side. They do present different challenges but I think that essay writing is certainly more feasible if you’re trying to hold down a sort of alternate life, not to suggest that there are superhuman powers in writing, but if you use the sort of phone booth analogy for Superman going into the booth after work and becoming somebody different. It’s much easier to write essays and therefore, to stop and start and be able to put it away, whereas novel writing I think would be a little bit more difficult to have to constantly enter into the same world every day. It would be like going to the gym every day, which I would never do and don’t understand people who do, to commit themselves to this alternate reality every day seems just as strenuous on the mind as it would be on the body.

Question: What are you working on?

Crosley:  I actually just started working on a novel. When I say “just started” what I have to show for it looks like I just started, but I’d been thinking about it for awhile. It’s hopefully more ambitious than my first crack at it. The first novel was basically a very, very dark comedy about a couple in rural New Hampshire and it traces the progression of their relationship, form getting together to breaking up. Now I look at it and it screams please, make me Lori Moore, Part Deux and it just didn’t work. It’s not good, is the commonly-used term. But more than that, I think that even if there are parts that are salvageable, I just think it’s too narrow, it’s too small and quiet and I don’t know what’s informing that. I don’t know if it’s working with books that are so ambitious and successful in their ambitions and so just wonderful and international and just really in-depth; or it’s just that I got sick of the constraints of one New Hampshire town. I can’t tell if it’s the writing part or the publicist part that’s making me sick of it. The next one or the really first one will be significantly more expansive in both time period and locations.

Question: What’s a funny story from your magazine days?

Crosley:  There’s a couple different kinds of things I’ve been lucky enough to experiment with, or the world has allowed me to experiment with. One would be the celebrity interview, which is sort of fascinating to me. The first celebrity I ever “interviewed” was Sarah Silverman over email for Black Book and she signed all her emails with lots of x’s and o’s which really threw me. I thought she was supposed to be sort of the queen of snark and darkness and you just get the sense from her that that’s not a role that she’s playing, that that’s who she really is. I don’t know. I guess I’ve been with about 1/18th the sort of significance or popularity victim of the same kind of thing, where people tend to think this essay is too soft, this essay is too hard, you have too much edge, you’re too mean, you’re too nice. So I guess it’s all one person and Sarah Silverman, the world should know, signs her emails xoxo. But then the first in-person one I did was Maxim Magazine sent me to LA to interview the women of One Tree Hill, which is a show on the CW and I explained to them that I had never read Maxim or seen the show or interviewed anyone ever before. That apparently made me supremely qualified for this task, so I went out and they all were a lot smarter and nicer than I wanted them to be, because I had read my fair share of celebrity interviews and it just seemed easy enough to poke fun at Jessica Simpson or what have you. Because it was for Maxim, what really distilled at the end of the day was pillow fights and karaoke, but what’s not in that piece is that, it was just after Hurricane Katrina, and there was one of the women who had, I guess she became an actress, she grew up in Louisiana and she interned for the former governor and she sort of went off on this fairly interesting tirade about how everyone was blaming FEMA and FEMA is a terrible force especially at that time; but that way before this, people were living in plastic huts they’d buy from the Home Depot and they’d hook up a power cable to it and they’d call that home and the state of Louisiana wasn’t doing anything about it. So it was just weird that the state was blaming the government for sweeping away something that they weren’t taking care of to begin with. It was just so fascinating and I had totally lost sight of the interview. She’s lucky that it wasn’t for a more significant magazine that was remotely interested in anything but her breasts because she then popped up with “So I don’t see why these people are so upset, all these hurricane victims. I don’t understand what they’re so upset about.” I thought oh, we have lost contact. That’s the end of it. I try not to do those too much because I personally don’t get a lot out of them. They’re fun because it’s neat. That person was just on my television screen and now I’m talking to them and that’s still a novelty for me, but it’s not great. Any other kind of journalism I’ve done has been generally sort of book reviews or as part of a stunt journalism piece that’s really sort of an essay with quotes.

From writing essays and novels to interviewing Sarah Jessica Parker, Crosley knows publishing.

Scientists reactivate cells from 28,000-year-old woolly mammoth

"I was so moved when I saw the cells stir," said 90-year-old study co-author Akira Iritani. "I'd been hoping for this for 20 years."

Yamagata et al.
Surprising Science
  • The team managed to stimulate nucleus-like structures to perform some biological processes, but not cell division.
  • Unless better technology and DNA samples emerge in the future, it's unlikely that scientists will be able to clone a woolly mammoth.
  • Still, studying the DNA of woolly mammoths provides valuable insights into the genetic adaptations that allowed them to survive in unique environments.
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Five Hawks Down: watch the tragic migration of six Californian raptors

Tracking project establishes northern Argentina is wintering ground of Swainson's hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons / Ruland Kolen
  • Watch these six dots move across the map and be moved yourself: this is a story about coming of age, discovery, hardship, death and survival.
  • Each dot is a tag attached to the talon of a Swainson's Hawk. We follow them on their very first migration, from northern California all the way down to Argentina.
  • After one year, only one is still alive.

Discovered: destination Argentina

Image: @TrackingTalons

Young Swainson's hawks were found to migrate to northern Argentina

The Buteo swainsoni is a slim, graceful hawk that nests from the Great Plains all the way to northern California.

It feeds mainly on insects, but will also prey on rodents, snakes and birds when raising their young. These learn to fly about 45 days after hatching but may remain with their parents until fall migration, building up flying skills and fat reserves.

A common sight in summer over the Prairies and the West, Swainson's hawks disappear every autumn. While it was assumed they migrated south, it was long unclear precisely where they went.

A group of researchers that has been studying raptors in northern California for over 40 years has now established exactly where young Swainson's hawks go in winter. The story of their odyssey, summarized in a 30-second clip (scroll down), is both amazing and shocking.

Harnessing the hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

A Swainson's hawk, with tracking device.

The team harnessed six Swainson's hawks in July, as they were six weeks old and just learning to fly. The clip covers 14 months, until next August – so basically, the first year of flight.

Each harness contains a solar-powered tracker and weighs 20 grams, which represents just 3% of the bird's body weight. To minimize the burden, only females were harnessed: as with most raptors, Swainson's hawk females generally are bigger than males.

The first shock occurs just one month (or about 2.4 seconds) from the start of the clip: the first dot disappears. The first casualty. A fledgling no more than two months old, who never made it further than 20 miles from its nest.

By that time, the remaining five are well on their way, clustering around the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. Swainson's hawks usually travel at around 40 mph (65 km/h) but can almost double that speed when they're stooping (i.e. dive down, especially when attacking prey).

'Migration unrest'

First year of life for six Swainson's Hawks [OC] from r/dataisbeautiful

There's a strong genetic component to migration. As usual, the Germans have nice single word to summarize this complex concept: Zugunruhe ('tsook-n-roowa'), literally: 'migration unrest' (1). It denotes the seasonal urge of migratory animals – especially birds – to get on their way. Zugunruhe exhibits especially as restless behavior around nightfall. The number of nights on which it occurs is apparently higher if the distance to be traveled is longer.

The birds may have the urge to go south, but genetics doesn't tell them the exact route. They have to find that out by trial and error. Hence the circling about by the specimens in this clip: they're getting a sense of where to find food and which direction to go. Their migratory paths will be refined by experience – if they're lucky enough to survive that long.

Each bird flies solo: their paths often strongly diverge, and if they seem to meet up occasionally, that's just an illusion: even when the dots are close together, they can still be dozens if not hundreds of miles apart.

Panama snack stop

Image: @TrackingTalons

The Central American isthmus is a major bird migration corridor

They generally follow the same route as it is the path of least resistance: follow mountain ranges, stay over land. Like most raptors, Swainson's hawks migration paths are land-based: not just so they can roost at night, but mainly to benefit from the thermals and updrafts to keep them aloft. That reduces the need to flap wings, and thus their energy spend – even though the trip will take longer that way.

As this clip demonstrates, the land-migration imperative means the Central American isthmus is a hotspot for bird migration. Indeed, Panama and Costa Rica are favorite destinations for bird watchers, when the season's right. A bit to the north, Veracruz in Mexico is another bird migration hotspot.

It's thought most hawks don't eat at all on migration. This clip shows an exception to that rule: on the way back, one bird takes an extended stopover of a couple of weeks in Panama, probably spending its time there foraging for food.

So, when they finally arrive in northern Argentina, after 6 to 8 weeks' migration, the hawks are pretty famished. Until a few decades ago, they fed on locusts. For their own reasons, local farmers have been getting rid of those. The hawks now concentrate on grasshoppers, and basically anything else that's edible.

For first-time visitors, finding what they need is not easy. Three of the five dots go dark. These birds probably died from starvation. But two birds thrive: they roam the region until winter rears its head in South America, and it's time to head back north again, where summer is getting under way.

Both dots make it back across the border, but unfortunately, right at the end of the clip, one of the surviving two birds expires.

Harsh, but not unusual

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

This old lady is 27 years old, but still nesting.

While a one-in-six survival rate may seem alarmingly harsh, it's not that unusual. First-year mortality for Swainson's Hawks is between 50% and 80%. Disease, starvation, predators and power lines – to name just a few common causes of death - take out a big number.

Only 10% to 15% of the young 'uns make it past their third or fourth year into adulthood, but from then on, annual survival rates are much better: around 90%. Adult Swainson's Hawks can expect to live into their low teens. There's one documented example of a female Swainson's Hawk in the wild who was at least 27 years old (and still nesting!)

The Californian population of Swainson's Hawks plummeted by about 90% at the end of last century but is now again increasing well. The monitoring project that produced this clip has been going for about four decades but is seeing its funding dry up. Check them out and consider supporting them (see details below).

Image: Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Migration trajectory of B95, the 'Moonbird'.

Not all migrating birds shun the ocean. Here's an incredible map of an incredible migration path that's even longer than that of the Swainson's hawks.

In February 1995, a red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in Tierra del Fuego (southern Argentina) was banded with the tag B95. That particular bird, likely born in 1993, was recaptured at least three times and resighted as recently as May 2014, in the Canadian Arctic.

B95 is more commonly known as 'Moonbird', because the length of its annual migration (app. 20,000 miles; 32,000 km) combined with its extreme longevity (if still alive, it's 25-26 years old now) means its total lifetime flight exceeds the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

As many other shorebirds do, the red knot takes the Atlantic Flyway hugging the coastline and crossing to South America via the ocean.

B95 has become the poster bird of conservationists in both North and South America. A book titled Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (2012) received numerous awards, B95 has a statue in Mispillion Harbor on Delaware Bay and the City of Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego has proclaimed B95 its natural ambassador.

Perhaps one day the nameless Swainson's Hawks in this clip, fallen in service of their ancestral instincts – against the odds of human increasing interference – will receive a similar honor.

Migration clip found here at the DataIsBeautiful subreddit. Read through the comments to learn a lot more about Swainson's Hawks, and raptors in general.

Check out the California raptor tracking programme 'Tracking Talons' on Twitter at @TrackingTalons, on their Facebook page, and on their website.

Strange Maps #965

Got a strange map? Let me know at

(1) 'Zug' is a wonderfully polyvalent German word. It can mean: a train, a chess move, a characteristic, a stroke, a draft (of a plan), a gulp (of air), a drag (from a cigarette), a swig (from a bottle), and more.

Trusting your instincts is lazy: Poker pro Liv Boeree on Big Think Edge

International poker champion Liv Boeree teaches decision-making for Big Think Edge.

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