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BBC: How to generate random numbers in 1971 [video] (facebook.com)
95 points by sys_64738 6 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 33 comments

ERNIE is on display in the Science Museum in London if you happen to be in the area and want to have a look.

It's pretty impressive when you're up close and personal with it.


They've also got the prototype ERNIE mark 1 at the National Museum of Computing[0], next to the Colossus[1] (the first programmable digital computer) given it was designed by some of the same team very shortly afterwards.

[0] https://www.tnmoc.org/notes-from-the-museum/2019/4/18/honour...

[1] https://www.tnmoc.org/colossus

I'm not sure if they're still ordering things the way they were when I last visited, but I loved the ~10m walk from abacus to a Babbage Difference Engine too.

Plus, if you have a flexible lunch it is a practical visit over a few days at this time of year too.


Looks like they are on v.5 now:

> ERNIE 5, the latest model, was brought into service in March 2019, and is a quantum random number generator built by ID Quantique. It uses quantum technology to produce random numbers through light, replacing the former 'thermal noise' method. Running at speeds 21,000 times faster than the first ERNIE, it can produce 3 million winners in just 12 minutes each month.


If someone wants to figure out where the OP's clip begins, we can add a "#t=" and switch to the YouTube URL above.

(Normally I'd do that but am a bit rushed at the minute.)

OP's vid was made 6 years after the longer one above, not a clip of it.

Ah ok. Thanks!

Makes you wonder what the overhead on this was compared to just giving all the bonds an interest rate.

A lot of things we do today in IT feels overly expensively done, but looking at this really makes you appreciate how far we’ve come in terms of efficiency even with modern over engineered solutions.

State-backed application of behavioural economics [0] was the driver behind the RNG overhead, not efficiency: "Premium Bonds were introduced [...] to control inflation and encourage people to save" [1]

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prize-linked_savings_account#E...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Premium_Bond#History

The randomness of premium bonds are the whole point. If people wanted a flat interest rate they would just buy a normal bond, or some other kind of investment.

Premium bonds are so popular precisely because they are unpredictable. It's like buying a lottery ticket, except unlike a lottery ticket, you get your money back if you don't win.

> The randomness of premium bonds are the whole point.

This isn't strictly true, there are other reasons why they might be attrative. Premium bonds are tax advantaged (as opposed to most other investment vehichles in the UK).

For certain income brackets, they are a reaosnably efficient liquid store.

Alternatively, you could put your money in a normal bond and invest the interest payout into lottery tickets.

Its a bit more hassle to do that, and I think you're likely to be worse off for your efforts. The UK 10Y Government Bond currently has a 0.525% yield[0], and the UK National Lottery prize fund is 47.5%[1], meaning in the exceptionally long term you'd turn your 0.525% return into a 0.249% return. If you factor in that the Lottery prize fund is weighted very heavily towards the larger sums that you'll realistically never win, then the likely return within a normal lifetime is probably around half of that. Compare with the Premium Bond's 1.4% return[2].

[0] http://www.worldgovernmentbonds.com/country/united-kingdom/

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Lottery_(United_Kingd...

[2] https://www.nsandi.com/interest-rates

This was very interesting thanks! I was especially surprised that the effective interest rate of Premium Bonds is 1.4%, which is pretty good compared to today's savings rates in the UK. When I last checked (quite a few years ago) Premium Bonds were quite a poor deal.

It's a little unfair that you said "the Lottery prize fund is weighted very heavily towards the larger sums that you'll realistically never win" but don't qualify that the effective interest rate of Premium Bonds also includes some high value but unlikely prizes. I wonder what the interest rate is for 50th percentile prize winners.

Edit: This page[1] on MoneySavingExpert shows the median (50th percentile) Premium Bond winnings are 1.16% over a year if you have £15,000 invested, and are 0%(!) if you have £1,000 invested. They also have a winnings calculator[1], which shows that median probabilities don't compound over time in the way you'd expect: for £1,000 over 5 years the median return is £50, which is equivalent to 0.98% compound annual interest. (It may actually be fractionally higher because I don't think the calculator assumes you re-invest the winnings in Premium Bonds.)

[1] https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/savings/premium-bonds/

[2] https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/savings/premium-bonds-calc...

That sounds right. Using the latest figures I can find online, the lowest Premium Bond prize (£25) was £75,665,750 of the total £88,099,800 prizes[0], i.e. over 85%, whereas lowest National Lottery prize (free ticket worth £2) was £2,306,736 of the total £19,891,729 prizes[1], i.e. under 12%. So if you calculate on only ever winning the lowest prizes, the Premium Bond's not too bad notional return is likely to be not that much worse in practice, but the unfavourable distribution towards the headline grabbing large jackpots means the National Lottery's very bad notional return is likely to be significantly worse in practice.

[0] https://www.nsandi-adviser.com/july-2018-premium-bonds-prize...

[1] https://www.national-lottery.co.uk/results/lotto/draw-histor...

I know.

It’s still interesting to know what the overhead of that operation is compared to normal bonds

> looking at this really makes you appreciate how far we’ve come in terms of efficiency

My exact thoughts too. It's incredible that within a few decades, a process which was a full time job for dozens of people could now be totally replaced with code that runs in seconds.

Where I work we often have to involve some manual steps in business processes (too complex or edge case to develop in the time available, so we hand over to customer support or back office staff). When that happens it often feels like we're failing to do enough to support those colleagues. But I rarely stop to think that a short time ago absolutely everything they do would have been manual.

Am I the only one put off by having to view BBC content within Facebook? Why isn't it hosted on the BBC site?

No, you're right. Facebook has lost its brand Goodwill and it is on its way to pillate Instagram as well.

I wonder if Mark Zuckerberg ever sits down, brew some tea and question ruthlessly what his purpose in life is.

"What do I want to be remembered as? As a guy that has ruined America, the world in some ways and spreaded false news, kowtow to the advertisers, chasing year over year profits, quarter over quarter revenues, created echo chambers, fucked up politics, sucked up to investors?"

Wow, I think you are maybe a little too hyperbolic here. Facebook didn't "ruin" America. Even if you think america is somehow ruined, how is it Facebook's fault? Why not blame the ISPs, or the hardware manufacturers at that point?

Facebook provided a way to connect people, that's it. Scapegoating Facebook for everything is ridiculous and only serves to oversimplify extremely complex social dynamics. If anything echochambers were stronger before Facebook, it's just that people weren't as politically involved.

And every single public company tries to maximize profit and revenue, that's their fiduciary duty to the investors. If you are against that, that's fine. But to use it as a criticism against Zuckerberg specifically is... weird?

I actually think this applies to all CEOs that compromise integrity and ethics for maximization of profits. Mark Zuckerberg is mentioned because I am responding to the GP about Facebook.

Let's not pretend Facebook is an impartial processor of information... They are absolutely not. They're arbitrators of information. They sell information for a profit at the expense of privacy. At the expense of societal good. Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Viocom, etc. not just Facebook.

Regarding the hyperbole - yep, I realize that. I am here to express my opinions, emotions and speak freely; not to tread political correctness and wimp out on calling things as they are.

All makes plenty of sense to me. I appreciate you not holding back. I think these things are rather plain to see, and I’m confident they will go down in history similarly.

I think I could manage to live with myself for a few billion dollars.

Probably because of the inflated viewer numbers FB puts out. BBC sees it as a win, bc more views when all they are doing is tending FB's garden.

I think it probably reaches more people with Facebook. Public services like the BBC usually try to have a presence wherever the audience is!

By publishing their copyrighted content exclusively on Facebook they are effectively "selling" their public to the private company. It's wrong on many levels, especially knowing how they are funded.


"funded principally by an annual television licence fee[12] which is charged to all British households, companies, and organisations using any type of equipment to receive or record live television broadcasts and iPlayer catch-up.[13] The fee is set by the British Government, agreed by Parliament,[14] and used to fund the BBC's radio, TV, and online services covering the nations and regions of the UK."

I don't see that they publish the same content anywhere else. Even for Facebook they could have put only links to their own pages with the same content, had it existed. But it seems it doesn't.

The content is also published on twitter.


I don't think that's true. You still own the content, but give Facebook a temporary license to use it until you delete it, which makes sense in the context of social media. It's written in their ToS [0].

>You own the intellectual property rights (things like copyright or trademarks) in any such content that you create and share on Facebook and the other Facebook Company Products you use. Nothing in these Terms takes away the rights you have to your own content. You are free to share your content with anyone else, wherever you want. However, to provide our services we need you to give us some legal permissions (known as a ‘license’) to use this content. This is solely for the purposes of providing and improving our Products and services as described in Section 1 above. [...]

>This license will end when your content is deleted from our systems

[0]: https://m.facebook.com/terms

I'm surely not claiming that BBC ("British Broadcasting Corporation", "a British public service broadcaster") doesn't own its content. I'm claiming they are providing their content exclusively to Facebook, a US-based advertising company, helping the said company to earn its profit from that content.

In this specific case I as a potential viewer of that content can't visit BBC's site to watch the same content, I have to watch it on Facebook, if I want to watch it at all. And I've searched for the specific video on BBC's site.

But BBC's mission isn't to make Facebook earning more money by exclusively providing to the Facebook BBC's content, helping Facebook earning more money from the internet ads tracking their viewers, and moreover, it's not why BBC is publicly funded, and why it collected its fees to produce the content: note again what I've already quoted: the "annual television licence fee which is charged to all British households, companies, and organisations" "is set by the British Government, agreed by Parliament,[14] and used to fund the BBC's radio, TV, and online services."

And it's not that BBC doesn't have its own web site.

Oh, yes in that case you are right! I totally agree that the BBC shouldn't be allowed to post some of their content only on Facebook. Especially given how Facebook is probably the most walled off social media around.

The method to generate random numbers could be used today... the database, not so much.

It was interesting to see that the database could handle concurrent queries without the need for any type of locking mechanism.

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