The American Institute of Mathematics (AIM) hosts an interesting style of workshop that I tried at the end of November 2015. There are talks as usual in the morning, but the afternoon consists of working in small groups to solve problems. This post will be a selective tour of my week-long stay at AIM. Firstly, AIM is located in San Jose, California:
It's a city of around a million people and is known as one of the main parts of Silicon Valley. Walking around you'll see hundreds of familiar tech-company offices like Sony and Dropbox and hundreds more that you've never heard of before that sound like Nutex, Tradex, and Techtex.
The Conference Itself
"Automorphic kernel functions" was the topic of the workshop I attended. In practice this reduced itself to several categories: basic functions, endoscopy, and beyond endoscopy. The emphasis was on the relative trace formula. To get a better idea of what went on, we came up with a list of questions of varying levels of precision that represent a good selection of the current interests of our group. These questions should appear on the AIM Problem List website soon enough, at which point I'll make a further post about it.
The workshop itself consisted of talks in the morning, and small group meetings in the afternoon. The topics of the group meetings were decided upon in the first couple of days. Does this style of workshop work? Yes! The afternoon sessions were often detailed and interactive enough so that I could start working on small problems myself, which normally doesn't occur with a talk-only style of conference. And although I didn't start up any collaborations myself, I witnessed a few occur, some of which clearly made progress. There was some difficulty in finding a balance between precise questions that people could actually work on a more general, vague questions that could essentially only be discussed reasonably amongst senior mathematicians.
I would definitely like to attend such a workshop again, and if I had to make one modification, discussion sessions would experiment with moderators to keep the discussions more focused, even though moderation may not work in all cases. A second related problem was that people were meant to move around to different workshops during the week or even midway through the afternoon, which I found didn't work very well because those who stayed in the same group were already deep into discussing problems making it difficult for newcomers to learn anything. However, these two problems are relatively minor.
All in all, I feel like workshops of this style should be more common given that mathematics is becoming more and more technical every day, and researchers being motivated to explicate actual problems that can be stated succintly without the need to understand every aspect of a vast theory is crucial in the continuing development of mathematics.
The Hotel has some great features about it: it has a fairly nice gym by hotel standards, which includes a cable machine, free weights up to fifty pounds, a pull-up bar, and several cardio machines. There's also a heated pool, which is comfortable even when it's 10C, though at this temperature, getting out of the pool is a bit of a shocker. I get quite restless sitting down all day and these exercise aids were greatly beneficial to my stay.
There is one bad thing about this hotel that particularly affects people who are tempered for warmer, humid climates: it is incredibly drafty and dry. So, although this might not matter during the summer months, the early December nights were quite dry and I had much difficulty sleeping. I even brought a full-sized humidifier, which barely helped because the rooms are too large. If I had to go again, I'd bring two humidifiers.
The Weather and Outdoors
Obviously, the weather was nice, and the workshop started on November 29. Even at this late date, there are still a few rose blooms:
I saw this one in the ???. This garden and the ??? are both not so far from the Hotel. The best way to get there is walk along the ??? river path. To get to the first rose garden should take about an hour, and since the weather is nice there shouldn't be any problems. Again, this is quite nice because sitting down all day thinking about math needs its balance and a change of scenery.
There's a small area of restaurants quite close to the hotel, including a Subway, which is where I got most of my dinners. Near the rose gardens there is a grocery store called Trader Joe's that is well-stocked and has lactose-free milk. I got several supplies from there once, including coconut water, which I recommend for conferences as they can lead to dehydration. Of course, the hotel rooms don't have refrigerators, but you can store perishables in a makeshift icebox made from the garbage can holders, which are large plastic boxes. The ice must be replenished twice a day from the ice machines on each floor and I recommend covering the icebox with a towel to increase efficiency.
Near the grocery store there is also a buffet called Sweet Tomatoes that is by far the best food in the area. However, both do take around an hour to walk to so the only way to get to them practically is go on a day before or after the conference. I never tried the hotel restaurants as they seemed too pricey.
Aside from the wonderful rose gardens that still have about 20% of their blooms, the other major attraction in the area is the Rosicuran Egyption Museum containing one of the largest collection of Egyption collections in North America. It has artifacts like this boat of soldiers:
According to the inscription, such artifacts were placed in tombs to protect the dead.
I never went downtown, though the AIM does provide preloaded public transportation cards to use on the light rail and bus systems. Aside from the couple of days I had before the conference, there was simply no time to do any sightseeing during the conference, since every day is from 9-5.