Friday, February 27, 2015

The Noble Indian Cobra!

She was a beauty! 5 feet if an inch and what I first saw of her was the typical wheaty look, with just a couple of inches showing.

It was not an ordinary day. The day before, I had taken a spill off my scooter, badly skinning both knees and the heel of my left hand . I'd gone to work anyway as we had an important meeting, but the pain killers wore out fast and I left as soon as I could to come and nurse my injuries in the peace of my own home. I'd just relaxed and taken my next dose when young Annamalai came and called from the gate. I dragged myself to the door to see a very excited young man saying there was a snake and right then a bike came up and the rider said 'hop on sir, we need a hand' so I stiffly and gingerly got my stuff together and clambered aboard.

Just inside our colony gate stood a Proclain and it looked like they had cleared quite a bit of scrub. In front of the Proclain was what was left of a largish termite mound topped with construction waste. The very top of that had been taken off and there, in a gap, she was pinned. I could see she was breathing, but the rest of her was firmly trapped within the collapsed mound.

I had a chat with the operator and he was confident that he could take off another layer without doing her any damage, and he did a precision job. 

I could now see a foot of her middle, as thick around as my wrist but which end of her was where was a mystery, so as gently as possible, I started taking  the dirt and waste tiles off both ends. After I had another foot or so of her exposed, from one end she got her head out and immediately flowed right off the mound at my feet. She was in excellent shape despite being nearly buried alive.

I was slow, and she was very fast. I had by now grabbed my stick and sack and was vainly trying to get her onto the stick as she went round and round both me and the mound looking for a way back in. After three rounds, she gave up on finding a hole and started looking for a way to get right out of there, but the ring of gawkers was solid and so she whizzed around passing twice between my feet as I hobbled and bobbled after her rather helplessly.

She finally took a run for open space, lifted her head, saw people and stopped, and in that moment of hesitation I had her on the stick and then thankfully she slid straight into my sack.

As the Proclain cleared the rest of the mound, we also caught 3 baby cobras, all about 2 feet long, and to my utter surprise 4 small foot-long kraits! All of these had been apparently happily residing together under that one big termite mound!

Once convinced that I really had them safe, the viewers finally stepped in and I showed them the beauty and the babies, now tossing around peacefully in the sack. Somehow, the onlookers had a feeling that I had been bitten, but I reassured them, and then thankfully headed back home. In fact that lovely cobra never once even started to spread her hood, she was simply intent on escape.

With the adrenaline pumping I'd temporarily forgotten my pain, but the minute I had them, the pain came back in a rush. Aruna was anxiously waiting, so I showed her the lovely big cobra and the bunch of shiny little ones and she calmed down a bit.

The next day it was a routine release out in a nearby reserve forest territory where the whole group of 8 disappeared into the scrub really fast.

That night I dreamt of snakes. In particular, in my dream was a big male cobra, who invited me to catch him and then asked to be left wherever I had left his mate. It was logical enough that a mother with babies had a mate nearby... and I told myself that that must have been what was behind my dream. Life returned to normal and I all but forgot my dream.

About a month later, at around ten at night, I was on the net, Aruna was watching Super Singers on TV and our son Rommel had gone out to get some milk. He suddenly burst into the living room and said, 'appa, come quick, there's another snake.' As a horrified Aruna watched, we grabbed torches, sack and snake stick and rushed off.

There were about 5 men standing around on the road outside a gate, They pointed to an area near the gate post and said they were sure that the snake was there. The area had some low weeds and lots of grass, so I gingerly started at one end and worked my way towards the gate. There was no sign of a snake. However, the men were certain that the snake must be there, so I started looking for any holes. The area around the front of our gated colony is riddled with termite mounds and as you know, that means lots of interconnecting chambers and passages well underground. I was sure that there must be an access point and we finally found it almost under a concrete slab. Peering in with a torch we could make out just a bit of the snake's head. I tried waiting it out but he wasn't budging. There was no way to move the concrete slab, so we used the water trick, ran a hose into the hole and tried to flood him out. After the area was flooded, he finally slowly came inching out. One of the men had armed himself with a heavy rod, and the message was obvious - either we got the snake or he would - permanently!

We let him emerge completely and then tried to get him onto my stick, but he kept sliding off (probably because he was still wet). He was big (5-6 feet) fast, and very agile, and Rommel with the sack and I with the stick were hard pressed keeping up with him. We let him run off the verge and onto the road and he was intent on crossing to the rough on the other side. Once there, he would be gone in a flash, so we kept herding him back as best we could until finally on the sixth attempt, he stayed on the stick and Rom had the sack ready and in he went.

We were winded, and it took a while to get our breaths back. We chatted with the gentlemen and they wanted to know how it was that whenever they had confronted cobras, the snakes always got angry and had their hoods up, hissing and threatening to bite, but with this snake, and the one in the mound, they never even started to spread their hoods and had just run. We explained to them that cobras always look for a way to escape and have no interest in confrontations. As long as we let them run, run they will! There was no magic, cobras have lived in and around humans for thousands of years and are well adapted, stealthy enough and aware of their human neighbours' schedules and so becoming nearly invisible.

Jobi with my snake stick
This huge fellow had been occupying space right at their doorstep for years without them ever even knowing. It was just his bad luck that the owner happened to come home later than usual that night on his bike and caught him in the headlight just as our hero was getting ready to go get his dinner...

That night, I had another vivid dream featuring snakes including some rather exotic ones too. I rarely remember my dreams for long, but this one stayed with me and suddenly reminded me of the earlier dream I had had about the first cobra's mate requesting a reunite. This handsome snake resided just 200 feet from the mound and looked about right to be that beau, so I silently promised him that he would be released at that very same spot.

As soon as my friend Jobi heard about our rescue, he offered to chauffeur me with the snake to the point of release. He also took a short video of the release itself and that's down at the end of this post.

As you can see, it's a lovely location. Wild elephants use this stretch to reach water so though not too far from the city, it's unlikely that there will be much real estate development around and except for a couple of temples, it's a pretty deserted area AND this is forest department protected land, so 'our' snakes (a number of whom we have released here) can look forward to peacefully hunting  their prey and rebuilding their families without fear of hasty and murderous humans!

As a family, we have had the privilege of rescuing quite a few snakes in and around our colony. In December ('14) alone.

Apart from the 8 we got from around that mound, there was also one big krait (perhaps whose 4 babies we relocated?) >>

and a 3 foot cobra that the kids picked up one night.

That means there's at least one other big krait around somewhere, and we've also seen a largish Russell's twice but she got off into thick brush before we could grab her.

In any case, as Lord Byron notes, true
"love will find its way
(The Gaiour)
I wonder, did they get back together - what do you think???


#snake rescue #cobra #krait #Russells viper, reunite, snake dreams, release, forest, video, #termite mound proclain #Naja #Bungarus #Daboia #Rommel #Aruna #Jobi #Coimbatore

To see some of our other venomous snake tales check out

Monday, February 16, 2015

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Decrypting Invention, Innovation, and Discovery

When we learn of an innovation, often enough our reaction is “Wow, it's so obvious, why didn't I think of that?” and we get the “I could kick myself” sort of feeling, and we begin our own search for the secrets of inventiveness.

Humanity as a whole is fascinated by inventors and their startling discoveries. I'm thinking of inventions that have succeeded so well that we are all aware of them. But not all inventions are commercially successful! With a little introspection, we realize that the main thing that makes some discoveries turn into commercial successes is their ability to solve real problems that folks face. The business world needs innovations that will pay-off.

In order to filter out everything noncommercial, and to funnel our discovery process towards finding stuff that can sell, we try to zero in on delineating and solving pain points. We observe processes with focus to see if we can't hit on some solutions for ourselves. We are selectively observant, seeking discoveries and innovations that solve real problems that folks face. Ideas come boiling out and that's how many of today's startups have sprung their share of innovations. Seeing startups hit success, established industry becomes more responsive and more committed to processes favoring innovation.

Pinning down how innovation happens, that discovery process itself, has proved to be difficult. We teach our people how to break everyday processes down step by step, to do walk-throughs, with an eye on improving the effectiveness and acuteness of our observation. In the process we can also generate data that can be studied for clues. A major key to innovation is focussed observation.

Much has been written about the importance of observation, and observation itself has been turned into something of a science. But just saying 'let's observe' has not in itself driven us to more innovation (that's my feeling at any rate). While observation can and should be taught, there are many to whom observation comes naturally, and for some of these 'naturally observant' there 'naturally' follows a creative process, which does result in new applications.

Observation on its own is a bit like keeping lots of stuff in storage. The inventor is not just an excellent searcher, but also has the ability after noticing (and storing away) to manipulate that stuff, rearranging and bringing together disparate bits of information, inferring connections, and reassembling them into something new. For the sake of simplicity, we'll dub this as lateral thinking (clue #2).

A man walked his dog through the woods and when they got home... A well known discovery starts with the casual observation of hard to remove plant burrs on his clothes and his dog's fur. Further examination revealed the tiny hooks on the burrs, and 10 years of work later it became VELCRO. De Mestral was laughed at, but he persevered. Nowadays we talk of biomimesis (copying nature) and it's become something of a necessity to study the natural world for clues to useful inventions! At its broadest, anything and everything from nanotech to astronomy is a potential source of new inventions, and we even have rather unhelpful names for each of these styles of observation. Breadth of knowledge IS important, giving us our third clue – eclecticism. Commercially successful innovations are often found by those creative persons who pursue broad interests.

The rewards for success are potentially huge. Downline of any good discovery come the myriads of different potential uses and all the spinoffs that can be created that put resulting inventions and innovations to work.

As we gear up to make discovery a scientific process, we try out many things. Discoveries don't always happen only to individuals! Brainstorming can be brilliantly creative, so group approaches are being tried. Work patterns and cultures at many R&D sections are also in a state of flux as we look for the right environments and working conditions to foster innovation. Right now, flexi vs office, is hotly debated. Many companies are leaving it to their employees and teams to manage their own work environments/schedules etc., and hybrid suggestions are also being experimented with (e.g. 2 days in + 3 days out of the office).

From what I've seen, even the high profile (and closely watched) inventor and originator does not show us any obvious 'process of observation-creation' at work. We usually find out about the keen observation only in retrospect. High profile inventors do have a bent for observation, and in addition there are large dollops of curiosity. Does it seem obvious that curiosity is what drives observation? We find our inventors to be avid questioners, fascinated with the whys and hows, and willing to dig deep to find answers.

To summarize, we do have some clues, but I don't believe that we've got to the heart of discovering how discovery can always be made to happen. What we have in hand so far, are focussed observation, curiosity, eclecticism, lateral thinking, and shaking things up to see what results. In practice, our approach seems to be more of an extension of the life hack. We're asking “Is there a shortcut, a less painful way of getting to discovery?”

Even if an invention isn't on the cards, remember that almost anything can be improved upon and even improvised upon, and therein lies a very valuable source for both startups and more established industries. In market terms, a good improvement is just as valuable and may be more easily marketable than creating a whole new niche! Keep in mind that surrounding business trends also impinge on the process of discovery including concepts like #lean and #agile that are emerging environments for businesses to explore.

Discovery-Invention-Innovation puts together at least these components:
Eclectic interests
Lateral thinking - Creativity
Changes in business culture/environment - disruption

Let's jump ahead a bit. Okay, so we created something really innovative. If it is not to be one of the zillions of discoveries that just sink out of sight, then the inventor must put it together and put it to use. Is there a ready demand for what you've got? If not, then can the demand be created? Is it patentable or otherwise protectable from easy copying? Have you put it together as well as it needs to be – Remember: Everything is designed. Few things are designed well.” (Brian Reed). New stuff has to be thoroughly tested, the kinks worked out, and reliability ascertained. Great Idea + Poor execution = (costly) Suicide!

Now, let's briefly consider some major risks:

Risk 1 - That old conundrum of challenging the status quo. This is The Establishment! It's a big and very well oiled machine with few kinks, the technology is sound, branding is well established, and channels and pipelines are solidly in place. Into that deep end, you are readying yourself to dive. Competition is a great thing if it is allowed to flourish. When battling giants, getting yourself off to a good start is tough. However, when your innovation is likely to rock someone's boat, stifling it before it gets a toehold is an effective (responding or preemptive) strategy. It's no a joke, so take it seriously, for serious innovations can constitute 'dangerous' challenges to established industry, and so can be bought out and buried - to the detriment of humanity. Perhaps those established players think that they're 'too big to fail', and so the death and burial of any potential irritants is justifiable. In today's Darwinian world of business, let the unwary inventor beware!

Risk 2 – Perhaps what you have discovered is so far ahead of everything else that there's no easy way to fit it into today's market. On a more mundane level, perhaps it will take time for the technology to become available either for manufacturing or for using your idea. We know that for all intents and purposes, Babbage had put together all the building blocks theoretically needed for a computer way back in the 1870s, but it took most of a century for computers to be made. Check for a good #fit, as it so very often happens that when there is no immediate fit (market fit, making fit, culture fit), further development may have to stop. If you noticed in the Velcro tale, it took 20 years to get from discovery to market acceptance - but our world of inventions is moving faster and faster, so you may not have to wait that long for your time to come!

Risk 3 – The world of innovation is accelerating. While you may be thinking that you are the newest entrant and readying for the newtech vs oldtech battle outlined in Risk 1, there might be alternative technology that makes your effort redundant just after or even before you launch - I'm reminded of England's Clive Sinclair somewhere in the early 1980s coming off his hugely successful ZX80 microcomputer, developing a truly exceptional 'bent tube' flat screen pocket TV (that had a tiny 2” display but had all 625 lines and deployed a Fresnel lens no less). He launched his remarkable invention just before LCDs took over the small display market.

Having really discovered something – pause and think it through:
  • What does it do? How will people find it useful?
  • How and where will it fit in, in today's market?
  • Will it scale?
  • What spin-offs will it support?
  • Can we handle the competition?

Unless (and even if!) you are a genius on multiple fronts, here's a good time to deploy a close think tank to properly think it through. Please do all the basics including SWOTs and viewing from different perspectives (change hats) including gaming, and study what lies ahead... You have begun, but till you launch and succeed, all you've done is to make a discovery!

A final thought. If you value innovation, then surround yourself with innovators. There are of course plenty of inventors out there, but a surprising truth is that many of the folks around us are nascent inventors, yet unaware that they could be nurturing ideas that might change the world! Let's say that your company has a couple of hundred carefully selected people, I'd say there's a good chance that quite a few of them already have the seeds of discovery within themselves, seeds that are just awaiting your discovery and nurture to sprout and burst into bloom. It's frankly unlikely (but not impossible) to find them in your own R&D section. Clues can be as simple as noting the persons who do their own research (love to learn), or suggest process improvements that increase quality, reduce wastage, tweak alignment, or improve reliability, so do keep your eyes wide open for those sparks of creativity.

A personal note – I have a strong sense of deja vu when looking over modern debates on the ingredients and processes of creativity – and what it reminds me of are the 16C (in England) debate on mimesis vs poesis.


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