As I suppose is true for most people, I have a mental image of what I look like. It’s not an overly exaggerated picture – in it I am neither handsome, nor ugly; just sort of average – but it serves me well enough. I use it all the time. I use it to imagine what I might do in various hypothetical ‘real-world’ situations, and to imagine myself in a future life based on decisions made in such hypothetical ‘real-worlds’. In my head, I look more or less as I appear, so I guess, to others. Yet here’s the snag with it, while I may have looked that way to the outside world in the past, in truth, this is no longer how I actually look. To be sure, there are traces of this imagined me, but it always hits a bit of a pothole whenever I have to look in a mirror. For the me in my head is roughly how I looked when I was twenty-three, and not how I look at my current age of [however old you think I am].
There is no real problem with this, we are seldom completely what we imagine ourselves to be, after all. Indeed, we are seldom completely what others imagine us to be, either. There is, however, always a twinge of disappointment whenever I have to brush my teeth – or perform some other mirror related task – and discover afresh how I really look; but disappointments are rarely fatal. What I normally do when presented with the cold truth of my face, is update the mental self image long enough to perform the task, and then forget it again once I’ve finished. In general, I also avoid having my photo taken, except when absolutely necessary, since I prefer not to reflect on my visible decline, and pictures of my true appearance make the ‘forgetting’ strategy hard to pull off. (For this reason, I’ve never been able to get fully onboard with the culture of ‘selfies’, which is most definitely a game best suited to the unreasonably young. Although, I do wonder what will happen for the ‘self-meez’ – as I like to call them – when they eventually have to confront the detailed evidence that documents their own descent into maturity? Probably they are well adjusted, and it won’t present them with any significant difficulties at all.)
I do have another strategy for managing unwanted disappointments about my deteriorating physical appearance. It involves a moderate amount of quasi-meditation; which is a useful technique for low-level cognitive reprogramming. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but suffice it to say, that it involves the deployment of various mantras while in a semi-relaxed state. I find the best time is when I’m trying to get to sleep at night, so I do it instead of counting sheep; sheep being the most sleep inducing of farmyard animals. The end goal is simply to replace the idea that my decay represents a tragic loss of youth, and substitute it with the notion that it is more the accumulation and physical manifestation of ‘character’. I have met with limited success, but I’m developing an ancillary programming technique to reframe failure as achievement, so it should all work out in the end.
Obviously, developing any system of ‘cognitive realignment’ requires some research. I’ve had to cover a lot of different areas, but the one I find most interesting at present is that which relates to entropy. On the face of it, entropy seems a relatively simple idea, until you look at the definitions provided by Dictionary.com, then it appears more nuanced and complicated. But, if I understand it correctly – and I probably don’t – it describes a process by which ordered systems become disordered over time. It variously deals with things like the loss of necessary information or energy that a system needs to maintain its integrity or cohesion. For example, whatever else humans might be, they are at some level a complex biological system. Over time – and for reasons you’ll have to ask a real scientist about – the information or energy necessary to maintain it degrades. The slow process of degradation is the organism’s rate of entropy. Eventually, it will degrade a point of maximum entropy – where it is no longer maintained as a system – which we call being ‘dead’. (We can, of course, meet ‘maximum entropy’ by other means, but I feel this discussion is taking a rather darker turn than I expected, so I’m just going to side step that.)
As I said, I’m not convinced that I understand entropy correctly, but because I want to, I trawled the internet to see whether or not I could find the work of someone who does. And there are probably a lot of people who have a good working knowledge of it, but I got stuck on the first one I came across. I found her fascinating, and so I completely forgot about my initial research task and began researching her instead. Her name? It was Gwen Freedmind. Who was she? Well, I’m glad you asked, because as far as I can tell, she was awesome.
Gwen appears to have been an impossibly intelligent individual. If it weren’t a blatant anachronism, I’d be tempted to call her a ‘Renaissance Woman’. (The reason I am reluctant to employ anachronism in this instance, is because during the actual renaissance woman had a very different status. Among other things, they were treated as property, and were generally tools for cementing political alliances between powerful men, conduits through which inheritances could flow, and ‘baby-machines’. Just as I’m no scientist, I’m also not really an historian, so I won’t have all the nuance here. Nevertheless, I still remain reticent to invent a label that might obscure the general patriarchal shittyness of that historical epoch. It would rather be like focusing on the fact that Hitler loved his dogs, and forgetting all that really evil stuff he did. But I digress.) Gwen didn’t just know a little about a lot, she knew a lot about everything. This, no doubt, made her very intimidating.
As far as I can tell, Gwen was much like one of those experts trotted out in television shows, the kind that got their Ph.Ds whilst still an early teen, and is the main character’s ‘go-to’ for solving really tricky problems. Like her fictional counterparts, she also seems to have gained many degrees at an early age, and those in almost every subject that one can acquire a qualification in. A true and gifted polymath, there was no problem social or scientific that she couldn’t turn her mind to and get results. But her true intellectual passion seems always to have been the study of entropy. This is how she described the origins of her interest in an interview, recorded at the height of her career:
As a young child, my family liked to go on vacations to remote wilderness locations. Mostly, this was my father’s idea, he’d always fancied himself a frustrated outdoorsman, but his life had never really afforded him the opportunity to do it full-time. In truth, he was terrible at it, but this never stopped him trying, and he developed training exercises to help hone his bushcraft while on holiday.
We’d all have to participate, which annoyed my mother and brother, but I quite liked it. My favorites always involved long treks through forests. I don’t know if you’ve ever done much forest walking, but there is an amazing contrast between the living vegetation and the dead. Just the smell of it fascinated me, life growing with death at its feet. I suppose that’s when I first started thinking about the nature of life in the midst of decay. Yes, I think that’s where an interest in entropy began for me: in the thoughts of a six-year old girl on family holidays.
Gwen’s formal pursuit of ‘things-entropic’ began with research into anti-aging creams. “It’s not necessarily the most logical place to start,” she had confessed in a letter to one of her university colleagues, “but I’ve managed to secure an outlandish sum of money to fund it from a large cosmetics cartel.” The results of this research were groundbreaking; at least, they would have been if the cartel hadn’t immediately covered it up. Gwen had started with the hypothesis that all creams of the anti-aging variety were designed to perform at least one of three functions – with the really expensive products attempting to enact different combinations of the three. The following excerpt from her research proposal – which was submitted to the cartel’s research and development office – sketches the hypothesis, and outlines a justification for the research:
Research Proposal: Ambitions to Eternal Youth: a study on the properties of beauty products, with a view to their improvement.
Executive summary of hypothesis and research justification:
A review of the research into anti-aging creams reveals that their efficacy is poorly understood by both end users, and the departments whose task is to market them. This study proposes to investigate the ‘what’, ‘how’, and ‘why’ of ‘cream-efficacy’, and proceeds from an initial ‘three-tier-what-hypothesis’:
1) Anti-aging creams slow the rate of entropy for human organisms.
2) Anti-aging creams arrest the rate of entropy for human organisms.
3) Anti-aging creams reverse the rate of entropy for human organisms.
Understanding the ‘three-whats’ represents the first phase of research, and includes an investigation of the ‘what-interaction’. From this initial investigation, a ‘how-hypotheses’ can be generated for a second phase, which in turn should generate a ‘why-hypothesis’ for the final phase.
It is our contention that all phases of the research should facilitate both better understanding of anti-aging creams, and provide data by which they can be improved. We further believe that this research can be justified under the [REDACTED] Cartel Charter’s 4.4.6-8A ‘Boatloads-Of-Money’ clause.
Not too much is known about the detailed results of Gwen’s research on anti-aging creams, largely as a result of the cartel’s coverup. Hours of dredging the internet only furnished me with the information that the research had been terminated at the end of the first phase. Based on different written sources, produced by Gwen later in her life, I have been able to piece together a partial picture of what those results might have been, but you’ll need to bear in mind that this is only my best guess based on anecdotal evidence.
What the research apparently uncovered, was that nothing about the ‘three-tier-hypothesis’ turned out to be correct; not even just a little. Gwen was a true scientist, so she seems to have embraced this negative result with unbounded enthusiasm. Among the findings I could fit together, was the fact that the use of anti-aging creams produced only a ‘marginal-masking-effect’; which meant that they did not slow, arrest, or reverse the rate of entropy, but only partially concealed it. Gwen seems to have concluded that the acceptance of a user’s youthful appearance had more to do with what she called a ‘cultural-myopic-dissociation’, than with any fully effective chemically engineered process. While she found that result interesting, more fascinating to her was something she called ‘marginal-entropy-acceleration’.
Marginal-entropy-acceleration was one of those completely unanticipated discoveries, the kind that most scientists hope they’ll make if they can’t make the one they’re actually trying for. What Gwen found, when she compared results with the control group, is that those who had been using an anti-aging cream, and then stopped (for the purposes of the study), showed signs of being slightly older in appearance than they should have if the cream really worked, or if they had used no cream at all. This was astounding: there was nothing ‘anti’ about the creams at all. In fact, they did the reverse of what they were supposed to.
Gwen’s movements are easier to track after the termination of the ‘cream research’. In exchange for developing lucrative intellectual properties, she took up a research position at one of the many universities she had graduated from. (The university had wanted her to do some teaching, but she refused, and threatened to take her remarkable talent somewhere else. They would have to take lucrative intellectual property, or nothing. They took the property.)
The focus of the university research was specifically on entropy-acceleration; not to reverse it, but to control its speed. While Gwen met with some success, it became clear to her that there might be a natural barrier to how fast one can make entropy go. Although her equations told her that, in theory, it could be accelerated almost to the the speed of light as the absolute limit, in practice she couldn’t get it to go much faster than the speed of a small motorcycle (that’s not the scientific term, that’s just the analogy she used to make the concept intelligible to laypeople for a documentary). She called this ‘practical limit’ the ‘Natural-Inertia-Threshold’. Having named it, she made it her intellectual mission to destroy the natural threshold by artificial means.
When the breakthrough finally came, it didn’t happen in the lab, but at the house of Gwen’s brother. At that time, her brother only had two children (the exact number he ended up with is unknown), both of whom were still very small. Gwen, her brother, and his wife were all trying to enjoy some adult conversation over a cup of coffee. Small children being what they are, adults having a good time was not really something they concerned themselves with. They were loud, kinetic, distracting, and – of course – adorable. After the fifty-seventh round of “Daddy, look at me”, Gwen began to notice something about her brother: she noticed that he looked much older than her, and he was in fact the slightly younger (by twelve minutes, they were fraternal twins). She also noticed that her sister in law displayed similar signs of premature degeneration. And then she noticed the crucial piece of evidence: the room they were sitting in, which had been spotlessly clean and tidy when she had first sat down, now looked as though several hurricanes and a small circus had passed through it. “By Einstein’s moustache,” she is reported to have said (I think it unlikely she said this, myself), “children are natural entropy machines – machines, moreover, that obliterate the Natural-Inertia-Threshold.”
Whatever Gwen really said at that moment, it is clear that she did believe that children were natural entropy machines, and she set about finding out where other such natural machines might be found. Now she knew what she was looking for, she found them everywhere. Apart from children, there were various kinds of pet, birthday cake, and obscenely rich people; to name just a few examples. Once she had collected enough data, she began work on designing her own entropy machine. Once she’d done that, she began calculations on how much it was going to cost to build: it was going to cost a lot.
It took a good couple of years for her to find the funding. She’d applied for every grant and approached every funding agency she could think of, all to no avail. She even went into discussions with the military, who’d expressed some interest, but only if Gwen could change the ‘machine’ part to ‘bomb’ (they were really more in the market for a bomb at that time). At last, and in a twist that was something like irony, but actually more like coincidence, she secured money from an obscenely rich anonymous benefactor.
Development monies secured, Gwen assembled a team of the most gifted engineers and scientists she could find. Her benefactor had a state-of-the-art facility built on an island, which Gwen thought needlessly cautious, but since it wasn’t her money, he could do what he liked.
Finally, the day came when construction on the entropy machine would begin, and Gwen, the team of scientists, engineers, and their support staff, all moved out to island facility. And that is the last that was ever heard of Gwen Freedmind. Seriously, after that, no references to her at all; she just completely disappears. I can’t even tell you if the machine was built. What I can tell you, is that the island is now a stop for several reasonably priced tourist boat tours, where visitors view the island’s mysterious ruins, and also have lunch. Occasionally there are references to tourists reporting that they’ve seen strange things in the ruins. Some say, “there is the ghost of an old woman there;” others say, “Bullshit, that’s an actual old woman.” Still others say, “I hope they serve lunch soon, I’m really hungry.”