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Chapter 04

One of the reasons my family moved to the northeast was the belief, relatively common in the west among intellectuals, that things were very established and civilized out here.  And there are many associations that go along with that. 

Massachusetts is a very Democratic state, for example.  Civilized thus equals Liberal.  There are lots of famous, old, established colleges and universities out here.  We think of Massachusetts as largely agnostic.  People are highly educated out here, a larger proportion of people with college diplomas and advanced degrees than any other state.  There’s a lot of high-tech employment.  So we think of people here as logical. 

But places and people have their own organic relationships that are difficult to understand while you are on the outside, or on a job interview, or looking for an apartment or a job.  Once you are there for a while, you can see how things actually work, and it is never what you would think.  There are many different factions of Democrats in the state, and they are so different from one another that they might as well be called something else entirely.  And many of them are very conservative, socially speaking, of course.  Indeed, they are driven by a much more religious population, predominantly Catholic and Orthodox, than outsiders would recognize.  And, of all people, I should have realized that one’s level of education bears little relationship to whether one thinks logically or not. 


But you never really realize these things just looking at a society from the outside.  You never really get it until it is way too late. 


I didn’t tell my family anything about my first assignment searching for foundations.  I didn’t because I thought it was a fluke, in a weird sort of way.  I knew, of course, that the people who were interested in getting help finding external funding from foundations were, by and large, people who didn’t think terribly rationally about their own work, or even the ways in which society is constructed.  I had some experience with this at previous institutions.  Faculty that I met with often saw foundation funding as a last resort, and they were right about that.  It was, for them.  So that meeting was not a fluke and, indeed from a more detached perspective was much like most of the meetings I had had at other universities in which I had worked. 


I had thought, though, that the weirdness of the project itself was unrepeatable.  In this, I was wrong.  And it didn’t take long to begin to sense some sort of connection between these meetings, something intangible that if I could just sit back and think about the whole thing would pop right out, become obvious. 


The next morning I returned to my office and found another message already waiting for me.  A faculty member from the History Department apparently had called looking for me because he had requested travel funding for research and his department chair required him to check with our office first.  I wasn’t in any hurry to return that one.  First of all, it was bound to be a very tiny grant, which the Exec would frown upon.  Second, there would be very few options he didn’t already know about.  Third, and maybe the most important reason of all, I didn’t really like historians.  There have been some exceptions to the rule, of course.  I had some very good friends in graduate school who were, like me, studying history. 


But generally speaking they are tedious people. 

Instead, I spent some time looking into weird little family foundations for Lisa.  I was pretty curious about what I could churn up, and I also needed to know what the local foundation environment was like.  I examined the giving histories of some of the local foundations, and then I began the tedious process of searching for strange key-words in our database.  I expected it to be a long, drawn-out process, and I was certainly right about that.  I had eliminated some combinations as being too close to the meanings of more common, mundane words, and I was beginning to look through a thesaurus to brainstorm some more exotic words when the phone rang, startling me.


The call was from a professor in the Biology Department.  And I thought briefly about telling him what I told Lisa, that scientific research is always a difficult thing to find foundation money for, but I decided that I didn’t really care, so long as I got out of the office for a little while.  After all, I still needed to learn my way around campus.  And I definitely needed to get away from the database work for a little while.  I looked at my watch while I talked to him and was a little surprised to find that it was already almost



This biologist researched aquaculture techniques, which interested me considerably.  I have always had a soft spot in my heart for water, being from the west, where there is so little of it.  So I agreed to meet with him early in the afternoon. 


The Exec was holding forth at a table where the staff usually had lunch, and I just couldn’t see anyway to have a pleasant time, or even a pleasant conversation, while having to fake a smile, or act like I was listening.   So I acted like I had an errand to run and got my lunch out of the refrigerator and walked about a quarter of a mile to a long, narrow park bounded by a boulevard on one side and the canal on the other.  Across the canal, on the other side, there is a larger green space, where people often practice their golf swing or sometimes kick a soccer ball around or even fly model airplanes.  Today, though, there were no people there.  Instead, the entire field seemed to be carpeted with starlings.  For a minute or two I tried to think of how I might estimate their number, but I was a little to far away to even guess.  Had to be thousands, though. 


When I first sat down they were picking aimlessly at the grass, which had just been watered.  But I was about half-way done with my sandwich when suddenly they took flight.  All of them at once. 

I don’t recall seeing starlings in the west, and I’m not sure any live there, but I never really paid much attention to the birds where I grew up anyway.  Their behavior seemed strange, though.  I’ve seen geese fly in formation, and I’ve seen lots of birds travel in flocks, but these were by far the most organized birds I have ever witnessed.  They took off toward the south, then suddenly, and as a single unit, they turned southeast.  Then after traveling fifty or so yards they climbed rapidly in elevation and then turned again due east.  Then suddenly they dropped and turned the opposite direction.  And the whole time they were completely silent and were undulating slowly.  What I mean is that the birds looked as if they composed a huge black flag that was billowing in a breeze. 


While I was watching this strange dance a young woman and her toddler ambled up to where I was sitting, clearly just going for a stroll on the walkway between the bench and the canal.  I looked at the child, a boy, about the same age as mine, and motioned my head so that he could see that I was looking at the birds doing a strange dance.


“Paff,” he exclaimed.  And as I usually do, I acted like I understood what he was saying and replied “you’re probably right.”  And I smiled at the two of them.


When I looked back across the canal the strange flock had disappeared. 


I tried to enjoy the sunshine a little, snoozing just a bit after I had finished my lunch.  I didn’t want to get back to the office too early or people would ask where I had been.  It was nice just having some quiet time, some time to not think about anything at all.


It seemed like it would be quicker to walk to the biology building than to drive to the nearest parking lot and walk from there, so I set out as soon as I got back from lunch.  And in retrospect it probably was quicker, but it didn’t seem so.  Clouds had come in just as I finished lunch and the wind had picked up considerably, too.  It seemed twenty or thirty degrees colder than when I was eating, although I often get cold after eating.  I walked quickly to warm up and was a little early, Ned Kolbe was not in his office when I arrived. 


It was a strange sort of biology department, I noticed while I waited and looked at the faculty directory.  There were maybe twenty microbiologists and a then a whole wing of the building where faculty specialized in genomics and bioinformatics.  And then there was Ned, the only one studying anything larger than the head of a pin, who apparently studied crustaceans or possibly fish (these were the only types of aquaculture I knew about at the time) in industrial quantities.  And his office was at the opposite end of the building from any of the others, too.


“Hey!” someone shouted excitedly from the entrance to the building.  I looked over and saw a short young man with wildly curly sun-bleached reddish blonde hair wearing soccer shorts and a gray kangaroo sweatshirt.  He was the only person I could even remember seeing here who sported a tan that looked healthy.  His white teeth shone at me as he smiled like a lunatic.  “You came!”


I nodded and smiled a little.  I couldn’t help it, there was something infectious about the smile he had on his face.


“Man, what a day,” he said as he came up to me.  He peeled off the sweatshirt to reveal a green and yellow Hawaiian shirt and what looked to be a necklace made of puka shells with a crucifix dangling from it.  He was sweating a little, I think.


“That’s some perfect soccer weather out there, man,” he said, “’sept for the wind’s picking up a little now.”  He sniffed and motioned me to follow him into a door at the end of the hall.  “You’re gonna want to lose the jacket.”


I was still a little chilly, but saw what he meant as I went through the door and was hit with moist, warm air. “Has to be warm, cause if it gets too cool, the water condenses everywhere.”


I saw that the door was reinforced with Styrofoam like a refrigerator, as were the walls.  There was a huge tank in the center of the room, but I couldn’t tell what was in it because it was covered and not made of glass.  It was more like an above-ground pool.  I looked back at Ned and saw that he was taking off his shoes and trading them for flip-flops.  “You can take off your shirt if you want, man.”


Already I was feeling a little warmer.  And maybe a little more comfortable, too.  I knew a lot of people kind-of like Ned when I lived in California.  None of them were biologists, though.  Most were surfers and stoners.  Ned made me recall the comparatively carefree days of my youth.  Not a lot of my days were carefree, but the ones that included people like Ned typically were.


“You gotta check this out,” he called as he scuttled across to the other side of the room.  The floor was a little damp, so I had to watch my step as I followed him.  I saw that the room we had entered had more than one pool, and Ned was walking towards the largest of four pools, making squeaking, squishing sounds.  He stopped before a tank that was so talk that it had what looked to be a twelve-foot  ladder leaning on one side.  There were several tubes running out of the top of the tank and into humming machines or into the wall.  And several cables also exited the tank and connected to computers sitting nearby on rolling carts.


“You like calamari?” he asked and gestured that I should climb the ladder.  It was impossible not to like this guy and do whatever he wanted.  He almost wiggled like a puppy.  He must enjoy his work immensely.  I smiled and checked the ladder’s stability.  I also made sure that the rungs weren’t slippery and, seeing that they were covered with some very abrasive material, ascended.  When I looked down into the tank I couldn’t see anything that looked like a living creature.  A plastic cover prevented me from seeing most of the tank and there wasn’t anything visible in the small section uncovered.  The water level, I noticed, was at least three or four feet below the top of the tank.  I looked back at Ned and he grabbed a stick with a handle on one end and a pointy end, like something you’d use to pick up garbage in a park.  He held it in the middle and reached into a bucket, pulled out a dead fish with one hand and slapped it against the pointy end of the stick.  Then he handed it up to me. 


I took it by the handle, getting the idea, and put it down into the water.  I waited for at least thirty seconds, just long enough to think that nothing was going to happen, and then suddenly something under the water grabbed the stick and tried to wrench it out of my hand. I almost lost it too.  But even though I wasn’t paying attention I let my hand go with it sort of instinctively until I was able to tighten my grip.


Whatever was on the other end of the stick had by then also tightened its grip, and we wrestled over the stick for a few seconds until it suddenly let go, and I almost fell back off the ladder.


“Isn’t that cool?” Ned asked as I climbed back down the ladder to safety.


“I don’t know, I didn’t really get a chance to see it,” I said. 


“Oh, you can see it all you want on these monitors, Man.  I got the whole tank wired with wicked-sharp video.  I sent you up so you could feel it.”  He gestured to a bank of monitors and flipped a switch and I could see on one of them a squid of some sort.


“How big is it?”


“Big enough to do this, dude.”  He showed me that the end of the stick that I had stuck into the tank was missing not only the bait but a considerable amount of wood, which had been scraped off by something. 

“It did that with its mouth?”


“No, Man.  It’s got these teeth things on its suckers, and they just rake stuff.  It’s awesome.”


“I see what you mean,” I said.  Ned then launched into an energetic explanation of the Humboldt squid.  The one in the tank he had brought from San Diego and had raised it from a baby.  Humboldts lived only a couple of years, four at most, and he was looking now for a breeding pair, since he had stabilized the tank enough to be pretty sure he could raise them in captivity.  He raved about their heartiness, compared to other types of squid, and about squids in general for several minutes.


“If you took all of the animals in the world and weighed ‘em, most of the weight would be squid.  There are so many species we never get a chance to study in the wild, and they have mostly been kinda hard to keep in tanks, up until pretty recently.  This other researcher and I have been collaborating because we want to grow us a colossal squid in captivity, before anyone else is able to film them in the wild, but we haven’t found any yet.  This one we though might have been a colossal, but he turned out to be a pretty common Humboldt.  But that’s O.K., because I’m learning a lot about squid behavior anyway.”


“Their behavior?”


“Yeah.  These guys are wicked-smart.  They’ve got a nervous system much more complicated than ours.  They control ten arms, for one.  And they don’t have any bones.  Bones would make the processing much faster and easier.  And on top of that they constantly navigate three dimensions instead of mostly two like we do.  They’ve got huge eyes that see really well in the dark, and they also can communicate by making patterns on their skin and through their ink.”



“What do you mean ‘they communicate through their ink?’” I asked.

“They actually make patterns. This one dude who studies them noticed that the ink made patterns that looked suspiciously like squids.” He grabbed a rubber-band like thing and his hair and was putting it into a pony tail while he talked. “He was thinking that they made it look like squids making, you know, like gestures?”


“And so he sent some pics to me, ‘cause I’d started to look at their body language a little. And sure enough,” he said as he rifled through a stack of papers on his desk, “they do look like squids.”

He got up and went to a filing cabinet and looked through it. Then a bookshelf, until he found what he was looking for.

“But give a Rorschach test to any squid researcher and he’s gonna come out like eighty percent of the time with the answer ‘squid.’”

“Well, they’re pretty loveable, I guess.”

“Yeah, that’s so.”

He pulled a picture out of an envelope and showed it to me. It looked like a brownish-black squid, sort of, or a dragon, or maybe a castle, possibly a depiction I saw in a book once of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

“But there’s some other stuff going on there, something almost fractal, something that doesn’t at all look like the ink is following natural currents set up by the tentacles. It’s weird, dude.” His face split into a huge grin. He then shook his head and his ponytail flopped around behind him. “Weird. So I got myself some of these high-resolution cameras so I could take a closer look.”

He motioned me closer to a couple of large computer monitors and started fiddling with a keyboard. “And there’s this dynamic element to the whole thing that nobody seems to have noticed before.”


“Yeah, the designs form and then turn into other designs and then turn into other designs. It’s trippy. Check it out.”

On one of the monitors was a still picture of squid tentacles and a dark shape. Then Ned clicked the computer mouse and the tentacles moved slightly to the left and the dark shape changed a little. This went on until the tentacles were completely out of the frame.

“That was Steve,” he said and pointed to the left of the monitor. “But now that he’s gone, you see, the shapes start forming.”

The dark blob in the center of the picture grew appendages as he continued to click the mouse. And there was something weird about the movement, but I couldn’t place it.


“Oh, when he was little he just looked like a Steve. I don’t know,” he laughed.

The appendages then started to get complicated. And he was right about one thing, they didn’t seem to act the way they should in the water. If the squid, Steve, had just used his jet propulsion to move away the cloud of ink should have looked a little like it does in cartoons, or like it would if you squirted some ink into a bathtub, or perhaps like somebody blowing cigarette smoke in a windless room. The center of the cloud should move away from the jet and the outsides should whirl around it. If you looked really closely at the pictures you could see some of this motion. But other motions seemed to predominate.

Ned stopped clicking for a second and then said “lemme show you a close-up of this one,” and fiddled with the keyboard for a minute.

A red box appeared on the screen, outlining part of the dark patch, and he moved it with the cursor to an outlying portion of the cloud. Then he hit the keyboard again and the contents of the red box filled the screen.

“See?” he asked.

The cloud was slightly more translucent in the blown-up portion, but the shapes could still be seen clearly enough. And they were really strange shapes.

“They look like symbols of some sort. Not exactly pictographic characters,” I said, “but maybe a little more stylized and complicated. You don’t really think they mean anything, do you?”

“I don’t know, man. They remind me of those symbols used by the members of Led Zeppelin on their albums. Zoso, you know? But they look like they mean something. And watch what happens when we go forward a little.”

He hit the mouse button a few more times and the symbol, or the squiggle, or whatever, morphed into another one that also looked painted, intentional. And with the magnification up as high as it was the illusion was even more complete. There was no way to tell what had caused the movement in the first place—the movement of a cephalopodic mollusk.

“They communicate a bunch of things with their ink,” he said, ticking them off on his fingers. “They say stay away.”

“How does this say that?”

“Oh, sorry, they also secrete a chemical that irritates the eyes of potential predators. In fact that might be the primary reason they started doing the inking thing. Then some of them eventually evolved the ability to color it with melanin. Eventually the melanin became associated in the minds of predators with the stinging, irritated eyes, so it served as a pretty good warning. When these suckers are nearby you don’t want to blink a lot, ‘cause they’ll tear you to shreds if you’re not paying attention. Anyway, they also communicate, we’re pretty sure, with chemicals like L-dopa. That stuff is in their ink and they have L-dopa receptors, too. But we don’t really know what they are communicating with that stuff.”

“And then there are these little symbols.”

“Yeah, only again, we’re sort of lost, there. I’m building up a database of symbols right now. These computers over here,” he pointed his thumb to the other side of the room, behind him, “try to perform a routine like optical character recognition. Only they do it with these things when I identify them as ‘characters.’ Then I’ve got this neural network set up to crunch on that. Gradually it should learn to identify symbols/characters that repeat. If we can get enough data we should be able to crack the code.”

He walked over to the other set of computers. “I’ve got about five thousand of them in there right now. And they all look different, to me, at least. I’ve got an assistant working on this project, too, and he gets a couple of hundred a day, maybe more.”

“That’s a lot of gazing at ink-blots.”

“I know,” he said, making it sound almost like a laugh. “I know, and then we still don’t know whether this looks different in the actual ocean, although we think it does. And we don’t know if this stuff is coordinated with the designs that appear on their skin. And then there’s the fact that this whole thing appears to be massively parallel.”

“Which means?”

“It’s all going on at the same time. At the same time that we are looking at this symbol here there are maybe fifty others appearing on the surface of the same cloud. And some of them are visible from this direction while others are visible from another direction maybe ninety degrees removed, and others from below. So it’s a lot to try to puzzle out.”

“What’s the point, though?” I asked, “I mean what do you think they have to say to us?”

He smiled again, only a little less broadly this time, and his hands finally made an unfamiliar journey to his sides. He shrugged his shoulders.

“These things are social. They hunt in packs, big packs of hundreds. And their talkin’ to each other. It’s cool. I’m a biologist? I don’t know. It’s what I do.”

“But where do I come in?”

“Oh, Man. I totally forgot. I heard you were from northern California. I just wanted to meet you.”

It was my turn to laugh, then. “I thought you were looking for funding.”

“Naw, I’ve got plenty of that. Buckets of it from people who want to make this aquaculture stuff work here, and from federal sources and that. Got money, there’s hardly anybody here from the west, though. Lots of cool people, but, you know, sometimes I miss my old stomping grounds.”

I knew what he meant. “So show me the other tanks.” I was thinking that I could take my time and the boss would think I was somehow helping this guy get even more funding. And it did feel a little like home, somehow.

I had always had aquariums when I was young. There was something peaceful and comforting about the constant gurgling of the water and the humming of the bubble machines and the filters. I liked the way the light was distorted by the water, too, although none of the tanks Ned had were like that. Most were opaque circular tubs with lids. He had shrimp in some and tilapia in others. Some had catfish and some had shellfish of different types. It smelled like San Francisco Bay a little.

Ned showed me the filtration systems. He tested a number of different types, doing elaborate cost-benefit analyses that attempted to account for environmental and social effects of producing and using them along with the monetary costs. And we just wandered around talking, too. He showed me how to feed some of the fish and other creatures and went around changing some filters and performing other tasks with the systems that weren’t as easy to understand.

“I’d never eat Steve. But most of these give me a constant supply of protein and Omega-3s. You ever want some fish you just let me know. Some of it goes to the shelter in town, but they don’t like anything too complicated.”

I thanked him for his hospitality and was about to leave when he stopped me. “Hey, I just remembered. I’ve got a friend in History here that came from Washington State. You’d like him, I think. You guys should get together,” he said.

I asked his name and he told me.

“I’ll definitely look him up. Do you know where his office is?”

He picked a campus map off the wall and showed it to me. He had drawn on it and there were corrections written on some of it, and exclamation points.

“It’s this building,” he pointed to a building in red on the map, “Go through the door facing the street, here, and then up the elevators. He’s right next to the Quillan rare books room, southwest corner. Don’t pay attention to any of the signs. And do look him up.”

I had every intention of meeting him. In fact, I decided to go there on my way back to the office. Ned’s friend was the historian who had left me a message that morning.

Take me to Chapter V 





1. Chapter IV is done « Sure as a Blog Returns to its Vomit - November 9, 2006

[…] I was at a sort of natural breaking point, so I didn’t write as many words as I wanted to write today (1816).  The second part of Chapter IV can be found by going to the word “continue” in bold about halfway through the page here.  […]

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