Category Archives: Day One

For the WIN

The AWM panel (with cool slideshow in the background).

The AWM panel (with cool slideshow in the background).

Among the few non-committee things I did yesterday was attending the AWM Panel Discussion on “Research Collaboration Conferences for Women: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?”. Moderated by Michelle Manes, and featuring panelists Maria Basterra, Susanne Brenner, Ellen Eischen, Kristin Lauter, Kathryn Leonard, and Ami Radunskaya, the panel mostly focused on spreading information about existing conferences for women. These conferences are not AWM-specific, but they have partly been sponsored by the organization.

I had the privilege of attending two of the WIN (Women in Numbers) conferences, and I was glad to see a packed audience and to hear many questions about these opportunities. These conferences started with WIN, held at Banff in 2008 and organized by Kristin Lauter, Rachel Pries, and Renate Scheidler. According to Lauter, the three were sitting at a number theory conference and realized how few women were in attendance. They wondered if it was possible that there are just not very many women in Number Theory. During lunch that same day, they decided to write down names of female number theorists off the top of their heads, and by the end they had a list of about 75 people. They decided that there was clearly something causing women not to attend, be it availability, inclusivity, and appeal of existing conferences. The goal of the conference was to focus on talking about and doing mathematics, with senior mathematicians at the helm of various projects, and mentoring early-career mathematicians and advanced graduate students. They figured that was the critical transition period in which women were dropping off research mathematics. Another goal was to have a proceedings volume attached to the meetings, in part to have some end result for the participants, but also to encourage continued collaboration and research from each of the groups.

Now, the Women In (Blank) conferences have spread to other areas, like WIT (Women in Topology), WISh (Women in Shape – about shape modeling), WhAM (I forget this acronym), and others. In fact, I have been having fun thinking of other acronyms and how to fit them to this conference (someone needs to come up with a conference for WICKED or WIRED).  All of these conferences have followed similar formats: focus on research, pick problems and groups ahead of time, create and maintain an email list and network, and publish a proceedings volume.

Two recent developments make these conferences much easier to plan. The first is that there is now a Springer series devoted to AWM proceedings. The second, more exciting, and more recent one is the award of an ADVANCE grant to the AWM by the NSF. This grant is intended for the sole purpose of creating, supporting, and encouraging more of these types of conferences. What was once an isolated endeavor of motivated individuals is now supported by an organization whose goal is to promote participation in mathematics by women. How cool, right?

Of course, there are many objections to things like this. Some of the common ones are: is it OK to exclude men from this? Are women going to be able to collaborate with men if they only go to these conferences? Is it detrimental to graduate students to have publications in these proceedings rather than by themselves on a “real” journal? These questions have been asked many times.

To the first one, someone in the audience (I forget who, my apologies) gave the best answer: it would be unfair to have conferences for only women if the system was actually fair. But, the mathematics world is not fair in its treatment of men and women (even though it has gotten better), so giving the underprivileged group a small advantage can only tip things in the direction of fairness. Of course, many people will disagree with this statement, but I found it very pleasing.

The second question was a little silly if you think about it: what is the problem if a woman somehow decided to publish only with other women? How is this different from what men have been doing for centuries? I really didn’t understand the point of this question.

To the third, Lauter gave a great answer. These proceedings are actually peer reviewed very seriously, and many of the papers published are high caliber research. And how can a publication hurt you, really?

Anyway, I left excited about coming up with a new acronym and organizing a new conference myself. Would you?

The panel shows off some of the proceedings volumes.

The panel shows off some of the proceedings volumes.


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.

Meetings survival tips: Knitting in committee meetings

My soon-to-be-scarf, courtesy of the AWM Executive Committee, the MAA FOCUS Editorial Board, and the AWM Business Meeting.

My soon-to-be-scarf, courtesy of the AWM Executive Committee, the MAA FOCUS Editorial Board, and the AWM Business Meeting.

I spent a large chunk of my day yesterday like many “grown-up” mathematicians do at the JMM: in committee/editorial board/business meetings. Don’t feel too bad for me though, I also went to a couple of receptions (mathematicians never outgrow the need for free food).  More importantly, though, I have found an excellent coping mechanism (and I know I’m not the only one): I bring my knitting.

You would think this might distract me from the content of the discussion (and you may even think that’s the reason I bring my knitting to meetings), but in fact it has the opposite effect: focusing on one thing actually helps me focus on the discussion. I am not good enough yet that I can read or make my own comments while knitting, though, so I tend to stop for those things. But it does make things in turns more interesting and easier to endure.

I mean, committee meetings are about approving motions, discussing future action, and in general deciding important things about the committee you’re in, so they need to happen. But more of these things are routine, we usually always agree, and they are by nature not super-exciting. So having my knitting makes it all seem more productive somehow: I helped make decisions AND in the end there is something pretty to show for it (meaning the thing I was knitting).

I’m sure people have other mechanisms for keeping themselves engaged and not too bored during a meeting, but this one is my favorite. It definitely is better than daydreaming (what I am prone to do when people are talking a lot) or looking at my phone (which people do way too much). How about you, any tips on how you deal with long business or committee meetings?

Addendum: If you’re interested in knitting and other crafty things, make sure you check out the Knitting Circle at 8:15pm tonight in the Sheraton Grand Ballroom D (on the 2nd floor).

The Swag Guide to the Exhibit Hall

You know why you’re really here: exhibit hall swag. No trip to the Joint Meetings is complete without a trip around the exhibit hall. You’ll probably run into an old friend, and you can pick up some free stuff. You can get pens and candy pretty much everywhere, but some of the booths have some more exciting items. If you only have a few minutes to make a pass through, here are my picks for the top swag.

My JMM swag haul. Not pictured: large quantities of candy. (The Pi Mu Epsilon booth has Heath bars!)

My JMM swag haul. Not pictured: large quantities of candy. (The Pi Mu Epsilon booth has Heath bars!)

Right at the entrance, Maplesoft is handing out blinky light clip things. The nice man at the booth said you can use it to be a little more visible if you’re out walking in the dark or just to spice up a boring outfit. Maplesoft is also holding drawing for three gömböcs, odd little solids with two equilibrium points, one stable and one unstable. You can enter the drawing at the entrance to the Networking Center on the 4th floor (4D).

DeShaw is handing out umbrellas, and Pearson has some reusable water bottles. Sage is handing out some stickers, Tessellations has free bookmarks, and the Heidelberg Laureate Forum will hook you up with a keychain. The NSA booth has Cubebots (existence of a surveillance device inside is neither confirmed nor denied, mostly because I didn’t ask). 


Cubebot may be watching you.

The Legacy of R.L. Moore booth has lots of free resources about inquiry-based learning and the man himself. I (and many others) feel uncomfortable about how much reverence is shown to Moore, a famous racist who deliberately put up barriers to black students, but there’s no doubt that the Moore method and IBL have had a huge impact on my mathematical life.

As they have the past few years, Elsevier is providing free massages. (If you’re participating in the Elsevier boycott, you might have to decide whether it extends to free massages.)

The MAA doesn’t have any outstanding swag, but while supplies last, they are selling some slightly used books for $5 or $8. I picked up a copy of Studies in Global Geometry and Analysis, edited by S.S. Chern.

The American Statistical Association has a pretty good spread. I got a copy of Significance magazine and a math-themed magnetic poetry set (to complement the one I already have at home!). I passed on the cloud-shaped stress ball, but it was cute.

As usual, the AMS booth packs a swaggy punch. I saw yo-yos, magnets, sticky notes, coasters, foam hands, and calendars, including my favorite, the calendar of mathematical imagery. But my favorite item might be the maze pen, available in a wide range of colors.

The perfect pen for after you get lost in a talk.

The perfect pen for after you get lost in a talk.

Until 5 pm tonight (January 6), you can also enter a drawing to win a $100 AMS bookstore gift certificate.

I somehow missed the Math Reviews booth, but I have it on good authority that they are handing out fold-up frisbees, post-it notes, and even t-shirts if you agree to have your picture taken and posted on MathSciNet.

While you’re in the exhibit hall, make sure to enjoy the art gallery as well. If you want to follow along at home, the art exhibit has a page on the Bridges website.

Did I miss your favorite swag? Let me know where I can pick it up!


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