Friday, July 9, 2010

Tentacled prophet and four-legged oracles for World Cup 2010

Paul predicts Spain’s victory against Germany, at the Sea Life Aquarium in Oberhausen July 6, 2010. — Reuters pic

In a World Cup of droning vuvuzelas, dodgy balls and substandard favourites, nothing has fascinated the public as much as the octopus named Paul.

So far, the seemingly precognitive Paul has correctly predicted the results of all German matches during the tournament, even their losses to Serbia and Spain.

Tomorrow, according to his handlers, Paul will predict the winner of the 2010 Fifa World Cup. If he is not tired.

Residing in the Oberhausen Sea Life Aquarium in Germany, the two-year-old cephalopod “predicts” the results of matches by picking one of two clear boxes bearing the flags of the competing countries. The boxes are arranged according to Fifa’s arrangement of flags for each match, and filled with food like mussels or oysters.

Previously, he has correctly predicted five out of six results from Germany’s campaign in Euro 2008.

After predicting Germany’s exit at the hands of Spain in the semi-final, Paul has since received death threats from many Germans who wish to see him served on their dinner tables.

Some punters and booking agencies have made money from following his advice, while animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) is urging for his release from his “imprisonment”.

Paul might be the first octopus to have done so, but he is surely not the first animal to tell fortunes or read minds. In 1927, a horse in Virginia, US named Lady Wonder was claimed to possess psychic powers and extra-sensory perception (ESP), and communicated by pushing toy letter blocks.

For the price of a dollar, one could ask the horse three questions, and over 150,000 people had taken up the offer. The horse also supposedly predicted the result of a boxing match, discovered oil, and solved a missing person case.

Another horse in 1900 in Germany, Clever Hans, was shown as having the ability to solve arithmetical and intellectual problems. Having a multi-talented owner who was a mathematics teacher, amateur horse trainer and phrenologist bestowed Hans with various abilities such as telling time, differentiating musical tones and understanding German.

In the 1980s, a dog called Harass II was purported by its handler, John Prestons, to be psychic. Harass II could supposedly find cold trails and human scent — even months or years later. He could also track underwater and after hurricanes, using his psychic powers.

Historically, humans have relied on observing animals for divination since thousands of years ago. Alectryomancy, practised by Etruscans in ancient Italy 2,400 years ago, enables people to tell fortunes by seeing roosters pecking at scattered grains.

The ancient Romans practised augury, divination by studying the flight of birds: whether any noise was made, whether they flew alone, their directions, etc. These duties were held by a special order of priests whose role was interpreting the gods’ messages.

This divination by observation extends to various other animals such as cats (felidomancy), horse (hippomancy), fish (ichthyomancy), spider and snakes (ophiomancy).

In the cases of Lady Wonder, Clever Hans and Harass II, it has been proven that the animals were unconsciously or unintentionally cued by their owners. In fact, this observer effect has been called the “Clever Hans Effect” and has been used to debunk many “intelligent” or “talented” pets over the years.

As for Paul, it is still not proven if he reacts to his trainer Oliver Walenciak’s cues or the expectant German fans. Although he has predicted 11 out of 12 matches correctly so far, it is noted that Paul chose Germany nine times out of 12. Considering Germany was the favourites in those nine matches, Paul had consequently better odds to be correct.

Being a common octopus (Octopus vulgaris), it has also been suggested that Paul has a preference for flags with bright horizontal stripes like Germany and Spain, instead of England or Argentina, despite not being able to see in colour.

The species is naturally found in shallow tropical and semi-tropical seas around the world and can grow up to 25cm, with tentacles up to a metre.

Common octopi are well-known for being highly intelligent and responsive. They have been observed to unscrew bottle caps and manipulating other tools.

Whether Paul really possesses supernatural abilities or is just extremely lucky, there is no doubt that he or his owners should capitalise on his popularity quick.

Even if he does not end up in furious Germans’ tummies, Paul is nearing the end of his life —his species has a life expectancy of just two years.

For now, Paul has been immortalised in the minds of many World Cup watchers, even garnering two Twitter accounts for himself, which you can find here and here.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Italy hosts its first divorce fair

Italy is holding its first divorce fair, offering services such as life coaching and beauty advice to a booming number of separating couples in the Catholic country.

The organizers said the fair (, which will be held in Milan on May 8-9, aims to help divorcing people start a new, happier life.

"Smiling is key to this fair, which also offers serious, practical advice for often dramatic situations," Franco Zanetti, who created the event, told Reuters.

The services include divorce planning, anti-stalking help, and "new look" tips, the organizers said.

Echoing similar initiatives in the United States and elsewhere in Europe, visitors will also be able to subscribe to divorce gift lists at department stores in Milan.

A growing number of Italian couples file for divorce every year, according to Italy's statistics agency ISTAT.

More than 130,000 couples split or got divorced in Italy in 2007, up more than 3 percent from the previous year, ISTAT said.

On the other side, the number of marriages nearly halved since 1972 to around 246,000 in 2008.

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"Cougar effect" boosts lingerie sales

Lingerie is displayed in the new Playboy store in central London September 19, 2007. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

Sales of sultry lingerie among older women are booming in Britain thanks to the glamorous 40-somethings of "Sex and the City 2" and "Cougar Town," retail chain Debenhams reported on Thursday.

The hit TV show, and forthcoming movie, featuring the bedroom antics of women in their 40s and 50s and their much younger partners, is being credited with a rise in demand for lingerie from women of the same age, Debenhams said.

The department store said a nationwide analysis of the most popular lingerie styles from October 2009 to April 2010, revealed that women over 40 have given the more seductive side of the lingerie industry a big boost.

"Positive female role models in this age group such as the women in the Sex and the City movies and Courteney Cox in TV's Cougar Town are giving the women confidence to splash out on themselves," Debenhams head lingerie buyer Annette Warburton said in a statement.

Women over 40 were rediscovering their figures, often after having children or getting divorced.

Previously, the store said, the main purchasers of cleavage-enhancing bras, basques, thongs, stockings and suspenders, have been women in their early 20s.

"With women's 40s being touted as the new 20s, and lingerie designers stepping up to the mark to feed this demand, it's a market we expect to see grow further in the future," Warburton said.

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"I do" goes high-tech with Japan robot priest

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The groom looked dashing, his bride resplendent in white, but all eyes in this Japanese wedding were on the priest, a four-foot tall robot with colorful, flashing eyes called i-Fairy.

The robot is usually used in museum and exhibitions to direct visitors, but with the help of a flower headpiece, and a new programme, it pronounced Satoko Inoue and Tomohiro Shibata man and wife at a Sunday ceremony.

The event is being billed as the first ever wedding presided over by a robot, a fitting marriage for the couple who met through the machines.

The bride, Inoue, works for the company that makes the i-Fairy, and her husband, Shibata, is a client.

"It's true that robots are what caused us to first begin going out, and as suggested by my wife, we decided that we wanted to try this sort of wedding," Shibata said after making his vows.

After saying "I do," the bride said that she wanted to use her wedding to show people that robots can easily fit into their daily lives.

"I always felt that robots would become more integrated into people's everyday lives. This cute robot is part of my company, I decided that I would love to have it at my ceremony," Inoue said.

Makers of the robot, Kokoro Ltd, said that while they are still selling the i-Fairy with the stated purpose of helping visitors, they're happy for the machine to help weddings cross the digital divide.

Japan is home to almost half the world's 800,000 industrial robots and expects the industry to expand to $10 billion.

It is also one of the world's fastest aging societies and experts say robots can help care for the growing number of elderly, and fill in for the lack of young people willing to take on jobs as chefs, cleaners or caretakers.

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