March 31, 2006

Obligatory cat pictures

Well, since Razib has been posting lots of pictures of his toxoplasma critters, I'll jump on the bandwagon and post some of my mostly maine coon. One on his throne, and another among his Persian Prince pillows.

Genetic predisposition + exposure to cats & their germs while young = high introversion. This trait keeps the girls away, but as long as you've got a companion not so fickle that they'll divorce you w/in 5 years (tops) of marriage, who cares?

March 24, 2006

Psychometrics & evolutionary aesthetics: the beautiful and the sublime

Denis Dutton's evolutionary aesthetics, which infuses evo bio into aesthetics, is a welcome start toward kidnapping another philosophical field from the hallowed halls of the humanities and raising it in the clinical laboratory of social & bio science. I critiqued his particular model here. I'm now going to elaborate a useful construct -- it's not that clever, but it clears things up, and it allows us to discuss both universal tendencies alongside group and individual differences. First, let's look at a graph and then inspect the parts:

The graph shows two orthogonal vectors, d (danger) and b (beauty). The magnitude of the danger component is determined by how intuitively dangerous the object appears to the human mind -- for example, a still pool would score lower than a turbulent rapid. This roughly corresponds to the older term sublime but is more transparent for integration with evo bio. The magnitude of the beauty component is determined by how intuitively pleasant the object is to the human mind -- for example, other things equal, a human face with clear skin is more beautiful than one maculated with acne.

For now we leave aside why and how the human mind has been designed to perceive some objects as more pleasant or dangerous than others. We assume natural selection has adapted the mind to find things more pleasant (or dangerous) the more they further (or hinder) survival and reproduction, though we treat these two vectors as orthogonal since they needn't a priori overlap. Moreover, if we only used a single axis like the number line, an object composed of equal parts beauty (positive) and danger (negative) would result in 0, with no hint of the magnitude of the components. If we use two axes, however, when the two components are equal, in general they won't yield the same result as another equal-component case would, since the magnitude of the components needn't be the same across the two cases.

Components for both beauty and danger result in a vector a (for aesthetic quality), which is what interests us. Now, if we draw a line 45 degrees between d and b, this will partition the space into three equivalence classes: B (the beautiful), where for all a in it |b component| > |d component|; D (the dangerous), where |d component| > |b component|; and BD (the beautifully dangerous), where |b component| = |d component|. By assumption, each vector a itself represents an equivalence class, namely the set of all objects whose components for beauty and danger are those of a (we return to how to investigate this assumption later). For example, a vector with a b component = 7 and d component = 1 might represent the set containing, among other things, a rainbow, a flower in bloom, a baby's smiling face, etc. A vector with these scores reversed might represent the set containing, among other things, an impending tornado, a punisher winding up to lash you, a precipice that leads a mile straight down, etc.

Because we're measuring intuitive reactions, they could be easily quantified: just come up with lots of items and ask a large random sample of people to rate each item for how dangerous and beautiful it appears (1 for not at all, 10 for very much so), and then average the results. The only drawback is that in order to place a new item on the graph, you'd have to repeat this laborious procedure, though if you were only concerned with grosser details you could ask 20 people whether it was more or less dangerous and more or less beautiful, allowing you to place it in one of four quadrants. Or you could ask whether it was more dangerous than beautiful, more beautiful than dangerous, or about the same for both, allowing you to place it in either B, D, or BD.

We assume that on the whole humans prefer to experience objects whose aesthetic quality a lies in B rather than D, since a preference for impending tornados would be very difficult to pass on to future generations. Because the highest known mutation rates in humans are on the order of 10^-4, we take this as the upper-bound for how many people might have such preferences in a population -- say, coprophiliacs. Any higher proportion would suggest either that the preference confers protection against disease -- which in this case is close to unimaginable -- or that it results from infection, e.g. by a fecal-to-oral germ which compeled the host to habitually ingest a substance likely to contain germs closely related to the original germ, perhaps a form of kin selection (since such a germ would not be easily transmissible to other human hosts).

As an aside, the set BD is what others would simply call "thrilling" -- one feels both fearful and joyful in equal measure. Some examples are tickling, which consists of roughly equal measures of an attack on one's vulnerable areas and affectionate play that cements an intimate social bond. This vector would not be distanced very far from the origin. One that would be further distanced is riding a rollercoaster. Returning to sexual matters, a face like that of Angelina Jolie (compared to, say, Natalie Portman) would lie on the BD line, since it incorporates an above-average degree of masculinity for a female face, as well as giving off a predatory expression. Like tickling, but much further distanced still: BDSM.

Hopefully this distinction will clear up some of the confusion that can cause reasonable people to talk past each other, e.g., when someone claims that fair hair is more "attractive" than dark hair, or that missionary sex is not as "hot" as role-playing. By breaking such things into (at least) the two components of beauty and danger, we can make better sense of how the two items compare.

Looking forward, we have assumed that each vector represents an equivalence class, so if one prefers Angelina Jolie to Natalie Portman, they will (in more cases than not) also prefer kinkier to more vanilla sex. This would follow if there were a general factor for aesthetic preference, like psychometric g, which is domain-general. Just as people who score highly on one cognitive test tend to score highly on all others, thrill-preferring people are assumed to prefer the thrilling in all domains. However, unlike g in intelligence, our purported aesthetic g does not have a century of solid empirical support. This is understandable, since psychometricians aren't very interested in aesthetics, and presumably the tests are more difficult to devise than IQ tests.

Still, here's an outline for research. Basically, we would choose a large random sample of people and administer questionairres that focused on widely divergent domains: e.g., sexual acts, physical attraction, musical styles, natural phenomena (whirlpools, flowers, etc.), visual art / design styles, hobbies, and so on. Each question would require the person to choose 1 of, say, 9 options as their most preferred type -- one option for various regions of the beauty-danger graph. The hypothesis would be that all of the correlations between any two domains would be positive, just as all correlations on subscores for IQ tests are positive. The correlation matrix could then be factor analyzed to see if there were only one general factor, as well as second-order factors similar to "verbal IQ," "spatial IQ," and so on, in IQ tests.

After a reliable model had been developed, we could run the standard tests for heritability using the behavior geneticists' paradigm of twin and adoption studies. Using fMRI (including on pathologicals like coprophiliacs), we could discover what is different in the brains of people with contrasting aesthetic preferences. Administering the tests to diverse populations, we could see whether or not there were any remarkable group differences; and if so, why, taking into account their history. We could also look for quantitative trait loci involved in aesthetic preference. These tools are already firmly established, so assuming we devised a reliable aesthetic preference test, we could quickly investigate these larger questions -- contrast this with the case of IQ, where researchers had to wait many decades after the initial psychometric success in order to study heritability, brain correlates, and candidate genes. All that is wanting is a group of aesthetically minded psychometricians. Calling Dean Simonton?

March 10, 2006

More recent selection in humans

Yet another study (full article here) which corrodes the Left and Right versions of Creationism -- respectively, that Darwinian evolution designed a Swiss Army knife mind up through the period of our species' history when everyone was a hunter-gatherer, but then alakazam, froze this Stone Age mind in place; and that some thousands of years ago, abracadabra, God created mankind as we presently know ourselves. The algorithm the scientists used when surveying the genomes of people from various racial groups only sought recent selection; that is, within roughly the last 10,000 years -- since humans adopted agriculture. It could not identify alleles that had already spread to fixation in the population under study, but rather alleles that were just starting to spread. It will of course take some time for curious minds to sort through the wealth of data and consult other disciplines in order to weave a coherent story about what happened and why, but here are some of my off-the-cuff observations:

1) In the past 10,000 years, sub-Saharan Africans especially but also Europeans have been exposed to a nastier pathogen load than Northeast Asians. The new Voight et al study (Table 2) shows that both Europeans and Africans, but not Asians, have recently undergone selection regarding the senses of smell and taste. The obvious guess is that this is to aid in determining whether food (meat for both or harvested foods for Europeans) has been infected by pathogens. If it has, it pays to detect this by perceiving the odor as "funky." Why might this trait have still undergone selection even after tens of thousands of years of pathogen avoidance using smell and taste? Well, new pathogens pop up all the time, and your nose and tongue had better be on their feet if they want to keep up with recognizing the current comestible-corrupting culprits.

2) In the relatively harsher climates of Europe and Northeast Asia, fathers have to invest more in order to see their kids reach maturity to reproduce in their turn, whereas in the more favorable climate of s-S Africa, it's more common for the father to have his wife do most of the child-rearing and hard labor to put food in their mouths. Because s-S African women therefore have little reason to remain faithful to their low-investing husbands, there is a pressure to mate with other men and raise a cuckoo's baby. This would presumably make sperm competition fiercer in s-S Africa. In fact, among Europeans and Asians, Voight et al found recent selection at sites having to do with the basics of reproduction: gametogenesis, spermatogeneis & motility, and fertilization. Perhaps a type of sperm & egg adapted to a region of low paternal investment became maladaptive once there were far fewer rivals' sperm to compete against.

3) Though Voight et al didn't find signs of selection at the two microcephaly genes Bruce Lahn recently identified as having undergone recent selection, they did find selection at other microcephaly sites, as well as other brain genes that are linked to neurotransmitters. Some brain genes are under selection in all three populations, while some differ. Again, it's too early to tell exactly what this means at the phenotypic level, but it does show (once more) that natural selection has not stopped since the broad racial groups diverged, nor has recent selection been kept away from the brain by a magical forcefield.

To anticipate a post I'm writing up -- if recent selection has altered the average brain of diverse populations (to whatever degree), the implications for medicine seem clear enough. But what about an area the most consider beyond the scope of evolutionary biology: aesthetics? Well, almost everyone. Denis Dutton is one of the lone critics willing to take science seriously in accounting for various aspects of artistic creation and criticism, and yet his particular model is inherited from Tooby and Cosmides, who stress what anthropologists have long called "the psychic unity of mankind." Dutton cites Hume, who noted that the "same Homer who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and London." That is, since the aesthetic standards seem to largely agree over thousands of years, human nature above the neck could not have changed in the meantime. But with all the incoming evidence of recent selection, some of which targets the brain, this assumption is becoming less intuitively true.

Moreover, if recent selection has fiddled around with the senses of smell and taste between populations, what if some art form were parasitic on these foundations? Say, haute cuisine. Surely we shouldn't expect Yoruba and Japanese critics to largely agree when judging the culinary creations from around the world -- not due to chauvinism but to the difference in the underlying senses employed in judgment. Again, how exactly it all turns out, we'll have to wait and see, but the very possibility that connoisseurs from two different populations could be honestly yet fervently talking past each other in many central aesthetic matters upsets the initial appeal of the "psychic unity of mankind" approach in criticism, even if not the larger evolutionary aesthetics paradigm of which it's a strand.

March 9, 2006

Janson gets a facelift

Via iSteve, news from the NYT that one of the most widely used encyclopedias of western art, Janson's History of Art, is new and improved.

On the one hand, it's good news that the new Janson will showcase more representative works of established painters, for this dampens the influence of epochcentrism -- the tendency to overemphasize the importance of the recent past -- since a painting which was fashionable when it debuted might not have best encapsulated the artist's oeuvre. On the other hand, it may be that the new editors have changed works not to dampen epochcentric bias but to select a work that fits in better with the "social and political narrative" of the time period -- despite the fact that visual art (and music more so) rarely sends political shockwaves throughout society, though literature certainly does (that's how we communicate, not by gesture or whistling).

Lamentably, one of the new editors bragged that he beefed up the new Janson with Duchamp and Rauschenberg, which only increases epochcentric bias. I can see some Duchamp paintings still holding people's attention 500 years from now (though not many and not so greatly), but Rauschenberg? It doesn't pass the "Really?" test. "Will Michelangelo be studied 500 years from now?" Yes. "Really?" Yes. "What about Rauschenberg?" Yes. "Really?" Well, come to think of it, probably not.

And as for the greater inclusion of women artists -- Steve nailed it by pointing out how this dilutes the narrative of art history, leaving a haphazardly concocted stew of Names and Paintings. Cassatt for sure doesn't pass the "Really?" test. The most deservedly famous female artist is Artemsia Gentileschi, and we can be sure that isn't due to epochcentric bias or feminist fancy, since she's been dead for over 350 years. (You might remember her as the painter of the gruesome Baroque painting Judith Slaying Holofernes.) Still, her index score in Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment is just 3 (from 1-100, with greater numbers indicating greater eminence). The reason is that, though she mastered chiaroscuro and used it to great effect (as in Judith), she didn't pioneer the technique, nor lead the Baroque charge. That's why a trailblazer like Caravaggio rightly gets more attention (HA index score = 35).

Steve correctly points out that the methodology of HA can partially mask the greatness of a female figure if she influenced no one else, assuming her male peers thought her work too feminine to take seriously, such as male writers paying less attention to the trials and tribulations of the female characters in a Jane Austen novel. This may be somewhat true for literature, but I don't see it playing much of a role in visual art, as one of the central images in western art is the Madonna and child. This is even less true in music, which is too abstract to tell a realistic story, girl-friendly or otherwise. Sure enough, there is only one female in the HA inventory for Western Music, with an index score = 2.

But even within literature, there is a discernible pattern which applies beyond literature: that is, female figures become increasingly underrepresented as the level of creativity and abstraction increases. So, most great female writers are novelists rather than poets, and most great female artists are writers rather than painters or composers. One can imagine that the mean of each sex's creativity distribution is the same, but that the variance for the male curve is greater than for the female -- i.e., males will be overrepresented both at the astounding out-of-this-world genius end, as well as the boorish completely-closed-to-creative-thought end. If one spouse complains to the other that, "You're just too much of a dreamer, and I need someone who's got both feet planted firmly on the ground" -- who is more likely to be the complainer and who the dreamer?

The same is true for the sciences, where females are less represented the more abstract the field, and within a field the more theoretical (rather than empirical) the work becomes. Just as the Janson facelift will result in what Steve referred to as a greater melange of Names and Paintings, as opposed to a coherent story of geniuses and their novel points-of-view, greater inclusion of women in encyclopedias of the sciences leads to greater emphasis on figures whom Charles Murray calls "brick-layers" rather than "system-builders" (referring to both males & females). So, as crucial as Rosalind Franklin's work on X-ray crystallography was, she was too conservative and not as intellectually nimble and daring as Francis Crick. Most college graduates will remember that Marie Curie did something or other in the hard sciences, but if they took an intro physics or chemistry course, they won't have any phenomenon or law to attach her name to, unlike Newton, Einstein, Maxwell, Bohr, and so on.

People just have to get over the fact that, at present, some groups have contributed more to the history of human accomplishment than others. Perhaps 200 years from now, we'll have an updated roster of influential geniuses who were female or black -- just as we may have an updated roster of basketball stars that will include a proportional amount of east Asians -- but that will have to wait until then, when epochcentric bias will have dissipated. As things currently stand, the political move to include more people from marginalized groups only serves to make human excellence in the arts and sciences look like Everybody Gets a Trophy Day in elementary school, rather than the awards ceremony at an Olympic sports event.

Project Runway wrap-up (SPOILER)

It's official: Chloe has won season 2 of Project Runway! If you remember back to my series on race, sex, and sexuality differences in high fashion, it won't surprise you to learn that the three finalists were a gay white male (Daniel V.), a gay white-looking biracial male (Santino) -- and a straight East Asian female (Chloe), who joins the ranks of straight East Asian female designers that have given us Rei Kawakubo, Hanae Mori, Vera Wang, and so on and so on. Final thoughts on the show:

1) Thank god there is a TV show on that showcases people who have a minimal level of brains and creativity! The Apprentice also does this, but the IQ subscore most needed there is verbal, which just makes them good bullshit artists, and the extent of their creativity is thinking up the Next Big Deodorant Ad. Yawn. It's simply astounding how much financial and intellectual capital is wasted on advertising.

2) Runway judge and ELLE Fashion Director Nina Garcia is a sight for sore eyes. She's Colombian but looks damn Spanish. While not ubiquitous, a somewhat rodential face like hers is more common among Spanish women than elsewhere -- rodential, as in cute bunnies, not rats. More relief of the features, especially the teeth, very gracile. Penelope Cruz is another good example. Both also have what their detractors call "bug eyes" -- large eyes w/ almost no fold above the upper eyelid, so that it pops out from the background more. I prefer to call them half-moon eyes, after the shape of their upper eyelids. Strange tastes I have, sigh...

March 4, 2006

Spanish girl example

OK, so just to put a more human face on my account, here's one of my best net-friends from Barcelona. I won't say her name, or what her webpage is, etc., since I don't want to embarrass her. Aside from being stunningly beautiful (again, not the main issue), she's incredibly nonchalant and healthily silly -- much more so than I would expect of a US girl who looked like she does. Like most Catalan adolescents, she's in love w/ poppy Gothic culture from the Anglosphere and Japan: The Cure, Tim Burton, and so on. She's fiercely independent but not in an adversarial or ladder-climbing way, and she tempers this w/ a healthy dose of aforementioned girliness.

When I've talked to her about US mating preferences, she expressed disbelief at our emphasis on height and status -- she said they're at best icing on the cake -- until I pointed her to common personals ads that baldly demand 6' tall guys. (Imagine male ads demanding at least C-cup breasts or a 0.67 waist-to-hip ratio.) Of course, even when height does matter in Spain, my male competition is shorter than here, and the panel of judges is also shorter than the judges here, making the issue doubly less worrisome.

As an final aside, Razib often blogs that religion isn't merely a set of axioms or code of conduct, but is typically grafted on top of an existing cultural & genetic substrate, meaning a South Korean Christian and a black South African Christian won't necessarily look alike religion-wise. Much the same is true of any cultural system, including music and film -- judging only from American die-hard fans of The Cure & Tim Burton, you'd expect any hardcore fan from elsewhere in the world to be angst-ridden, mopey, socially awkward, constantly mocking others, and disdaining "normal" avenues of diversion, such as going out to dance & laugh w/ a group of friends. But then you go to Spain where people still listen to Joy Division and watch melancholy and often dystopic Japanese anime movies -- and you've never seen such gleeful, gregarious Goths! No Teutonic winter could extinguish the fire that burns in Mediterranean blood.

March 3, 2006

Spanish Girls II

Oh never talk again to me
Of northern climes and British ladies;
It has not been your lot to see,
Like me, the lovely girl of Cadiz

--Lord Byron, "The Girl of Cadiz" (1809)

Part I here. A little background: I graduated in spring 2003, spent 3 months teaching English in Barcelona, came back due to being broke (only had a job for those 3 months), worked to save more money, went back in summer 2004 and stayed until February 2005 (again due to being broke). I've been working here since then, and I'll likely return this year in July -- thank christ! I plan to get a more advanced diploma for teaching English, which I hope will open more options for teaching & training new teachers.

Now, I wouldn't be much of a nerd if I didn't have some sort of quantitative data analysis to establish my case, so let's get it out there first. The data are from David Buss' seminal 1989 cross-cultural survey of mating preferences (pdf here, Ctrl F "bbs"). The sample size for the Mainland US data set was N = 1491 (639 male, 852 female, mean age for both ~20); for Spain it was N = 124 (44 male, 80 female, mean age for both ~23). Buss had the respondents rate how important various traits were in a mate, from 0 (not important at all) to 3 (essential), and then averaged the responses of each culture.

Admittedly, the best way to show where different cultures stand would have been to calculate their z-scores using huge data sets, but 1) the worldwide distribution would be unfairly dominated by larger cultural data sets in Buss' survey, and 2) I'm not interested in precisely how much more or less concerned one culture is w/ some traits vs another culture. As I'm more interested in who is more or less concerned w/ some trait than who else, I just made a rank-ordering, again admittedly to be taken w/ a grain of salt in the finer details, though the rough patterns are clear enough. For example, here are the rankings of the 37 cultures for how important to females are "Good finanical prospect," "Ambition / Industriousness," and "Good looks," from least to greatest emphasis (lists are up to the Mainland US data point):

Good financial prospect
(Rank) (Mean rating of trait) (Culture)
1 0.94 Netherlands
2 1.14 Zulu
3 1.16 Great Britain
4 1.18 Finland
5 1.33 Italy
6 1.36 Belgium
7 1.39 Spain
. . .
27 1.96 US

Ambition / Industriousness
1 1.41 Netherlands
2 1.56 Finland
3 1.59 Great Britain
4 1.66 West Germany
5 1.69 Spain
. . .
31 2.45 US

Good looks
1 0.88 Zulu
2 0.99 Finland
3 1.09 Japan
4 1.21 Netherlands
5 1.22 S.Africa white
5 1.22 Ireland
5 1.22 Colombia
8 1.24 Spain
8 1.24 Australia
. . .
28 1.67 US

So what do Spanish girls care about? Beyond "personal chemistry," I'm not sure, but level of culture plays a larger role there than here. Now, many folks here believe that reflects Olde Worlde elitism, but it's actually the opposite -- raising your level of culture through willpower is much more feasible than raising your level of riches (largely determined by IQ, itself beyond conscious control), ambitiousness (mostly extraversion on the Big Five personality inventories, also not really under conscious control), or good looks (muscle level is under control, but not the two features girls actually give a damn about: height and facial features). Not unrelated: the only gain in the Head Start programs was in literacy, not IQ or other IQ-related life outcomes.

In my experience, they also want a guy who has a passion for something -- here, that usually means a thirst for power (as in the "Ambition / Industriousness" trait), but in cultures civilized enough to rise above alpha-male polygyny (a quagmire into which the rad fems have unwittingly led their sisters), "passion" means engaging in some activity that activates the psychological state of flow, whether that gets you rich or not. They want a guy who isn't so busy that he doesn't have time to enjoy the things that make life worth living for a Mediterranean -- succulent food, keeping in touch w/ family members, taking in beautiful architecture, enjoying a meandering chat w/ friends over coffee or a nap at home during the long lunch break, and staying out all Saturday night and not sleeping until Sunday afternoon!

That still leaves a large role for chance (chemistry), and isn't that unsettling? Not really: the randomness of personal chemistry is at work everywhere, except here you have to score highly on a battery of elite tests just to earn a ticket to enter the head-over-heels lottery. No thanks. I'm of course leaving aside the elephant in the room -- that, to me at least, the average prize in one lottery behaves and looks orders of magnitude better than in the other lottery.

As for personal anecdotes to put a face on the numbers -- first, I'm 5'8 and 130 lbs, so I haven't been to the beach in the US since I was a kid. I couldn't suffer them staring at the scarecrow. But when I went to the beach at Barcelona, I actually noticed some (cute) girls looking at me -- I thought for sure the skin on my back must have been stained by sprawling splotches of sunburn! I found out they don't prefer Viking Warrior types but Adolescent Greek Boy types. Second, I taught English, and a (cute) student of mine came on to me when our class went out clubbing. (I didn't respond since I didn't want to spoil the student-teacher dynamic.) Third, the only hot girl who's ever more-or-less propositioned me was a Catalan friend of an English teacher friend, when a group of us were at a karaoke bar. (Nothing happened since I tried to play it cool rather than ruin the chance by appearing too eager -- but she thought I was uninterested or gay, dropped me like a hot potato, and started hitting on another guy in our group. How on earth are you supposed to be not too eager but not too nonchalant anyway?)

Well, there's plenty more to say about them, but I'll leave it there and come back to this topic as other ideas pop into my mind. Till then, the final lines of Byron's poem:

In each her charms the heart must move
Of all who venture to behold her;
Then let not maids less fair reprove
Because her bosom is not colder:
Through many a clime ’tis mine to roam
Where many a soft and melting maid is,
But none abroad, and few at home,
May match the dark-eyed Girl of Cadiz.

March 2, 2006

TV no make you dumb

A study by U of Chicago econ profs says watching TV doesn't make you stupider. What a relief! I'd always worried about that when I thought of how I'd raise any kids I might have -- I mean, I was glued to the TV as a kid and turned out fine, but maybe I was an exception. Though I liked "Mr. Wizard's World," "Beakman's World," and "Bill Nye the Science Guy," I doubt many kids would bother paying attention if their parents only let them watch such educational shows.

And the other types of shows revolve around things kids will do anyways, whether by watching & discussing TV shows or otherwise: safely ogling hot girls or cute guys ("Saved by the Bell"); seeing your own adolescent problems played out & resolved so you can better understand and perhaps deal w/ them ("My So-called Life," and "Saved by the Bell" again); having something to cement the discussions in your circle of friends / serve as a group badge, as well as allow you to break the ice w/ someone you want to be friends w/ ("Saved by the Bell" again); and perhaps enjoying mild entertainment (yep, "Saved by the Bell" again). Sorry to mention that show so much, but I was born in 1980, so the teenager shows I grew up on were out in the early '90s. "Wonder Years" is another good example, though not so much for ogling.

These issues aren't something you would bring up out of the blue among your friends, so these shows allow you to form thoughts & opinions w/o the embarrassment of having to discuss them w/ others. And if you wanted to bring up the topic w/ friends, you could always say, "Did you see Such-and-Such last night? I can't believe that bla-bla-bla..." So, you could talk about things that sucked in your life (a lot of them at that point) w/o having to emasculate yourself by admitting weakness. You were just talking about So-and-So from What's-That-Show. Or, even better, if you wanted to vent anger at the type of people who drove you nuts! Ah, therapeutic TV -- of course, now when I turn it on it's almost all garbage, but I recognize the need for it among adolescents who would rather have their dopey parents pick them up at the mall than openly discuss the things they're going through w/ any adult.