The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image


Time is a formidable enemy. We are given decades to fill with meaning. It is a task so intimidating that most people choose to watch TV or play Candy Crush. But the void is still there. The void will wake you up in the middle of the night.

How to fill the void? I came up with lists. In fact, I have so many lists that I use hierarchical lists to organize them. Then I can deploy set theoretical abstractions to further obscure meaning.

The lists contain ideas and plans how to fill the void with at least a faint sense of meaning, and also record attempts to do so. Keeping lists is a compulsion to signal to myself that I am vaguely alive.

A complete list of my lists would be overwhelming. Let us see some highlights.

The first list started off innocently in August 2004. I kept track of every movie I watched since then. It was meant to document my progress in understanding cinema as a form of art. Then, when the list hit a thousand records in May 2009, it became a source of embarrassment: it is a proof of passive consumption of content, without putting any thought into it. The list stands at nearly 1,400 entries today. I can make exciting observations: the number of Afghan movies I watched exceeds the number of Austrian movies by 50 per cent. The average year of release across all movies is 1985.2551319648, and the average length is 107.4406158358 minutes. I have seen all movies by Andrei Tarkovsky, but barely two by Nhat Minh Dang. I watch a screen with a vacant look and an empty brain, therefore I am.

I have a list of 4,145 English words I collected over the years that I should use in everyday speech to make me sound more natural. Blimey, those antediluvian mountebanks infatuate with adoxography!

Then there is an abandoned list in which a row corresponds to a vegetarian food item, an assessment of its overall nutritional value, its percentage of protein, and a verbal comment why I hated it. It predates my conversion to vegetarianism by three years, and it was mainly compiled during a month of experimental meat-free diet. Here are some excerpts:

Food Protein Nutritional Value Comments
Bean Sprouts 5% Poor Bean sprouts are tasteless, non-nutritious, disgusting little tubes for idiots to chew.
Silk Tofu 10% Poor Impossible to cook, stir-fry, or deep-fry. It is virtually tasteless with a blister-like texture which is considered desirable by some idiots.
Wheat Germ 26% Good Astonishing 26% of protein. This is what I need. I wish I could buy it in bacon-flavoured packages.

Apparently, my fondness for vegetarian food was markedly lower.

In a more surreal mindset, I typed in 1,498 text messages that I received between 21 July 2005 and 10 January 2007. God only knows what my purpose was with this list.

I log the exercises I do, and the list got more and more intricate over time. In the current iteration, days when I did not do any form of training are highlighted in bold to shame myself when I look at the list from a distance. The method is stunningly effective, and forces me to do ersatz exercises even when I would rather do anything else.

Between 11 February 2007 and 01 January 2008, my life was so excessively miserable that I engaged in bird watching. I recorded 67 individual species. Excerpts:

Species Latin Name Date Time City Location
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis 11/02/07 16:10 Cork Fitzgerald Park
Grasshopper Warbler Locustella naevia 23/03/07 10:20 Cork Near Gluckman’s Gallery

The avian excitement quickly died down when I moved to India, and my main problem became getting my laundry done and keeping cobras out of my room.

I attempted to maintain a list of bans, since there were times when I had fifteen to twenty bans in effect. The list was not updated in three years, since, as a good mathematician, I abstracted generic structures, and I exercise control over those. Although touching my right shoulder blade with my left hand in public was an act I could not find a generic structure to, and the corresponding ban is still in effect.

The list of lists never ends: countries visited, things I should do every day, every week, every month, and every year, flights I took, theoretical packing list (dates back to the time when I could not fit all my belongings in a backpack), contacts, expenses, things I hate to hear over and over again, salsa moves I should use more often on the dance floor, journals I should publish in, websites that I should update if I change my affiliation, books I read, books to read, ailments, files I archived on particular dates, numerous incarnations of bucket lists, extensive collection of past addresses and phone numbers (a very long list), mapping of past addresses to places where they are registered as ‘My address’. More conventional lists do not even deserve mentioning, such as of publications, papers currently under review, and Spanish expressions I should absolutely know. What is astonishing in my list obsession is that 80 per cent of the lists are regularly updated and inspected.

The list that is killing me these days is my writing log. I have an intricate semi-automatic system to record how much I write every day, and calculates rolling, monthly, and annual averages. With every word I type, I see how the average improves since 26 April 2013. It is magical, it makes me obsessed with wanting to write more, especially when I have nothing to say. Like now. No matter what, the void persists.

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