Is this the answer to everything? The answer to everything now available

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The Independent Online
IF YOU are the sort of person who has always wanted to know how to translate "no chicken curry" into 27 languages, or where you can find some Boeing 747 landing lights for your garden, a new information service promises to find out the answer for you, as well as informing you how long it takes to get to Timbuktu.

The telephone banking service First Direct is launching a 24-hour information service called "Octopus" which promises to answer virtually any query or request, no matter how bizarre, put to it by customers over the telephone, by e-mail, fax or post.

In time it will be also possible to get the service, which has been piloted for the past year, through different channels such as a messaging service, on mobile phones and pagers.

If it proves successful it will be offered to people who are not presently customers of the bank.

Requests on the pilot scheme have included an explanation of the role of the best man at a French wedding, the rules of boules and a description of cultural events taking place in Bangkok in September.

Less exotic demands included a wine-tasting itinerary in the South of France, venues for 30th birthday parties and ideas for celebrating the millennium.

The company says that all the information it provides is offered independently and suppliers cannot pay to have their products recommended.

"We are not another Yellow Pages or Scoot," said Peter Simpson, First Direct's commercial director.

"We also give more than just phone numbers - for example, if we suggest someone to tarmac your driveway, we will also provide details of where you can see some local examples of recently completed work."

The service will be available for either a pounds 15-a-month flat rate, a pounds 7 monthly subscription plus pounds 3 per task, or pounds 5 a task and no subscription fee.

The bank says that the speed that it can give answers will depends upon how complex the questions are but even the most complex query will be answered within five days.

Yesterday afternoon Octopus said the quickest journey to Timbuktu would take two days.

The Independent Challenge

We set a challenge for First Direct by asking our specialist correspondents to pose the following questions for Octopus. Tomorrow, we will report on how well it did.

Q1. How long would it take to count each nerve connection in the human brain, counting at the rate of one per second?

Q2. How many Jowett Javelin cars were produced between 1947-53?

Q3. Who was the last Cabinet minister with a beard before May 1997?

Q4. Who was the first person to play lead electric guitar with 1970s progressive rock group Greenslade?

Q5. Which novel by a Manchester-born writer who died in 1993 contains a sentence in which the word "onions" is used three times consecutively?

Can you beat the Octopus? The first reader to fax us the correct answers by 4pm today will win a case of wine. Fax your solutions to 0171 293 2051 or e-mail gcooper@independent.co.uk

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