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Final Thoughts on Third Parties in the 2012 Election

Posted by tobymuresianu on Nov 7, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

Well, the election’s all said and done – and assuming they reject my petition to recount Ohio in case Gary Johnson makes a comeback, I guess it’s time for a few final thoughts.

I’m a little disappointed in the third party showing in the election, though maybe more than that in the lack of coverage they’ve gotten yesterday and today.

Even on sites which have run articles about third parties and when discussing close races I haven’t heard them mentioned. On CNN they’re lumped into a hard to see yellow color at the end of their exit poll bar graphs. The best I’ve found is Politico, which includes third party polling by state though not overall. Obama & Romney together now have 98.4% of the popular vote, so we can deduce that 1.6% went to third parties. Gary Johnson appears to have taken the most third party votes (including over 3% in the swing state of New Mexico), followed by Jill Stein.

So while it wasn’t the 5% necessary for a third party to get federal funding, it’s more than the 0% you might think from watching the news. In real numbers, that’s nearly 2 million votes. Maybe all third party supporters should move to Wyoming, Vermont, DC, North Dakota and Alaska – we’d have 15 electoral votes.

There is also a little hope for third parties when looking at the exit poll breakdowns – they took 3-4% of the population under 44. If these generations maintain their tilt going forward, it would bode well for third parties in future election cycles. In less optimistic news, third parties seem to represent a mostly white enterprise, with little minority support. Given that both parties are generally anti-immigration (before the election-year DREAM act, Obama’s administration had deported more people than any other), one would think there’d be an opportunity among Hispanic voters as most third parties (Libertarian, Green and Justice, though notably not the Constitution party) are much more pro-immigration. I suppose like most things it’s a question of money, volunteers and awareness.

I must say I’m a little pleased that the GOP – generally the more obstructionist of the parties – lost. And there was certainly a lot of talk about ending partisanship. If it sounds familiar, though, it’s because it pretty much happens every election as the winner wants to govern as smoothly as possible while the loser seeks to appear gracious and angle for concessions. You also can’t help but notice how vague the talk of “supporting bipartisanship” and “reaching across the aisle” is, though – once it gets into specific issues like health care, it’s all back to “principles” and “taking a stand”. And it doesn’t look like the ideological lines have drawn any closer together. Still, Obama had a good speech and hope springs eternal that this time will be different, perhaps due to the visible and high-stakes fiscal cliff looking and ever-heightening dissatisfaction with partisanship and congress.

I guess my final thought is that I’m happy I started writing this blog and grateful towards people who have read it. I started because I felt like there were some important things that weren’t being said, and after writing them, I was really pleased to hear from a number of people who agreed, some of whom changed their votes. Though the third party vote overall was not as strong as I would have hoped, it’s also worth noting that those votes are still counted and used to inform the political debate, and there would have been proportionally less impact having voted for Obama or Romney; for those who say it’s important to vote for someone with a chance of winning, Nate Silver has an interesting index of the value of a vote for either candidate by state (check the right sidebar). I believe that if you choose to engage in this peculiar institution of voting – and you should – it’s important to vote for what you believe in, because simply, you might as well.

Anyway, looking forward to taking a small vacation from political thought and getting back to writing about being drunk in exotic places or whatever it is I do. Thanks again for reading and being openminded and awesome, everybody!

 
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The Two-Party System and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 29, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

Watching party politics unfold, I’m continually reminded of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, an exercise in decision-making and morality often taught in philosophy and computer science. The gist is this:

Two accomplices are arrested and interrogated in isolated chambers. They have a choice: they can betray their partner by confessing to the crime, or cooperate with their partner by remaining silent. They know their partners have the same choice, and the sentences they will receive depend on both their action and the action of their partner.

If they are both silent, they will both be convicted on a minor charge and sentenced to one month in prison. However, if one confesses while their partner is silent, the confessor will be rewarded and go free, while their partner will go to jail for a year. If they both confess, they will both be convicted and receive a three-month sentence.

This table represents the potential sentences:

 

Person A Silent Person A Confesses
Person B Silent 1 month each No jail time (Person A)
1 year (Person B)
Person B Confesses No jail time (Person B)
1 year (Person A)
3 months each

 

The key part of this is that it’s always in a person’s best interest to betray their partner rather than cooperate, because their outcome will be better no matter what their partner does. However, considering both their outcomes together, cooperating is a better option for both. This is often considered a model for how individuals acting in their rational self-interest can lead to group outcomes inferior to those where individuals act contrary to their immediate self-interest.

I think our two-party system represents a similar situation. It’s set up so that the best interest of the parties lie in not cooperating, even though the government and the country is worse off for it.

If both parties cooperate by attempting legislative compromise, they get a reasonable outcome (moderate progress towards their goals with some sacrifices). On the other hand, if neither party compromises, they both get a worse outcome (no progress towards their goals). However, if one compromises and the other doesn’t, the one that doesn’t compromise is rewarded with a better outcome (good progress towards their goals at the expense of the other party’s) and the one that attempts to compromise has the worst outcome possible (less progress than sacrifice, and poor re-election prospects).

Further hurting the situation presently are two factors. One is a history of non-cooperation that makes both parties unlikely to want to compromise for fear of getting screwed. The other is that representatives who compromise, particularly on the right, are also subject to punishment from within their own parties – with members willing to compromise being replaced with party loyalists unwilling to. The net result is that our two-party system of government discourages cooperation and rewards bad behavior.

Obviously, there are differences – there is, ideally, communication between parties and the game is played multiple times (modeled by the more complicated ‘iterated prisoner’s dilemma’). However, I believe given the way the parties are acting and with the conditions as they are, the simple Prisoner’s Dilemma is the most useful and straightforward model to use.

Most of my friends are left-wing, and they will say that while the two party system is broken, the Republicans bear most of the responsibility for breaking it. I think there is truth to this – I think Democrats were and are by nature more willing to cooperate, whereas Republicans (and especially Tea Partiers) embrace an Ayn Rand-ian “Greed is good” ethos that encourages selfish behavior. The problem is that the prisoner’s dilemma is a perfect example of why greed isn’t good – it results in poor long-term outcomes. And it’s not surprise that after getting screwed in negotiations a few times, Democrats – realizing their partners were not cooperating – chose to not cooperate themselves or take Republican gestures in good faith.

The problem is that even if you prefer the Democrats (and I’ve avoided mentioning whose ideas are better), they can’t change the situation on their own, and there are no indications that Republicans are willing to. Even if they gain a supermajority, it seems to be the tendency of Democrats to then divide amongst themselves and act our their own internal prisoner’s-dilemma situation. Witness the last time they had a supermajority, in 2008, when they were still stymied in efforts to pass bold legislation by infighting and united Republican opposition.

So what can we do about this situation? While the obvious thing is to have both parties cooperate and stop punishing cooperators, sadly, nobody is expecting that to happen. The set of rules that set up the prisoner’s dilemma situation remain intact and are only likely to make it worse.

However, there are a few changes to the system that could help.

1) Term limits for Senators and members of Congress. By reducing the threat of compromise leading to losing one’s re-election bid, you reduce the penalty for cooperation.

2) Voting in a third (or fourth) party. This raises the possibility that parties who do not cooperate expose themselves to the worst outcome – two other parties cooperating and cutting them out entirely. It therefore further incentivizes cooperation.

3) Eliminating the gerrymandering which has resulted in most congresspeople representing districts that are not competitive and dominated by party loyalists who frown on compromise.

Unfortunately, neither of the two major parties are talking about the first change, the second is against their interests, and the third problem is their creation. I see the best and most direct path toward reform to be voting for a third party, as I wrote previously here and here. But I am curious to hear your thoughts.

 
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How to Properly Dispose of Nuclear Waste

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 23, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

Yesterday I posted an article detailing why I support nuclear power.

I wanted to address another other concern that comes up – where to put nuclear waste.

I would like to propose a solution: Nevada. A state almost tailor made for leaving nuclear waste in. Anyone who tells you otherwise either has never been to Nevada or has chosen to live there, so their judgement is questionable. Nevada has even been struck repeatedly with nuclear weapons, with the net effect of – unfortunately – remaining Nevada.

Now, unfortunately, thanks to Senator and House Majority Terrible Person Harry Reid (D-NV) the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, a completed long term storage facility in a mountain so desolate it makes the rest of Nevada look habitable, was cancelled for political reasons at a cost of $11 billion. One wonders what effect that $11 billion could have had on rainforest or park preservation efforts.

Opponents claimed that Nevada was being forced to store nuclear waste by the rest of the country against its will, which was ironic since the county where it was built wanted it to open, but was forced by Nevada not to allow it against its will.

Keep in mind that Nevada is a state known for legalized gambling, prostitution, and fireworks, but playing a role in solving climate change? Not in my backyard. Let’s be clear, Nevada: your backyards probably have hookers buried in them. Don’t try to take the high road.

Hopefully if political will re-emerges, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository will come online at some point. Yet one way or another, the closure of the Yucca Mountain facility has come with a silver lining.

During the wait to open Yucca Mountain, techniques to recover fuel from nuclear waste are emerging, so the next generation of reactors may well solve the waste problem as well as lowering their costs of operation. Ordinarily I would be against reprocessing nuclear waste because it means there is less to put in Nevada, but if it helps sell people, I’m game.

It’s also worth nothing that the current solution – on-site storage at the nuclear plants – is actually not that bad. Safety is well-regulated and has not resulted in major accidents in the 50-odd years. By comparison, “clean coal” generates large amounts of toxic waste which is poorly regulated and apt to, for example, break through retaining walls, bury nearby houses and kill people.

So when it comes to finding a place where you can safely store waste without worrying about it ever getting out, just remember, “What happens in Vegas…”. I couldn’t resist.

 
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Why I <3 Nuclear Power (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb)

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 22, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

I want to say I love nuclear power like a fat kid loves cake, but that’s a crude expression. Instead I’ll say, based on the second debate, that I love nuclear power like Obama and Romney love coal and drilling in federal lands.

I love nuclear power because I dislike global warming. And while Romney and Obama are less concerned about it than appealing to coal miners, it hasn’t gone away. Though if we develop a way to generate electricity from ignoring major issues in political debates, there may be hope yet.

Why isn’t nuclear power mentioned in the dialogue? It produces no carbon emissions and is inexpensive, reliable, and avoids dependence on foreign oil. Unfortunately, as a political topic it’s, well, radioactive.

When people think of nuclear power, they think of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and, probably, the Simpsons.

But let’s look more closely at these.

Disaster Year Death toll Notes
Chernobyl 1979 31 Using older style Soviet reactor design
Three Mile Island 1979 0
Fukushima 2010 0 2 people got radiation burns
Springfield Nuclear Reactor n/a n/a Fictional

This is not a bad for an energy source that’s supplied 10-20% of the world’s energy for years. For comparison – search google news for “pipeline explosion” or “gas explosion” and see how many random stories you find of people dying in the last month alone. Then visualize the thousands of people and species that are expected to die from global warming-related famine, economic destruction, etc. Cheerful, right?

Nuclear power is like the inmate in a prison movie who gives off a dangerous vibe, but at the end it turns out he’s the only one who can help you and all the people who died weren’t really his fault. Yes, radiation gives people the heeby-jeebies. But the reality is that its danger is largely psychological especially when compared to fossil fuels.

“But what about renewable energy?” You may be asking. Renewable energy is great in principle. Unfortunately despite years of sunny articles and miracle technologies that never seem to reach the big time, it’s still hampered by problems of being expensive, inconsistent (since the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow), and hard to scale (using wind to generate power equivalent to a one-square-mile nuclear plant requires hundreds of windmills, which often meet local opposition).

Energy demand is constantly rising, and new power plants are being built. While many will and should be renewable, due to their limitations too often fossil fuel-based plants are built instead. With the candidates falling over themselves to encourage coal and drilling, this is not likely to change.

And at the end of the day, if nuclear power didn’t exist, none of us would be here. So when it comes down to deciding whether to support nuclear power, be grateful!

 
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The Little 5% That Could

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 16, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

In my last post, I argued that the best way to end partisan gridlock was to vote for a third party.

Sadly for my comedy career, the response was much bigger than anything I’d posted on my blog before. A number of people told me they’d felt the same way for a long time, which was really cool to hear.

Yesterday, I turned on the radio in my car and, coincidentally, there was a panel discussion about California politics on. The host mentioned that in California, the fastest growing party affiliation is independent – with 20% of people identifying as such, and both the Republican and Democratic membership declining as people have lost faith in them to govern effectively.

20% – imagine that! 20% of the electorate doesn’t feel represented by any parties of our elected representatives.

The anger at partisan gridlock is represented in article after article and in the approval ratings of congress and both parties. The only place it is not represented is in the actual presidential candidates.

I don’t believe any company or organization can serve its customers with approval ratings as low as our government has and not open the door to competition. As ratings continue to decline and the numbers of independents go up, I think it’s a matter of not if but when another party or parties rise to replace our current set.

How many people will it take to make a difference? In the initial post, I’d thrown out 5% as an attainable goal for third parties in this election. Looking into it further, it turns out that 5% is, serendipitously, also the threshold necessary for a party to receive public campaign finance funds – $90 million this year. Even better, it’s the popular vote, so people in non-swing states can help make this happen.

In an election where I know that a) no matter who wins bitter partisanship will continue and b) my votes are immaterial as I live in a safely blue state, this gave voting a new sense of hope for me. I’m voting for something specific – so that at the next debate, there’s a third person there.

Last post I specifically mentioned that it wasn’t written as an endorsement of Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate. And it I still don’t – if you think another party is better, vote for them and it will help diminish the two party system.

That being said, having looked into the third parties, I do think the Libertarian party is the best chance to reach the 5% level and create this visible change.

Now, I live in fear of being a party shill or that guy filling your facebook feed with smug posts about whoever’s kool-aid he’s drinking. I disagree with some Libertarian policies. Specifically, I believe in universal health care, environmental protection, and gun control, which they do not – though I also believe in a smaller government and military, an end to the war on drugs, which they do support.

So why am I supporting them even though they’re not perfect? A few reasons:

1. Libertarians draw support from both sides of the political spectrum. This mitigates the risk some feel that supporting a third party could disproportionately affect their preferred of the two major party candidates.

2. Lots of people already identify as Libertarian, and many more identify as “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” which are the core Libertarian values. Candidates like Paul attract enthusiasm but get squashed by the two-party system. They are a voice that represents many Americans and should be at the table. Once they cross a threshold of relevance, people who feel Libertarian will feel comfortable actually voting that way.

3. They will bring a number of important issues which have popular support but that the parties aren’t talking about – war on drugs, scaling back military – to the table.

4. Of the third parties, the Libertarian party seems to be the best organized and able to capitalize on opportunities that they received.

and 5. There is no party who I agree with on all the issues. It seems odd that despite having two major parties, four major minor ones, and a plethora of tiny ones – there isn’t any composed of well-qualified centrist technocrats, which really seems like the best way to run a country.

But every journey starts with a single step, and it’s my hope that a strong third party showing in 2012, especially one that hits the 5% goal, will open the doors to a variety of newer, smaller parties that will better reflect people’s interests and work together in a more productive fashion.

If you support this goal, we’re coming close to Election Day – so please consider spreading the word, whether by sharing this post or your own thoughts on the subject.

 
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Why I’m (also) Not Voting for Obama

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 12, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

Watching the debate yesterday felt ridiculous, since they didn’t address the biggest issue affecting the performance of government over the last 4 years – the inability of the two parties to work together.

It was telling that after a token question at the end about whether the parties were just tearing each other down rather than working for America, the two candidates responded by tearing each other down.

Regardless of who wins this acrimonious election, nobody is expecting bipartisanship to get better. It feels ridiculous to debate the candidates plans for this and that, when both will encounter a situation where they can pass very little.

American democracy has painted itself into a corner. The parties have defined themselves in opposition to each other, and we’ve seen how over the last few years the system has drifted into a situation where the party loyalists wield the power and push them farther to the extreme with each election cycle, thanks to silly primary systems, gerrymandering, and a perception of compromise as weakness.

Fortunately, if you don’t like the two party system, there is a solution. Don’t vote for them. Vote for a third party.

When I tell my friends this, sometimes they look at me like I’m a kook and say I’m “throwing my vote away.”

First, you’re always throwing your vote away, in the sense that your vote is not going to decide the election. Further, if you are a resident of the 40 states in the country that are not “swing” states, where the candidates have focused 93% of their campaign spending, a vote for either of the two parties is particularly meaningless.

Ask yourself – if your vote matters, why isn’t anyone trying to win it?

I live in California, the most populous state in the union, with 55 electoral votes. One would think that this would make it the most fiercely contested region in the country, and that politicians would be competing to represent our interests. But because we’re considered a safe blue state, that’s not the case. Isn’t that ridiculous? It feels like I’m a resident of Boardwalk in a game of monopoly where 80% of the properties are assigned to one of the two players before the game starts, and whoever gets St. Charles Place is declared the victor of the entire game.

If you’re in a “safe” state, your vote counts for far more if you vote for a third party because it sends a message and weakens the parties that are strangling our government. Imagine if this year enough people in “Safe” states voted for a third party to get 5% of the national popular vote. And then with the notice that created, in 2016, 10% voted for third parties. It might create an environment where a solid independent candidate could run for office and actually improve the way the country is run. Plus, the fewer voters parties can claim to represent, the less power they have to dictate votes of their members. On the other hand, if those voters just vote for the party they perceive as the lesser of two evils, those votes are washed out and forgotten.

In a free market, stagnant, out of touch organizations are supposed to fall and nimble, new competitors that listen to their customers should rise. There is a reason why our current parties are not the same ones that were established at the beginning of our republic, and they will not last until the end of time. The right thing to do for democracy to function is not to support them. There is nothing special about our current parties – there is nothing in the constitution providing for them, the founding fathers were against their existence, and if they had any brilliant solutions, they would have implemented them already when they were in power.

There have been some similar blog posts advocating Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate. I don’t agree with many of his positions (I like that he is anti-drug-war, fiscally conservative, socially liberal, but dislike that he is pro-gun, anti-socialized-medicine, and supports a hands-off environmental policy). However, I think that the value of voting for a third party out weighs this. I would encourage people to vote for him, or for the Green Party, or for any that you consider to be a reasonable alternative to the two in power.

The two-party system derives power from your votes. If you want to lessen their power, vote for someone else.

 
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Performing in Romania – Part 3: Swearing and trying to leave

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 12, 2012 in Travel

Part 2 ended at a train station, where I waited in a line of 10 people for 30 minutes and missed my train while the ticket salesperson entered each transaction in several communist-looking registries in an attempt to illustrate the failures of socialism. Finally, I got to the front 2 minutes before the last train that would get me to my show on time – and had her slam a “position closed” sign down.

After doing so, she gestured me (and the person next to me) towards a booth marked “International departures”, which had been open and empty the entire time. The person took our money and gave us our tickets in about 12 seconds – completely ignoring the ledgers or computer system – and we made the train just before the doors closed.

Unfortunately, the last train was a commuter train that took 4.5 hours to go the 115 miles to Bucharest, as it stopped in literally every town between there and Brasov. Romanians had told me that Romania is beautiful outside of Bucharest. Spoiler alert – there’s trees and farms and stuff. So it’s technically pretty, but in exactly the same way as every place else in the world.

Romania?

Romania? Wyoming? It’s impossible to tell.

Without much to do, I struck up a conversation with Anatoly, the guy who’d been next to me in line. He was a square-jawed guy in tight jeans and a leather jacket who looked about 30 but told me he was 19.

“What were you doing in Brasov?” I asked. “I help my father set up identification printing business,” he replied. “How was it?” I followed up. “We do not get along. When I grew up he in Spain hiding from law.” replied Anatoly.

One interesting phenomenon I’d encountered in Romania was that people derided Gypsies for being criminals, but a surprising amount of the ethnic Romanians I met were also criminals. I couldn’t surpress my curiousity.

“What do you think about Gypsies?” I inquired. “Do not trust Gypsy – they steal,” he explained.

“They are very clever and they trick you. One of my friends, gypsy woman offer to tell her fortune for free. She say okay, Gypsy woman say to get better reading is best to have gold because it is spiritual medal, in a handkerchief. So my friend give her some earrings, bracelet. Gypsy woman put gold in handkerchief, but my friend, she never take her eyes off of it. Woman tell her, you going to find husband, have children, all this type of thing. Then she give back her handkerchief and hurry off, but when my friend opens handkerchief, is only stones inside.”

So don’t fall for that one.

“What do you do for a living?” I inquired. “I fish.” came the reply. “How is business?” I prodded. “Not good – I have to steal.” he stated casually.

Soon we moved on to a safer topic – learning Romanian swear words.

While most cultures are content with their versions of “Fuck you” and “Go fuck yourself”, in Romania swears are colorful, complex and bizarre. Some favorites (spelled phonetically):

Slobozisa twarte terfele care sow fatoot lutot Bucareschtu petine – “May the whores who fuck all Bucharest come on you with period blood.”

Somora Copime un Podunch du kill – “May you find your children in 1-kilo bags” (a reference to them being dismembered by killers).

as well as the disarmingly simple –

Bugatesh pula un hutia Limbie – “let me to introduce my dick to your tongue box”

We got to Bucharest about 45 minutes before my show was to start. Anatoly gave me his number. “If you are in trouble, you call me.” he said. I didn’t want to envision the scenario that would lead to this, though he was a nice guy.

Our final show was in a movie theater in a humungous and sterile mall filled with international luxury brands. In the food court, I ate a traditional Romanian dish of a sort of polenta cornbread, though as I was a vegetarian the meat that usually goes on it was replaced by about 3lbs of empty calories:

Traditional Romanian source of heart disease

Traditional Romanian source of heart disease

We performed in front of one of the screens in a movie theater. Only about 20 people were at the show, tragically, as it was my best of the three. All my material about Romania was polished (read: I’d stopped telling the jokes that sucked) and it was the most interactive show – there were a few hecklers, but they were very friendly and drunk so it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

After the show, we went back to the hotel bar to get similarly drunk with the show producers. It turned out one of them was actually one of the hecklers, a very energetic Dutchman who pulled out a laptop and showed me a PowerPoint of a skyscraper under construction and explained that he was the lead architect of one of the world’s tallest buildings being built in Dubai. I don’t know whether this was accurate, but I’m going to be safe and never enter that building.

Our flight the next morning was at 5, so I hit my bed to get a few hours of sleep while Yianni and David headed to a nearby bar whose claim to fame was having been open continuously since the fall of communism, possibly with the same patrons.

A blink later, I was up and jumping into a cab with two extermely drunk comics – one of whom puked repeatedly out the side of the car on the way to the airport. On arriving, we handed the rest of our Romanian currency over to the highly agitated cab driver, in what ended up still being a very reasonable fare for us by Western standards, and stumbled through the airport and onto our plane to London, a world away.

Post script – later on, I revisited the family tree that was suspiciously absent of anyone in my family. Suddenly discovered a familiar looking family cluster; it turned out my father, aunt uncle and Grandfather were all on the chart, but their first names had been translated into Romanian (My dad John Muresianu, for example, was listed as Ion Muresianu). So I am related to Andrei Muresianu after all – he’s my great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle.

Andrei Muresianu

I knew I saw a resemblance!

That’s all – thanks so much for reading! If you enjoyed it, be sure to subscribe via RSS, facebook, twitter or email to find out when the next articles are up.

 
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Performing in Romania – Part 2

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 10, 2012 in Travel

Rain poured down from the gray skies of Bucharest. I pulled my coat closer and stepped on the train, wondering what I might find at my family’s ancestral home in Transylvania. Okay, I just wanted to write that sentence, but it was true.

As mentioned in Part 1, I was travelling from Bucharest to Brasov, Romania, where some of my ancestors lived – specifically Andrei Muresianu, author of the Romanian National Anthem, whose house had been turned into a museum.

On arriving, while I was pretty sure the museum was locally important, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find it on my own. I got into a cab and asked to go the Muresianu family museum. “Where?” he asked. I named the square where it was located. “Where?” he asked again. I reconsidered the “locally important” thing.

Finally, through a mixture of basic English, Spanish and Romanian, he smiled, nodded, and drove me about 20 minutes to the “Mures hotel” in a completely different part of town. I got a tourist map of Brasov from the hotel and we were able to navigate to the square.

Brasov

Home sweet ancestral home.


Move over, Hollywood!

Move over, Hollywood!

Translylvanian squares, apparently, are pretty typical for Europe. One or two shops were Dracula-themed, but Vampires didn’t seem to be a huge contributer to the overall economy, for (culturally) better or for (financially) worse. Then I turned into a corner and there it was – the holy grail of my ancestry.

Entrance to Muresianu House

Not pictured: Choir of angels

On entering, I was greeted by a friendly older curator who wanted to help but didn’t speak English. He attempted to solve this problem by speaking Romanian louder and slower. I wasn’t sure whether he just wanted me to know how it felt for foreigners to visit America.

I took out my ID and attempted to communicate that I was a member of the Muresianu family, unsure if he’d figured that out from the fact that I was visiting the museum. He gave me a personal tour, though I’m pretty sure anyone would have gotten one, since there was nobody else there.

It was a pleasant, well-maintained museum with a few rooms. The first one was focused on Andrei Muresianu and contained photographs, a bust, and a few badass portraits:

That's right!

That’s my granddaddy!

I drew a picture of a family tree on some scrap paper and showed it to the guide, hoping to figure out how many generations back I was descended from Andrei Muresianu. The guide happily lead me over to one printed on a wall which, to my shock, showed that Andrei Muresianu had no grandchildren.

That's right!

Never mind!

I wasn’t sure what to think. Had my grandfather, when immigrated to the US, just made up a new identity? The guide said I might be descended from a different branch, but I had to do some introspection. Was the blood that ran through my veins the blood of the man in the painting, holding the glowing document while peasants cowered before it? or was it the man who used that guy’s name to get laid? I was not optimistic.

The Muresianu family. Not pictured: Me

The Muresianu family. Not pictured: Me

After looking at the exhibits for a few more minutes, I went to leave but the guide insisted that I look at a different room full of old musical instruments. I wasn’t sure what to do but felt like it would be bad form to start playing them (particularly as I was no longer positive I was part of the family).

I looked at them for a few minutes, then went to leave, but was guided to another room full some kinds of rocks and crystals apparently on loan from a nearby museum. A guide put on a Romanian film about them. I think they turned the volume up a little higher so I could understand.

Phallic rock exhibit, Brasov, Romania

Phallic rocks are the same in every language.

I got back to the train station about 15 minutes before my train left – ordinarily fine, but the ticket line wasn’t moving at all. Looking forward the teller was frenetically entering each transaction in a computer, in a manual ledger, and separately running it on the register in an attempt (from what I could tell) to further illustrate the problems with socialist economies. Mission accomplished.

As people pressed forward, the guy next to me said if we missed it there was another train afterwards, though it took twice as long – which made me nervous, as it was the last one I could get and still make my show. 25 minutes later, we’d missed our first train and were about to miss the second when we got to the front of the line just in time for the teller to slam down a “Position Closed” sign.

To be continued in part 3!

 
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Episode 3 – Teo from Romania

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 1, 2012 in Episodes, Travel

Following up the previous blog post, we have an interview with Teo, owner of the 99 Club in Bucharest and one of the founding fathers of Romanian stand-up. Enjoy!

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Performing in Romania – Part 1

Posted by tobymuresianu on Sep 28, 2012 in Travel

Earlier this year, I stepped off a plane for my shows in Bucharest, Romania, more excited than I’d been in years. Not only because the 6 year old behind me had been using my headrest for football practice, or even just to be walking alive off a flight on Wizzair, a discount Hungarian airline that makes Southwest look like the Concorde.

I was excited because I’m part Romanian, and my dad had told me our family was kind of a big deal over there as we were directly descended from Andrei Muresianu, author of the Romanian National Anthem. Like many who grew up in generalized suburban American culture I was always fascinated by any interesting parts of my ethnic background, so getting to explore my roots and perform in Romania felt like an adventure. An adventure which would begin by desperately slurping at a water fountain since Wizzair doesn’t provide free water.

Size of tray table on Wizzair, Hungarian Low-Cost Airline

I tried to use my Passport to make the tray table look small, but it just made my passport look menu-sized.

Many people in the US may not know much about Romania, so here’s a quick summary. It’s a country in Eastern Europe mostly known for Dracula, gymnastics, and being called the worst country in the world on television. It was behind the Iron Curtain from the end of World War 2 to 1989, and Bucharest is the capitol and a city of about 2 million people.

My first impression upon driving into the city was that Romania is very gray. I’d always assumed it just looked that way in movies since they were usually about the undead, but much of the infrastructure looked like it had been through a war, with dark, crumbling buildings dotting the cityscape. Happily, it turned out that this wasn’t due to a war, but instead simply to how much Romanians smoked.

Building in Romania

A new building 15 minutes after Romanian smokers move in.

Our hotel, fortunately, was a pleasant building featuring picnic tables with sun umbrellas, a cobblestone walkway, and hardcore, explicit American rap music blaring in the lobby while bellhops and waiters went about their day – either unaware what “motherfuckers dropping like pop, pop” meant or being quietly supportive of the idea. The interior was spotless and clean as Scandanavia, or how I assume Scandinavia is from my visits to Ikea showrooms, but with the addition of giant photos of models on the walls for aesthetic purposes.

Artwork on loan from Supercuts.

Artwork on loan from Supercuts.

It was explained that nobody cares about the exteriors of most buildings because the government owns them, but people take great care of the interiors that they do own. There is probably a lesson in socialism here.

After checking in, the other comics – David Whitney, a Brit, and Yianni, an Australian – and I left to explore. Immediately after leaving the hotel, a friendly local asked if we were interested in the best blow job in the city. This would be the first Gypsy we met. I’d always been excited to see gypsies, because part of me had lumped them in with elves and warlocks as a fantastical creature never actually seen in person. Apparently they are real, and in addition to traveling in colorful wagons and dressing in patchwork clothing, they also specialize in world-class blow-job distribution. Soon afterward I saw a gypsy with two trained mice running in circles around the brim of his hat putting a parrot on the shoulder of a disinterested tourist. As soon as I raised my camera, though, the battery ran out. Unfortunate coincidence? Or gypsy magic? I will let you be the judge.

We wandered around looking for food, passing bakeries peddling treats for 1 lei (~25 cents). Giddy with foreign-exchange-rate-excitement-syndrome, we picked out a corner bistro intent on dining like kings for some spare change. After overhearing our English, the waiter immediately came over and enthusiastically recommended the steak – which, being Jewish, I immediately identified as by far the most expensive item on the menu. Dave, however, jumped at the opportunity and proceeded to raise the GDP of the country several percentage points through a valuable influx of foreign hard currency. One way or another the food was really good, despite taking approximately 45 minutes to come and the waiter adding that a 20% tip was “standard” and then pretending not to have change. Yelp has not caught on in Romania yet.

That evening we headed to our first show at Mojo, a very cool British nightclub in Bucharest. Unlike other gigs I’ve done in Eastern Europe, the majority of the audience was local, with a scattering of expats and internationals. The show went well, though the all-important end of my set was spotty as some jokes didn’t carry across borders, as sometimes happens the first night in a new country. Bummed out at the realization I would not actually be carried off on the shoulders of my countrymen and into the arms of throngs of eastern European women taking a break from the set of the latest James Bond movie, I decided to call it an early night after 11 or 12 beers. I grabbed a falafel from a stand staffed by Romanians in Ottoman Empire-style costumes which would probably be considered racist in the US, I headed to the hotel, and went to bed.

Shot from www.mojomusic.ro. Not pictures - photographer who was clearly standing onstage during comedian's set.

Shot from Mojo’s website. I imagine comedian is telling a joke about the photographer behind him.

The next day I explored on my own, making an excursion to a grocery store (where my excitement at shopping like the locals was tempered by the reality of trying to determine whether novel foods labeled in a foreign alphabet were vegetarian or not), visiting the local Frank Zappa-themed club, and more. Romanians I met around the city tended to be nice, and younger ones spoke good English. I’d been warned that cab drivers would try to rip you off and I should always insist they use the meter, but in practice “ripping you off” meant charging $5 for a cab ride across the city instead of $3. Since I was coming from London, where you can’t get into a cab without taking out a third mortgage, I couldn’t muster too much outrage.

Frank Zappa Themed Nightclub, Bucharest

I hope this is a franchise.

That night we went to a fully Romanian stand-up comedy club, 99 Club, to perform for about 75 people at an experimental night of English comedy there. My plan was to open on a few jokes I’d written around some Romanian words and references that a Romanian-American friend of mine had taught me. I rehearsed beforehand with Teo, the Romanian host and owner of the club, who informed me my attempts were way off, then repeated back what sounded like the exact same pronunciation. Teo opened by performing in Romanian to a very good response, Dave Whitney hosted and got them going in English, and then it was my turn. My stomach jumped as I did my initial jokes – looking a crowd in the eyes and then speaking a punchline in a language you don’t understand feels like jumping off a bridge with a bungie cord tied to you and hoping it works – but to my relief they were met by good, non-mocking laughter, and the rest of my set was really fun as well.

99 Club in Bucharest

99 Club. Not pictured – me nervous onstage.

After the show, I talked with Teo and Domnul (another Romanian comedian) about my plan to go to Brasov, a smaller city, to visit a small Muresianu family museum my dad had found online. After hearing it, Domnul exclaimed “I have a joke about that museum!”. “Really? How does it go?” I asked. “It is about – eh – why would anyone want to go there? It’s just some dude’s house.” he replied. I refrained from explaining at length the importance of Andrei Muresianu in the hearts of the Romanian people.

After interviewing Teo for my podcast, the other comics and I went back to his apartment to drink home-made liquor (this is a big thing over there). A few friends came over and we drank and ate snacks while watching clips of Jim Gaffigan and Bill Burr on his computer. Overall, a very similar experience to countless nights I’d spent in America, though this time we were drinking hard liquor distilled from cherries by his neighbor. Teo was a huge fan of it, though to me it tasted like a blend of light cherry cough syrup mixed with fear that I would go blind. It ended up being totally fine and overall more palatable than most store-bought liquors you find, so I fully recommend it if you ever get a chance to visit Teo’s neighbor.

Coming next – the interview with Teo!

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