Thursday, June 4, 2015

Memoirs from an Internship at the Legislative Office Building, Albany

Michelle Ponce

West of the Hudson river, 180 miles north is the State Capitol where the crisp winter air is stronger and lasts longer. Albany, or smallbany jokingly, is a small compared to New York City-the home I know so well. My spidey senses tingled, but you cannot, or at least you should not, judge a book by its cover. On January 6th, 2014 I started my legislative internship in the New York State Assembly, the lower house of the legislature for those of you who did not know. To be frank, I barely knew anything about state government either. Im a Economics and History major, not a Political Science major. It is only natural to question, therefore, why a college junior with no experience in government, in school or in the real world, was committing herself to a five month internship in a city she had never been to?
            With little to no preparation, I settled in Albany, NY. Just two weeks before I found an apartment ten minutes from Empire State Plaza, the complex in Downtown Albany that houses the Capitol, Legislative Office Building, Hart Theatre, and more. It was my first internship there and I did not know anyone else in the program. Walking into a room full of college seniors where everyone seemed to know each other was nothing short of intimidating. What a great first day!          
            Orientation was a week long process. We learned the logistics and functions of the Assembly and the LOB (Legislative Office Building) from Committee meetings to the Assembly Chambers, Bill Drafting and Index to the food court, the pay and weekly class. Orientation was definitely not the most thrilling, but it was informative and I started to meet the other interns.
            Back to the good stuff, several employees of the Assembly in the Majority (the Democrats) and Minority (the Republicans) participated on our panels to describe their jobs. Many of them were past interns. They shared their intern experiences and the road to their current positions. Despite the different party lines and backgrounds, there was a common theme, dedication. Working in the public sector is more than just a Monday through Friday, nine to five job. This is the legislative process by which the laws of New York State are made and passed, which eventually affect all New Yorkers and set the precedence for other states. It is complex situation with the divide of Upstate and Downstate politics that makes process all the more intensive and critical. I had fallen victim to the downstate set of mind when I questioned why the State Capitol was not in New York City.  As a city dweller, I categorize the area outside of the five boroughs as Westchester, Long Island and Upstate. However, Upstate is more than that, it is Southern Tier, Western New York,  Mohawk  Valley, Hudson Valley, and the Finger Lakes regions just to name a few.                  
            On the last day of orientation, everyone we received our temporary IDs (these would not get us past the airport style security to enter the LOB) and assigned offices. Some interns had specifically requested to work with a specific Assembly Member, I did not. I walked into this internship without the slightest idea about State Government, I knew the basics but none of the specifics. By reviewing the interests specified on my application, I was placed in the office of Assembly Member Felix W. Ortiz; state representative for the 51st Assembly district, chair of the Assembly Cities Committee and the Puerto Rican / Hispanic Task Force. Assembly Member Ortiz is one of the most senior Hispanic members and has served a tenure of twenty years. Everyone in New York State can relate to him, he passed the law to ban the use of cell phones while driving in 2001. Without much experience in government or a directly related, I was placed in the office of a senior member, which meant the work load would be more intense wasnt I lucky?
            Right away, I was faced with a serious dilemma, and my decision would affect the rest of my internship. I had two options: work four days a week and enjoy a three day weekend in a city I barely knew anyone in, or I could work five days a week and fully immerse myself into the legislative process. This was truly a tough decision to make, but in the end I chose to work the five days, which did not turn out to be so bad. Session tended to run into Wednesday at the latest (until it May and June), which meant that Thursday and Fridays were dress down days and more relaxed days. On these relaxed days I had a chance to visit other offices and meet other staffers. The most intense session days were Tuesdays because they were also the biggest lobby days. Tuesday is the day every lobbying firm and constituent from the whole state travel to Albany to speak to their elected representatives. To be honest, it was fun. Hundreds of people walked through the LOB and the line through security wrapped around several times; luckily our real IDs came in quick and we could bypass the line and use the side portals to enter and exit the LOB. But what really happens during session? It is when the elected officials in the Assembly (and Senate) convene in the Assembly Chambers to bring bills to the floor, debate them (if necessary), and vote on them. Once a bill passes through the Assembly, it must go through the Senate through a similar process; if it passes the Senate then it is delivered to Governor, who will decide on whether or not to sign it into law. What is a bill? In simple terms, it is a proposal to create or amend laws in the state. It can only be introduced by an Assembly Member in the Assembly, and a Senator in the Senate. Once the bill is live, it will go through committees where the committee members will vote to stall or pass the bill onto the next committee. Eventually, the bill makes it to the floor. In the 2014 legislative session (which runs from January to June), I was able to sit down on the debates for medical marijuana, abortion, womens equality, and LGBT rights, just to name the most salient ones. Some of debates between members were very animated. In Chambers, different values and beliefs from all parts of the State were represented. Although I must admit I questioned where some of the Members got their reasoning from, especially the Minority.          
            The first hand experience was incredible. I never imagined myself sitting in on meeting between legislators and policy makers. Sometimes I took meetings on behalf of the Assembly Member, which was always a little intimidating because I was afraid I would say the wrong thing. I listened to groups like the Adirondack Club that did not want the list of approved ATVs to expand in order to preserve the terrain of the Adirondack mountains; union members advocating for stricter work safety laws and a higher minimum wage; people with chronic diseases urging the passage of medical marijuana to ease their pain; the American Heart Association lobbying for the ban of trans-fats in New York and so much more. Towards the end I felt comfortable taking meetings and even welcomed them after all I always learned something new.                         
            I saw the application for the internship in the History department while I was waiting for my Spring advisement: at first sight it seemed interesting and it was enticing because there was a stipend, and something is better than nothing. I spoke to Dr. Dolores Augustine about the internship, she helped me with my application, resume and writing sample. She was a great source of help and guidance, when I hesitated she reassured me. Because of this internship, I have new goals and desires. Last year I was not sure about what I wanted to do after college and did not care much about the State government and politics. Now, its like Ive become addicted to the legislative process, and I want to pursue a career in policy making and public service.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Book Review: Laura J. Snyder. Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.  ISBN: 9780393077469.  448 pp.  $20.93 Hardcover. 

 Reviewed by Christopher Cody (Doctoral Student, St. John’s University)

Laura J. Snyder’s Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing, examines the way seventeenth-century Dutch artists and scientists revolutionized the way humanity sees the world. The artist Johannes Vermeer and the natural philosopher Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek both used newly developed optical technologies in their respective work to reshape the way the natural world was viewed. Snyder brings these characters to life by drawing on a wide assortment of sources that range from Leeuwenhoek’s fifteen volumes of collected letters to archival documents from The Royal Society of London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Delft city archives. In the process, she effectively paints a vivid picture of the ways these two influential Dutch men redefined the size and scope of our world by helping humanity see what was once invisible to the naked eye.
Snyder begins by describing the historical era in which Vermeer and Van Leeuwenhoek lived. The seventeenth century saw the rise of the Dutch Golden Age, an era in which the recently independent nation of Holland arrived at the height of its economic, artistic, and scientific magnificence. The same period also witnessed the highpoint of the Scientific Revolution, a movement that embodied a new interest in observing, representing, and measuring nature. In this context, Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek embraced the experimental ethos of the Scientific Revolution and in the process contributed to the Dutch vitality in art and science.
Snyder describes how Vermeer’s masterpiece paintings were also products of his experiments in optics. Throughout his career, Vermeer used various vision-enhancing technologies to help him paint three-dimensional scenes on a flat canvas. Snyder explains how early in his career Vermeer would paint his subjects using the visual aid of a convex mirror or a double concave lens; these devices enabled him to capture near perfect representations. Later, Vermeer probably employed a camera obscura to perfect his paintings, which enabled Vermeer to accurately transpose geometric shapes onto a screen. As Snyder explains, however, Vermeer was not just interested in shape; when he looked at nature through the camera obscura he rethought concepts of light, shadow, tone, and color and applied them to his work. Supplied with new information about the way images are seen and can be manipulated, “Vermeer was sensitive, like no other painter, to the variations of color that result from the varying intensities of light.” (pg. 215)
Vermeer’s contemporary and neighbor, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, also experimented with optical technologies, but he did so in different ways. A cloth merchant and city official, Leeuwenhoek spent his spare time building powerful microscopes that he used to observe and record the characteristics of microbiological life. Although microscopes had been invented earlier in the seventeenth century, the instruments were regarded by most as a novelty. They had not been used to examine microbiological life because no one (until Leeuwenhoek) suspected that it existed. That breakthrough occurred when Leeuwenhoek became curious about why the water from a lake appeared to be murky. He took a sample of the cloudy water and made observations with his microscope, subsequently discovering a multiplicity of living organisms.
The prologue begins by describing the world in which Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek lived; it was a world gripped by the Scientific Revolution and one that also gave rise to the Dutch Golden Age. Parts one and two discuss Vermeer’s family history, his personal life, and all the idiosyncrasies that made him a unique and masterful artist. Vermeer’s inclination, even in his early years, was to experiment with the scientific principles of painting such as the perspective theory and the science of light, including mirrors and lenses, as described in part three. The following chapter relates Leeuwenhoek’s background, his marriage, and his initial forays into the use, and manufacturing, of lenses. He developed an obsession with the magnifying properties of lenses and it was this obsession that drove him to explore the mysteries of the microscopic world. Snyder points out that magnified images seen through the lens of a microscope required a reformulation of the underlying human beliefs of what the eye can view.
Part Five builds upon this theme of innovation, discussing Vermeer’s deployment of the camera obscura, then parts six and seven examine the uncertain, though tantalizing, possibility that Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, operating within the same geographic and scientific realms, knew and admired each other. Both had a strong impulse to observe, describe and depict nature: as discussed in parts eight and nine, Vermeer intentionally inserted detailed maps into his paintings, and Leeuwenhoek’s obsession with describing nature is reflected in his tireless hours of experimentation and observation that led to the discovery of microscopic organisms in murky lake water. The following chapter recounts how after Vermeer died in 1675, Leeuwenhoek was appointed executor of his estate, revisiting the idea that the two men were acquainted and informed each other’s optical investigations. Part eleven recounts how the Royal Society in London eventually accepted and celebrated Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries and his investigations, while part twelve and the epilogue conclude the book by reflecting upon the great transformations in art and science that occurred as a result of the two famous Dutchmen.

Johannes Vermeer and Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek used existing optical instruments in an innovative way to extend and enhance their own vision and perceptions. In doing so, they played pivotal roles in the reinvention of how humans view the world around them. Snyder’s book is an important contribution to the history of the Scientific Revolution that underscores the surprising way that seventeenth-century scientists and artists utilized advances in optical technologies to invent new ways of seeing. Moreover, the book’s engaging and thought-provoking writing allows the historic and scientific content to be compelling for any veteran scholar or general reader.