Saturday, 19 January 2008

An Open-Source Monster

Dr. Monsanto has been a family friend since before I was born. He is quite short, and has a hunch-back that my mother forbade me ever to mention, has thick black hair that sprouts from his head like a fatal dandelion, and wears thick-lensed rose-tinted glasses. When I was very young I was scared of him, which he found amusing; he still tells stories to this day of me running off to hide when he came to visit, and how my mother had to coax me to come out of the hall-cupboard with slices of fresh steak. As I grew up, he became more familiar because he was so often a visitor, and now, as I wait out the summer holiday before University starts, he's just someone I know.

He's also incredibly clever, well-off enough that he can afford first-class aeroplane travel, and had offered me a summer job working in his laboratory in Switzerland. I jumped at the chance, especially when the first-class flight ticket was mentioned, fancying that I would be doing a couple of hours a day in the lab, then off skiing and in the evenings impressing the local Fraeuleins and Milchmaedels.

Instead, it's 10pm, dark outside, and we're still in the lab. There's me, Dr. Monsanto, and Igora, Dr. Monsanto's tall, utterly gorgeous assistant. She smiled at me when I arrived and I dropped my suitcase, which burst open, dumping my slightly tatty boxer shorts at her feet, and my best sweater in a puddle of something on the lab floor. While the sweater dissolved, Igora picked my boxers up, handed them to me, and winked. "Not your pulling pants, then," she said, and I stood to attention. Much to my embarrassment.

Dr. Monsanto believes in Open Source he tells me; he doesn't use things that come with copyright agreements, and makes his research publically available to anyone who wants to use it. There's a kind of license involved that means that anyone using his research has to credit him, and must make their research that is based on his free too, which seems fair to me.

But I'm a little concerned, when we're not working. Dr. Monsanto is building a kind of robot that utilises human tissues, a cyborg I think. He gets a bit vague when I press him for details, and tells me to ask Igora. Only when I go and talk to Igora, I kind of forget how to speak, and end up just drooling until she suggests I go and do something useful. But the tissues are all treated using some process that Dr. Monsanto has invented, that rids them of copyright issues. And I don't understand how a tissue can be copyrighted like that.

There also seems to be less and less metal involved with the cyborg each day, and more and more tissue. I laughingly said to Dr. Monsanto this morning that if it carried on this way we'd have built our very own Frankenstein's monster, and Igora looked at me and said gravely, "Dr. Frankenstein was way ahead of his time." This shocked me so much that I think I saw her properly for the very first time when I stared at her, and I realised that she has a circular scar that seems to run round her forehead.

Then later, I noticed that she had a line of stitching running down the back of her neck. Almost like a seam.

And that's when I started to wonder, and so last night, before I went to bed, I went to google first. It took me a while to figure out what I was searching for, but finally I came across a book scan of a 17th century text about constructing homunculi, and discovered that if you're building it piecemeal, you can't use baptised or consecrated flesh.

I woke up in the middle of the night, soaked in sweat, having realised that baptising or consecrating flesh might be conveniently described as affirming the copyright of some creator agency over it.

I'm starting to wonder just what my CV is going to look like at the end of this summer...

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