Web Meets World: Participatory Culture and Sustainable Living

Tue, Nov 25, 2008

In a conversation with Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle (Federated Media Publishing) at Web 2.0 Summit 2008, Al Gore suggested that only the aggregate bandwidth of the internet could supply us with the kind of emotional intelligence we need to respond with appropriate urgency to the challenges of our times, for example, the CO2 targets necessary to avert catastrophe.

“People hear these things, and there are many other similar signals, and then the next day it’s gone. Now the neuroscientists have explanations for why that is ….. The urgency center of the brain is geared to snakes, spiders and fire and things that evolution posed as tests to our species…

But when we have to use our neo cortex to connect dots in an abstract pattern and then push that down to the urgency and fear center – that’s just a little footpath.

Its  like the internet, mostly, it’s an asynchronous connection.  There is a big connection going from the fear center to the reasoning process but just a very small pathway coming back.

It needs to be stored in the cloud. It is the aggregate bandwidth than counts. We need to have the truth – the inconvenient truth, forgive me, of this challenge stored in the cloud so that people don’t have to rely on that process and so that we can respond to it collectively.”

Tim O’Reilly responded: “Who knew you were the guru of Web 2.0 as well as global warming. You have totally outlined our premise here.”

(Photograph opening this post of the Former Vice President Al Gore on stage with Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle at  Web 2.0 Summit 2008, co-presented by O’Reilly Media and TechWeb. Produced by Good Company Communications. Photograph copyright James Duncan Davidson – see Duncan Davidson’s Flickr stream for a complete photo essay of the event.)

I was trying to find a word to express how powerfully  Al Gore addressed the Summit audience.  And I was discussing this with a legendary serial entrepreneur, Richard Titus, who is also a great admirer of Al Gore, at the closing party. Richard came up with the phrase I was seeking.  “He was totally naked,” Richard said.

Al Gore described himself as a recovering politician.  And yes, he seems totally recovered from the “woodeness” of politics and utterly at home with the “nakedness” of participatory culture.

Al Gore made clear that to change the world we have to change ourselves (he did).

Bertrand Russell is often attributed with the following quote:

The mark of a civilized human being is the ability to read a column of numbers and then weep.

Gore’s exhortation that the internet needs to be a puppy with a purpose resonated with his audience.  From climate change, global issues of health care, to rethinking global economies we desperately need to optimize our collective and individual intelligence.

Instrumenting the World: Life on the Cloud

Kevin Kelly’s  High Order Bit – a brilliant impressionist view of the internet’s next 6537 days describes what “Life on the cloud” will be like.

“If you are producing some information and it is not webized, i.e., it is online and not related and shared to everything else, it doesn’t count.”

This is already the case to some degree. And the challenge of understanding where our networked identities begin and end is with us. But Kevin Kelly points out, “life on the cloud” will heighten our dilemmas.

Nat Torkington’s presentation to the Privacy Forum in Auckland , New Zealand, “Web Meets World: Privacy and the Future of the Cloud” looks at our changing idea of identity through the lens of privacy – both “the nature of privacy” and “how expectations change over time.”  Nat cites William Gibson (interviewed by Rolling Stone on their 40th Anniversary):

“One of the things our grandchildren will find quaintest about us is that we distinguish the digital from the real, the virtual from the real.  In the future that will likely become impossible.”

The critical layer between this database of things and the ultra, mega cloud (see Kevin Kelly’s slide below) is the web of shared intelligence. This is where the transformation will emerge with its dangers and opportunities.

Brian Solis, in his excellent post, “Barack Obama, The Social Web, and the Future of User Generated Government,” proposes Zappos and their “public and transparent customer-focused culture” is a good model for how government can use the internet not only to push out its message but to create a whole new culture of participation.

Far fetched?  Watch Tony Hsieh’s High Order Bit for yourself. The idea that every interaction at Zappos has relevance to the value exchange between consumers and producers is a very interesting idea to apply to the relationship between government and citizens.

“Ecological Intelligence”

Instrumenting the World requires new models of data sharing. Last year, Cory Doctorow described to me an instrumentation model of data.

An Instrumentation model for data differs from a surveillance model of data sharing.  Instrumentation is “when you know a lot about the world,” in contrast to surveillance – “when people in authority know a lot about you”.

(Note: Mashable has an interesting post on the theme of a “instrumentation,” see:  Seventeen Killers Apps for Taking Control of Your Government:“Government is increasingly putting much of its public records online, creating opportunities for developers to build useful applications for citizens.”)

But corporate culture and governments around the world have embraced the surveillance model of data up to now.  I was fortunate to have the opportunity to ask Larry Brilliant,, a question about how the tables might get turned.  After his conversation with Tim O’Reilly,  I asked:

“What would motivate corporations and governments to participate in the kind of data sharing and transparency that could produce the changes that our world needs, particularly in the area of health and climate change? For example, why would corporations reveal the aspects of products we use and the food we eat that have negative effects on our health and our planet?” (This is more succinctly phrased than my original question!)

Larry Brilliant replied:

“I don’t know how many of you know Dan Goleman? He created emotional intelligence [quotient] – EQ. He is coming out with a book which I have just had the pleasure of reading in draft form which deals specifically with what you are talking about.

How we can have commercial intelligence. How we use the power of corporations and their various different stakeholders, including their customers to drive corporations to do the morally right thing by losing the commercial support of customers who won’t support them unless they are more green, fairer to women, respect gay and lesbian rights, do the things you would like them to do whatever that happens to be, so that you can vote with your dollars.

It is really a fascinating book:  “The Application of Ecological Intelligence to the Commercial World.”  I don’t know what the final title will wind up being but I recommend it to you.

Dan Goleman’s new book: “Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything,” will come out in April, 2009.

An Extraordinary Gathering At An Historic Time

Web 2.0 Summit was a brilliantly orchestrated gathering of many of the thought/business leaders and entrepreneurs who have shaped the internet as we know it today.

As my friend Jonathan Hochman, Wikipedia, said on Day 1:

“If everyone here [Web 2.0 Summit] shut down their website it would be the end of the internet!.” (See my upcoming interview with Jonathan on Wikipedia and Jon Brouchard on Wikitecture and what these projects can teach us about participatory culture).

But also in this elite crowd of “C” level execs were the next generation of entrepreneurs who are working on a hunch and prayer to create the future Web.

And this year, as the Web 2.0 Summit architects explained in their intro, the decision was made to extend the scope of the Summit even further:

“….our world is fraught with problems that engineers might charitably classify as NP hard—from roiling financial markets to global warming, failing healthcare systems to intractable religious wars. In short, it seems as if many of our most complex systems are reaching their limits.

It strikes us that the Web might teach us new ways to address these limits. From harnessing collective intelligence to a bias toward open systems, the Web’s greatest inventions are, at their core, social movements. To that end, we’re expanding our program this year to include leaders in the fields of healthcare, genetics, finance, global business, and yes, even politics.”

Truly an extraordinary gathering at an historic time – commencing the day after Barak Obama became President Elect, it seemed the causes and conditions for participatory culture and sustainable living were coming together at last!

Virtual Worlds and “The Web Beyond The Web:” Creating “A Supple Approach to Sharing Identity”

Virtual Worlds were not on the schedule.  But this is not surprising as their potential contributions to the very big problems at the heart of the Summit’s theme are only just beginning to emerge.

But new forms of  participatory culture were a recurrent theme of the Summit.  And Virtual Worlds at the high bandwidth tip of the pyramid of global connectedness and SMS at the bottom of the pyramid have a lot to teach us about participatory culture.

Crista Lopes recently co-founded with Christer Lindstrom a company, Encitra, that is focused on improving urban planning processes, starting with transportation, using virtual worlds. Christer Lindstrom has been a key evangelizer of PRT (personal rapid transit – see photo above).

Crista Lopes is Associate Professor at the University of California, Irvine, in the Department of Informatics (full interview coming soon).  Crista is using the dynamic shared viewpoint of virtual world technology to offer a way for the many stakeholders involved in a city scale transportation infrastructure change to participate in the process of planning. Crista is working with OpenSim – see the video of  “Encitra – Creating Immersive Worlds.”

There are a number of use cases for Virtual Worlds in sustainable living being developed. I have written several posts on Oliver Goh’s work,  “The Path to Sustainable Real Estate.” See my earlier posts here, and here, and IBM’s Virtual Network Operation Centers.“

Also see the recent announcement from Intel Research to create ScienceSim using OpenSim (more on this soon). Justin Rattner writes:

“Wilfred Pinfold (an Intel colleague and general chair of Supercomputing 2009) announced to the Supercomputing 2008 conference attendees plans to create a new virtual world called “ScienceSim.” Supported by Intel and the conference committee, this collaboration aims to use these immersive, connected environments to further cutting edge scientific research.”

George Jobi, Intel, writes in his post on ScienceSim: “Intel is one of the founding members of OpenSim and had been building its vision of open standards based 3D web architecture around OpenSim.”

The Achilles Heel of Web 2.0…….?

As Crista pointed out:

The  Achilles Heel of Web 2.0 is trying to build the concept of person in a platform that doesn’t have people, at the center of the architecture. With Web 2.0 we go through a lot of hoops trying to integrate basics concepts of identity and storage onto a platform that wasn’t designed for it.”

Most of us have bits of our identity scattered all over the web, e.g., partial friends list here, there and everywhere. Some of us have literally hundreds of different log ins and profiles. Our list of applications with pieces of our identity locked up in them might look something like the slide below from the High Order Bit of Beerud Sheth, Webaroo Inc.

In contrast, Crista noted:

“The key component that a Virtual World offers you is that you can take your identity from place to place and the presence of people is at the center of the whole thing.”

Crista has already submitted code that introduces hyperlinks to OpenSim (see here). Crista is computer scientist of many accomplishments including being the co-inventor of Aspect-Oriented Programming.

There is a long conversation in the comments on my interview with Tim O’Reilly about whether the concept of avatar is the Achilles Heel of Virtual Worlds. So I asked Crista:

“Are avatars the Achilles Heel of Virtual Worlds?”

Crista explained why she thinks this is not the case in the modular open source architecture of OpenSim at least.

“The concept of people is not tied to the concept of avatar in OpenSim: One of the important parts of the OpenSim architecture is that the concept of user is very different from the concept of avatar.”

In OpenSim, Crista noted:

User = identity +storage

When I asked David Levine, IBM, what Web 2.0 could learn from virtual worlds re sharing identity, David, who works on interoperability and protocols in the Architecture Working Group, said:

Immersive spaces, are the real time, multi-user online component of Web 2.0, and identity is deeply part of that……..virtual Worlds teach us, as they expose more resources to Web 2.0, that there needs to be increasingly “supple” ways of sharing identity that go beyond simply anchoring it on gmail or openID, or such.

Social media has been one of Web 2.0′s success stories – giving the impression that Web 2.0 has people at the core of its architecture. But, as Crista pointed out, this is not the case.

There is no way in Web 2.0 to do identity at the level of platform, at the moment. As soon as you want to create identity on the Web there is a big mess.”

Participatory Culture at the Bottom of the Pyramid: “The Web Beyond The Web”

The “Web Beyond the Web,” Beerud Sheth, Webaroo Inc quipped, is not his announcement of Web 3.0. Rather, Beerud is describing the parallel innovation at the bottom of the pyramid where lower prices on mobile devices rather than new features drives adoption and voice and SMS (short messaging service) rule.

SMS is the web of the people for most of the world.  The current ratio is 10:1 with 10 people using text messaging to every 1 that has web access and the SMS population is growing at a much higher rate than web users. The  innovation at the top of the pyramid, where a plethora of Web 2.0 apps are built on top of  http, looks like the unreadable slide above with a forest of applications.

In contrast innovation at the bottom of the pyramid, until recently, has been limited to ringtones, wall papers, and voice response mechanisms.  So Beerud introduced a new service GupShup.

Gup Shup = Chit Chat

“Think of GupShup as another cool word from the language that gave you yoga, nirvana and karma sutra,” Beerud said.

GupShup is a “Twitter for India” but on a vastly bigger scale (only 18 months from launch they are up to 12 million users).

But, Beerud points out, don’t just file away GupShup as another twitter clone.  While they have Web and WAP site, they are deeply intergated into SMS as the lowest common denominator. GupShup can be used entirely from mobile which is vital as they have more users already than the total number of web users in India.

This idea of fully integrating into the lowest common denominator medium, SMS, has allowed GupShup to grow extremely rapidly. And, interestingly, when you look at the use cases you see the end users are deploying many of the uses cases that are familiar from the web,

Beerud left the audience with the take away that all the use cases are surprisingly similar to the web as are the ways of monetizing them,  This is creating enormous opportunity for creativity and entrepreneurship in building out this web beyond the web.

He invited those who already know the possibilities of the web to come and join this new adventure.  The enormous scale of the “web beyond the web,” and the fact people are connected almost continuously, creates vast opportunities for participatory culture to expand beyond the small triangle at the top of the pyramid.

On the “web beyond the web” the potential of 160 characters is explored on a scale unimaginable on Web 2.0 where Twitter, for example, is just one app in a vast ocean of other possibilities.

Crossing the Chasm Between The Top and the Bottom of the Pyramid

This total separation between the top and the bottom of the pyramid is, in part at least, constructed through the current web culture of web exclusive subscriptions.

It is perfectly possible to write an app that would accept SMS text and post it on a web page without ever requiring a web visit from the SMS subscriber. The same app could also accept text input from a web page and send it out as SMS to one or many subscribers that have never visited a web page, thus enabling communication across this gap.

Oxygenating the System: Monetizing Doing the Right Thing

The VCs, business leaders and  entrepreneurs at Web 2.0 Summit had their entrepreneurial Spidy Senses (as John Battelle calls them) tuned to the challenges and opportunities of Web Meets World.  Some of the winners of the Web 2.0 Launch Pad Competition explored the premise that doing the right thing can be monetized.

Danny Kennedy’ Sungevity was the overall winner.  Sungevity’s aim is to “scale solar electricity as a solution to climate change.”  Their use of a Virtual Earth feed to streamline the installation of solar panels and ambition to be the for the solar industry was a very winning combo.

Good Guide, a really excellent service (also available as an iphone app) providing a guide to all products from the perspective of their healthfullness, greeness and other socially valuable criteria clearly scored a 10 on doing the right thing.  But Good Guide’s ability to succeed on the monetizing side of the equation was questioned by one of the VC’s on the Launch Pad panel.

Carbon Networks pitched with the mantra “do the right thing and enhance the balance sheets in the process.” But the difficulty there, it seems to me, is that there are many questions re the benefits, or lack of them, of global carbon trading markets.

Carbon Networks argued that carbon markets, which are already a giant industry, present enormous opportunity for companies to monetize doing the right thing.

I asked Gavin Starks (who I interviewed recently about his venture AMEE – a BIG project to aggregate the world’s energy data) about the problems of carbon markets.

“They have high levels of inappropriate use even for a new market area,” he commented, noting:

“There are some superb projects out there, but it would be fair to say there has been good dose of snake oil in the space – which has certainly not helped to build consumer confidence. However, markets are necessary to engage with the scale of investment that is needed to address the issue – it’s the use of funds that needs more scrutiny and greater transparency needs to be given to the whole process.”

There are projects working with Voluntary Emissions Reduction which aren’t tradable on proper carbon cap-and-trade markets, “though in theory the step up to CERs (certified emissions reductions) isn’t too great a thing,” Gavin noted.

MicroEnergy Credits the  initiative presented on the Track Me panel by April Allderdice, co-founder and CEO, is a good example of this.

Gavin pointed me to CheatNeutral and their YouTube video for a hilarious and razor sharp look at the problems of carbon offsetting. The text below is from the CheatNeutral site.

Gavin also explained a new initiative Sandbag (beta). Sandbag aims to take the permits that allow polluters to pollute out of the system.

“Thanks to policy makers in the UN and Europe levels of pollution are now controlled. Permits must be bought by polluters to let them keep polluting. But there is a finite number of them in circulation and the good news is anyone can buy them. So by taking a permit out of the system we can reduce the amount of pollution taking place and force industry to invest in cleaner technologies. One less permit means one less tonne of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.”

AMEE is working with  Sandbag

Consuming Less and Redefining Prosperity

This picture is from the Sustainable Mobility Panel at the ASPO-USA Peak Oil Conference.

Perhaps nowhere is it more clear than when we look at the reports that link catastrophic climate change to the assumption of growth that what is really at stake in terms of averting catastrophe is not just retooling our energy infrastructure, but fundamental changes at the level of culture and identity.

Consuming less may be the single biggest thing you can do to save Carbon Emissions, Tim O’Reilly said, in his Tweet on “Why politicians dare not limit economic growth.”

A growing band of experts are looking at figures like these and arguing that personal carbon virtue and collective environmentalism are futile as long as our economic system is built on the assumption of growth. (New Scientist)

But few of us are willing to contemplate what a sustainable economy and averting the catastrophe of climate change require – redefining prosperity and reducing consumption (see Redefining Prosperity).

Web 2.0 Summit took on the challenge of reimagining giant industries like energy, food and transportation and how we might  be able to shift away from a culture of food and energy consumption that is basically killing us and our world (see Michael Pollan’s brilliant High Order Bit on the culture of food in the US).

The Summit gurus urged that taking risks and tackling very big problems has always been what Web 2.0 is about and indeed cultural shifts of the magnitude needed would be hard to imagine without a Web 2.0 perspective

Shai Agassi, Better Place, explained how paradigm shifts require new business models. See Shai’s High Order Bit here on the evolution of “Better Place,” -  by giving away free electric cars he is creating a new business venture that will bring clean cars into the mass market.  New business models not just new technology are required to drive change.

Breaking News From Reuben Steiger’s blog

First Israel.  Then Denmark.  A few weeks ago, Australia.  Today,  Mayor Newsom along with Governor Schwartznegger and the Mayors of San Jose and Oakland, announced that they would be making a major move towards bringing electric vehicles and the Better Place network to the Bay Area.

Please, visit Planet Better Place to sign the petition,  join the movement and bring Better Place to your town or country.

To motivate yourself and others how important it is to change patterns of consumption see Saul Griffith’s High Order Bit here and Project Wattzon

“…..from flying, driving, powering a home, eating, shopping, working and even one’s share of the energy necessary to make our society function. WattzOn helps users understand their personal impact on the environment and how they rate compared to others WattzOn users, as well as global averages.”

“The Secret Sauce”: New Business Models for Web Meets World

I spent some time talking to Don Dodge, Director of Business Development, Microsoft’s Emerging Business Division, about the future of  virtual worlds and what technologies he thought would play an important role in developing the participatory architecture of the web (full interview coming soon!).

“The question is how do you apply these technologies? Where is the best use for them? And this is the hard part.  When you look at social media and social networks and things like Wikipedia, don’t look so much at the technology because that is fairly simple.

Look at the rules of social interaction and how people interact, and how you put protections in there so that people don’t game the system or do bad things.  Look at the processes because that’s really the secret sauce of how it all works.  The technology is simple. It looks easy from a distance, when you start getting into how it really works from a social perspective that’s the secret sauce.”

(screenshot above from Threadless )

Also I caught up with John Battelle, Federated Media Publishing (see his Data Bill of Rights here), and Jennifer Pahlka, TechWeb, at a small press conference. I managed to squeeze in a couple of questions!

Tish Shute: If marketing has been the oxygen of the system up to now, what will oxygenate the system of the new participatory culture of Web meets World”

John Battelle: I don’t think marketing ever stops being one of the most significant pieces of the economy -  because it is, of the whole economy. So what I do think will happen, and this is the company that I run, I do think marketing will shift very dramatically in terms of its approach and how it is a part of the value exchange that occurs around goods.

One of the reasons that I had Tony Tsieh from Zappos was to show that.   Tony shows how every single human being in his organization is a marketer and sees every interaction they have as marketing.  Can you imagine  a company as big as Intel that has that kind of an approach?  That’s when we will have a real shift. Business models based on that idea are emerging.  I run a company that is involved in that. I don’t try to push it on the stage ..but I do it is right there Federated Media!  And now I am pushing it [laughs]

Its an idea that comes from all this staring at this. I do think marketing is going to shift quite dramatically. So we may see in 10 yrs that we don’t have a big media budget  pushing adds at people. But will there always be budgets for creation of value exchange between consumers and producers? yes! There will just be new models for how that money is distributed and spent and new services and intermediaries for that value exchange.

Tish Shute: But who controls definition of data will remain key right?

John Battelle: There is a reason why Yahoo, AOL, Facebook, MySpace, all of whom are here, and Google, are all about the data….all about the data….sorry I have to go!

Jennifer Pahlka: I think in addition to the enormous changes that John was just talking about in marketing, and I think these are very significant – the way marketing will be seen completely differently 5 years from now.  There is also the shift in Web 2 away from an over identification with  Web 2.0 as being primarily about and driven by advertising  because of these models that are emerging for Web 2 that are driven by data, driven by services, subscription.  There are a whole bunch of other business models for Web 2 start ups and for enterprise that really don’t have anything to do with that at all.

Tish Shute: And in terms of participatory culture and sharing data?

Jennifer Pahlka: And even on a simpler level than the data.  Think of a company like Threadless [see screenshot above]. Their co-founders are keynoting at our Spring event.  They have taken some of the other principles of the architecture of participation and the creativity of the community and built a whole difference around that.  And all they do is sell T-Shirts.

“A Billion One-Person Enterprises”

New York Times writer, Saul Hansell, in his article, “Web 2.0 Gets Big and Corporate,” writes, “the best minds of our generation are turning to the Web for solutions.”  …..the big companies that make very complicated systems are reworking them using the principles of Web 2.0 companies.”

But “big companies” themselves may soon be a thing of the past.  One of the potential futures many my friends in virtual worlds have been looking at is, “if the future consisted of a billion one-person enterprises.”

Tony O’Driscoll described some of his thinking re the role virtual worlds will play in this potential future.  See Tony’s presentation, “A brief history of a potential future” on SlideShare. Tony’s research provides a window onto the new participatory architecture of business, government and the economy and the ways the individual and the collective will have new dynamic relationships based on “co-creation.”

Second Life and Wikipedia are the two great experiments in collaborative co-creation. They show us how co-creation can be one of the keys to a participatory global culture and sustainable living – part of creating an alternative to this economy of escalating consumption that has us in its death grip today.

categories: 3D internet, Architectural Working Group, Augmented Reality, avatar 2.0, crossing digital divides, digital public space, interoperability of virtual worlds, Metaverse, mirror worlds, Mixed Reality, Mobile Phones in Africa, Mobile Technology, online privacy, open source, OpenSim, privacy and online identity, science outreach in virtual worlds, scientific simulation in virtual worlds, Second Life, social media, Web 2.0, Web 3D, Web3.D, World 2.0
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6 Comments For This Post

  1. EOLUS Says:

    Woooow. Another Master piece. Great stuff.

  2. Julie Fogg Says:

    I’m going to tackle my impression of “Web Meets World” in pieces. The section I read this morning is about being “naked” (Al Gore) and how “The idea that every interaction at Zappos has relevance to the value exchange between consumers and producers is a very interesting idea to apply to the relationship between government and citizens.”

    This is a heavy concept and a challenging one as well. I would like to see Nortel ( adopt this model and have tweeted my feelings openly. Not only that, I have decided to incorporate this model into my own company, Active Port. I feel that it isn’t fair of me to expect this kind of transparency if I can’t walk the walk myself.

    Behavior is driven by belief and company behavior is driven by the beliefs of the people at the top. It isn’t easy for one person to create change in their lives let alone entire organizations (government, education, etc.). So this model is extremely challenging but possible for the executives that believe they are change agents.

    “Web Meets World” is a fantastic read so far and very relevant to my current personal and professional goals. Thank you for sharing.

  3. John Battelle Says:

    Thanks so much for this wonderful write up, very much appreciated!

  4. Roland Legrand Says:

    Very inspiring post, thank you! I really need to read in in pieces in order to explore all the links and insights you provide. It helps me finding out where the big picture might be for the daily web2.0 and virtual worlds stuff I am involved in.

  5. R. Titus Says:

    Thanks! I’m not sure how legendary I am, but I completely agree with your web 2.0 assessment and Al Gore’s speech really touched me..


  6. The Fink Says:

    Gore is wrong (again).
    He means “asymmetric(al)” and not “asynchronous”.

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  1. UgoTrade » Blog Archive » Hacking the World in 2009: Google Street View, “Smart Stuff,” and Wikiculture. Says:

    [...] 3) Encitra, a company recently co-founded by Crista Lopes and Christer Lindstrom focused on improving urban planning processes, starting with transportation, using virtual worlds (see my previous post here for more). [...]