Bletchley Park gets National Lottery preservation funds

The National Lottery has awarded Bletchley Park -- the site of the invention of modern cryptography and a key piece of computer history -- a £460,500 grant as a start on the £10m worth of desperately needed preservation spending. There's some indication that they'll come up with more money in the future, too.

Don't get me wrong, I'm overjoyed to see Bletchley saved from ruin, but isn't it kind of ironic that the funding to preserve the institute that demonstrated, once and for all, the power of randomness and the dangers of statistical innumeracy is coming from a state-sponsored scam that preys on innumeracy and bad intuition about randomness? I suspect that Turing and co would have sensibly looked at the lotto and said, "Pssht, I have a higher chance of dying before the balls are drawn than I have of winning the jackpot. No thanks."

The grant, announced today, is worth £460,500 - a fraction of the £10m it will take to convert Bletchley Park into a world-class heritage site but it will allow the trust to draw up a detailed plan and go back for more. Combined with other money coming in, including grants from English Heritage and Milton Keynes Council, it should be enough to save Bletchley's famous out-buildings.

Hut 6 at Bletchley Park, where a team of brilliant mathematicians and linguists decoded messages sent by Hitler to his generals, is scandalously dilapidated. Its wooden walls and roof are literally rotting away. It was in this hut that messages brought in by bike messengers from listening stations all over Britain were decoded into German. They were then passed to Hut 3, for translation and analysis.

Huts used to defeat Nazis rescued by £4m grant (via O'Reilly Radar)



  1. TBH, I’m not particularly against the idea of National Lottery grants. Let’s face it, suckers will always exist (and that group often includes me); many know very well that they’ll never win, it’s often just a topic for conversation, the excuse to have a chat at the cornershop, maybe take a walk. Winners are usually surprised, and when asked what they’ll do with the money, they cannot answer: they never thought about, you know, actually winning, or maybe they did 30 years ago and have long forgotten.

    OAPs in particular, they often see the lottery as a simple, cheap, social ritual. Lottery grants make sure that the ritual is twice useful for society as a whole, and I don’t see anything wrong in that. The alternative (moeny going to private profit, enriching yet another fat cat) is much worse.

  2. Yeah, it’s not as if it’s the only lottery in the world… and it’s by far not the only state sanctioned one.

    I think it’s unfair to paint all lottery players as being idiots, it’s no different to a casino or even some bets you can place in at the bookies

    The fact that a large chunk of the proceeds goes towards good causes is a good thing… as long as it’s not relied on as a primary funder of essential services.

  3. Complete agreement.

    Also, the very same maths apply to insurance. Really, what is the likelihood of crashing your car? Or of your house burning down? Certainly on average you get out less then you pay in! Complete rip off! No self respecting statistician should ever get insurance cover!


    … or alternatively maths just doesn’t map to live quite so trivially.

  4. I’m all for using the stupidity tax to fund a temple to science and rationality. Let’s have more of it.

  5. I was on vacation in London just two weeks ago, and I had the pleasure of visiting the place. I’m a a math person, but I dragged my math-phobic friend along. I feared that she might not enjoy it, but we both end up enjoying it quite a bit. They have excellent tour guides and information. I’m very glad to hear it’s getting the money it needs to be preserved.

  6. This ties in nicely with the apology to Mr. Turing.

    And as well as being a tax on the math impaired, the lottery is also a means of donating to projects that would otherwise often never get funding with a vanishingly small chance at a really nice door prize.

  7. Actually, under some circumstances it is in fact rational to gamble (and to get insurance, @Certhas #3/#4). The reason is that the utility of money is not linear.

    As one gets more and more rich or further and further into debt, the difference made by an additional pound diminishes. It’s not a symmetrical, simple curve, but overall it’s roughly S-shaped.

    Thus, it’s rational to gamble when one is in debt, for a jackpot of not much more than twice the size of the debt; in that case, the pounds won will have bigger marginal utility than the pounds bet.

    Of course, one would prefer to play a game that has a good return — UK Lotto’s 50% is not really very good — but even then it may still be rational.

    A similar argument would show that it’s rational to insure generally when one is not in debt; however, the curve is not symmetrical and in addition there are the non-monetary costs, so it’s probably rational in a wider range of circumstances.

    As usual, when complaining of the innumeracy of others, be careful of your own :-)

  8. I bung a quid on a lucky dip a week.

    At least then there is at least chance of winning (no matter how small) as opposed to zero chance at all.

  9. “But if you play, you have an infinitely better chance of winning than not playing!”
    (#9 posted by Domomojo)

    Not so — I stand a greater-than-zero chance of winning the lottery, no matter whether I buy a ticket or not.

    Example: you buy a lottery ticket, then you lose the ticket, then I find ticket.

    Which is about as likely as me buying a winning ticket, so I might as well let you spend money on tickets, and me collect the winnings.

  10. My wife and I were married at Bletchley Park just over 3 years ago. Its a beautiful site worthy of any funding it can recieve. Glad to hear it is being kept afloat.

  11. There’s another case where playing the lottery actually is mathematically a good idea – when the “expectation value” is higher than the ticket price. For instance, assume a $1 ticket, and a payout of $8M, and a 1 in 5M shot of winning – if you were to integrate across all the possibilities, your “average” payout is $1.60 per ticket. And in fact, there *have* been actual “cover all bets” runs on the Virginia lottery in years past – a consortium would pick a week when the prize was more than the cost of all the tickets,and send out hundreds of people to buy thousands of tickets.

    The reason the lottery can *afford* that sort of prize structure is because the top prize is almost always an annuity (paid $X per year for 20 years or whatever), so the current cost is less. So they sell 5M tickets at $1 a piece, buy the annuity that pays $8M for a list of $4M or so, and send the other $1M to wherever the profits go.

    Oh, and that consortium? Yeah, they’re left holding an annuity – so if they won that $8M, they could cash it back in for $4M (losing $1M). So what they’d do is wait for “roll un-won prize money over to next week” to pump up the value so high that even the *discounted* current-value price of the annuity was up around $10M, leaving them a hefty profit after buying the tickets and paying the henchmen to stand in line….

    (Numbers pulled out of an orifice for illustration purposes only…)

  12. No way. My girlfriend probably wrote the quoted press release :-)

    As for insurance being a rip off- the risk may be low but the hazard is high ie getting a £10M lawsuit. Surely everybody has to do risk assessments nowadays

  13. @valdis #13, the UK Lottery pays out lump sums, as do many others.

    The “advertise undiscounted sum of annuity” fraud seems to be a US thing.

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