Elaborate Networks of Siphons, and Other News


On the Shelf

Detail from an illustration in an 1851 English edition of Hero’s Pneumatica.

  • While we’re on government-generated weekend-reading material: if you’re feeling morbid, you could try, instead, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s catalog of the ways people have died on the job. Something about its bland, administrative style makes it a chillingly effective memento mori: “Worker was crushed when tractor he was driving, pulling a bin dumper full of pomegranates, fell onto its side. Worker was possibly trying to make a U-turn while going too fast … Worker was engulfed after standing on a pile of beans at a bean plant … Worker was crushed by a rack of baked goods … Worker was eating lunch and swallowed a bee … ”
  • Well before the likes of Alan Turing, the notion of artificial intelligence came alive in automata, i.e., self-moving machines. The first robots were, in a sense, waterworks. Jessica Riskin writes:Many involved elaborate networks of siphons that activated various actions as the water passed through them, especially figures of birds drinking, fluttering, and chirping … Waterworks, including but not limited to ones using siphons, were probably the most important category of automata in antiquity and the middle ages. Flowing water conveyed motion to a figure or set of figures by means of levers or pulleys or tripping mechanisms of various sorts. A late twelfth-century example by an Arabic automaton-maker named Al-Jazari is a peacock fountain for handwashing, in which flowing water triggers little figures to offer the washer first a dish of perfumed soap powder, then a hand towel.”
  • It’s one thing to translate a dead author, who can no longer quibble with your decisions—but a living author is another matter entirely. “The few living authors I’ve translated,” Lydia Davis says in a new interview with Liesl Schillinger, “tend to be very modest and self-effacing, like Snijders and Blanchot, so they’ll say, Whatever you think is best, this is really your work, that sort of thing. I have had friends who have had very different experiences with authors, who say, No, that’s not it at all, and virtually force them to write in a way that they’re not happy writing. I’ve had times when I wished an author were still alive, especially in the case of Michel Leiris, so I could ask, What exactly did you mean? Actually, Leiris sent me a couple of postcards that I framed. His handwriting is great, black spidery old man’s handwriting. As I remember, he said something like, I’m here to help in any way I can. I don’t think I took advantage of his offer, which is something I really regret, now.”