Good taste

The widely accepted notion of taste is of a sociological concept defined as a person’s personal and cultural patterns of preference. Of what looks good and what is cool. Is there an objective measure of beauty? How does taste work?

Taste or more accurately aesthetic taste is emotional. It’s the ability to discern the pleasant and the polar opposite of the emotion of disgust. Like the other senses, we perceive pleasance, beauty and goodness as sensory signals. Some of us have better equipment just like how bloodhounds with three hundred million scent receptors have better sense of smell than the average dog with only two hundred million.

We would all agree taste is subjective. I wouldn’t be able to get everyone to agree with my idea of what’s beautiful. Unlike manners, there isn’t a universally-agreed objective standard of beauty we can measure our tastes against. So agreement-seeking humans resort to ineffective workarounds like the HiPPO, design-by-committee and focus groups.

How can we blame them? It’s an evolutionary impulse that we seek agreement. Groupthink is so wired into us that it is better to lose in togetherness than to upset the pecking order or worse, risk winning.

The illusion of objectivity

To avoid disagreement, we often turn to standards. We seek objectivity. Ancient Greek philosophy had the most influence on the western sense of what’s beautiful. Plato and Aristotle both agreed there exists a divine form of aesthetics that beautiful objects partake in, in order to be beautiful.

It’s foolish because there is no such thing as a true objective beauty. Even if the whole world agrees on one standard of beauty, it is still a universal subjective.

If a man says that canary wine is agreeable he is quite content if someone else corrects his terms and reminds him to say instead: It is agreeable to me,” because “Everyone has his own (sense of) taste”. The case of “beauty” is different from mere “agreeableness” because, “If he proclaims something to be beautiful, then he requires the same liking from others; he then judges not just for himself but for everyone, and speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. – Immanuel Kant

The only problem with Kant’s statement is the word everyone. We need to recognize that aesthetic judgement requires agreement but it doesn’t have to be a universal one. Forget about divine standards. Instead of universal agreement, we only need group compatibility.

I propose defining good taste as the perceptivity to an object’s compatibility with a group. The group is the key here. The difficulty in getting a group to agree on something is inversely correlated with size and diversity of a group. We see that it’s harder for the general population (a larger more diverse group) to like Acid Rock than for hippies (a niche group).


Taste evolves. Our tastes change as life circumstances change our health, temperament and moods. It’s evident taste is grounded in the tenets of biology. Taste is a sensory capacity. It includes the capacity to pick up stimuli signals and the range of these signals. Much like hearing.

A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a person having the innate trait of high sensory processing sensitivity (or innate sensitiveness as Carl Jung originally coined it). According to Elaine N. Aron and colleagues as well as other researchers, highly sensitive people, who compose of about a fifth of the population, may process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems.

The attributes of HSPs can be remembered as DOES:

  • Depth of processing
  • Over aroused (easily compared to others)
  • Emotional reactivity and high empathy
  • Sensitivity to subtle stimuli

Empathy is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another sentient or fictional being. Sensitivity, emotional reactivity and empathy are mutually reinforcing. Each grows the other. HSPs are known to have higher empathy. Several studies have found HSPs to have more mirror neuron activity (associated with empathy) and stronger emotional arousal than others when looking at pictures that are emotionally arousing, including happy and distressed faces.

Sensory pathways

Sensory signals enter our sense organs and pass through the limbic system before reaching the neocortex for higher processing. In HSPs the amygdala which is located in the limbic system and responsible for emotional regulation, fear response and consolidation of memory, is hyper-responsive. Sounds sound louder, lights appear brighter. HSPs generally experience their environment more intensely. This neurological basis of high sensitivity suggests some of us are genetically and physically built to better pick up and process emotions. The amygdala also underlies empathy and allows for emotional attunement and creates the pathway for emotional contagion. The basal areas including the brain stem form a tight loop of biological connectedness, re-creating in one person the physiological state of the other. Psychologist Howard Friedman thinks this is why some people can move and inspire others.

From the sense organs to the limbic system to the neocortex, the entire neural pathway is responsible for aesthetic judgement. As sensory signals reaches the neocortex, they undergo further processing and emerges into our consciousness and we then form thoughts around them. This cortical processing enriches the initial emotional response to paint more meaning into our consciousness. The brain with high capacity for emotional response is like a skilled artist. High sensitivity brings in rich signals of colors and textures for the artist to paint into feelings we experience at a more conscious level. The more skilled the brain, the more signals it has the better it paints.

Another way of looking at it is to imagine the range of stimuli one can experience like the color gamut (how big the range of colors an output device can display) of a computer display.


A more sensitive person is like a display with a higher gamut. The higher the gamut of a person, the more his gamut overlaps those of others and the more he can relate to the colors experienced by others.

Taste as aesthetic empathy

While not exactly mind-reading, empathy is the ability to feel and think what other people feel and think and relate to others. Since having good taste is very much the ability to make aesthetic judgements that others are likely to share, it’s not unreasonable to say good taste is aesthetic empathy.

Someone with good taste will most definitely be a highly sensitive person. The better the HSP’s artist mind can paint the wider and deeper his empathy will be. The capacity for emotional response is like water. Emotional experience is like dye. A spoonful of dye in a small cup of water is crowded. Pour a cup of dye in an ocean and you’ll find its molecules diffused across what feels like infinite space. Thus it feels like the ocean better understands the dye which it has completely assimilated.

My final point is being a HSP does not equate to having good taste. High sensitivity only serves as a potential. Having the colors does not mean one would paint well. Other factors, biological, psychological and intellectual play important parts as well. After all, one-fifth of the population are HSPs. It’s mad to think one of five of us have even any taste at all. I’d also like to make a bold claim that non-HSPs are unlikely to have good taste and I welcome you to challenge it.

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White room


You are in an empty white room. Just you in a stark, small empty space. With nothing to do, nothing to entertain yourself with. You fall asleep eventually only to wake up to the same bleakness as before.


Now an empty notebook appears in front of you. Then a pencil.

You now have something to do. You are not bored anymore. Having some writing/drawing materials makes a big difference. You can now journal your thoughts, draw your imagination and document world-changing ideas you are going to implement when you get out.

You don't live in this white room.

Your world is at least a million times more interesting than an empty room with some writing materials. So quit thinking there isn’t enough external stimuli. If you are constantly searching for external solutions to boredom, perhaps you need to start looking inside.

All sorrow has its root in man’s inability to sit quiet in a room by himself. — Blaise Pascal

Next time you feel bored. Think of the white room.

Photoshop text swap trick

How can you swap the top textbox with the bottom textbox so you ensure the space between the two textboxes remain the same like this?


Here’s the layer structure:


First, put the two textboxes in a group so they can be vertically center-aligned against the background rectangle.

Then follow these steps.



Nuon is my boy and that was his three-day old picture. He just turned three last month! This is him now.


Yes I gave him the haircut of Lavi Head from Last Exile.

6degrees Identity

I’ve recently starting working with the 6degrees team. 6degrees is founded by Niranjan Rao (CEO) and Arun Samudrala (CTO) who are based in Bangalore – India’s very own silicon valley. 6degrees is a self-updating phonebook that automatically cleans duplicates and backs itself up. We currently have an Android app and an iOS version is in the works. I will be involved in the design of both apps moving forward.

The first thing we did was to refresh the identity. Here’s the logo as a animated buildup to its final shapes showing the underlying geometry.

6degrees logo

6degrees is named after the popular theory originally set out by Frigyes Karinthy and popularized by a play written by John Guare – that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world. This, in essence is what 6degrees is all about – to be a network of contacts where everyone is connected in some way.

The mathematical constructs in the logo’s geometrical form are:

  • Continuity
  • Hexagon
  • Equilaterals


Instead of placing the degree symbol in an arbitrary position. I used the ascender of the 6 as the guide and placed it along the outer curve.


The counter of the 6 is also placed in the same continuum as the ascender in a configuration similar to the Large Hadron Collider which accelerates protons from the smaller circle into the large circle.



Being six-sided, the hexagon is the perfect polygon to communicate the concept of six degrees of separation. The hexagon is also one of the most efficient shapes in nature. Bees instinctinctively construct their hives as three-dimensional hexagons because they make for robust stuctures that cost the least wax. Since 6degrees is very much about maintaining a clean and efficient contact list, having a hexagonal frame makes sense.


Graphite is made up of layers of graphene, each a single atom thick. In graphene carbon atoms are arranged in a hexagonal grid. Carbon nanotubes which are essentially rolled up tubes of graphene owe their strength to this hexagonal nature.


Hexagons have internal angles of 720°. Each vertice is 120°. A hexagon can be sliced into six equilateral triangles. Each one can be half into two right-angle triangles. Overlaying the hexagon over the outer circle I broke it into twelve equal parts.


The four equal segments of the top-left quadrant of the cake determines the the symmetry of the 6 and the distance from the terminal to the degree symbol. This manner of constructing the 6 feels stable and balanced. As a result the 6 despite being heavier on its left side stays in equilibrium because of its attachment to the degree symbol.

By now you should be able to tell that I have a fetish for geometrical typographical forms.

Cold brew coffee

Regular coffee messes with my brain. I only drink coffee as a last resort. When I have to turn in code which I already know how to write and I only have to stay awake and type like a zombie on auto-pilot. Coffee rarely helps when I need to also be creative because I always end up making crap because zombies aren’t very creative.

It’s mostly the caffeine overload. Perhaps I’m just too sensitive. I tried tea but the teas I like – green and rooibos don’t give me any buzz and I don’t like the astringent taste of black tea. Japanese Matcha is one of my favorites but the good ones that don’t taste like powdered grass are expensive.

I needed something with the buzz between coffee and tea, which would taste good without sugar, easy on the wallet and light enough as an everyday beverage. Then I discovered cold brew coffee.

Cold coffee is coffee that is brewed with room temperature or cold water for extended time to a similar strength as coffee brewed with hot water. Hot water causes coffee to release undesirable acidic oils. This is why conventional wisdom is to brew coffee with water not hotter than 90 degrees celsius. Even then some acidity is to be expected as long as there’s heat. The heat also draws out the caffeine molecules much faster. The result is really a cup of heartburn-inducing bad-tasting caffeine soup. Face it. Most people don’t like the taste of coffee the first time. It’s an acquired taste and it’s probably the addictive stimulant effects you have acquired, not the taste. Better coffee would be something that’s less like caffeine-junkie dope and tastes better. Cold coffee is exactly that. Plus because cold coffee doesn’t have to deal with the compound 2-furfurylthiiol which degrades as heated coffee cools off, it actually stays fresh longer. You can just make two weeks worth in a big jug without it going stale.

How to make

What you need

  • Coffee beans (coarse ground)
  • Nut milk bag bag or cheese cloth
  • Water jug
  • Refrigerator (optional)

Put ground coffee beans in a drawstring cloth bag with a mesh fine enough to filter out the grounds, put it in a jug filled with water then seep it overnight in the fridge. Half a cup of grounds to every liter of water works fine. Adjust the amount of grounds or the seeping time for stronger or weaker coffee. I prefer my coffee cold but the fridge is optional.

For more detailed instructions, check out this Business Insider article.