Saturday, January 31, 2015

Toronto is the best city in the world (apparently)

Another Economist report just released is The Economist Intelligence Unit's Safe Cities Index 2015, which looks at 50 major cities across the globe, and ranks or otherwise marks them on a series of different indicators.
In terms of general safety (the index's main concern, comprising digital security, infrastructure security, health security and personal safety), Tokyo wins hands down, perhaps not surprisingly, followed by Singapore and Osaka, and then some northern European cities like Stockholm and Amsterdam. Toronto was the highest-ranking North American city, in 8th position overall, followed by New York in 10th.
But the report also includes a bunch of other indexes, including Liveability (which Melbourne wins handily, as it always has in recent years, with Toronto as runner-up), Cost of Living (Mumbai wins), Business Environment (Singapore), Democracy (Stockholm), and Global Food Security (all the big American cities share this category).
All of these different categories are then combined together in the EIU's Index of Indexes (page 20 of the report, with more detail in the appendix on page 35), to give an assessment of what is essentially the best place in the world in which to live (at least among big cities). And, guess what, even though Toronto does not score highest on any one index, when all are combined my home town is Number 1, making it, yes, the best place to live in the whole world! Montreal comes in at number 2, followed by Stockholm, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Melbourne and Zurich. Heady company indeed! No doubt Vancouver (the third largest city in Canada, after Toronto and Montreal) will be kvetching, "Ah, well, if WE had been included in the list...", etc, but I guess The Economist had to have a cut-off somewhere.
This is, of course, attracting much media attention here in Toronto, most of it admittedly bemused or unbelieving. As a CBC radio presenter commented wryly yesterday, "Did they drive on the Gardiner Expressway recently?" But kudos where kudos is due: way to go, Toronto!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Let there be light

The Economist has produced an excellent Special Report called Let There Be Light in this week's edition on the present and the future of renewables and energy efficiency in a modern world of low oil prices, constantly developing technology, and globalization.
In its usual clear and concise way, the Economist paints an unusually rosy picture - compared, that is, to the usual gloomy outlook offered by the media - of the progress of the renewable energy sector, how it has become robust and relevant, and how it may still save the world.
Among the plethora of factoids in the Special Report are the following:
  • Despite the current low oil prices, futures markets are still expecting it to rebound back to around $90 a barrel by the early 2020s.
  • In 2013, an extraordinary $550 billion was spent on subsidizing fossil fuels, which, as The Economist points out, "favours the rich, distorts economies and aggravates pollution".
  • Solar, wind and other renewables, by contrast, have seen average investments of around $260 billion a year worldwide over the last five years, an unprecedentedly large amount, granted, but one that still pales into insignificance when compared to the hydrocarbons industry.
  • The International Energy Agency (IEA), generally considered a conservative and fossil fuel-friendly organization, predicts an increase in overall demand for energy of 37% over the next 25 years or so, significantly lower than the historic 2% per year increase of recent decades. But, as behaviours change and energy efficiencies improve, the traditional link between economic growth and energy use is less rigid than heretofore: for example, the USA's economy has grown by about 9% since 2007, but its demand for finished petroleum products has actually fallen by 11%; German households use less electricity now than they did in 1990; etc.
  • In 2013, global renewable power capacity increased by over 8%. Almost two-thirds of that capacity was hydroelectricity (which increased by 4%), and the rest comprised a combination of wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, etc (which together increased by 17%). In the European Union in 2013, by far the largest portion of new electricity generating capacity (72%) came from renewables, as it has done for the last six years. In China, increases in renewables investment were greater than increases in fossil fuel and nuclear capacity put together, and its 2013 investment of $56 billion in renewable energy amounts to more than in all of Europe.
  • 53% of the $224 billion invested worldwide in new renewables capacity in 2013 was in the form of solar power, the first time it has exceeded the new contributions from wind.
  • The cost of solar panels has come down by a factor of five in the past six years (and almost 80-fold since the 1970s), and it is conservatively expected to at least halve again over the next twenty years. Emerging "third generation" solar technologies, which capture a much broader section of the light spectrum, and which can be 3-D printed cheaply and installed as film or paint on almost any surface, are set to revolutionize solar technology and reduce installed costs still further.
  • Biogas now accounts for a tenth of total gas consumption in China, with an estimated 42 million household turning their animal and human waste into methane.
  • Breakthroughs in electricity storage can make the economics of intermittent and renewable sources of energy improve drastically. America, Germany, Japan and South Korea are leading the charge in this area, and investment in electricity storage is expected to reach around $5 billion a year by 2020.
  • About 1.2 billion people worldwide currently do not have any access to electricity, and a further 2.5 billion are "under-electrified", receiving an unreliable and scanty electricity supply.
  • Poor people, who have to resort to kerosene for light and heat, are effectively paying over one hundred times more per kilowatt-hour than electricity users in rich countries, not to mention risking the increased danger from fires and accidents.
  • The collapsing cost of solar power and the advent of efficient LED lighting have revolutionized the prospects for power and light in the poorer parts of Africa and Asia, although the third part of the puzzle, storage, is still lagging behind. The use of solar lighting in unelectrified sub-Saharan Africa has increased from 1% to 5% in just the last 5 years.
  • The efficient management of electricity demand can also have a huge impact on energy usage and costs, in particular the matching of demand to supply (and not the other way around, as is traditional). One way of doing this is the use of so-called "negawatts", paying people to not use electricity during peak times in order to avoid utilities having to turn on the most expensive (and often dirty) power generators to meet peak demand.
  • As power is used more efficiently and overall demand declines, electricity generation over-capacity in Europe is now estimated to be around 1,000 GW, or 19% of peak load, much of it already mothballed and all but written off.
  • "Microgrids", such as the one at the University of California San Diego, which essentially run their own electricity systems, often with just a single emergency connection to the main outside grid, are increasingly challenging the traditional monolithic electricity utilities, and the IEA suggests that such innovations could eventually reduce overall peak electricity demand by up to 20%.
  • Energy efficiency, sometimes referred to as the "fifth fuel", is up to four times cheaper than producing new generating capacity, and an estimated $310-$360 billion was invested in energy efficiency measures worldwide in 2012, more than in new renewables capacity or indeed in new fossil fuel capacity.
  • The most obvious energy savings are to be made in more energy-efficient buildings (heating and cooling buildings accounts for about 31% of overall energy consumption).
How refreshing to see renewables treated in such a serious and positive way, rather than the rather sneering and dismissive tone so often employed by our current Canadian government, and any number of ignorant journalists like The Globe's Margaret Wente (wind power will never replace coal or gas because it's not always windy, etc - well, duh!)
Food for thought indeed, and a shot in the arm for foot-dragging environmentalists (and small-time solar power generators) like me.

New figures from the United Nations Environmental Program released on 31 March 2015 indicate continued progress for renewables.
Worldwide investment in renewable energy (which, in UNEP's figures, excludes large-scale hydroelectric projects, and so consists mainly of wind, solar, small hydro and marine power) rose by 17% in 2014 over 2013, the year on which most of the above figures are based. Renewables now provide a not insubstantial 9.1% of the world's electricity (up from 8.5%). This increase in investment was in spite of (although also, to some extent, because of) continued falling prices for renewable technologies, so that the increase in installed capacity of renewable energy is actually even higher than these figures suggest.
Once again, the largest increases were in China (which spent $83.3 billion, a 39% increase over the previous year) and USA ($36.3 billion, up 7%), followed by Japan, Britain, Germany and, surprising to me, Canada ($8 billion, up 31%). Solar power contributed about 55% of the overall increase, and wind about 37%.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Unexpected rate cut no coincidence

Our Glorious Leader, Emperor Harper, has just received what must be very a very welcome boost courtesy of the Bank of Canada's unexpected interest rate cut. Who knew that a quarter-of-a-percent reduction in interest rates could have quite such a large economic effect, but I am reliably assured that it does.
The shock measure is supposedly justified as "insurance" against the falling price of oil (now languishing at about $46 US, down from around $110 as recently as last June), which is currently decimating government budgets and potentially marring the Conservative brand. But what it really looks like is a rather desperate emergency measure intended to kick-start a faltering economy, to encourage Canadian consumers and businesses to spend and invest (hopefully without further increasing household debt, which is already at near record, and probably unsustainable, levels).
After going though a pretty rough patch politically (and in an election year!) - what with allegations of mission creep in Iraq as Canadian soldiers carry out on-the-ground operations which were supposed to be specifically excluded from their agreed role there, and the recent controversial $15 billion arms deal with egregious human rights violators Saudi Arabia, among other setbacks - the unanticipated announcement by BoC director Stephen Poloz (yes, a recent Harper appointment) has played neatly into Harper's hands.
The expected main winners from the Bank of Canada's actions (at least in the short term)? The banks and the stock market and its wealthy (largely Tory) investors. Coincidence? I think not.


Recently, I have been reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book Nomad, the follow-up to her ground-breaking and controversial best-seller Infidel, and her equally controversial film documentary Submission (which resulted in the death of director Theo van Gogh at the hands of a Muslim fanatic in 2004).
Although nearly five years old now, the book seems particularly relevant today, regaled as we currently are by constant news reports of Islamic State, Boko Haram, Charlie Hebdo, etc. Hirsi Ali's major concern, though, is not so much genocide and internationally newsworthy events, but the behind-the-scenes day-to-day insults of the Islamic treatment of women.
Told very much from a first person point of view, Hirsi Ali recounts her own peregrinations and constantly changing circumstances, as she moves - sometimes forced, sometimes willingly, sometimes apparently wilfully - from her native Somalia, through Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Netherlands, and finally the United States. It also looks at the effects of Islam largely through the lens of her own widely-scattered family.
You certainly have to admire the woman's guts and the hard choices she has made (and continues to make), and the sacrifices she has borne for her convictions. Since her own public and high-profile disavowal of Islam after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and her controversial stint as a Dutch Member of Parliament, vocally agitating for the rights of Muslim women in Europe, Hirsi Ali has lived in constant fear of violent reprisal, and travels everywhere under the protection of armed security, as she lectures on atheism, women's rights, and the iniquities and inequalities of Islam.
In my opinion, while undeniably "worthy", the book suffers, if anything, from an excess of earnestness. I don't necessarily expect ribaldry or slapstick, but I think a certain lightness of tone from time to time might relieve the rather oppressive and unmitigated grimness of the text without excessively softening the message and its impact.
Quite honestly, it's difficult to positively like a book about such unsympathetic characters (Ali's family). They are, almost to a person, such a bunch of unpleasant, borderline mentally unbalanced, self-indulgent, prejudiced, and generally messed-up individuals, that you just feel like slapping them (as does Ms. Hirsi Ali herself with great frequency). The book confirmed in spades my already poor impression of Somali religious, tribal and social culture, and, given the abysmal (or often completely lacking) parenting approach Hirsi Ali describes as the norm there, it is perhaps no great surprise that so many Somalis abroad "go bad" and end up pursuing a path of drugs, gangs and violence.
That said, I found her rose-tinted analysis of the United States to be somewhat trite and overgeneralized.
All in all, despite my respect for Hirsi Ali's atheism and for her principled stand against a bullying religion, I found the book a distinctly unsatisfying and depressing read.
There were, however, some interesting and provocative ideas in the chapter on possible solutions and remedies to the "problem" of Islam, towards the end of the book. For example, Hirsi Ali suggests that an important, even a necessary, step towards reducing the influence and power of Islam today is the work of (mainly non-Islamic) historians and textual analysts in definitively establishing that the Qu'ran was actually written over a period of decades, or even centuries, by a committee of clerics (in much the same way as the Judeo-Christian Bible), and so cannot actually be the literal word of Allah dictated to Mohammed, as most Muslims implicitly believe.
She also strikes out strongly against the well-meaning but misguided multiculturalism and moral relativism of liberal Western societies, which she sees as wishy-washy appeasement, leading them to effectively condone some of the worst elements of Islamic culture (including honour killings, female circumcision, the absolute subjugation of women, the intolerance of other religions and ways of life, etc) along with the preservation of arts and crafts and a few quaint customs. Hirsi Ali argues that Western culture is hands-down and unequivocally BETTER than Islamic culture, and that we should make no apology for this.
She also - interesting for a strident atheist - calls on Christian apologists to present a more forceful alternative to Islam in an attempt to stem the rising tide of Muslim converts, especially in Western countries, almost recommending a new wave of Christian missionaries. She does this largely on the grounds that, if some people do feel the need for a religion, better it be the relatively accommodating and benign one of Christianity than the harsh and violent one of Islam.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Am I in the Top 1%? Apparently so...

The BBC recently produced a video to mark the upcoming landmark when the global top 1% will own more wealth than the other 99% combined, an event which will occur sometime next year (2016) according to a report by the anti-poverty group Oxfam. The same report also suggests that the richest 80 individuals already own more than the poorest 50% of the world (i.e. about 3.6 billion people).
The BBC's short video tries to point out that the 1% are not actually such a rarefied class, and not necessarily what we usually consider as the super-rich. In fact, it says that there about 70 million individuals in the 1% club, "that's anyone who owns property worth about $800,000" or "about the price of the average London home". This seemed implausibly low to me (and put our family squarely within the 1%!), and it was not clear to me just where they got that figure from. So, I did a bit of checking around.
Oxfam's original report mentions that "Members of this global elite had an average wealth of $2.7m per adult in 2014", which seemed a much more plausible figure to be considering. Except - hold on! - the $2.7 million figure is the average wealth of the top 1%, not the threshold above which a person qualifies for the 1% club.
The Global Rich List tool puts anyone with over about $750,000 (US) into the top 1%, roughly confirming the BBC's figure. Furthermore, a report on the matter by The Economist - whose economic figures I am happy to trust - puts the threshold at a rather exact $798,000 (although it seems to have about 35 million people in that bracket, about half as many as the BBC claims). The Economist also adds that as little as $3,650 in assets would put one in the top 50% worldwide, surely a scary thought. I assume that all these figures are in US$.
So, there you have it: although the top 1% has an average wealth of $2.7 million, the threshold for membership of the club does in fact seem to be around $800,000. Which puts us, as a family, very comfortably in that rather uncomfortable position.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A bunch of current topics, large and small

A whole heap of articles, reports and letters on different subjects in today's Globe has inspired me to write a few lines on a variety of current topics, large and small:
  • The story of the Dalhousie University dentistry students and their sexist Facebook postings has been ongoing for almost a month now, and still seems to have plenty of legs. The more I think about it, the closer I seem to get to my nemesis Margaret Wente's position on it, a rare phenomenon that I find extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing. Yes, clearly such behaviour by students (or by anyone, really) is unacceptable and a strong message needs to be sent. The individuals have already been "suspended from clinical activities", a status which, if continued, will not allow them to graduate, but I can't help but think that a full expulsion seems excessive. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes - even if, in previous generations, they were not blazoned across the Internet for all the world to see - and there is no reason why the students cannot put such a youthful indiscretion behind them and go on to become normal and productive members of society (and maybe even good dentists). So, by all means call them out, and call out everyone exhibiting such childishness and thoughtlessness, but don't hobble them for the rest of their lives.
  • Pro-IS hackers have hacked into the US Central Command Twitter feed and YouTube account. My first response to this news was: "The US military's Central Command has a Twitter account? How weird is that? Does the CIA have one too? MI6? What on earth do they tweet about?" Just another case of "Twitter exists. Twitter is popular. We need to have a Twitter account because everybody else does."
  • In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, a huge anti-immigration rally took place in Dresden, Germany, and support for the popular hate-group PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, under it's German acronym) has sky-rocketed. Arguably, a good part of this increased right-wing activity can be directly attributed, not just to the killings by the Muslim fundamentalists, but to the French cartoons that triggered them in the first place. Free expression is a double-edged sword, and must be wielded responsibly, not frivolously.
  • The story behind yet another lost plane revolves around the contents of the plane's "black box". A letter in today's paper echoes what I have often thought: "Why, in this age of satellites and worldwide internet, must we still be reliant on such an antediluvian technology as a physical black box of recordings, which typically sinks to the bottom of the ocean along with the rest of the plane?" At the very least, can it not be arranged to make it float?
  • As Hamilton, Ontario becomes the latest municipality to ban tobogganing in order to avoid lawsuits from the trigger-happy parents of injured children, the question arises as to what is wrong with just putting up a sign saying "Toboggan at your own risk". Maybe I am missing something, but wouldn't that allow those who want to toboggan to do so, while avoiding the possibility of unscrupulous lawyers and parents blaming the municipality for any injuries to their little ones?
  • The Liberal government of Ontario appears to be finally getting serious about the introduction of a carbon tax, following in the successful footsteps of British Columbia, Quebec and California, among others. Prime Minister Harper clearly has no intentions of addressing Canada's burgeoning greenhouse gas emissions, so it is up to the provinces to take the lead, and so kudos to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Environment Minister Glen Murray for having the cojones to so much as broach this divisive (although largely misunderstood) issue. I truly believe that if they were to do a better job of explaining that a carbon tax is tax- and revenue-neutral (when combined with a reduction in direct income taxes like BC has done) and not an additional tax-grab as most people seem to believe, and that a carbon tax does not necessarily lead to economic damnation (see the BC example again), then people will accept it, and even learn to love it. Certainly, as a tool in carbon reduction, there is little doubt now that it works (yes, BC).
It's interesting, reading back over some of these items, to see just how reactionary and bourgeois some of my opinions are these days. Gone is the idealism of youth, replaced by a pragmatism and cynicism bordering on bitterness. I prefer to think of it, however, as a new-found caution, and an unwillingness to settle for knee-jerk reactions and tub-thumping. If I ever lapse into conservatism, though, then you can upbraid me. And I'll thank you for it!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Je ne suis pas (nécessairement) Charlie

I suppose I should publish a few thoughts about the Charlie Hebdo massacre, everyone else seems to have done so.
Obviously, there is no justification for the killing of anyone over a few cartoons, that much is not at issue (unless you are a fundamentalist Muslim, of course, but I have just at little time for such benighted individuals as I do for fundamentalists of any religion, poor misguided souls that they are).
I am responding more to the Western reaction to it, and the debate over whether other media outlets should or should not reproduce the cartoons. Most people's gut reaction, and probably mine too, was to stand up for freedom of the press and freedom of expression. 90-odd per cent of the comments I have read are strongly in that direction, and in particular brand the decisions of the major Canadian media outlets (including the Globe and Mail and the CBC) who chose not to republish the cartoons themselves as cowardly and unjustifiable. This part I am not so sure about.
As I  have said, as an atheist myself, I have very little patience or sympathy with religious beliefs of any stripe, and certainly not with fundamentalist viewpoints. But this does not necessarily mean that we should go out of our way to deride and ridicule them. If we know that some people, fundamentalist and otherwise, are going to be deeply offended, then I would say, leave well enough alone. If there is a distinct possibility that people, including innocent bystanders, may get hurt or killed as a result of the publication, then that seems to me an even more compelling reason not to do it. The right to freedom of expression is a basic one but it should be tempered with judiciousness: just because one can publish something, does not mean that one necessarily should. This kind of judiciousness is not the same thing as cowardice and pusillanimity.
As for the CBC and Globe and Mail's decision not to republish the cartoons, it seems to me that these are not the kinds of cartoons they would regularly show (out of respect, or political correctness if you like), in much the same way as the media routinely decides not to show grisly scenes of death and carnage around the world, and I can quite understand and respect their decision. The cartoons are widely available on the Internet for anyone to investigate if they like (I must admit I found them puerile and unfunny, with very little of the political edge found in many satirical cartoons), and I see no compelling need to foist them on all and sundry. Is it really worth risking the lives of innocent victims in the support of mediocre art and the right to gratuitous offence?
I also have a suspicion that many of the people blasting elements of the Canadian media for cowardice might have quite a different reaction if they were themselves in the position of having to make such a decision, and of having to weigh up the various pros and cons.
And neither is this thing over: a German magazine that republished the cartoons has already been torched, and Charlie Hebdo itself apparently plans more gratuitous Mohammed insults in its next expanded issue. If more people are killed as a result, then the wisdom of such a response might come under more scrutiny, but a more likely outcome is more outrage, more reprisals and even more polarization.
Update: although views of this kind may have been in a small minority at the time of writing, in the week or two since then many more letters have appeared in newspapers along similar lines, which kind of makes me feel a little better about it.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A few more random observations on driving in the UK

I ended up driving quite a lot during our Christmas trip to England and, in addition to the tribulations of driving in snow (see below for more on that), a few thoughts struck me after so long living away from the UK:
  • Smaller cars - There are of course exceptions, and it is not that unusual to see fancy Mercedes and SUVs, particularly in the wealthier south, but on average cars in the UK tend to be substantially smaller than those in Canada (and much smaller than US cars), with smaller, more efficient engines, often diesel-powered. This is a GOOD THING.
  • Gas prices - I was gob-smacked by the price of petrol, which, even after the substantial reductions of late 2014, was over twice the price of Canada's. Typical prices were in the range of £1.13 - £1.15 per litre (just over Can S2.00 at current exchange rates, which are admittedly much higher than in recent years). On arriving back in Toronto, I filled up at 89c! Now, maybe they are kept artificially high, or taxed for environmental and energy use purposes, but that is a huge discrepancy. On balance, though, from the point of view of the environment, I have to conclude that this is also a GOOD THING.
  • Fast driving - I am always a bit disconcerted by the speed at which people, drive in England. I guess I used to do it myself, but I am now more used to the relatively stately speeds of Canadian traffic. My father-in-law is a case in point, and he thinks nothing of driving at a steady 90-90 mph (140-150 kph) on the motorway. Not necessarily a GOOD THING or a BAD THING, but in mitigation, I do actually think that the average English driver is probably better - at least in terms of more aware, better able to react to situations, etc - than the average North American (with the signal exception of winter driving, see below again).
  • Speed control - Long sections of the motorways are limited to 50 mph, for what looks like very long-term construction work. Regardless of their normal fast driving habits, people actually do drive at 50 mph in these sections, mainly because of the automated average speed logging systems, whereby registration plates are logged down by overhead cameras at various intervals, and average speeds are calculated (and speeding tickets automatically generated for infractions). It works! A GOOD THING.
  • Manual gearboxes - I understand that automatic cars are becoming more popular, but the default in England is still the manual shift, which I must admit I approve of. Probably neither a GOOD THING nor a BAD THING, it was just nice to go back to the control and the hands-on nature of manual driving after several years of Canadian automatic cars.

A snowy sojourn in Albion

We go back to England to visit relatives most years, and usually at Christmas, a most unpropitious time of year weatherwise (although the last time we visited in summer there were floods and record-breaking rains, which, in England, is saying something). So, we were not expecting surprises and, for the most part, did not receive any.
We did, however, witness one of England's relatively infrequent snowstorms, and all the shenanigans that ensued, which provided us with a few days of entertainment at least. It does snow in England most years, particularly in the north, in the shadow of the Pennines, where my family hails from. But only in exceptional years does that amount to anything that we Canadians consider "real" snow that hangs around for more than a day or so. When they do get some Canadian quality snow, England appears to be signally incapable of coping, and typically the whole country goes into denial and essentially shuts down. We were privileged to experience just such an occasion this last week, which we looked on with suitably Canadian superciliousness.
On Boxing Day, we were visiting friends in Nottingham, about 25 miles from our home base, when a passing bird or something happened to trigger the outside light. It was only then that we realized that it had been snowing quite heavily for the best part of an hour (no snow was forecast for the area, just some talk of possible sleet overnight). We decided to cut the visit short and head home, promptly got lost a couple of times in the suburbs of Nottingham, which wasted another hour or so. But, even within Nottingham, it had become quite apparent that this was a substantial snowfall, and that the Boxing Day evening traffic was just not coping with it.
With a short stop for some food, that 25-mile journey took us about five-and-a-half hours, and we arrived back well after midnight. It's true, the roads were slippery, and there were a significant number of hills to negotiate. But the sheer number of cars floundering around and slewing from side to side was hilarious. Cars were abandoned left, right and centre (some were still there two days later!), articulated trucks were stuck halfway up hills, and there were any number of idiots pulling stunts like trying to get down the wrong side of the road and getting blocked by oncoming traffic, etc, etc.
Some of it was really funny, in a sad kind of a way, and we resigned ourselves to a long and fragmented trip back. From time to time, we would have to get out and help push a stuck car, so that we (and everyone else) could get through. We were in a little borrowed 1200cc Fiat Panda, perhaps not the idea vehicle for the circumstances, but it was notable that we never got stuck once on any of the hills, and only once or twice did we so much as slither a little. Most cars in the UK are still manual shift, which actually makes it much easier to cope with slippery conditions, so long as you remember to keep it in low gear and low revs. Many people, though, manual car or otherwise, seemed to just put their foot down as hard as possible, and then wonder why they were slewing sideways or, more often, not moving at all.
I know it doesn't snow that often in England, and I fully understand that, given that fact, they do not have, and cannot justify the expense of, the snowploughs and other equipment we are so lucky to have in Canada. But it does seem to me that they bring some of the problems on themselves, and the application of a little common sense would definitely help the situation. No-one has ever taught me how to drive in the snow, but I seem to have a pretty good idea anyway, and I do wonder why the average Englishman should have so much difficulty with winter driving.