The Simple Dollar's series “31 Days to Fix Your Finances” gives the first “goal setting” exercise that has ever worked for me. My resulting core values:

Why did it work for me? It gives a prescription, not examples. The examples are always success, careers, adventure, world travel, all absent from my list. Let us take what is there one item at a time so the reader may form some picture of me.

The pursuit of mathematical epiphany

Many have described the rush when the solution to a problem suddenly comes clear, and that is part of epiphany for me. But the rush comes and goes, and if the problem was ugly, it leaves a foul taste, as if you had engaged in sexual kinkiness outside your fetishes.

What is rarely described is the epiphany of a beautiful problem. There is the confusion of half-theorems and partial sketches, the rush of solution, and then the creation of a beautiful thing, a nuanced origami folded from music. And as the rush of solution passes, the pleasure of manipulating this structure brings me down in a gentle afterglow.

Loving and helping those around me

I love my fellow creatures, which puzzles me deeply. It’s not a grand, impersonal love that seeks to save mankind. It’s an urge to do what I can for the people to hand. I enjoy teaching someone cooking or mathematics, acting put upon while I move heavy objects, and playing sheep dog to a group of people out and about.

Among the most fun I’ve had this month was calling a high school math teacher seven time zones away to explain Möbius transformations. I didn’t know her. Her brother sent a request for help to a martial arts mailing list I’m on. I don’t know him either.

This leads to funny encounters, particularly with female friends who at some point after I’ve been doing things for them come to the conclusion that I have romantic intentions. Generally I don’t. As Goethe wrote, “and if I love you, what business is it of yours?” (”und wenn ich dich lieb habe, was geht’s dich an?“)

Orderliness and quiet in my life

I years ago began using David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I spent quiet evenings at home. The only noise I make loud enough to disturb the neighbors is when I play my violin, though a lot of them thing it’s a recording. My apartment is clean, my possessions in order. This sounds like borderline obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s actually an expression of an underlying Taoism.

Surround myself with beauty

I moved to Switzerland with two suitcases. They contained a few clothes, a few books, my good kitchen knives, and my art collection. I love beautiful things, which is a constant source of surprise to all who know me. I spend hours in art museums, often perched for forty minutes at a time in front of one painting. I cultivate female society, partly because I’m a healthy, young male of the species, and partly because the female form has a geometric beauty almost unknown in males – a fact nowhere more clearly seen than in the work of Rodin.


If handed a violin and placed in a string quartet, what can you do? If faced with a chalk board, a subject, and an audience, what can you do? Not what can you try, not what do you dabble in, but what can you do? I exact competence from myself in whatever I do, and I expect it of everyone else.

As a result, I am often accused of arrogance or snobbery. Where I am competent, I will make bald statements, or, as I retorted once, “I’m not paid to be nice, I’m paid to be right.” Where someone is not competent, I will ignore or denigrate any statement he makes.

I have had people think I’m a complicated, subtle being. I’m not. I’m very simple, and this is the center of me.

Fred Ross
August 2009
Lausanne, Switzerland