Chris Uggen's Blog: September 2012

Friday, September 21, 2012

feelin' the feelin'

I was delighted to read that Nick "The Feelin'" Mrozinski landed a spot on Team Cee-Lo on NBC's "The Voice."  I was fortunate to share billing with The Feelin' (a/k/a Nicholas David) on one of my all-time favorite research presentations a few years back.

TSP grad board member/musician/entrepreneur Sarah Lageson set the whole thing up: why not combine a research release with a performance by an amazing musician and a fundraiser for a worthy community organization? So I gave my first powerpoint presentation on the effects of low-level criminal records at the Downtime Bar. It might seem strange, but the research paired perfectly with Mr. Mrozinski's smart and soulful repertoire -- as well as the strong Surly beer on tap at Downtime. I was nervous at the start of the talk, but loosened up once I got a "right on!" and head nod from The Feelin'. I'm starting to feel a TSP-sponsored concert series coming on, alternating presentations of our featured papers with inspired and inspiring music. In the meantime, I hope that fans of The Voice and TSP might a send a li'l love and support the Feelin's way.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

prevalence of violence in households with children

A new Bureau of Justice Statistics Report by Erica Smith and Jessica Truman shows a significant decline in the Prevalence Of Violent Crime Among Households With Children, 1993-2010. The study is based on the large-scale annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) and it differs from standard victimization reports in its explicit focus on households with kids.

The chart below shows the percentage of households with children in which at least one member age 12 or older experienced nonfatal violent victimization (rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault) in the previous year. This does not necessarily mean that the children witnessed the violence or that they were even aware of it, but it does give us a pretty good sense of whether kids are living with household members who are themselves experiencing violence. And the NCVS provides the sort of high-quality nationally representative survey data that are useful in charting big-picture trends. According to the report, this rate dropped from 12.6 percent of children to 3.9 percent in the past 18 years (the blip in 2006 is due to a shift in methodology). That's an impressive 69 percent decline since 1993. 


These numbers still seem high to me, but I think it is because simple assault (which encompasses a pretty broad range of behavior) accounts for the bulk of the violence (about 2.6 percent of the 3.9 percent total in 2010). Which kids are most affected? Children in urban areas, children of color, and lower-income children are most likely to live in households experiencing violent victimization. Rates are significantly higher for urban households with children (4.5 percent) than for rural (3.6 percent) or suburban (3.2 percent) households. With respect to race and ethnicity, rates are lower for households headed by Asians/Pacific Islanders (1.4 percent) than for households headed by multiracial persons (5.6 percent), American Indians/Alaskan Natives (5.3 percent), African Americans (4.9 percent), Hispanics (4.0 percent), and Whites (3.4 percent) (the authors caution, however, that estimates for several of these groups are based on a small number of cases). There is also a very clear socioeconomic gradient to violent victimization: the greater the household income, the lower the rate of violent victimization, as shown below.


This sort of story might be familiar to criminologists: the overall crime situation is improving, but victimization is heavily concentrated among the most disadvantaged. Nevertheless, this report is important and useful in showing how children's proximity to violence is changing in some ways -- and not changing in others.

Monday, September 17, 2012

magazine obituaries

If you really love a small publication, I hope you'll someday have the opportunity to visit its offices. Take a firsthand peek behind that impressive professional masthead and you might discover that the whole awesome shebang runs on the caffeine and good energy of a tiny crew with an even tinier budget. Stick around a bit longer and you'll want to buy this crew lunch. And maybe an air conditioner and a few decent chairs.

Seeing the conditions under which your favorite magazine is produced would likely deepen your respect for its staff and your appreciation for its content. The only downside to visiting is that it might sting a bit more if and when the publication can't make it financially -- and you're confronted with an editor's letter that starts reading like an obituary.

With so many good publications struggling to stay afloat, I've been reading a lot of obituaries lately. Around here, the TSP team was especially disappointed to see the Utne Reader leave Minnesota in a cost-cutting move. Founder Eric Utne, Editor David Schimke, and the wonderful Utne staff have been a special source of inspiration and guidance for our own rag-tag crew.

This week, I was disappointed to see FINAL ISSUE! on the cover of Twin Cities Metro magazine and to read Dana Raidt's final editor's letter.
[T]his magazine has always been a labor of love. And you can only expect content of METRO’s caliber to be produced with few resources and little in the way of financial return for so long. You can only work so many hours, fight so many uphill battles and burn so much of your creative energy before it’s time to file the whole situation under “shit happens” and move on with your life. So that’s what we’re doing: choosing to remember the good, learn from the bad, give credit to everyone who furthered our beyond-ambitious mission and honor you, the people who supported the magazine—and therefore, us—by buying it and singing its praises... [P]roducing this issue knowing it is our last has been a challenging, heartbreaking and surreal process.
Ouch. For six years, Metro consistently managed to place well-researched stories on topics like gender inequality and the school achievement gap amid fluffier stuff on the best dive bars and the beautiful people of Glamorama. More personally, I admired Metro's art and illustrations and their engaging layout and design work. While I don't know much about their operations, I know that it requires creativity, dedication, and talent to consistently deliver such well-designed pages on a shoestring.

Publications such as Metro and Utne would seem to have little in common with academic journals, but the best journal editors bring the same passion to their work -- and many express sentiments similar to those of Dana Raidt when that work is concluded. The difference, of course, is that we academic editors tend to have day jobs and steady paychecks as professors -- unlike the talented folks who staff our journals and our magazines. At an independent press gathering in the depths of the recession, one editor assured me that she never worried about losing health insurance -- she'd never had any health insurance to lose.

So if you really love a small publication,  find ways to promote, celebrate, and support those who work so hard to produce it. Don't let your subscription lapse and don't be fooled by their fancy masthead -- they could be dangerously close to writing their own obituary.

baby two-step II

Today my friend Jay celebrates his 6-year blogiversary, which reminds me that I've been at this a long time. Most posts sort of dissolve into the ether, but some seem to get as much (or as little) play as research articles. People rarely cite them in print, but they'll sometimes tell me that they based a paper or thesis on some observation I'd half-raised in a post. Even better, I occasionally hear that a more personal post (usually about failing prelims or acknowledging help or fostering creativity) turned out to hold some meaning for them. One post that pops up in such conversations concerns having children while in graduate school.

I've written a lot about my own kids over the years and have shared many more conversations with students about deciding whether and when to have children. That's probably why there were a few chuckles and what sounded like a "Good gawd!" from the research office on Friday, when Suzy and Sarah saw my old post on babies and the two-step process mentioned in the new issue of The Criminologist, the American Society of Criminology newsletter. In "Parenthood and the PhD" (pp. 28-29), Tracy Sohoni, Stacey Bosick, and Bianca Bersani offer five useful observations and considerations for prospective parents. I'd concur with all they wrote and I've also been referring folks to a helpful comment thread on orgtheory -- part of Fabio Rojas' Grad Skool Rulz.

As of this fall, my li'l nest became empty for the first time since my second year of graduate school. So, as I try to process all that, it was kind of fun to revisit the old two-step process that brought Tor and Hope into our lives. Read it ... if you dare.

babies and the two-step process

it has been slow blogging since thanksgiving, but i'm energized after stumbling to the finish of another semester. my new nephew leif visited and i showed him the chord changes to a cowboy junkies-esque version of ben lee's catch my disease. most babies love music, but really cool babies seem partial to guitars.

on the day i noted riley wakefield's arrival, julie barrows was welcoming althea kay (shown here with sister lily) into the world. so now my other advisees are looking around nervously wondering who's next. my kids were born during years 2 and 5 of grad school and i've always shared my story with students. i doubt that my experiences have any impact on their weighty decisions, but many have been quite procreant. is it just my imagination, or do professors who have kids during grad school tend to have advisees who have kids during their grad school years? is this due to self-selection, modeling, or meddling/advising?

well, here's the story i tell. in '91 i was broke and nervous about fatherhood, given my luxurious ta/ra/fellowship earnings and my partner's new job. when we asked, "should we have kids now?" the answer was pretty clearly "No!" then, i distinctly remember breaking the decision into the infamous two-step process that led to a different answer.

we asked,
step 1. "do we ever want kids?"
step 2. "conditional on #1, is there really a better time to have kids than now?"
No.o.k., that was easy. we had enough money to survive in madison, i was looking ahead to a long tenure run, and i doubted i'd have any more time or energy at 36 or 46 than at 26.

for kid #2, the same thing happened. we asked "should we have a second kid now?" and again returned "No!" then, the two-step got us again:
step 1. "do we ever want to have a second kid?"
step 2. "conditional on #1, is there really a better time to have a second kid than now?"


whoa! that was too easy. at this point we placed a moratorium on further two-stepping. i don't know whether you do the two-step, but it might offer a fresh perspective on big decisions.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

all about chemistry

I rarely write about crime fiction, since most of it seems completely orthogonal to the phenomenon that I've spent a career studying. Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorcese, and the Brothers Coen are surely gifted filmmakers, but the hyperviolent worlds they create are pure fantasy -- bearing about the same relation to the lived reality of crime as the average pornographic film bears to the lived reality of human sexuality. By confronting compelling characters with horrible moral choices, however, the best crime fiction can actually tell us something meaningful about human frailty, morality, and justice.

I think Breaking Bad succeeds on this level, though I still switch over to the Hallmark channel or America's Cutest Pets during its ugliest moments. I have many questions about the show, but Joe Kleinschmidt's Minnesota Daily article answered one of the biggies. Forget about the crime, how's the chemistry? Mr. Kleinschmidt put the question to Bill Tolman, the straight-up brilliant Minnesota chemistry professor and department chair pictured above.  I was surprised to learn that the show's etch-a-sketch explosive might've actually worked and that the makeshift battery that Walter White constructs in the desert might indeed have started his stranded mobile meth lab:
Walt uses the RV’s brake pad for its mercuric oxide and graphite. This serves as the cathode, which gains electrons. He also gathers spare metallic parts, nuts and bolts, for the zinc they contain. The zinc serves as the anode, where the other electrochemical half-reaction occurs (loss of electrons). With potassium hydroxide solution leftover from their meth-making process serving as electrolyte (to conduct charge), Walt uses a sponge to separate the anode and cathode. Finally, he connects the cell components with copper wire and connects the parallel batteries to the RV’s jumper cables. “The only question now is, will this supply enough current?” Walt says in the episode, posing the only hang-up in his plan. “When he said that, I thought, ‘Yes! That’s the problem!’” Tolman said. But it worked. As Walt sets the batteries up and connects the wires, he creates a spark and the RV is revived. “It was a perfectly reasonable electrochemical cell using mercuric oxide and zinc,” Tolman said.
Of course, the show takes a few liberties -- hastening a body's dissolution in hydrofluoric acid, for example, and tossing around mercury fulminate like a bag of powdered sugar. All told, however, Breaking Bad does pretty well on the chemistry. As for its portrayal of drug markets, I'd have a few more quibbles...

Monday, September 03, 2012

jumping jim and the secret advantage

Jumping Jim Brunzell is profiled in a fine where-are-they-now article from Debra Neutkens of Press Publications, offering nostalgia for Saturday morning wrestling fans and a useful first-day-of-school reminder for students and teachers.

Mr. Brunzell is only 5'10" and pretty much bereft of the macho swagger that characterizes the profession, yet he parlayed his secret advantage into three decades of professional wrestling success. You see, Jumping Jim could sky. A high jumper on his high school track team, Mr. Brunzell's 36" vertical leap was beautiful to behold in the ring. Possessed of the finest dropkick in the business, he earned a reputation as an athletic "high flyer" in an era of earthbound plodders.*

Unlike Mr. Brunzell, we academics often fail to capitalize on our secret advantages. A good advisor or editor, however, can sometimes help us ferret them out. Whether you've worked as a lobbyist or a farmer, traveled the world in a military family or a circus, or graduated from an elite prep school or the juvenile justice system, you've likely gained knowledge and perspective that will interest other scholars and readers. Our job is to help you learn what's news and how best to analyze and communicate it. Sometimes the biggest hurdle is just convincing you that the rest of the world doesn't know about a phenomenon or process you'd taken for granted -- and that you might be the best person in the world to tell the story.

Secret advantages of this sort can arise from tastes, experiences, aptitudes, ascribed characteristics, or plain dumb luck. To really exploit them, however, you need to take inventory: write down where you've been, what you've done, and how you might use it. And don't brush off compliments too quickly -- especially when editors or advisors tell you that you're onto something or that some insight you shared was completely, refreshingly, and delightfully new to them. Pay special attention when you hear imaginary "air italics" in the compliment (e.g., "you're really good on this" or "I've never seen anyone make that connection").

What if nobody supports or compliments you, you've taken inventory, and you're still coming up empty? Well, we've all been there -- at least until someone convinced us we might have something interesting to say. Just go with your strengths and use what you've got, even if it doesn't fit the prototypical mold. Who knows? You might be creating the new prototype.

* I couldn't find a good highlight clip, but you can witness Mr. Brunzell dropkick a future governor at about 1:48 of this Phil Donahue deconstruction.