Lateral Titbits

May 8, 2023by Rajeev Hora0

Lateral thinking solutions are always fun to read with a regretful feeling of, “Why couldn’t I think of it?”

The internet is an absolute jungle. You enter its confines looking for blue berries for the evening dessert and somehow you land up reading about an automated device for sorting out pili fruit.

Now Bicol is a region in the southern part of the Philippines which is famous for white-sand beaches, whale sharks and a few active volcanoes. Well, not many people know that Bicol is one of the few regions in the world where the indigenous pili trees are growing. When one says indigenous, it means that there is no commercial cultivation of the fruit happening.

The various parts of the pili fruit (also loosely called Java almond) are gainfully utilized by the locals. It is claimed that it has nutritional and medicinal value similar to an avocado. It is however important to pluck the fruit only when its pulp has reached a certain level of maturity. Like for many other organic items, this ripeness can be ascertained by the colour of the fruit. The identification of the ‘just ripe’ colour is something that farm labour pick up over prolonged on-the-job training.

For long, trained manpower has been unavailable for a mundane task like sorting out ripe pili. Also, occasional mistakes have been occurring in the manual process which relies only on eyeball Mk 20/20. Various technological solutions have therefore been deliberated for automated enablers for this activity.

Last year, an AI based sorting system was proposed for this purpose in an international scientific symposium. This system used a low-cost digital camera for image-acquisition, a classification algorithm and a microcontroller. Other parts of the device included a servo motor, an automatic feeder and a conveyer belt system.

Overall, a pretty decent success rate was achieved in accurately picking the required pili fruit although the device was quite an elaborate set-up. As it looks, the invention may one day  become a commercially sold model.

I admit that the inventors have applied the available digital technology to good use. However, while reading about their efforts, my mind went back into an old flashback story of a cherry farmer who was having very similar issues. Here also, the lasses working on the farm were finding it difficult to pick the ripe cherries.

After struggling for a few years, the farmer finally hit upon a very low-cost, lateral-thinking solution. He went to the superstore and picked out two dozen identical bottles of nail polish which had the exact shade of a ripe cherry. He came back to the farm and gifted a bottle to each of the farm girls with a promise of free-of-cost replenishments. The only directive was that they all must always apply the chosen shade as long as they were employed on the farm.

The idea was that when they reached out to pluck the ripe cherries, they would be instantaneously able to match the colour of ripe cherries with their nail-polish. Voila! No more under-ripe cherries. A 20 dollar analogue solution to an age-old problem which was today being addressed by an expensive digital device.

Lateral thinking solutions are indeed always fun to read with a regretful feeling of, “Why couldn’t I think of it?” In the same vein, I loved the one about a Japanese soap factory which had received a rather unusual complaint from a certain customer. The grievance was about receiving a consignment in which the soap bars were missing from a couple of soap packing cartons.

Such a failure although felt trivial by the customer, was considered a very serious matter by the company. So they set about devising a rather complex conveyer belt which could pick out and reject a carton if it was below a certain weight. While they were struggling with the construction of a prototype, an old man who had been with the company since its inception came passing by. He appeared to be quite amused with the efforts being put in by the design team.

The newly devised belt was loaded with a combination of empty and filled cartons for experimentation. The old man without saying a word, positioned a running table fan with its front facing the belt. The empty cartons flew off while the filled cartons stayed put. The most simplistic solution was staring at everyone. As expected, there were quite a few red faces acknowledging the wisdom of the old man.

The other one I really love relates to the India-Pak 1965 war. You see, the armed forces are generally vertical thinking organisations because of their hierarchal  structure. But war time sometimes brings out the best in lateral thinking. In this episode, the Indian side wireless telephony was routinely getting picked up by the enemy. Since there was a total lack of encrypted radio sets, operations were severely getting impacted because of compromised intelligence.

The onsite Indian commander made a brilliant move by positioning Keralite radio operators at both ends. The operators had a gala time passing confidential messages in chaste and rapidly-spoken Malayalam. Goes without saying that the enemy could not make head or tail out of the transmissions. Total success with information blackout! A lateral brick in the war-winning effort undoubtedly.

Of course my favourite story is about the Americans finding it difficult to write in space crafts whilst being in zero-gravity conditions. They probably spent a million dollars to invent a techno-pen which could write in space. The Russians it seems, managed the problem by using a china graph pencil. Kid stuff really.

Well talking about kids, it is actually the children who are far ahead in this game. Fearless and not bounded by dogma, they love exploring lateral possibilities. The other day, a renowned motivational speaker related a horrifying metro ride experience in which the train was going much faster than usual. It was also rumbling and swaying quite violently.

While the adults in the compartment were scared out of their wits, a seven year small child accompanying her mother was not quite impacted. To the contrary, she was quite excited as she exclaimed, “Mama, I think we are in a time machine! I dunno whether we will land up in the past or the future!” Clinging to the seat handle in front, the mother was obviously not quite amused.

Ah! Excuse me please. The missus is calling and she is also not amused. I forgot to order the blue berries and she is threatening, “No dessert tonight!” Disapproving of my perpetual forgetfulness, she disarmingly puts things in the right perspective,

“Ordering a Blueberry cheese cake from Swiggy is not counted as a lateral thinking solution.”

Couldn’t agree more,
Horax (Casper)

First published at on 08/05/23.
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