Century-Old Dictionary Error Shows That 'Professionally' Edited Reference Books Make Errors Too

from the don't-freak-out dept

A couple months ago I finally got around to reading The Professor and the Madman, a book I'd actually picked up a couple years ago just because it looked interesting. It's about the creation of the very first Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and some of the characters (and I do mean characters) involved. Frankly, while the story is interesting, the book feels very padded. It's the sort of story that would have been much better as a long magazine feature rather than an entire book.

However, one thing that struck me was how the OED was basically its own version of Wikipedia at the time. After all, how do you go about cataloging every single English word ever used? Especially when there are really no other English dictionaries to speak of (at least not any that aim to be complete)? Well, you build up a massive roster of volunteers to do all the work for you. That's exactly what OED apparently did. They put out ads and flyers and built up a huge volunteer army to scour books, write down words, and highlight the definition and first usage of those words, which the OED team then assembled. The process took decades, but would have taken longer (if it would have been done at all) had it not been for the army of volunteers participating. Reading the chapters of the book about this part of the process made it sound very, very similar to Wikipedia in many ways. Of course, there was one major difference: at the end of the day, you still supposedly had the "professional" editors deciding what finally went into the book.

I'd been considering writing up a post about that similarities, but wasn't quite sure about how to fit it in, when johnjac alerted us to the story about how a physicist just discovered a 99-year old error in the OED, on the definition of the word "siphon." Apparently, the definition states that it's atmospheric pressure, rather than gravity that makes the siphon work, which is incorrect. Yet, because the OED is considered such an authority, many of the top dictionaries all make the same claim -- and some "professional" encyclopedias do as well (though, not Britannica, if you were wondering). The OED promises to correct the error, though, of course, that won't be until the next edition.

To some extent, this highlights the same point many people have made about Wikipedia for ages: both the "professionally edited" reference books and the open edited reference sources have errors. But how quickly can they be corrected? If Wikipedia had the same error, it could be corrected immediately. With OED, it appears that people needed to wait a while.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    PopeHilarius (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 6:08am

    Dictionaries can have errors? Next you'll be telling me dord doesn't mean density.

     

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    Dark Helmet (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 6:11am

    Wait....

    "If Wikipedia had the same error, it could be corrected immediately. With OED, it appears that people needed to wait a while."

    Yeah, but can Wikipedia keep the wind from shutting my bedroom door? Can it act as a booster seat for a child? Is it heavy enough to kill an attacking puma if thrown?

    In all these ways, the Oxford Dictionary is superior to Wikipedia. If you're actually using the Oxford Dictionary to look up words, you're doing it wrong....

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 6:29am

    Re: Wait....

     

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    fogbugzd (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 6:32am

    Longevity

    One other important difference is the physical, and therefore persistent, nature of the dictionary. The error may be corrected in all new dictionaries, but for decades there will still be physical copies being used for reference. There are essentially no outdated versions of Wikipedia.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 6:33am

    Sorry, but a siphon won't work in a vacuum. Both atmospheric
    pressure AND gravity are required.

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 6:43am

    another fine example of the masnick reaching really fan to try to make what is new look superior. posts like this make you look like a new media shill, not a guru. wikipedia has thousands of errors and is constantly being correct. perhaps we should shut it down until they get everything right.

     

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  7.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 6:44am

    Re:

    No, actually a siphon will work in a vacuum but both containers the pipe is connected to must share the same atmosphere (or lack there of). If they are not, it's other physics that are in affect that aren't related to the siphon.

     

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  8.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 6:47am

    Re:

    "perhaps we should shut it down until they get everything right."

    Agreed. We should also ignore everything written for the last 99 years, since clearly writers composing in English were working with a faulty dictionary....

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 7:07am

    Re: Re:

    damn straight. book burning at the masnicks house. time to fix all those horrible poisoned books that have been floating around for the last century.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 7:10am

    1 error in over 301100 main entries.

    Let me know when Wikipedia even approaches that level of accuracy

     

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  11.  
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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 7:12am

    Re: Longevity

    "There are essentially no outdated versions of Wikipedia."

    Interesting statement. Since WikiP is constantly being edited, it can be seen as *always* being outdated.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 7:13am

    Re:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boson

    Looks pretty accurate to me.

     

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    lux (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 7:26am

    The context of this article seems very off base:

    "However, one thing that struck me was how the OED was basically its own version of Wikipedia at the time...Reading the chapters of the book about this part of the process made it sound very, very similar to Wikipedia in many ways."

    This is like a young girl claiming her grandmother resembles her, when in fact its the other way around.

    Nothing about the OED process mimics or highlights anything that Wikipedia has done. It's completely the other way around. These new-world, tech-savvy buzzwords like crowd-sourcing and mass collaboration have existed for centuries - nothing has changed but the medium.

    Let's all take a step down from the high horse and remember people a lot smarter than us a long time ago created these processes which we all seemed to have rediscovered through technology.

     

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  14.  
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    Richard (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 7:27am

    Re: Re:

    In a vacuum it is likely that all the fluid will evaporate....

     

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  15.  
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    Oh THAT Brian!, May 12th, 2010 @ 7:46am

    Re: Re: Re:

    In a vacuum all fluid will evaporate? Can you explain how some comets are practially all ice?

     

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  16.  
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    Richard (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 7:51am

    Re:

    Let's all take a step down from the high horse and remember people a lot smarter than us a long time ago created these processes which we all seemed to have rediscovered through technology.

    True in a way BUT there is a big difference. The technology seems to enable the enterprise to become much bigger without changing its nature.

    Compare the peer to peer lending site ZOPA with the friendly societies and mutual savings and loans societies that started in the 19th century.

    They are both basically the same idea but ZOPA has been able to become much larger whilst remaining true to its original mission whereas the mutual societies ended up looking much too much like the banks that they originally intended to replace.

    Similarly the OED may have started as a crowdsourced project but it quickly turned into a commercial enterprise like any other.

    Wikipedia on the other hand remains mutual.

     

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  17.  
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    jjmsan (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 7:52am

    Re:

    I found error. How do you know there are not more?

     

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  18.  
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    jjmsan (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 7:55am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Last I heard ice is a solid not a fluid.

     

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  19.  
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    Richard (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 7:57am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Ice is not a fluid....

    Below the triple point pressure substances will transition directly from solid to vapour and back without entering the liquid phase.

     

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  20.  
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    Stuart, May 12th, 2010 @ 7:58am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Ii never knew that ice was a liquid. Thank you for pointing that out for me. Did you look that up in wikipedia or the OED?

     

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  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 7:58am

    Re:

    Intriguing. By pointing out two commonly known references to compare "new" versus "old" and how they are not as dissimilar as one might think, almost pushing the "more things change the more they stay the same" angle, this makes him a media shill because he pointed out an advantage the new reference has over the old when they run into the same problem.

     

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  22.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 8:06am

    Re: Re:

    more than anything, it shows an arrogance, implying that a single mistake by oed almost 100 years ago has somehow destroyed the world, and yet wikipedia is packed full of errors (with new ones added daily!). if you apply the same standards to both, then wikipedia should be shut down because it is so often inaccurate. all that wiki shows is that you can make mistakes much faster now, and people make them more often.

     

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  23.  
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    Ben, May 12th, 2010 @ 8:15am

    Re:

    +1

    This is silly.

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 8:19am

    Re: Re: Re:

    People also correct the mistakes faster now, and people make the corrections more often. Good to know.

     

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  25.  
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    Plastic Spoon (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 8:19am

    Re: Wait....

    And Wikipedia doesn't come w/ that handy-dandy magnifying glass either!

     

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  26.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 8:42am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Good point, 0 pressure, 0 degree boiling point. Still, that's a law of physics that's kinda outside siphons.

     

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  27.  
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    jjmsan (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 8:50am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    I don't see a reading where that comes out.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_point_(thermodynamics)
    This mostly talks about the boundries between liquid and vapor. Do you have a reference for solid liquid boundries?

     

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  28.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 8:50am

    its not really needed your comp's already got one

     

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  29.  
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    drkkgt, May 12th, 2010 @ 9:03am

    Re:

    I think you missed the point. Mike wasn't saying that this is a new format but that its a faster model of the old format. Granted, sometimes faster can include new mistakes or problems but it can also create faster solutions and fixes.

    I read this book a few months ago as well and one of the things the authors highlights is how people would send in words on cards along with references to books and the way the word was used. This would be "pigeonholed" in a large warehouse then editors would review each card for inclusion in the dictionary volumes. This is similar to what Wikipedia is doing now. Post something and put a reference. If there is no reference or citation, it is usually pulled off the article.

    I do acknowledge that there are factual errors on Wikipedia as well as outright falsehoods. Guess what, there are in books too. (hence the saying: "History is written by the victors." Winston Churchill.) Google for articles talking about how history books have changed over the years. How things like the Holocaust and the slaughter of Indians is being re-written or even dropped entirely. Whose to say that some editor didn't like the way a word was used cause that isn't the way he used it so he changed it from the card?

    ps: Mike: I agree with you on the book itself. It was really kind of annoying when I read thru the one chapter that explained the meeting and stuff to only have the author say that was what everyone thinks happened BUT this is now what really happened.

     

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  30.  
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    AJ (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 9:23am

    Re: Vacuum

    There has to be a connection with atmospheric pressure, the professor is not completely right. A siphon cannot work if the hump is significantly larger than the equivalent height of the atmospheric pressure for the liquid, i.e. about 34 feet for water at 1 atm, 30 inches for mercury. It is the pressure of the atmosphere that is pushing the water up the pipe, although gravity does pull it down the lower side causing the liquid to flow. If you try to make the hump any bigger than that height, you'll get a void (vacuum) forming at the top of the hump and the flow will stop.

    The Wikipedia entry for Atmospheric Pressure says "This is also the maximum height to which a column of water can be drawn up by suction" which is exactly what a siphon does, it uses gravity to generate suction that pulls the liquid over the hump. Surface tension might have some effect on the maximum height of the hump, but it couldn't be very big and would depend on the diameter of the pipe.

     

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  31.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 10:02am

    Re:

    Instead of whining, why don't you contribute?

    If wikipedia fails, it is, in part, *our* fault for failing at keeping it accurate and updated.

     

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  32.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 10:23am

    Re: Re:

    ps: Mike: I agree with you on the book itself. It was really kind of annoying when I read thru the one chapter that explained the meeting and stuff to only have the author say that was what everyone thinks happened BUT this is now what really happened.

    Yeah, that was incredibly annoying. It was as if the author set up the whole book to get you to believe that particular story, and then pulls the rug out from under you at the end like some big reveal. Except all it did was make me wonder why it needed 200 pages of setup.

     

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  33.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 11:29am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    the ability to correct later just means that for the most part, they are pretty much loose and fast with the truth to start with. with such a high error rate, it makes everything in wikipedia doubtful, because you never know if it is the truth or just version 0.9, beta of the near truth almost right when someone fixes it. that a dictionary got a single entry wrong 100 years ago isnt exactly damning evidence that paper sucks. if anything, it shows how much more care was put into things in the past, and appears to no longer be the case.

     

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  34.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 12:10pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    You suck at using Wikipedia.

     

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  35.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 1:01pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    that is entirely dependant on the fluid and is irrelevant.

    mercury in a vacume does not evaporate.

     

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  36.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 1:05pm

    Re: Re: Longevity

    While an article is 'being edited' it is not a contributed part of wikipedia, and therefore wikipedia cannot be outdated by material that is not yet contributed. What makes sense though is to say it is in a constant process of being updated (while never being outdated).

     

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  37.  
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    Spumco, May 12th, 2010 @ 1:18pm

    Google...

    "Dord"

    Was intended to reference Density - "D" or "d".

    With no quotes and inaccurate spacing it appeared as "Dord" and was entered into the dictionary.

     

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  38.  
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    Fentex, May 12th, 2010 @ 1:59pm

    It's not such a big error, atmospheric pressure is required as well as gravity for siphons to work.

    If one was siphoning between containers at different pressures it would work without gravity, whereas it would never work without some pressure on the fluid.

    Thus I don't think this is a big enough error to hang an argument regarding fallability on.

     

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  39.  
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    anon, May 12th, 2010 @ 5:03pm

    no attention span for the young

    "would have been much better as a long magazine feature rather than an entire book."

    What are you, 12?

     

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  40.  
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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, May 12th, 2010 @ 5:38pm

    Re: Siphon Won’t Work In A Vacuum

    Since all liquids will evaporate in a vacuum, that is most certainly relevant.

     

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  41.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 9:23pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Yeah, damn that silly Encyclopedia Britannica and its lack of trustworthiness.

    Oh, wait.

     

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  42.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 10:46pm

    Re: no attention span for the young

    What are you, 12?

    Uh, it has nothing to do with attention span. I read plenty of books. It had to do with the subject matter. There's enough to make for a long interesting article. But as a book, he ended up having to pad it to make it long enough, so there were lots of tangents and useless information added to reach book length.

     

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  43.  
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    Richard (profile), May 13th, 2010 @ 1:18am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    mercury in a vacume does not evaporate.
    Mercury has an abnormally low triple point pressure - less than one millionth that of water (1.65 × 10−7 kPa) but it is not zero - and so even mercury WILL evaporate in a true vacuum.

     

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  44.  
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    Richard (profile), May 13th, 2010 @ 1:22am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

     

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  45.  
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    Dave, May 13th, 2010 @ 5:07am

    April Fools

    As several people have pointed out here, the OED has been right for the last 99 years. This sounds like: 1) the Australian physicist and his friends have been yukking it up over how his April Fools prank has been believed by the Brit and Yank press, or 2) an Onion story that made it into the wild - there never was an Australian physicist. In either case, the gullibility of the masses is truly frightening.

    Anyone with half a brain knows that a siphon will not siphon water over 34 feet high. Nothing but (atmospheric) pressure will push water against gravity up to the top - water doesn't magically "suck" itself uphill. And if you want to quibble about water boiling in a vacuum, do the experiment with mercury and substitute 29.94 inches (standard atmospheric pressure) for 34 feet. You cannot siphon mercury at all, not 1 inch high, in a vacuum.

    The "quote" from the OED was a dead giveaway that this was an Onion-style story - they wouldn't promise to "correct" an entry based on the word of one person. I didn't think we were living in Idiocracy, but now I'm not so sure.

     

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  46.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 13th, 2010 @ 8:02am

    what a waste of time.

     

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  47.  
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    gary gregory, May 13th, 2010 @ 11:19am

    siphoning

    there was no error. what, after all, is atmospheric pressure but the effect of gavity , the weight of the atmosphere of the body of fluids.

     

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  48.  
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    Darryl, May 13th, 2010 @ 11:23am

    Mike is WRONG, OED 100% correct (again)....

    "To some extent, this highlights the same point many people have made about Wikipedia for ages: both the "professionally edited" reference books and the open edited reference sources have errors."

    Except there are no errors, except for youre article, OED is 100% and have been for 99 years on this subject, and for you to use what you consider one 'error' in 100 years and comparing that to wikipedia is a joke.

    If you had of spend the same amount of time thinking about how a siphon works that you did writing this 'factual article' you would not have written it.. im sure.

    Yes, a siphon will not work in a vacuum, that is true, no question, fluids evaportate.

    But a siphon uses a thing called the "Bernoulli's Equation", if you look at that equation you will not find "gravity" anywhere, you will find Pressure, density, volume etc, NO GRAVITY..

    If fact a siphon works INSPITE of gravity, not because of it, gravity is the limiting factor of a siphon actually working or not. If the gravity is too high it wont work.

    But it works just fine if the gravity is lower, and it works perfectly in zero gravity, all you need is pressure.

    Sure, on earth most 'air pressure' is from the atmosphere, and is due to gravity.
    But that is not the only source of 'air pressure' and gravity is not required in the equations.

    So in the space station with zero gravity, but plenty of air pressure, a siphon would work perfectly, in fact the
    'h' or maximum height that it could 'lift' (the hump) would be infinate. (no gravity to fight against).

    So based on this, Mike, you as usual shoot from the hit without even what seems to be a second thought about the actual facts. And the ariticle is about accuracy !!!!. go figure...

    Nice try thought, mabey you need to brush up on youre basic high school physics again.

     

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  49.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), May 13th, 2010 @ 11:35am

    Re: Mike is WRONG, OED 100% correct (again)....

    Except there are no errors, except for youre article, OED is 100% and have been for 99 years on this subject

    Odd, then, that the OED has said they're changing the entry. Isn't it?

    So based on this, Mike, you as usual shoot from the hit without even what seems to be a second thought about the actual facts.

    Darryl seems to be confused about how all this works. He seems to be assuming that I was the one claiming the OED was wrong, when I was repeating what others had said.

    And the ariticle is about accuracy !!!!. go figure...

    Indeed. And how experts get stuff wrong. If I did get it wrong (and, again, the OED doesn't seem to think so), then that would further prove my point, wouldn't it?

    Nice try thought, mabey you need to brush up on youre basic high school physics again.

    Only if you brush up on your logic.

     

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  50.  
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    Darryl, May 13th, 2010 @ 4:35pm

    Where is the link

    Show me the statement where OED states that there is an error and that they will fix it.

    Then show me why a siphon would work in zero gravity !!!

    (as it does)

     

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  51.  
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    Dave, May 13th, 2010 @ 5:37pm

    There is no reason a blogger should be expected to exercise more critical thinking than all the others who have quoted this rubbish verbatim. But it would have been a refreshing surprise.

    If you read the paper referenced in the Register article, http://eprints.qut.edu.au/31098/, it's even more obvious that this Oz fellow is either a total nutjob or a superb humorist - I'm still betting on the latter. He claims that the hydrogen bonds between water molecules form long strings with sufficient tensile strength to pull masses of water uphill, and that the strength of these bonds are such that they break at precisely the height (34 feet) supported by standard sea level atmospheric pressure. He neglects to explain, however, why the strength of the hydrogen bonds would decrease with increasing altitude :-). Or how they self-organize into this polymer-like string behavior rather than simply explaining water's high boiling temperature.

    The story here is not whether OED is/was crowdsourced, it is the extent to which patent nonsense explodes into gospel in the blogosphere. "I never said that, I'm just quoting it" is the standard excuse. 'Scuse me, but I prefer old-fashioned journalism with critical thinking and corroborated sources. Even the National Enquirer has those.

     

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  52.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), May 13th, 2010 @ 5:54pm

    Re: Where is the link

    Show me the statement where OED states that there is an error and that they will fix it.

    Darryl, the internet has a neat way of working: stuff that's in blue and changes to a hand when your pointer hovers over it are links. All of my stories link to the original source. If you do that and click on it, you will find the full story, including the quote from the OED about changing the dictionary.

    I'm willing to accept that the original story -- widely reported at this point -- is wrong. But, I find it odd that you attack me, rather than the OED who seems to admit that it is wrong as well.

     

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  53.  
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    Darryl, May 16th, 2010 @ 7:54pm

    You mean "the register" ??

    Where is the link that has the statement from the OED that they acknolege the mistake and will correct the error in the next version.

    Oh wait, you dont have it, and thanks for the tip about mouse overs,,, I really did not know that.

    And you still have not explained how the OED are wrong, when a siphon will work in zero gravity ?

    You cant explain that because if you say something requires gravity to work, but that thing will work in zero gravity.

    It does not take much brains to work out you are wrong and the OED is right.

    But it's a nice excuse to try a bit of FUD..

     

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  54.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), May 16th, 2010 @ 8:43pm

    Re: You mean "the register" ??

    Darryl, yes, TheRegister, where it says:

    "The OED entry for siphon dates from 1911 and was written by editors who were not scientists," explained Margot Charlton of the Dictionary's staff. Amazingly, it seems that in 99 years nobody had ever queried the definition.

    The next edition of the OED will be corrected.


    And, again, I already said that you may be right, and all of these reporters and the OED may be wrong, so not sure why you claim I'm still spreading FUD.

     

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