Monday, November 11, 2013

What I Do and Why I Do It

I publish a weekly listing of Energy (and Other) Events at the colleges, universities, and in the community around Cambridge, MA ( and have been doing it consistently since the end of January, 2010 (  This is the second iteration of the idea as I published a similar listings service plus reviews and articles from February, 1995 to February, 1998, "A List of Environmental and Telecommunications Events and Issues" or "AList…." for short ( [The issues from April 1997 to February 1998 are available at but you have to click on the weekly issue heading first before you can read any of the articles.]

My original idea was to have a searchable calendar of all the public lecture information at all the colleges and universities around the Boston area, something like 54 of them, so that anyone could take the opportunity to gather in all the free learning they want.  Imagine the resource for anyone from high school kids to retired people.  I'd been availing myself of the privilege for a number of years already, meeting in small seminar rooms with distinguished experts and famous names that normally you'd only see on TV.  And I even got to ask them questions.  What a gift!  As an experienced autodidact, I took notes at the events I went to, when something of actual note occurred, and thought that the next step would be to invite others to contribute their notes from the events they went to that I couldn't attend so that all that wealth of information could be captured, a community commonplace book.

With "AList…", I began to explore the listings systems of the local colleges and universities and quickly found that, back in the 1990s, few colleges had centralized listings and even those that did, like Harvard and MIT, didn't collect all the public events occurring.  Some lectures and presentations stopped at the department level.  My grand idea was not ready for primetime then but I continued to scan the listings that I could find, published my listings on a weekly basis, and wrote up my notes with book reviews and links to interesting articles I found.  Soon I had a growing audience.  Every week I offered an invitation to participate, "'A List...' is a freeware/shareware publication. If the information is of any value to you, please contribute - money, information, encouragement, prayers and good wishes are all valid currencies for feedback and will be gratefully appreciated…" and ended each edition with a section called "The Begging Bowl" where I asked for contributions and wrote, sometimes, about a different kind of economics.  I thought I'd get notices of events, letters to the editor, pointers to interesting books or reviews of same but what I actually got was money.  The first year I got enough to cover my Internet provider costs and it doubled each year.  By the time I burned out on publishing about 25 pages every week, I had a readership of over 1000 and some serious pin money.  If I had continued "AList…", and the growth rate had remained consistent, within five years I would have been making a decent living.  But I burned out.  It got to be too much.

When I came back to the idea, I separated the writing from the listings.  Energy (and Other) Events is simply a listings service.  I spend a few hours each week scanning a series of sites, my sources are included at the bottom of each issue, and arranging them in my preferred format.  I publish on Sunday so, stupid me, work a few hours every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday when others are doing non-work things.  The website, Hubevents, has a link list that includes every central events listing at every local college or university that I could find, although I haven't updated it in a while.  The original idea of a searchable calendar for all the public events at all the local educational institutions is still alive and I've tried to interest Boston's Office of New Urban Mechanics, the Governor's innovation office, and Code for Boston in instituting it.  None of them have picked up on that idea yet.  I've also tried to talk to people at the Boston Globe and have had conversations with the Weekly Dig, a local "underground" paper, and the Boston Institute for NonProfit Journalism [BINJ] but, again, no pick up to date.

Fred Hapgood, author of a fine book on MIT, _Down the Infinite Corridor_, also does a listings service which focuses on "Selected Lectures on Science and Engineering
in the Boston Area" (  His focus is tighter than mine but he drills down deeper with a list of sources that includes 419 entries and goes directly to different departments and programs in the various educational institutions.  Fred looks at my ambitions for a centralized and searchable system with a skeptical eye.

My greater vision, dare I say it, is that, if the concept can be proved in Boston, it can be replicated anywhere there is more than one educational institution offering public lectures and events.  As R Buckminster Fuller wrote, "Quite clearly, our task is predominantly metaphysical, for it is how to get all of humanity to educate itself swiftly enough to generate spontaneous behaviors that will avoid extinction."  A system of actually letting the public know about public events at educational institutions might be useful in generating those "spontaneous behaviors that will avoid extinction."  At least, that's my hope.

Energy (and Other) Events reaches a little over a thousand people again now.  I see my readers at many of the events I go to and get a lot of thanks.  This time I don't ask for contributions and run this enterprise as an experiment in reputational economics and community networking.  I also see it as a way of leveraging political power.  Since almost everybody of note comes through Boston to speak at one of our colleges or universities, a group of people who were interested in asking hard questions to powerful people could actually exert a little influence.  I've been able to ask George Schultz, the Reagan cabinet secretary, about the ramifications of his administration's energy polices (I told him, "Reagan killed us");  Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency, what the response of the energy industry was to their 2012 Energy Outlook report that concluded about 80% of the known reserves of fossil fuel should stay in the ground ("Disappointing," he said);  and, a few weeks earlier, Carl-Henric Svanberg, Chairman of both BP and AB Volvo, about how much fossil fuel will have to be left in the ground in order to keep the atmosphere fit for our species (he responded by saying that there is no problem with fuel supply, a non-answer that left many in the audience with puzzled expressions and the distinct impression that he ducked the question).  Imagine that there were others present who had follow-up questions that wouldn't let these powerful people off the hook, that such a group could send the powerful home with the idea that "those people at Harvard/MIT/BU/BC… are really pushing back against fossil fuels and climate change."  I've been trying to convince 350MA, the climate activists, that such a tactic could be extremely useful but, again, have seen little success so far.  

As Pogo said, "We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunities" and the imagination to recognize them, the will to grab them is always in short supply.  Still, I will continue to do what I do because I enjoy what I'm doing.  I've pared my workload down to a point where burn out is nowhere near the horizon and remain hopeful that others will begin to see and act on the "insurmountable opportunities" so readily available soon.

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