Welcome to a New World

CERN webcast of July 4th 2012 during Dr. Gianotti’s presentation of ATLAS results.

It will still take me a while to wrap my head around this, even if I had a head-start. I have been skeptical of the existence of the Higgs boson, but my skepticism is – almost – no longer justified.  ATLAS and CMS announced simultaneously the  discovery of a new particle with a mass of around 125 GeV. This particle is a pretty good candidate to be the Higgs boson predicted over 40 years ago, but there is still a lot of experimental work to be done to establish that it really is.

By the way, you can find a lot more thoughts and information about this on the Quantum Diaries.

Both experiments report a statistical significance of 5 sigma and above. This is a big deal. A 5 sigma significance is actually a ridiculously high standard to rule out statistical fluctuations. In fact, the only reason why particle physics adopted 5 sigma as its threshold for discovery is because it can afford it. It can afford it because billions and billions of collisions are analysed so that reducing the chances of statistical fluctuations down to 1 in 10 million is actually possible. I don’t envy medical and social sciences who probe correlations in samples made of no more than a few hundred people (very often less). Attracting volunteers for such studies is difficult and costly.

In particle physics, we also have the benefit of having fewer goals than medical and social sciences. This allows us to pool resources. ATLAS and CMS are international collaborations with more than 3000 scientists each, with funding coming from more than 30 countries. That is without counting what it took to build and operate the LHC. That should illustrate how hard it has been to find this new particle. Don’t be surprised it took so long.

I see this new discovery as another triumph of human collaboration. This is the quintessential proof of what this young species inhabiting a lonely planet can accomplish. We can learn how the Universe works. This is what we are doing at CERN.

Let’s look more closely at the results.


The ATLAS results were presented by Fabiola Gianotti, the spokesperson of the collaboration. She gave an outstanding presentation. Let’s get this out of the way first: please forgive Fabiola for using Comic Sans on her slides again. That kind of stuff really shouldn’t matter.

ATLAS managed to get only two Higgs decay channels analysed for today. The Higgs decaying to a pair of photons (commonly referred to as gamma-gamma), and the Higgs decaying to a pair of Z bosons (referred to as ZZ).

The gamma-gamma channel is blessed for having very little background. It is easy to recognize among the variety of events that we expect in the LHC collisions, but it is also pretty rare, as if to make sure things are not too easy. To find a gamma-gamma signal, you need to find collision events where two photons have been found, and reconstruct the mass of the particle that made them. When looking at all the data collected by ATLAS so far in 2011 and 2012, you obtain something like this:

The gamma-gamma mass spectrum from ATLAS.

And then you use statistical techniques to determine if that bump at 125 GeV is a fluctuation or not. Everything you see in this mass range are events that are expected according to the Standard Model theory (minus the Higgs boson), and the little bump represent an excess on top of that expectation. The vertical bars on each data point show you an approximation of how much the data points are expected to fluctuate up and down, would you gather an equal amount of new LHC collisions and made that plot again. The bump has to be bigger than these hypothetical fluctuations in order to be considered real. It is already pretty unlikely that this bump in the gamma-gamma mass spectrum isn’t real. But there is also the ZZ channel.

The ZZ analysis has a pretty staggering excess as well, although it is not as statistically significant. Look at this:

The ZZ mass spectrum from ATLAS.

Same kind of reasoning here. As you can see, the excess appear as the same place as in gamma-gamma, so it is a reasonable assumption that the bump we are seeing is the same phenomenon. Assuming this, we can combine the statistical significance of both channel. This is how ATLAS obtains a 5 sigma excess in its data.


The CMS results were presented by Joe Incandela, the new CMS spokesperson who is a gifted speaker. He was obviously but very understandably nervous during the talk. I would be too if I had the pressure of announcing a discovery like this to the world.

The gamma-gamma result by CMS is quite fantastic and very convincing:

The diphoton mass spectrum from CMS.

The ZZ result is also pretty interesting, but they have less events than ATLAS. But since they also seem to have less background, their significance in this channel is slightly higher than ATLAS. Here is the ZZ mass spectrum:

The ZZ mass spectrum from CMS.

Combined, gamma-gamma and ZZ channels yield a 5 sigma statistical significance. But it didn’t end there. CMS had more analysis channels ready to show! Next, they presented the WW results. WW is a little bit different because you don’t expect to reconstruct the mass of the new particle very well, so that you don’t see a bump, just an overall excess. This channel is not sensitive enough yet, but there still seems to be a little something above background expectations.

Next, CMS talked about their bb analysis (a pair of b quarks) which is not sensitive yet but is still consistent with the existence of the Standard Model Higgs boson.

Finally, they show their tau-tau result. This one is particularly interesting to me because this is the channel I am working on. Note that ATLAS didn’t manage to show a result there. ATLAS is indeed working on tau-tau (in even more tau-tau decay modes than CMS), but couldn’t make it in time. We are getting there.

What is especially interesting in the tau-tau channel is that it is pretty sensitive, but nothing is seen there yet! It is too early to say that the tau-tau CMS result is inconsistent with the Standard Model, but I guess we will have to keep an eye on this channel. This is the only reason I say that I can still be skeptical of the existence of the Higgs boson. If the tau-tau decay is not observed, this is not the Higgs boson we just discovered, but a stranger beast. Just for the record: that would be tremendously exciting.

One thing worth noting is that CMS makes a much better use of multi-variate analyses, which makes me quite jealous. This is the kind of analysis I am working on, and it is rather difficult to motivate such analyses in ATLAS. They are simply not part of the culture. I suppose that after  these beautiful results shown by CMS, ATLAS will feel the pressure to move on to more multi-variate analyses.

I still can’t believe we found something. I spent the first 25 years of my life being in a state of “we don’t know if the Higgs exist or not”, which has been overturned in the past two weeks. I can’t imagine what this must feel like for the people who have been hunting this particle from the start. I can’t imagine what it must be like for my elders and mentors who have been in the field looking for that particle most of their lives. I can’t imagine what this must feel like for Philip Warren Anderson, Peter Higgs, François Englert, Gerard GuralnikCarl Richard Hagen and Tom Kibble, the co-discoverers of the Higgs mechanism who are still alive today. Robert Brout is unfortunately deceased.

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Upcoming seminar on the Higgs boson at CERN

Building 40 at CERN, the central hub of activity for the ATLAS and CMS collaborations. If you’re wondering why it’s so empty, that was on a Sunday :)

As you probably already heard, CERN announced publicly a little over a week ago that they were going to hold a scientific seminar to discuss the latest results in the search for the Higgs boson by ATLAS and CMS. This seminar is to be held this coming Wednesday. I find this a bit funny because ICHEP, the International Conference on High Energy Physics, is also starting on July 4th. Results to be announced at the CERN seminar have been prepared to be shown for ICHEP, and then CERN jumps in and say “we want to announce the results too!!”

In any case, the results to be announced will be based on more than twice the amount of data that was used last time CERN held such a seminar on December 9th 2011. That means that ATLAS and CMS have now become much more sensitive to the Higgs boson. Whatever statement is going to be made about the Higgs this time is going to be more definitive than last year.

What statement and how definitive? It’s not my place to say. I heard countless rumours in the last month or so, and I have been following closely what’s going on inside ATLAS. The collaboration has a number of results and it is now ironing things out to make sure that what they will present is solid. Despite all I heard, I am as excited as everyone else about the seminar. I don’t know at all what CMS will show and I don’t know yet what the final word will be on the ATLAS data.

I will try to attend the seminar in person and report on the announcement here. From previous experience, I foresee that the auditorium at CERN will be packed hours preceding the announcement and it will be impossible to get a wifi connection. So I will write up the post in the auditorium and publish it when it is over. However it will turn out, there will be a lot of interesting things to say about the new results. Stay tuned!

There will be a webcast of the event here.

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La manifestation étudiante au Québec

Je viens tout juste d’annoncer que je prenais une pause, mais je ne peux pas repousser davantage le billet que j’avais l’intention d’écrire à propos de la situation au Québec. Pour ceux qui ne seraient pas au courant, (je ne prend pas de chances!) les étudiants au niveau post-secondaire à travers la province sont en manifestation contre la décision du gouvernement provincial d’augmenter les frais de scolarité de 75% graduellement au cours des 5 prochaines années.

C’est une histoire pas très belle depuis le début. J’ai personnellement changé d’opinion quelques fois. Au début, j’étais dégoûté par le manque de respect dans le dialogue entre les deux camps. Il y avait du «T’es pas d’accord, faque ta gueule!» qui provenait des deux côtés. Le débat s’est répandu assez vite à l’ensemble de la population québécoise: tout le monde a une opinion sur le sujet. Des arguments fallacieux sont balancés tout bord tout côté dans une compétition nationale pour avoir le dernier mot.

J’ai commencé à m’interroger sérieusement et à m’informer davantage sur le sujet de l’augmentation des frais de scolarité bien après le début des manifestations. Quel exactement serait l’impact d’une telle mesure? Ce qui me tient vraiment à coeur, c’est l’accessibilité des études post-secondaire. À première vue, il me semble qu’augmenter les frais est nuisible à l’accessibilité. Cependant, si le gouvernement s’engage à augmenter en proportion les prêts et bourses, il ne devrait pas y avoir de problème immédiat. Bien évidemment, ce n’est pas toute l’histoire. Mais avant de continuer, j’ai besoin de clarifier pourquoi l’accessibilité à l’éducation post-secondaire est si importante. Me basant sur les commentaires que j’ai vu au cours de cette affaire, ce n’est pas évident à tout le monde.

Voici comment le système est supposé fonctionner. La société québécoise a plusieurs programmes dans lesquels elle doit continuellement injecter de l’argent: le système routier, la santé, l’aide sociale et l’éducation, pour ne nommer que les plus importants. À première vue, tous ces programmes semblent être des trou-noirs financiers. Les routes se dégradent et doivent constamment être réparées. Les problèmes de santé ne vont jamais disparaître complètement, nous devons continuellement payer pour. Il va toujours y avoir des gens sans travail. Les supporter est une dépense qui se renouvelle sans cesse. Il y aura toujours de nouveaux enfants, et nous nous devons d’éduquer chaque nouvelle génération. Je peux comprendre la frustration de certain citoyens si ces programmes ne leur sont d’aucune utilité directe.

Pourquoi quelqu’un devrait-il payer pour ces systèmes s’il ne les utilise pas? Pourquoi n’importe lequel d’entre-nous devrait payer pour les gens qui abusent de ces systèmes? Il y a des gens qui n’utilisent jamais l’autoroute 40. On connait tous des histoires de gens qui vont à l’urgence pour un rhume. On a tous entendu nombre d’histoires sur les «BS» du Québec. On a aussi tous entendu parler d’étudiants qui se paient des voitures et des voyages dans le sud avec leurs prêts et bourses.

La vérité, c’est qu’aucun de ces exemples ne constitut un bon argument contre ces programmes gouvernementaux. Si on veut vraiment se faire une opinion sur la valeur de ces programmes à notre société, il faut se demander non pas si ces programmes sont abusés (n’importe lequel système le sera, n’ayez pas d’illusions à ce sujet), mais combien de gens ces programmes aident véritablement contre combien de gens en abuse. La prochaine fois que vous voulez argumenter sur l’utilité de ces systèmes, ayez des chiffres pour vous supporter.

Il sera cependant très difficile d’obtenir ces chiffres. Le problème est que les quatre programmes dont je parle ne fonctionnent pas comme de simples entreprises. Dans une entreprise, il est facile de mesurer les revenus et d’être pragmatique vis-à-vis ce qui marche et ce qui ne marche pas. Vous n’avez qu’à mesurer l’impact d’une de vos mesures sur vos profits annuels, et de balancer ces profits contre l’investissement que la mesure a nécessité. Pour les quatre programmes gouvernementaux, les conséquences sont tellement diverses qu’elles sont presque impossible à mesurer. Il est très facile de mesurer combien ces programmes coûtent, pas si facile de mesurer ce qu’ils rapportent.

Des routes bien maintenues permettent aux gens de se rendre au travail sans risque et à temps. Un bon système de santé permet aux citoyens de rester heureux et productifs. Si un de vos proches est malade ou blessé, le système garanti que quelqu’un de compétent va s’en occuper. C’est une bonne chose d’avoir ce genre de sécurité. C’est aussi une bonne chose de savoir que vous n’aurez pas à vendre votre appartement si vous perdez votre emploi. Finalement, il est encore mieux de savoir qu’en grandissant, vous aurez l’opportunité de choisir la profession qui vous convient. Combien paierez-vous pour que toutes ces choses soient des droits plutôt que des privilèges?

L’éducation produit des contribuables. L’éducation forme aussi des citoyens mieux informés. Le principe moral de base derrière l’éducation publique est l’égalité d’opportunité. N’importe qui devrait pouvoir devenir un médecin si elle le veut et si elle en est capable. Ce n’est pas des affaires de personne ce que vous décider d’accomplir professionnellement. En pratique, nous sommes encore loin de cet idéal, mais garder les frais de scolarité aussi bas que possible est une des nombreuses façons de réaliser l’égalité d’opportunité. Cette mesure permet d’éliminer l’influence du revenu familial ou l’influence de la volonté des parents d’aider leurs enfants financièrement sur jusqu’où l’enfant va se rendre dans son éducation.

Une raison légitime pour laquelle vous pouvez vous opposer à ce que les enfants de vos concitoyens s’éduquent autant qu’ils le puissent est si on ne peut pas se le permettre financièrement. Mais encore, si vous utiliser cet argument, vous êtes aussi bien de le supporter avec des chiffres. Le Québec n’est pas autant dans le trouble qu’on le laisse croire dans les médias. Un bref regard vers la situation économique des États-Unis ou de l’Europe devrait être assez pour vous en convaincre. Le Québec s’en sort très bien. Au risque de me répéter, l’éducation est un investissement qui vous rapportera plus de contribuables dans 2, 5 ou 10 ans. Plus l’éducation est accessible, plus elle produira de contribuables. Couper dans l’éducation est une idée dérangeante si on se préoccupe de l’avenir de la province à long terme, du moins, à plus long terme que la durée du mandat du gouvernement actuel.

Je sais, vous connaissez des gens qui ont lâché l’école qui s’en sortent très bien. Ils ont une maison, une famille, trois voitures et ils vont au Costa Rica à chaque hiver. Pour une troisième fois, ceci n’est pas un argument tant qu’il n’est pas quantitatif. Montrez que parmi ceux qui n’ont pas d’éducation post-secondaire, un plus grand nombre s’en sort très bien que moins bien. Sans ces chiffres, cet argument ne vaut rien.

Je pourrais continuer pendant longtemps sur les raisons fondamentales pourquoi l’éducation devrait être financée généreusement par le gouvernement, mais je remplirait un autre billet. Retournons aux détails de la manifestation étudiante.

Les choses ont dégénéré dans les violence. Le gouvernement fait la sourde-oreille: le premier ministre en profite même pour en faire des farces. Je ne me serais jamais attendu à un comportement aussi auto-destructeur. Comment est-ce que Jean Charest peut ignorer qu’il va seulement rendre les étudiants encore plus furieux? Excellente façon de gérer la crise Mr. Charest, vous êtes officiellement un imbécile.

Je n’excuse cependant pas la violence du tout, qu’elle soit des étudiants ou des forces policières. Mais le gouvernement aurait pu facilement empêcher tout ceci. Ils ne l’ont pas fait, parce qu’ils n’en ont évidemment rien à faire de l’opinion des étudiants. Présentement, ils profitent de la violence de certain étudiants pour discréditer l’ensemble des étudiants. La définition même d’un ad hominem…

Je n’excuse pas non plus toutes les choses stupides dites d’un côté comme de l’autre du débat. C’est tellement facile de mettre tout le monde dans le même panier. C’est tellement facile de rejeter tous les étudiants à cause d’un argument stupide dit par certains d’entre-eux, et c’est tout aussi facile de discréditer toute opinion contre le mouvement étudiant à cause de la condescendance de certaines personnes. Ces choses sont des distractions nuisibles et superficielles qui cachent le véritable débat. Nous devrions condamner tout cela, des deux côtés de la clôture.

J’ai fini par choisir de supporter les étudiants. Je dénonce la violence, le vandalisme, la rigidité d’esprit et les arguments simplistes. Mais je dénonce aussi la condescendance, les attaques ad hominem, l’irresponsabilité et le rejet systématique d’opinions. La raison pour laquelle je supporte les étudiants est parce que je suis contre l’augmentation des frais de scolarité, pas parce que j’approuve ce que les étudiants font ou disent, ni parce que je pense que ceux qui sont pour l’augmentation sont des trou-du-culs sur-privilégiés.

About student protests in Québec

I know I just announced that I was going on a hiatus, but I cannot push back talking about the situation in Québec any longer. For those who may not know, the post-secondary students all across the province are protesting the government’s decision to increase the tuition fee at university level by about 75% over the next 5 years.

It’s been an ugly thing from the beginning. I personally switched from one side of the debate to the other a few times. First, I was appalled by the way students across the spectrum of opinions were disrespecting each other. There was a bit of “You don’t agree with us, so shut up!” going on on both sides. The debate has since expanded well outside of the student population: everyone in the province has an opinion. Logical fallacies are being flung like dung at one another in a nationwide competition to have the last word.

I started pondering seriously and reading about the issue of increasing tuition fees, well after the whole thing started. What exactly would be the impact of such a measure? What I personally really care about is accessibility of post-secondary education. On the face of it, increasing the tuition fees is bad for accessibility, but if the government promises to adjust governmental loans and bursaries in consequence, there shouldn’t be any problems. Of course, this is not the whole story. But before I keep going, I feel the need to clarify why accessibility to post-secondary education is important, because from comments I have seen throughout this affair, it is not obvious to everyone.

Here’s how the whole thing is supposed to work. The society of Québec has a lot of things that it must constantly spend money on: roads, health of its citizens, social security of its citizens, education of its citizens. On the face of it, all of these appear like financial black holes. Roads are always deteriorating, we must keep on repairing them. Health issues are never going to go away entirely, so we must keep paying for it. There’s always going to be unemployment to a certain degree: supporting the unemployed is a never-ending expense too. There’s always new kids coming about, and we must educate every new generation. I can understand the frustration some people must feel if they and their relatives have no direct use for these.

Why should anyone should pay for these things if they don’t use it? And why should anyone pay for the people who abuse these generous systems? Everyone knows people who never use highway 40 (between Montréal and Québec city). We all know of stories of people who go to the emergency room for the slightest of health inconvenience such as a cold. We all have heard of or met unemployed people who are not even looking for a job, but merely using their social aid check to buy some bear and smokes and a nice dinner at the restaurant every once in a while. Finally, we have all heard of students who are abusing of their student loans and bursaries to get a car or to travel abroad.

The truth is, none of these examples constitute a good case against these systems. If you want to really make your mind about the worthiness of these systems to the society in Québec, what you need to find out is not if there is abuse (there always will be, no matter what kind of system you make), but how many people are genuinely helped by these systems vs. how many people abuse them. Next time you feel like arguing the usefulness of any of these systems, you better have some numbers to back you up.

But it will be very hard to get these numbers. The problem is that all four systems I am talking about: the roads, healthcare, social aid and education, don’t work like businesses. In a business, it’s easy to measure profits and to be pragmatic about what works and what doesn’t. You just need to measure annually the impact of something you do on your profits, and balance it against the investments it required. For the four systems, the investment is very easy to measure, but the benefits come in so many different shapes that they are next to impossible to measure. It’s easy to measure how much these systems cost, not so much to measure how much we get back.

Well maintained roads allow people to get to their workplaces safely and in time. A good healthcare system allow your citizens to remain happy and productive. Sick or injured relatives are taken care of, so we don’t worry too much about them while on the job, while we ourselves are being taken care of when sick or injured. It is a good thing to feel that the system have our backs when it comes to our health. It is also a good thing to know the system will have your back if can’t find a job for an unknown period of time. Think of how freaked out you would be if you were fired, and you knew that the only viable option to survive the next 2 years was to give up your apartment and your car. And finally, it is even better to know that as a kid, you have the freedom to pick a job you will enjoy. How much would you pay for all these things to be rights, and not only privileges?

Education makes more people to pay taxes. Education makes better informed citizens, thus better voters. The moral principle behind state education is equality of opportunity. Anyone should be able to become a doctor if they want to and are able to. It’s not the business of anybody else but yourself to decide what you can and cannot accomplish professionally. It is not quite like that in practice, but keeping the tuition fees low is one of many measures to realize equality of opportunity. It removes some of the bias from family income and whether or not your family is willing to support your education.

A legitimate reason why you may still oppose letting your fellow citizens’ kids get as educated as they want to is if we can’t afford it. But once again, if you make that argument, you better have some numbers to back you up. Québec is not in deep trouble, despite all the noise you may hear in the media. A look at what is going on in the US or in Europe is enough to convince you of that. We are doing just fine. And, at the risk of repeating myself, education is an investment that will get you more people to pay taxes, 2, 5, 10 years from now. Cutting government spending on education is a very silly idea if you are concerned about the province’s long term future.

Ok I know, you know some people out there who dropped out of school after high school, and they are doing just fine. They have a home, a family, three cars, and they go to Costa Rica every winter. Once again, in order for this point to be a valid one against government spending on education, you would have to show me that more people who drop out of school are better off than people who dropped out of school who are not doing too well. Get me some numbers! Without these, not very convincing.

I could keep going on more fundamental reasons why public education should be generously funded by the government, but that would fill up another entire post. Let’s get back to the specific of the student protests.

Things have now escalated into violence. The government is not listening at all to what the students have to say, and the prime minister is even joking about it. I never expected such foolish behavior. Doesn’t he see that this is just going to piss the students even more? Way to calm things down Charest, you are officially an idiot.

I don’t excuse the whole violence thing going on, either it’s from the students or from the police. The fact is, the government never should have let the situation slip that far down. But they did, since they obviously don’t give a shit. Now they are happily complaining that the students are becoming violent, hoping that they will discredit themselves in the public’s eye. Look how violent these little buggers are! Why should we give any credence to what they have to say? The whole thing is an disgusting ad hominem attack.

I don’t excuse either all the idiotic things being said on both sides of the debate. It is so easy to bundle groups of people and opinions. It is so easy to alienate the students based on some stupid thing they said, or to disregard the opinion of the the people supporting the increase in tuition fee based on their condescension. These things are harmful superficial distractions hiding the real debate, and we should condemn all of these, on both sides of the fence.

I end up siding with the students. I despise violence, vandalism, rigid thinking and simplistic argumentation. But I also despise condescension, ad hominem attacks, irresponsibility and dismissal. The reason I side with the student is because I am against the increase in the tuition fees, not because I approve of what the students do or what they say, or not because I think people who are against it are over-privileged assholes.

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Hiatus for the hunt for the Higgs

from xkcd.com

I am going into a prolonged hiatus while I am busy putting together an analysis for hunting the mischievous Higgs boson in the data collected by the ATLAS detector. I am deeply absorbed in the task. It’s a lot more fun than I thought it would be, especially at this stage.

The thing is, I am looking for the Higgs boson via one of its most important decay channels in the Higgs mass range still allowed. This particular decay is a pair of tau leptons. There is already a mature analysis effort for this particular channel, but I am bringing in a  more advanced technique that should take the analysis to the next level. Bringing in this technique requires the analysis to be changed considerably, so it is just like starting a brand new analysis.

Most people working of the search for the Higgs decaying to two tau leptons at ATLAS are still focused on the traditional analysis, and rightly so. It is mature, and quick to turn out new results. So at this moment, I am alone in implementing the new technique in my particular “sub-channel” of the Higgs decaying to two taus (the taus also decay as soon as it is produced, making for a variety of signatures in what we actually can see with the detector). I am getting some help though, but nobody has joined in full-time yet.

I probably will not be posting in the next month or so. I have an outstanding opportunity to become an important player in the hunt for the Higgs boson within ATLAS and I intend not to miss it. Blogging is not the only thing to go. My musical project and social life are taking a hit too, but I don’t feel bad about it. What’s a few month of one’s life to have the chance to participate in one of the most important discovery in physics of the 21st century? Isn’t that the kind of thing that will allow you later in life to put on a smug satisfied face while saying “Yep, I did that.” :D

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Political collective memory in Canada

Image by Ray Reaume, from the Rick Mercer photo challenge.

Political collective memory is a concept that’s been on my mind a lot lately. The reason? Besides from a purely academic interest, I am genuinely fearful of where Stephen Harper and his Conservatives are taking Canada. I am having an “I told you so” moment that lasts an uncomfortably long time, to the point that it’s not funny anymore. There are many things that pisses me off about the Harper government, but here are the ones I believe are of higher consequence:

I could unfortunately keep going. But all of this wouldn’t worry me if I could completely trust the canadian people to remember what Canada was like before the Conservatives of Stephen Harper. I know how the status quo is a powerful thing. But in order to accept the status quo, we must forget hope for anything else. And this is where our short political collective memory worries me.

The publicly-owned CBC/Radio-Canada is a really good media company. It makes really good original productions and has quality science programming. One of the reason why it’s being bashed on by private media companies and the conservative government is because they give a voice to people who disapprove of the government and disagree with the voices from the other big media companies in Canada. I have outlined this in a previous post. Cutting the CBC/Radio-Canada’s budget is one way among others to effect damage-control about the dissent towards the Conservatives.

We get our feeling of what other Canadians think of the government through our exposure to news stories. This is what the status quo is to us. News stories come to us via various media. A fair and balanced media landscape is not only helping democracy, democracy cannot survive without it. Unfortunately, the center-left looses a little bit of its voice every time the CBC/Radio-Canada is hurt.

I just wish Canadians won’t forget any time soon that we are a pragmatic people, choosing our policies based on what works and what doesn’t. Not on an ideological agenda, like what the Conservatives wished was to be the new status quo. We believe in human rights and we believe in the oversight of government in the free market. We believe in global warming and evolution. Ok, these beliefs are not shared by each and every Canadian for sure, but they have dominated and shaped Canada in the 20th century, and I was very pleased with it. It’s very painful to see the Harper government gradually throwing it all away, hoping that people will get used to it. The outrage over the robocalls scandal is pretty high, but not quite high enough. I’m afraid that we won’t be able to go back if we let this one slip because, let’s face it, we don’t have a long political collective memory and the Conservatives have already been in power since 2006.

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A BBC documentary on the Higgs boson!

I have been a lazy blogger in March, and this documentary should show you why. I am getting increasingly involved in this search myself, and I am about to take a huge step in my participation. There is an ATLAS-only workshop (meaning that it is not public) in Oxford next week, in which I will present my own strategy to hunt for the Higgs boson. While I can’t give any details, I can point you to this brand new BBC documentary, explaining very well to the layman what this is all about. Enjoy!

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The Kony 2012 thing

Joseph Kony. Despite my criticism of the Kony 2012, he should still be stopped.

I hate when that happens. You may have heard about Kony 2012. a very, very well publicized campaign to bring african criminal Joseph Kony to fame, so that the world knows about him, and push for his capture and arrest. I watched the video, and I got carried away. Go and watch the video if you want, but I would advise to do some reading beforehand. I won’t link it, it’s easy enough to find.

I thought, what a wonderful idea. Bringing someone to fame, for better or for worse, makes people feel like they know him. You can do even better and bring one of his victims to fame, which will make the experience even more personal. One of the big reason we as humans don’t care about the horrors happening to other people far away is because we are not familiar with them. But a well-told story has the power to change that.

When we heard of the tens of thousands of victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, it left us less emotionally involved than when we saw a reporter on site asking one of the survivors to tell us his story. Stories are very powerful, and the guys at Invisible Children understand that very, very well.

They also understand that we love to believe in humanity. We love to believe that the only thing holding our infinite compassion from reaching out to the horrors of the world is our lack of knowledge about them. We love to believe we can change the world, and we love to be part of something big.

I am not saying that any of these things are wrong, maybe just a bit naive. I am not advocating apathy either. However, I am pointing out how effectively these aspects of our psychology I mentioned can be used to manipulate us. I should know, I fell for it. This afternoon, after I finished watching the masterfully well-produced Kony 2012 video, I remember thinking the following things:

  • The guys who made this documentary are putting every single thing we know about effective outreach into it. It’s a textbook case of effective marketing. I didn’t think for a second that maybe it was too effective.
  • I have seen social media in action. Avaaz, OpenMedia, Project Democracy and LeadNow are all groups I support who’s been effective at gathering our voices and bringing them to politicians using social media.
  • Twitter definitely had a role to play during the Arab spring. Put these things together, and bringing Kony down by first making him famous sounds possible.
  • The whole thing reminds me of the hippies trying to stop the Vietnam war with bongos in the 60′s, but still, they didn’t have social media.

I should have stopped to think a lot harder about the first and last points. The thing is, 99% of the time someone comes up with with perfect marketing, he has been sacrificing honesty in exchange for effectiveness. If honesty was something that sold, the world would be a much better place. Also, the hippies in the 60′s maybe didn’t have social media, but they still had TV, radio and newspaper spreading around their concerns. They could organize pretty effectively, proven by their huge gatherings. If the hippies had social media would they have stopped the Vietnam war sooner? It doesn’t seem likely that it would have made any difference.

The most critical point I need to make is this. Kony 2012, by appealing so strongly to our emotions, prevents us from thinking clearly and looking for more information. They make us feel like we know everything we should know about Kony, the people of Uganda, Invisible Children and the means to bring Kony to justice. They make us feel like there shouldn’t even be any deliberations about their motives. No, we need to act now, all the thinking has already been done (by us)! This should be a red flag. No geo-political situation is so simple that it can be explained in a 30 minute video. Avaaz and the other groups I mentioned take the time to provide links to more information for their campaigns.

I surely wish the form of terrorism that Kony is perpetrating would end. It is frankly disgusting. But I still got out of the Kony 2012 bandwagon (I only briefly jumped in). Look for more information on the issue. There are reasons to be critical of the motives and actions of Invisible Children. Getting rid of Kony will be as effective at stopping the child abductions as killing Bin Laden have been at ending terrorism in the middle-East. One man alone cannot be responsible for 60,000 abductions. There’s a whole operation going on there. Stopping Kony won’t put an end to it. Here is a link where you can find a lot more information.

Just an aside, I got tipped to the Kony 2012 story on Twitter by Justin Trudeau tweeting under the hashtag #StopKony. I didn’t even notice he was already telling us to think critically about this:

One of my friends warned me that the whole Kony 2012 thing was fishy. It reminds me how lucky I am to have friends capable of thinking critically, and not afraid to tell me when I am wrong. It also reminds me how much more effective we are at thinking critically as a group, when we don’t hold back from pointing the flaws in the reasoning of each other. Imagine that on a large scale in our societies. That would be real, permanent change.

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