Author Archives: Beth Malmskog


Alison Grace Martin, artist (right), working on "Around a Torus" with students Quoc-Thinh Truong and Natalie Kratts.

Alison Grace Martin, artist (right), working on “Around a Torus” with students Quoc-Thinh Truong and Natalie Kratts.

At 11:30 AM on Friday I suddenly realized that time was running out to see the art show, which closed at noon. I could have spent quite a while there but had to be content with a targeted strike. First, I stopped to talk to Alison Grace Martin and Quoc-Thinh Truong, who were working hard on a very striking wood-strip sculpture of a torus. Martin traveled from Italy to create the collaborative sculpture at the JMM after her proposal was chosen from a field of submissions. Conference participants had been helping out with with the project all week. The first step was making ten-, twelve-, and fourteen-pointed stars out of wood strips. These stars were then assembled to create the torus. The positive curvature portions were assembled out of the ten- and twelve pointed stars (similar to a soccer ball’s hexagon/pentagon tiling), while the negative curvature on the inside of the torus was obtained by incorporating the fourteen-pointed stars (which could be correspondingly thought of as heptagons). Truong, a Junior double major in math and physics at Lenoir-Rhyne University, had put in a lot of time on the project.

A lot of the art on display was pretty impressive. Most of the artists were not present, so I was unfortunately not able to get permission to photograph their work, but I did find a link to some great shots.  However, I felt is was probably okay to take pictures of some people enjoying “Tessercraft”, created by Ben Signa, a student at San Francisco State University, since the photos don’t actually show the art. “Tessercraft” is a sort of virtual reality trip through the 3-d representations of 4-d shapes. A person wearing the headset can look in all directions and use a joystick to move around in a world of geometry. I couldn’t really explore the whole world because “walking” around in the world, especially climbing on and falling off of the Minecraft-like bricks, made me feel really disoriented and almost carsick. But it was awesome. Celes Woodruff, an Assistant Professor at James Madison University, was enjoying the headset, when her colleague Assistant Professor Cassie Williams took a picture and said, “This is going on the department webpage!“

“It’s worth it,” Woodruff said.

Celes Woodruff and Colin Weir enjoying "Tesseract", a creation of Ben Signa.

Celes Woodruff and Colin Weir enjoying “Tesseract”, a creation of Ben Signa.

More enjoying of "Tessercraft".

More “Tessercraft” fun.

After Math, Aftermath


Andrea Young as the department chair and Aaron Calderon as Mathematicus.

Andrea Young as the department chair and Aaron Calderon as brave Mathematicus.

Every year at the math meetings I notice the intriguing “Mathematically Bent Theatre” on the JMM schedule and plan to go. Until this year I had been thwarted by appointments and exhaustion. But no longer! Finally made it to watch Colin Adams and the Mobiusband players perform mathefied comedic skits. This was such a great choice for Friday night—the skits were really funny and the silliness was excellent brain balm after three days of hard math talks. Ah the joys of “Aftermath,” in which a dishonest mathematician (Tom Garrity) dies and is damned to help the devil (Adams) truly randomize the tortures of hell. “Mathematicus,” is the story of an uprising of brave students led by Mathematicus (Aaron Calderon) against the tyranny of mathematical logic, which forces the math professor-opressors (led by Andrea Young as department chair) to search for a new con. Finally, mean Professor Scourge’s heart grows three sizes in “A Pi Day Carol,” when he (Adams) is visited on Pi Day Eve by the spirits of Gauss, Noether, and his worst ever paper reviewer. These skits got me into the spirit and I will now have to go on a back issue reading binge of Adams’ Mathematically Bent column in Mathematical Intelligencer.

Maybe Stick to the Escalators

Escalators: the safer option.

Escalators: the safer option.

The escalators here at the Washington State Convention Center are impressively long and sometimes pretty crowded.  So I can see why people might be heading for the stairs.  However, the news from the press room is that getting out of the stairwells might not be as easy as getting in.  Apparently two people have found themselves stuck in the stairwells in the last two days, with at least one person needing a rescue by security.  Turns out that some of the stairway doors automatically lock and do not allow reentry to the center.  That’s my public service announcement for the day

Flash Origami


My finished bowl and some nice origami swag from the flash fold.

My finished bowl and some nice origami swag from the flash fold.

Dr. Ryuhei Uehara at today's origami flash fold.

Dr. Ryuhei Uehara at today’s origami flash fold. Origami coach for the day Denise Wood of the AMS is in the background.

The JMM is a good place to love origami this year.  At noon today, the JMM app sent sent me a message about an “origami flash fold” at the AMS booth in the exhibit hall.  I had no idea what to expect but made my way over.  I was hoping a mob would spring up out of nowhere to perform an amazing choreographed dance involving origami.  What I actually found was a big group of people gathered around a table folding origami bowls.  I dug in and started working on a bowl myself.  The folding was a little tricky and I sought advice from my neighbor, who turned out to be Ryuhei Uehara, of the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, an editor of and contributor to Origami6.  An example of Dr. Uehara’s work in the area is depicted on the book’s cover–a single polygon that can be folded into two very different boxes.

Dr. Uehara's versatile polygon.

Dr. Uehara’s versatile polygon.

Math's best and brightest, folding paper at the flash fold.

Folding at the flash fold.





Do not base a cryptosystem on the assumed hardness of discrete log in a Q-algebra

Alice Silverberg explaining the algorithm.

Alice Silverberg explaining the algorithm.

Alice Silverberg is a wonderful, formidable figure in Number Theory. Beyond her extensive research (look at her bibliography!), teaching, and professional service, she also worked as a mathematical consultant for the television show Numb3rs.  Her talk, based on joint work with Hendrik Lenstra, described their deterministic, polynomial-time algorithm to solve the discrete logarithm problem in Q-algebras.  This was the first talk in the AMS Special Session on Cryptography and Number Theory, happening today, tomorrow, and Saturday afternoon in room 606.

Kristin Lauter watching Alice Silverberg's talk.

Kristin Lauter watching Alice Silverberg’s talk.


Organized by Matilde Lalin, Michelle Manes, and Christelle Vincent in honor of Kristin Lauter’s AMS-MAA Invited Address, “How to Keep Your Genome Secret” (11:10 Friday in 6BC), the session features a really great slate of speakers.  I’m headed back there now for more math.

Paradise and Paradox

Yesterday morning I went to Xiao-Li Meng’s AMS-MAA invited address, entitled “Statistical Paradises and Paradoxes in Big Data.”  My stats background is not especially strong, but one of my favorite parts of the Joint Math Meetings is going to talks outside my area that I can actually love and understand.  This was one of those.  Professor Meng’s introduction set high expectations, and he really delivered in content and style.  He was incredibly energetic and funny.

One of Meng’s paradises of big data is “a larger general pipeline”–more people than ever before interested in statistics at all levels, and pursuing statistics academically.  Also, better airplane/taxi/party conversations for statisticians, and a current “golden era” for theoretical and methodological foundations.

However, one paradox is that big data may not be as big as it seems, when we consider quality.  Most “big data” is not randomly sampled and is correspondingly prone to bias.

Dr. Meng asked us to consider: When is a large non-random sample better than a small random sample, in measurable terms? To answer the question, he presented “A trio identity for Quality, Quantity, and Difficulty,” an simple statistical identity relating measures of the quality and quantity of data.

The gist: To minimize error, one can increase quantity (proportion of total population sampled) or increase quality (randomness of sample). To see the true value of a data set, it is possible to compute the effective sample size—the estimated size of a randomly sampled data set that would give the same error as the large, non-randomly sampled set. To illustrate, Meng considered a hypothetical survey of 160 million people (half of the US population), non-randomly sampled. For particular parameters, he computed an effective sample size of 400. Wow.

People use statistics to make decisions. We may want to answer the question “What choice is most likely to result in a good outcome for people like me?” Dr. Meng pointed out that the apparent answer may depend on what “like me” means. Reference population and level of resolution matter. Simpson’s paradox may even apply—what appears to be the best choice when we consider the entire population may appear to be the worse choice for both two partitioning subsets of the population. Meng used a 1986 study by C. R. Charig, D. R. Webb, S. R. Payne, J. E. Wickham on kidney stone pain treatments to illustrate. The following percentages of people found the given treatments effective:

Treatment A               Treatment B

273/350: 78%            289/350: 83%

Broken down by size of stone:

.                                 Treatment A              Treatment B

Large Stone            81/87: 93%                 234/270: 87%

Small Stone            192/263: 72%             55/80: 69%

Treatment B appears to be more effective for the population as a whole, but treatment A appears to be more effective for both people with large stones and people with small stones. Argh. Which one is more effective? How do we choose?

As always when I go to statistics talks, one of my major take-aways is that I need to think way more carefully about statistics.  And go to more statistics talks.


Also, Meng has an awesome section on rejection on his website, including a link to this interesting essay on rejection, a topic near to my heart.

Good Morning, JMM. It’s still dark outside.

Hello!  Just starting my shift here in the press room, quite proud that I made it by 7:30.  Luckily I had the east coast advantage.  Still, it’s dark outside and I’m drinking coffee, trying to stay upright.  I will be here in room 613 all morning, with all of the other glamorous members of the math press, like Barry Cipra and Samuel Hansen.

Barry Cipra and Samuel Hansen in the press room. Math journalism in action!

Barry Cipra and Samuel Hansen in the press room. Math journalism in action!

Samuel Hansen was busily hosting the first episode of the second season of his podcast.  Not sure what Barry Cipra was working on, but I’m sure it will be excellent.

Why did they leave me in charge of the pressroom?  Because everybody important is working on Who Wants to Be a Mathematician.  There are 10 really impressive contestants who will be competing in semifinal rounds at 9:30.  The finalists will compete at 10:25.  Mike Breen hosts the game, and Ken Ono will be hosting the awards ceremony at 10:45.  This is all followed by a public lecture by Simon Singh, entitled “Fermat’s Last Theorem versus The Simpsons“.  All the festivities are happening in room 6A here at the convention center.


Dr. Thomas Hull

Dr. Thomas Hull

First stop: Origami!  My JMM math fun began today with a “Folding compact manifolds without boundary” by Thomas Hull, part of the AMS Special Session on Origami Methods and Applications.  This was a fascinating talk.  One of my favorite features was Dr. Hull’s explanation of (a very elegant mathematical definition of) what kind of transformation constitutes an origami-type folding: it “preserves zig-zagness”.  Also, he led the audience to consider the extension of origami folding to higher-dimensional spaces–I had somehow never pictured folding three dimensional space before, and it was fun.  This session, organized by Hull, Robert Lang, and Erik Demaine (all featured in the excellent origami documentary Between the Folds), continues today in room 4C-3 at 2:15 with a talk by Demaine entitled “Computational Origami is Hard”.

Dr. Erik Demaine

Dr. Erik Demaine