As a boy in northern England, David C. Parkes was upwards of 12 when he got his first computer. It was an Acorn Electron, beige and clunky, with 32KB of memory and one sound channel. He used it to program his own adventure games, set in mythical lands where visitors hunt for objects like gold or keys.Parkes has the keys to his own kingdom now, or at least to an office in Maxwell Dworkin, where he is the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.The academic world he inhabits is not a mythical land exactly, but contains mysteries enough for most of us. Parkes specializes in the arcane mathematical regions where economics and computer science intersect. “If you are working on both,” he said of the two disciplines, “the problems become extremely interesting.”Parkes is an expert on combinatorial auctions, the bidding and buying of complex packages of goods that is one of the hidden algorithmic underpinnings of electronic commerce.Combinatorial auctions inform a hybrid branch of economics and computer science that was pioneered in a 1982 paper about landing slots at airports. What a designer is after in such auctions is “optimization” — getting the most efficiency and value from a decision in which possible choices might number in the billions.It’s no accident that Parkes is interested in operations research too, a branch of complex mathematical decision-making that rose out of Allied logistical demands during World War II. All of his Ph.D. students study it, along with economic theory, computer science, and artificial intelligence.Operations research is all about “making operational decisions about how to allocate resources — for example, how an airline decides to fly which plane where and when,” said Parkes.Such complex decision-making challenges a classical idea in economics: that markets are controlled by rational agents. “Humans are not the rational economic actors we like to theorize about,” said Parkes. So his research aims at designing markets that promote simplicity of interaction for market participants.“We’re in the business of how to solve coordination problems and optimization problems that span boundaries,” he said, and there are many self-interested agents.Parkes wants to construct mechanisms that simplify the decision making that agents have to do. That requires an intersection of computer science and economics. “The Internet itself is at once a computational system and an economic system,” said Parkes of the complex algorithms that underlie modern life. “You have to understand both.”Coordinating decision making in the realm of the Internet may prefigure what he calls “a market of minds.” This future ensemble of connected computer systems would be “like an artificial social system,” said Parkes, and provides structure to the idea that intelligence is modular.Then there is what artificial-intelligence futurists call “singularity,” a point in the future when machines acquire general intelligence that is superior to human intelligence. That may be just 30 years away, said Parkes. “There are all these questions that sound like science fiction.”In the meantime, he added, scientists have to begin thinking of the ethical implications of such shifts.Parkes still has the old Acorn Electron in his home office — a reminder perhaps of the happy accidents that he said have made the past two decades a “whirl” — from a state school in his home village of Holmes Chapel, to an engineering science degree at Oxford University, doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and a post at Harvard since 2001.“I had this very early introduction to computers,” said Parkes, whose father is a physicist and whose mother a one-time dental office radiographer. “But I never thought that it was an academic trajectory.”And yes, there is life outside computer science. Parkes is an avid cook and gardener, and is refurbishing an old Victorian house in Cambridge with his partner, Robert Carr, an artist and architectural enthusiast. “It’s a work in motion,” Parkes said.
The pecan, a Georgia crop staple, packs a much higher antioxidant punch than its nut-cousin the almond. But what the little-known nut is high in is overshadowed by what it’s low in—research, marketing and consumer data.With a four-year, $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, University of Georgia food scientist Ron Pegg and his team now have the funding to transform the pecan’s image from holiday baking ingredient to year-round powerhouse. Their goal is to give consumers more information on the nutrient-packed nut and provide pecan growers with long-term profitability by improving their production efficiency and productivity.UGA will lead grantWith UGA as the lead, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant also involves collaborators from Texas A&M and New Mexico State universities.Pegg’s research on pecans started with peanuts. As a food scientist in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, his specialty is looking at the nutrients and bioactives—like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals and blood pressure- and cholesterol-lowering components—that certain foods possess. From 2007 to 2009, Pegg worked with Ron Eitenmiller, an emeritus food science professor at UGA, on a nutritional study that examined the health potentials of new peanut varieties. During that time, they were approached by pecan producer Jon Robison of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association to see if more could be learned about the pecan’s nutritional and health benefits. That led to a meeting with Hilton Segler, who was GPGA president at the time, and Duke Lane Jr. and Buddy Leger of the Georgia Agricultural Commodity Commission for Pecans. Past research led to grant awardFunding from the commission helped Pegg generate the preliminary data on pecan bioactives, which led to the USDA award and four years to work on pecan improvement. “In looking at pecans versus other tree nuts, pecans are the highest in antioxidant activity,” Pegg said. “We’re extending our research looking at antioxidant activity, and we’re finding higher values than those listed in the USDA oxygen radical absorbance capacity database.”Antioxidants may assist the body’s natural defense mechanisms as they keep in check the potentially harmful effects of free radicals, which, according to Pegg, are reactive oxygen and nitrogen species that the body produces from normal metabolism. Free radicals are also encountered in the environment.Pecans may help prevent metabolic syndromeA 2011 clinical study from Loma Linda University found that pecans could help reduce biomarkers associated with cardiovascular disease and possibly metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is the tendency of several conditions to occur together, including obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes or pre-diabetes, high blood pressure and high levels of fat in the blood. A qualified health claim from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration also says “scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts [such as pecans], as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease,” which equates to between 18 and 20 pecan halves.“Some consumers are very unaware of the nut’s benefit,” Pegg said. “There is a lot that they don’t know about pecans.”What consumers do know is that they like them. Pecan exports to China have skyrocketed since 2004, from 5,455 tons when the nut was first introduced to 40,273 tons (about 80.5 million pounds) in 2009, according to the Texas Pecan Growers Association. Chinese eat pecans in many ways like Americans eat peanuts—street vendors soak them in flavoring solutions, roast them, crack them and sell them by the bagful, Pegg said. And now India is also showing interest in importing the nut.Georgia is no. 1Georgia is the highest pecan-producing state in the U.S., producing 75 million pounds in 2010, an off year of production for this alternate-bearing tree. Texas and New Mexico followed with 70 million pounds and 66 million pounds, respectively.Pecan trees typically have a two-year cycle. They produce more nuts in odd years in Georgia than they do during even years. That, too, is something Pegg hopes his team can change through the project’s horticultural initiatives. A more consistent supply could lead to higher profits and more stable prices.Pegg’s UGA grant collaborators include M. Lenny Wells, a UGA Cooperative Extension horticulture pecan specialist on the UGA Tifton campus. Wells and faculty at Texas A&M and New Mexico State universities will be running horticultural studies and developing outreach materials. Pegg and Philip Greenspan, an associate professor of pharmaceutical and biomedical sciences in the UGA College of Pharmacy, will be conducting pecan analytical and biological studies. John McKissick, an agricultural economist and professor emeritus in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and Sharon Kane, a food business development specialist with the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, will be examining both the production and marketing economics of pecans. When USDA Assistant Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced Pegg had received the grant, he was in Gdansk, Poland, as an invited guest lecturer at the Gdansk University of Technology. During his two weeks of lectures on functional foods, nutraceuticals and foods for health, he fit in a little pecan promotion.“I mentioned that pecans have the highest antioxidant levels of tree nuts, and one of the students asked me ‘what is a pecan?’” he said. “In Europe, they’re very familiar with hazelnuts and walnuts, but they haven’t heard of pecans.”