The best of times

Isn’t it interesting how timeless and true good writing proves itself, even in our modern age, and even though it was originally intended for a different literary context?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens, 1859

We are indeed living in the best times of current recorded history and because every coin has a flip side, there are surely plenty of things to complain about. Yet I thought I’d point out some of the good things in this post.

Out of all our known and written history, I don’t believe we’ve ever had a time like this, when most of the world is enjoying a period of “not war” and when the options available to us in areas such as healthcare, living conditions, hygiene, infrastructure, learning, jobs, possessions, transport, personal freedoms and just about everything else you can think about are so many and so readily available. Yes, some of these options can get expensive, but they are there and they are available, whereas most of them simply did not exist in the past.

We get so caught up in our daily, mundane routines and our various disappointments that we allow to blacken our lives, that we forget we have it so good. I’d like to invite you to find and watch documentaries and TV series that portray our various periods of history with accuracy; there are quite a few these days. I’d like you to become acquainted with how people lived and how hard it was to simply get through a day and have some food to put on the table, much less be able to afford a few knick-knacks here and there.

Most people have never been able to afford what we call a proper home and have lived in sheds, hovels and small cottages for most of history. Most houses were a one-room affair in the past. The toilet was a pot under the bed or a communal outdoor hole in the ground. Chamber pots would be thrown into the street every morning. Think about taking a walk in those cities! Even in civilized cities, right up to the 1960s-70s, people would have to share a common bathroom or bathrooms in apartment buildings or subdivided houses. And now we’ve gotten to the point where we mind sharing a bathroom with our guests and we complain if our house has less than 3-4 rooms.

The capability to take a daily shower under hot running water, with a pleasant soap and shampoo, has been unheard of in all our recorded history, until recent times. And yet people still find excuses when it comes to maintaining proper daily hygiene and complain about water hardness and water pressure and soap quality, etc.

Dental care is so important. Without it, most of us would be toothless by our 40s and those who’d still have teeth would have some rather nasty decoloration and build-up on them. Should we be part of the majority of the population without teeth, we’d have to wear dentures made of wood or animal teeth, or of metals such as lead, dentures that wouldn’t fit properly and cause us daily pain. We now have access to orthodontics, fillings that match the color and hardness of our teeth and are almost invisible, crowns, implants and now stem cell implants, which can regenerate our own teeth! This was never available in the past. We’ve had to struggle with primitive tooth care for so long.

Of all healthcare options available, I would single out trauma surgery as the most important development. Nowadays we have the option of receiving triage and trauma care that allows us to fully heal without infection, including proper bone and joint surgery and for most of known history, we simply didn’t have this. Broken arms stayed broken. Torn joints stayed torn. Cuts and flesh wounds often got infected and led to death. Yes, healthcare is terribly expensive. Yes, good basic healthcare should be a right, not a privilege. But look at the bright side: it exists! How governments choose to make it available to their citizens is an open and ongoing discussion instead of a “No, we’ve never heard of that, it doesn’t even exist” kind of discussion.

How easy is it to learn things nowadays? Access to information is virtually free, and more resources (historical and modern) have become available online than we’ll ever have time to read, and yet I’m hard pressed to come across than a few learned, thoughtful individuals during the course of a day and sometimes even a week; (perhaps that’s also due to the way our educational systems are structured.) Various apps on our mobile devices compete to make learning as fun as possible for us. Universities and colleges post videos from their courses for free online access. For most of history, people didn’t know how to read or write. They were thirsty for learning but it was out of their reach. It was simply too expensive or just not an option for them. Trade secrets, for example, were closely guarded and only revealed to tradespeople in secrecy, after long apprenticeships. Now everyone can watch how-to videos and learn how to do something, but how many follow through and actually do those things or even more, persist at them until they get good? Most of us tend to confuse reading or watching the news with learning. Opening up our minds and pouring in the news isn’t learning, it’s just a deluge of unhelpful and depressing bits of information.

For most of our history, people couldn’t pick their jobs. There was little social mobility. If you were born into a peasant family, you were a peasant, end of story. Only the aristocracy could pick and choose what they wanted to do, but even if they were passionate about something, it could only be a hobby, because they were expected by all to be aristocrats, not do things (I know, boo-hoo for them…) Now anyone can be just about anything, and training for that job is within reach if they want it enough. One way or another you can make ends meet and get to do what you like in life. I know, I know, student loans are huge… that’s why it’s doubly important to figure out what you want to do before you start going to school for it, else you’ll be spending money you don’t have so you can get to do what you don’t want to do. While I’m talking about this, allow me to pitch you on choosing a career in the trades; good craftsmen are in severe demand these days.

The subject of possessions is huge, both figuratively and literally. We could talk all day about rampant consumerism and fake economies and fast fashion. The point is, it’s incredibly affordable to buy things today, and it simply wasn’t the case for most of our history. Even something that we often take for granted and is typically rusting in our garden sheds, such as a simple hand saw, was incredibly hard to make and buy during medieval times. Even an axe or a pick was hard to make. They cost lots of money, the equivalent of small cars nowadays, so people saved up for years to buy tools, then cared for them and handed them down to their sons and daughters. Clothes were made by hand, and that included the materials. You cared for them and mended them as long as you could. Someone would typically only have one change of clothing. Nowadays clothing is literally clogging up our homes and people are desperate to get help in order to clean them up and organize them.

In the last 100 years, means of transport have progressed tremendously. Whereas travel was slow and expensive, it’s now fast and inexpensive. We can travel by car, train, ship and airplane. We can even skip physical travel and visit locations virtually by looking at photos from those places, or street views in mapping applications. We can even immerse ourselves in 360 degree videos and virtual realities.

We find time to bitch about every little bump and pothole in our public roads, yet we’ve never had it so good. It’s true that Roman roads are legendary, but you have to remember they were cobblestone in a time where suspension hadn’t yet been invented. Every single bone and sinew in your body would have been shaken out of sorts by the time a day’s ride would be over. After Roman civilization degraded, we were back to mud ruts and dust for over 1500 years, plus frequent attacks from highway robbers. Now all but the most rural roads are paved and can be safely traveled.

How about personal freedoms? Have societies ever tolerated so much free speech, even when it’s hateful and offensive, and offered so much personal freedom for various lifestyle choices, even for something that we now consider so commonplace as divorce or adultery? Do you know how shunned people were for adultery in the past, or how impossible it was to get a divorce, even when situation was terrible and abusive? How about the open criticism and ridicule of politicians, business leaders and other figures of authority or fame that we now tolerate? When was that sort of thing well-tolerated in the past? And yet we still find ways to take these things to the extreme, and we keep pushing the boundaries till things get truly and downright brazen and defamatory, instead of celebrating the freedom of speaking out against someone and doing it with some sense of decency.

I do wish more people would realize how good we have it and would be more grateful for all of the opportunities, amenities and conveniences that modern times offer us. We certainly don’t want to put ourselves in a position where we lose what we’ve worked so hard for as a human race and civilization, because then we’ll have really failed ourselves. I think the way to become more grateful is to pay attention to the past, because it offers up enough contrast to the present to make us have those little epiphanies of conscience that raise our collective morale.


The C&O Canal

I suppose I should call this “Trip to the C&O Canal – Part Three”, since it’s the third time I write about the C&O Canal (Chesapeake and Ohio Canal) on my site. Here is Part 1 and Part 2. But it’s certainly not our third trip, because we’ve been there numerous times, during various times of the year.

This last time, we did it by bike, starting at Lock 7, which can be accessed from the Southbound Clara Barton Parkway. We traveled past the last gatehouse, which I think was was Lock 12, and past the Carderock Wall, to some section of the canal beyond it.

It’s a lot of fun to bike on the C&O Canal. For one thing, the path that accompanies the canal used to be the old towpath for the mules that pulled the barges, so you know you’re stepping on a piece of history. For another, the canal towpath was built to have no steep grades. Other than little hills that correspond to the drops in altitude at lock gates, the towpath is mostly level, so you won’t get long-winded trying to walk, run or bike up long hills.

As you’ll see in the photos above, some parts of the canal were completely dry. I’m not sure what caused this. Perhaps it was the summer heat, or as you’ll see in a couple of the photos, a sinkhole that opened upstream and possibly swallowed all of the water from those sections of the canal.

The idea for the C&O Canal originated with George Washington, though in another form. Having worked as a land surveyor in his youth, he dreamed of the possibility of making the Potomac River navigable. He thought the only way to do it would be to build skirting canals around its falls. While he was still young, he could not convince the State of Maryland to do this, but after the Revolutionary War, let’s just say it was easier for him to get people to do things.

The Patowmack Company was formed in 1784, and construction began on the skirting canals. Washington himself supervised the construction personally. Beside the canals, channels in the river itself were deepened and boulders were removed. There was a great deal of work to be done, and the work wasn’t finished until 1802, three years after Washington’s death.

Although the canals were useful, the route didn’t generate as much traffic as it should have. For one thing, it was only truly usable up to two months out of the year, due to low water levels. Plus, it was very difficult to get the boats back up the river, because of the current. People ended up dissembling the boats downstream, walking back upstream, and building another boat. This was not efficient nor productive.

George Washington’s idea was interesting, and people kept thinking of a way to capitalize on it. A way to use the Potomac River needed to be found. That’s where the construction of a canal came in. It wasn’t new technology, as that sort of construction was already used in Europe, and even dates back to antiquity.

On November 5, 1823, a convention was held Washington, which led to the chartering of the company that would build the canal on January 27, 1824, and finally, to the start of construction of July 4, 1828.

The construction of the C&O Canal ended in October of 1850 at Cumberland, Maryland. The original plan to extend the canal to the Ohio River had to be modified, because of the extremely hard nature of the work, its slow progression, and financial troubles with the parent company.

Parts of the Canal were opened as they became available, and it worked as a water route until 1924. Frequent flooding closed it for months, and sometimes, for entire seasons, and in 1889, the parent company went bankrupt. It was then taken over by the canal’s rival, the B&O Railroad. In 1902, they even took over the boats. Whereas they had belonged to the people themselves — to the families that toiled night and day to carry goods down the canal — from that year forward, they belonged to the Railroad company…

The B&O Railroad did as little maintenance as possible on the canal, and in 1924, when another flood destroyed parts of it, they closed it down altogether. The canal slowly deteriorated afterwards, until it was taken over by the National Park Service in 1971. They restored the towpath and re-watered parts of the canal.

Here’s an interesting fact [source]:

“Transporting goods and people by canal dates back to antiquity. The lock gates used on the C&O Canal were an adaptation of a design by Leonardo DaVinci in the late 1400’s. Until the advent of the railroad, water travel was far superior to land travel.”

If you’d like more information about the C&O Canal, I recommend the official C&O Canal NPS website. Make sure to use the menu on the left side of the page to navigate through the various sections. It’s a little hard to find your way around at first, but it pays off if you keep digging — there’s a lot of information posted there.


Grosvenor metro station

There’s a neat tunnel that goes under 355 (one of the main roads in our area) and surfaces right at the Grosvenor-Strathmore metro station, under a beautiful canopy of curved glass, framed with steel ribs and anchored with pillars.



If you’ve ever seen one of the old classic cars (early 1910s and 1920s) that had the pull-down roof which folded in the back, the glass canopy follows the same concept, except (of course) it’s anchored in the up position all the time. Come to think of it, the design also recalls the large, see-through fuselages of the big bomber planes of WWII. The effect is a successful combination of post-modernism with industrial-age design elements.



The same canopy design (initially restricted to just a few metro stations) has now been extended to all of the stations I’ve visited. The canopy sizes are varied based on the size of the tunnel that leads down to the metro. I’m glad to see a good design philosophy being consistently applied and adapted to existing conditions, and I congratulate WMATA on making sure the work was carried through to completion.

This is my Week 6 submission for the 2008 Community Challenge.