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There's nothing like a sure bet

If Paul the octopus lived in Thailand, he would be predicting lottery numbers

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Can an octopus really predict the outcome of a football match? Krissana says it can. I say it can't. And living in Thailand, I am so clearly in the minority it would have been better to have kept my mouth shut this week about Paul the octopus. 

Paul. What kind of name is that for an octopus anyway? Shouldn't it be "Spongey" or "Rubber Legs" or "Eight is Enough" or something? Every Paul I've ever met has hardly been exciting (with the exception of Your Excellency, of course) and certainly possessed no recognisable talent. Suddenly the most interesting Paul in the world is an English octopus in a German aquarium. The thing was so accurate an entire nation that loved it a week ago now wants to grill it slowly over a Germanic barbecue.

Krissana is my co-host on a radio show and for the past week I've been having a running argument with him about this octopus that managed to predict, correctly, the outcome of eight games in a row.

I don't want to sound like the pot calling the kettle black, but Paul is a freak. He had a 50% chance of getting it right, and he did that eight times in a row. That's statistically freakish, but hardly enough for us to start building churches to the Cult of Paul.

Krissana would disagree. He thinks it's a miracle, and let me say Krissana is an educated, well-respected political commentator. But when it comes to predicting lottery numbers and football match outcomes Krissana has one major failing. He is Thai. And Thais have a long history of animals predicting the outcomes of things most commonly occurring on the 1st and 16th of each month.

That's when the Government Lottery Office does its official draws. Yes, yes, this country forbids casinos because gambling is illegal, but the whole country is obsessed with predicting what numbers will come up on the 1st and the 16th. That's not the issue. The issue is how the locals believe that the next winning numbers can be found ahead of time. Where? In temple trees, in deformed animals, in strange-shaped fruit and in plants the shape of everything from fairies to phalluses.

I have a quaint little country getaway in a province not that far from Bangkok. One Sunday morning there was a commotion outside my house. A buffalo belonging to my neighbour had given birth to a freaky calf. The poor thing was twisted and deformed. Most noticeable was that it had five legs.

By the time I got there, the villagers had already drawn a circle of numbers from zero to nine in the dirt and put this livestock version of Jake the Peg in the middle. They prayed, lit incense and waied, waiting for the calf to walk towards a sequence of numbers - interpreted to be the lucky lottery numbers.

I don't quite get the logic that tells us a deformed animal somehow knows what the lottery numbers are going to be, but the rest of the country does. To me it's a clear cry to double the Education Ministry budget and make logic one of the country's most important subjects on a par with Thai and mathematics, and way above traditional Thai dancing and fruit carving.

Remember that casinos can't be built in this country because it is anti-Buddhist. That's despite monks themselves being the prime source to go to if you're a poor villager in dire need of the next winning lottery numbers. Thais don't believe the numbers that come out are random. Their mission in life is to find a bridge between our reality and the "after world" where the lucky lottery numbers are apparently common knowledge.

Back in 2007 a Lampang man had a snake enter his house. Any normal Thai in that situation would immediately begin preparing the ingredients for cobra curry, but this was no ordinary guy as you are about to witness. He took one look at the snake and decided it was the reincarnation of his wife who had passed away a few years before. Of course it was. There was only one thing to do - marry the snake.

Even this didn't shock me. I've been to Amsterdam - there are shops selling DVDs of such practices. What shocked me were his neighbours - upon hearing the news, they came flocking over like those creatures from Night Of The Living Dead, dropped to their knees and immediately prayed to the snake for - you guessed it - the lucky lottery numbers. This is despite the guy admitting in her past life his wife never won the lottery.

Ten years ago in Phetchabun a meteorite fell out of the sky, landing with a thud in the back yard of an old woman as she tended her vegetable patch. Villagers came from miles around to wrap it in saffron cloth then pray to it for the next winning numbers.

After it made national news, government officials paid her a visit and confiscated the meteorite, citing some obscure ancient Siamese law that stipulates anything that falls out of the sky is immediately government property. The newspapers printed sad pictures of the wizened old granny devastated because her potential source of income had been wrested away from her. Income? Why sure! She was charging people to come and pray in front of the meteorite for the lucky lottery numbers.

I am flabbergasted by such beliefs. But is this any more crazy than believing a child was born of a virgin, or that fish should be eaten on Fridays, or that a condom is against God's will? Is it any more ludicrous than my instant angst when somebody opens an umbrella indoors, or having to knock on wood every time I tell somebody I am in robust health?

I still don't believe Paul is possessed of any oracle abilities and I'll tell you why. Four years ago I had the opportunity to teach conversational English to high-ranking staff at the Government Lottery Office. How excited was I! Here was my chance to ask if indeed anybody had ever accurately predicted lottery numbers, just like Paul did with the football recently.

"Yes," one of the male students told me, quite coolly. "We have had reports of monks who got it right." He paused, and then added. "Once."

"What do you mean once?"

"I mean one time. If you have a hundred monks then at least one of them has to get the last two numbers right. Or if he gives a different number to 100 followers, one of them has to be correct."

I saw where the conversation was heading. Statistically, a monk who hands out the last two-digit numbers has a very good chance of getting it right once every 100 attempts. But what about twice? Has there ever been an animal or monk who consistently managed to get it right?

My student shook his head. "Never. We follow up stories in the media of monks who claim to accurately predict the numbers, but there's never been a monk who did it twice in a row."

"What if it were true?" I asked. "What if you heard that there was a forest monk who could accurately predict lottery numbers? Or an animal?"

"Impossible," he reiterated.

"Come on, consider this a practice of the conditional tense. What if there was a forest monk who could?"

My student took a deep sip of his water, swallowed it, then looked me in the eye. A very small smile broke out on his lips. "I guess I would take him deep into the forest," he said, wiping his lips. "And shoot him."

For Paul's sake, he'd better stay in that tank on the other side of the world.

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