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Brendan Schlagel

Intersection of Fiction and History

By | Creativity, Storytelling, Writing | 2 Comments

Fiction and reality often intersect in interesting, surprising ways. Actual events merge with the imagined; invented stories draw on and feed back into history. In many ways they’re obviously distinct and identifiable; in other cases differentiation becomes impossible.

Such relationships and dichotomies — experience versus invention, reality versus invented stories — came vividly to mind after seeing a deftly-acted and well-written play, Red Velvet, at St. Anne’s Warehouse a while back.

The play was based on the life of a nineteenth century black actor; but half the characters were fictional and much of the story was invented and interpolated, the known biography providing a framework within which the playwright could project her own beliefs and experiences and emotions, upon which the director and actors could layer their own interpretations as well.

I’ve thought before that it might be worth trying my hand at some combination of creative writing and journalism — writing something at once spawned from the imagination and rooted in historic reality seems like a fun and interesting challenge. Read More

10 Favorite Things

By | Life | 2 Comments

I recently made a list of ten of my favorite things, to share with the awesome Uncommon in Common community. This was fun, so I figured, why not share with the rest of the world while I’m at it?

General somewhat-arbitrary self-imposed constraints: these ten things don’t include specific versions of anything (places, people, items, whatever). They’re more like platonic containers of the types of things I most love. And it should go without saying this is a non-exhaustive list! For example, I did not include pizza, or smoothies, or listening to music, or […] but that’s okay. It’s my list and it’s nice and simple and it only has ten things.

Without further ado…10 Favorite Things: Read More

Surfing the Contrails of the CODEX Hackathon

The true value of a hackathon isn’t the output of a weekend’s work — it’s how the experience changes your perspective.

By | Education, Media, Technology, Writing | No Comments

I recently attended my first ever hackathon — and the effects have lingered in surprising ways.

CODEX, hosted this winter at the MIT Media Lab, has a unique literary bent: it’s billed as a community of folks who want to imagine the future of books and reading.” As someone excited about technology and storytelling, libraries and information, design and education, I found the premise to be right up my alley — a perfect first hackathon if there ever was one.

On my bus ride from NYC to Boston that cold January morning, I thought a bit about what to work on, how to spend my time wisely and make the most of the experience. I didn’t entirely know what to expect.

Looking back on the experience, it wasn’t an unmitigated success according to how I thought hackathons were supposed to work — I didn’t leave with a mind-blowing product built, or an instantly-formed new network. But reflecting further, I did get a lot out of it, in ways I didn’t necessarily expect. Read More

My 52 Books of 2015

A third annual catalogue of reading.

By | Reading | No Comments

Here are all the books I read in 2015. At the end, I’ve included some comments, reflection, and analysis.

NB: the first # after each book is my initial rating on Goodreads; the second is my more recent revised rating. Years from now these will surely change further!


The ones you shouldn’t miss. I promise these are superb.

Read More

Kickstarter’s Great Nonprofit Innovation

They just launched something special. Here’s to hoping it continues!

By | Business, Technology | No Comments

Yesterday I was excited to see the announcement of a joint initiative between Kickstarter and The White House: a special Kickstarter campaign intended to raise funds to aid refugees. One day in and they’ve raised over $1.1 million, and still going strong.

This is the first time Kickstarter has done something like this. Right now it’s a one-off campaign, prominently highlighted and heavily promoted, but not currently integrated into the core of the platform.

First, I want to applaud everyone who made this happen, from Josh Miller and the White House to Yancey Strickler and the Kickstarter team! Thanks also to other companies like Twitter, Instacart, and Airbnb for working with the White House to leverage their platforms for good. I’m focusing on Kickstarter because I know it best, but many are helping in these efforts.

Second, I want to urge Kickstarter to run with this idea, and make it something bigger. Because as laudable as this is as a one-off campaign, it’s also a seed with tremendous potential to change the future of philanthropy. Read More

Giving and Taking Shape

Incarnations of a Side Project; Evolution of an Idea

By | Creativity, Education | No Comments

On the incarnations of a side project and evolution of an idea: how I’ve conceived, reconceived and re-reconceived “Antilibraries”.

This is the ongoing story of a project I’m working on, Antilibraries. It’s a look at how such projects can be containers for continued exploration of personal interests that are deeply felt, but also still coming into definition.

It’s a smattering of meditations on how projects slowly change and grow in ways both natural and forced. And it’s my attempt to articulate the unpredictability, the forces of chance, that so often govern the things we make and attempt to nurture.

Note: I just published another post — “Everyone Needs an Antilibrary!” — with more background on this project and why I think antilibraries are important! Read More

Everyone Needs an Antilibrary!

How and Why to Learn from Books Unread

By | Creativity, Education, Reading | One Comment


It’s a strange word; a strange idea.

I first came across it in Black Swan, where Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes Umberto Eco’s massive library of 30,000+ volumes, many of them unread. These unread books, Eco’s antilibrary, embody the potential energy of knowledge, of books and reading and learning. Their value lies not in what they’ve already taught you, but what they’ll lead you to.

I love this idea. It makes me consider all the things I’d like to read and learn more about, and makes tangible how I might get there, slowly converting books from unread to currently-digesting to internalized, always adding more to my shelves as I explore the adjacent possibilities of my interests.

Why You Need an Antilibrary

You probably already have an antilibrary. Whether you have books piling up in corners of your home, or lists of “someday reads”, if you’re anything like me you always have more books in your peripheral vision than you have in front of you or under your belt.

This collection of books you know of, but have not yet read — your antilibrary — is tremendously powerful. It’s a window, a record, a goalpost, a fount of stimulus. It will open doors and take you places, direct and extend your learning.

Here are just a few of the ways thinking about this can be useful: Read More

Jiro, Mastery, and Limitations: Philosophies on Work and Learning

By | Business, Creativity, Life | One Comment

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an intimate portrait of mastery, an exploration of the practiced art and craft of one of the world’s best sushi chefs, through the lens of his daily routine and philosophy of training and practice. In many ways, it’s about asymptotically approaching perfection, and the process of constant learning.

Jiro’s approach towards training and education particularly stands out. He’s dedicated his life towards the focused — you could say singleminded, but it’s in fact surprisingly rich and complex — pursuit of mastery and excellence in creating and serving sushi. This includes everything from sourcing the best fish, preparing the best rice, spending hours or even days preparing ingredients, paying incredibly close attention to details of presentation and service before and during the meal — in short, crafting an entire seamless experience that’s as orchestrated and as close to perfect as possible.

His belief is that by working incredibly hard and consistently at a high level for a very long time(a lifetime, let’s say) one can gradually refine a skill and become one of the best in the world. But at the same time: there’s no ultimate pinnacle but rather a continual process of learning and improving. Read More

The Future of Work is Exciting as Hell But I Still Don’t Want to Be Your Wage Slave

By | Business, Life | No Comments

Let’s not forget to humanize the new economy.

This recent Medium article describes the changing nature of work — the rise of the on-demand economy, fragmented freelance work and emerging marketplaces for labor.

It gives a reasonably accurate description of trends in the labor market, at least along one vector. On another level, it’s a propaganda piece (native advertising) sponsored by a platform (Upwork) that perpetuates the commodification of human capital. While I won’t deny that the observed trends may hold significant benefits, I think they also pose implications that are more insidious.

This piece presents the shift from single-employer to a mishmash of “micro-careers” as something revolutionary, a new path for career empowerment. To me, though, it seems more often another way of extracting surplus value from workers and leaving them beholden to those entities that retain most of the keys to the economic kingdom. The main difference: now instead of having one boss, you might have a dozen, or you might have one (e.g. Uber, Taskrabbit) with whom your relationship is amorphous and unstable. Read More

My 48 Books of 2014

A second annual catalogue of reading.

By | Reading | No Comments

Alright then — I’ve taken the liberty of listing out every book I read in 2014. Join me, if you like, as I trace my reading through last year’s days and weeks and try to learn something from it about how and what I read.

First the list itself; then some brief reflection and analysis. (Also: you cancompare with last year’s list here!)

Books and lists and lists and books. Seriously, what’s better? Read More

My 56 Books of 2013

A first annual reading catalogue, slightly belated.

By | Reading | No Comments

Here you go: the books I read in 2013. Not just my favorites, but all of them — a nice soul-baringly comprehensive good-bad-and-ugly list.

True, this is a year overdue; I hope you don’t mind. I found it helpful to compile, partly to give me a point of comparison for my 2014 reading list (which I’ll post shortly), and also because books and lists are inherently fun.

First, the list itself; scroll below for accompanying bits of reflection. Read More