I-Ching Party: Year of the Monkey

Monkey2016Happy Year of the Monkey!

Tonight, by the Chinese lunar calendar, it is New Year’s Eve.  Everyone born this coming year is suppose to have the Monkey traits of being quick-witted, charming, lucky, adaptable, bright, versatile, lively, smart. 

According to Western Astrology, from January 20th to February 18th is sign of Aquarius and children born during this time are suppose to be witty, clever, humanitarian, inventive and original. 

Sounds like an Aquarian Monkey may be fun.  Of course there are more complicated readings of these signs, but those are the positive ones.  They are nonsense of course, but fun nonsense.

At my home, to extend the bright lights of Christmas, in late January and February we have decorated for the Chinese New Year and today had an I-Ching party.  Below are worksheets I made to help people in asking direction from the I-Ching.  The top is the empty sheet and below it is a sample completed sheet. If you are interested in how to use the I-Ching, ask me in the comments and I will expound on how to use these worksheets in another post.

Throwing the I-Ching with all our guests was all very good fun, for as I wrote here, the I Ching can act like tofu.

Happy New Year Folks!

I-Ching Worksheet Final

I-Ching Worksheet Final sample

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Chili vs Pepper

I love hot spicy food. I am so glad to hear that at least this one vice of mine has been shown to be good for our health. (see this BMJ article).  I am not sure if that study was done well, but good for you or not, I will keep eating spicy food.

I made the above diagram to show you some of the biology of chilis.  Below, let me discuss some of the odd linguistics involved with the word “chili”.


Let’s start here: “spicey” is a vague term — heck, basil and oregano are spices but most folks don’t mean things like that when they say a food is “spicy” but instead, they are talking about chili peppers.  To clarify this, most people say “hot spicy food”.

Pepper vs. Chili

Chili and Pepper are both hot spicy foods. But the terms are often confused. Chili (used all over Asia) came to Asia from Central America while black pepper (used all over the Western world) came to the West from India.  Black Pepper and the Chilis (as my diagram points out) are from different Orders of plants — they are not related at all.  Peppers reached Egypt and Greece very early but were rarely used until the Romans around the 1st century CE. Black pepper was very expensive at that time because of its long journey on the spice roads from South India where it was extensively since BCE.

“Pepper” comes from the South Indian Tamil word for “long pepper” (“pippali”)  a plant in the same family as “black pepper” but the Romans assumed the spices the same. Then in the 1500s the word “pepper” was used also for the spicy “chili” coming from the New Word — “Chili Peppers”.  And so the confusion multiplied.

“Chili” comes from the Nahuati word “chilli” which is the name of the wonderful capsicum fruit the Aztec’s were eating when the Spaniard conquered them in the 1500s.

One last odd linguisting point. Sichuan Pepper — one of my favorite spices from Asia (particularly Sichuan China, where I used to live) — is neither a pepper, nor a chili but instead it is of the citrus family (see my previous post).  Sichuan Pepper is called “HuāJiāo” in China is translated as Flower Pepper or Flower Chili — the confusion persists.

Sichuan Pepper is umami (the fifth flavor) amplified.  It is great in omelets, stews, curries and much more.  Beware though, it can make your tongue and lips numb if you eat a lot.  And remember, it compliments cayenne pepper wonderfully. On first tasting it, my 14 year-old son called it “electric lemon”.

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Citrus Fruits: Pomelo & Mikan

PomeloThis morning I ate my first pomelo (also known as a pummelo). It was absolutely delicious. I am now a pomelo convert. The pomelo’s latin taxonomy name is Citrus grandis – because it is huge. In fact, when we were shopping yesterday and first spotted the pomelo, I thought they were just gigantic grapefruits until I saw their unusual names.  So I just had to buy one to try it.

My diagram below shows that the pomello is not a hybrid citrus but is one of the original citrus fruits from which the rest of our common citrus fruits were created.

Now having read on the citrus fruits, I have discovered that the grapefruit is actually a cross between the sweet orange and the pomelo.   I have never been a fan of grapefruit, but the pomelo is pleasantly sweeter and less acidic than the grapefruit so I will add it to my favorite fruit list.

The pomelo has other descendants such as the sweet orange (pomelo + mandarin orange) and the tangelo (pomelo + tangerine). And speaking of citrus hybrids my other favorite is the mikan.  I am not a big fan of oranges, but when I lived in Japan, I ate lots of mikans every year.  In the USA mikans can be compared to clementine and tangerine — no, they are not all the same, but they are very close.  Here is some info to differentiate the three:

  • Tangerines (Citrus tangerina) : citrus originated in Southeastern Asia and Australia.  It is a variety of the mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata). Tangerines have been cultivated for over 3,000 years in China and Japan.
    description: small, thin-skinned, few seeds.
  • Clementine: A Father Clement Rodier of Misserghin, Algeria is credited with its discovery in the early 1902. It is a hybrid between a mandarin orange and a sweet orange. It has displaced Mikans in US markets. Minimal seeds.
  • Mikan (Citrus unshiu): AKA “satsuma” (the Japanese province from where these citrus were first exported to USA). Also related to the mandarin. Seedless

Wrestling with readings on Citrus classification this morning, I decided to make that diagram. Note however that classifications are slippery and controversial.  For example, it is unclear if some of these are “cultivars” (natural variants of a species where were then separated and inbred) or “hybrids” (intentional crossing of species).  But this chart is a good place to start.  I hope it has helped you to understand citrus better.  Any suggestions?

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The Seeds Driving our Conversions

Boy_TVThe seeds of our religious conversions are often the cause of our religious demise. For me, it was doubting and questioning.

From a young age I habitually doubted and questioned everything. Common culture for me was just the opposite of these traits.  Common culture was people doing what everyone else did: people who loved shopping in malls, people who lived and breathed national mercenary sports, people who swallowed the Uncle Sam pill (remember, I grew up during the Vietnam war) and people who accepted the morality taught by hours of passive TV hypnosis — these people, for me, were what created our non-thinking common culture which I found repulsive.

Snobby?  Yeah, maybe.  Or just curious?  Hmmm, I’m not sure.  But either way, it is my temperament and always has been.

Ironically, having been brought up nominally Christian, the Christians I were meeting we challenging culture.  They were also self-reflective, albeit through Bible reading and complicated theologies. These Christians appeared as introspective thinkers and fascinated me.

Our conversions are rarely purely intellectual.  I rarely believe someone that says “I thought about it and …”  when they are converting or deconverting.  Because religion and beliefs in general serve social functions before they serve truth functions.  So likewise for me, there were two other things that played a big roll in my conversion, beside the self-introspection and society- challenging nature of Christianity:  I was dating a Christian girl for 7 months when I found my best friend dead.  That friend had introduced me to my girlfriend — they were next door neighbors and he was a strong Christian also. (see here)

After converting and my initial 6 months of Baptist doctrine, I attended a very alternative, Jesus Freak, communal charismatic church near Cornell University (“Love Inn“). Two years later I would attend a Evangelical Chistian College – Wheaton College.  It was at Wheaton that I started seeing Christianity as bland, status quo and exclusive.  The majority of my fellow students thought sitting on hard pews, dressing up pretty and singing century old hymns is something their god desired.  Fortunately, I also met a few fellow students at Wheaton who had also started questioning their Christianity. I was drawn to them.  They did not embrace secular culture but they also did not embrace Christianity. Many of these folks where raised in India, and so my interest in Hinduism grew. Eventually, as I wrote before, Hinduism was my undoing.  So I was again drawn to doubting the norm, which had now become Christianity and yet still thinking deeply about things that mattered, which had now become comparative religion.

So you see, bucking common culture and attraction to self-reflective where ironically both my ways in and out of Christianity.



  • “national mercenary sports”: by this, I mean, players are not from the town cheering them to victory.  They are only there for money and will change loyalties in a second.  Yet the fans pretend that it is “their team”, “their city” that is playing on the field.  They are mercenaries.  The self-deception is hilarious to me.
  • HT for pic

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WeiQi is Conquered !

WeiQi_languagesThe game of Weiqi has been conquered! Artificial intelligence has finally beaten a top professional Weiqi player. Chess was much easier to conquer, falling in 1997, but WeiQi has been mysteriously elusive to the slicing-and-dicing of cold mechanical computers calculations. But the interesting news is how “slicing-and-dicing” still doesn’t work for WeiQi. Instead of using old possible-move tree searching algorithms (what I am calling slice-and-dice), AlphaGo (Google’s victorious program) adds two more elements: data from expert systems and the final coup de grâce of 12 deep neural networks.

Now I won’t pretend to understand any of these three elements used in AlphaGo, but apparently, Google made AlphaGo’s neural networks play against themselves to discover its own new strategies.

Sure while I am excited about the WeiQi story in itself, this may also point toward new ways of using AI to address other apparently highly complex systems like disease, climate, political policy and more.

Caveat: When I say WeiQi (or any other game) is “conquered”, I just mean by AI. The games will still be a great delight to all us humans. Just because anyone (computers included) can do something better than us, does not have to take away any of our joy.


  • See Googlelblog for my source: “AlphaGo: using machine learning to master the ancient game of Go.”
  • The last half of this short video shows the reigning European Go champion, Fan Hui’s humble reaction after losing 0-5 to AlphaGo test.

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Sanskrit Transliteration: Sabio’s system


Indian Sacred Texts are written in Sanskrit which uses the devanagari script.  General public translations of these books use transliterations which obscure correct or even tolerably-correct pronunciation of the original Sanskrit.  They obscure even the way modern Hindi speakers would pronounce these words when talking about their scriptures.

However, there are two main scholarly transliteration systems which preserve the correct pronunciations: the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (iast) and the Harvard Kyoto (kyoto).  Kyoto uses capital letter and adds a few odd letters (z and G) to its transliteration system, and so is ugly and hard to read.

I prefer the IAST.  And though some may consider the diacritics of IAST as cumbersome, they may be largely ignored and still be close-enough to the original.  But even with that, I see two problems with IAST:

(1) IAST uses the letter “c” to represent the “ch” sound and the letter “ch” to represent its aspirated version.  To avoid this, the transliteration system I will use (SES) in my glossary and occasionally in my texts will use a “ch” and a “chh” for these sounds (see the chart).

(2) Sanskrit has three “sibilants” — s’s.  Two of these are very close to each other and sound like “sh” though IAST only uses s’s with diacritics to differentiate between them. So I added h’s to those two s’s to make them easier to read while keeping the diacritics.

Sanskrit DiacriticsCommon books (as in “Jaya”) avoid the capitals in Kyoto and keep the “ch” and the “sh” (as my system also does) but they do not use diacritics thus losing many sounds.

So, SES (my transliteration system: Sabio’s Easy Sanskrit) is easier to read and still preserves subtle sounds if the reader wishes to know them.  But I suggest that due to difficulty of pronunciations, the reader ignore all diacritics except the long marks over the vowels which are probably the most important pronunciation issues.

Remember, an “h” in IAST and SES just means to aspirate — to add breath to the sound. And retroflex (symbolized by a dot below a letter) means the tongue is in the back of the throat when pronounced.




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Chinese Lunar Months

Chinese Lunar Months

The world was once ruled by Lunar Calendars but as mathematical sophistication and agriculture spread, solar calendars became more practical and dominant. Given the sun and the moon as ways of measuring time, we have three main types of calendars in the world:

  1. Lunar Calendars : The Islamic calendar
  2. Solar Calendars: Gregorian calendar (Western), Iranian, Indian National Calendar
  3. Lunisolar Calendars: Hebrew, Buddhist, Hindu, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese …
    The traditional Chinese Calendar is a Lunisolar calendar. The usual Chinese calendar has months boringly named 1 month, 2 month, 3 month … But above you can see the colorful names of the Chinese Lunar Calendar along with some information about that month. Since, even with adjustments, the Lunisolar calendar is not perfectly in sync with the solar Gregorian calendar, the date that of Chinese New Year drifts a bit each yet.

Presently we are at the end of the “Preserved Month” and preparing for Spring. In a post coming soon, I will give the 2016 Chinese New Year schedule.

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