Wednesday, March 28, 2018

My son becomes a novice monk (samanane) in Bangkok

the ordination program is in honor of HRH Princess Sirinthorn's birthday

The first draft of this I wrote while listening to a samanane / novice training session, in Thai.  I could pick up around a third of it if I paid attention but it's hard to focus on missing two thirds of what is said.  I'm at Wat Pho, one of the main temples in Bangkok (with a FB news page here).  In updating a Trip Advisor review about the temple I noticed it's listed as the number one attraction in Bangkok there; not bad.

I'm the only parent here, at 8:30 PM.  These kids have been through a long day of listening to all sorts of talks, and religious ceremony, and a once in a lifetime haircut experience.  No adult would be as fresh as they still are.

Other families were here earlier, all day today during the actual ordination ceremony, and yesterday during a day-long training session.  We've given up the game of making Keoni not seem different than everyone else through initiating differences like that, of me being here longer.  He's not different in any important sense but he is the youngest novice in the group, the only one who is mixed race, and a member of two different cultures.

Keo as a samanane / novice!

his best novice friend Sony is just behind him

In a sense Thais are better with generalities and differences than Americans anyway.  They don't blow all that out of proportion.  Sure, they drag in some error based on expecting people from different countries or cultures to be similar in some ways, and that goes way too far in some cases, but to a limited extent generalizing sort of works too.  You just have to subtract back out when patterns that only sometimes apply make no sense (culture or gender stereotypes), versus mostly rejecting that there are any generalities instead.

friendly owners of that family business

I'll get back to that and mention more about the subject theme and events first.  There was a thin tie-in with the subject of tea to be had since I ducked out during that first training day to visit a local Bangkok tea shop.  It's near the flower market beside Wat Pho, the Ong Yong Choon shop.  I shared most of that tea I bought with the monks too (an Anxi TKY), since I bought it in the form of a set of small packs.  This runs too long to get into that; I'll do a post on there later, and break form and just write about Buddhism instead.


88 boys are becoming novices to make merit in honor of the Thai princess HRH Princess Sirinthorn's birthday, if I've got that right (every event reference is always in Thai).  She is the princess I just gave tea to in that event in Kamphaeng Pet, which is a completely different story.

the "before" picture

before picture with his sister and our cat

From how Keoni might see this event it could be comparable to a strange form of summer camp. Thai Buddhist religious practices in general are all about mystical forces bestowing merit (good karma).  One might expect that I'd be more on that page, having ordained myself.

I don't completely reject those ideas since I'm very agnostic, but I'm also a bit plain minded.  Simpler explanations work better, and being skeptical about the supernatural makes sense to me.  No matter whether the mystical forces kick in or not he'll come back different after two weeks, a time frame that includes this past weekend.  His range will be stretched just a little.

the training class first day, still wearing lay-person's clothing

There isn't much for novices to do, other than helping out a little.  The role is mostly about learning.  When I ordained one Thai aunt said being a monk is a lifestyle choice as much as anything, and it sort of works with that.  This experience is a little like being in a Christian school.  No one would go to a Christian school for two weeks but of course it's only a sort of analogy.  A Christian camp theme is conceivable, and I went on one such outing as a child.  It wouldn't make as much sense in the US now, with all forms of ideology and group orientation there drifting towards extremes.

I suppose they will brainwash him a bit. Good luck to them making that stick; he's on the independent side.  I wouldn't mind if they spent some time on Buddhist teachings.  I dedicated about a decade of my life to the study of that, before I went back to school to formally study religion and philosophy in two different degree programs, which took another five years.

novices in training sleeping beside Buddha statues

Based on my prior experience they wouldn't be focusing on what was of most interest to me, getting to the true meaning of core ideas like the Buddha's rejection of self, focusing on potential changes to ordinary perception.  It would be about stories instead.  Mythology can encode a lot in the way of behavior norms and life-choice advice into stories.

Jordan Peterson--my favorite psychologist--has done a lot with developing that interpretive theme.  He's a bit of a controversial figure for a complicated set of reasons, but most of his work isn't about the themes that work out to be controversial.

In some cases those stories in mythology are just stories, and not really encoded wisdom condensed into a story format.  Sometimes they can be a derivation of content that had probably been much more central and relevant before the changes.

further along the process, in white robes, with their heads shaved

Keo and Sony

A little about the temple, Wat Pho

It's been 10 years since I stayed at Way Pho while ordained for just over two months.  That was more or less one form of introduction to Thai culture for me.  I knew a good bit about Buddhism then but I'd only been in Thailand for two or three months at that point, so not so much about Thai culture.

Related to when I'm writing these initial notes, the temple is fantastic at night, the best time of the day to experience the look of it.  The peace and quiet is unusual for anywhere in Bangkok; parks don't even seem this quiet.  I just learned that the temple is now open to visitors until 10 PM, and I am seeing people coming in at 9 to walk around, often with a tour guide.

I should mention that my wife studied for something like 9 months to be a tour guide, and is certified as one.  She's not really registered as working out of this temple, if there is even such a thing, but she could probably sort that out.

She and I met in Hawaii in grad school when we both studied there.  It's a longer story about why a former journalist with two Master's degrees trained to be a tour guide.

My wife has an unusual level of connection to this temple:  her father and grandfather's ashes are here, under a Buddha statue that her family contributed funds to have renovated.  For a Thai all of that is familiar ground, how ashes are stored in different places, often in a religious establishment, or oddly potentially even split up (per my understanding).

their "family Buddha," which of course they don't own

All that leads to a superstition that temples might be haunted, which I'm not sure that many people would accept.  The room I slept in part of the time as a monk had lots of shrines to deceased relatives, and remains (ashes) stored there.  I had no fear of ghosts.  If those people came back as disembodied spirits they'd probably be interesting to meet, even if they couldn't communicate clearly.  And they'd probably go somewhere familiar instead, to their old homes, not to the temple.

Keo being different

Keoni isn't just different related to race, age, appearance, being bilingual, and having over-protective parents.  He's outgoing.  In the US that would stand out less, but he would seem outgoing there too.  There's a cool saying tied to that related to Japanese culture:  the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.  Thailand isn't like Japan, culturally, but it is more social group and norm-compliance oriented than my original culture, in the US.

Keo just reminded me of that by commenting during the talk, their training class I'm watching.  He does that.  I remember during a school presentation when he was 4 or 5 when the principal was talking about different groups participating, younger kids clapping at a certain cue or something such.  He piped up recommending parents could also participate.  The idea worked, they used it, but the point was more about him being outgoing than clever.  He's also a little sensitive, which is the only part that had me concerned about this.  He's the only 9 year old that ordained with this group of 88 kids, and only two were 10, with the rest older.

beside the abbot of Wat Pho, Phra Rajvachiraporn

he's still cheeky

Keoni took it all well, two days of meetings, being out in the heat, memorization, and disrupted sleep.  He made a best friend early on and that changed everything. We really do owe a lot to that kid, who is nicknamed Sony (like the TV), for helping him with the transition.  Keoni has been through a lot with schooling so he's got some range to him, at times dealing with the extra demands and stress of being different, of being mixed race.  Mostly other kids are nice about it but not always.  It saddens me to hear about the exceptions, problems he faces, but he will be stronger for not having it easy all of the time.

He's never been away from us, except to spend one night at a friend's house a month or two ago, perfect timing for that.  He doesn't really even visit grandparents. We live with one, his grandmother, which makes more sense in Thailand, but don't see that much of my family, less than every other year.

with Phra Kwan and Than Jaukun Udon (right)

I probably should ease up with the tangents and explain the whole novice idea, and ordination process.  The Buddha's son Rahula was the first novice, or so the story goes, a made-up position to let younger people take part in a monastic tradition.  The Buddhist tradition had included female monks early on too, and Thais know the female form of novice, there just never is such a role (samanari).  I'll do one more tangent about differences between Thai culture and the West related to how personal differences are viewed, race issues and such, and get back to explaining how the ordination actually went, just not in a lot of detail.  The main theme was hours of talks and ceremonies, mostly based on chanting in Pali.

Thai culture related to race, and differences in general

I was explaining to someone recently about how Thais haven't embraced the American obsession with political correctness and being touchy about differences.  They don't use the concept of "privilege" in any special way, and of course that wouldn't map literally and directly since the majority here isn't white.  An example:  you can tell someone they're fat here.  I saw a high ranking monk I hadn't seen in awhile walking into the temple on Friday evening, and he mentioned that I'd put on some weight.

It's also not a big deal for people to be transgender here.  It's on individuals to define how they want their self-identity and social role to come across, and people don't make much of all that.  Men identifying as women is better known and more common but the reverse comes up too.

I suppose there are pros and cons to the differences, as they extend to race and other issues.  People are more open to racial stereotyping, and treating people of different social levels differently isn't just accepted, it's more or less mandatory.  The focus on not accepting the more negative sides of all that in US culture is positive, of leveling out effects of differences, keeping options and opportunity more open to more people.  On the negative side it could go too far back there, actually restricting speech instead of making it more polite, or extending into conclusions or perspective that stopped making sense somewhere along the way.  All this has to transition back to the theme of Thai culture related to religion instead, but some of what I'm saying about Keoni can't be interpreted without being aware of some differences.

88 of them together, all such sweet kids

Positive racial prejudice gets to be a strange part too; Keoni could experience preferential treatment and more options than others, in some cases.  A lot of Thai television and movie stars are mixed race, Asian and white / of European origin, perhaps related to appearance as much as any culture-themed issue.  If the mix of features works out well the kids and adults can be beautiful.

There is hardly any race or culture background mix or condition that would be relevant or appropriate to ever mention in a religious or educational setting back in the US.  Here it's nothing to be avoided; it's interesting that he's different, in that setting too.  Even being his parent it's hard for me to fully appreciate what that means.  He is Thai but also American, related to having passports, but beyond that he can "do" both perspectives.  Switching back and forth between languages seamlessly is absolutely amazing but in a sense it's not the most amazing thing he does.

You might think he would just soak it up, as with the languages; he hears two and learns both, from birth onwards.  It wasn't that easy.  We moved him from a British school to a Thai school and it was hard for him, a shock, and then later to another different school.  He's been through more diverse cultural exposure than most people experience in a lifetime, at 9.  Visiting a lot of countries on vacation was hardly even an issue compared to all that; you just see a different background as you go through roughly the same tourism activities.

his grandmother offering food to the new samanane

Ordination, and how it's going so far with Keoni

Learning vows was the big hurdle, with lots of training about what to expect and restrictions.  They can't eat after noon, as monks don't.  Getting a really early start and doing a big breakfast and lunch offsets that.  You sort of don't miss it.  Monks can drink a milk or a soymilk and those help with a craving.

Of course he did get his head shaved; that part makes for a big transition.  Keo walked around asking the other kids he knew "who are you?," emphasizing the oddity of the appearance transition.  I was wondering if he'd look cute bald and he most definitely does.  I'd have to choose "with hair" as a preference but he totally pulls it off.

It was odd for them to train to be samananes for a whole day but not actually be that, but now they are.  More rules and restrictions apply, mostly. And they all look cute in orange.  The temple monks and staff are taking them on an outing (to Cha-am) so they'll be out of the way of some of what they shouldn't be doing.

It doesn't really work to describe the steps involved with ordaining.  There is a lot of chanting in Pali involved, taking vows, and that haircut, and at one point the novices-to-be walk around the main temple three times, followed by lay-persons carrying offerings.  They throw coins wrapped in bright cloth or ribbons at one point, which are good luck to possess.  All of it is good luck, it seems, or different steps relate to accumulating different degrees of merit.

that is a really dramatic part of the process

the eyebrows go too; that's why he looks so different

Spending the weekend at the temple with Kalani

It was interesting spending two days at the temple with his four year old sister. She and I kept checking out during the talks to go see Buddha statues (just never the main one, a huge reclining Buddha), and whatever was going on in the main ceremony hall.  And one day day we more or less crashed what I think was a memorial service to eat a Thai desert.  They hold memorials for the deceased annually in Thailand, continued forever, so grief is less of an issue than when someone close to the family just died.  We were welcomed as visitors where we already happened to be.

Hundreds of people caught part of what Keoni was doing too.  They gave away free drinks at one other station there, but I think those drinks were unrelated, just something else that was happening.  Wat Pho is a busy place, a major tourist attaction, so there's often lots going on.

It was fun hanging out with Kalani.  She is so bright and sweet that she's always a joy to spend time with.  On the second ordination day I wasn't feeling 100 percent based on staying busy and not sleeping well and it was nice having a cousin and his wife step in as playmates.

with my wife's cousin's wife during one ceremony

She's funny in ways that overlap with how Keo is.  In a sense she's more reserved, not quite as quick to open up to people when she first meets them.  In a different sense she's even more socially oriented, less into interests like video games and toys that build things, Legos and trains, and more into pretending to be a teacher or a nurse, or dancer.  For Keo Minecraft helped him combine those two interests, and although he's now past that phase he built lots of elaborate structures and worlds at an unbelievable pace.

Being four she could only understand what's going on with Keoni being a novice on a limited level, but monks aren't new to her.  Her grandmother gives alms to the local monks every Monday, food she cooks herself.  And we're at temples for birthdays and those memorial services, and when other things come up, just not as often for religious holidays as we might get around to.  I kept asking her if she could be a "samanari," a female novice, and sometimes it sounded like a good idea to her and sometimes it didn't.  Obviously we aren't going to try to go anywhere with that idea; it was just a discussion point.

She and I attended a few other ceremonies.  One was an ordination of an older guy into becoming a monk, maybe around 40-some years old, most likely for a temporary ordination, but who knows.  More typically Thai males will ordain for a week or two in their 20's, perhaps only doing that a second time to make merit (for a religious observation) if a close relative dies.  Unless a restriction is coded as rule, as in the case of the 227 monks' rules, or as a culturally based restriction or observance, any of the rest is flexible.

At one point Kalani reminded me that it was the part of a ceremony where you need to hold your hands in a prayer-like position, and at the end she reminded me to do a different version of a "wai" three times, a combination of that hand gesture and a bow.  She catches a lot.

That's the funny part about four year olds in general, not just her, that they combine silliness and random play with a very sophisticated worldview.  Different kids would pick different things up, at different times, and it's amazing how much a relatively bright four year old knows.  It's not theory to them, of course, they absorb ideas and practices by observation, and copy it all.

About Wat Pho, more detail

Wat Pho is one of the two best-known temples in Bangkok, along with the Grand Palace temple Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Jade Buddha, which is part of a larger complex.  Wat Pho is an abbreviation of the former temple name, the real name is Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn, or just Wat Phra Chetuphon is sometimes used instead.  I just wrote a Trip Advisor review that would make for a good blog post, except that this isn't a travel blog, titled "what you may not know about Wat Pho."  I'll just include a few ideas from that, a much shorter version.

hours:  it's open until 10 PM now, but I'd already mentioned that.  Due to evening events and living at the temple I'd been around in the evenings before and it's by far my favorite time of the day there.

Buddha statues:  the giant reclining Buddha statue is best known but the main ceremonial hall has a really impressive version too, and there are lots of other giant Buddha statues in other buildings.  Open walk-ways include countless Buddha images, many restored to original condition, and many others in various states of aging and wear.  There are other things to see everywhere, very old panels documenting Thai massage practices, and small statues on the same theme, even an old alligator pen, although that part may be closed now.  It's my understanding that the many chedis (conical structures) around the temple grounds, some huge and some smaller, all really do contain remains of the deceased.

the Buddha statue in the main ceremony hall

massage and meditation classes:  the temple offers these.  Their website leads to a second official massage school website, but the meditation classes are new enough that I'm not aware of much web content describing that yet.  My wife studied massage there (she's really into pursuing tangents; she's studied Japanese and Mandarin languages too, in addition to journalism and education), but I'm not sure how that works for foreigners studying there, if the instruction is as complete in English.  I just spoke with the head of the meditation school, a monk I knew from being ordained there, and with an instructor, and both of them speak clear English.

in Cha-am; taking a break to clean up and lighten up


I'm editing this final version during the first days Nane Keoni is on his own in Cha-am, two days after their initial ordination, so I'll leave off in the middle of this story.  Of course I really miss him.  They keep posting live direct links to real time videos of them on their Facebook information page.  He's sitting in the front left corner, if they stay in that arrangement.  It's the same place he was in the classes back at the temple, grouped with the other youngest novices.  They seem to sit a lot, but maybe since I've only checked in now and again they might have spent a lot of time on break.  They did an interview post with him the next day, but of course it's in  Thai.

I later realized I wasn't paying attention to when a live-feed post was really live and when I was watching the posted video version.  And I heard from a monk there that Keoni was having problems, not feeling well in the evening.  I think it was just homesickness combined with all the transition, changing when he eats, and sitting a good bit.  It probably didn't help having an extra parent around for those extra evening check-ins over the weekend; that part may have been a mistake. That time gave those kids exposure to the idea of separation while they were still there, and were still going to have parents there to see them off on retreat on Monday morning.

I might write a follow-up in two weeks about how it went, with more on his take.

in Cha-am, in a session, with Keo on the left in the front

on retreat; great to see those smiles (credit Wat Pho's news page)

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

An Assam tea grower on orthodox processing and sustainablity

Originally published by the TChing site here.

at my favorite tea shop, Jip Eu, with Maddhurjya second from the right

I recently met an Assam tea grower who was visiting Bangkok, and we talked a bit about his personal history with tea, about sustainability, organic production, and development of orthodox tea processing in Assam.  His name is Maddhurjya Gogoi.

I mentioned more about that meeting in this post about sharing tea with a Thai princess, and covered a lot of his personal and tea-oriented biography in this post.  As for contacts he's on Facebook, with another business page there, and a website contact here.

Sharing the ideas will require some summary on my part, and it introduces error for one person to re-summarize what another has already condensed, especially based on communication from a perspective of personal business interest.  Take it all for what it's worth.  Passing on a little topic by topic will help with covering ground faster.

Small growers and co-ops in Assam are developing orthodox tea production.

This isn't really news, or controversial.  The extent to which individuals are successful, and the overall volume of tea being produced seem to require more development to fill in this story.  Other parts relate to how demand changes relate to supply changes, to the end-effect difference it makes for tea growers and very small producers, and how this all fits in with what major producers are doing.  

I've reviewed a number of teas from Halmari, a large plantation producer, and those were fantastic (with more description on their site).  According to Maddhurjya that sort of an organization represents a different kind of success story, and progress on a related but different front.

his family farm (credit his FB business page)

Organic farming related

Maddhurjya told a funny story about how they started producing tea organically because they couldn't afford fertilizer.  That surely is one part of that broad theme.  He is more concerned about how chemical fertilizer really does increase plant productivity, weighed against there being other approaches that are more sustainable, and perhaps healthier for consumers.  

It doesn't summarize well but he sees the whole range of issues as connected.  If growers are barely able to survive on what they produce their choices about growing methods, or any other aspects, have to reflect their best interest commercially.  Such conditions make it harder to consider the long term.  If demand is higher for organic products that can even out the plant material production issue, related to use of chemicals being more cost-effective.  In short, it's complicated.

Maddhurjya's tea; pretty good, but he said the spring production is much better

Higher quality tea orthodox production method related

Growers and small producers want to produce better tea, in order to make more from their final products.  Per my own understanding (which is limited; I'm not following the Assam tea industry) tea production has only relatively recently been de-regulated, with limitations on processing cooperative development still in effect in the recent past now being lifted.  

According to Maddhurjya the knowledge of methods and access to the machinery just weren't there in the past.  I wouldn't expect him to personally represent a lot of the range of paths to change and modernization for all of Assam, but he has played a personal role in importing equipment from Taiwan used in newer forms of orthodox tea production (with more about that in his life story).

The future

It's not written yet, but people are working on that.  He's trying to help with making changes himself, related to a limited scope business interest.  I reviewed a number of teas by Assamica Agro, which is based on more of a small cooperative model than a small producer model, what Maddhurjya and related small farmers are pursuing.  

To a tea consumer and enthusiast it all might boil down to one main concern:  how good is the tea?  The answer to that will change year to year, and company to company, as better production and processing methods are developed.  Even amounts of rain falling will change that, with changes to climate on major input and concern.  Right now the teas are pretty good, but plantations like Halmari are setting the bar pretty high, and Darjeeling is much better known for orthodox tea.  As for what I tried I'd give the edge to the teas from Maddhurjya over Assamica Agro's teas (which were still pretty good), with Halmari's slightly better, but as much just different in style.

Halmari oolong; it's not TKY or DHP but it's really good

"How good is the tea" misses a lot of scope of concern, doesn't it?  If you could drink tea that's really good, but not the absolute best you could find, at a great value for that quality level, and it helped a small production farmer raise the quality of life for his children and community, then those would make for other valid factors, wouldn't they?  All of that is the case right now.  These limited scale producers selling more tea helps them take the next steps.  

Of course as with tea production and sourcing anywhere believing stories is a concern, about who benefits most, an original producer or reseller, and organic claims, and so on.  Not all the stories everyone is telling are true.  But I believe there are common threads and general truths emerging from people like Maddhurjya, along with other exaggeration and marketing spin, and as a groundwork for all of it some real progress is being made.  

Wholesale vendors and supply chains aren't necessarily the "bad guys" in the story but new options can and will help local producers.  These are people whose standard of living really could stand to improve.  Of course Assam isn't the only tea producing region facing such issues, or even the one that tends to get talked about most.  But it is interesting hearing more direct versions of such accounts from different places and different types of sources.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Experimenting with microwaving water for tea

I posted a possible explanation for why microwaving water for tea might not work well, and this follows up on that.

I've microwaved water in the past and experienced that fizzing effect mentioned there.  There's nothing as solid for evidence as experiencing something for yourself.  But since I never heat water in a microwave now I don't have any recent experience of any kind to draw on.  And I've never comparison tasted tea made with water heated in two different ways, so I try that for this.

not how my tea infusion process typically goes

Backing up a bit; why else not to use a microwave for heating water for tea

I never did flesh out the hearsay account of why to not use a microwave in the first place.  That earlier post centered on the one guess for why it might be a bad idea, only related to dissolved air content throwing off texture.  The one World of Tea article I had cited was more about debunking a claim that it's healthier, which could only work so well since that original claim was supposedly coming from research findings, from testing.  It would take counter-example testing with varying conclusions to conclusively reject that, and they didn't do that.

Here are some typical reasons cited in a popular tea blog post, in the Tea For Me Please blog:

Lack of Control
...Although you could certainly use a thermometer to check the water afterwards I would would much rather use a variable temperature electric kettle.

Superheated Water
...I've seen some websites claim that this is not true however I've seen it happen myself. Snopes also agrees with me. Placing something non-metallic like a wooden chopstick into the cup can help avoid this happening but I'd rather be safe than sorry.

It Just Doesn't Taste the Same
It could very well all be in my head but I just don't enjoy tea that was made with microwaved water as much as stove-top or kettle heated water... Some theories suggest that the amount of dissolved oxygen is reduced, creating a flatter tasting cup.

It Makes That Weird Froth On Top
Since microwaved water lacks a nucleation point for air bubbles, it tends to make a weird froth on the surface of your cup once a tea bag or sugar is added to the cup. You all know what I'm talking about. I just can't bring myself to enjoy a frothy cuppa unless the tea in question is matcha.

Temperature control, the first point, is a main factor in making tea, one that comes up a good bit in this post related to testing results.

Lately I've been running across more people claiming they like almost all tea brewed at boiling point or near boiling point, and moderate aspect results by adjusting infusion time instead of temperature.  One person even claimed that can work for green tea.  Personal preference would seem to be a factor in this, that extraction of different compounds would vary by these factors.  It wouldn't seem to work to cite one approach and outcome as objectively best for everyone.  It would seem that any conclusion drawn would relate to a case of a process being best per a preference instead, although some degree of informed consensus agreement about that would also be possible.

On the second point, superheating is possible.  Snopes wouldn't lie about confirming that.  But in general it doesn't seem a high risk, or a big problem.  I guess that's up until you get burned.

That third point about taste is a little non-specific, in the more general first part.  Related to the theory mentioned--"hypothesis," per terminology correction input on my own post, but in standard loose English use "theory" works there--according to the solubility curves of oxygen and nitrogen in water at different temperatures there is next to no dissolved gas in water near boiling point; it just won't hold it.  The real problem seems to be that the air could be leaving the water less effectively based on heating method, even though less really is soluble at that temperature, which seems to be the cause of the fourth and last point.  

I'm not sure what else could cause a tea to be frothy.  I'll move on to trying to recreate that experience myself.

The first experiment

The initial idea was to compare tea made with microwaved water with water heated in the typical Thai version of a kettle, a larger device designed to heat water and keep a store of it hot throughout the day.  It's definitely not the same thing as the better variable-temperature versions more serious enthusiasts might use, but it is what I make tea with while I'm at work.  The water source for both will be the same, bottled water, the type that comes in a dispenser.  This version is from Chang, a beer company that also sells water.  It's a bit off the subject but "chang" means elephant in Thai.

I wanted to use tea bags, which I don't typically use, or actually own any of, since that seems to be the standard set-up discussed in related articles.  My wife did some interpreter work recently and snagged some from a local hotel hosting it, made by Dilmah (Ceylon; Sri Lankan CTC black tea).

Some of their loose teas actually aren't that bad but I don't have high hopes for this version.  Tea-bag tea does tend to be bad, due to using dust or finely ground leaves in order to maximize flavor per quantity and reduce cost, and to brew faster.

Simple enough, right?  I should clarify that I'm not trying to "do science" here, just trying something out, checking on a general range of results.  I'm not tasting it in a double-blind process, and there are lots variables I'm not exploring, and levels of potential test controls I'm not applying.  The idea was that I could just run it again if things seemed inconclusive, and that's how it worked out, as a series of three comparisons.

In the first attempt I initially microwaved the water for two minutes, and it didn't seem at full-boil temperature, so I gave it 30 more seconds--not tightly controlled methodology.  I let both samples brew around three minutes, but didn't time it.

First round results

The microwaved water boiled after the extra 30 seconds; it was boiling when I took it out.  It occurred to me that this might throw off the experience of fizzing water, since it wouldn't take many seconds of agitation from the water being at a full rolling boil to help dissolved air outgass.  That's assuming that my prior interpretation of that potential problem was even accurate.

The cups were really small--just what they had on hand in the office, since I don't have two identical versions of the cup I usually use there--and in the end it was on the strong side, not at all ideally brewed.  I'm really out of practice making tea using tea bags.

The microwaved water version brewed slightly darker.  Upon tasting both I realized there was a temperature difference, that the kettle hadn't been maintaining a full boiling point temperature.  It would've been easy to hit a "reboil" button to adjust for that.  Most likely that alone would throw off any results, using two different temperatures, but I'll still run through my impressions.

That microwaved water didn't seem fizzy, and didn't feel different at all.  The main differences seemed to relate to using slightly hotter water.  That tea version was brewed slightly stronger, which didn't work quite as well.  It's possible that beyond the infusion strength difference the proportion of extracted compounds varying accounted for the cooler kettle-heated water tea being a bit softer.  Altogether the kettle-water version was better, softer, with less harsh astringency and earthy edge, but I'd expect that related most to temperature difference.

not recommended, even for testing purposes

The tea did seem ok as tea bag teas go.  I don't drink lots of those, maybe not quite once a year it comes up.  But I did try a Lipton version recently when traveling, their "international" variation.  It was flat-out awful.  I wouldn't want to drink much of this Dilmah tea-bag tea either but it was at least drinkable plain, without sugar and milk.  It tasted like CTC Ceylon typically does, with a bit of malt, just not as much as in CTC Assam, and a pronounced mineral undertone.  From there somewhat earthy flavor range could be described in lots of different ways (woody, like leather, "tastes like tea").

It wasn't really a success as experiments go.  Giving it that extra 30 seconds probably threw off a chance to experience any fizzing and made for a water temperature parameter split.  I guess at a minimum it confirmed that under those conditions the water heating method results really didn't seem to have been a factor, positive or negative, beyond what I interpreted as temperature difference related.

A second try

I tried it again at work another day, trying to recreate the "fizzy" tea effect and see the difference.  That was based on using the exact same tea (a Dilmah tea-bag Ceylon) and the same conditions.  Results weren't so different.

It didn't work to try and back off the microwave time to achieve the super-saturated air condition.  For whatever reason that water was at full rolling boil at two minutes this time (in the same 900 watt microwave), versus not being that hot in the first trial after that length of time.  Maybe that's somehow related to using a slightly larger cup with slightly more liquid in it (?), made of glass instead of ceramic.  It's hard to guess how those factors would relate to the water heating faster the second time.

The tea kettle had just went through a re-boil cycle so it should have been at full boiling point but it was still very slightly cooler--strange.  There seemed to be a correspondence to cooler water working better, again, for the astringency in the tea-bag CTC tea being moderated by backing off full boiling point temperature.  Using a larger cup and more water made for less concentrated tea, which was better.  Again I was disappointed to not get the "fizzing" to occur, and again didn't notice any texture difference in the water.

It was interesting noting how large a difference that slightly different water temperatures made in the tea aspects, which was more minimal in this test version.  Just a little below boiling point--that water in the kettle had just boiled; I saw the indicator and heard it--was nicer, less harsh and astringent.  Of course I'm not accustomed to drinking much CTC tea, and people who do might often add either milk or sugar to offset that, or both.  It seemed like a better test was going to relate to using a tea I actually like, an orthodox version versus a CTC tea-bag tea, so I tried that the third time.

A third trial, orthodox Assam, brewed at home

I tried the same type of experiment at home using an orthodox Assam I reviewed not too long ago (that Assam Teahaus version).  Again the problem was going to be using water at exactly the same temperature.  I do have a thermometer around the house somewhere, just for that purpose, but I'm out of the habit of testing water temperatures, and didn't turn it up for the test.  I typically use a hot water dispenser that's part of the filtration system for brewing at home, which doesn't provide full boiling point temperature water, but it's not so far off it.  I don't remember results from measuring it from back when I was into checking on that, with that final brewing temperature version varying a lot if based on whether you preheat teaware or not.

The idea was to get the water to that point of supersaturation of dissolved air, just below boiling point, but in three tries microwaving water it didn't really work.

maybe just a little froth, but I was really looking for fizz

That water source I used at home is filtered Bangkok tap water.  It's safe to drink unfiltered, or so they say (and I just happened to read a research paper on that here).  There's also an online water quality monitoring system of remote sensor results seeming to support that claim, but we drink it after it has passed through a three-stage filtration system.

It's probably not an ideal water source for brewing tea, but then people vary on what is.  The best approach is probably to test different waters with different teas to find an optimum.  Per online discussion that might relate to a matrix mapping of bests-per-type versus one best bottled water solution across all types (with a bit on that in this experiment).  I've tried out different forms of water in the past but nothing even as rigidly controlled as this loose microwave-heating testing methodology.  I'm an engineer, not a scientist.  Engineers tend to build as limited models as needed to get things to work and then use functional output testing to make adjustments, versus tightly controlled experimental trials.

Related to the one concern I was curious if this water source (filtered tap water) would contain the same degree of dissolved air as water-cooler large-jar stored water.  I'm not sure; I'm really raising it as a question versus speculating about that.

In the first test the microwaved water was slightly too cool, due to backing off temperature to stop it from going to a full rolling boil, and it wasn't a fair comparison.  I was using a hybrid approach between Western and Gong Fu preparations so getting another two or more comparable infusions wouldn't be a problem, but results could vary slightly based on having the tea more or less "brewed out."

There might have been a little bit of minor bubbling initially but it didn't seem to affect the texture of the tea.  It happened with both heat-source varied water versions during the initial infusion (to both samples), and seemed to relate to the tea getting wet initially, maybe not due to that "outgassing saturated air" effect.  At any rate the texture in tasting the teas didn't seem to vary, or seem off.

On the second try the water temperature seemed more comparable, both slightly off full boiling point by a nearly identical amount (per noticing it, not measurement).  The texture was essentially the same and the taste didn't vary either.  Without pronounced astringency in that tea type to begin with that aspect wasn't a factor, as it had been for the CTC tea.

I tried it again for a third infusion, since producing multiple infusions was the theme, based on using those parameters.  Still no fizzing, and still not really much in the way of difference for results, in any aspect range, for flavor or feel.  It's not really what I expected.


I couldn't reconstruct that fizzing effect in microwaving the water for brewing.  I didn't notice any difference in outcome that probably wasn't tied to slight variation in temperature, and later when that was better sorted out there was no apparent difference.  I'm not saying that microwaved water is as suitable as kettle-heated water, just that in trying direct comparison three times over six different infusions I couldn't get any significant limitation or difference to show up, besides variations related to a lack of temperature control in the trials.

It's not easy to microwave water to get it just short of boiling point.  That stands out more in comparison with a kettle that can perform a temperature control function, since jar-style kettles that sort of maintain a heated water supply do vary in temperature output.  In retrospect I could've just heated the water over and over, to try a half dozen or more cycles instead of just using the water however it turned out.  External factors came into play related to that: sometimes my weekend mornings are well structured for spending two or three hours on a tea tasting process and sometimes they're not.

Maybe microwaving water isn't so bad.  Maybe it is much worse, and I missed noticing that in these experiments.  I suppose that the one time you eventually experience your tea fizzing with that "weird froth on top" could be a deal-breaker.

my three kids at the vet; easy to spot which was adopted

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Quora 2018 Top Writer recognition

Last week I was notified that I was named as a 2018 Quora Top Writer.  So cool!  I've been writing lots of answers there for the last half year or so, mostly about tea to begin with, but more recently about travel and life in Asia, and onto other subjects.  It was nice communicating some ideas about Russia based on visiting there over the Christmas and New Years holidays.

I wasn't completely sure what it means, what the criteria were.  I did look that up (in Quora answers), and cover that here.  In one answer "thread"--which those sort of aren't, in the same sense in groups and forums--it seemed like there are hundreds of Top Writers now.  If there are millions of people answering questions on Quora and hundreds of "top writers" that's still something.

Of course I'm going to shift this to shameless self-promotion, to mention how many views and likes I've had, and link to some favorite posts.  First I'd like to say a bit more about Quora, and before that to give credit to who introduced me to it (based on memory, which isn't reliable).

Robert Godden is another tea blogger, familiar to most in "tea circles," who has been answering Quora questions for some time, and as I recall seeing notices about that started me on answering questions about tea too.  His own tea blog is here, and his Quora profile is here.

This guy Kegon on Quora really seems to know tea too.

What is Quora

I'll go with some Wikipedia background on this part (it's usually close enough to accurate, with further source citation references omitted here):

Quora is a question-and-answer site where questions are asked, answered, edited, and organized by its community of users...  The company was founded in June 2009, and the website was made available to the public on June 21, 2010. Users can collaborate by editing questions and suggesting edits to answers that have been submitted by other users.

That's what it is alright.  A little more on user count and function from there:

Quora's user base has grown quickly since 2010. As of April 2017, Quora has claimed to have 190 million monthly unique visitors, up from 100 million a year earlier...

...Quora launched a full-text search of questions and answers on its website on March 20, 2013, and extended the feature to mobile devices in late May 2013. It also announced in May 2013, that all its usage metrics had tripled relative to the same time in the prior year. In November 2013, Quora introduced a feature called Stats to allow all Quora users to see summary and detailed statistics regarding how many people had viewed, upvoted, and shared their questions and answers.

Those aren't Facebook user numbers but pretty good for an expanded version of Yahoo Answers.  And finally mention of the Top Writer's program:

In November 2012, Quora introduced the Top Writers Program as a way to recognize individuals who had made especially valuable content contributions to the site and encourage them to continue...  Top writers are invited to occasional events and receive gifts such as branded clothing items and books. The company believes that, by cultivating a group of core users who are particularly invested in the site, the program creates a feedback loop of user engagement.

It seems like they've scaled back the gifts--now a New York Times subscription instead--but that general point is the same.  I'm not sure about that "feedback loop of user engagement" just yet.  I'm definitely chatty online as it is; it might be as well if they didn't ask me for feedback.  That "loop" part seems to relate to them saying "good job" with the designation itself instead.

What does "Top Writer" even mean

Oddly this isn't really clearly defined on the site, but since the initial posting of this I ran across a better, more official explanation posted by Jonathon Brill, one of the Quora staff related to selection and announcements:

 The Top Writers program recognizes some of Quora's most consistent, insightful, and valuable contributors. Top Writers are writers who make consistent, high quality contributions. Selection criteria include: the number, quality, and popularity of contributions, and moderation history. Top Writers often have significant domain expertise and are Most Viewed Writers in one or multiple topics.

That matches the hearsay accounts I had already turned up, which go further in speculation about how that gets interpreted.  This post, more or less in criticism of the designation in an answer about not being named a Top Writer, provides one person's take:

#2 | The Quora Top Writer program awards writers who write highly technical answers to canonical questions in niche topics.

While Quora doesn’t explicitly say that, anyone who has been on Quora long enough can plainly see that they don’t care about writers who write in more general and lighter subjects like humour, hypothetical scenarios, life experiences, storytelling, or survey-type questions—even if those writers write exceptional content.

That's framed a bit negatively, but it's an interesting start.  Another answer goes further (which is similar but more positively expressed, perhaps in part because that person was selected as a Top Writer):

In any ad-supported, content-based web business you have two choices: go for audience, or go for traffic.

The engaging, popular Quorans thrive without awards. They’re awarded by their popularity. Those writers build audience, bringing back thousands of followers everyday.

The ‘Knowledge Writers’ drive traffic – people that are looking for answers that are deeper and more experience-driven than a wiki article, technical reference or tutorial. They’re vital in giving this site authority, and all important in-bound links. My answer to a question like ‘how to fill a box with color in CSS’ is never going to get many upvotes but it gets views, most of them coming from outside this site.

So according to both takes authors writing a certain kind of content would be more likely to be selected, answers that add depth of insight related to specific, perhaps more technical subjects, versus telling stories.

Some of those "engaging, popular Quorans" are great.  It's easy to underestimate what goes into telling a a simple short story or anecdote.  The way some writers use language, and build up a narrow set of ideas into an effective and moving image in just a few sentences is really impressive.

Views, favorite answer links, general self-promotion:

As promised, here is a mention of that Top Writer status in a profile screen capture:

Those "views" stats may or may not sound impressive, and as better-read Quora writers go they're not very high.  Lots of people have over a million answer views, and lots more followers than I do (60-some; I'm not killing the "social-networking" aspect).

I mentioned current views back in an earlier post:

January 31, 2018 version

This was the March 18th version, not long after learning about the Top Writer status change:

You can see why the "keeping score" aspect might be even more addictive than counting Facebook or Instagram likes; viewership stats and their version of "likes" combine.

The one other stat is "followers." The typical social-media interaction approaches would increase those:  follow other people, engage others in comment discussions, and so on.  Including pictures of attractive women in answers probably doesn't hurt.  Writing better answers, and more of them, is a bit less direct but that might work too.

It's all more educational than looking at pictures, or news media sources that all too often describe what Donald Trump is doing.  Love him or hate him that subject gets to be a bit much, along with politics and tragedy in general.

Some favorite Quora posts

I could just skip that part, couldn't I?  I already mentioned what I'd been covering in answers back in February, with a bit about how cultures vary in different countries in that post.  A post two weeks ago about how to find local tea shops went further, even including some favorite tea-themed post links at the end.  Even more recently a post on why microwaving water for tea might not be suitable stemmed directly from answering a question.  I tested that suggested explanation in three rounds of comparison testing, by the way; more will follow on that subject that's still a draft now.

Before getting into my own, I'll mention making one a real life friend through Quora, with a former CA police officer (Gene Lee).  He offered some interesting input on that gun issue that keeps coming up, a rare take that's not really pro or con related to ownership or restrictions:

If some people are so against guns, how would they feel if their life were threatened during a home invasion?

And then close with mentioning some of my answers that go beyond tea and foreign culture.  To me that's one cool part about Quora; it just keeps going related to subject scope.  I just started checking out a random sub-forum button on the Reddit page and that really keeps going further into random topics, almost too far, but Quora covers some ground.

Is there a difference between English Breakfast tea and regular black tea?  (obvious stuff)

Which is the proper way to explain death to a child?  (pretty far off the subject of tea)

Why would anyone like America?  (there are pros and cons)

I am starting blogging. What are some tips on how to start it?  (writing about writing)

Why isn't there ferry service between the islands in Hawaii?  (did I ever mention living there?)

Is Red Bull unhealthy?  (the jury is out, but teens should moderate intake)

Plenty for a short list.  That other post already did a lot with tea theme mentions, but then this blog already goes on about that subject as it is.