Math Train: 64 Hours of Amtrak and AMS Southeastern Spring Sectional

Math beer: custom-made for the AMS Southeastern Spring Sectional!

This blog comes to you from near the end of an epic train trip to/from an excellent AMS Southeastern Spring Sectional Meeting at the College of Charleston. Train time is not a novelty to me—I spend a lot of time on the SEPTA commuter train from Philly to Villanova, grading and writing illegible comments on my students’ papers.  This trip is 12 hours each way, though, long enough that I have considered that it might warrant its own epic poem. That’s the kind of weird thing you can think about on a really long train trip. The epic poem is not happening, but my blog today is devoted to some thoughts on/about this trip.

Taking the train to a conference is awesome. I am one of those weird people who just really like trains, which is why I decided to spend 24 hours on a train to spend 40 hours in Charleston. I was looking forward to looking out the window and enjoying the conductors old-timey uniforms.  And that was great. Unfortunately, I also had to get some work done, including writing my talk for the conference. Fortunately, it is a lot easier to work on a train than on a plane or in the airport.  The seats are comfortable, Amtrak trains have reasonably dependable wifi, and the food in the café car is not really special but is way better than anything I have ever bought on a plane. The coffee is not amazing but holy cow it is amazing that trees and the ocean and neighborhoods are going by as I sit here in this rolling coffee house!!  On the train, I just look up once in a while and get really happy, then go back to work. And work and work and work.  Which brings me to my next thought:

Should it take me this long to make slides for a 20-minute talk?  I gave a 20-minute talk in the Coding Theory, Cryptography, and Number Theory Special Session (which was really nice).  Twenty minutes speaking, twelve hours making slides for the talk. I couldn’t believe it—how can this take so much time?  Especially when I’ve spoken about this work twice already, so had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to say before I started.  My slides were good, but they weren’t that good.  How did that happen?  It must have been the tikz diagrams… Ugh! Which brings me to a question:

What about a 20-minute chalk talk?  There is certainly a whole blog to be written about when to give a slide talk and when to give a chalk talk.  Any 20-minute or shorter talk has always been an automatic slide talk in my mind, and I think almost every 20-minute talk I’ve ever seen has used slides.  But my colleague reported that there were some really nice chalk talks in the Commutative Algebra Special Session of this meeting, so I’m reconsidering my approach.  Not for this talk, mind you: I want to use these slides many, many, more times to justify the 12 hours I put into them. Please, invite me to give this talk somewhere. I may give this talk in the park as a sort of performance art, come to think of it.  Next time, though, I will really consider chalk.

After giving my talk, I settled in to enjoy the rest of the session.  The talks were really good. I got to see my name on someone else’s slides, maybe for the first time. In a different talk, I asked a somewhat vague question about whether some codes from a talk could be considered algebraic geometry codes.  The next person to ask a question prefaced it by saying that their question would “probably be even worse than that last one.” Oh well. Overall the session great, and particularly a hit for me because I connected with a few really nice people interested in the same sorts of questions I care about. And I also met people outside of the session, at lunch.

Everywhere I go, I hear about this intriguing gerrymandering workshop. In a restaurant at lunch, I overheard some people at the table next to me talking about applying for a summer workshop.  Something made me wonder: could they be talking about the Geometry of Redistricting Summer School at Tufts? The workshop I have heard about everywhere, which must be completely swamped with applications, including mine, because it just sounds like such a great idea? Even my non-mathematical friends are sending me links like this story about Moon Duchin, one of the organizers.  I awkwardly interrupted the conversation at the next table to ask, and indeed they were. They were really nice about my interruption and it turned out that one of them lived in Philadelphia and another in Colorado, my two main haunts, so that was also neat.  That’s a win for taking the awkward social chance.

Custom made conference beer—such a great idea.  The Saturday talks ended at 6 PM and everyone converged on a big reception for snacks, wine, and beer.  This was one of the best math conference receptions I have ever attended, and while I’m not sure I can fully pin down why, it had something to do with being outside in the beautiful Charleston evening and the freely-flowing Vorticity Ale, brewed just for the conference by Holy City Brewing. What a good idea!  Bravo to the organizers.

I love sectional meetings.  The AMS sectional meetings hit a sort of sweet spot between highly focused meetings and the giant conferences like the Joint Math Meetings.  Regional meetings mean many people don’t have to travel as far for these meetings, so people with family obligations, tight travel funds, or who for whatever reason just don’t travel as much can come.  The special sessions are good venues for specialized talks, but there are people around from a whole range of disciplines, so the perceived hierarchy in any one discipline seems less important.  I think this all combines to make it easier meet and talk with people, which is certainly the most important part of any conference for me.

Back to the train, this time just out to Villanova for work.  Your thoughts? What’s the best way to get to a conference?  What would make a good custom conference beverage?  Is 20 minutes enough to give a good chalk talk?  Let me know in the comments.


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