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A census story I wrote almost two years ago at Postmedia has been making the rounds recently because of comments I attributed to Niels Veldhuis. He tweeted today that he “Never claimed that larger sample solves selection bias. That is simply inaccurate and wrong attribution.” There were no complaints from Veldhuis or the Fraser Institute at the time about the story, but I retrieved my interview notes so I could defend my work.

Here are the notes in full—I bolded the direct quote that supports the disputed paraphrase from my story:

Niels Veldhuis – senior economist with the  Fraser Institute

“The reaction thus far has been one that you would expect: the academics, economists, other social scientists have jumped all over it and seeing as they’re heavy users of the data, they’re a vested interest group and obviously want to keep access to this data.”

“I think that Canadians ought to have a very sober second look at the mandatory long-form census and really ask themselves to answer what I consider to be very private questions.”

“If you flip this on its head and say there was no long-form census, what would be the reaction to the Conservative government coming out and asking folks to check off whether they’re white, black, Arab or Asian, where they work, how much time they spend with their kids, whether or not they have difficulty climbing up stairs or bending down, which member of their household pays the bills, whether or not their homes have any missing or loose tiles and those sorts of things.”

“These questions are things that I don’t believe the government has any business or authority forcing Canadians to answer.”

“The academics have to ask themselves on what merit the government should force Canadians to disclose all of these personal things. I certainly understand that social scientists, and I’m one of them, like to play with data, they like to analyze social trends and economic trends, but the reality here is there really is no good basis for collecting this information. It’s a cheap way for academics and social scientists to get information that I believe she be acquired using voluntary means.”

The current census is “by no means a complete analysis” and there are “serious problems with compliance” and there are groups left out or underrepresented

If you look at aboriginals, they’re underrepresented

They still have the short form to adjust biases, though he concedes the long-form will not provide the other info from the long-form

“To plan what? This is what should be worrying average Canadians – this information is used by central planners to plan how to tinker with the lives of Canadians.”

Most of the data used in Canada is collected by private firms: polling, focus groups, marketing, etc.

“There is no reason we have to force Canadians to answer these questions. It can be done voluntarily.”

Host of other surveys, much more powerful like Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics, which tracks Canadians in other ways

All sorts of other surveys they can use on a voluntary basis

“beyond the scope of what the census should be doing” to force people to answer

if this was introduced, people would be upset

“The long-form census is not a census of all Canadians. It is a sample of Canadians. It’s only 20 per cent of Canadians who fill out this form.”

“You can be representative and have a voluntary survey if you just expand the sample size.”

The idea that the bias increases with bigger sample size “would go against” most private sector surveys, including those of the Fraser Institute, which capture all sorts of minority groups

They just did a survey on tax returns and asked Canadians about 40 questions in tax returns: how long it took them, what kind of assistance they had, made sure there was a sample distribution across provinces and that you have a sample that’s representative across different groups

Population statistics are what they use to make sure they get distribution across different provinces

i.e. why would it matter if they had distribution across income or ethnic groups?

The long-form census isn’t the only way we get income data, everything that is listed in the long-form data

“All of this stuff the government already collects. We’re forced to provide Canada Revenue Agency with this data.”

They use long-form census data

“The voluntary manner to collect this data will be reliable.”

Certainly, the response rate won’t be as high but you can get a representative sample through voluntary means

“There are still serious biases in the current census, even if you make it mandatory. There’s all sorts of underreporting and data problems with the current census. One only has to go to Statistics Canada’s website to see the types of errors in the census.”

Coverage errors, non-response errors, sampling errors, etc.

They use long-form data for their school report cards, they don’t adjust school rankings based on SE data but they do provide info on average parental education and average income for each district the schools are in

“It’s something we ought to have a closer look at. Personally, I don’t see the reasons for Canadians being forced to divulge this sort of private information”

they’re likely going to come out with something on the piece

I have an enormous tolerance for terrible television, but it has to be really terrible – soulless, insipid, obnoxious, offensive, yet utterly convinced of its own profundity – not merely stupid and bad, like Friends and Sex and the City (as a mid-20s female, I hated both shows, leaving me feeling like Elaine Benes with The English Patient – smug and surly).

At the moment, The Bachelorette is my favourite brain-rotting candy. Here’s my first attempt to live-blog a TV show – clearly, I saved my fire for a really important event.

7:57 p.m. Geoff: “I think if they bleeped out all the clichés, there would be no dialogue in this show.” (Yeah, that’s right, I’ve sucked him into the Ali vortex. I’m sorry, dude.)

8:05 p.m. Turns out Ali can throw a better pitch than Dany Heatley!

8:13 p.m. I love how literal this show is. Robert = Latin hottie, therefore, samba music!

8:24 p.m. It’d be a lot more entertaining if the families were Joan Rivers-mean on these hometown visits. “I dunno, he’s kind dumb, isn’t he?” “So, uh, what trailer park did she grow up in?” “Fugly fame-whore. Move on.”

8:26 p.m. Ali’s boots are not beach-appropriate, and yet I covet them.

8:30 p.m. Okay, I’m officially on Team Chris now – the boy likes Belgian whites! Also, I am now drinking a Mill Street Wit. Chris is by far the most real and likable of the guys on the show, but it’s almost uncomfortable how genuine he is. This show is designed for triteness and cliché, but it’s just wrong to reduce someone’s recently deceased mother to a couple of pictures on the coffee table and a bracelet you like “Soooo much.”

8:38 p.m. Ali needs to stop cackling like a deranged lunch lady when she doesn’t know what else to say.

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Regret the Error is one of my all-time favourite websites, but there’s a good dose of “there but for the grace of God go I” in my enjoyment of the site. I doubt there’s a journalist alive who hasn’t bolted upright in bed in the middle of the night, convinced they spelled a name wrong, and reading other people’s hilarious mistakes is a bit like being a bullied kid standing in the corner of a playground, watching with guilty glee as someone else gets a wedgie for a change.

A howler of a mistake made the rounds this week after Britain’s Daily Mail quoted Apple CEO Steve Jobs as saying, “We may have to recall the iPhone. This, I did not expect.” Only problem? The reporter lifted the statement from the ceoSteveJobs Twitter account, which is most definitely not The Turtlenecked One. The faux account’s bio reads, “I don’t care what you think of me. You care what I think of you. Of course this is a parody account.”

The Daily News swiftly pulled down the story and I don’t see a mea culpa on their website now (which might explain why this hilarity didn’t make it onto Regret the Error), but it points to the enormous entertainment potential and occasional surprising influence of fake Twitter accounts.

There’s the frequently re-tweeted FakeAPStylebook: “Slipping the title of your unpublished mystery novel into a City Council story helps no one,” and “Only spell ketchup ‘catsup’ if you wish to be murdered.”

Also VoiceInPMHead: “Little-known fact: half the $1-billion we’re spending on security is to protect G8 leaders from Sex and the City 2,” and “Meeting Taylor Swift was OK but she’s not as charismatic as that nice lady from Nickelback.”

And BPGlobalPR, which has 180,000 followers to 16,000 for the real BP account: “Anyone accusing us of tarring and feathering pelicans is ignorant. They feathered themselves,” and “Keep in mind, the more your interest in the oil spill wanes, the less damage the oil does.”

Then there’s the now-defunct BrianBurke truculently muttering, “After tonight’s effort, I’m ready to pull the trigger. Not on a trade. On a gun,” and “Doug Gilmour night tonight. Some day soon, we’ll hang Mats Sundin from the rafters too. Not his number. Him.”

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Every time another one of them dies, I’m surprised by how sad it makes me.

It’s no exaggeration to say I’ve grown up with The Golden Girls (or I was growing up while they were growing older), and as strange as it seems for a 30-year-old, the actresses from that show are the only celebrities I’ve ever really grieved for.

The Golden Girls premiered in 1985, when I was five years old, and the show used to air at 11 p.m. every weeknight. I have half-conscious but indelible memories of waking up in bed as a kid and hearing the “Thank You for Being a Friend” theme song playing in my parents’ room across the hall as they watched the show before going to sleep.

Later, when I was about maybe 12 or 13 and not yet at the stage of going out with my friends every weekend, the show used to air in a block on Friday nights with Empty Nest and Nurses, and the weekly ritual for my mom and I was to make a huge bowl of popcorn and watch all three shows.

In my later teens and the early years of university, the Girls and I drifted apart for a while, but we reunited when I was doing my journalism degree in Toronto and living with Roberta, one of my best friends. The show was airing in syndication most evenings, and I’m sure we drove the landlady upstairs crazy, yelling and cackling about the show. With a mixture of admiration and resentment, it eventually dawned on us that these fifty-something women (and octogenarian Sophia) were getting a lot more action and attention from men than we were in our twenties.

(Can you imagine a show on TV now revolving around the romance and sex lives of a quartet of “seniors” and not turning them into doddering cartoon characters? Also, no one says “slut” anymore in primetime, and I think that’s a shame.)

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Last week, I interviewed Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free-Range Kids movement and author of a book and blog by the same name.

You might remember Skenazy as the New York City mom who was pilloried by everyone within reach of a keyboard in 2008, when she wrote about letting her nine-year-old son take the subway home alone in order to boost his independence and test her own parental anxiety. Since then, she’s become an outspoken critic of hyper-vigilant parenting and the culture of fear that feeds it, and a passionate advocate of the need for kids to flex their autonomy muscles before they atrophy.

I first spoke to Skenazy a few months ago, when I interviewed her for a story I wrote about Gever Tulley’s creative and cheeky book Fifty Dangerous Things (you should let your children do). She was one of those interview subjects I live for as a journalist: smart, original, blunt and eminently quotable. When I heard about her efforts to establish May 22 as “Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day,”, I called her for another interview, and I had a ton of fun writing the story.

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*Checks watch* Well, three months later; time for a new blog post!

Given the amount I talk in ‘real life,’ I’d never have expected I’d turn out to be so electronically quiet and the Worst Blogger Ever, but I’m determined to turn things around.

In my defense, there’s been a lot going on.

The day before Christmas Eve, my gentleman-friend and I went out for dinner and then for a snowy walk in the Byward Market, and I learned it’s true what everyone says – the moment the person you love asks you to marry them is so surreal and huge that your mind goes blank and afterward, you can barely grasp what happened. I remember telling myself, “Say ‘yes.’ Don’t say ‘Seriously?!’” and G tells me what I said was, “Yes! Seriously?!” (Ed’s note: the incredulity was pure joyous shock, nothing resembling reluctance or uncertainty.)

And thus we were thrust into what I’ve since learned is the fun but very strange world of wedding planning.

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Mourning by Facebook

Someone I know died of H1N1 a few days ago. I think I could use the word “friend” to describe him but that feels cheap somehow, because although I always liked him a great deal – uproarious laugh, wicked sense of humour – I didn’t know him well and I don’t want to overstate our connection. We belonged to the same friend-group through high school and university, and a handful of my friends are close friends with him and hurting right now.

I’ve always hated it when people leverage tragedies to which they’re only peripherally connected for their own melodrama, wallowing in the cancer diagnosis of someone who works on a different floor of their building or the suicide of someone they sat beside in Grade 10 English. That doesn’t look like empathy or even abstract human sadness to me; it’s emotional opportunism.

In Facebook terms, our intertwined social universes mean that this man (I’ll call him Matt for the sake of simplicity and privacy) and I share 10 “friends in common.” A few weeks ago, when I read this Globe and Mail piece about the eerie and heartbreaking fallout of Facebook’s revamped policy on memorializing accounts of the deceased, there was, thankfully, no one on my friend list who’d died. I thought it was a fascinating story I wished I’d written, but I didn’t know how unsettling mourning by Facebook would be.

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