Eric Smillie | Writer & Editor


Eric Smillie is a freelance journalist covering art, culture, food, technology, and travel.



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AngelList’s Naval Ravikant, a Profile

Dartmouth Alumni Magazine cover with Naval Ravikant

Naval Ravikant, co-founder of the startup-investor matchmaker AngelList, has helped make the company a filter for a serious flow of venture capital. Ravikant has a dramatic backstory and has survived two Silicon Valley bust cycles. More on that in the profile I wrote for the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.

For some reason, I think of the Gold Rush when I try to explain AngelList. The company makes me think of the merchants who supposedly got rich supplying all the prospectors who showed up in San Francisco looking for gold—richer than most of the prospectors ever got. Ravikant and the rest of AngelList certainly seem to be making life easier for small startups and investors by helping them find and get or invest money quickly and openly. The best way to understand how (other than by reading the article) is to visit their website.

I had to ask Ravikant if he thought we were in another tech bubble. His answer didn’t fit in the story, so here it is now: “I don’t think it’s anything like the first time around. I think this time is real.” And, “this is nothing like the first bubble; there are some huge fundamental differences. There’s still a lot less money being thrown around and the money is also going into companies that this time are generating revenues and are profitable. The addressable markets are hundreds of times larger. I actually think this is a pretty sane market.”

I guess that means this gold rush isn’t over yet.

Low DIY stools

Two low, rectangualr oak stools with woven jute seats

I’ve wanted to make these handsome, low DIY stools for a long time and I’m glad I finally did. They’re coffee-table height, so they’re best for a living room or den. When I saw them in Wood & Faulk’s tutorial on Design Sponge I had a feeling they would be an easy and rewarding project. So I decided to make six of them.

I was right about one thing: they were rewarding. As for the easy part, well, they weren’t complicated but let’s just say I learned a few things and did some parts the hard way.

Low DIY stool with woven red jute top

If you’re thinking of taking on the project, I recommend following both of those links above and reading all the comments to pick up tips. I only diverged from the instructions in a couple of ways:

I got my lumber from a local yard rather than Home Depot because I have trouble finding good, straight stock at HoDo. Rather than buy 1x2s I bought 1x oak boards and cut my own stringers out of it. For the legs, I happened to find some oak 2x4s that were finished on four sides and on sale, so rather than gluing together 1x2s as Matt mentions in the comments to the Wood & Faulk tutorial, I ripped the 2x4s in two. I thought this would save me time and money.

As it turned out, it’s hard to make those cuts perfectly clean and there was a lot of cleaning up to do with the sander. One stool has eight stringers and four legs, for a total of 128 surfaces per stool (not counting the ends), and each of those surfaces had to be sanded several times with different grits. The power of multiples!

If I did it again, I would try harder to find good quality 1x2s to save all of that effort or else try to get access to a planer to smooth ripped edges and cut down on sanding time.

I also used jute webbing rather than leather strips for the woven top. It’s usually used in furniture as a foundation for springs or upholstered cushions, but I like it as it is. This definitely saved money, didn’t take much extra time, and came out looking nice.

plywood with blocks set to make low DIY stool assembly easy

The other thing I learned was the power of the construction jig. This was my first time using pocket screws and they’re pretty sweet. It takes a fair bit of force behind the drill to drive them and a jig and some clamps really helped hold everything in place and ensured that my joints were consistently spaced.

It was hard to turn away from the lumber to focus on building the jig since I was impatient to get the job done, but in the end it made for a much more finished result. And it saved a lot of time, because I could just slap everything in place and go. And there are 16 two-screw joints per stool, times six stools…

One of the low DIY stools half constructed and clamped into the assembly jig

Here’s a half-finished stool strapped into the jig. Thanks to the clamps and all the braces in the jig I could hold the stringers tightly to the legs and keep them from pulling apart while I was predrilling and driving the pocket screws. Sorry for the quality on this one, I was in go mode and used my phone.

Low DIY stools with no seats

For a finish, I rubbed on a single application of Tried & True Varnish Oil, let it sit for an hour, then rubbed it off and left the stools to dry in the sun for a couple days. I’ve heard Danish oil is just as easy to apply and dries more quickly, but I like that this one is non-toxic from beginning to end.

Underside of low DIY stool top showing upholstery tacks holding the jute

Attaching the jute webbing took a while too, but there was something meditative in the rhythmic hammering of all the upholstery tacks. And I had help which was pleasant. We attached each webbing end twice, first setting it with a bunch of hits from a staple gun, then folding the jute over and knocking in the tacks. You can see the folds in the photo. Only the first end of a strip of webbing got its cut edge hidden.

An upholstery hammer is a must; the magnetic end really saves time and fingertips.

Low DIY stool with woven red jute top

I didn’t use a stretcher to pull the jute tight because I didn’t feel like it. Since the webbing is serving as the actual seat I think it’s nice that it has some give to it and I find it very pleasant to sit on.

What to do in the Bay Area right now

At night a dark old bay bridge stands next to the glowing new bay bridge

Want to know what to do in the Bay Area? Got you covered. I’ve been crawling all over the bay for travel stories recently and rather than write each one up separately, here they are in one go:

First of all, you have to see the old bay bridge under deconstruction. (That’s the dark hulking one next to the bright and shiny one in these pictures from Caltrans. See more of their photos here.) I wrote about the job’s challenges last year for Wired magazine. You can see it right now by taking the new bike path or driving across the bridge. Workers are cutting out the cantilevered section piece by piece and it looks very precarious.

The old east span of the bay bridge under deconstruction next to the new east span

A gap in the old east span of the bay bridge seen from the air

Totally awesome. So, what else? I wrote a several roundups of new and fun things to do in the Bay Area:

Sausalito houseboats seen from a kayak

– Kayak in Sausalito, then eat at the pretty Barrel House Tavern and check out the Headlands Center for the Arts. (Enter a NorCal zipcode, like 94600, to read.)

– Get an excellent cocktail at Rich Table or a glass of wine in a former therapist’s office in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley. (Again, enter a NorCal zipcode.)

Baia Pasta worker holding a fresh batch of noodles

– Watch Baia Pasta make funny flour squiggles at their noodle factory and check out one of the east bay’s oldest buildings, a little-known bay area landmark, at Oakland’s Jack London Square. (Yup, NorCal zipcode.)

– Head to Santa Cruz (enter NorCal zip to read) for a lesson in tea at Hidden Peak Tea House and, not in the story but worth doing, go to Soif where the waiters give great and friendly wine pairing recommendations.

Finding water in the LA River

A mix of plants and concrete line the Glendale Narrows of the LA River

When I first started researching an article on paddling the newly-opened LA River, which ran in Sunset’s August issue, I was hooked on the story of activism and recreation working hand in hand in a way that isn’t so common. That there was an irony to turning an environmentally degraded place into an ecotourism destination made the tale seem that much more clever.

A mix of plants and concrete line the Glendale Narrows of the LA River

But that slumming, “gee-whiz, isn’t this an urban jungle?” aspect of the story is just the tip of the irony iceberg, something that California’s extreme drought has kept on my mind. The LA River in its current, channelized form is a monument to the way we tried to control nature over the last two centuries. Today, the concrete-lined river seems to be an especially bad match for the chaotic, unpredictable weather we’ve been having. By trying to control the river we paved ourselves into a corner.

A mix of plants and concrete line the Glendale Narrows of the LA River

You see, the city didn’t grow up on the river’s banks by chance. As EPA administrator for the southwest Jared Blumenfeld put it to me, “we think of the Hudson and we think of the Mississippi River; Los Angeles would not have been founded where it is but for the river.” But as the city grew, the river kept jumping its banks, flooding buildings and killing people. So, starting in the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers did the modern thing, straightjacketing it so that the floods would rush out to the ocean, leaving the city unharmed.

A mix of plants and concrete line the Glendale Narrows of the LA River

The problem is, the city still wants water. Today, Los Angeles gets only 11 percent of what it uses from local sources, and a major one–the San Fernando Aquifer–suffers from a plume of pollution that has been forcing wells to close. Most of the other 89 percent comes from the Colorado River, the Sacramento Delta, and Sierra snow pack. Those sources face high demand from many users and are declining due to climate change. (Here’s a cool map of water rights across the state.)

Meanwhile, enough rain falls in the 815-square-mile LA River Basin every year (on average) to meet half the city’s need. The city couldn’t, and wouldn’t want to, use all of it. But in a natural-bottom river with flood plains, a good portion of the water would sink into the ground, recharging local aquifers. Instead, the concrete riverbed collects it and flushes it away like a drain. As activist and kayak guide George Wolfe told me, “that’s fresh, free water from the sky.” If Angelenos can’t find a way to make use of it, he added, “where are we going to go? To Canada to get water? Will we push up into Oregon next? And how crazy is that?”

A mix of plants and concrete line the Glendale Narrows of the LA River

The droughts, fires, storms, and floods of climate change are upsetting the way we see our relationship with nature. We thought we could harness or bury it at our convenience. Now it’s becoming obvious that we’re still at nature’s mercy. It’s a frightening thing to accept, but it could be a hopeful one, too. By reconsidering our place in nature and trying to work with natural systems instead of against them, we may find ways to make our lives easier. That seems to be happening with the LA River, where plans are in development to return it to a more natural state.

A mix of plants and concrete line the Glendale Narrows of the LA River

The revitalization’s starting point will be an 11-mile stretch in the Glendale Narrows (the place in these photos), an area where the bottom remains unpaved because pressure from a high water table is so strong it buckles any concrete laid in the riverbed. Here, Wolfe told me, “the geology of the river saved itself. It provided these places from which the river movement is going to grow.”

This spot where nature pushed back, surely a point of frustration to engineers in the last century, has become a toehold for a new relationship with the river and a point of celebration. Now that’s ironic.

In a hotter world, wine could have legs

Snippet of a map of the western US overlaid with existing and potential future ideal wine grape conditions

What will wine country look like in 2050? I have a map of one prediction in Wired’s August issue. Wine grapes are sensitive to temperature, which makes them good indicators of global warming and a good tool for charting the warmer landscape of the future. The map uses data from this study by researchers from a number of conservation groups around the world.

The gist is that ideal growing conditions could move to higher ground, toward the coasts, and more northward, which means that, on the west coast, Washington stands to gain the most. But the state also stands to lose, because a lot of that potential new territory falls right on top of the Yellowstone to Yukon wildlife corridor. If this area becomes suitable wine growing area, more people could try to move there, setting off conflicts between development and wildlife conservation.

But don’t panic yet. Just because an area becomes suitable according to a model doesn’t mean that it will be developed. There are also ways for growers to adapt to higher temperatures in traditional wine country, so don’t expect Napa to shrivel up and die. And the model used in the article follows a worst-case greenhouse gas emission scenario, where warming gasses go mostly unchecked, which is pretty unlikely… oh, wait, never mind. That seems perfectly possible.

By the way, check out the map of Europe in the paper. The Mediterranean region is looking hot, literally. For a closer look at Europe, check out this paper.

Doughnuts go gourmet

Closeup of a small round doughnut with maple frosting and crushed pecans on a glass display rack

Is the age of the crazy doughnut coming to a close? Is Voodoo Doughnut, of Pepto-Bismol-frosting fame, old school?

Such weighty questions are weighed (in an implied manner) in my roundup of gourmet doughnut shops in the West that are turning out new pastries with high-minded seasonings.

That means flavors such as maple pecan (pictured above in a photo by Susie Wyshak) and strawberry-jalapeno jelly and cornmeal rosemary cherry and toasted coconut with ginger, kaffir lime and roasted chili. And doughnuts blasted with a handheld torch. Call them gourmet, call them fancy, call them third wave (or pick another number for that wave). Not artisan, though, that word is on a cliche watch list.

They’re good doughnuts, I know, because I ate them. But my sense is that, even if they do achieve wedding-catering status (that’s a reference to the article, you should probably open a link to it), doughnuts will still hold on to that ‘crazy pastry’ niche, too. Why, just this Friday, in honor of National Doughnut Day, Psycho Donuts in San Jose will give away free foie gras doughnuts. They look, well, crazy. In a gourmet kind of way.

A raised doughnut hole presumably filled with foie gras mouse and stabbed through with a pipette containing a black liquid that may have something to do with balsamic vinegar and topped with a slice of a green pepper.


Winter in Tomales Bay

Cover shot of VIA magazine, Nov/Dec 2012

It turns out that winter is a great time to visit Tomales Bay, an hour north of San Francisco. Which was a surprise since I tend to write the season off as cold and wet. But when I went there in January to research a travel story on Tomales Bay for VIA magazine’s November/December issue, the days were clear and warm. And that wasn’t a fluke. “When it’s not raining, this is the most beautiful time of year here,” a bed and breakfast owner told me, and other people I talked to backed her up. (The nights were another story, by the way. I was glad to have a warm jacket.)

With ranches on the eastern shore, Point Reyes National Seashore to the west, and oyster farms and Tomales Bay State Park in the middle, it’s beautiful country, especially when you think how close it is to the city. Here’s a view east from the Tule Elk Reserve on the northern point of Point Reyes:

Overlooking Tomales Bay, facing inland, and undeveloped land

As peaceful as it looks, this bay has been a battle ground between developers and conservationists since the early 1900s, and it still kind of is. The whole story (going back to the Coast Miwok) is laid out in this history from the National Parks Service. Things were especially hot in the middle of the century. The West Marin General Plan of 1976 slated the eastern side of the bay for a city of 125,000 people, complete with a golf course, schools, a freeway along the waterfront and man-made recreational islands in the bay. The land was worth more as building tracts than it could produce as farmland, making it tempting for owners to cash out.

As developers began to buy parcels and plan developments, conservationists strategically purchased neighboring lots in an effort to block access to the water and to likely routes for roads. Environmental groups also lobbied the government and eventually the general plan was repealed. To preserve the farmland, much of west Marin was zoned with a limit of one house per 60 acres. Between 1972 and 1975 the number of building sites in the watershed went from 1.2 million to 3,000. Great news for tourists, migrating birds and people who wanted to keep ranching, but not so great news for those land owners planning to sell.

To try to make up the difference for ranch owners, and to further conserve the land in case the zoning is ever revised, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust buys development rights from ranchers. Owners keep their land and continue working it and the trust ensures that the property will never be turned into subdivisions. Meanwhile, the region’s appetite for fancy foods—grass fed beef, organic milk, fresh oysters, small-batch cheese—seems to be opening profitable niche markets for ranchers. And it makes for good eating. Check out the story for lots of recommendations. It’s on the website (if it asks for your zip code, try a northern California one, maybe 94600) and in magazine layout in the digital edition, with beautiful pictures by David Collier.

Is a city a disaster?

Elevated highways crossing each other with train tracks below

What about those abandoned or otherwise forgotten spots that get squeezed between developments, or covered over by highways?

I’m catching up with the radio show 99% Invisible and I liked the episode about New Public Sites, a project by Graham Coreil-Allen to come up with a typology of overlooked and left over features of the urban environment. Stuff like vacant lots and traffic triangles, except that by Coreil-Allen’s definition, the former is a void or possibly a distribution pit, while the latter might be a pastoral island, a triangle crossing, or even a lost space.

There are lots more handy names there for things city dwellers look at every day, yet don’t always see. But my favorite part of the radio segment is when Coreil-Allen justifies calling these spots beautiful. I like it because they’re not places or vistas that we usually consider pretty or even interesting, except perhaps in a punk or ironic kind of way. Coreil-Allen’s definitions of these elements are a bit tongue in cheek, but he’s entirely earnest in his defense of their value. We have to love them if we want to adopt them and activate them as democratic spaces. In other words, if we want to reclaim these places from the urban lost and found bin and make them our own or put them to use, we cannot look away and ignore them.

Of course, some people might rather not to reclaim them, and I think that’s sad and a waste. Which is how I felt about the spots in my disaster tourism guide, spots that are much larger than a threshold periphery.

And what could possibly come of these places? For just one example, I just saw a great story on the Keret House, a narrow home built in the empty space between two buildings. The interior is just 35 inches wide.

Give the 99% Invisible episode a listen:

Rebuilt Raleigh Sprite bicycle

Raleigh Sprite bicycle

I rebuilt a Raleigh Sprite bicycle, one of the old step-throughs, circa 1976.

Raleigh Sprite bicycle

Unlike the Raleigh Record I built up, I replaced most of the old parts, and kept just a few that worked fine and had some charm, like this torn seat.

Velo Orange Triple Crankset

The biggest upgrade was swapping out the old bottom bracket and cottered crankset for a new Velo Orange threadless bottom bracket and Velo Orange triple crankset with a 170mm arm. The old ones were heavy, had a lower gear range, and I mashed one of the cotters taking them out to clean them up.

Velo Orange threadless bottom bracket installed

The genius of the threadless bottom brackets is that their two ends screw together and expand to fill the bottom bracket cavity in the frame–you don’t need to use the existing threads and you can choose from a variety of lengths. Compared to the other bottom bracket replacement options, it’s easier than rounding up perfectly-sized cotterless old stock and cheaper than going the phil wood route. I knew that if I tried to put cotter pins back in, my obsessive side would kick in and I’d end up buying a cotter press. Not worth it for a single use.

There was some angst over which length threadless bottom bracket to choose. This review was super helpful, as was this VO blog post. The Raleigh Sprite’s bottom bracket cavity measured 71 mm and I went with the 116 mm threadless bb and it fits nicely.

Here are some views of the chainline.

Raleigh Sprite chainline

Raleigh Sprite chainline

Raleigh Sprite chainline

On the second chainring, the chain is straight when it’s on the fifth sprocket in the back.

Raleigh Sprite freewheel and rear derailer

This is an all-purpose city bike, and the rider likes versatility and is no big fan of hills, so I put a megarange mountain bike freewheel with a giant granny gear on the back. The other day I was at the Golden Gate Bridge gift shop and I saw that the classy-looking Public Bicycles special edition International Orange step-through has the same freewheel on it.

Between the 34 teeth on the rear sprocket and the 24 on the smallest chainring, you can go pretty low on this bike. Edit: After being in use for a while, it’s become clear that this gear combo is overkill. A double cahinring would have done the job just fine.

Raleigh Sprite front brake

Last bonus pics: the original front brake, cleaned up just enough to keep a little patina.

Raleigh Sprite handlebars

And the handlebars.

Best brewery tours in the West

Deschutes sampler, best brewery tours

Brewery tours can get pretty redundant. Some grain, some hops, some giant tanks full of fermenting ale. I bet lots of people spend them dreaming of tasting the free beer at the end, like this guy (photo by Jessica Curtin).

I have no problem with free beer. But when I rounded up eight of the West’s best brewery tours for VIA magazine, I looked for craft breweries that offer something extra, be it a ride down the slide at New Belgium that you can see in this photo by ElCapitan:

New Belgium best brewery tours

Or a peek into the sensory tasting room at Deschutes, where trained workers take one for the team to help stay on top of quality control. It looks like serious business.

What else makes for a good tour? At the small breweries, it could be the chance to talk to a brewer or to taste an experimental brew. At a bigger operation, such as Full Sail, it might be seeing how the brewery shaves water use through an on-site treatment plant.

And then there’s the free beer. No need to change that part of the formula.

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