You say ‘tomayto’, I say ‘tomarto’

I think I need to up my game. How can this column compete with the interactivity of Angry Birds or Candy Crush? Well, this month I’m going to use those words that bring a cold sweat over any passive attendee at a seminar: audience participation. What I would like you to do is to go to the fridge, remove a tomato and place it where you can see it as you read this column. For those of you who lead such hectic social lives that you keep little fresh food in the house, you can use the picture on a tin of tomatoes as your prop. Those of you not allowed into the kitchen except to empty the bin can google a picture of a tomato on your electronic device. Failing that, look at the tomato to the right!

So, what do you see? Is it a vegetable? Or is it a fruit? Although it is considered a vegetable from a culinary perspective, it is actually a fruit. This dichotomy also sums up my own relationship with tomatoes. I’m a big fan of tomato soup, especially with bread to dunk in it, and, of course, tomato sauce when used on chips and bacon or fish finger butties. I also like them hot and mixed in with other ingredients, such as in chilli and bolognese. Eating them cold, however, is different and brings back issues from childhood of Friday salad and school dinners; cold tomatoes are down with lettuce and cucumber, although after the passage of quite a few decades I can now just about tolerate to eat them – slowly.

Yet, tomatoes are definitely good for you. One medium whole tomato contains 40% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin C and 20% of the RDA of vitamin A, and the antioxidant properties of these vitamins protect DNA from the effects of free radicals. Tomatoes have been linked with supporting bone health, lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk of heart disease, protecting against thrombosis and lowering of the risk of certain cancers, especially lung, stomach and prostate cancers.

Recently, I found out that a tomato can help to improve your concentration and make you more productive. It is well known that concentration levels fall over time. This was always thought to be due to the fact that we have limited resources for attention and once these are used up we lose concentration. Three years ago, a professor in psychology at the University of Illinois published a study that proposed a different mechanism for the loss of attention[1]. It has been demonstrated that the brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if the source remains constant over a period of time. The professor had already undertaken a study on the limits of visual perception, showing that a stationary object can completely disappear from peripheral view through continual attention. He then showed that a group of people could stay focused on a repetitive computerised task for about an hour, simply by having two brief breaks from the main task.

In NDT, the use of regular breaks has been promoted as a way of improving the operator’s performance and the above study provides the evidence for why this actually helps. So, how do we ensure that this is implemented? I suspect that it is currently implemented neither widely nor well. This is where the tomato comes in!

Francesco Cirillo, who also knows that taking regular breaks helps with concentration, devised a low-tech process called the Pomodoro Technique[2]. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato and comes from the fact that he used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to split working time up into 25-minute chunks, with five-minute breaks after each chunk. After four working periods of 25 minutes, a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes is then taken. Many people have found this technique to be beneficial, improving productivity, helping to ignore distractions and reducing anxiety about time. Evidently, it is spreading via Twitter and other social media, so you don’t have to admit that this old bloke told you about it. What’s more, for those of you who are technology obsessive and wouldn’t know how to work a wind-up kitchen timer, there are pomodoro apps available for all platforms.

The benefit of this approach for NDT is easy to see. An inspection could be planned as a series of pomodoro chunks, helping the operator to manage their time and be more attentive to the task. The pomodoro app approach could be integrated into the flaw detector or the data analysis software, to save losing pomodoro kitchen timers in vessels or engines. Training establishments could apply the technique in their training, helping trainees to learn, take the exams and subsequently apply real inspections more efficiently, hence enhancing their own training reputations.

Now look at that tomato in front of you. Do you see a way of improving NDT by assisting operators to work more effectively? If not, can you think of how a humble tomato can inspire a new idea? Still no? Well, eat the thing and then this column has at least helped to improve your health!

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within the NDT Newspaper. They do not represent the views of AMEC or the HSE who funded the PANI projects.

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