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Ideas

Brainiac

The book of all colors, 1692 edition

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Defining colors in terms we all agree on is notoriously difficult—what’s dark blue to you could be gray to me, and who’s to distinguish between your lavender and my purple haze? The most important effort to systematize colors in recent times comes from the company Pantone, which has been aiding interior decorators and fashion designers with its famous color guide since 1963. Long before that, however, a nearly anonymous Dutch artist took on the same task himself, producing a remarkable 800-page color guide that was precise before its time. His name was A. Boogert, and he completed “Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau” in 1692—a work full of color swatches that, more than 300 years later, appear as well-ordered (and nearly as vivid) as modern industrial efforts. Unlike the Pantone guide and the hexadecimal color chart used by computer programmers, however, Boogert’s book had a limited impact: He may have found a universal way to talk about colors, but his handwritten book was one of a kind, and few people likely ever saw the order he’d created.

Where are driverless cars legal?

We keep hearingthat driverless cars are coming – but when will you see one? It depends where you are. The used-car website Mojo Motors recently created an infographic that shows the status of driverless car legislation in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. California, Nevada, Florida, Michigan, and D.C. have all passed laws explicitly authorizing companies to test driverless cars on private and public roads within their borders (in large part to attract tech companies). Another 28 states have taken no legislative action at all, and two states have said “no” to driverless cars (Wisconsin and New Hampshire). The rest are in the process of drafting laws – including Massachusetts, where the Division of Highway Safety has until May 15, 2015, to send the Legislature its recommendations. The map suggests we’re headed for a regulatory patchwork much as with cellphone laws: Just like you have to go “hands free” when you cross from some states into others, you may need to sit up and take over the wheel from your robot chauffeur when driving up I-93 into New Hampshire.

Here come GMO mosquitoes

Oxitec via ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Brazil’s hopes in this year’s World Cup rest heavily on star striker Neymar’s right foot. The country’s fate in an even more important struggle may rest on an even smaller point: a lethal gene inserted into a batch of mosquitoes that are among the first genetically modified insects ever released into the wild.

 Bred by the British biotech firm Oxitec, the genetically modified mosquitoes are meant to combat dengue fever, a leading killer in tropical countries. As a post last week on Bloomberg Businessweek explains, they include a self-destruct gene that causes the mosquitoes—and any of their offspring—to die prematurely. The group is only releasing males, which mate but don’t bite. If it works, it would be a rare success in Brazil’s long running battle against dengue.

 Despite the anxiety in some quarters about releasing genetically modified organisms, the mosquito campaign has been underway for some time: The first Oxitec mosquitoes were released in 2010, in the Cayman Islands, and they’ve also been used in Malaysia. A 2011 article in Nature Biotechnology reported on concerns that Oxitec was moving too quickly through trial phases, but overall the strategy seems to be gaining momentum: In April, Public Radio International reported that the US Food and Drug Administration is currently weighing whether to release transgenic mosquitoes in the Florida Keys.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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