Saturday, March 25, 2017

Truth


When I was a kid, truth seemed simple. Over the last sixty years I learned that truth is not really simple at all. Truth can be surprisingly elusive, and finding it can require a whole lot of intelligence, energy and time.

Some devote their entire lives to finding truth.  They search for decades in the hope of discovering the truth about tiny slices of our reality. Think of astronomers, particle physicists and cancer researchers. Some philosophers have devoted their careers to thinking critically about the very meaning of truth. Those explorers are the vanguard in the quest for truth.

For most of us truth is more mundane than the study of cosmology and the meaning of life. "It's raining"; "I'm hungry"; "that shirt doesn't fit me well"; "it's dark out". Statements like these are easily verified. We measure truth with our eyes, our gut, our skin.

When it comes to things that others tell us, truth is more complicated, though we can usually verify what we are told. I test your honesty when you tell me "It's raining". Your coat is wet, I see the rain, I know it's true. As I learn that you speak the truth, I come to trust you. Once I trust you I simply accept what you tell me in the same way as when I see the rain myself. The truth we speak, and the trust we earn and share, are the bricks and mortar of our society.

How is the truth complicated?

It's complicated because we have all failed to tell the truth.

Failing to tell the truth does not automatically call our trustworthiness into question. We sometimes misperceive.

On a sunny summer day many years ago I walked past an outdoor movie set in a narrow street in Old Montreal. Someone indoors waking and peering out the window facing the movie set would have thought it was a gloomy rainy day. They might have misinformed a friend. Upon verification, their friend might have doubted their shared trust. More likely, the true friend would have questioned that statement. "I'm two blocks away and there isn't a cloud in the sky". Each of them would then have learned the truth about movie sets.

When enough people believe something that is not true, the lie appears to become the truth. Then we all become victims of falsehood.

"The earth is flat". That spectacular falsehood was perceived as truth for many centuries. All those who believed it did so because they verified the truth of the statement with their eyes. Eventually, scientists discovered the truth. "Earth is a sphere, the sun is a sphere, our world orbits the sun." Speaking the truth when most people believe something else can take enormous courage. Sometimes it can be life-threatening, even fatal.

One aspect of our humanity is that when the truth is inconvenient, we lie.

We lie to spare a friend's feelings ("No... that shirt doesn't make you look fat at all"). That's a 'white lie', a lie that might not bar your path to heaven - if you believe in that kind of thing.

When we lie, not to spare people's feelings, but to advance our own self-interest at the expense of others, the lie fades to black, veils, hides, buries the truth, and corrodes trust.

One of the challenges we face with truth is that finding the truth about complicated things can be quite difficult. To speak the truth concerning complicated things requires diligent work. As the scale of the task increases, when we need to speak the truth to a community, to a nation, to the world, on subjects where finding the truth requires hours and hours, and sometimes months and months, of hard focused work, truth often suffers. We take shortcuts, and truth erodes, along with trust.

On that scale, outright lies are so much easier to manage than truth. Lies simplify the job by orders of magnitude. Supporting public policy, particularly bad or evil policies that undermine democratic principles of equality and fairness, is much simpler with lies than with truth. The lies stack the deck in favour of the liar. Each convenient lie takes mere moments to conjur, and hour upon hour of diligent work to disprove. Faced with a tide of lies, dogged determination and real courage are needed to seek and speak the truth, in order to maintain the trust our society is built on.

When we tolerate a liar in our midst, we turn our backs on truth. When we lose the truth, we lose trust, and we place our society in grave danger. Scientists, judges and journalists are those among us who seek truth and make it public. They maintain the foundations of democracy. When scientists, judges, and journalists come under vigorous attack by liars, as they are in this moment, the risk to democracy becomes intolerable.

Truth is independent of politics. No one can claim a monopoly on truth. Whether liberal or conservative, devout or agnostic, each of us has a sacred duty to promote truth. Each and every one of us has a duty to seek and speak the truth.

Make no mistake. This is a call to vigorous action.

Here is a short list of things you need to do in this time of peril:

  • Subscribe to a reputable newspaper and read it daily;
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  • Watch responsibly reported television news;
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  • Speak the truth;
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  • Call a liar a liar;
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  • Start doing this now.
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Musical selections for this episode are:

Majestic Hills by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
Source: http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/index.html?isrc=USUAN1100423
Artist: http://incompetech.com/

Americana - Aspiring by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
Source: http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/index.html?isrc=USUAN1200092
Artist: http://incompetech.com/ 

24 comments:

  1. David - Well said. I have been thinking along similar lines for some time and have come to understand that this post-truth world (as they say) only exists because we let it. We fail to call the liars out. We react to hot button triggers without employing due diligence. And mostly we re-post dubious facts as 'truth'. I have been (and will again be - constant fact checking is hard and time-consuming work) guilty of this but over the past few months have become much more aware of the pervasiveness of alternative facts in our current political environment and have made conscious efforts to follow your short list.
    However, having said that, when the world's current most infamous liar (or at least among the top 3 or 4) is of no mind to speak the truth and is seemingly oblivious to being called out, what then? Yes, we can be better educated and informed, but when so many millions of people who know in their hearts and minds that they are dealing with a pathological liar yet still support him and not only excuse but justify his falsehoods, what then? I wish I knew.

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    1. David I think that the problem we face is that we are in an age with unprecedented information flows. News used to be the domain of professional editors. It wasn't a moneymaker, but it did have value. There was a kind of powerful symbiosis between the publication of news, and advertising. The news brought us the information we needed, and advertising brought us the information we wanted.

      Cable TV multiplied the information channels, and now the internet literally floods us with information. Editorial resources became strained and are now completely overwhelmed, while advertising dollars spread thinly across all the new media venues siphoning off the money that once securely supported professional journalists and editors.

      The result is that we get mountains of untested information, and even the edited information has been diluted with opinion and outright showmanship in an effort to get it to pay its way by attracting viewer and readers with dazzling colours, swooshy sounds, and 3D rotating, pivoting and swirling graphics accompanying "breaking news".

      All this means that we, you and I, and the rest of us, have to become much more discerning about the places we get our information.

      In my case, I cancelled my National Post newspaper delivery subscription and diverted the cash to the New York Times digital edition. A very close friend did a similar thing and subscribed to the Guardian.

      As for dealing with liars, we need to call them just that.

      Early in my law career I had my first multi-day trial. It went on for a full week. I was defending a client against a class-action lawsuit. On the first day of the trial a witness for the plaintiffs uttered perjured testimony. My client was adamant that it had to be a lie. The thing about lies is that they are stunningly effective in terms of testimony. They cut right to the heart of the litigation and are extremely damning for the defense. At the lunch break I met with my colleagues and partners. What to do? I had cross-examined, but that only elicited more of the damning testimony, and the judge was furiously writing it all down in in his notebook, with his head down not even looking at the witness.

      The advice I got from my colleagues, many of whom were very seasoned trial lawyers, was to cross-examine to death without concern for the repetition. Take the witness back and forth through the testimony, start at the end and work back, go to the middle and work to the end, start in the middle and work backwards and so on.

      Ultimately 6 or 7 witnesses offered perjured testimony. My colleagues said, when the witnesses have all been heard, move to make arguments in writing, get the transcripts and get the audio recordings, and go through the testimony with a fine-tooth comb. You'll see that the falseness of the testimony will become crystal clear. No liar, even aided and abetted by several co-perjurers, can create a fabric of lies that will withstand that approach.

      They were right, and I won that case.

      That is what the mainstream press needs to do. Get to work, document the truth relentlessly, and have each others' backs.

      What we need to do is to subscribe to their newspapers so that our subscription dollars allow the journalists and their editors to get us to the truth.

      That is how to fight an information war.

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  2. A fine essay David on a topic that unfortunately has become uncomfortably relevant -- especially in the United States. While I've never expected much truth to emerge from the mouths of any elected officials, it's disconcerted how the level of lying has skyrocketed. Tremendous, astounding bald-faced lies. And spoken as if they were long held truths. And the sudden dismissal of truth as fake news has gripped America.

    Looking at your list I think there's perhaps something missing -- being open to alternative opinions and ideas. At least at the level of inspection to ensure our own opinions are really based in some sort of "truth". Otherwise we risk falling into the same mindless denialism of others.

    No wonder I just want to get on my scooter and ride and forget everything else...

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    1. Steve, I heartily agree.

      I'll cite a stunning example from CNN last night. They have an investigative series running on religion, many, many religions.

      Last night I watched a show on Scientology. I fully expected to have my understanding vindicated that this 'religion' is profoundly stupid, senseless abomination built on crazy ideas, and a fraud perpetrated on its followers.

      Instead of finding myself laughing out loud and deriding what I heard, I was surprised.

      The story centered on a number of practitioners who have broken away from the mainstream 'church' to continue what they perceive to be the 'pure' religion, removed from the influence and well-documented abuses of the official church. A kind of reformation if you will.

      I am amazed to say it, but there seemed to be a Zen-like method to Scientology that helped adherents to achieve truly elevated states of consciousness in relation to their own beings.

      There really seemed to be some genuine value to the practice of Scientology. Certainly no crazier than the mumbo-jumbo that passes for many other accepted and respected religions.

      I'm definitely not joining anytime soon, but it does strike a strong chord with what you suggest of keeping an open mind and exploring opinions and ideas that don't necessarily accord with our usual views.

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  3. Times are not as horrible as we imagine they are. History tells us that. Age is a great definer of what we think is bad or good, right or wrong. Age is our problem. We are old. We are living history. My only concession is that in a conversation, I do not debate those that I think are crazy. You can not win. I do let people know that I have a different opinion. My philosophy is, now, more than ever, because of were we get our information, usually from a source that supports our position, just as we chose friends who are like minded, I want to establish that there is another opinion.

    But most importantly, what he said..........

    No wonder I just want to get on my scooter and ride and forget everything else...

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    1. Ken having had the genuine pleasure of spending a few days in your company, and having read much of what you have offered to us on your blogs and websites, I hold you in high regard. I think you are right with you approach. There is not much point in confrontation. There is more to be gained in having others appreciate us as people who are pleasant to meet and exchange with, and letting them know that we don't share some of the political ideas that otherwise separate us.

      As for the contemplative benefits of riding, maybe there is a religion we could launch. L. Ron Hubbard did more, with less.

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  4. Certainly not a lot of truth in our politics right now. It is like someone said "no one could be worse than George W. Bush" and the GOP said "challenge accepted".

    One of the gentlemen that attends Saturday morning coffee with us said that he read an article describing Trump as a "bullshit artist" as opposed to a liar. Apparently a bullshit artist will say whatever they need to do get what they want and they aren't even imagining it isn't the truth. I thought this was an interesting take on it. Of course this was a month or so ago. Wonder if the author of the article still feels that way?

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    1. Brandy I think that the notion of the 'bullshit artist' is along the lines of what is happening. Some people suggest that, like a beat poet, Mr. Trump is not to be taken literally, but that his pronouncements are to be taken more as a stream of his consciousness, intended to promote his ideology the way a song and its lyrics soothe us, transport us, without the need to actually know the lyrics or even plumb their literal meaning.

      In that sense, Mr. Trump has more in common with a spiritual leader, though he speaks of matters that are normally understood to be rooted in hard reality, rather than in the dogma of religion.

      And there's the rub. History offers examples of this kind of approach to government. In many, many cases, it doesn't end well for the citizens.

      Time magazine published an interesting article last recently based on an interview that Mr. Trump granted. That he willingly granted the interview, knowing that the topic was the issue of his record on truthfulness says more about the man in some ways, than the lies he tells, and promotes.

      Here are links to the transcript of the interview, and the article based on that interview. The mind kind of boggles.

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  5. Alls news is biased on the perspective of the talking head involved along with downward pressure from his management which is biased based on their agendas and political biases as they perceive it affecting their respective rice bowls. You tend to select news sources which agree with your perceptions, which make you feel others are agreeing with you in your view of the world as you see it, would like it to be and wonder why the other side just can't see the obviousness of the "truth".

    Everyone's perspective on "the truth" is colored by the effect of the accepted truth variation on their rice bowl.

    No one can see the same set of variables with same perspective as the next person. Just the way it is, our perspectives are formed from our unique life experiences, beliefs accepted, lies accepted as truths due to the perceived credibility of the source, true or not.

    The seeking of the truth is one thing, finding the truth you'll accept because it fits your perspective and works out for your rice bowl is easy, finding the absolute truth? That's much harder and usually not fully acceptable unless it's something impartially measurable like the outside temperature of how how much land you house sits on. Something measurable could probably be accepted as truth....something involving humans? That's more biased perspectives...

    Me, I avoid all news sources, I block all political diatribe from every side of the political spectrum and try and concentrate on what I can affect, within the world view forming my perspective on right and wrong. I've my goals for myself and my family, the world will evolve as it will, unaffected by me and mostly ignored...until it impacts me, then I'll wave options open to me and act accordingly.

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    1. or how much land, not of how much land.

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    2. "... weigh options..." :)

      I'll be back with responses to each comment.

      Thanks to each of you for the very thoughtful comments. They are very much appreciated.

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    3. Dom I sympathize, and you aren't the only one choosing to ignore, as best anyone can, the mayhem that is gripping not only Washington, but London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and other world capitals.

      That will work well when this storm subsides, and it turns out our lives were never impacted in a serious way.

      I think that your perspective, and Ken's perspective differ from those of others because of your military service. Ken recently shared with Bill, Jim and I a little of his experience as a teenager facing the draft at the time of the Vietnam war. Ken served in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot flying med-evac missions.

      That experience has to shape your worldview. I can only imagine. I imagine that when you experience and survive warfare, whether Congress replaces Obamacare with Trumpcare, or not, or whether a wall gets built on the border with Mexico, or not, and the resulting fallout from those and other equally contentious planks in the political agenda, is of far less concern.

      In the meantime, the sun was shining on the panhandle coast, we had a great time, yes we did end up discussing US politics and there was some moaning and cussing, but in the end, nothing that rocks your world, or Ken's world, or my world, is actually happening.

      Maybe if I lived in Colorado, if I had your sniper's skills, along with your Ural and self-sustaining camper, I'd worry less.

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  6. A very complex topic, David. And (English) words will only fail me here. I am making sure however, to get information on important stuff from different sources. These are usually German News, The Guardian, Washington Post and well, I even lurk in on Fox News to get a different perspective. I try to get the best possible opinion based on this kind of background research, and like Dom I do not trust new sources. I hope that this will provide me with a well rounded background to make some educated guesses, and also evaluate my political decision, especially since this year is a super election year in Germany. It's quite time consuming but as this will decide about the direction my country will be headed I find this time well invested.

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    1. Sonja you and Roland are living this upheaval in the Western world resulting from the wholesale destruction in the middle east far more that any of us. Canada has taken in perhaps tens of thousands of refugees from Syria, where Germany has welcomed hundreds of thousands.

      The fear and shunning of refugees in the US which counts the Syrian refugees it has admitted in the hundreds, is pathetic really.

      It will be interesting to see how the singular humanitarian stance that Germany has taken will play out at the polls.

      I wish you and your fellow citizens all the best of luck as you continue to deal with this crisis in a very real way.

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  7. Dave aka fledermausMarch 26, 2017 at 5:34 PM

    Good essay. You weren't an attorney, were you? ;O)

    I never thought I was so obsessed with truthfulness until recently. I find the lack thereof really riles me. And I'm the kind of person who usually sees reality in shades of gray. In some ways, I see Truth as a definite thing, on the other hand, our individual "truths" depend so much on our experience in life and perspective. Some things should be pretty easy to give a pass (my mother gets upset when people say her truck is purple, for example, when she knows it's indigo....). Whether someone inhaled or not may not be worth arguing over. Other times it's pretty clear something either is, or it isn't, and I call foul to bald-faced lies.

    It's concerning to me when people in power lie blatantly. I was of age during Vietnam and became aware of plenty of that, along with the "fibs" that are part of politics. Even more dangerous seems to be masses of people perfectly comfortable with that, either refusing to believe something's a lie, or worse, knowing that it is and seeing nothing wrong with it.

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    1. Dave something is only a lie to us, once we know the truth, and once we feel that we were intentionally misled.

      There is a least one reliable report of a supporter of the President who only began to question his support when he realized his Medicaid was going to be on the chopping block.

      Who is to blame?

      Clearly the President made ridiculously grandiose claims, then tabled a bill that fell miserably short of those claims, and campaigned hard for it. It might have passed. And then what?

      That Trump supporter could have known better by caring about the truth of the news he consumed. He is certainly to blame to blame as well.

      Clearly more Trump supporters ought to seek more truthful sources for news.

      In the recent Time magazine interview the President declared, to defend his outrageous claim that senator Ted Cruz's father had been involved with Lee Harvey Oswald, that he had read it in the National Enquirer.

      Oddly, when I was a teenager in the Watergate era, a friend's older brother worked for the National Enquirer. I was sitting in the living room waiting for everyone to head out for the evening. There were many issues of the newspaper in the room. I casually picked one up because there was nothing else to do.

      Predictably the 'news' in the National Enquirer was almost completely sensational, and also highly, highly questionable.

      The shock came when I happened to glance at the date of the paper that had clearly been sitting there in the room for a good long time. It was dated about two months IN THE FUTURE!!!

      Now THAT, was an eye-opener.

      The President not only admits to reading the National Enquirer, he has the temerity to make accusations of political opponents based on what he reads there, and then the unmitigated gall to quote it in his own defense in a Time magazine interview.

      There is so much fundamentally wrong with that picture, not the least of which is that the man's judgment is so, so, so, so poor.

      That, in part, is what compelled me to write this post. If by some miracle one single person rethinks their support for Mr. Trump, I will have done the world a favour.

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  8. The notion that truth is not fixed is part of the pernicious move to undermine common sense and good neighborliness. Truth is truth and speculation and opinion is something else. Misperception isn't truth either. I sawa quotation years ago to the effect that you may not be interested in poltiics but politics is always interested in you- a call to action. These days more so than ever. I ride my scooter but not without remembering everyday that people rely on us all to be vigilant.

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    1. Michael that is precisely the point, expressed much more succinctly than I managed to do.

      It's like littering.

      I don't litter. Ever.

      I often think what the world around me would look like if everyone else was as careful.

      I truly believe that we suffer the ills that we are prepared to tolerate.

      Examples abound.

      Anyone who visited New York City in the 1970's and 1980's and then again more recently will see a city that once seemed well beyond redemption, that today is completely transformed.

      Montreal was getting really trashy. I mean that the litter problem was out of control. I was in New York City and returned to Montreal and was appalled at the comparison. How could New York be so clean, and Montreal be so dirty?

      A couple of years later, a new mayor deployed clean up crews who patrolled relentlessly. Public trash cans were emptied twice daily, the cleaning crew was on every block every day plucking up even trash as otherwise overlookable as cigarette butts.

      Whereas I had seen a young man blithely drop his empty MacDonalds Coke cup as he walked down the street back when city hall didn't seem to care, that kind of thing seemed to disappear once the city cleaned up its act.

      It's a case of, if you lie with impunity, and the President lies with impunity, we might as well all join in. No consequences.

      Except there are consequences, serious consequences, maybe deadly consequences.

      Hence my call to action.

      We all ignore this to our collective peril.

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  9. You've stimulated some good discussion, David. One of the things that keeps me sane is the belief, however misguided, is that Truth wins the day. Those who deceive eventually fall in one way or another. It can be a painful process, but hopefully we can derive some good from it after all.

    Now if the sun will come out and dry things off a bit, I can start riding and get some of the mental health back that I've lost since the election....

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    1. If there's one thing we all pretty much agree on it's the therapeutic value of riding. :)

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  10. i have been grappling with this for the last little while. The problem with all of this is in the alternate truth world it is just an excuse for bad behaviour, because the argument is "well this is my truth so I am acting within my beliefs". We all have a biases and belief systems shaped by our circumstances and life experiences. The hyperavailability of news sources has contributed to an overload of sorts making it hard for most to find a balance. This encourages people to tune-out, which can have very high stakes. unfortunately several outlets swing too far left or too far right and then they have surrogates that put their interpretation on the issues and in some cases justify the lie or say "He said that, but thats not what he meant, he meant this" and then they spin. It really struck me when Ms Conway formally introduced the concept of alternative facts. This is scary because in this environment it has unleashed an ugliness of racism, bigotry, hatred and divided a country. We've seen in history not that long ago when alternative facts brought the world to the brink in two world wars and these were about perception of truth which became an ideology. It is scary to me that a leader of a major country bullshits his way through the daily running of his country by putting out an incendiary utterings that do have the potential to spark international conflicts. He plays a game of dangerous brinkmanship and its the combination of this and bullshit that is going to drag his country and potentially the world into dire circumstances and I can only hope that we will be able to step back from the precipice. It seems today truth is a luxury and lie is an expedient way to get what you want and the more a person lies the easier it gets with each passing day, its called gaslighting, the more you hear it the more you believe it. How are people going to believe him in times of crisis and this is when they will have trouble discerning truth from bullshit.

    I've talked with my journalist husband and journo friends about this and its is a hard road they are on right now, if you hold his feet to the fire you are branded as fake news. Same goes for politicians, but many have sacrificed the truth to save their political careers and by doing that they have knowingly bought into the bullshit ideology, but this could backfire because at some point people will be held to account.


    Am I worried? hell yeah, this keeps me up at night. So I am insuring the bike, turning off the telly, internet and tossing the paper into the recycle bin and going for a long uncomplicated ride down my road of truth, the highway of moto zen.

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    1. Dar give my regards to your husband. You're right, journalists are on the front line in this battle.

      The truly pathetic thing is that Russia is waging an information war against the US and other western democracies and right now they piling on the successes. This really is a fight for the minds of ordinary people being waged on the left and the right.

      Values that we once assumed the majority held, like valuing honesty and integrity seem to have eroded.

      Ordinary folks like us have to do our bit and live our lives as an example of the way to be, and that includes valuing honesty and integrity and insisting on it particularly in the people we choose to govern our societies.

      Somehow we who live in Canada seem to be on a higher plane right now. I think we are shocked at what our southern neighbours are prepared to tolerate and elevate to high office.

      I fear that there is a kind of habituation process in effect.

      We have the CBC, CTV as well as the US networks. Americans have less context and less choice: CNN and Fox loom large, particularly Fox which I learned has the most viewers in the US market by a significant margin. Fox news is the most-watched news program right now.

      That says a lot.

      Insure that bike and ride, ride, ride.

      Your moto adventure is truly inspiring. You are THAT GIRL! No doubt about that.

      I'll email you to discuss a meet-up in April.

      Take care.

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  11. David - you had me thinking about this all night last night. I agree we need to value honesty and integrity. Even though we Canadians may feel we are on a higher plane than this, but after the last election cycle and our upcoming provincial election here, I can see elements of alternative/post truthiness here, BC's premier has been caught on a few whoppers.

    I also think that vitriolic rhetoric made people tune-out. There was too much coverage and even now the US airwaves are dominated daily by the happenings in the Whitehouse, its a constant milling out of fantasm and intrigue, its like a primetime reality show. I think this is part of the habituation process and if you are told something long enough you believe it as truth. I think the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave constantly fans the flames with his tweets and bs rhetoric because in the end it is actually a masterful way of controlling people around him, whether it be good or negative stories. The art of the deal is being acted out around him because he doesn't engage in truth, because in doing so you would have to own the results and with his bullshitting or lying he can shift blame and never take responsibility for what he says. Or he walks around making little quotation mark motions in the air when he talks or posts crap on his twitter feed because then apparently it doesn't count, but one day he is going to besmirch the wrong person there will be consequences.

    I suspect in the coming months that there will be a moments of revelations for those who voted for him hoping he was really going to change things, when they see that in fact they have been sold a bill of goods to get their vote. There maybe a reckoning, but it is going to be a painful process and truth will out as it usually does, but there are going to be a few proverbial skinned knees along the way. I think all of the politicians who have been assimilated into the Trump Collective are going to be in for a rude awakening in the midterms in 2018 and then they can't blame that on the 'liberal snowflakes'.

    What is that old saying "The truth shall set you free?"

    Looking forward to see you!

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