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Remember the Alamo

Our home for the past four days, the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

Our home for the past four days.

The last day of the JMM, as Anna mentioned in her post, is the unceremonious end to a whirlwind affair.  At least I was able to attend two amazing talks and say goodbye to a few people.

Robert Devaney and some fractals.

Robert Devaney and some fractals.

First, I attended Robert Devaney’s MAA retiring Presidential address, on Cantor and Sierpinski, Julia and Fatou: Crazy topology in complex dynamics. In this talk, Devaney showed us three examples to illustrate a Theorem. The theorem read “Planar topologists are crazy.” It was cool to see, through progressions of pictures, how one builds a Cantor bouquet, indecomposable continua, and Sierpinski curves. I recommend you read his article on the AMS Notices from January 2004 for more details related to the talk and all the pretty pictures. These examples were varied in that in some cases (like with the Knaster continuum) the dynamics is simple but the topology is not at all understood, whereas with Sierpinski curves, one gets many examples of Julia sets that are the same topologically but very different dynamically, and classifying the dynamics is still very difficult. He ended with a Corollary: Yes, planar topologists are crazy, but I sure wish I were one of them. My favorite quote, however, came from my friend Michelle Manes who was sitting next to me: “I hope David (her husband) gets me a Cantor bouquet for Valentine’s day.”

Williams demonstrates, with audience participants, locally weighted regression line is. Notice some famous faces, like Art Benjamin on the far right, and Mobiusband Player Andrea Young, second from the left.

Williams demonstrates, with audience participants, what a locally weighted regression line is. I noticed some familiar faces, like Art Benjamin on the far right, and Mobiusband Player (and my grad-school friend) Andrea Young, second from the left.

After this great talk, and a very delicious Mole enchilada lunch, I headed back to the Convention Center for my last talk of the JMM. This was the NAM Claytor-Woodard lecture, given by the awesome Talithia Williams, on A Statistician’s Guide to Becoming Your Body’s Expert. Edray Goins, newly-minted NAM President, introduced Williams and mentioned that this annual lecture is meant to highlight achievement by up-and-coming African American mathematicians. He also pointed the audience to this page on UPenn’s website, which tells the stories of Dudley Woodard and William Claytor, two pioneer African American mathematicians.

Goins hands Williams an Award of Appreciation.

Goins hands Williams an Award of Appreciation.

Williams’ lecture was very lively and interesting, and also pretty inspiring. I thought it was powerful how she got us to think about how Statistics can be used to understand our bodies and our health (intro stats class title idea: “Our Statistics, Our Selves”). If you think about it, these days we all collect data: miles you run, steps you take, calories you ate, blood pressure, how you sleep, your body temperature (especially for women trying to conceive). But you can use this data, for example, to improve your performance in a squash game, as in one of the many examples Williams shared. She also mentioned that different ways to interpret and even graph data might be useful for different things. But just as it was interesting to us to see this very natural application of statistics, Williams mentioned that this could be a real gateway for students into mathematics. There is indeed a lot of research on inclusive pedagogies, and how making the mathematics relevant to the person can increase participation from underrepresented groups and reduce math anxiety and stereotype threat.  I thought this was the most exciting part of the talk, and I’m already thinking about how to include these ideas in a course (I wasn’t really kidding with the title above). At the end of the lecture, Goins offered Williams a plaque recognizing her work and contributions to mathematics. And one last cool thing, Williams gave a TED talk on the topic, so go watch it.

After this, I quietly disappeared and headed to the airport, back to real life and all that. According to the JMM newsletter, there were 6000 registered participants, and I hope you had safe travels back. Remember the Alamo, and to get your sweetie a Cantor bouquet on Valentine’s Day. Until the next one.


Math on the ride home

Tracking expenses.

Tracking expenses.

When the taxi driver taking us from the convention center to the airport heard that I was a mathematician, he responded in a familiar way. “Oh math, that was my favorite subject. Not really. I hated math.”

The driver, John Zabik, had struggled with math in high school, then spent decades in the military without doing even arithmetic. But when he left the military and decided to start driving taxis, suddenly math became a big part of his everyday life.

I track all my fares, tolls, gas, and maintenance. I learned to do tax deductions. I figured out that by buying my cab instead of leasing, I could save a lot of money in the long run. That was the most important financial decision of my life.

Careful records let Zabik find the right times to drive, weigh long-term expenditures against upfront costs, and make significantly more money.

Zabik used to hate word problems, which instead of making math feel real and applicable, felt contrived and confusing. Now he’s happy living in one.

Jobs Jobs Jobs

A job interview at the JMM. The interviewee has been ghostfaced to protect his privacy.

The JMM hosts the largest job fair in mathematics. In the Employment Center, six dozen institutions trying to hire mathematicians—universities, corporations, colleges, and government agencies—set up shop on rows of folding tables. Minimal privacy is provided by curtains, boxing out six zones with green and white stripes.

The job market is competitive, with typical tenure track positions receiving ~400 applications. Departments read the essays, cv’s, papers, and recommendations, then select a short list of 20 applicants to receive in-person interviews at the Meetings. Three people get fly-outs to the university, and one person gets the job.

While few departments *require* that a candidate come to the meetings—skype interviews are routine—face time is invaluable. Aaron Roberts, chair of the math department at Colgate, gave an example:

This year, we had a candidate who seemed on paper much more suited to an R1 school. His application was all about research and he had tons of publications. But when we met in person, he told me how over winter break he’d sat down with his wife and had a change of heart, decided that he really wanted to be at a teaching school. I could feel that he really meant it, which would have been hard to be sure of over the internet.

Roberts represents Colgate University in the employment center.

Roberts represents Colgate in the employment center.

According to Roberts, about half the short-list tends to be equally compelling, and the temptation to go with candidates you’ve established an in-person rapport with is strong. Roberts also reported that the crush of applicants is nothing new. A decade and a half before the website let you apply for a job with a click of a button, he competed with more than 1000 applicants for his current post.

For faculty at most schools (excluding the very top tier), getting a tenure track job is the final difficult hurdle in establishing an academic career. While the odds for a given TT position may be bad, the chance of getting tenure 6-7 years after you arrive is high. “We expect to give tenure,” said George Jennings during an interview for CSU Dominguez Hills. “We don’t hire people we don’t expect to keep.”

The Last Day

Today the circus is packing up and moving out. As I write this post I’m watching many hands and forklifts busily at work tearing down the Exhibit Hall. The whirlwind is over, and the room is full of tired looking people staring blankly into their laptops editing whatever TeX document has been open and neglected on their desktop for the last 4 days. And so too, am I.

Patel gives the final invited address in the ASL Special Session.

Patel gives the final invited address in the ASL Special Session.

I did manage to squeeze in one last round of talks today, and visited the special session being held by the Association for Symbolic Logic (ASL). The last invited address was given by Rehana Patel (Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering), who talked about combining probability and logic. In particular she was asking for a good way to build a model-theoric framework for symmetric probabilistic structures. She started the talk with several examples of such structures, including the kaleidoscope graph whose vertices are the natural numbers and whose edges are made by flipping omega-many coins and coloring the edges according to the first appearance of “heads.” On such structures, it is of course interesting to ask what sort of distributions occur.

Not being a logician, it was funny to look around the room and not see and single familiar face. I always forget how insular we become within the world of mathematics. If the joint meetings is like the world’s biggest family reunion, attending a talk in an unfamiliar subject area is like showing up at your neighbor’s house for Thanksgiving dinner — they are happy and welcoming, but, well, it’s just not your family’s thanksgiving.

It’s been so fun to see everyone here at the JMM, and so great to connect with so many people through the blog and twitter. Safe travels home to all, and see you in Seattle. #JMM16

More mathematically bent theater

This is another one of my favorite JMM events. Colin Adams and his Mobiusband Players seem to always come up with new ways to make us laugh about mathematics and our lives doing mathematics. There were four short plays, which I will briefly describe below.

A scene from the Pi Day massacre, starring, from left to right, Andrea Young, Lew Ludwig, and Colin Adams.

A scene from the Pi Day massacre, starring, from left to right, Andrea Young, Lew Ludwig, and Colin Adams.

The Pi Day massacre: About how a math department is attacked on Pi Day by “ne’er do wells” who destroy all of the pies that were meant for the students. The chair of the department is worried that the students’ tenuous interest in mathematics is going to be destroyed by this event, and that they will leave the major. Professor Mangum PI (for Principal Investigator) and police detective Schmidschmidt investigate.

The Prisoners Dilemma: Game theory complicates the relationship of two criminal in love, who just got out of prison after ratting each other out. This one ends in a cliffhanger!

The End of Mathematics: A mathematics professor, after learning that someone proved that mathematics knowledge is a bounded manifold, and that in fact there is only 7% left to prove (plus or minus epsilon) is driven to commit a heinous crime.

Motivational seminar: My favorite, mainly due to the audience involvement. A motivational speaker makes us all feel like we are good at math, and reminds us that we cannot only take from math, but we also have to give to math, love math back. Special appearance by Tim Chartier.

At Adams' prompt, the audience stands up an exclaims "I love you, math!"

At Adams’ prompt, the audience stands up an exclaims “I love you, math!”


Mathbabe takes on Data Journalism

The awesome and dynamic Cathy O'Neill, aka MathBabe.

The awesome and dynamic Cathy O’Neill, aka MathBabe.

Sometime during the weekend, I met someone that said to me “You’re a minor math blogging celebrity!”. Although grateful for the compliment (I think, it did have a lot of qualifiers), I know that is not true. I know because of how excited I got to meet Cathy O’Neill, mathbabe herself, have lunch with her, and then having a beer with her. Some people may know my name, but everyone knows Cathy O’Neill. In fact, what are you doing reading this? Go read her blog right now! If you don’t know mathbabe, first of all, what are you doing with your life? Think hard about that. Second, you should know that she was an extremely succescful number theorist before starting a life as a data scientist and awesome blogger and writer. Now go read her blog.

More relevant to this JMM blog post, perhaps, was her awesome talk on Making the case for data journalism. And her case was a good one. She said that as a good mathematician, she likes to solve problems, and in order to do that you first have to identify the problem. In her case, the problems are that journalists: don’t know a lot of math, are generally afraid of math, and tend to believe anything they hear (in terms of math, of course, in general journalists are very good at digging deep into a story). This last one O’Neill referred to as the “authority of the inscrutable”, if it’s too hard to understand, then it’s probably true. She gave us a couple of great examples of where this is evident, like the “is algebra necessary?” New York Times article. She also mentioned that the way mathematicians are portrayed in the media is a problem. We tend to be portrayed as cold robots (one of the biggest criticisms of the recent movie about Alan Turing, The Imitation Game).

So why does this problem even exist? Her point was that journalism focuses on almost the opposite of what mathematicians focus on. Any editor will ask you to “put a face on the story”, or make it about “nabbing the bad guy”, or about “finding the victim”. But she gives an example of what she believes is an interesting story that has none of these features: imagine that your credit score depended on your browser history. This may be highly discriminatory against certain groups, but it’s not clear who is the villain (it’s a computer algorithm, not a person, making these decisions), and the victims don’t even know they are victims!

And then comes the good news, Cathy says, we can develop more data journalism. Examples of this are FiveThirtyEight, I Quant NY, and the Upshot column on the New York Times. She also mentions that displaying manipulable data allows people to create their own stories, rather than have it already digested and presented for them like a traditional article. Good data journalism, O’Neill says, asks the public to understand the data instead of just accepting it.

She recognizes that there are still many limitations, among them the fact that editors don’t know much math, “complexity is a bitch”, and that the overall field of journalism is in trouble. Another complication is that not a lot of these publications, and very few companies, want to share their data and their code. Some places, like FiveThirtyEight, do upload most of their code to github. Some places have been able to reverse engineer from data to understand certain algorithms. She gave the ProPublica message machine as a really good example of this.

But what does this all have to do with mathematics? She mentions that we are really good a communicating mathematics within our field, but not so much at communicating to the general public. This isolation within our own field certainly contributes to the misconception about mathematicians in mainstream media. O’Neill offers then some ideas on how we can do better: we can write articles for a general audience ourselves, create youtube channels (like Vi Hart‘s channel and the Tipping Point Math channel), write books (like Jordan Ellenberg’s extremely popular How Not to Be Wrong), create “maps” of mathematics (like the Stacks Project), write op-eds, organize special sessions about communication of mathematics, develop tools, and just learn to promote ourselves better.

This talk was really amazing, and I’m not sure I did it justice, but here is a link to all of the prezi presentation (which O’Neill linked to this morning on mathbabe). Now, go read mathbabe or go promote yourself and mathematics.

We all want to be mathematicians!

Who wants to be a mathematician? They do!

Who wants to be a mathematician? They do!

Yesterday I was lucky to witness amazing displays of mathematical ability, from high schoolers no less! The “Who Wants to be a Mathematician” contest is always a highlight, and an extremely humbling experience. I would have needed a lot more time to figure out these problems. There were eleven contestants, split into East and West groups, and even two Texans who came with a good cheering section. Out of the eleven, only one was a girl, but it’s better than other years!

My co-blogger Anna and I handed out foam fingers to the audience. What a great crowd! And what a great foam finger-handing partner! Looks good on her, right?

My co-blogger Anna and I handed out foam fingers to the audience before the contest began. What a great crowd! And what a great foam finger-handing partner! Looks good on her, right?

The atmosphere was great, and people were excited and supportive. These kids were really evenly matched, and it was only a few questions that decided the leaders of each round. Interestingly, one of the questions that only one of the contestants got correct was related to the Moore method (R.L. Moore was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin). That was exciting to me, a Moore method fan, not so much to the contestants who got the answer wrong. The audience did reasonably well in the two questions we were asked to clap for (as a whole, we got the right answer, but I admit to once clapping when the other people were clapping loudly).

The contestants had really good explanations to how they figured out the problems, although one time one of them admitted to guessing, or rather picking out his favorite letter between C and D – it was D. Sometimes they answered (correctly) second after they saw the question (not even waiting for host Mike Breen to read it completely). My favorite thing was those moments when they whispered to each other, excitedly asking how the other person got the answer, I would guess, or just discussing the difficulty. In any case, that is the part that shows me that they were really mathematicians in the making: they were more interested in solving the problems than in winning (although of course, a $10,000 prize is a nice motivation).

A guy and his stubborn balloon.

A guy and his stubborn balloon. Tim Chartier is a true renaissance man. 

We even got a halftime show! Between the semifinals and the finals, Tim Chartier mimed about how easy it is for your mind to get convinced of something, by showing us a man and his balloon, which becomes fixed in the air and prevents him from moving. It was cute, and he said he does this for his students to show them that it is important to have an open mind when trying to solve a problem, and not to be too attached to one idea, just like the guy was with his balloon.

In the end, a really tight game was won in the last question, with an exciting finish for all. But as Mike Breen says “Just because you don’t win the game doesn’t mean that you can’t become a mathematician”. And boy, do those of us in the audience who are mathematicians know it! I could never have won that game!


Day 3 Roundup

Yesterday was one of those days that just wouldn’t quit. The day started with number theory, ended with the Project NExT reception, and went everywhere in between, literally. When I paused between tweets to check the health tracker on my iPhone towards the end of the day, I had walked 4.8 miles completely within the walls of the convention center!

Tapia gave the AMS-MAA invited address.

Tapia gave the AMS-MAA invited address.

In the afternoon Richard Tapia (Rice University) gave the MAA-AMS Invited Address, “The Remarkable Journey of the Isoperimetric Problem: From Euler to Steiner to Weierstrass.” He gave a winding historical walk through the various proofs (er, quasi-proofs) of the Isoparimetric Problem. From Queen Dido’s solution in the BC’s up to Hurwitz’s in 1902 he explained how the various approaches were unnecessarily complex or required machinery that wasn’t sophisticated enough at the time. And in a Goldilocksean turn he gave his final verdict on the many proofs: Hardy, Littlewood, and Polya’s was overrated, Lax’s was underrated, and Hurwitz’s is properly rated.

Exhibit Hall C was all atwitter during the MAA Poster Session.

Exhibit Hall C was all abuzz during the MAA Poster Session.

Next, I zipped over to Exhibit Hall C to judge the the MAA Undergraduate Student Poster Session. After judging one poster I realized that I was about to miss Cathy O’Neill’s talk, “Making the Case for Data Journalism,” so I put the judging on pause. O’Neill’s talk was fantastic, and you can read more about it in Adriana’s post.

Undergraduates David Mehrle (Carnegie Mellon University) and Tom Reiter (Carnegie Mellon University) presented work from their summer REU at Williams College.

Undergraduates David Mehrle (Carnegie Mellon University) and Tom Reiter (Carnegie Mellon University) presented work from their summer REU at Williams College.

Afterwards I unpaused the judging and ran (yes, ran) back to the Hall to catch a few more posters before they started tearing down. Having done a poster presentation before, I will attest to the fact that it is beyond draining. Instead of giving a quick one-and-done 10 minute talk, it’s like you have to give your 10 minute talk over and over again in a loop for 3 hours. But despite that, the students did a fantastic job. It was clear that they had done a tremendous amount of work, and dazzled me with an explanation of Newman’s conjecture for L-functions over function fields — pretty dense stuff.

After the judging was over I went out for dinner with the press crew. It may be worthwhile to mention here that there is always a Press Room at the JMM where all of the freelance journalists, reporters, bloggers, podcasters, and occasional TV crews hang out. They’re here looking for exciting stories to share with the world to remind them all what important and buzz-worthy work we do, and what an amazing and diverse pool of talents we are, or as Cathy O’Neill put it in her talk yesterday, “we are not robots.”

Now it’s the last day, and while it’s sad to see all the suitcases lined up in the lobby, there is simply not enough coffee in the world to sustain this JMM for another day.

The Mathematics of Being Human

Blurry take on The Mathematics of Being Human.

Blurry take on The Mathematics of Being Human. From left to right: Chaz Atkinson, Manil Suri, Michele Osherow, and Savannah Jo Chamberlain.

I must admit, I was not really sure what to expect going into the mysteriously named “MAA Dramatic Presentation” on Sunday night. It was a hard choice, too, given that the movie about Yitang Zhang, Couting from Infinity (write up by Josh here),  was playing at the same time. But I was intrigued by the title and by the fact that it was cowritten by Manil Suri, a mathematician and novelist I had heard of before.

The play was a surprise, and it wasn’t until the Q&A session that I realized what the origin for the idea had been. Suri, a mathematics professor in the University of Maryland Baltimore County, mentioned that he and Michele Osherow, a professor in the English department, decided one year to team teach a course that related mathematics and the humanities. In October 2012, they wrote a three-part article for the Chronicle of Higher Ed describing the experience. Later, they were asked to give a talk about the content of the article for the conference, and they decided to write a one-hour play instead. That is the play I saw on Sunday night.

I thought they did a great job describing all of the steps of a course (that those of us who teach are very familiar with): conceiving the idea for an interdisciplinary course, planning the content, teaching the course, and the reflection that comes after. The tension between the math professor and the English professor was portrayed really well, although the amount of arguing in front of the students made me slightly uncomfortable as a person who avoids both conflict and showing vulnerability in front of students. The discomfort, by the way, is a good thing, it means that I was invested in the story. I also enjoyed that there was a lot of mathematical detail (e.g. the Monty Hall problem, Euclidean vs. non-Euclidean geometry, fractals, Zeno’s paradox, constructing the integers from the empty set) and literary detail (King Lear, poetry, OULIPO). Whatever their course was actually like, the balance of math and humanities was perfect. The addition of the two characters, one male and one female, to stand in for the whole classroom, was clever and effective. The climax, in which two students write an alternate King Lear incorporating all the math and other ideas they learned in the class, was brilliant, and a nice homage to Tom Stoppard, whose play Arcadia is also frequently mentioned.

I’m happy I stayed for the Q&A, since it gave me context for the play that I didn’t have otherwise. For example, at some point I was annoyed that the male professor was a mathematician and the English professor was female, thinking that it was reinforcing stereotypes. But now that I know that this was inspired by their own experiences, it makes perfect sense (and the students were switched around: the more humanistic student was the male, and the mathy student was the female).

They will be performing this play again at the Bridges conference in Baltimore, so if you’re planning on going you should try to see this play. Not only was it a fun and well-written play, but it actually gave me lots of ideas for what I can make my First Year Seminar students read next year.

The players: Chaz Atkinson, Manil Suri, Michele Osherow, Savannah Jo Chamberlain, and Julian Sass.

The players: Chaz Atkinson, Manil Suri, Michele Osherow, Savannah Jo Chamberlain, and Julian Sass.