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Extreme Software

I cannot agree with the premise that the problem with software is programmers (“Everyone’s a Programmer,” TR November 2003). We know how to write good software-it just takes too long, and it’s too expensive for the rather trivial consumer products that currently drive the industry. With product cycles shorter than a year and profit margins low or nonexistent, programmers are not permitted to write good code. Now the solution proposed in your article is to get rid of programmers and replace them with machines to do the programming. These programming machines have been touted as the solution now for years, but they can produce coding errors on a grander scale than mediocre human programmers. When such tools finally appear, and accountants and insurance specialists can write their own software, I think we will discover just how bad software can really get.

E. G. Merrill
Daglish, Australia

Your articles on new software paradigms are thought-provoking, particularly the story about Charles Simonyi’s efforts. I was surprised, however, to see no mention of visual programming. Visual programming seems like a reasonable way to make the program look like the design. One reason that software projects become difficult is flaws in design. Exposing these flaws early would help, and visual programming could make such flaws more visible.

Beryl Nelson
Tokyo, Japan

Treating Chronic Pain

The article “Stopping Pain” (TR November 2003) highlights a major yet only recently acknowledged medical problem: chronic pain. Many biotech companies assume that because blocking activity of peripheral pain neurons is effective in the short term, it will also work for chronic neuropathic pain arising from damage to neurons. But evidence is accumulating that damage and degeneration of peripheral pain-sensing neurons is a major cause of neuropathic pain-and thus unlikely to cure it. Loss of input from pain-sensing neurons causes changes in the spinal cord and brain, as central neurons increase their electrical gain to compensate for fewer incoming peripheral signals. The article ignores an effective treatment technology for neuropathic pain: nerve or spinal-cord stimulators. These implanted electrodes provide long-lasting relief. The mentioned divergence of opinions between biotechs and clinicians/scientists about mechanisms of neuropathic pain may have adverse consequences for investors and businesses, and for patients awaiting better treatments. Biotech research needs more input from clinicians and patients-the ultimate authorities about disease.

Anne Louise Oaklander
Harvard Medical School
Boston, MA

RFID: Truly Innovative

We were bewildered by Michael Schrage’s column “Little Bang for the RFID Buck” (TR November 2003). First of all, the casual statement that there’s a huge difference between customers who invest in innovation to save money and those who invest to make money runs counter to the principles of modern finance. In fact, one of the clearest ways to add value in a company is by reducing costs. Radio frequency identification (RFID) has the potential for massive cost savings, which can be illustrated by a back-of-the-envelope analysis, as the author himself mentions. Second, the article surmises that consumers will not benefit from RFID. In fact, as more and more companies reap the benefits of RFID in a competitive environment, they will pass most of the cost savings on to consumers. RFID also has implications for food safety, quality control, counterfeit prevention, and homeland security. Third, the article fails to note the Auto-ID Center’s public policy, which includes explicit support of consumer notice and consumers’ ability to deactivate, destroy, or discard the RFID tag. On balance, the article seems to run counter, at a gut level, to innovation. Isn’t innovation the hallmark of Technology Review?

Sanjay Sarma
MIT Dept. of Mechanical Engineering
Brian Subirana and S. P. Kothari
MIT Sloan School of Management
Cambridge, MA

Correction: Due to an editing error, Joe Chung’s column (“Lunch Is on Me,” TR December 2003/January 2004) indicated that Ovation Products has received investments from Polaris Venture Partners and Cardinal Partners. In fact, like all the companies that Chung will profile in his columns, Ovation has yet to raise any venture investment.

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