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.