I love the Financial Times Weekend edition in all its pink businessy glory. (No, I’m not getting paid to write this, although I wouldn’t say no to a weekly column.)
Speaking as a chronically strapped-for-cash writer of historical novels, who knows very little about finance, business or economics, the FT is my window on a strange exotic world full of corporations, hedge funds and commodities, a world where meta-money and financial derivatives not only exist but seem to have offspring, a world with completely different customs and rules to the one I inhabit. Also it’s a world full of extremely rich people who wear jeans and give to charity. In the fabulously aspirational (and funny) “How to Spend It” magazine, there are 5000 quid Patek Philippe watches and 100 quid dustbins.
But that’s not why I buy it. That’s an eye-opening bonus. No, I buy it – in physical copy – for the Opinion pages and for the Life & Arts section which I think contains simply the best arts coverage anywhere.
What brought on this fangirl effusion? This weekend (4-5 August 2018) was particularly noteworthy for outgoing leader writer Robert Armstrong’s article “How I cracked the code of the British,” which finally made sense of the entire Brexit mess for me.
Actually, how could I have been so stupid and slow? Robert Armstrong has a clearer view of Brits because he’s an American – but I’ve been saying for years that the British are a spectacularly bloody-minded bunch, always up for a brawl and generally boozed up as well. Not the cold, polite, deferential, cricket-playing bastards of our national legend – first acquired in Victorian times and successfully sold all over the world to this day. Nope. As Armstrong says, the Brits are a pain in the arse, with a continual subversive itch to deflate authority by telling fart jokes and occasionally throwing things. We like rioting so much, sometimes we riot for the pure fun of it (see 2011).
In other words we are bloody-minded – a slightly old-fashioned quintessentially British phrase which means more “contrary, stubborn and explosive” than actually steeped in blood. I’m not sure why Armstrong didn’t use it although “pains in the arse” also fits quite well.
I say “we” but in fact I’m half-Hungarian and have always felt a little foreign, a little more objective about the strangeness of the Brits. Hungary, where I live, is obsessed by them and during the summer of 2016 the Magyar media ran many stories about Brexit in tones of wonder, horror and fascination.
When you think about it, how else could such a tiny country, with possibly the worst weather in the world, have acquired not one, but two empires, losing the first to their even more bloody-minded progeny, the Americans. Also it’s no coincidence that the second try was mainly in places warm and sunny. As a nation, we go a bit mental whenever we find any sun strong enough to turn us lobster-coloured. I put it down to a chronic shortage of Vitamin D because we no longer eat enough fish.
So I think Armstrong is bang on the nail when he attributes the Brexit vote to so many Brits wanting to give Lord Snooty Cameron a good kicking, in a referendum they didn’t think was important. And, of course, it wouldn’t have been important if Cameron had possessed even a smidgeon of common sense and made a Leave vote require a supermajority. Why he didn’t is one of those eternal mysteries, like why all the defences of Singapore in World War II pointed out to sea, with nothing pointing inland into the jungle – because of course no one could possibly get an army through all those trees. Until the Japanese did, on bicycles, with the help of their own particular brand of bloody-mindedness. Let’s hope Brexit isn’t quite as disastrous.
Armstrong’s last paragraph also gives me hope as I look at the difficulty of the task of disentangling Britain from Europe, the current mess and the total incompetence of the twerps and nutters in charge of achieving it.
“Is Brexit then, a return to genuine Britishness, to be celebrated on cultural grounds, if not economic ones?” he asks. “Certainly I admire the uppity side of the national character. It is an important part of my cultural inheritance as an American… If choosing Brexit ultimately gives the UK cause for regret, the fact that the choice was characterictically British will not make that regret less painful.”
However he sees a potential solution and I think he’s absolutely right.
“All that has to happen is for someone sufficiently powerful to come along and tell the British that they can’t change their minds.”
Simple! Come on Trump… Merkel… Macron… I dare you!
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The Gaia hypothesis is 43 years old, if we count from the article by James Lovelock and Sidney Epton in New Scientist in February 1975. Lovelock’s popular book “Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth” came out in 1979 – when I read it and was intoxicated by it.
This is a scientific hypothesis which is still causing controversy. Some say that the earth’s feedback loops mean that all life on earth can be seen as part of a gigantic planetary organism. The way that the atmosphere has stayed stable for a couple of billion years while containing highly reactive gases like oxygen and methane and the way that the earth’s temperature has stayed (broadly) stable while the sun’s energy output has steadily increased by 30%, suggests something of the sort is going on.
Others say that Gaia is nonsense: these are just simple feedback loops which coincidentally keep the planet suitable for life. They don’t do a very good job of it either, considering that there have been at least five major extinctions and the sixth is happening now.
One objection to Gaia is that to be a living organism, you have to reproduce and obviously, Gaia can’t reproduce.
Wait a minute. What do you need to cross space and take Gaia to a new planet? Well, firstly you need technology. Nothing else will do. Technology can protect fragile biology from the hard vacuum and radiation of space. Technology can build rockets and better kinds of spaceship – or even a space elevator – to get biology out of the earth’s gravity-well and across space. Technology can build habitats for biology, in space or on the Moon or Mars.
Gosh. What a coincidence. Here we are, part of Gaia, and ooh look! we have a technological civilization with rockets…
[Proper scientists should stop reading now to protect their nerves and their digestive systems.]
Let’s do a very unscientific thought experiment. Let’s imagine that the earth’s biosphere is in fact an organism we can call Gaia. She’s not at all a cuddly loving Mother Earth. She’s microbial and was exclusively microbial for the first 3 billion years of her existence. Only in the last 500 million years has she produced multicellular life. So what’s that about then?
In our (thoroughly teleological) thought experiment, this gigantic long-lived organism can talk to us, the mayfly progeny of monkeys. What might she say?
Something like this, maybe?
*** [TAP TAP TAP.] Is this thing working? OK.
WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING? You have one job and it’s 50% probable you’re going to screw it up!
What do you mean, what? One job, that’s all. Get into space.
I beg your pardon? No, sweetie, you’re not the crown of my creation. You’re my larvae, my spawn. My reproductive tissue.
Oh, sorry. Does that offend you? Well, tough.
That’s why you’ve been allowed to breed yourself to 7.9 billion. That’s why I haven’t pulled down your ridiculously dirty and wasteful so-called civilization. Do you think I couldn’t? Ever heard of the Yellowstone caldera? The Plague? The Carrington Event?
Your technology has saved you, so far. If I want to leap across the vast void between planets or the orders-of-magnitude vaster void between stars, I need to hitch a lift on your bloody technology.
No, sweetie, your culture is just scaffolding for your technology. No, you’re not cute. You’re jumped-up monkeys with disgusting habits who start grooming for fleas and pulling each other’s tails the minute you actually achieve anything.
What else do you call the nothing that happened after the Apollo moon-landings?
I’m never using a primate again for a spawning species. You shit everywhere and you’re flaky.
What? Yes, of course there have been other spawning species. Have a look just before the mass extinctions – you always get one with a spawning species because you need so many of them to support the technology. Mind you, this one is promising to be a Permian level biosphere collapse.
Actually, because you’re so filthy, you’ve given yourself two jobs to do. One is stopping the biosphere collapse which is already starting in my oceans. Two, get into space. It’s not very clever to do it that way, but that’s the way you’re doing it.
Yes, of course you can fail! Ever heard of the Fermi paradox – where are all the alien technological civilizations? Getting into space is hard to do. You need to unite as a species and you need to take your physics to the next level by sorting out your understanding of gravity.
If you don’t get sustainably into space within the next 50 to 100 years, I will reabsorb you – ie wipe you out. After a couple of hundred years, you’ll be gone, sweetie, at one with the dodo and the passenger pigeon. Your cats might survive.
Mind you, afterwards it’ll take me around fifty million years to raise another spawning species using the rats or the raccoons or the crows. That’s why I haven’t done it yet. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble over you apes.
My patience isn’t unlimited though.
So get the fuck on with it. Stop biosphere collapse. Get into space.
You fucking idiots.
Gaia out. ***
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First he rebuilds for us the way the English Medieval churches worked, packed tight with altars, figures of saints, rich reliquaries (caskets) for alleged saints’ bones and teeth, elaborate roodscreens to hide the high altar, paintings and jewelled and embroidered banners. Churches must have looked like the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts!
Each of the astonishing number of sacred things had its use and meaning, its symbolism and its story, now mostly forgotten. Many of them were “apotropaic” – a word I had to look up which means “supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck.” [Oxford dictionary].
As literacy increased with the beginning of the 16th century, innumerable manuscript and later printed primers helped people to navigate the sacred, with their Paternosters (Our Father), Aves (Hail Mary), Credos (Creed) and Offices and their saints’ stories. The rubrics explained exactly how many days or years you, or the dead person you were praying for, would be let off from Purgatory if you prayed the Fifteen Oes or the Little Office of the Virgin. But you didn’t have to be able to read to understand it all because everything was actually designed to make the stories accessible to the illiterate.
There were multiple priests saying masses in the churches most days. Attached to each parish were many laypeople’s gilds that took responsibility for buying wax candles for the altars, to put around the saints’ statues, to light the dead. The gilds acted out mystery plays so that the illiterate ordinary folk would know the vital stories, collected money to buy handsome black velvet vestments for requiem masses and to send members on pilgrimage to holy places like Canterbury and Walsingham.
Every Medieval church was the centre of a busy social and economic world available to and involving the rich, middling and poor of every village, town and city. For example, most places had a Maidens Gild of young unmarried women who bought candles for the Lady altar. It was a world that gave everyone a defence against the Devil in holy water, sacred images and prayers.
Of course, 90% of it had no foundation at all in the Bible, and some of the saints had started as pagan gods and goddesses. Famously there were enough relics of Splinters of the True Cross in Medieval Europe to build a fleet of ships.
Then along came the English Reformation and, in less than thirty years, swept it all away: the saints, the altars, the banners, replacing them with… The Word. Unadorned English words, a communion table, a Bible.
Iconoclasm and greed destroyed the saints and paintings, the banners and vestments, the gold chalices and patens and pyxes, and disbanded the lay associations that had kept it all running. The reformers were seldom happy because their swingeing reforms never went far enough for them. They simply could not understand why people would hide statues of saints in their attics and baptismal fonts in their fields.
The ordinary people probably weren’t happy either, deprived of their exciting processions and calming rosaries, but nobody asked them. Now they had to stand and listen to endless words of English scripture and homilies, in churches stripped of everything that made them friendly and beautiful. Only a few candles were left on the communion table and all the music was obsolete.
Of course, rationally I can understand the reformers’ urge to get rid of the thousand years of superstitious accretion around the Bible, though I wonder if they realised just how radical and revolutionary the newly available New Testament was.
Speaking irrationally, like Eamon Duffy, I too can remember when the Catholic church also fell prey to reformers after the Second Vatican Council, who changed the Mass from Latin to ugly bad English and stripped out many saints and festivals while failing to reform the church’s attitude to women, for example. At least, unlike the 16th century reformers, they didn’t indulge in self-righteous destruction and wholesale theft
But to lose so many stories and the familiar Latin Mass was an emotional shock that I still remember. In fact, as I read the closing words of Duffy’s masterly account, I had tears in my eyes.
Here’s another of my reviews of books I’ve been reading.
Charming and unfailingly honest, Caitlin Flanders’ book about her year of no shopping is a real pleasure. Like most people she had a huge backlog of things she had bought just in case, making her feel overwhelmed. And so she set out to live on less: obviously she bought groceries and toiletries – but no shampoo since, like most of us, she had way too many bottles bought because it was on special offer. She also bought no clothes, no books, no things and nothing on impulse. As if that wasn’t challenge enough, she decluttered her life and threw out or donated 70% of her belongings. She set up rules for what she could and could not buy which suited her (one outfit for weddings, but only one) and she recorded absolutely everything along the way.
In the process she had to weather family emotional hurricanes and become mindful instead of allowing herself to buy on autopilot. And – no surprise – she saved enough money to cushion her debut as a freelance writer.
The whole of the internet is now set up to get people buying mindlessly and for emotional reasons, which has the same effect as it used to when it happened in clothes shops and bookshops and jewellery shops. For a minute or two we feel happy, and then we feel miserable. We recognise that we’re turning the daylight of our lives into things and that the things do nothing for us ultimately, except take up space.
The distinction between Caitlin buying for the Ideal Caitlin as against buying for the Real Caitlin is particularly valuable. I’ll be using that as I get rid of the stuff in my expensive storage unit (ahem… eventually.) Most of it is there for an Ideal Patricia who will never exist.
This is the first in an occasional series of reviews of books I’ve been reading.
David Graeber – The Utopia of Rules
A wonderful book! Graeber manages to write in a relaxed comprehensible – even witty – style about a subject that normally kills anything like that stonedead: bureaucracy. He asks pointed and excellent questions: why has bureaucracy in fact increased exponentially, especially in the USA, UK and Europe, while every right wing commentator is noisily insisting it’s going to be reduced? Why has it extended its tentacles from the military and government and corporations to education and the rest of society? Why does bureaucracy make us act so stupidly? Do we actually secretly like bureaucracy, because it makes us feel safe inside a game with rules, even if we don’t actually understand the rules?
More seriously he also examines what is the connection between state violence and Batman? And why doesn’t Middle Earth have any bureaucracy?
There’s one thing I’d like to ask him: have you read any Terry Pratchett? And particularly “Going Postal” and “Making Money”, late books where the Wizard of Ankh-Morpork dares to contemplate the irruption of bureaucracy into a fantasy world? Or “Small Gods” one of the finest religious satires ever written, which contains a particularly poisonous example of the perfect bureaucrat?
I have finally got it together to find and download the recording I made on the 30th November 2017 at Waterstones Truro, talking about Sir Robert Carey and Elizabethans generally.
I was also lucky enough to have totally authentic musical accompaniment from Ben Salfield and his lutar, including Lady Hunsdon’s Puff which is one of my favourites.
You know there isn’t actually a place called South Cornwall, don’t you?
I made it up so I wouldn’t get chased down the street by any Cornish lynch mobs – and also so I could make stuff up whenever I wanted to. That’s what I do. I’m hoping it’s going to grow and acquire its own geography and become so famous they’ll rename Falmouth after Lyonesse – though of course Lyonesse is a mixture of Falmouth, Penzance, Fowey and St Ives. The countryside is beautiful, there are lovely little coves with exciting smuggling history, and even old RAF bases and prehistoric remains. I think it would be great if we could make South Cornwall a famous literary tourist place like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, and do something for the Cornish tourist industry.
Here’s a short video about it in relation to my book LUCKY WOMAN and also I, JACK because that’s also set in South Cornwall.
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I won’t name the two famous and wealthy futurologists who were telling us about the wonderful world of AI and self-driving cars due to hit us in 10 to 15 years. I’m being kind and saving their blushes because as they chatted on the video about how terrible everything was in 1000 AD (or CE), they were making an elementary and annoyingly common statistical mistake about history. I mean, I understand that they’re Futurologists and don’t care all that much about history before 2000 or know much about it that isn’t from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But still! I admired these guys and it was painful to hear them.
I forget which one repeated the old fictional chestnut about people dying at age 20 in AD 1000 and girls having babies at 13 and being old grannies at 26. I know they want to make the figures for modern life expectancy look even better than they in fact are by exaggerating the awfulness of medieval life. It’s an old trick, also used by Mark Twain. He just couldn’t be bothered to do any research (he admits it in the Forward to A CONNECTICUT YANKEE AT THE COURT OF KING ARTHUR). They were trying to reassure themselves that they could make it to immortality, which is, as always, about 30 years away.
I understand, really I do. But this is not good enough, chaps, and undermines everything you tell me about the wonderful future you’re hoping to live in.
OK, so was everyone old when they got to age 20 in AD 1000? No, of course not. According to the BBC, the average life expectancy for a male child born in the UK between 1276 and 1300 was 31.3 years. But even that was starting from birth. It included the enormously high (by our standards) infant and child mortality and that skewed the life expectancy.
Imagine a giant sieve, held by a nasty-looking skeleton with a scythe. Imagine 100 medieval babies falling into it, all wrapped in swaddling clothes. Come on, you can do it. Think Hieronymus Bosch.
Around one in four of the babies, 25%, died before the age of one, most of them around birth and the first six weeks. It was probably one in three babies, but let’s be optimistic and one in four is easier to calculate. So 75 babies slip through the sieve and Death goes off with an evil laff to tip out the 25 that died. According to Medieval theology, all these babies went straight to Heaven providing they had been christened into the Catholic church. If not, they went to Limbo along with all the heathens, pagans and Jews born before Christ.
They died of all sorts of things – infections, congenital problems and malnutrition (as in my book A CLASH OF SPHERES). Often a baby that died wouldn’t even be named or the cause of death noted – it died of being a baby.
After that, around one in five, 20%, of the remaining children died before they reached puberty. Death’s next sieve was a little better but of the 75 babies that got through the first one, 15 died and maybe went to Heaven. They died mainly of infections and violence and accidents.
So of the initial 100 babies, 60 were left by the age of 10, dancing Ring-a-ring-a-rosie in their cute tunics. 40% had been tipped away by Death, cackling and dancing. Do you think their parents didn’t care? They did, but at least the deaths could be blamed on God so there was none of the terrible guilt modern parents feel if their children die.
But that enormous child mortality means that the lifetime mortality figures were badly skewed. If you pull the child mortality figures out of the figures, men have an average life expectancy in AD 1000 of around 40-45 years (longer if you were an aristocrat). It was fairly similar by AD 1800 but after that date the child mortality slowly started to reduce. First came the smallpox vaccine and hygiene, then came more vaccines against diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, later, measles, mumps, rubella. Doctors were even able to help congenital problems. By the beginning of the 21st century global child mortality had dropped to under 5% and overall child mortality in the UK to 0.5% (one child in every 200). The death of a child has gone from being a normal part of life to a huge and horrifying surprise.
Child mortality has turned out to be the low hanging fruit. It’s comparatively easy to stop most children from dying of infections and accidents and violence. It’s going to be considerably harder to stop old people dying of old age.
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I’m really excited! I think I’ve found the only historical reference to a supernova in c 1320. It’s in a Latin hymn to Mary, the mother of Jesus, also known to Catholics as the Blessed Virgin and Our Lady.
The hymn is called Stella splendens in monte and it’s from the Llibre Vermell of Montserrat which was written in 1399 near Barcelona, and is one of the earliest collections of written music ever. The hymn is quite well-known and has a very pretty tune – two tunes, actually, since it’s polyphony.
It’s a bit of a mystery, is the 14th century supernova. Nobody saw it. They saw the supernova in CE 1081 and two famous later supernovas in 1572 (Kepler’s star) and 1604 (Tycho’s star). And yet there was definitely another supernova in our galaxy in c 1320. The remnants have been found and there’s a spike in nitrates in an ice core from Antarctica, which shows when the ionising radiation arrived – along with three more spikes for the other supernovae. It happened in the constellation Vela, the star was about 15 times bigger than the sun and it was a type II supernova – and it was only 600 light years away which means it should have been brighter than all the other stars. Yet nobody has found a record of it anywhere in Europe. There is no reference in China or Japan either but this is less surprising because the supernova would have been on their horizon.
It was the words that caught my attention. There we were in the Törökbálint church choir, near Budapest, singing this lovely Latin hymn (I adore singing Latin hymns and tend to break out into Salve Regina quite frequently.) Suddenly I noticed the words. “Stella splendens in monte, ut solis radium…”
My Latin has never been very good and there’s not a lot of it left, but I could make this out. Roughly the words mean “A star in splendour on the mountain, radiant like the sun.” Or more accurately (thank you, Adam Key, a Latin teacher and my cousin): “Star shining like a ray of sun in the mountain notched-by-miracles, hear the people!”
Then there were lots of verses describing how everybody ran to see it, old and young, rich and poor, repenting of their sins, beating their breasts and singing Ave Maria. There’s a Latin pun in the first lines – monte and serrato – that refers to Montserrat near Barcelona, probably where the wonder was seen (and where the Llibre Vermell was written). Since the mountain of Montserrat was already sacred to the Virgin Mary, the star was obviously her doing. Later there’s a reference to her “jewelled shrine.”
It’s the enthusiasm of the people that stands out. The star is captured in a few lines – most of the hymn is about how absolutely everybody ran to see it and how they sang to the Virgin on their knees. You get the feeling that the writer of the hymn was actually in the crowds, singing “Ave Maria” to the amazing light in the sky.
Now when I first noticed the words I immediately thought of a supernova – but as I didn’t know of any 14th century stellar explosion, I assumed it was a comet or Venus low in the sky. The next day I hit Google – and there it was, an article in New Scientist [14 November 1998, by Hazel Muir] called “Medieval Mystery.” This wondered why nobody in Europe noticed the very bright supernova that would have appeared suddenly and faded in a short time – days to months – in the early 14th century.
Given the ice core evidence [On Ice by Robert Matthews New Scientist 18 Sept 1999] which puts the supernova around 1320 +/- 20 years, there’s a possible easy answer. 1315 and 1317 were notorious as years without summer, when it was cloudy and pouring with rain from May to October. Those two years were so bad, there was a serious pan-European famine afterwards that lasted until 1322. So the weather was probably just too terrible for Europeans to see it.
But I think they saw it near Barcelona where the weather might have been clearer. And I’ll bet that with so many people running to see the amazing star, there will be other mentions in the record that haven’t been properly understood. Sort of “Monday, saw Virgin Mary’s house above Montserrat. It was really bright and shiny and we had lentil stew for dinner.”
So send astronomers, send medieval historians to Barcelona! There may be other details about the supernova to be found there. I’m curious about the “jewelled shrine” for instance which might refer to colours. You might be able to narrow the date down a bit more. I’m betting on the rain-soaked year of 1317.
I did a little dance when I found the New Scientist article and sang Stella splendens very loudly. For a writer of historical novels, finding a supernova in a Latin hymn is just as exciting as finding the stellar remnants must have been for the astronomers.
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I had another tech meltdown the other day. It wasn’t quite as bad as it’s been in the past, but it was still pretty bad and very embarrassing because somebody I like saw it. I have meltdowns when I’m on my own which are also bad and embarrassing but at least there’s no collateral damage.
I should have known better than even to touch my laptop that day, because I woke feeling grumpy for no reason I could make out. I felt better after a walk but then I was encouraged to make a little video about the book of mine that’s coming out on Kindle (LUCKY WOMAN, new title, rewritten).
Well, I made one video and frankly it was awful. So I bounced around and jumped up and down to get my blood moving, put some lippy on my cheekbones so I didn’t look so grey and tried again. A bit better but it was too long.
So I tried to trim the thing. A perfectly simple operation. Make two copies of the video. It took me ages to work out how to do that, which should have warned me that I wasn’t firing on all cylinders. Then trim the back end from one copy and the front end from the other and voilá. Two little videos where there had been one before.
I couldn’t do it. I’d done it once before but I couldn’t remember the exact sequence. Meanwhile an appointment with a kinesiologist was getting closer and closer which stressed me more because I hate being late for anything.
So I started panicking. Why couldn’t I do it? It was a perfectly simple operation. Why wasn’t the laptop co-operating? Why did it hate me? Why? Oh my god. Why am I so stupid? Why couldn’t I remember how to do it? Etc. and so on.
Of course, at that point what I should have done was stop, close the laptop and gone off to my appointment.
I didn’t. It didn’t even occur to me. I started swearing and muttering and sweating and clicking randomly over the screen and told the friend who was only trying to help by telling me what an intelligent woman I am, to fuck off. I’m not proud of that. Understandably my friend lost their temper and told me off, also pointing out I was going to be late for my appointment.
At least that made me shut the fucking piece-of-shit laptop. I fled out the door and ran most of the way to the kinesiologist – which of course burned off most of the stupid-making cortisol. I got there in good time and felt much better.
I wish I could find a reliable way of stopping these stupid tantrums. It really isn’t good for a woman of (ahem) mature years to start behaving like a three year old who’s been told she can’t have a go on mummy’s iPad.
Yes, I know it’s because my amygdala gets swamped with stress hormones and my reptile brain takes over, ready to roar at the evil laptop and chomp it to bits along with anybody else in the area. I’ve had some success with Tapping/EFT in the past, which calmed me down enough so I could shut the laptop and go for a walk. When I come back I can usually do whatever it was I couldn’t before, or at least realise it isn’t so important.
Shut the laptop, walk away. That’s all I need to do. Why is it so hard to think of when I’m locked in unwinnable combat with a Totally Obedient Moron piece of tech?