Home Brief notes on Los Angeles

Brief notes on Los Angeles

Through some sustained lapses in judgement, I have spent a bit of time in Los Angeles - enough almost to qualify as a tourist. I will tell you about it, and thereby save you the trouble of going.

General Characteristics

LA is a large concrete plain between the hills of Pasadena and the Pacific ocean. To the north, through the Grapevine pass, lies the Central Valley; to the northeast and east, the Mojave, splendid desolation, and a large Borax mine. Nobody is quite sure what is to the south.

There is no weather in LA - it has not heard of it, and if it had, it would want no truck with it. Every new day brings by noon the same vast, bright grey-blue sky, pulsating with heat and holding more steradians than any reasonable geometry ought to allow in one hemisphere. Every child knows that it is foolish to look directly at the sun. In LA, it is also foolish to look in any of the other directions, until about six in the evening. Without sunglasses, a very wide hat, and a few liters of sunscreen, a man will quickly perish. Given these necessities, though, he will find the air delightful and the breezes constantly refreshing, the evenings and late afternoons positively gorgeous.

The city is populated by about four hundred million cars. They are gregarious, noisy and full of life, perpetually eager to race down its vast boulevards. During the days, they congregate on the highways to form a metal river; at night, they howl in gleeful solitude. The chief concern of the city of Los Angeles is in fact the movement of traffic. In the thickest highway jams, observing from a distance, one could be forgiven for supposing that the vehicles actually halt entirely - but it is not so. The mass is always slowly, slowly rolling forward, and interruptions are remedied with haste.

I discovered this when my car’s engine died in the middle of the northbound 405. I cannot say that I recommend the experience, but with hindsight I am glad I had it, because it is not often in life that you can single-handedly bring to a standstill a few hundred tons of steel. If you tried the same thing with a train, you would be flattened; with a plane, you would be shot, or tackled and methodically snipped to pieces by a citizen hero with a concealed nail clipper. I expected much the same treatment - an enraged citizenry pouring from a hundred Teslas to tar and feather me. But in truth, they were downright polite, acknowledging me with only indirect taps of the horn. Salvation arrived almost immediately in the form of a gleaming white towtruck - how he learned of and reached my location so quickly, I do not know. He brought me off the highway and into the parking lot of a Carl’s Jr1, where I thanked him profusely before he disappeared as mysteriously as he had arrived.

For the operation of its motor vehicles the city maintains a sizeable human population. The people are easy to miss, being usually inside of a car or building, but I can testify to their reality. When you pass someone out of doors in the middle of the day, he looks so small and odd and frail against the vast concrete blocks, shimmering in the heat haze, that he always catches your attention and engages your pity. Poor bastard, you think, trotting past at forty or fifty miles per hour, he didn’t even bring a stillsuit. He’ll never last. And yet he always does, in spite of the extravagant solar radiation, in spite of his thin clothing and feeble exposed limbs.

For visual amusement and a vague sense of despair, I cannot recommend the pedestrian crossings of Los Angeles too highly. These allow the people to walk across the boulevards at regular intervals. Given the fifty-odd lanes typical on such a road, and the generous width of each, the distance is about half a kilometer. This is a trek. In the haze of day, it requires studied preparation. A subway or bus system would make the crossing easier, but has nowhere been established - I suspect there are not enough citizens who regularly make such a foolish attempt for it to be economically viable.

The people, once you manage to find them, are almost uniformly healthy, happy, and cheerful. The women are beautiful and elegantly dressed, the men mild-mannered and easy in conversation. Just about everyone appears to be having a good time. I suppose it to be due mostly to (periodically) good weather, good food, and the extreme comfort of the modern car interior.

So much for the general characteristics. I will touch upon the few sub-cities of LA that I have personally been in, and point out their novelties.

El Segundo

El Segundo is the rectangle of land immediately south of LAX. Its southern half is an oil refinery, and most of the northern half is quiet, friendly-looking suburban homes. There is a prominent water tower, a single main street and downtown evincing a great deal of civic pride, and a baseball field that appears to be in constant use. Between the homes and the refinery are a couple of square kilometers of neat offices, garages and small warehouses concealing a variety of hardware startups.

If you walk west along Grand Avenue you will encounter a handsome power plant, a thin beach with a bicycle trail, and then an ocean. The citizens of El Segundo are particularly fond of electric bikes with very fat tires - you will pass or be passed by a number of them doubled up on these, making for the trail.


Hawthorne is notable for the headquarters of SpaceX, the Mecca of space enthusiasts. It has this difference from the real Mecca, that the landmark drawing your gaze is not a large cube, but a cylinder in the form of a Falcon first stage. The adjacent “block” of Jack Northrop Ave is amusing for its length, which is twelve miles.


Pasadena, by volume, is about 50% mattress stores. If you haven’t visited, you probably think this is exaggeration for humorous effect. It is not. Walk along Lake and Colorado, and count the number of mattress stores you pass. The people here sleep very well.

The most notable thing in Pasadena is Caltech’s campus, which has the footprint of only a dozen mattress stores. You can walk the circumference in half an hour. It’s worth visiting to see the olive trees, the turtles swarming in the pond, the cool shade under rows of cream-colored arches. If you put out a table with beer and pizza, you can attract grad students out of the physics building, and interact with them socially. They enjoy this.


The less said about Hollywood, I think, the better.

Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach is the town just south of the refinery. It boasts a very fine promenade running along the water, with elegant lampposts and little tufts of flowers in boxes. They have provisioned their slice of the beach with a dozen volleyball courts and a short pier. Walking away from the water, up the small hill, you’ll find a number of those fancy restaurants where the walls are all glass and the men are stuffed into half-unbuttoned dress shirts with olive oil in their hair. I don’t know what these places serve. Nothing, maybe, or perhaps just wine and breadsticks. They do seem popular, so there’s clearly some facet of the enterprise I don’t understand.

Venice Beach

Venice Beach lies just to the north of LAX, on the other side of a small harbor. I have never been to Italy, but if the real Venice is known for hippies selling awful art and trinkets, teenagers hawking “psychadelic” bars of chocolate, and bums sprawled across sandy benches, then the name is a good one. Running parallel to the beach is a dirty concrete path with a variety of novel smells; out in the sand there is a skate park and another bicycle trail. They graffiti the palm trees here. In the evenings, tricycles bedecked in LED strips parade up and down, playing a sufficiency of music with what feels like tens of kilowatts of electrical power.

If you walk a bit out onto the beach, you can get a good view of some launches from Vandenberg.

Heading the other direction, inland, there are stately boulevards shaded with wise-looking trees whose names I wish I knew, and sporadic bursts of color from flowers embedded in the shubbery. There is an airport, where you can aviate, and golf courses for your golfing pleasure. In the quieter and fancier neighborhoods there are stoic, mustachioed men selling fruit under umbrellas. I do not know whether they have any customers, but with the shade and refreshment on hand it cannot be wholly unpleasant work.