Saturday, December 28, 2013


One of my favorite things about living in LA is the attitude of many people. It certainly isn't the friendliest place on earth, but the attitude is unique.

I thought about calling it a youthful attitude. That's pretty accurate, but not quite right. I also thought of stubborn, but other cities can be described as stubborn. I'm going to go with willful. The LA attitude is like that of a willful toddler.
these are way fun!

Much like toddlers, people here can be a bit self obsessed. They want to be paid attention to. They are not always cognizant that they need to use their nice words when dealing with others.

However, the attitude comes with a lot of upsides. People try new things. They aren't afraid to look silly. Frankly they don't care what you think. I frequently see adults skateboarding and riding kick scooters. I think that is awesome. These aren't just young adults either. These include folks with gray hair. I've seen them riding for fun, riding with their kids, riding to/from work, and riding for errands. I've seen people in scrubs and guys in business shirts. My personal favorite was a guy riding away from the grocery store on his skateboard with a new frying pan in hand.

Having lived other places, I know that many other cities carry social pressures about acting "outside the norm". Despite many areas being flat and blessed with far nicer sidewalks than LA, I really can't imagine a 40 year old cruising into work on a kick scooter in other cities. Why is that? Why let social stigma affect our actions? Be like that toddler and think you're the greatest thing ever.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Areas to live in LA: maybe

This is part 3 of my entirely opinion based series on where to live in LA.

The maybe area lies within the "yes, but" category except for the desert and high desert.

Desert and High Desert: I love the desert when it is vast and empty and full of interesting geology. This area has a bit of that. However, due to the availability of cheap land, it is slowly gaining boring suburbs. It is also a transportation nightmare. Unless you live along the Metrolink line, you get to enjoy grueling long car rides through limited options into the city.

Chinatown: This area extends past the commercialized Chinatown to include several other largely immigrant communities. For many recent immigrants, cheap housing and lower crime make this a desirable area. However, if you're not a recent immigrant you may feel out of place.

Downtown: For years if you weren't homeless, there was no reason to linger in downtown after sunset. Like many American cities, downtown is slowly experiencing a renaissance. Unlike other cities, it isn't totally overtaken by yuppies just yet. Apartments in historic buildings can be had for reasonable rates. This is also at the hub of the current hub and spoke model public transport system. The massive homeless population is not to be ignored, though. They bring with them the odor of open sewers and street trash like you wouldn't believe. 

Hawthorne and Torrance: These are suburbs with lots of single family homes or squat multi-family units. I have no particular love for the area nor do I loathe it. If you work in aerospace, this may be a good area to situate yourself due to proximity to jobs. What I dislike, are the prevalence of big box stores and sprawling parking lots. However, I do like the Carson Ikea better than the Burbank Ikea for the very reason of the massive surface lot. A parking garage at an Ikea is just insanity!

Palos Verdes: Unlike the others areas in this category, this is expensive. It sits on a rise on a point overlooking the ocean. The hillside homes are largely spacious and cost you plenty. There was the debacle where a developer built a neighborhood on a known landslide and then as nature would have it the homes started migrating oceanward and the area had to be razed. Load up on the insurance if you live here. Other than that, you have some stunning ocean views, a lighthouse, a beautiful chapel designed by Lloyd Wright, and several parks.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Areas to live in LA: yes, but

This is part 2 of my entirely opinion based series on where to live in LA.

The "yes, but" category forms a crescent around LA proper. The areas include:

Malibu/Santa Monica Mountains: Beautiful area, but a long drive to do anything with very few major roads in or out. There is also not a lot of commerce here, so unless you land one of the lucky few jobs or work from home, you'll spend more waking hours on the road than enjoying your home.

San Fernando Valley: This area is a collection of many different communities with widely varying characteristics. What they share in common is much hotter summers and sprawling one-story suburbs. There is a lot of work if you are in the film industry or an industry that is an accessory to the film industry. Otherwise you will likely have to go over the hills into the city proper which can only be done via 3 freeway passes or the one subway line.

Angeles National Forest: It sounds pretty cool to live in a national forest and you do have the amazing benefit of countless miles of trails at your doorstep. The mountains are truly beautiful. However, there is absolutely nowhere to work so you are stuck with frightfully long commutes.

Pasadena: Unlike it's smelly Texas counterpart, this is a pleasant city with a long history. There are many great old buildings, the scenic CalTech campus, lots to do, and ample employers. It is also connected to the city proper via light rail. There's not much separating this from a yes other than a bit less diversity and connectivity than the solid yeses.

Beverly Hills: If you are wealthy and enjoy sequestering yourself on your enormous suburban lot, this is the place for you. However, if you like reasonable prices and interacting with people who don't attend cocktail parties, this might not be your best bet.

Coastal Cities: You can't beat having the mighty Pacific Ocean as a neighbor (especially in an area with minimal tsunami and next to no hurricane risk). You do pay a premium for proximity. You also are stuck with a bit of a drive to get back towards town and the first 3 miles leaving the coastal cities is often ridiculously slow.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Balcony Garden: Late Summer-Early Fall

Here's the garden as it was in July. The red flowers died out by early August, so while the hummingbirds loved them, they won't be making a return appearance next year.

Here's the garden from last week (the glare is a little harsh). I'm not sure if the strawberry (front) will bloom and produce again, but I can't bear to get rid of it despite it not producing a single berry in months. You can't see the rosemary very well, but it is going strong. The peppers have been relatively disappointing. A mere handful  all summer compared to the endless supply I was used to getting in Texas. I don't think the peppers will be included again next spring. The basil is still going, but it has taken on a rather minty flavor.

I just ripped out the yellow flowers today and will likely yank the peppers and basil next week (there will be some spicy pesto on the menu!). The white flowers are probably going too. I'm hoping to get some native plants to see if I can attract more butterflies. I'll also be doing greens again in the big pot (the one with the saucer), but probably need to wait a couple weeks to start them.

Areas to live in LA: yes

Here is a map of Los Angeles County with categories based on whether I would recommend living there or not. This is based on my experience, talking to people, and looking at crime maps.

Because it would be a very long blog post if I described my reasoning for all of these areas in one post, I'll break it up by category. Kicking it off are the areas I wholeheartedly recommend living.

First off is Culver City (inclusive of Palms and West LA). I may be biased because I live in this particular area. What I like about the area:
  • Highway connection via the 10 and the 405
  • Transit connection via the Expo line
  • Relatively safe and quiet
  • Ethnic mix
  • Variety of local restaurants
  • Reasonably priced

The only other definite yes is Los Feliz. We looked into moving here before we knew where I would be working. What I like about the area:
  • Walking/Biking access to Griffith Park
  • Transit connection via the Red Line
  • Highway connection via the 5 and 101
  • Reasonably priced
  • Near LA River bike path

Sunday, September 22, 2013


The best purchase I've made in several months has been a hummingbird feeder. It brings me so much joy to see the little birds out there every morning and occasionally in the evening. The hummingbirds here in LA are very enthusiastic about feeders and will let you get fairly close to them.

I believe these are Anna's hummingbirds based on their range and the song. These little guys are frequently chittering as they fly and especially when they are chasing away other hummingbirds from the feeder. They seem to roost in the large tree in the courtyard in front of our apartment (or at least use it as cover) because they dart to and from the tree to our balcony. When they are in the tree, I can hear them singing. They are surprisingly loud for such a tiny creature!

Monday, September 2, 2013


I used to live where it would get legitimately hot. 100+ degrees during the day and barely under 90 degrees some nights. Summer in LA has been blissful by comparison. Up until a week or two ago, I needed a sweatshirt biking to work in the morning and sometimes needed a light jacket outside at lunchtime.

However, summer has hit and it is toasty now. I forgot what it was like to really sweat! Oddly enough it is only in the 80's and occasionally hitting low 90's, but something about the intensity of the sun and humidity make it seem hotter than that. I've heard we've got another couple of weeks of "heat" before things return to normal.

Because the actual summer weather is so brief and really not that intense, central AC is somewhat of a rarity in all but the newest apartments. Several buildings around here have no AC whatsoever. We have one window unit AC that is fixed into the wall. This seems pretty common around here.

inside view (we close up the cabinet in the winter/spring/fall)

At first, I thought our bills would be outrageous because I had always heard that window units were electricity wasters and a central AC system pays for itself within a few years. Ours however seems to work well for a reasonable cost.

exterior shot (it stays shaded by the overhang most of the time)

We also don't have central heat. Just some bizarre "radiant" system in the ceiling that I don't understand. I've heard of radiant heat in the floor, but never in the ceiling (someone forgot to tell them that heat rises). It seems like a massive fire risk to me  plus it is weird because it makes absolutely no sound. We've had the breaker off since March and only used it about half a dozen times during January and February.

Our only window is a large sliding glass door. It faces east-southeast so it gets direct sunshine until around noon. We added curtains with the triple purpose of reflecting light, adding insulation, and absorbing sound. The curtains are black which at first I thought would be depressing and gloomy. They really aren't and I like them a lot (and because our black cat adore laying in between the panels, the black doesn't show his fur). The side that faces out is a slightly satiny white and they have a flannel interior panel intended for sound absorption (also works for insulation).

curtains (look at all that blazing heat trying to get in!)
exterior face of curtains

Sunday, August 11, 2013

North Santa Monica Bay Coast

Last week we made a weekday trip from Santa Monica on the Pacific Coast Highway up to Point Mugu with stops in between. It is a lovely drive with ample ocean views. Most of the trip goes through Malibu which stretches out for 27 miles along the coast. Despite the connotations of luxury Malibu brings to mind, it isn't all that swank. There are numerous multi-million dollar homes, but the money is all in the water-front location and less in the ostentatious lawns and landscaping. So, from the road the houses aren't awe-inspiring.

We stopped at Point Dume, but due to filming couldn't get to the actually "point". The beach along Westward (Point Dume County Beach) is quite pleasant if you are just looking for a traditional beach to go for a swim.

After that, we stopped at Neptune's Net for lunch. It is a small seafood place with mostly outdoor seating. The food is decent for reasonable prices. It is across the PCH from the water, but still has ocean views (however, the beach port-a-potties are right smack dab in the middle of the view). The crab cake sandwich I had was good with the best part being the really high quality crab meat. They also have a huge selection of bottled beer and sodas in convenience store style fridges.

Point Mugu is interesting. There isn't much to do at the actual point other than stop and take some pictures. An old road wraps around the rock outcropping, but is blocked off by fences and ominous warnings about it being State property. You can see the Channel Islands from here. It was cloudy and chilly here despite being sunny just a few miles back east, so we didn't linger.

Our last stop was El Matador State Beach. This was the highlight of the trip! There are several sea caves, sea arches, and a few small tide pools. There are lots of birds that sit on top of the rocks (mostly cormorants) and light blue anemones were tucked against rocks at the water's edge.

My phone got set on black and white and I didn't notice due to the sun glare until we got home. I was disappointed because the sky and water were such a pretty blue, but these at least show the geology nicely.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Urban Bike Review

A few months back my bike was stolen from the Expo Culver City Station. It was a cheap bike, so while I was mad that someone would cut the lock and take it, I got over it pretty quickly.

Diamondback that was stolen

Bike theft is interesting because it is so pervasive. There seems to be no correlation between what size city you live in or how low other crime rates are in the area. Everyone I know who bikes regularly has experienced at least one bike theft.

Moving on, I bought a fairly cheap bike as a replacement. I kicked around the idea of getting a nice bike since I use it to commute 4 days a week. I went with a cheap bike with the idea that if it too was stolen, I wouldn't be out that much money.

Replacement bike: Thruster Fixie

After putting a few hundred miles on the new bike, I am very happy with it. If you are in need of an urban bike and don't live in an area with very steep hills, this bike is perfect.


  • Solid frame
  • Tires have just the right amount of tread for a street bike to give it grip on sandy bike paths or wet streets
  • Easy to maintain; very few parts
  • Widely recognized as a "Wal-Mart" bike, which is a deterrent for thieves

  • Wheels/spokes seem a little flimsy. I wouldn't jump a curb with it, but then again you wouldn't with any road bike.
  • Brakes are weak (both pads and the system)
  • No shock absorption
  • Comes in one size. Works great if you are between 5'4" and 6'; it is just a tad big for me at 5'3".

It is a single speed (hence the simple assembly and maintenance). I wouldn't consider that a negative aspect, though, since it is kind of nice to just ride and not change gears. For around $100, you can't go wrong with this model. Don't, however, get suckered into the Thruster Overload model which is $40 to $50 more. You really don't get any more for the money and based on a sample set of 1, it seems to have more problems than the Thruster Fixie model.

Check it out here: and here: (funny that right now the blue/green model is only $85 while the red/yellow one is $120 - same exact bike just a different color!). Notice that the reviews are pretty solid for such a cheap bike.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


I have had a lifelong love of trains. I love everything about traveling by train. I am so happy to be somewhere with legitimate short and medium distance travel opportunities by train. Metrolink trains connect commuter areas in and around LA with several trains running around rush hour times. Further afield, frequent trains run between LA and San Diego and LA and San Luis Obispo. Less frequent routes connect LA to Seattle, Chicago, and New Orleans.

I love how relaxed train travel is. There are no security lines to go through, you can bring anything reasonable on board with you, you can be escorted to the platform by friends/family, and they only recommend you arrive 30 minutes before hand for long trips and 15 minutes early for short trips. They don't even check your ticket until you are sitting on the train on your way.

On the train! Nice roomy seats and it is so clean it shines!

The biggest complaints I hear about Amtrak are the delays, but I've ran into no worse delays on a train than while flying. Plus when there is a delay on the train, you can walk around, go get some coffee and a muffin in the cafe car, and go to the bathroom, unlike being stuck strapped in sitting on the tarmac for an hour.

I do love the aerial views from the plane, but trains offer unique views as well. Most trains run through areas you never see from a car. They run through remote areas with nothing around for miles. They run directly through small towns. They run within spitting distance of people's homes. You have a reprieve from billboards, fast food venues, and gas stations that line interstates and get to glimpse a better picture of the local geography and culture. And on the LA to San Diego route you travel directly along the beach!

View from train! I had to get an off center photo with the window frame in it to prove just how close the train runs along the beach.
Then there are also the beautiful old train stations. LA Union Station is great (just be prepared for the large residency of homeless folks). San Diego downtown station is quaint and pleasant.

courtyard at San Diego Santa Fe (downtown) station

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Burbank Peak

Having a small apartment means that while I love to be at home, it is probably unwise to spend the majority of my time-off inside. We have a big balcony with a sweeping view, but it's just nice to enjoy other scenic vistas from time to time.

View of Lake Hollywood and back towards coast from Burbank Peak trail

A few weekends ago we hiked to the top of Burbank Peak. This is in Griffith Park although it is a more recent acquisition to the park purchased in the last few years to save it from development (thank goodness!). It is a steep hike, but fairly short in duration, so perfect for a day when you just have a few hours. Parking is on the road near Lake Hollywood and trail access is at the end of Wonder View Drive (check out a good description here:

It is a pretty quick trip up, but you should definitely stop frequently to admire the views back towards Hollywood and the coast as you hike up. Also plan to spend some time at the top to admire the views and just enjoy the cool breeze. There is shade from "the wisdom tree" which is an interesting curiosity since there are very few other pine trees nearby.

Wisdom Tree at the top of Burbank Peak

Sadly, our hiking is probably on hiatus until Fall when temperatures drop. Summer hiking in chaparral/coastal sage scrub is not the best since the vegetation is dry and there is no shade from the sun. We'll replace hiking with bike rides towards the coast where the temperatures are nice and cool.

Shrubby vegetation along trail

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Balcony Garden: June Gloom

I still have a lot to learn about growing vegetables in pots versus in the ground. In ground plants thrive with infrequent deep watering. The potted  plants seem to prefer frequent shallow watering. So far the strawberries are still a definite winner. The basil has also thrived. The rosemary oddly enough looks a little crispy. The squash has flowered so we will see how it does bearing fruit. The pepper plants are a bit leggy, but look like they are doing just fine. My poor tomato plant is resting in peace. It was still producing tomatoes, but they were tough skinned. I probably won't do tomatoes again since they are such water hogs. If I did, I would steer clear of the Husky Cherry Red (too husky for me). I am planning to replace the tomato plant with something flowery, but am still unsure what to choose.

strawberry, basil, rosemary, squash, peppers, and empty tomato pot in the far back
basil bouquet after a much needed trim

All growth has been very slow this month and I'm sure June Gloom is a factor. For those of you not from the area, June Gloom is a term to describe morning cloudiness and cool temperatures that commonly occur in late May and early June. Low clouds formed by the marine layer come on-shore along the coastal areas of Southern California overnight and typically remain in place until mid-day. Some days the overcast skies persist the entire day. Our balcony faces south-east, which means the morning cloudiness cuts out most of the 6+ hours of sunshine my plants would normally receive. It was sunny today at 9:30am, which is the earliest in a long time. June Gloom is also good to know about if you are planning a vacation to the area and want to enjoy the beach sans jacket and cloudy skies.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Cat Litter

I’m never sure whether to call our apartment a studio or an efficiency. To me they are the same thing. Is there really a difference? Some sources indicate that efficiencies are smaller than studios while others use the two terms to mean the same thing.

Regardless, our apartment is small. I love it, but combining small spaces with pets offers some challenges. When we had a 3 bedroom house it was easy to keep the cat’s accoutrements separate. The litter box was in the guest bedroom (unless we had guests). Odor throughout the house was never an issue. When we moved to a one bedroom apartment, we had an incredibly spacious bathroom with a linen closet that had a separate lower door with raised lip that was perfect for containing a litter box out of sight. Odor was never really an issue there either. However, when we moved to LA and into a studio apartment, odor was occasionally an issue. 

Our litter box is in the coat closet (which needless to say doesn't have coats since we live in a mild climate). It is the blue box right next to the front door in the floor plan here:
Looking toward our front door. Litter box is in the coat closet to the left.
Litter box setup (Rubbermaid bin with hole cut out, hook for scoop, old shelf  bracketed to wall as divider)
Best part of the setup is that when you open the front door to come in, you can't see it. When you close the door and walk away you can't see it from the kitchen either, so it is largely out of sight.

For many years I have used corn based litter (typically “World’s Best” brand). It clumps great, produces little dust, and was fine for odor control in the larger environments. It does tend to track a lot, so that plus occasionally failing on odor control led to seeking out other litters. Here’s what we tried:
  • Clumping Clay Litter: So much dust! Epic fail for small spaces (always made me sneeze). Odor control was decent. Tracks everywhere.
  • Silica Crystal Litter: Minimal tracking and minimal dust except when pouring it in the pan. I was suspicious of breathing in the dust for what it might do to my lungs. Odor control was great for solids, but since it just absorbs liquids, it gets a faint odor from that after several days.
  •  Pine Litter: Best of the bunch! Good odor control. Minimal tracking. No dust. Not to mention it is cheap and they sell it at Trader Joe’s. We've switched to this litter.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Year Round School

In junior high we had one year of "year round" school. I think they were running it as a pilot to see how it went. To my knowledge, it fell flat on its face. School sports and inter-school academic leagues were likely a big reason for that at the junior high and high school levels. Unless every school in your region goes along with it, coordination becomes a nightmare. Parents and teachers alike also complained that it made planning difficult if one child was in year round school and another was not. Also, there aren't a lot of camps or other activities to sign the kids up for when they get two weeks off in the middle of a random non-summer month. Personally, I recall liking year-round school since an entire summer off got rather boring.

Fast forward to now and I feel like I have become a huge proponent of the traditional school calendar. This issue came to light recently because I ride through a couple of school zones on my way to work. Parents dropping their kids off are a rough bunch. They have little patience for cyclists or other drivers. Why they don't just let their kids walk or ride their bikes to school is beyond me (these are junior high and high schoolers). I have been eagerly awaiting the end of the school year so I don't have to navigate the maze of parents in their over-sized SUVs.

When Memorial Day came and went and the students were still there I looked up the school calendar. Turns out they are on an 11 month school year calendar (July off). I was bummed out for selfish reasons, but then I started to feel bad for the kids. Elementary age kids need unstructured play time to develop creativity and life skills. High school kids need time to decompress from the stress of endless tests and paper writing. Also, how are kids from non-wealthy families supposed to save for college if they can't work over the summer? I think summer vacation is more than just a holdout from our agrarian society days; it is an essential part of producing kids that can think for themselves and entertain themselves.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

LA in a Few Words

I found this article before I moved out here:

I can't recall if this is where I found it, or even if this is the original source (no dates and no authors make me wonder if this is a "cut and paste" operation from an original source). I couldn't find it elsewhere, though, so hopefully this is legit and original. Regardless of whether or not it is based on legit interviews, I read it with eagerness while researching what LA was like before moving here. Now that I've lived here 5 months, I'll answer the same questions.

If you were to describe Los Angeles in one word, what would it be?
If someone told you they were moving to Los Angeles, what advice would you give them?
Live close to where you will work and learn to embrace transportation modes other than the car. You will love life so much more for it!
If a tourist had one hour to spend in Los Angeles, what one thing would you tell them to see?
Walk around wherever you happen to be, but don't judge all of LA based on that area. Each area is unique, but since you can't possibly experience much of anything in an hour, at least savor where you are at.
What's the best thing about Los Angeles?
The creativity and wealth of ideas. Whatever your niche interest, you are guaranteed to find like-minded people here. 
What's the worst thing about Los Angeles?
The urine smell in certain areas. It doesn't rain very often, so the smell from both homeless humans using the sidewalk and non-homeless dogs all using the same green space gets a bit too potent. Litter is a close 2nd for me, but that is much more easily solved.
If you had the opportunity to move, would you? And if so, where would you go?
Not right now. If I ever did move, it would probably be to either another vibrant, large city or to a completely rural area.

For the most part, I find I agree with the interviewees. Many of my answers are very similar or even the same. While they were almost unanimous on the best thing being diversity, my answer jives well with that and is just a more specific area of diversity. The fact that I seldom if ever drive is probably the biggest player in traffic not being my answer to the worst thing about LA. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Public Transportation

I frequently hear that "you can't live in LA without a car". Maybe that was the case 20 years ago, but not so today. It is a myth that really needs to be debunked.

Los Angeles has a good light rail system. It is currently undergoing expansion to extend to Santa Monica and there are more expansions planned for the near future. It doesn't connect every area of the city, but you can move reasonably efficiently between major hubs for less than $5 a day. Depending on traffic, it can be faster than driving.

Above ground light rail (Culver City Station)
LA subway (Universal City Station)

I haven't used the bus system extensively. In fact, we've primarily used the Culver City bus since it connects several areas near our apartment. It is pretty typical for a bus system in that it is slow since it can stop at nearly every intersection. However, they run frequently enough to make them viable. We often use the bus to go to dinner on Friday night just so we don't have to drive or find parking.

A few tips if you are new to area (or just now weaning yourself off of a car):

  • Get a TAP card. These store money or passes and work on all light rail, LA buses, Culver City buses, and a handful of other adjacent city buses.
  • You can take your bike on the train and most buses have the bike racks in front. Select rail stations (usually the park and ride ones) have bike lockers that can be rented for $48 a year. Having recently had my bike stolen from a station bike rack, I'd recommend springing for one or taking your bike with you in the train and locking it up near your office. 
  • Get the Los AngelBus app (free!) if you will be taking the bus (sadly only covers LA city buses, though). It tracks buses using GPS so you know where your bus is. It also shows stops with route and bus numbers and gives you a time estimate of when the next several buses will arrive.
  • I've traveled alone on LA public transport and never felt unsafe. That being said, use street sense and keep your possessions in hand, don't bring out expensive electronic gadgets, and don't travel alone late at night. Most snatch and grabs seem to take place on station platforms, so leave your cell phone/iPad put away until you get on the train (most people use them once seated on the train).

Public transportation in Los Angeles gets a thumbs up from me! If you are coming here as a tourist you can definitely benefit from a more relaxing experience by going car free. Light rail links you from the airport or Union Station to Pasadena (Rose Bowl), Universal City (Universal Studios Hollywood), Hollywood theaters, downtown, MacArthur park, Expo Park (California Science Center w/ space shuttle, Natural History museum, USC), Long Beach (Queen Mary, aquarium, beach, Grand Prix), Culver City (Sony Studios), and many more wonderful and off the beaten path places!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Where NOT to go in LA: Tourist Edition

I generally don't like to focus on the negative, but in this case it is worth it. If you ever come to LA, you should skip the Hollywood walk of fame area and the Venice Beach boardwalk. I know these are iconic LA locations, but trust me it is not worth it!

Let's start with the walk of fame. That area of Hollywood is trashy, smelly, and full of homeless people and weirdos. I am not sure why local officials haven't figured out that you need to keep your tourist areas nice. NYC got that right when they cleaned up the streets of Manhattan. I am extremely sympathetic to the plight of the homeless. Most of them have mental illness or debilitating addictions. Allowing them to live in our public space is not the solution. I think I'd be ok with it if it wasn't for the filth and trash they create. So skip Hollywood and do the Hollywood sign hike instead. It's just as iconic and a far better experience.

The Venice Beach boardwalk is like Hollywood on the beach, but add marijuana and alcohol to the mix. It is also smelly, dirty, and full of highly questionable people. You definitely don't want to bring kids here (unless you want it to serve as a warning as to why they should stay in school and not do drugs). The shops are full of cheap junk, the food is junk, and the people are sadly not that attractive. There are also "medical" marijuana shops which is essentially a way to buy weed legally by paying a premium for a "consultation". I've been fairly indifferent to the marijuana legalization movement, but it goes without saying that a high concentration of those shops is about as desirable as a high concentration of cheap beer joints. So skip the Venice boardwalk and go to Santa Monica Blvd between Formosa and Wilshire. There are artsy shops, a variety of restaurants, fascinating people watching, and it is clean and not smelly. It is a perfectly acceptable place to bring kids to show them diversity and creativity in a positive light. There is also the Abbot Kinney Blvd in Venice, but it is an awful lot like South Congress in Austin.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Balcony Garden: Early May

I gave up trying to start basil from seed and just bought a plant. So far, it looks about the same as when I bought it minus a few leaves that went in my sandwich.

The spinach and kale were removed (starting to get a bit warm for them some days) and replaced with yellow squash (left) and peppers (right). I have no idea how squash will do in a pot since it gets so big. I have space for it to spread on the balcony, so we'll see! I will definitely grow greens again next winter because they were very successful.

The strawberry plant has been the biggest success so far. I have picked countless strawberries (we always just eat them as soon as they are picked). They are sweet and slightly tart and very juicy. I never could grow them in Texas.

The rosemary is indestructible as always. The tomato on the other hand is not quite so great (see how yellowed it is). I think it is low on nitrogen. I amended the soil yesterday with coffee grounds and compost. It did produce some delicious little tomatoes. They are cherry tomatoes, but look and taste like little beefsteak tomatoes. I hope the plant makes it as they are quite good. I may have to spring for some fertilizer. I also learned I planted the tomato a bit early for out here, which might also account for its stunted growth.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

City Living and the Environment: Part 2

Proximity to work, play, and errands is one of the biggest components of making city living "greener". However, other factors certainly make a big difference:
  • Proximity to utilities: Laying water pipes, sewer pipes, and cable uses resources. Electricity attenuates over large distances. Cities on a grid system are the most efficient means of distributing utilities and dealing with wastes. Obviously, if you are "off the grid" in the country, you are a special case!
  • Smaller footprint: Most urban homes are smaller by necessity. It is too expensive to build a sprawling house. Plus, most American urban core homes were constructed before the 1970's and therefore smaller (kids used to not all get their own rooms! ). Smaller homes are more efficient to heat and cool. Apartments and condos which are a staple of urban dwelling really take the prize for energy efficiency (all those units insulate each other). 
  • Smaller lawns or no lawn at all: Urban core homes have very little in the way of a lawn. Sure, their impervious cover percentage is crazy high, but they aren't expending water, gas, and fertilizer on a sprawling yard. Many apartments in dense urban areas like LA have no turf grass at all and instead just have a few green courtyards with trees, shrubs, and flowers.
  • Nowhere to store a second car: If you have more than one car, one of them ends up parked on the street typically (or you pay to lease a parking spot). This creates a pretty good incentive to consolidate to a single vehicle which leads to more carpooling or public transportation.
  • Access to public transit: I am really getting into public transit now that I live somewhere with an entire system of bus and light rail (and soon to be high speed rail as I and many others are feverishly working on it)!

City living isn't for everyone, but the "concrete jungle" certainly lessens your environmental impact and the amount of money spent on utilities and peripherals. I think living in the City feels less connected to nature than suburban living, so it is easy to forget how good it is in the bigger picture. It is also easy to forget how awesome it can be with a little creative city planning. Humans are far better collectively, and there is no reason the combined mental and creative forces of a city can't make the urban core the best place to be.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

City Living and the Environment: Part 1

Los Angeles may not conjure up images of the pristine environment what with her pollution and litter, but the majority of people living in the city are having less of an effect on the environment than people living in the fresh air and green space outside the city.

I lived in the suburbs for many years so I certainly understand why people live there. The schools are often better, the houses much cheaper, the neighbors more engaged with each other, and the crime rates typically lower. However, suburbs are causing numerous problems that are partly detrimental to those who live there and partly detrimental to all of us. Big houses full of largely unused space cost a lot of money and resources to heat and cool. Large lawns require lots of water, time, and gas to keep looking acceptable. Pretty much every errand involves a car trip costing time, money, and resources. Commutes often eat up a quarter of the personal outside of work waking hours (also costing resources and money).

The mantra of real estate - Location, Location, Location - could also be the mantra of environmentalists.

Living in Los Angeles (or centrally in any large city) drastically reduces the time, money, and resources expended on running errands. Where we live we can walk to:
  • grocery stores
  • convenience stores
  • car repair and body shops
  • if we had kids they could walk to the elementary, middle, high school, and the community center
  • library
  • shopping mall
  • every conceivable type of restaurant (burgers, bbq, Mexican - multiple regional styles, Italian, pizza, Indonesian, Thai, Indian - multiple regional styles, Chinese, vegan, the list could go on and on ...)
  • gyms
  • boutiques
  • barber shops
  • post office
  • vet
  • pharmacies
  • dentists
  • doctors
In other words darn near everything you'd need except a hardware store (which is within biking distance). If we want to venture outside the walking radius, we can take the bus or light rail to pretty much anywhere in the city. There are weeks when I only drive twice (once on the weekend and on Monday so I can join my walking group at the marina). Of course the big benefit is being close enough to not have to drive to work (so if you work in the burbs, you may be better off living in the burbs).

I'm not tooting our own horn, but rather encouraging people to think twice about why they live where they live. I'm not sure why we lived in the suburbs as long as we did! Yes, the rent on our studio apartment is more than the mortgage on our 3 bedroom/2 bathroom house was, but the savings in household bills, upkeep, gas, and most especially time, more than offset the difference.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

"Rise of the Ranges of Light"

I really enjoyed this book. It is a very pleasant read blending nature, geology, evolution, and philosophy. If you live in California, it is especially exciting because we live on the stage of some fascinating geologic processes that are happening right now.

It is also a good read for those who worry about change. I find comfort in living in a universe in constant flux. Species come and species go. Climates get hotter and then get colder. Mountains rise and then they fall. We are just a tiny part of all this, but what an amazing privilege to live in the midst of it all!

It reminds me of the Voyager 1 photo of Earth. I'm sure most people have seen the famous "pale blue dot" photo: It really puts it all in perspective.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Blue Laws

One awesome thing about living in California is the absence of inane and archaic blue laws. I have no idea why Texas clings to restrictions on the sale of alcohol that make it seem like prohibition just ended last week. For those of you not from Texas, in Texas: liquor stores can not open on Sunday, liquor stores can't be open later than 9pm, you can't buy hard liquor at the grocery store or drug store, and you can't buy wine/beer before noon on Sunday.

Most states aren't as silly as Texas, but I haven't lived in most states so I am reveling in the awesomeness of California's lack of restrictions. Many liquor stores are open late. You can pick up a bottle of wine with your groceries on Sunday morning. You can get a bottle of vodka at the drug store. You can buy quality brands of scotch at the grocery store. You can put off buying hard liquor until Sunday.

Perhaps the most awesome thing is that they have store brand liquor and wine. All the competition means prices on liquor and wine are a couple of dollars cheaper per bottle than for the exact same bottle back in Texas. Also, there are a number of quite enjoyable wines for less than $5 a bottle. The wines less than $5 back in Texas were seldom fit to marinate meat with much less drink. The $2.99 Trader Joe's wine is perfectly fine to drink with a weeknight dinner.

In general, I oppose most governmental restrictions on business. Relaxing the laws around a perfectly legal product makes it much more an everyday part of life. Selling hard liquor at the grocery store implies that it is a drink to be enjoyed with or after a nice meal at home. I can't seem to find where the quote originated from, but "Every great drink consists of two essential ingredients: moderation and responsibility". Which is true of anything we eat or drink.

Sunday, April 7, 2013


For the past several weeks I have been riding my bike to work. I really enjoy it. However, I have been disappointed about not going to the beach at lunch any more. It is a quick 6 minute drive down to the beach. A safe bike route to the beach is slightly more circuitous and is a little over 2 miles to reach the same location. In my head I told myself I was already riding 39 miles a week and walking about 12 miles so it really wasn't feasible to add a 5 mile ride during lunch because I would just be too tired. Yeah, that seems silly now.

One night last week I listened to an audio interview with Ron Zeller. Among many things, he mentioned running a 100 mile race at the age of 64. I think I may have heard of ultramarathons at some point, but never really processed what they were. This particular race was 100 miles all in one go through the mountains of Utah. After hearing that I realized how silly it was for me to tell myself I couldn't ride a few extra miles to go do something I enjoy. The very next day I rode to the beach at lunch and even biked along the beachfront bike path for a few miles.

Another good motivating story is that of Cliff Young. At age 61 he won the 875 kilometer Australian Westfield ultramarathon. He was a potato farmer who had herded sheep by foot on his parent's 2000 acre ranch. He won the race by sheer persistence. When the young runners stopped to sleep, he kept going. In one interview he said he just imagined he was herding sheep ahead of a big storm.

Now I don't like to run, but these stories are great motivators. Whatever it is you want to do, you can go do it. No matter how old you are, your body can do amazing things if you just patiently persist. Our mind is the only thing that holds us back whether it be from riding an extra 5 miles a day or running 100 miles or pursuing our dreams. Now I know I can enjoy the beach whenever I want to.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Balcony Garden Week 6

Harvest so far:

  • about 6 strawberries (ranged from tart to sweet)
  • two handfuls of spinach (it was good)
  • a small handful of kale (young and mild)
  • numerous sprigs of rosemary

Despite being 4 stories up in middle of a large, concrete city, garden pests have found me. I believe this is a Pieris rapae (aka imported cabbage worm and small white). They are non-native, but seeing as they have been here since the 1800s, I say they have staked their claim and get to live. I have great respect for any creature that can sniff out its preferred host plant in the middle of LA. So I am sharing my kale with the caterpillars.

Now if I get tomato hornworms it will be a different story. I will practice ruthless removal of any tomato pest because I refuse to share the tomatoes. There are tons of blooms and the first 2 tomatoes have appeared!

Sunday, March 24, 2013


If you live in an apartment and like listening to music louder than ambient sound, you need good headphones. Don't be that jerk who cranks up his tunes for the rest of the complex to hear. The bass in particular carries extremely well through the walls/floors/ceiling.

I just got a pair of Asus NC1 active noise cancelling headphones. I've never had active noise cancelling headphones before. I needed something to drown out talkative co-workers and I'm hoping these do the trick. I've heard Bose Quiet Comfort are the way to go for active noise cancelling, but my budget was less than a $100 (the Bose headphones are $300+).

We already had 2 nice sets of of headphones. The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro retails for just under $100 from multiple retailers (including Amazon). The Sennheiser HD 555 which retails for around $180, but you can find deals (they appear to be out of production based on scarcity and the radical range of prices). I also had a cheap, old pair of earbuds crammed in the bottom of my laptop bag.

clockwise from upper left: Asus NC1, Sennheiser HD 555, Sennheiser HD 280 Pro, generic earbuds

Here's what I tested:

Midnight Special, CCR (digitally ripped from vinyl)

  1. Sennheiser HD 555: best bass and overall sound
  2. Asus NC1: good sound, vocals not as rich
  3. Sennheiser HD 280 Pro: "tinny" sound
  4. cheap earbuds: I'm sorry CCR, you were not meant to be heard like that
Have a Heart, Bonnie Raitt (digitally ripped from CD)

  1. Asus NC1: close tie with #2, but vocals really shined on this one
  2. Sennheiser HD 555: bass overwhelmed vocals throughout
  3. Sennheiser HD 280 Pro: still too "tinny"
  4. cheap earbuds: really not that bad if I wasn't comparing them
The She Coon of Women's Lib, Jerry Clower (digitally ripped from CD; storytelling for those not familiar)

  1. Sennheiser HD 280 Pro: close tie with #2, sounded like he was in the room
  2. Asus NC1: removed the "noise" from the recording (these are digitally remastered from old recordings so there are some slight pops and hisses, plus crowd noise)
  3. Sennheiser HD 555: sounded flat
  4. cheap earbuds: sounded like I was listening on AM radio
Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto #3, David Helfgott (digitally ripped from CD)

  1. Asus NC1: I listened the longest on them; satisfying sound and well-balanced; bass was occasionally "thumpy"
  2. Sennheiser HD 555: it felt like being in the front row of the concert hall; amazing surround sound type experience, but that was actually a little distracting
  3. cheap earbuds: sounded like classical music on the radio
  4. Sennheiser HD 280 Pro: piano sounded beautiful but drowned out the orchestra
Cream, Prince (CD on our stereo system)

  1. Asus NC1: AMAZING! I listened to the whole thing on these it was that good. I forgot how good this song was.
  2. Sennheiser HD 555: Pretty good, but paled in comparison to #1
  3. cheap earbuds: ok
  4. Sennheiser HD 280 Pro: terrible 

I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This, Bob Newhart (audiobook CD on our stereo system)

  1. Sennheiser HD 280 Pro: Good voice clarity; pleasant listening
  2. the other three tied on this one; no distinguishing difference
What Is And What Should Never Be, Led Zeppelin (CD on our stereo system)
  1. Asus NC1: good sound, solid bass, clear vocals
  2. cheap earbuds: vocals suffered some, but instrumental parts were spot on
  3. Sennheiser HD 555: ok; very flat
  4. Sennheiser HD 280 Pro: blah
  5. After listening to this CD again, I realized this is a pretty poor digital recording. There are better digitizations than this out there. But then again, nothing sounds as good as quality vinyl on a good stereo system (short of live music). So far digital hasn't matched it for me. I wonder what happened to all my old records? I left them with my grandparents when we moved to Texas (they've long since passed away). I remember putting Puff the Magic Dragon in the big cabinet record player and sitting in the floor next to the speakers to listen.
Results: Asus NC1 was good for everything, but only with active noise cancelling turned on. I've heard that it is pretty standard for active noise cancelling headphones to need that function on at all times. The Sennheiser HD 555 is also good for general music listening. The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro is great for vocal only listening (audiobooks and most likely movies). The cheap headphones were $5, so they do about what you would expect for $5 and having been exposed to dirt, moisture, crushing weight, being wadded up, etc.

The Asus NC1 gets bonus points for being dainty and having a handy hard shell case that they fold flat into. Both Sennheisers are extremely bulky. However, the Asus cord is not as thick and seems a bit on the flimsy side for a $75 product. The Sennheiser cords are pro quality and have already stood up to a fair amount of use. The Asus is the lightest and most comfortable to wear. The Sennheiser 280 gives me a headache if I wear them very long at all and the Sennheiser 555 are comfortable enough for an hour or two, but I wouldn't want to wear them all day. Earbuds are obviously the lightest, but tend to slip out easily.

In terms of noise cancelling, only the Asus NC1 promises noise cancelling. For having small ear cups, they block out a surprising amount of ambient sound just by putting them on. With active noise cancelling on, traffic sounds, computer drone, and other noises disappear. I'm waiting to see how they do for people talking when I get them to work on Monday. The Sennheiser 280 blocks out low or distant noises, but lets in high noises and talking. The Sennheiser 555 are really no better than earbuds at blocking sound despite covering the ears entirely.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Bike Commuting in LA

Yes, you can commute by bike in LA. No, it is not the most friendly town for cyclists. Still, it is a great way to avoid traffic, get your daily exercise, save money, help the environment, and reduce stress. The more people who bike here, the better and safer it becomes.

My tips for bike commuting specific to LA are as follows:

  1. Plan your route to avoid major roads. There are no shoulders here and people drive FAST (except when they are on the freeway and then they will drive all pokey even when there is no traffic).
  2. Avoid the sidewalk unless necessary. A lot of people actually use the sidewalk for walking. I'm glad to see so many pedestrians/skateboarders and they need their space. If you do need to get on the sidewalk because of an unsafe section of street, I'd recommend walking your bike as a courtesy to others.
  3. Embrace the fact that people will ignore the rules. Those "no pedestrians" signs on designated bike paths apparently translate to "please walk here with your 5 kids, 2 dogs, and a shopping cart". I'm not exaggerating, everyone walks in the bike path here (sometimes for lack of a sidewalk other times just because it is wider and better paved than the sidewalk).
  4. Don't use a road bike. LA roads are full of debris and potholes. Plus anything too expensive or flashy is just a giant target for thieves. Stick with a used hybrid bike.
  5. If you've never ridden in an urban environment before, start off in a residential area and work your way up to the full commute. I've ridden in central Austin and Houston before and LA is definitely more challenging. If you are from the Netherlands or Denmark, prepare to be appalled.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Balcony Garden Week 3

Had the first "harvest" this morning. One cute little strawberry (it was good).

The plants are all growing except for the herb pot which I just planted seeds in last weekend. They even got a little rain water from a storm last week (our balcony is covered, so they don't always get rain water). I do need to pick up some natural fertilizer since they are in pots. I've heard you can do small scale composting on balconies, but I've been nervous to experiment as of yet.

spinach on the left, kale and green onions on the right

the tomato plant is about to start flowering!

I very much want to have a squash plant, a sweet pepper plant, and a hot pepper plant to round things out. The plan was to wait and put them in the kale and spinach pots when it starts getting too warm for the greens (I'm guessing that will be early May). However, I'm concerned it might be a little late by then to be starting squash from seeds. The peppers would be transplants so I'm not as concerned since they thrived in Texas heat so I'm sure they can handle California summers like a champ. That is my fault for starting the greens so late (the seeds should have been planted two months earlier than I did). 

I also kind of want a flowering plant, but am debating whether I want to use the water and space for something I can't eat.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Hiking in LA

One amazing thing about living in LA is all the hiking spots nearby. By nearby I mean within less than a 45 minute drive provided traffic is normal for a weekend. Some can even be accessed by public transportation (Griffith Park trails for one).

The trails vary from leisurely 1 to 2 mile strolls with minimal slope to 10+ mile treks up "mountains" and along ridge lines. The "mountains" immediately around the LA basin are pretty nominal in size (around 1000-ft elevation gain from trailhead with the tallest being around 3000-ft above sea level), but are plenty sufficient for weekend hiking. Most trails are wide loose gravel trails. Many are current or former fire roads built to allow access to put out fires and also serve as fire breaks. Some are true trails that are only a foot or two wide. Depending on the park, they may or may not be marked well, so plan ahead and be familiar with your route. The rock that comprises these mountains is very old, so while the range itself is young and still growing, the rock is incredibly brittle and therefore off-trail hiking or rock climbing are really not an option.

typical trail (fire roads are the same material, just wider)

Surprisingly, very few people get out on the trails. There are 10 million people in LA County, but apparently only a handful of them like to hike. I'm not complaining! There are fewer people out on most of the trails around LA than on the Barton Creek Greenbelt in Austin. Usually there will be a fair number of people on the trail near the trailhead and then as you go up, you see fewer and fewer people until you can walk for 30 minutes without running into anyone. Last weekend my husband and I climbed to the top of an unnamed peak in the Verdugo Mountains and sat at the peak looking at the amazing 360 degree view of the mountain range and Burbank and no one came by while we were there.

Most trails have very little shade (no trees to speak of) unless you are on the back side of the mountain or in a canyon. Temperatures can fluctuate wildly on different sides of the mountain, so wear layers and bring a small backpack to hold layers you've removed. Also, bring water which is common sense for any hiking, but you can end up sweating a lot more than you expect even on a cool winter day. A walking stick is also a good idea because some of the steep parts of the trail are a challenge with all the loose material.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Balcony Garden

I took this photo last weekend and there is already a notable difference in the size of the plants this weekend, so I figured I should go ahead and get this posted as a record of the starting point.

approximately 1 week after planting

From closest to farthest: strawberries, rosemary, cherry tomato, spinach, kale and green onion (in 1 pot). I planted them in late February, which is a bit late for the spinach and kale. However, I think I will be able to harvest enough to make it worthwhile before it starts getting too warm.

I really hope the strawberries do well. Central Texas was either too hot or cold for strawberries and they never thrived (or maybe it was just me - Poteet, TX does have a strawberry festival).

I also purchased herb seeds, but didn't buy enough pots. I'll get a pot and start them, but it will be really late to be starting from seed at that point (but I may as well try!).

Updates to follow on the success or failure of gardening in a new climate.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Black Dust

I am not sure what it is, but our floors get dirty quickly here.  I'm guessing it is a combination of factors:

  • Walking across the asphalt parking lot to get home
  • Dry air and therefore more airborne dirt particles (we have the patio door open about 60-70% of the time)
  • Smaller place therefore all the skin cells/hair that comprise most of the household dust have less room to be dispersed (although isn't that dust light gray?)
  • No central heat/air conditioning so the air isn't being pulled through a filter
  • Vehicle emissions and petrochemical plant emissions

I'm going to get a door mat for inside and outside the front door (and maybe one for outside the balcony door too) and see if that helps.

My dad gave me a book The Good Old Days - They Were Terrible, by Otto Bettmann, which really helps put it all in perspective. Whatever we may think of our cities today, they are a lot better than they used to be. A combination of regulations, common sense, and technological improvements have brought us out of the days of black soot coating every surface, trash piled to rot in empty lots, and open sewers. It is a great read if you are ever feeling excessively down on modern city life.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


I haven't had to do laundry in a shared facility in 9 years. It forces you to either do laundry more often or try to wrangle multiple loads to and fro (or live with a large pile of dirty clothes).

The one thing I recalled from our previous apartment days was the "quarter crisis". When you use a laundry facility, you horde quarters. Quarters are precious metal. Otherwise it is Sunday night and there is nothing to wear tomorrow and you have to walk to the convenience store and buy a coke with a 5 dollar bill and nicely ask for all your change in quarters. Getting rolls of quarters at the bank was an option, but they don't last long and you can only get them during the ridiculously brief banking center hours. Our swank new apartments have a card machine. You get a re-loadable card and then just add money whenever you want to or need to.

My only pet peeve is that people do not clean the lint traps when they are through. We always clean them after our loads because I am sure no one wants to have to grab a handful of lint laced with my hair and cat hair. Recently I noticed the machine instructions list step number 1 as cleaning the lint trap and have since been less annoyed at people and more annoyed at the instructions. I equate that to going to a fast food place and being expected to clear the previous person's trash before you get a table and order.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Median Bike Paths

I did my first test run of my bike to work route. I am waiting for the time change before I start bike commuting because it just seems safer to bike when it is still light outside until I am familiar with the route.

The best part of my route is that the majority of the ride is on a median bike path. I have become convinced that median bike paths are perhaps the best way to integrate bikes/pedestrians/cars into a single right of way.

Bike path looking west in a wide portion, pedestrian path is to the left (hard to see because of the shade)

This particular median bike path is really wide in areas and is almost a park in itself. It has a meandering pedestrian path, an asphalt two-way bike lane, benches, trash cans, grassy areas, and landscaping.  Street traffic is on either side and there are no median breaks except at major street intersections. The intersections have crosswalks and seem much safer than traditional intersections for bicyclists and pedestrians because you are out in the open and cars aren't trying to turn right in front of you when the light changes.

Bike path looking east in a narrow portion, pedestrian path on the right