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Oxford Dictionary Considers Going Online Only 153

Posted by Soulskill
from the wonder-if-they'll-blame-google dept.
Kilrah_il writes "Oxford University Press has confirmed that they are considering offering their next version of the Oxford English Dictionary as an online version only, with no option for a hardcopy. The 20-volume set, whose last edition (2nd) was published in 1989, weighs 145 pounds (65kg) and costs about $1,165. It is considered the 'accepted authority on the meaning and history of words.' In 2000, the dictionary was offered online for $295 a year and has been getting 2 million hits a month from subscribers. The printed version, on the other hand, has sales of only 30,000. Work is now progressing on the 3rd edition, but it's still a decade or more away from completion. Oxford University Press is considering going online-only with the next edition of their flagship product, but not for other products such as their best-selling Advanced Learner's Dictionary. At least for now."
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Oxford Dictionary Considers Going Online Only

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  • The printed version, on the other hand, has sales of only 30,000

    At $1,165, that's $34,950,000, still a tidy sum.

    • Exactly, and its all for the same work. This next edition when it comes out in 2020 or whenever can still pretty much use 99.999% of definitions from 1989, the definitions of words don't change too much in academia, after all the OED isn't going to track the movement of slang that is in use for a year or two then fades out of the vernacular.

      Not to mention that once the OED is complete, they can make a lot of money taking smaller portions of it and selling it to students, libraries, etc. that is all the
      • after all the OED isn't going to track the movement of slang

        That is one of the big reasons for owning the OED. They track all known meanings of a word, and the time periods when the meanings appeared in print.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by AvitarX (172628)

        To be the 'accepted authority on the meaning and history of words.' it better track that.

        Or at least the 2 year meaning of words that are still used. It's 150 lbs. of books, it has a lot of detail.

        One needs the slang definition of out of use words more than common use definitions. The point is to look up a word that one doesn't know, find out where it comes from, and when it was used.

        That way if someone for example wants to know what the "fresh prince" meant, they can see it meant cool, and not talk backy

      • by DragonWriter (970822) on Monday August 30, 2010 @06:09PM (#33420598)

        Exactly, and its all for the same work. This next edition when it comes out in 2020 or whenever can still pretty much use 99.999% of definitions from 1989, the definitions of words don't change too much in academia, after all the OED isn't going to track the movement of slang that is in use for a year or two then fades out of the vernacular.

        As a reality check on this, the first installment that was revised -- which deliberately started with a portion of the dictionary expected to need less revision than some other portions -- has 1,045 main entries, 286 of which were added in the revision (63 of those were included in previous supplements, so "only" 223, or 21.3% were completely new), and ~400,000 words of text (compared to ~200,000 words of text in the corresponding sections of the existing edition.)

        So, no, the 3rd Edition is not going to be, from the facts in evidence at this point, just as minor update to the second edition.

        Further, as to your comment about whether or not the OED will endeavour to track transitory slang, to quote from the preface to the Second Edition: "The aim of this Dictionary is to present in alphabetical series the words that have formed the English vocabulary from the time of the earliest records down to the present day, with all the relevant facts concerning their form, sense-history, pronunciation, and etymology. It embraces not only the standard language of literature and conversation, whether current at the moment, or obsolete, or archaic, but also the main technical vocabulary, and a large measure of dialectal usage and slang."

    • by Red Flayer (890720) on Monday August 30, 2010 @05:23PM (#33420048) Journal
      Too bad production costs for a print run that small are huge. They're probably making unit profit on the hard copy somewhat close to what they're charging for the soft copy license. But there are a lot of fixed costs with the OED... editors, researchers, typesetting, etc. That thing's got a lot of pages!

      Besides, you buy the hard copy, you keep it on your shelf for 20-25 years or so until the next edition comes out.

      Instead, they get you @ $295/yr for 20 years assuming price doesn't change). Yes, you get easy access to updated content... but instead of spending $1165, you're spending around $6000 over that twenty-year period.

      So instead of $35 million over 20 years, you're talking $165 million. Now THAT's getting close to a worthwhile sum of cash.
      • DAAS!

        Dictionary As A Service!

        • DAAS!

          Dictionary As A Service!

          It already exists. [wikipedia.org]

        • Not to sound too dystopic, but...

          We need physical libraries with physical books as a 'checksum' to make sure things aren't being changed behind our backs. When hard-copy of 'absolutes' like paper encyclopedias and dictionaries begin to disappear, I can't help but think of the principles of the Ministry of Information in Orwell's 1984.

          When the fundamentals of our only available in remote databases that can be changed at any time means knowledge becomes empirical. And your source must be absolutely tru
      • I'm going to take the role of a devil's advocate here and see if ther perhaps is a cost savings even with the seemingly higher costs.

        Let's assume a large university of 10,000 or more students. Perhaps the students only need to access the OED twice during their four years. That's 20,000 'uses' over 4 years... 5,000 times PER YEAR. Even if you assume uniform access across the 20 volumes, each volume will be physically handled 250 times per year.

        Now, it's hard to treat this like a normal library book, but a

        • by toastar (573882)
          umm... You don't check out a 150lb book, it stays at the library and you go to it.
          • Also that use is spread over 20 books rather than just one.

            • Also that use is spread over 20 books rather than just one.

              Umm, did anyone read my post?

              I DID say the book stays at the library, and I DID say the use would be spread over a multi-volume set.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by adamdoyle (1665063)

            Actually it's a 20-volume set weighing a COMBINED total of 150 lbs. That's only 7.5 lbs a book. You're right though, you still don't check them out. They are typically in the "reference" section and you MUST keep it in the library (you can't check it out).

            • Actually it's a 20-volume set weighing a COMBINED total of 150 lbs. That's only 7.5 lbs a book. You're right though, you still don't check them out. They are typically in the "reference" section and you MUST keep it in the library (you can't check it out).

              Correct, you don't check it out. Which is why in my post I said it wouldn't go home with the student. Check-out in this context means taking it off the shelf and using it, then putting it back. Only one student is using a single volume at once.

          • Yeah... I mentioned that in my post.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mangu (126918)

        they get you @ $295/yr for 20 years

        As you mention, this means around $6000 for a twenty years period, instead of $1165 for a printed version.

        The times they are a'changing. Why should anyone want to pay $295/yr for something they used to get in printed form at $58/yr, assuming one bought a new edition of the OED once every twenty years?

        Do the OED publishers really think it's worth paying five times the price, besides not getting a set of printed books, just to get the few slang words that appeared since 1989

        • by arth1 (260657) on Monday August 30, 2010 @07:13PM (#33421176) Homepage Journal

          I went to the OED site, wondering whether it was possible to still buy the paper version. It is, and it's not $1165 like the submission here claims; it's only $995.
          That's only $50 per leather-bound volume, or less than your average O'Reilly animal series paperback.

          The problem with DVD versions is that they rely on specific software that won't be available a decade from now. I can't use my Encyclopædia Britannica DVD from a few years ago, because it's incompatible with modern operating systems. Had I bought the paper version instead, it would have had access, and so would my kids. And it would have seen a whole lot more use.

          Similar with OED -- this made my mind up that I need to buy the paper version of OED while it's still possible.

          • by sconeu (64226)

            Didn't the Britannica CD use Navigator and HTML? ISTR having a version from the late 90's that did that.

            Seems to me that it should work OK with FF.

            • by arth1 (260657)

              Outdated Quicktime all over the place, and HTML "designed" for 75 dpi displays, plus a search that throws javascript errors. The only way to get it to "work" is to run it in a virtual machine with an old OS without networking (so various software can't update).

          • by mangu (126918)

            I can't use my Encyclopædia Britannica DVD from a few years ago, because it's incompatible with modern operating systems.

            Same here. I paid $100 for the CD version Britannica when it first came out. I don't remember if it was for Windows 95 or 98, but I cannot use it on XP or newer system.

            Unless my home gets burned in a fire (unlikely in a brick construction) or I have a severe termite, moth, or other paper eating insect infestation, I see no reason why my 1984 hardcopy version wouldn't be readable for

          • by tehcyder (746570)

            I can't use my Encyclopædia Britannica DVD from a few years ago, because it's incompatible with modern operating systems.

            Why, what OS does it need?

        • by gmhowell (26755)

          Concurrent lookups, durability, less real estate used, less maintenance.

          There are more benefits than getting slang words.

        • The times they are a'changing. Why should anyone want to pay $295/yr for something they used to get in printed form at $58/yr, assuming one bought a new edition of the OED once every twenty years?

          Much like there are consumer versions of any given product, there are also professional quality versions that have much higher standards and much higher costs. The OED (individual) subscription probably only sells to people that use it as part of their work. What you buy with the digital subscription are the yearly updates and the convenience of checking words from your computer. Again for people that use it for work, this is a major time saver.

          People that buy the OED, buy it because the need the very best

        • they get you @ $295/yr for 20 years

          As you mention, this means around $6000 for a twenty years period, instead of $1165 for a printed version.

          The times they are a'changing. Why should anyone want to pay $295/yr for something they used to get in printed form at $58/yr, assuming one bought a new edition of the OED once every twenty years?

          Do the OED publishers really think it's worth paying five times the price, besides not getting a set of printed books, just to get the few slang words that appeared since 1989? Haven't they ever heard of Google? That's the way I learn about the new slang!

          Perhaps:
          Storage space is an issue.
          Accessing it from multiple locations is a benefit.
          Not having to worry about it burning in a fire, getting stolen, or getting otherwise damaged.

          CTRL+F is pretty useful, too.

      • by Kjella (173770)

        But there are a lot of fixed costs with the OED... editors, researchers, typesetting, etc. That thing's got a lot of pages!

        Well if they're doing it for the online edition all the material is there already, it just needs to be made into a book form. I can't honestly imagine many other than libraries and etymologists who'd buy this behemoth, I doubt you lose much online sales, it's more likely to be good advertising at the library so they don't use Wikitionary instead, no matter how unauthoritative it is.

      • Of course, getting money up-front is more valuable than money distributed over a period of time. A recurring payment of 295 a year for 20 years is worth roughly 2 or 3k up front. Which is still a price hike, but not nearly as steep

      • by steelfood (895457)

        The two formats really are for different things. The digital version is easier and faster to use. It's superior in the short run. The print version is hardier, able to remain useful under any situation. It's superior in the long run.

        There are a lot of advantages to a digital version that print simply can't give you--that is, if they take advantage of the benefits of digital.

        The largest advantage is search. The ability to search not only by the headword, but also within different parts of the entry like the

        • And if nothing else, I like knowing that in 100 years, my descendants would still be able to use it, even if it will be a little dated by then.

          If nothing else, I pity whoever has to carry such an amount of dead trees every time they move to a new place.

          (oh, the beauty of e-readers).

    • and requires over a hundred thousand online subscribers to equal it.
      TFS refers to "over 200 hits a month" how many of those are new people and how many are existing suscribers?
      200 people looking at it once a month is not going to do it.
      more like 116500 people looking at it once every 4 years.
      I'm sure they have a plan and I hope it works out for them.

      • by mea37 (1201159)

        Are you drunk?

        'and requires over a hundred thousand online subscribers to equal it.'

        No, it requires over a hundred thousand online subscriber-years to equal it. If the 30,000 users who purchased the print copy each subscribe to the online service for an average of 4 years (much less time than they proably hang on to the books), then Oxford is ahead. (And that's not even counting the fact that they'd not have to pay to manufacture the physical books.)

        Then again, I bet most of those print copies went to lib

  • by Darkness404 (1287218) on Monday August 30, 2010 @05:11PM (#33419868)
    Of course they want to go online only, think about it, a 10 year subscription is over $2,000 for them to pocket compared to only $1,165 for the printed copy that lasts a decade. Plus, they can raise that fee in the future and don't have materials cost (which is significant in a book that large)
    • Of course they want to go online only, think about it, a 10 year subscription is over $2,000 for them to pocket compared to only $1,165 for the printed copy that lasts a decade.

      Lasts far more, I imagine. Probably 95% of the definitions haven't changed recently, so using last decade's edition is hardly the sin that using, say, a ten-year-old IT book would be.

      While an OED would be awesome, even if I shelled out for one I wouldn't pay again in ten years. How many people who need one now will have the money, space, and incentive to get a new one in a few years?

      • And honestly how often are you going to flip through 10 volumes of 5 point font printed on bible paper so thin you can see through it just to look up the definition of a word?

        • by PCM2 (4486)

          Actually, you're thinking of the "compact edition," which comes with a magnifier to read the microscopic print. The regular version is 20 volumes precisely because the text isn't all that small and it's not printed on onionskin paper.

      • Probably 95% of the definitions haven't changed recently, so using last decade's edition is hardly the sin that using, say, a ten-year-old IT book would be.

        In the first section they revised for 3E from the current 2E, over 25% of the headwords are new from 3E, and the total wordcount has doubled.

        While an OED would be awesome, even if I shelled out for one I wouldn't pay again in ten years. How many people who need one now will have the money, space, and incentive to get a new one in a few years?

        Almost ever

    • by vlm (69642)

      They release every 20 years, not 10 years. And the paper copy doesn't magically crumble into dust when the next edition is released.

      So its more like $4000 online vs much less than $1000 for printed copy over the same interval.

      They don't seem to get many "hits" when divided by the number of entries/articles.

      • by vlm (69642)

        Work is now progressing on the 3rd edition, but it's still a decade or more away from completion

        My job is killing too many brain cells (my own, I mean). Thats more like a thirty year release cycle. As you can see, Debian has nothing to be concerned about. So that means more like $6000 of online revenue vs less than $1000 for the printed product.

        At $295 per year, and govt subsidized toner, paper, and labor, I think you'd be better off printing the whole thing out, rather than subscribing for decades.

        • by jd (1658)

          They're 20 years into this new edition already but are reportedly only 27% complete. They say they'll release in another decade but unless they're planning on buying some illegal substances for accelerating the staff working on the project, the numbers simply do not add up.

        • At $295 per year, and govt subsidized toner, paper, and labor, I think you'd be better off printing the whole thing out, rather than subscribing for decades.

          Getting it to look and feel even half as good as the OED 2nd Edition might prove difficult.

      • They don't seem to get many "hits" when divided by the number of entries/articles.

        By that standard, Google doesn't get many hits either.

        By why would anyone ever use that standard?

      • They release every 20 years, not 10 years.

        The project was started in 1857. The first version (under the name _A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles_) was published in installments between 1884 and 1928, a supplement and reprinting under the title _Oxford English Dictionary_ took place in 1933, supplements to this first edition OED were published between 1972 and 1986. The Second Edition OED was published in 1989. I'm not sure how you infer either a regular release cycle of 10 years or 20 years

  • I'm going to miss the deluxe boxed editions that are over 12 pounds of dead tree plus a little drawer complete with magnifying glass. I'm not kidding, I once saw one a book shop that had a little compartment that held a magnifier.
    • I'm going to miss the deluxe boxed editions that are over 12 pounds of dead tree plus a little drawer complete with magnifying glass

      You probably won't. Not if the closest you came to using it was "seeing in a bookstore." Now if you tended to give them as graduation gifts, or used one yourself, then, yes, you might miss the set's disappearance.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by jd (1658)

        Assuming it does disappear. The Oxford Press hasn't made a final decision and won't until much closer to the time of publication. It might well be that they're deliberately stoking the fires so that they can start putting out requests for "advance orders". If they sold just as many copies but got the cash 10-20 years earlier than they otherwise would have, they've 10-20 years worth of interest they can collect for extra profit. That would be a big difference.

    • Re:That's too bad. (Score:5, Informative)

      by DragonWriter (970822) on Monday August 30, 2010 @06:14PM (#33420640)

      I'm going to miss the deluxe boxed editions that are over 12 pounds of dead tree plus a little drawer complete with magnifying glass. I'm not kidding, I once saw one a book shop that had a little compartment that held a magnifier.

      The Compact Edition (the two-volume version of the First edition or single-volume version of the Second edition which used even-smaller print) that come with a magnifier is not a deluxe edition. It is an inexpensive (compared to the regular, multivolume normal-print set), portable (again, compared to the regular, multivolume, normal-print set) reproduction of the regular set.

  • Resist the urge! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by blankinthefill (665181) <blachanc@@@gmail...com> on Monday August 30, 2010 @05:18PM (#33419964) Journal
    I've been lusting after a full copy of the OED since I was introduced to it in my Freshman year of High School. However, as a poor college student majoring in Math, I just can't justify the costs right now... However, once I'm able to, I know I will be purchasing the full set, and would almost certainly purchase the 3rd edition when it is finally ready. While I know that I'm part of a very small minority, I think my existence (as an average person, not a writer, with an education in the sciences and not language) as a soon to be customer shows that there IS a market for these in print, and that much of this market would be absolutely devastated if the OED did go online only.
    • by kevinmenzel (1403457) <kevinmenzel@gmail.LISPcom minus language> on Monday August 30, 2010 @05:22PM (#33420010)
      I fully agree (only I'm a poor history major... so I may have to wait until the 4ed before I can afford a copy...)
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by vlm (69642)

      I've been lusting after a full copy of the OED since I was introduced to it in my Freshman year of High School. However, as a poor college student majoring in Math,

      So, the physics guys lust after a full set of Feynmans lectures, the CS guys lust after a full set of Knuth, most of the rest of the guys lust after the ladies, but you're trying to tell me the math majors lust after a dictionary?

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        but you're trying to tell me the math majors lust after a dictionary?

        Maybe, or maybe he's trying to say that the maths majors lust after them. I'll have to check my dictionary.

    • by jd (1658)

      It depends on how the online data is presented. If you could write a harvesting engine to pull in the entire dictionary, convert it to TeX for typesetting, then get it professionally printed and hard-bound, you'd not only have a paper edition but you'd also have a guaranteed unique paper edition unless someone used identical software. Given enough time, so that the online edition you scraped no longer exists or is no longer readable by any hardware/software of the time, you'd have a collector's item whose v

    • by bigjarom (950328)
      You know, for only $400 you can get the 'small type' edition.
      Check Amazon for "The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary"
  • How is this a news article? Oxford University Press says that when they are ready to publish their next revision in 10 years, they might consider doing it online only if there isn't a demand for the hard-copy version.

    Calling it "wild speculation" just doesn't do that term justice.

    • by idontgno (624372)

      How is this a news article? Oxford University Press says that when they are ready to publish their next revision in 10 years,

      Hey, the /Editors are doing their duty by laying the groundwork for a decade of dupes and highbrow versions of Duke Nukem 3D and Phantom Console jokes.

    • by blair1q (305137)

      The send out annual updates (a service included in the purchase price). The next full revision, with all of the updates since the most recent full revision, is due in 10 years.

      Which is, IMO, the best possible reason to turf paper editions.

      Put it online and you can update it in real-time.

    • by duguk (589689)

      How is this a news article? Oxford University Press says that when they are ready to publish their next revision in 10 years, they might consider doing it online only if there isn't a demand for the hard-copy version.

      Calling it "wild speculation" just doesn't do that term justice.

      I'm actually surprised this wasn't the Collins English Dictionary announcing this - after all, it's them that's owned by Murdoch. [wikipedia.org]

  • That's one PDF I wouldn't want to download.

  • Well, I guess you could use an online version to play the Dictionary game [wikipedia.org] , but nothing says "family fun for everyone" like passing a giant dead-tree-edition dictionary around the living room.

    • Passing one dictionary around? It would get boring quickly when playing with all the words between maven and maw.

    • by BobMcD (601576)

      Or you could have even more fun by sliding down a slide of razorblades into a vat of acid.

      Seriously people, Monopoly. Look it up. :)

  • My childhood called (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Y-Crate (540566) on Monday August 30, 2010 @05:26PM (#33420086)

    In my personal, completely subjective opinion, there were few things more satisfying to do at a library than open the biggest damn dictionary you could find to a random page. (This was after I finished playing Ghostbusters in the stacks)

  • Thankfully most academic institutions already provide proxy access to OED online for the students/faculty. I'll have to stay in academia just so I can get free access to OED and the precious definitions within...
    • You've got at least three years while you're getting your degree to arrange to keep an account on a machine that you can bounce HTTP requests through (i.e. anything running sshd on campus). If you can't manage that, you probably don't deserve a degree...
  • Kindle version? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Ichijo (607641) on Monday August 30, 2010 @05:36PM (#33420218) Homepage Journal

    The CD-ROM version is available for $215 [amazon.com]. They really ought to make it available for e-book readers.

    • Re:Kindle version? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by RapmasterT (787426) on Monday August 30, 2010 @05:44PM (#33420334)
      sure, who wouldn't want to spend hundreds of dollars on a DRM restricted copy of something in a format that isn't guaranteed to even be supported in 5 years. I'd MUCH rather have it in a self-contained CD format, or even better some kind of format that didn't need a special program, or reader, or even device to read. If only someone could come up with some way of having text information archived in a format that was completely device independent, and or even usable without electricity...THAT would be revolutionary. I'd sign up for that. If only it existed.
      • by blair1q (305137)

        If only it existed.

        It does, but you're going to have a bitch of a time calling it up on your iPhone from your dorm-room webserver during a test.

  • You know, I'm all for going digital and keeping electronic backups of things, but one big problem with selling digital-only of anything is that some form or specialized reader (in this case, a computer) is necessary to access the information contained within the document. Having the entire Oxford dictionary in paper form means that future generations and cultures can simply pick up the text and start reading/translating it based on context. Having the next edition in purely digital form means that some futu
    • by dangitman (862676)

      Having the entire Oxford dictionary in paper form means that future generations and cultures can simply pick up the text and start reading/translating it based on context.

      What makes you think future generations will have eyesight or be able to recognize letter forms? Perhaps they will have lost those capabilities from having their brains constantly plugged directly into a data stream?

  • ... if for no other reason than to have a copy around that can still be read in 1000 years.

  • by wordsnyc (956034) on Monday August 30, 2010 @05:49PM (#33420384) Homepage

    In Ohio, most public libraries let you access the OED online from home if you have a library card.

    • by PCM2 (4486)

      Same here in San Francisco.

      Check your public library's Web site for a list of online databases you can access if you login with your library card number and PIN. Chances are, one of them will be the OED.

  • Consider an extinction-level event, such as an asteroid collision with earth. Presume that we cannot deflect the asteroid because we detect it too late, or some other reason you can imagine.

    In that case I would bet that humanity, although scattered to the wind all over the planet, would survive in some form. But, who will maintain the internet? Who will preserve all of the data? And, even with that data, we still have to find all of the necessary components to read it (SATA controller, display board, connec

    • by blair1q (305137)

      If there are humans in one piece, there will be computers in one piece.

      What's going to be unrecoverable is our oil-based economy.

      The paper dictionaries that survive the asteroid won't survive being used as kindling.

  • It is considered the 'accepted authority on the meaning and history of words.'

    For those of us who don't read English, does it come in a French translation?

    • Yeah they left out the "English Language" before "words" there unfortunately. English speakers have a tendency to think that English is the only "real" language, the rest of them are sort of fake languages people speak to fool us into thinking they are real languages.

      It is the most complete dictionary of any language on the planet to the best of my knowledge though, and likely a standard to which the rest of the language dictionaries aspire to one degree or another.

      I have the Abridged version of the Oxford

    • French isn't a language, it's a throat condition.

    • Yes, it's called the Grand Robert de la Langue Française by Alain Rey, 6 volumes, 2nd edition 2001 (ISBN: 978-2850366734).

      As far as I know, it's gone electronic only since a couple of years, but you may still be able to snatch a dead tree version somewhere.

      It's 4 volumes shorter compared to the OED, but that's not surprising when you consider that half of the english lexicon is made up of french imported words, only the other half being genuinely saxonish and thus germanic in origin, hence the need to

  • If they do decide to drop the printed version - then there seems to be little point in waiting 10 years until they "complete" the current edition before publishing it. They could simply release any completed sections into the online version at whatever frequency made sense.

  • OED CD-ROM based versions have been pretty terrible with DRM and obfuscating their database.. However, v4.0 CD-ROM (at least for mac) contains _no_ DRM, and appears to only be obfuscated in terms of how the backend database is stored.

    I've been working on this on and off for a while and am pretty close to being able to fully decode their dictionary to the XML -- the sticky part is that their app is written in haxe and presented as a flash application to the OS, but defies any standard flash reverse engineeri

  • There is a single volume compact edition available for $400.
  • Why don't people just go to wikipedia, answers or hell, just google the word and click on the first hit. Also there are so so many dictionarys around - including open-source ones - so why should anyone pay ?

Numeric stability is probably not all that important when you're guessing.

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