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In Character with Peter Drake

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF PETER DRAKE - Lewis & Clark College computer science teacher Peter Drake knows a little something about hot topics, including how to juggle fire and keep students interested in class.Peter Drake has juggled fire knives in four luaus at Lewis & Clark College, which is notable because Drake is better known as a mild-mannered computer science teacher at the college than a knife-wielding, well, anything. But a few years ago Drake was invited to one of the student-run celebrations and he replied, “If I can’t juggle fire, forget it.” So that’s exactly what he does.

Portland Tribune: Which is harder, teaching computer science to students or catching a fire stick thrown at you from across a stage?

Peter Drake: Computer science requires deeper and more precise thought, but fire dancing requires much faster thought.

Tribune: Are you a guy who normally does things like that?

Drake: I’m not an athletic or graceful person. Growing up I was always the one afraid of the ball. Now it’s flaming knives. But I’m also someone with no shame.

Tribune: What other shameful stuff have you done?

Drake: Not shameful. Shameless. One of the activities our department does every year is open math night, which is an open mic with bad singing and vile puns. We did Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and it was about writing a bad program.

Tribune: And that makes me wonder if is there anything funny in math or computer sciences classes.

Drake: I try to include jokes in my classes.

Tribune: Try me.

Drake: There is a theorem called the pumping lemma. A lemma is like a small theorem. When I explain this I put on a muscle shirt and sweatsuit and become one of the Hans and Franz (characters) from “Saturday Night Live.” Unfortunately, the students have to ask their parents what that’s about.

Tribune: That’s not a joke. My theorem remains — there’s nothing funny about computer sciences. Can you prove me wrong?

Drake: This dairy farmer is trying to increase production. They call up a local university and ask to have an expert sent out. They send out an engineer, a psychologist and a physicist. The engineer goes out to the barn with a tape measure, draws some diagrams, and says, “If you rearrange the stalls you can fit two more cows in.” The psychologist interviews the cows and says, “The problem is, your cows are depressed. If you play music and paint a mural on the barn door they’ll be happier and more productive.” The physicist walks over to the blackboard and says, “Assume a special cow with a uniform distribution of udders.”

Tribune: Yes?

Drake: That was the punchline.

Tribune: How was that a punchline?

Drake: Because in low-level physics and math classes you are using an oversimplified model. The spherical cow is a very simplified model.

Tribune: You’re making my point here. Let’s move on. You’ve been working on a program to allow a computer to play Go. Why can computers beat our best chess players, but not our top Go players?

Drake: It’s a bigger game in terms of how many moves are possible.

Tribune: How long till a computer beats a human at Go?

Drake: One more breakthrough is needed. It’s going to happen.

Tribune: Are you rooting for the humans or the computer?

Drake: That will be a day when I need to choose a new research topic. If it’s my program it will be a very happy day.

Tribune: Who is geekier, physics or math professors?

Drake: I believe recent surveys show the word geek has a positive connotation. It’s now to the point where people sometimes are accused of being fake geeks.

Tribune: So are you a real or a fake geek?

Drake: I think I’ve established my geek credentials pretty solidly.

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