Reading The Black Swan [en]

[fr] Notes de lecture de "The Black Swan", sur l'impact des événements hautement improbables.

One of the things I did yesterday during my time offline was read a sizeable chunk of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

It’s a fascinating read. (Thanks again to Adam Hill for saying I should read it.) I just find myself a little frustrated that I can’t effortlessly copy-paste quotes from the book into a text file or my Tumblr as I read. (And no, I wouldn’t want to be reading this online. I like books. They just lack a few features. Like searchability, too.)

Anyway, I’ve been twittering away while I read, and here are a few things I noted. These are not exact quotes, but paraphrases. Consider them “reading notes.” (And then a few me-quotes, hehe…).

  • oh, one quote I did copy to Tumblr (check it, if you’re lucky, you might find more quotes!)
  • Finding Taleb’s concepts of Mediocristan and Extremistan fascinating and insightful.
  • Probably in Extremistan: number of contacts, length of relationships? Not sure.
  • High-impact, low-probability events (Black Swans) are by nature unpredictable. Now apply that to the predator problem.
  • We confuse ‘no evidence of possible Black Swans’ with ‘evidence of no possible Black Swans’ and tend to remember the latter.
  • ‘No evidence of disease’ often interpreted as ‘Evidence of no disease’, for example.
  • Taleb: in testing for a hypothesis, we tend to look for confirmation and ignore what would invalidate it.
  • Interesting: higher dopamine = greater vulnerability to pattern recognition (less suspension of disbelief)
  • So… Seems we overestimate probability of black swans when we talk about them. Terrorism, predators, plane crashes… And ignore others.
  • Anecdotes sway us more than abstract statistical information. (Taleb)
  • That explains why personal recommendations have so much influence on our decisions. Anecdotes, rather than more abstract facts or stats. (That’s from me, not him.)
  • Journalists according to Taleb: ‘industrial producers of the distortion’

Update: Anne Zelenka wrote a blog post taking the last and, unfortunately, quite incomplete citation as a starting-point. Check my clarification comment on her blog. And here’s the complete quote:

Remarkably, historians and other scholars in the humanities who need to understand silent evidence the most do not seem to have a name for it (and I looked hard). As for journalists, fuhgedaboutdit! They are industrial producers of the distortion. (p. 102)

Update 2: Anne edited her post to take into account my comment and our subsequent discussion. Thanks!

Childhood — A Passing Thought [en]

[fr] Pour la plupart d'entre nous, les années de vie adulte surpasseront le nombre de celles de notre enfance. Pourtant, ce sont principalement nos années d'enfance qui nous rendent nous.

Many of us will spend a greater part of our lives being adults than children.

However, our childhood years are those which play the biggest part in making us who we are.

Vie de bâton de chaise [fr]

[en] If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that I have top-priority conflicts these days (well, have been having them for a couple of weeks, and it's not going to get better, not with all the mad travelling all over the place -- but I'm happy about the travelling, so I won't complain too much).

A bit like Suw, I feel the need to reclaim blogging as a priority. So watch this space -- and in the meantime, if I'm silent, enjoy the cute kitty photos.

Mon pauvre blog… bien délaissé ces temps. En fait j’ai des tonnes de choses à écrire — je ne mens pas, ma liste “blogme” dans iGTD ne cesse de s’allonger, et j’ai même la tête qui menace de péter avec tout ce que je n’ai pas le temps de coucher sur clavier. Des tonnes à écrire, des autres tonnes de choses à faire, d’endroits où aller, de voyages (malheureusement à mes frais pour la plupart), de gens à voir, d’appartements à organiser, de rendez-vous divers et variés y compris avec une très sympathique journaliste — jetez un oeil à 24heures ou la Tribune de Genève de demain et aussi online (j’avoue me réjouir beaucoup de la parution de ce portrait, qui combine une version courte papier, une version plus longue en ligne, un photo quelque part, des liens, et même un extrait vidéo).

Donc, juste là, depuis quelques semaines, je cours après ma vie et j’ai un peu de peine à la rattraper. Oh, je vais bien — très bien, même. Mais bloguer a tendance à ne jamais se retrouver assez haut sur la liste des priorités pour que je le fasse (c’est le problème aussi avec le fameux livre, mon matériel d’enseignante à débarrasser, les catégories de ce blog à refaire, bref, vous voyez. Priorité numéro 1: ce qui paie directement le loyer et les croquettes de Bagha.

Ce n’est pas pour dire que je ne blogue plus, hein. D’ailleurs là, je suis en train d’organiser mes “choses à faire” pour les semaines à venir, et je peux vous dire que j’ai la ferme intention d’être bien présente ici (pas sûre en quelle langue, par contre) comme mon amie Suw qui est un peu dans la même situation que moi, et qui a décidé de bloguer chaque jour durant une semaine histoire de réorganiser un peu ses priorités.

C’est aussi un peu pour ça que j’écris ce billet. Pour écrire, il faut commencer par écrire.

Getting Things Done: It's Just About Stress [en]

[fr] Getting Things Done: non pas un moyen d'accomplir plus de choses, mais un moyen de passer moins de temps sur ce qu'on a décidé qu'on devait accomplir. Moins de stress. Plus de liberté. Plus de temps à soi.

Anne seems to have struck a chord with thing #8 she hates about web 2.0:

Getting Things Done. The productivity virus so many of us have been infected with in 2006 and 2007. Let’s move on. Getting lots of stuff done is not the way to achieve something important. You could be so busy planning next actions that you miss out on what your real contribution should be.

Stowe, Shelley and Ken approve.

It’s funny, but reading their posts makes GTD sound like “a way to do an even more insane number of things.”


That’s not at all the impression I got when I read and started using GTD. To me, GTD is “a solution to finally be able to enjoy free time without feeling bogged down by a constant feeling of guilt over everything I should already have done.”

Maybe not everyone has issues doing things. If you don’t have trouble getting stuff out of the way, then throw GTD out of the window and continue enjoying life. You don’t need it.

But for many people, procrastination, administrivia piling up, not-enough-time-for-stuff-I-enjoy-doing and commitments you know you’re not going to be able to honour are a reality, and a reality that is a source of stress. I, for one, can totally relate to:

Most people have been in some version of this mental stress state so consistently, for so long, that they don’t even know they’re in it. Like gravity, it’s ever-present–so much so that those who experience it usually aren’t even aware of the pressure. The only time most of them will realize how much tension they’ve been under is when they get rid of it and notice how different it feels.

David Allen, Getting Things Done

GTD, as I understand it, isn’t about cramming more on your plate. It’s about freeing yourself of what’s already on it, doing the dishes straight after the meal and spending your whole afternoon walking by the lake with a friend without this nagging feeling that you should rather be at home dealing with the paperwork, but you just don’t want to face it.

Here are the very few sentences of “Welcome to Getting Things Done“, the forward to GTD (and yeah, there’s a bit of an upbeat, magical-recipe tone to it, but bear with me):

Welcome to a gold mine of insights into strategies for how to have more energy, be more relaxed, and get a lot more accomplished with much less effort. If you’re like me, you like getting things done and doing them well, and yet you also want to savor life in ways that seem increasingly elusive if not downright impossible if you’re working too hard.

David Allen, Getting Things Done

And a bit further down the page:

And whatever you’re doing, you’d probably like to be more relaxed, confident that whatever you’re doing at the moment is just what you need to be doing–that having a beer with your staff after hours, gazing at your sleeping child in his or her crib at midnight, answering the e-mail in front of you, or spending a few informal minutes with the potential new client after the meeting is exactly what you ought to be doing, as you’re doing it.

David Allen, Getting Things Done

I don’t hear anything in there about “doing more things is better” or “you should be doing things all the time”. The whole point of GTD is to get rid of stuff so that it’s done and you can then go off to follow your heart’s desire. It’s about deciding not to do stuff way before you reach the point where it’s been on your to-do list stressing you for six months, and you finally decide to write that e-mail and say “sorry, can’t”.

That frees your mind and your calendar for what is really important in your life (be it twittering your long-distance friends, taking photographs of cats, spending time with people you love or working on your change-the-world project).

You’ll notice that I didn’t use the word “productivity” in this post a single time. “Productivity” is a word businesses like. If people are “productive”, it means you get to squeeze more out of them for the same price. That isn’t an idea I like. But being “productive” can also simply be understood to mean that it takes you less time to do the things that you’ve decided you needed to do. In that way, yes, GTD is a productivity method. But I think that calling it that does it disservice, because people hear “squeezing more out of ya for the same $$$” and go “eek, more stress”.

Bottom line? (I like ending posts with bottom lines.) If you see GTD as something that takes away your freedom and free time, turns you into an even worse workaholic, and encourages you to become indiscriminate about interests you pursue and tasks you take on because you “can do everything”, think again — and re-read the book. If you spend your whole time fiddling with your GTD system, shopping around for another cool app to keep your next action lists in, and worrying about how to make it even more efficient, you’re missing the point. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

Five Things You Probably Didn't Know About Me [en]

[fr] Cinq choses que vous ne saviez probablement pas à mon sujet. Un petit jeu qui tourne dans la blogosphère.

This is way overdue, but I have a guilty conscience after having been tagged by Jonas, Ric, and Dannie. I think the main reason I haven’t yet published this post (well, I have now, but look at the dates I was tagged upon and you’ll understand) is the difficulty in figuring out how I can tell a very varied audience (which includes family, strangers, IRC buddies, close friends online and off, googlers, passing acquaintances, work relations and all the others) things that “they” probably don’t know about me.

So. I’ve had to conjure up a target audience. Let’s say the target audience are people, online or off, who know me somewhat but not that well and have maybe not known me for many many years. My close friends and family will probably know the five things I’m bringing up here, and none of them are “secrets”. Some of these facts are even already “out there” if you care to look for them.

That said, here goes.

  1. I have a 21cm-long scar. I got it for my sixth birthday, and it beats all the other birthday presents I ever got. (Came with a price, though.)

  2. My middle name is Jane. I like having a middle name, and I quite like the one that was chosen for me. This hasn’t always been the case.

  3. My mother died of cancer when I was 10. It was only about fifteen years later that I managed to ask my dad which type of cancer she had, and details about her illness.

  4. I usually start writing my posts at the beginning, work straight down, tag and categorize, and hit publish. I rarely proof-read or re-read.

  5. My “pre-bunny” nickname was Gummywabbit. People kept thinking I was a guy, and I got sick of it.

What I chose to list here obviously says a sixth thing about me: I have a tendancy to get caught up in extremes. Too dramatic or too futile, too much or nothing at all. I work hard towards exploring the middle ground, but as you can see, I’m not always successful. Lucky you anyway, you got sixth things for the price of five!

I’m not tagging anyone myself (peer-pressure etc), but I’ll be happy to tag the first five people who ask me in the comments. And anyway, anybody is free to take up the meme and post their one — aren’t they?

Moment fort [fr]

[en] In Geneva Saturday night, I came upon an actress who played in Rester Partir, the play my brother and I had a small part in twenty years ago, just after our mother died. We talked a few minutes -- a very emotional moment for me -- and I left her my number. We'll meet again, hopefully.

Le moment le plus fort de cette soirée à  Genève était totalement imprévu. J’avais vu dans la liste de lecteurs le nom de Caroline Gasser. Je ne suis pas très physionomiste (ce qui peut être embarrassant par moments) mais j’ai une mémoire un peu effrayante pour les noms (en général).

Caroline est comédienne. Elle jouait dans Rester Partir, il y a plus de vingt ans. Mon frère et moi avions eu un petit rôle dans la pièce. Ma maîtresse d’école de l’époque était une amie de l’assistante du metteur en scène Hervé Loichemol, et ils avaient besoin d’enfants pour quelques scènes. Je me souviens d’ailleurs que j’étais la deuxième personne à apparaître sur scène, poursuivant en criant l’acteur principal Philippe Polet, qui courait avec des casseroles attachées à son pied, dans lesquelles pétaient des pétards.

Je me souviens aussi très bien d’une autre scène: Caroline en religieuse entourée d’un groupe d’enfants (nous!), qui s’élevait bien au-dessus de la scène grâce à  une petite plateforme ronde qui se détachait du sol, alors que nous la regardions tous. L’odeur du maquillage brun dont nous nous enduisions pour la scène où nous jouions des touaregs. Esther, la maquilleuse-habilleuse (je ne sais plus exactement quel était son titre, mais elle faisait ça il me semble). Les loges. Les histoires entre gamins. Les trois représentations à Genève (dans quel théâtre?). Les trois Michel, magiciens, la colombe rangée dans la veste de l’un d’entre eux.

Cette pièce reste un excellent souvenir. J’ai vraiment adoré faire ça, à plus forte raison peut-être parce que ma vie ne devait pas être très drôle à ce moment-là, quelques mois à peine après le décès de ma mère. Je me demande quel genre d’enfant j’étais à l’époque. Je me souviens que les comédiens étaient gentils avec nous. Caroline était ma préférée. Je me revois en coulisses, assise sur ses genoux.

Nuit du Journal Intime 19

En sortant de notre interview avec la DRS, je fais un saut par la salle de spectacles pour l’apercevoir, car elle fait partie des trois premiers lecteurs. Elle est là, sur scène, assise entre André Hurst et Charles Beer. Je la reconnais. Elle a de longs cheveux à présent — ils étaient coupés en brosse en 1985. Je prends une photo ou deux et je m’eclipse.

Durant le repas, la voilà qui passe près de notre table. Je ne sais pas trop dans quel ordre les choses se font, mais je la salue, elle se souvient de moi, on échange quelques mots, on se sourit, elle repart. Et là, hop, la machine à  remonter le temps, vingt ans en arrière, j’ai dix ans à nouveau, je suis bouleversée. Elle a mentionné Amanda, je ne me souviens plus. Une actrice? Une autre de la bande d’enfants que nous étions?

Un peu plus tard, j’ai réussi à me reprendre, je vais rentrer car il est tard, je suis malade, et j’ai quand même encore un article à écrire. Je réussis à recroiser Caroline avant de partir, on parle encore un peu — je lui laisse mes coordonnées. On se reverra.

Being an Adult [en]

Being an adult isn’t easy.

[fr] Est-ce difficile, d'être un adulte? On ne se réveille pas un matin magiquement 'adulte'. La vie ne devient pas plus facile parce qu'on a déjà  fêté certains anniversaires. Il y a toujours un effort à  fournir. Je pense que l'on se retrouve finalement toujours aussi démunis face aux étapes de la vie. Grandir, c'est apprendre à  affronter l'inconnu. Et ça a quelque chose d'effrayant.

‘Is it hard to be an adult?’ he said. ‘It’s certainly better than being a kid. You can’t get in trouble with your parents. And you don’t have homework.’

He’s thirteen. Yes, being a teenager is tough. I see it in my classes, and hear it from my students too. Some of them are voicing it on their weblogs already. Can’t do what you want. Can’t say everything. Have to do as your told.

I find being an adult isn’t easy either. Homework disappears, but is replaced to all these things we ‘have to do’: taxes, shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying bills. And if you’re lucky enough to be a teacher, you almost get real homework: tests to correct and classes to prepare. I spend more time at my ‘homework’ than the kids I teach — that will change, but this year, I certainly am.

Yes, it’s hard being an adult. You don’t wake up one morning suddenly ‘adult’, and magically up to it. You remain yourself. You learn how to pay the bills, cook, clean up, live without your parents, but all in all, there is never a clear line crossed into adulthood. You carry who you are with you at all times.

I’ve long lived in the illusion that life would suddenly one day become ‘easy’, that things would fall into place and all the tough stuff would just vanish. I now know that is not how life goes. Life is always challenging. Growing up is learning to deal with those challenges. But the tough times don’t go away.

The first real insight I had about what ‘being an adult’ meant was during one of my early conversations with Aleika, in India. She was telling me how being a parent isn’t something one can be really prepared for. As a kid, we always think our parents know what they are doing — but as a first-time parent, you just do what you can. You don’t know much more than before the baby arrived. You’re not transformed into another person because you just gave birth.

And it goes on. Becoming a grandparent and growing old is also a first-time experience for those who go through it. I think no stage in life is really easy. Growing up is about taking risks. Doing things you’re not really fully prepared to do. Taking responsability for your actions and your life. It’s exciting, and it’s frightening.

La vie n’est pas un long fleuve tranquille.

Holidays! [en]

Tired and looking forward to holidays. Doing good apart from that and the messy flat.

[fr] A la veille des vacances, je ne peux que confirmer que ce n'est pas pour rien que les enseignants ont tant de vacances. On en a besoin! Je suis fatiguée mais je vais bien, et je me réjouis d'avoir un semblant de vie sociale durant les deux semaines qui viennent. Ah oui, et aussi de ranger l'appartement et de préparer les cours jusqu'à  Noël. Peu de chances que je m'ennuie!

Tomorrow is the last day before the holidays. I can tell you it’s high time! I’m tired, a bit stressed out, and my flat looks like a dump (no trespassing). Some people wonder why teachers have “so many” holidays — I tell you, it’s simply because this job couldn’t be done with only 4 weeks off in a year!

Having seen the office world and the classroom world, I can say two things: I like the classroom better, but it’s much more tiring.

Holidays will be devoted to sleeping, reconstructing my social life, catching up on cinema, and preparing classes, tests, and course material until Christmas. Oh, I almost forgot: I also intend to turn my flat back into a place I can invite people into.

Aside from being tired and worn out, I’m doing pretty good. The feeling of these last months that my life is finally heading somewhere and that I know where I am seems to be there for good.