“A Future By Design...
wall graphic by Alica Bramlett

...Not Default”
time lags and implementation cycles

Link: part 1 • Link: part 3 • link: part 4 • Link: part 5
In part One, I stated my thesis that humanity is playing dice with its future by ignoring the rate of change and complexity as measured against our capacity to respond in an integrated, collaborative way respecting all life on this planet in its full diversity. I proposed a new game: the rebuilding of our planet and civilization as a practical work of art as the consequence of a global collaborative design effort. This new Human Enterprise being the next big step for humanity as it matures and starts to migrate from this planet - which represents a single-point-of-failure strategy [link: bootstrap into space] - into the broader opportunities presented by the solar system and beyond [link: migratory manifesto for a space civilization].
In this part, I will present - in outline - the evidence for my design assumptions that the rate of change and complexity - no matter “good or bad” change - can overwhelm us unless we pay attention and understand the time lags involved. If it takes ten years to build a capacity, it is 2015 for this effort, now. What will be the conditions in 2015? Ten years, today, is like a 100 years when I was born. In this temporal environment, anticipatory design, as Fuller called it, is necessary for survival let along for achieving great art and good times.
The evidence of this massive change is all around us. That it is and the majority ignore it is a tribute to our human ability to adapt and also is a monument to our arrogance. The attitude is that we have adapted so far - so we will in the future. This assumption ignores the possibility that we may be capable of creating a complexity that we are, incapable of responding to appropriately. We have finally met an opponent worthy of us - ourselves.
My argument for the coming change and complexity is simply made. I offer four books from the ReBuilding the Future reading list of 500 along with references to a few other books and a modest number of web site links. Of course you will have to read these books and pursue their bibliography, the links I have provided and some of the links which they offer. If you follow Adler’s How To Read a Book method, and you have a reasonably good Internet connection, you can easily do this in a three day weekend. I suggest you review the material synoptically, that is all at once, together, and in active dialog with the authors. Do not fall into the trap of arguing with the authors. It does not matter if you agree with them or not. It does not matter if some part of their research or thesis turns out not to be true. The essential question you have to answer is if the kinds of issues they address are credible - i.e. can happen in some way in a generation - and then, if you are prepared for these events. In other words answer the three questions from my 1975 Redesigning the Future course: “How long do you expect to live; how much change do you expect to see in that time period; what are you going to to do about it?” You then can then address my assertion that our society is not requisite with this change because of the failures of our basic governance methods; and, then see if you agree with my thesis - or not. I will be happy either way. It am not trying to convince you to my thesis. I am hoping to attract you to the exercise of exploring it. The answers are your affair. If I can build the case to attract you, I will have done my job.
The entire purpose of this Paper is to present reasonable cause that for you to spend a weekend this way, before too many years pass, is prudent and wise - it also might be entertaining, stimulating and encouraging. If you are under 65, and/or love your children and have respect for the history and potential of humanity, this exercise - or its equivalent - is a mandate.
Jared Diamond in Collapse lists a set of actions common to every society he profiles that did collapse. He shows that other societies, with the same conditions, did not because they acted differentially. This is why the sub-title for his book is “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” Those that “chose” failure did so by remaining locked in their paradigm, refusing to see a clear danger, and by conducting a very poor social decision process.
Reading this book can give you an erie sense of De Je Vu in reverse. It is like reading about our own time - the same conditions, that eradicated many societies, exist in ours and so do the negative habits which facilitated their fall - yet, our future is not written if we choose to focus our attention and act differently and comprehensively. The outcome of our present default path, however, is fairly predictable except for the intimate, and if history is any president, bloody details. And, there will be some price to pay no matter how fast we change now. Some credible scientists are beginning to believe that we have already gone over the edge with global warming [link: lovelock - global warming interview] and this is but one example of the challenges we face [link: gore_drivers]. We have burned more than fossil fuel over the last half century, we have burned our margin of time.
We possess two things that the societies in Diamond’s book did not. We have an immense creative capacity and ability to implement vast projects in brief periods of time - greater than any known civilization in history. And, we have wired our global village together in a way that is, as a system, extremely fragile - this is one aspect our capacity yet it also makes us vulnerable to pandemics, terrorism, rapid weather shifts, a stray asteroid, and economic dislocations - to name a few obvious possibilities. A combination of a number of these in a brief period, at significant scale, can prove to be devastating. There are multiple scenarios, easy to imagine and write, that will lead to the loss of millions, if not billions, of lives. Of course, I have to admit, that if the elites who run corporations, universities, governments and foundations choose to care about this - really care in the sense that different actions will be taken in anticipation of the circumstances that can trigger these kinds of results - it will be the first time in the written history of the world. History is strewn with the bodies of people whose only sin was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time not possessing enough power or importance to be considered worthy of saving. We call ourselves Homo sapiens - the wise. Perhaps this is a vision that we are yet to live up too. Perhaps we will.
Diamond identifies a specific list of challenges that failed societies faced and did not appropriately respond to. These are a five point framework – four of the sets of factors – environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors and friendly trade partners may or may not prove significant for a particular society – the societies response to environment problems always proves significant. He also address why they failed to meet these challenges: “What I'm going to suggest is a road map of factors in failures of group decision making. I'll divide the answers into a sequence of four somewhat fuzzily delineated categories. First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives. Secondly, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive the problem. Then, after they perceive the problem, they may fail even to try to solve the problem. Finally, they may try to solve it but may fail in their attempts to do so. While all this talking about reasons for failure and collapses of society may seem pessimistic, the flip side is optimistic: namely, successful decision-making. Perhaps if we understand the reasons why groups make bad decisions, we can use that knowledge as a check list to help groups make good decisions [link: why do some societies make disastrous decisions?].” If there is any one book which makes the case for the basic “argument” of MG Taylor - that society needs a new way of working - it is this book.
A question worth asking when reading Collapse is if, now with a more integrated global economy, if a world can experience what before only isolated peoples did - if so, what might be the consequence?
In The Singularity is Near Kurtzweil outlines a positive view of the future with a powerful argument supported by existing trends. The subtitle states the central thesis: When Humans Transcend Biology as the consequence of robotics, nanotechnology and genetics in concert with the continuing increase in computing power - a new species will be born. The distinction between biology and machinery will cease to exist.
Kurzweil is a radical thinker in the way that Frank Lloyd Wright used the word: meaning going to the root. He is an entrepreneur, inventor and technologist. His projections cannot be dismissed out of hand. Yet, he is at times. I was facilitating a group of very substantial and intelligent people, in early january 2006, and one member of the group - having read Kurzweil - mentioned his assumption that we are approaching the time when living forever will be possible. There was immediate, uncomfortable and subdued laughter - end of subject. I have facilitated Kurzweil and others of his distinction in a session devoted to these kinds of possible futures [link: foresight group genius weekend - 1999] and I can say without qualification that these are credible dialogs and that the average person - nor many who are considered to be top business and government leadership - have any idea - as a comprehensive synthesis - what serious scientists and technologists are expecting, designing and planning to do. One is reminded of Arthur C, Clarke’s three laws:
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Source: the essay Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination, in his book Profiles of the Future (1962); This statement is often referred to as "Clarke's First Law"

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Source: the essay Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination, in his book Profiles of the Future (1962); This statement is often referred to as "Clarke's Second Law"

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Source: Profiles of the Future (revised edition 1973); The statement is often referred to as "Clarke's Third Law"

from wikiquote

Clarke has a better record than most when it comes to the “dangerous task” of forecasting the future. His book Profiles of the Future is still worth reading today. [link: clarke - profiles of the future - an inquiry into the limits of the possible - 1962]. “The SINGULARITY [link: what is singularity] is near” is a provocative statement from a respected, successful and honored scientist and entrepreneur. What does this mean to you and Humankind? Here is what Vernor Vinge has to say [link: what is singularity - 1993]: “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” This statement is clear enough, the time is almost half gone since he made these remarks at the VISION-21 Symposium sponsored by NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute.
Bill Joy is deeply concerned about the implications raised by Kurzweil and others [link: bill joy - why the future does not need us].What is interesting is that Joy does not fundamentally dispute Kurzweil’s technological assumptions. His concern is that Kurzweil is right about the technology but wrong in his conclusions about the outcome for humanity. Their’s is a lively and mutually respectful debate - the kind that we should be having a great deal more of if we are to truly participate in the making of our future. The fact that this debate, while it has stirred considerable controversy in technology circles and has hit the main stream press on occasion, is buried by mundane media coverage is a strong indication of just how dangerously distracted our society is. What Kurzweil, Joy and others are discussing should be the center agenda of all international forums.
If credible, successful people in the appropriate fields say that disease can be practically eliminated, longevity achieved, cheap sources of abundant energy created, materials manufactured to exact specifications, computers built for a thousand dollars with the mental equivalent of the human mind, intelligent robots provided to do work - all in your lifetime - do you think it would be worth looking into? If the same people told you that these technologies can be used to create mass customized weapons [link: the knowledge] that make the atomic bomb and everything else we have in our collective arsenals look like a toy, that they could give birth to a life form that does not hold humans in too high a regard, do you think it would be critical to look into these possibilities? In a world of our present political instabilities, culture wars, Enron scandals and governance processes, do you think that our present moral-ethical-societal systems are up to the task of providing enlightened implementation of these technologies while grappling with the left over consequences of prior mistakes? Considering this, is it possible that our current social priorities are perhaps a little bit off the mark? Do you find that the fact that these subjects are far from mainstream dialog a little disturbing? It is possible, because people are not on the whole stupid, mean or bent on doing harm, that there is something systemic in the way we think about the future and organize our work and society that we should seriously challenge? In that it has taken 10,000 years to get to the society we have - and this has been no mean achievement - and less than 300 years to make the technology base that is now exploding in abundant directions, is it reasonable to assert that we have a huge and critical gap to overcome and a very short time to do it? It may be useful to read Jane Jacob’s Systems of Survival to review the distinction between “system keepers” and “system players” which is one we have lost and a contributing factor of how the immense power of our political/economic system can go badly astray leading to unintended consequences.
And speaking of left over consequences of prior mistakes, lets now consider the impact that humanity is having on Planet Earth and how these will play out over decades, and in some cases, centuries.
Global Warming: to paraphrase Pogo, we have met the weather makers and they are us. Flannery’s review of the history, science and possible consequences of global warming is an excellent work that should put to rest any remaining questions if human society is having an impact on Earth’s weather. He goes back and tells the story from the beginning and describes the technical aspects in a way that makes the science accessible.
Global Warming, remember, is but one ecological issue which we face. What is interesting about it is how long we ignored it and how much faster than we thought that triggering mechanisms are altering the rate that weather patterns are changing and how long these patterns will persist [link: time global warming]. This is certainly out of the usual time scale of the human enterprise which has been largely shaped over the very short period of the last 10,000 years with most of what we have today created in the last 300. Our prior experience has not prepared us for the future we have created by default. Potentially, we had the imagination necessary to consider this issue more carefully but we failed to exercise it. One wonders what other topics we are failing to consider. In a world of slow change, prior experience and facts dominate. In a world of very fast and complex change these have to be augmented with imagination, systematic modeling, rapid prototyping and enterprises which exhibit a bold entrepreneurial spirit. Some of our high tech industries reflect these characteristics as does our military which many believe is goodness and many not. The majority of human actions and the organizations we employ to achieve them do not exhibit these characteristics. Buying an iPod does not automatically make you modern or on the cutting edge. Nor does reading an op-ed on nanotechnology. Enlightenment begins with the design process and grows with the implementation of these technologies not with their abstract study.
Tim Flannery respects Lovelock a great deal but disagrees with his assessment [link: flannery sets deadline to save the world] that we have already gone over the line of no return with global warming. He believes that Lovelock’s “pessimism” is based on the poor political and economic records of the U.S., China and Australia. Flannery believes we can arrest global warming in time (and I expect that Kurzweil would agree with him) if we develop and use the tools well that he is pointing us to. Note, however, the “spread” in this friendly debate. A couple of decades. This is where we get to my concerns. If the decision patterns prevalent in business, government and society at large - the so called consumers who drive the system - remain as they are as Diamond points out was the case with the societies profiled in his book, then Lovelock will be proven right. I believe that Lovelock, Flannery, Kurtzweil, Joy and Diamond are all highly concurrent in their thinking. I claim that their differences do not matter. Read them together and you scope out a problem to be solved. This problem can be solved by eloquent design and expedient action. The systems that have to to be recreated are large, complex and embedded in the very self image of our societies - a point that Diamond makes. If we are out of time and have to start building Arks to save what we can; if we have a decade or two to redirect and entire global economy; or, if we have five decades it does not fundamentally make a difference. The challenge is great at either end of the time spectrum as are the potential gains to be had. We have to change, on a fundamental level, our way of thinking, working and living. As Lester Brown [link: plan b 2.0] points out, this does not have to be a step backward. It can be a better life by any measure of better. Kurtzweil says the technological tools are going to be available. Joy says that we better use them wisely. I am saying that the necessary changes will not come about in a decade or ten - tools or no tools - if we do not fundamentally change the way we engage in the exercise of how we plan and build and use our civilization.
Joel Garreau has recently written a book on human augmentation. It is the best survey of what is happing in this arena that can be found between two covers of a single book. I have been tracking the subjects of this book since the mid 70s. Everything he writes about was to be found in print someone even then. The major difference is, then, most of this material was highly speculative. Now, most of it is expected to come about.
Joel Garreau’s 1981 book The Nine Nations of North America [link: garreau - nine nations of north america] was long used by us in DesignShop® exercises to provide people a different way of looking at the social political economy of the United States. With Radical Evolution he systematically reviews what technologies are in the labs today and what might be their social applications as they mature. He provides three scenarios, roughly positive, negative and mixed as frameworks within which to think about the possible consequences of these new capabilities.
As you read this book, ask yourself the following Questions: how much of this material are you familiar with? How often were you surprised? How will you decide if you or your children or you society should use these enchantments? What happens if these technologies are used for evil reasons? How does a society decide their use while preserving our freedoms and market economy? What are the consequences of over reaction or attempts at repression? How will the products from these technologies be developed in the market economy and political systems we now have? If Joel Garreau, a private citizen can find this material and print it, what is not in this book for proprietary or military reasons? When you see what is discussed in regards DARPA activities, it does stimulate the imagination to speculate about what is not. Is this stuff real? Will it come about - and when? How will it effect your life - and your children’s - concretely? How do you decide this? If you apply the concept of marginal utility to the time of your life - or you businesses life - you realize that a great part of your life-time is absorbed by overhead: all the time and effort necessary to exist and marshal the resources necessary to act. Profit, and its expression in time called leisure, is the true margin that can be extracted from an enterprise without damaging its ability to continue to exist. Of the 5,000 plus to 11,000 plus days I talked about before these technologies emerge, what is your true leisure factor? How much time do you have for study, learning, thinking and designing your life? How many days - really - do you have? How about your friends? The company you own or work for? The social system of which you are apart? A world seemingly fascinated by war, genocide and other geopolitical games? If you do make the time to think these things through, will you then have the time to act? Lets say that Singularity comes in 30 years. Lets say you have a true 20% leisure factor (time plus resources to employ this time productively). By the way, few people will claim they have 4.8 hours of totally discretionary time a day. Given these assumptions, conservative in regards change and generous in regards leisure, you have 2,190 days to be ready. For starters, I have 500 books for you to read that basically maps over the base knowledge required and outlines future possibilities that already have been imagined. There are many that clearly have not been thought of let alone thought through. And, remember these changes will not come in one big bang 30 years from now - it will be this and that every day, a growing storm of small changes punctuated by massive ones as tipping points are reached. Some of these might even effect your leisure unless you are extraordinarily well insulated, physically and financially - those 2,190 days may turn out to be substantially less. They may turn out to be a blink of an eye in our social process. Even given our amazing ability to act when we decide to, it still takes considerable time and effort to rebuild the processes of a global social economy and the infrastructure which supports it. Perhaps, just perhaps, the phenomena itself will prove to be the solution to the problem it is creating [link: the brain’s business plan].
As a society we are in denial. We have already largely ignored these issue for 30 years. Many think it will just work out as it has in the past. Many do not believe that any of these things will come about. Many believe they will be OK because of their present wealth, power and position. Many, that to think about these things - or acting on these potentials - is playing God.

There are still numerous naysayers, who assert that it is wrong to "play God". Since this objection is seriously proposed by apparently intelligent people, it requires the formality of an explicit answer. At first, let us think primarily of improvement of future generations, although not excluding the question of remodeling living adults. The first and most obvious comment is that a hands-off policy does not avoid responsibility. Passivity is just one alternative among many, and it also has its consequences. To choose to do nothing is still a choice, with its advantages, disadvantages and probable consequences. Unless these have actually been weighed, estimated and compared with alternatives, those who choose not to "play God" are choosing, instead, to play ostrich.

Robert C.W. Ettinger
Man into Superman

Ettinger was one of the early proponents of human augmentation. It is important to go back and review his work in light of today’s opportunities. Like Drexler, with nanotechnology, he called for serious thinking on the opportunities and dangers of these kinds of technologies. He was (and I suppose still is) considered very radical. Now, a generation later, three observations are relevant. First, the discussion is not longer about “if” but “when.” Second, the serious social debate never took place. Third, once again we see the two generation cycle which I will return to later. After a possibility is articulated by a competent researcher-designer, a generation later it emerges into main stream awareness. Man into Superman, 1972 - Radical Evolution, 2005. The World Transhumanist Association - “for the ethical use of technologies to extend human capabilities” - is having a conference in 2006 at Oxford University [link: james martin institute world forum - march 14-17]. We had a generation to think and debate these issues. Now, we will decide public policy (and military use) at the moment the capabilities are becoming a reality and in a social climate of “culture wars.” Timing is everything it is said. If you find what these people are talking about exciting or appalling - or just confusing - now is the time to get involved. What is human [link: nanoethics and human enhancement]?

Reading these books together, synoptically, provides some interesting insights that can otherwise be missed. We humans have the habit of compartmentalizing our information and experience. Relatively few things are totally new to most modern well “educated” individuals but few things are connected due to a social propensity of over specialization and our education system which thinks that somehow engineering and ethics (as an example) are different subjects. We all are exposed to the superficial and “balanced” reporting of almost anything of interest. Having superficial familiarity of something is not good enough with complex, emergent systemic issues. Our media exposure gives the impression of being in the know but there is rarely any real in-depth information presented. “Balanced,” it seems, means that an equal number of people “for” and “against” an issue gets to interrupt and shout at each other until the time allocated it up and the commercials - sometimes with highly amusing juxtaposition - come on. The more “controversial” the better. And, if it is not controversial it still can be made so or presented as such. The viewer is left with some facts, usually a great deal of distortion and omisions, a boat load of “spins” along with their own biases usually developed long before they reached the age of critical thinking. Not a very good prescription for effective decisions.

The group process environment is even worse. Here, too often, the position defended is usually based on immediate short term economic interest or just plain cultural bias. There is a persistent myth that corporations are somehow immune to the vagrancies of standard group processes. The contrary view is held by the few who have actually had the experience of being there. The record of governments I will let stand without comment. Nor will I go into here the enormity of subjects that cannot be discussed because of the many social taboos which are embedded in our cultures many of which we are unaware of.
By reading, concurrently, across multiple fields new relationships emerge. Doing this in groups by a rigorous syntopical process facilitates understanding before argument and short term narrow self (so called) interest takes control and wins by the default of conventional thinking, the loudest shouting or imposition of the greatest social economic power.
These books, supplemented with the papers and the links I have provided, bring several distinct snapshots of possible futures. All of the information in them is credible. I have been following all of the subject matter they contain since the mid 1970s. The information, taken as individual topics, is startling in its implications. Taken together, in almost any way you wish to combine the material, is staggering in the potential for humanites’ failure or success. My point is not if each single potential reported here is possible or not, good or bad; if it will happen in 15 years, 30 or 50. These considerations are worth thinking through.
My point is that it does not matter. We are not equipped as a society to deal with whatever emerges from this and we are not equipping ourselves to do it [link: wielding extreme power with nanotechnology]. We are just beginning to discuss the governance issues and any action will be fought as a loss of sovereignty. If we react to each of these threat/opportunities (and each are both), incrementally and not as a system, we will be overwhelmed. We will make bad judgments. We will overreact to one and under react to another. We will pass a law here and develop a technology there. Social systems evolve slowly. They should evolve slowly. Technology, once it passes a certain threshold, evolves rapidly. The kind of technology we are birthing is ripe with moral, ethical, political, social and economic implications of an unprecedented scale and kind. It is the gap between cultural evolution and technology and its economic exploitation that we have to close. This is a world still confused and conflicted by ages old social issues. This is a world that barely dealt with a hurricane, tsunami and earthquake all in the same period of time. This is a world gearing up for a war of cultures and the struggle to control resources that will not last two generations and cause great harm and negative change if we continue to use them as we are. This is a world that gets excited about the expansion of China’s economy - and the millions of cars that are projected to be sold in this “new” market - but does not want to discuss the potential collision between the U.S. and China over oil [link: peak oil and oil crash]. Well, there is always Iran. At the point of this writing, the President of the United States informed the people that the U.S. was “addicted to oil.” An insightful point, 25 years too late and with no real program to change things. Imagine if, over the last 25 years, the US had turned its considerable talent, wealth and resources to the development of alternative energy sources and uses. This would have generated jobs, required scientific research, spawned new technologies and provided time for an easy transition. The consequence would have been what we commonly call wealth creation and exactly the kind of “boost” we got from WWII and the moon program - only perhaps a great deal more benign [link: energy solution]. By the way, what would you think of a society (if you did not live in it) that accomplished some of it’s greatest creative and economic gains from the exercise of killing each other on a mass scale [link: war - nature’s bottom line]? Did the U.S. emerge as a world power from the Spanish American and U.S. Civil Wars or am I imaging the facts? Do you know why the Cosmos Club [link: cosmos club] was formed in Washington D.C.? Washington needed a place where intellectuals of many different fields could meet. It served an additional purpose, however. After the Civil War other nations started to send delegations to the U.S. and set up Embassies Since it was not possible for whites and people of color to commingle in society at the time, the Cosmos Club was used to facilitate this happening. Why was it after the Civil war that other nations became suddenly very interested in enhanced diplomatic relations with the U.S? If the U.S. had initiated a full scale research effort into alternatives fuels, it would have required new transportation systems, rethinking the layout of cities and a debate on what kind of relationship we humans are to have with animal and plant populations. Instead, we got a consumer society that is so addicted that the biggest concern after 9/11 - other that getting the bad guys - was the impact on the economy [link: wage slavery]. If you think this is an exaggeration, go back and read the comments of the President, the Governor of New York and the ex-mayor of New York city made at the time; read the transcript of the opening session of the World Economic Forum, in january 2001, held in New York City. The public record stands as a monument to our entrenched social values. And if the U.S. had invested in alternatives, do you thing the situation in Iraq would be what it is today?
Less I be misunderstood, I do not take the position that there are not innumerable efforts going on to address the issues I bring up here. There are. What I am saying is that, based on the course that we are on, they will not “add up” to an optimum or at least good outcome. They will not because of the Law of Requisite Variety [link: requisite variety] which cannot be matched by good efforts, intentions, desires, half measures and non-systemic actions. Simply stated, our society is creating variety at a rate greater than it is creating adequate governance variety to sustain an appropriate response [link: appropriate response model]. This is not a great gap. It is, in fact, a gap that can be easily closed and there are well tested means for doing so. I contend that we are not closing this gap, nor employing the tools necessary to do so, because as a society we are not paying attention to the real challenges we face. We remain distracted by old concerns which increasingly do not matter. We are not lacking solutions. We are lacking right action on an appropriate scale. We are burdened by old habits which, if they persist, can destroy us. If this happens, it will be an act of societal suicide.
We lack an adequate Global Agenda.
Link: part 1 • Link: part 3 • link: part 4 • Link: part 5
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Matt Taylor
January 29, 2006

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posted: January 29, 2006

revised: March 18, 2006
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Copyright© 2006 Matt Taylor

(note: this document is about 60% finished)