A few too many photos from Madison WI, July 2018

Annotated photos from a week in Madison, WI. As usual, click on a picture to see it in full size.

Somehow I never had occasion to visit Wisconsin until 2018, when I had two such “occasions”
in consecutive weeks: the 179th annual convention of the National Puzzlers’ League,
which took place Thursday through Sunday, July 12-15 in Milwaukee; and the next week,
the 13th iteration of the once-every-two years ANTS (Algorithmic Number Theory Symposium
— no, the Proceedings aren’t called PANTS, though the idea was considered when ANTS started
24 years earlier).  Algorithmic or computational number theory is one of the main areas of
my mathematical research, and I have gone to most of the ANTS meetings since the series began,
missing a few only because of unfortunate scheduling and/or inconvenient location
(though I’ve gone as far as Australia and South Korea to attend ANTS meetings);
with ANTS-XIII meeting in Madison in midsummer, I was almost certain to go, all the more so
since I was invited to give one of the plenary talks (for the first time since ANTS-IV, which
was in Leiden, an hour away from Amsterdam).  The NPL convention is held each July somewhere in
the USA or Canada, and I’ve gone to about half of them since my first one in 2004; in the years when
I go, it is usually my only travel out of town that’s for neither work nor family.  The proximity to
ANTS made it natural for me to attend this year’s NPL convention as well.

Kiran Kedlaya, another regular at both ANTS and the NPL conventions, was in the same
metaphorical boat, and indeed we were also on the same literal Badger Bus from Milwaukee to Madison
Sunday afternoon after the NPL convention’s final brunch.  The bus brought me to the UW Memorial Union,
on the eastern side of campus where all the conference events would take place.  Kiran got off at
an earlier stop nearer to his hotel.  Since I had procrastinated too long on securing accommodations,
I had to settle for the Best Western hotel (officially a “Best Western Plus”, whatever that means)
near the western edge of campus, so still had a 30+ minute walk in the humid heat to get to
my lodging for the week.  (See also this larger Google Map for more geographical context.)
The hotel does offer a free shuttle to or from campus, but it would take too long before the next
shuttle would be available; likewise there is a city bus that goes down University Avenue, but
on Sundays it runs only once an hour.  As it turned out, that bus passed me only a few minutes before
I reached the hotel, so I could have sat at the bus stop and made it a bit earlier and less sweaty
(albeit $2 poorer).  Still, given how little exercise I got during most of my time in Milwaukee
and expected to get in Madison, I didn’t much mind the walk, which also gave me some sense of
the local layout.  As it turned out I made this walk once more during the conference, and never
ended up taking the bus at all.

At the hotel I checked in, reserved a shuttle for the evening’s welcome reception
(see the next batch of photos), and settled in a bit in the hotel room that would be
my home for the next five days, after taking advantage of an unusual hotel amenity:
4PM popcorn every day to go with the complimentary tea and coffee by the check-in desk.
I had a bit of time to catch up on e-mail etc., and to consume some of the provisions that
I had chosen from the well-stocked hospitality suite in Milwaukee before everything was
discarded at the convention’s end (we all had been invited to salvage what we wanted
so that this excess food and drink would all not go to waste).

First item on the conference schedule was a “Welcome Gathering” in the common room that
occupies most of the top floor of Van Vleck Hall.  Van Vleck is the home of the math department of
the University of Wisconsin at Madison, but this “Gathering” was the only conference event there.
(By the way I call this the first item because I count “World Cup Finals” as the zeroth,
and figure that it was included mostly for the sake of conference participants from Europe,
who were likelier both to be traveling since morning and to care enough to schedule their
travel around a soccer game.)  Van Vleck’s location and relative height (see this aerial photo
from the math department’s home page) promises great views of campus, downtown, and the
surrounding lakes.  The pictures in the first batch below are not all that spectacular because
they were taken through not-entirely-transparent windows (the balcony beyond the windows was
not accessible) and because the Gathering didn’t start till 7PM — well before sundown but
already getting dark.  It may be possible to restore most of the glory of these view with
Photoshop or similar, and anyway there are plenty of such photos available online.
For the record, the top row shows:

1) View ENE towards the Wisconsin State Capitol; 2,3) Views N and NW towards Lake Mendota


If you kept track of the picture URLs you may have guessed that there is a bonus photo; it shows
a view just a bit to the right of the first (so roughly Eastward), missing the Capitol but with
more of Lake Monona on the other side of the isthmus.

Views aside, the gathering was a first opportunity to meet (or catch up with) fellow ANTS-goers,
and also to pick up our conference folders (with the official program, local information, and
a blank pad of paper for taking notes the old-fashioned way), and our ANTS nametags.  There were
some light refreshments: soft drinks, tea or coffee in the adjacent kitchen, and a cake with two
copies of the ANTS logo in chocolate-brown against the white powdered sugar (this photo, copied from
Steven Galbraith’s Twitter feed, shows the cake before it was cut and consumed).  It’s good that
I had somewhat healthier food with me from Milwaukee and had some before the gathering, though
even so I indulged in a few too many pieces of sugar-sprinkled chocolate cake...  The next photo shows
two large knit hyperbolic surfaces suspended from the ceiling that are the main evidence that this is
a math common room (yes, there are also mathematical books in the bookcase in the background).
The final photo from Van Vleck was taken from an adjacent lecture hall that offered a view in the
one direction (Southeast) not available from the common room.


The conference talks, and also the poster session and business meeting, took place in
the auditorium of Grainger Hall.  The conference photo was taken in the atrium, pictured in
the first photo.  Grainger is at the intersection of Park and University, at the end of the
long nearly-straight path of my walk from the bus stop to my hotel (see the map above),
so I had already noticed it Sunday afternoon.  The building is home to UW’s business school,
which explains the stock tickers and other “money market information” scrolling on the X/O artwork,
which I see is Stuart Keeler’s Virtual Exchange (2008).  (Come to think of it, possibly the design
in the back of the atrium is likewise intended to suggest a stock-market model, here a graph of several
simultaneous random walks.) Another bit of artwork was added to the atrium during the conference:
The organizers found a poster for the 1954 sci-fi/monster film Them!, with “gigantic irradiated ants”
as the film’s Wikipedia page puts it.  (Yes, the official title has an exclamation point,
even though the “!” is missing from the poster art; see the caption on the bottom left.)
I chose the photo’s composition so that the door to the conference auditorium also reflects
the Virtual Exchange’s X and O.


As it happens, my invited talk was the first talk of the meeting.  This meant that I was
intermittently working on it during my time in Milwaukee, but once Monday morning was over
I would no longer have it weighing on me for the rest of the conference.  I chose a topic
that had informed one thread of my research for 20+ years: finding or constructing
algebraic curves with many rational points.  This connects several areas of mathematics,
ranging from the Greek (or rather Hellenic) mathematics of Diophantus to the great 17th-century
amateur Fermat to 19th-century algebraic geometry to foundational theorems of 20th- and
early 21st-century number theory.  These questions also lend themselves to computational
investigation (and thus to the interests of the ANTS community), and can be illustrated
with geometrical artifacts that can be visualized much more directly than is the case for
most theoretical mathematics.  So I was able to show pictures such as the first photo below,
plotting a quartic surface (or rather, its intersection with the central 8×8×8 cube)
that contains 42 straight lines, all defined by equations with rational coefficients.
(Most of the lines are plotted in this version of the picture; the others lie entirely
outside the cube.  Such surfaces arise because the intersection with a typical plane gives
a smooth quartic curve with at least 42 rational points.  I learned this approach from
my colleague Joe Harris.)

I skipped lunch Tuesday; between the hotel’s hearty breakfast, snacks at the ANTS tea/coffee breaks,
and the coming conference banquet, I figured I would not need yet more food that day.
Instead I used the lunch break to take a walk by the lake, starting on Observatory Drive,
which promised a “scenic overlook” (see again the map above).  That drive turned out to also
feature one of several badger sculptures I ran across during this week (first photo below), each with
different decoration.  This must be a UW echo of CowParade; not only is Wisconsin the “Badger State”
(whence the “Badger Bus” serving Wisconsin’s two largest cities and some other locations in the state),
but also a badger named Bucky is the mascot of UW-Madison.  The name and decorations on this
“Celestial” Bucky were presumably suggested by the observatory (second photo) that gives
Observatory Drive its name.  (My two other photos from Observatory Drive were not as successful
for one reason or another.)  I then walked down towards the lake itself, by a boathouse, and took
one of my only two photos from this week where I can be seen in the picture (sort of — note
the mirror in the third photo).


The next triptych shows: 1) summer vegetation by the lake; 2) a path to the lakeshore through
that vegetation, with a DANGER: NO SWIMMING sign (so maybe the path is meant for boat access);
3) Some students(?) playing Frisbee in front of the Dejope Residence Hall (they might have been
incoming freshmen on campus for their SOAR orientation week, but there were other young folks
on campus during that time — later I would walk by a group of kids who said they were in a
cross-country running camp).


I see that I’d been walking “Lakeshore Path”.  In addition to the scenery, this path also
offers a nine-station fitness trail, several of whose stations are variations on this theme.
The first two photos below show the least familiar variation (seen here in wider context)
and its instruction sticker (a bit out of focus, but if you really need instructions you can
also see the Station 4 video on the fitness trail’s page).  I figured that I should head back
so as to get to the afternoon session in time; so I did some pull-ups here, fewer on station 3
on the way back, and then turned towards University Avenue.  On the way I paused to take
a photo of a plaque commemorating a UW-Madison chemist’s discovery of the use of ultraviolet
radiation to enrich foods in vitamin D, which led to the near-eradication of rickets
in the US a few years later.  (The road next to the bike rack merges into Univesity Avenue
a bit further to the left; the fence separates the road from a parallel train track used by
a freight train a few times a day — I saw or heard the train from a distance a few times
during that week, but never managed to get a picture.)


(Elsewhere on campus I saw an Enzyme Research Institute, which I passed on my University Ave. walks,
and a plaque commemorating the creation of the first synthetic gene by 1968 Nobelist Har Gobind Khorana.)

I actually should have turned back sooner: between enjoying the scenery and taking photos I’d been out
longer than I imagined, and didn’t get back to Grainger till the middle of the first afternoon talk.
That evening was the conference banquet (in the UW University Club, which also had the only piano
I saw that week — I played a bit after most of the gathering had dispersed).  I took no pictures
during that time.  Wednesday had a free afternoon, most of which I spent in my hotel room relaxing and
catching up on work, though I did take another walk via campus, and used the hotel’s small gym
(which is equipped about as sparsely as usual in such spaces, though with more interesting artwork)
and hot tub.


Thursday I did not skip lunch, and went to the canonical lunch-foraging spot, the
Library Mall on the UW end of State Street near the Badger Bus terminal stop. This time
I did bring my camera, and took a few photos in all directions: South (it seems that both
façades belong to the same “St Paul’s University Catholic Church”), North towards the lake,
East towards the Capitol, . . .


 . . . and Southwest towards the rest of campus and the University Club (here’s a closer view).
On the way back, a mathematically suggestive sculpture inspired by the threefold-symmetric
Y-shaped footprint of the residence hall behind it, and whose title turns out to be
also mathematical but a rather curious choice.  (I somehow cut off the bottom part
of the sculpture; the artist’s website has a full view and statement.)


Much of the block on the other side of the street is occupied by the massive Mosse Humanities Building
(which I roamed a bit during this lunch break in search of a piano room, but to no avail), which is
apparently due to be demolished any year now and replaced by some other structure — which one of
the locals persuasively suggested would be a big waste of money.  I took my own photo from the
Park/University intersection, showing a rectangular flowerbed on the University Avenue side making
a big red W on a white background; but it’s out of focus so I do not show it on this page.
(Lunch was a beef-and-salad plate from a food truck that offered Mexican/Korean options
such as bulgogi tacos.  So of course the salad included kimchi.  I didn’t take a photo.)

My only photos from inside the auditorium are of the brief award ceremony for the winners of
the prize for best contributed paper, “A database of Belyĭ maps” (more photos here):


As is often the case for math (and other?) conferences, the final day had talks scheduled only
in the morning, so that most folks could have the option of flying back that afternoon or evening
and still have most of the Saturday/Sunday weekend at home.  My flight was scheduled late enough that
I had time to join some of the organizers for lunch before going back to my hotel, collecting the bags
that I had left in storage there, and only then go to the airport.

We chose a Nepalese (or is it “Nepali”?) restaurant on State Street about halfway between
campus and Capitol.  I took a few pictures of the décor and menu, featuring respectively the distinctively shaped
flag of Nepal and Nepali writing (the latter of which I happened to recognize from its cameo appearance
at the NPL convention the previous week — but that’s another story).  No, I didn’t take pictures of
the food itself, which was satisfying but felt (to this Western palate, at any rate) like basically
a variation of Indian food — for instance the “Nepali Chiya” was basically chai, and likewise for
the mango lassi and cinnamon lassi that my lunchmates ordered.  That is not too surprising, because
national borders in that region are often recent and accidental, and one might expect that differences
between the cuisine of Nepal and neighboring India and Tibet would be comparable to the differences
among regional cuisines in the vast country of India itself (indeed the popular staples of “Indian food”
known to many Americans from lunch buffets — saag paneer, chicken tikka masala or tandoori, samosas,
naan, etc. — are themselves a relatively thin slice of the cuisine of India).  The extensive
Wikipedia page on Nepalese cuisine seems to corroborate this impression and expectation, adding
further influences (Thai momo, Chinese chow mein) and internal variation within Nepal.  Anyhow,
I went for a chicken curry, which somewhat to my surprise came with the chicken still on the bone but
otherwise had the familiar flavors and accompanying ingredients.



And then it was time to take the shuttle back to the hotel and find my way to Madison airport
for the trip back.  That proved to be longer and more complicated than expected . . .

(The rest of this page has no more photos, and mostly airport woes.  tl;dr Par-for-the-course
snafus at O’Hare delayed me about three hours, so I didn’t reach Boston till after 2:30 AM,
but at least I didn’t have to stay at a random airport hotel.)

I had a 6PM flight, connecting in Chicago O’Hare to an 8:20 to Boston arriving a bit after 11:30
(a two-hour flight, but it looks like three because time zones).  BW Hotel guests can take the
free shuttle also from or to the airport, but only if it is not otherwise in use; here the
next slot would have been 4:30, possibly arriving as late as 5:30 due to rush-hour traffic,
which would be too late to catch a 6PM flight.  So I asked them to call me a cab instead.
Then American e-mailed me that my flight was delayed by over an hour, long enough that I would
miss my connection, so they automatically rebooked me on a 10PM flight arriving at about 1:20
the next morning.  Later it would turn out that my original flight would be canceled outright,
so I would have been rebooked on the 10 o’clock anyway.  But meanwhile I could cancel the cab,
munch on the hotel's complimentary 4PM popcorn, and take the 4:30 shuttle after all.

Arrived at Madison airport (only a bit after 5PM despite traffic), then checked my e-mail
on the airport’s free WiFi, and found a new message from American Airlines starting
“Due to a delay, you may miss your connecting flight to .  You can try to make the connection,
or you can change your flight now.” followed by a “View available flights” button.
(Yes, the destination after “connecting flight to” was blank.)  The new ETA into O’Hare was
9:45, only 20 minutes before the scheduled departure.  But all the alternatives would involve
an overnight stay at one airport or another.  I figured I would stand pat and take my chances:
maybe I can reach my departing gate in O’Hare in time, and maybe whatever is causing all those delays
will also delay the Chicago-Boston flight enough that making the connection would not be an issue.
(Also, I was checking no luggage, so wasn’t worried about checked bags not making a close connection.)
I changed my seat to the closest-to-the-front aisle seat that was available, and went through security.

There was no further delay leaving Madison or arriving into Chicago, at which point I got
bad news — my departure gate was in another concourse, some 10-15 minutes’ walk away — but also
countervailing good news: the flight to Boston was itself delayed till 10:30, so I would have
no problem making the connection after all.  Of course that meant I was now going to reach Boston
even later, but at least I didn’t have to sleep over in Chicago.

“Of course” even the new 10:30 ETD was not met: first it was postponed to 10:43, presumably because
the previous plane that was scheduled to leave from the same gate was still there so the Boston-bound
one was moved to another gate; then, once I boarded and the plane had “taxi”ed to the departure spot,
the pilot said we were 12th in line (I don’t remember ever hearing such a high takeoff-queue number)
and would not be airborne for another 15 minutes.  So, even without checked bags it was past 2:45 AM
by the time I finally made it out of the airport.

Had I arrived on time (per my original schedule), I would have taken the Silver Line to
the Red to Harvard, dropped off some of my stuff in my office, and then walked home.
But by 2:45 AM the T had not been running for some time, and in any case I needed to
just get home and into bed ASAP.  The place was nearly deserted, but fortunately
there was one taxi there.  The driver named a $35 price for the ride to Cambridge,
which I accepted.  I finally went to sleep around 3:30 AM.

Happily I had nothing scheduled during the weekend.