The value of disjunctive quantified lists


Narrative picture of the Aleph short story

Every once and while I say enough is enough and clean my computer desktop, and then adjust folders and files. After my last attempt, I decided to keep all my “quantified type lists” in one folder and realized, somewhat to my surprise, that I have quite a few. One of the most important for me is an Excel file with an index of all my notebooks for the year, which I’ve talked about before ( But there are nine more! Another is a list of how many days old every member of the family is (me, my wife and kids, sometimes its fun to celebrate those, “you’re 4000 days old today”). Next is a Word document with a list of books read so far this year, along with jacket covers and number of pages (I used to keep a list of all the movies or series watched during the year, but this year I’m more focused on books). Next a list of things that I should not forget when leaving the house or office (this is rather embarrasing, but I’ll tell you anyway; wallet, keys, hankerchief, notebook and pen, fitbit, narrative camera, camera, mobile and mp3 player, the handiest thing may be the hankerchief). Then a list of papers that I’m writing or have sent so far this year, along with a list of conferences that have been to or am preparing. Then a list of current projects at work and an excel file with the calendar year and next year (the calendar keeps changing and I print off a new one everytime I start a new notebook). Then a list of each day of the year and what I’ve written in 750 words (number of words, main topic) and finally an excel of my fitness function, which I talked about a few weeks ago (

Why all these lists? All of a sudden I feel surrounded by them, and also funnily enough, reading about them. Recently, I read an essay (in Spanish) by Umberto Eco, on how much he loves lists. The essay summarises a talk he gave in Seville in 2011 about his book “The infinity of lists” (took the words right out of my mouth). He describes three different types of lists, which I’ll call the impressive list, the practical list and the poetic list.

The impressive list would be what an author uses to explain how much he is impressed by something. Here the list takes the place of a metaphor. His example is how Homer describes the inmensity of the Greek army. A practical list would be a “to do” list, or a check list. Umberto Eco uses the example of a shopping list or a list of all the women seduced by Don Giovanni (really useful, 2065 women in total, including 640 from Italy, 231 from Germany, 91 from Turkey and 1003 from Spain). Finally Eco gets to his favorite list, the imaginary or poetic list. Here the king is Jorge Luis Borges (Argentinian writer, born 1899- died 1986), and the list of all the things that can be seen through the Aleph (a point in space that contains all points). That list is quite amazing and I will not try to include it here (but see, the list starts on the paragraph near the end that begins “On the back part of the step”).

Overall, Eco concludes that a list can either be conjunctive, different things that are grouped together to create something cohesive, or disjunctive, a sequence of different things to create something more fragmented. Most of my lists, and I would assume most other people’s lists, are conjunctive, although I think that the most interesting are probably disjunctive, like in the Aleph. It seems like the tendency in the quantified self movement is to make lists more interesting by making them longer (eventually producing big data), but one could also try to make lists more diverse (disjunctive, poetic), for example including data from different sets of sensors or indicators (steps, blood glucose levels, diet and scores for difficulty waking up in the morning).

Within that framework, what I mentioned above in the first paragraph is a list of lists, one list of 10 lists. Can that be further classified or diversified? One way would be based on time, i.e., the unit of time used in each list (see Table 1). But I also think about list usage, how often I use each one. I use the “things to remember list”, the calendar and the fitness function daily, followed by the notebook index, books read, topics in 750 words, about once a week, and the papers, conferences, projects, days old lists about once a month. I just realized that I print out the ones I use daily. They are more practical and conjunctive.


Three lists (the notebook index, the topics in 750 words and the fitness function) are more disjunctive, and in a sense more real, since they follow daily activities that I go through everyday, and real life is not conjunctive. They could also fit in Eco’s first classification however, as impressive lists. In the end we do lots of things, and I don’t have the words or the metaphors to explain everything that I did today, let alone this week. In any case, it’s probably no coincidence that I’ve written a blog about each one of the disjunctive lists, I guess they make for more interesting reading and analysing. The others are more practical and possibly more boring. Conclusion: there is gold in those diverse lists!


One comment

  1. […] Three years later…. January  2013, I finally picked up Travels and landed on page 159, to find a short essay (4 pages) entitled “Sports Chatter“, which I have since read over and over again. I’ve been thinking about it now for over three years, it comes up in conversations and has helped me to organize my thoughts in several fields. (see a previous blog about Eco’s love of lists) […]


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