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Short items of interest
January 1, 2005

Sensitive Dust

Checking the dust on a door sill is an age-old way to see how clean a house is. Now researchers from the University of California, San Diego, are using specially engineered “dust” to see how clean the environment is. Chemistry professor Michael Sailor and graduate student Jamie Link have engineered small, glittery grains of silicon, about 100 micrometers on a side, that change color when they come into contact with organic pollutants in the air or water. Each particle is riddled with tiny pores that are coated with compounds that attract pollutants. As pollutants are drawn into the pores, the reflective properties of the particle change, producing a color shift that can be detected with a handheld reader up to 30 meters away. The researchers, who’ve licensed the technology to an undisclosed company, are working on particles tuned to a host of specific pollutants, so a user could simply toss out a handful of the dust to see immediately what, if anything, had poisoned the air.

In the Workplace, It’s BYO PDA

Personal digital assistants increasingly constitute an ad hoc component of the workplace information infrastructure – and are often unsupported, unintegrated, and insecure. Eighty percent of nurses, for example, purchase their own PDAs to use on the job, according to a Spyglass Consulting Group survey. They’re not alone: research by IDC shows that only about half of companies are footing the whole bill for workers who use handheld devices.

Drug Development is Virtually Dead
By Spencer Reiss

Genomics technology and science were supposed to unleash a cornucopia of powerful new drugs. Bill Haseltin – who stepped down in October as the chairman and CEO of Rockville, MD – based Human Genome Sciences – explains why that hasn’t happened.

By all accounts, massive investments in genomics-based drug research haven’t paid off. Why?
Productivity has actually declined at virtually every big pharmaceutical company. We’ve traded constraints on drug discovery for constraints on drug development.

Was the promise of genomics-based tools oversold?
It’s not a science question. The current methods of drug development are still structured for another age.

You have a better idea?
Outsource the whole process to specialists – discovery, development, manufacturing, clinical trials. The skills that used to be housed in a few big pharmaceutical companies are now widely distributed around the globe. You manage it with contracts.

So do what a lot of the semiconductor industry has done – go virtual?
Drug targets are best developed based on scientific knowledge, which generally means an academic setting. A virtual or semivirtual company can take a group of those and coördinate the best providers at each stage, wherever they are. Most industries began seeing this long ago. That’s where I want to put my energy now.

Would you go offshore?
They’re doing great work now in China, India, and Eastern Europe. And in many disease categories, you don’t want to do trials in the United States because there are simply not enough patients, and the FDA is – I don’t think “obstructionist” is quite the right word, but in practice, that is the effect.

Alzheimer’s research – you’ve been banging a drum for it. Anything to do with turning 60?
Alzheimer’s is where AIDS was in 1985 – the fundamental knowledge base is there. But whereas with AIDS there may be ten different therapeutic approaches, we have twice that number for Alzheimer’s. It’s a problem that’s ready to be solved.

Scribe of Code and Prose
By Spencer Reiss

Ask computer programmers their favorite weblog and many answer “Joel”—that is, Joel on Software, written by veteran developer Joel Spolsky. By day (or is it by night?) Spolsky runs New York–based Fog Creek Software, which makes Web and software development tools.

Programmers are a famously cranky crowd; what explains your appeal?
I rarely write things that are controversial. Usually I pick on some established dogma that is just obviously wrong. Or something nobody ever believed for a minute but is still being spouted.

Let’s try a famous one, then: “Bloatware is bad.”
“Bloatware” sounds bad, but I like my software to do lots of things and have all these capabilities, whether or not I need them.

You also skewer “big handwavy generalizations.” Could you give an example?
There’s no possible level on which anyone can seriously say “Microsoft doesn’t know how to do operating systems.” But otherwise intelligent people quite happily say it nonetheless.

Joel on Software has been known to generalize.
I do this as a public service! I want people to think about the big picture.

Define “geek.”
A kind of light Asperger’s syndrome – very literal minded, doesn’t quite see the big picture. They’re not good at, say, reading faces. They don’t know when people are angry with them. So they often fail at social context. And they fail unpredictably, which is even more aggravating.

Judging by Linux and other open-source programs, geeks also have problems making software for ordinary people.
Open source is driven by programmers’ desire to show off what they’ve done. So everybody dives in and adds a feature, and you end up with endless menu options, most of which ought to be invisible. The Firefox browser project has made a big effort to stay simple. But the traditional open-source community doesn’t respect design; it only respects code.

Auto Drool

Antidepressant users, AIDS and Parkinson’s-disease patients, and millions of others are plagued with “dry mouth,” an annoying dearth of saliva that affects speech and sleep – and which can lead to serious infections. An international research consortium headed by a dentist and an electrical engineer based in Ra’anana, Israel, has teamed up to develop a tooth-sized implant that fights dry mouth by prodding underperforming salivary glands into action. Implanted in place of a wisdom tooth, the device contains a microprocessor, a wetness sensor, and electrodes that stimulate the nearby lingual nerve, which controls saliva production. The patient can use a remote control to fine-tune the amount of stimulation the nerve receives. The researchers are now testing the prototype implant on volunteers in Italy, Spain, and Germany and hope to have a version ready for market by the middle of this year.

3-D on the Fly

Full-color holograms are one of the best ways to visualize new car designs, or the enormous amounts of data collected in fields such as petroleum exploration and homeland security. Zebra Imaging of Austin, TX, has found a way to make large, full-color holograms quickly and relatively cheaply. Its prototype system is monochromatic, but it takes only 90 minutes to print a green hologram into a “tile” of film about .6 meters on a side; the best technology available to date, also from Zebra, costs $12,000 per full-color tile and requires three days in an isolated, vibration-free environment. Once inscribed, the tiles can be combined to form larger images. The prototype uses an off-the-shelf, pulsed green laser that burns exposures into the holographic film in bursts lasting only nanoseconds. Zebra is now developing complementary red and blue lasers; by early next year, it expects to be able to print full-color holograms at perhaps half the current cost.

No End in Sight for Bandwidth Glut

Despite the ever increasing appetites of Internet junkies, the international fiber-optic backbone is still massively overbuilt, with only one-quarter of its capacity currently being used. San Diego-based TeleGeograhpy Research predicts that the glut will persist for at least the next five years.

Immortality in a Test Tube

In due course living things stop growing, then show signs of aging, ultimately die; all living things, that is, except parts of animals or plants maintained in tissue cultures. The animal connective tissue cells called fibroblasts, for example, kept in tissue culture so that they are well provided with food, and waste products removed, continue to grow vigorously for indefinite periods of time. Thus although the life span of domestic chickens is but a few years, chick fibroblasts placed in tissue culture decades ago are still growing as lustily as ever; and barring some technical accident to the cultures apparently will continue to enjoy perennial youth forever. Tissue culture is indeed immortality in a test tube.

(January 1955, p. 131)

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