Pretending to Care, Pretending to Agree

by Venkat on May 20, 2015

A couple of years ago, I happened to catch the tail-end of a performance of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town on TV, and the poignant closing soliloquy stuck in my mind:

Most everybody’s asleep in Grover’s Corners. There are a few lights on: Shorty Hawkins, down at the depot, has just watched the Albany train go by. And at the livery stable somebody’s setting up late and talking. Yes, it’s clearing up. There are the stars doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk … or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain‘s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.

Being the unsentimental jerk I am, what stuck in my mind was not the poignancy, but the evocative stress and relaxation metaphor. Today, thanks to the medicalization of angst, most people would use the word stress rather than strain to convey the thought.

But it is actually the engineering sense of both terms, used together, that sheds the most light on the cultural idea underlying the passage above. The distinction and relationship between stress and strain can be understood using a stress-strain graph. Here is a pair I made up that I think represent the human psyche (I’ll explain how to read it in a minute).


In common usage, the stress and strain are used interchangeably, but in engineering, stress is the force acting on a material, while strain is the resulting distortion in the material. In humans, stress can be measured by the internal anxiety we feel, and various physiological symptoms. Strain can be measured by the distortion represented by the social masks we need to maintain, in order to function under that stress.

There are two basic types of masks: masks of pretending to care are exit masks, and masks of pretending to agree are voice masks. I suspect these two kinds of masks, between them, cover almost all cases of preference falsification, the concept Sarah introduced us to in her post a couple of weeks ago. Much of her post had to do with the effects of voice masks at the scale of nations, but in this post I want to consider both together at an individual scale.

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Technopaganism and the Newer Age

by Ryan Tanaka on May 13, 2015

Ryan Tanaka is a resident blogger, visiting us from his home turf at

Elon Musk, in response to the popularity of HBO’s hit comedy Silicon Valley, once remarked that Hollywood doesn’t “get” SV culture because it doesn’t understand what Burning Man is all about.

Most of us here have seen the pictures and heard something it, but what exactly is Burning Man, anyway?  Why are pictures of the event posted in the hallways and offices of the Googleplex, and why is it a topic of conversation that comes up over and over among those working in tech?

Burning Man

Photo by Kyle Harmon from Oakland, CA, USA. (Accessed from Wikipedia – 05/10/15)

Beneath the confusion and craziness, Burning Man can be seen as a manifestation of the sentimentality and spirit of the Bay Area, compressed into an intense, week-long ordeal: techies, hippies, individualists, creatives/artists and progressives all living in close proximity, thrown together into an uncontrolled mix. A giant social experiment of sorts, organized into a ceremonial ritual, conducted year after year.

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Weaponized Sacredness

by Sarah Perry 05.07.2015

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm. Author’s note: The thinking that gave rise to this essay was committed in collaboration with St. Rev. Errors, suspicious implications, and dubious conclusions are my own. On March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, just north of Los Angeles, California, failed catastrophically and sent a wave of […]

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Roundup: January – April 2015

by Venkat 05.01.2015

It’s been a busy few weeks for me. Since I just returned from three weeks in Chile and am still catching my breath, you get a roundup instead of new material this week. We’ve had 16 posts so far this year: four from Sarah, two from Haley, one from Ryan and nine from me. The […]

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A Better Art Vocabulary, Part 1

by Haley 04.22.2015

Haley Thurston is a resident blogger visiting us from her home turf at The Sublemon. Art criticism, whether written by professionals or fans, is plagued by nonspecificity and a lack of self-justification. Things are implied to be good or bad, without a very good explanation for why we should consider them good or bad. For example, […]

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The Capitalist’s Zombie

by Venkat 04.15.2015

I’ve been in Chile for a few days, preparing to lead some sessions over the next week or so at a startup bootcamp put together by Exosphere. Naturally, my mind has been wandering to other matters Chilean. Chile, as an acquaintance remarked recently, has an economy based on two things: copper and astronomy. It’s also an […]

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The Essence of Peopling

by Sarah Perry 04.08.2015

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm. Nouns for human beings – “people” or “person” – conjure in the mind a snapshot of the surface appearance of humans. Using nouns like “people” subtly encourages thinking about people as frozen in time, doing nothing in particular. “People” is an anchor for thinking about human bodies […]

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The Art of Gig III

by Venkat 04.02.2015

And now for the thrilling finale. Read Parts I and II first.  I exited the AspireKat building at a slight trot. Time was of the essence. Anscombe was scurrying to keep up with me, trying to type with one hand on his open laptop, balanced on the arm of his Starbucks-mug hand. “Figure out Donna’s home address […]

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The Art of Gig II

by Venkat 03.26.2015

Read Part I first. I shut the door of the conference room gently behind us. We could still hear Khan and Isabella out in the reception area, but their voices were now muted. Saul seemed to be in some sort of philosophical reverie as he made his way to his chair. Guanxi looked at me […]

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The Art of Gig

by Venkat 03.19.2015

I don’t talk about my consulting gigs much on this blog, since there is surprisingly little overlap between my money-making work and my writing. But many people seem to be very curious about precisely what sort of consulting I do, and how that side of ribbonfarm operates. Unfortunately, it’s hard to explain without talking about actual […]

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