Tuesday, November 28, 2006

9 1/2 weeks

Seems to be how long it takes to not get a response from GRL these days.

Yes, that means I'm still awaiting any sort of response regarding this manuscript which was submitted way back in September. For those who think I'm a bit trigger-happy to get upset about such an apparently modest time interval, note that GRL is specifically supposed to be a rapid turnover journal for short letters - a standard review request allows 2 weeks, which should give a reasonable expectation of a response in about 3 weeks including editorial handling etc.

Moreover, it's not just the rather extraordinary time delay that I'm pissed off with, but the extremely unprofessional way in which GRL seem to have handled it. Firstly, I was amazed to find out that the manuscript had been assigned to an editor who just happens to be a close colleague of Dave Frame and recent co-author with Myles Allen on a paper concerning methods for probabilistic estimation. Secondly, it's astonishing that this person didn't seem to think it was inappropriate to take on this task. And thirdly, the Chief Editor ignored my request that he should be replaced by someone without such an obvious conflict of interest. That's despite GRL actually having a box on their submission form for such editorial conflicts of interests to be mentioned - which I didn't fill in at the time of submission, as this person is nowhere listed as an editor on the GRL website (or anywhere else on the web, such as his own web-page) and I therefore had no possible reason to suspect that he, or anyone else with such an obvious relationship with those researchers who I am most directly criticising, could potentially be offered the task.

According to GRL's on-line manuscript tracking system, the reviews were all in a full 2 weeks ago and since that time have been sitting on the editor's desk waiting for him to make a decision. There has been no reply yet to the email I sent to GRL last week enquiring as to his health...


No sooner blogged than I get an email from GRL...It has eventually been passed over to the Chief Editor for the decision. I'd have been happier if this had happened in advance of the (potentially critical) choicee of referees.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Another JLPT test

Hmm..that's a redundant "test" there in the subject line...like when I use my personal PIN number at the automatic ATM machine. Never mind.

As had been threatened, my Japanese teacher gave me another test as practice - the real 2005 exam. Since yesterday was a rainy holiday ("Labour Thanksgiving Day"), I stayed at home and did it. She seemed rather surprised that I passed by a clear margin (67%), but that's because she doesn't realise that I've been teaching myself the half of the syllabus that she hasn't had time for in our lessons :-)

Obviously, the exam was at the easier end of the tests I've tried - especially the kanji/vocab paper, and the grammar section of the last paper both of which I got "personal best" scores on. The real surprise was the reading conprehension which was far longer than I'd got used to - 24 questions in all, compared to a usual 18-20. So I really struggled for time on that and had to mostly just scan the texts quickly and choose the most plausible answer. The little homilies are invariably written from a very standard middle-class liberal perspective so the gist is generally something about bringing up or children well (whilst allowing them their freedom to develop) or looking after the environment...rather mind-numbing-stuff, to be honest.

Not much I can do now except hope the real thing (just over a week away) isn't much harder.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

More Stern Assessments

Stoat and Prometheus link to Nordhaus's comment on the Stern report, so I'll go one better and point out Gary Yohe's editorial too (via Richard Tol's comment). Both Nordhaus and Yohe point out the critical dependence of Stern's results on the unusually low discount factor (0.1%) used, and Nordhaus goes further than this in arguing that even with such a low discount factor, adjusting another model parameter (which he argues is necessary for the modelled economics to match observable reality) suggests much less support for aggressive mitigation.

It's worth pointing out that both Nordhaus and Yohe agree that some mitigation is appropriate, even though they find the detailed calculations of Stern at best hard to support.

Yohe also points to the climate science in Stern as being "perhaps the most persuasive contribution of the Stern Review", and says things look considerably more serious than they did in IPCC TAR. He has made his own contribution to this, (along with Michael Schlesinger), with his claim that "there is a one in five chance that we would lose the Gulf Stream before 2050." I don't think that claim is reasonable and as far as I'm aware the only place it has appeared in the literature is in the procedings of the "frenzied week of "climate change is worse than we thought" news reporting and group-think" otherwise known as the "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change" workshop in Exeter.

A comment on the Stern Report from Paul Baer is also promised shortly. Meanwhile, RealClimate's comment on (the climate science in) Stern remains conspicuous by its absence...


The other annoyance of living abroad (beside the UK estate agents, that is) is that the BBC don't have internet broadcasting rights for many international sporting events - especially cricket and also football, although I don't care so much about the latter. Of course they don't have TV rights at all for many events these days, but their radio commentary for the cricket is good.

So I was disappointed, but not hugely surprised, to find this morning that the BBC Ashes commentary was not available. ABC (Australia) are also doing some web-casts but apparently Japan is outside their remit.

I'd tried half-heartedly to find ways of evading the BBC block (which presumably works out the location of the IP address from which the requests were coming) without success. But this time I was a bit more determined, as the Ashes is a long series and the commentary is at a convenient time of day (on holidays, which today is, for those who were wondering). So, after a bit of googling, I found myself a public proxy server in the UK...and the second one I tried, works! Desperate cricket-deprived ex-pats around the world should be able to replicate my success without too much difficulty. I guess I'm breaking some obscure law about computer use and will face a lengthy spell in Gitmo next time I venture across the pond (actually, before the flames start flooding in, I'm pretty sure that the proxy in question is set up deliberately to allow untraceable surfing by the general public).

Mind you, I'm not sure that I want to listen to the current slaughter...


No sooner had I posted this than the proxy stopped working (blocked by the BBC, I mean). Bah humbug. ABC is working now though, which is better than nothing, but I'd prefer Test Match Special. I guess it will probably be a game of cat and mouse over the coming months...

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Asahi Blue Planet Prize

Another year, another Blue Planet Prize. The first speaker, Dr. Akira Miyawaki, is an academic ecologist who developed and implemented methods for natural forest restoration. He's 78 and still runs a small research institute - a position he only took up at an age when most people would have retired. He seemed like a pretty amazing guy. He exhorted us to plant forests wherever there was space for 3 trees - and had the results to prove it worked.

The second winner, Dr Emil Salim, had been a minister in the Indonesian government and talked enthusiastically about sustainable development. Michael Tobis would no doubt have been delighted by the way he picked apart traditional "Washington Consensus" economic theory as promoting the interests of the rich at the expense of the poor and the environment. Unfortunately, he didn't really seem to have any clear mechanism for a concrete alternative, with his goal of sustainable development apparently relying on a combination of draconian national and international govt intervention, coupled with citizens attaining personal enlightenment through Yogic flying and scientific study.

OK, I exaggerated slightly on the Yogic flying. But he did make a strong play for a spiritual basis to our sustainable development, and also appealed to "Asian values" (community, family, environment etc) as a basis for a new style of government. There is a proportion of the Japanese public who are not exactly thrilled to be reminded that they are also Asian (cf: telling the English to be "good little Europeans"), and sure enough one questioner basically asked him what exactly he thought the Japanese had in common with Indonesian Muslims. Actually I'd think that Japan would be a good place for his theory of sustainable development to take hold, having essentially a benevolent dictatorship and docile population.

It was interesting to see that the Stern report came up in the following discussion session. I was disappointed - but not overly surprised - that the interpretation (provided by a Kyoto University professor, not just some random member of the public) was that we faced the certain loss of 20% of the world economy under "business as usual" - and there was no hint of any uncertainty about this figure, which readers may recognise as the extreme upper limit Stern produced based on a whole host of unfortunate coincidences which have varying degrees of implausibility. It is possible that some of this nuance had been lost in translation (which I was listening to) but frankly I doubt it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Just got back from an interesting couple of days in Nagoya, at this meeting, which (as the title suggests) discussed the dynamics of the glacial/interglacial climate and what we can learn from it. It was rather good, actually, with a large number of interesting presentations. To be honest I was a bit surprised that so many eminent scientists could be persuaded to put up with the jet-lag involved in coming here, and I'm pleased that several of them managed to find ways to extend their trips here in various ways (holidays and other meetings). For me of course it was just a couple of hours on the train. We didn't get to see much of Nagoya - I only came for one night, and we were staying on the university campus which is some way out of town.

Last night several of us went out to dinner at a local Korean BBQ restaurant - which means there's a grill in the middle of the table at which the meal is self-cooked. We started off with calf's tongue and pretty much worked our way down from there, eating just about everything but the moo. The first stomach, marinaded and grilled, was hard enough work, but the second stomach, and the liver too, were supposed to be eaten raw (yes, really, a plate of cold quivering bloody slices of liver was plonked down in front of us, and it really was supposed to be eaten raw, although I cheated and used the grill when the staff weren't looking). These dishes didn't go down too well with most of the Japanese present, let alone the foreigners, but that's only because we had already had a fair portion of normal meat, honest :-) Then it was all rounded off with...a bowl of rice. Phew.

Coming home, we had the pleasure of rush hour in Yokohama. There seemed to be a minor delay so this train was slightly busier than usual, and we thought it prudent to wait for the next...

I was reminded of the story of a relative who once found themselves unable to get off the Tube (in London) at their intended stop, as their coat was stuck in the door on the non-opening side. So I thought I'd save that lady from a similar fate and pushed her buckle through the door.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Testing times

Did the last one of my JLPT practice tests last weekend, and got 67%. It was the 4th of the easy set though, which leaves me none the wiser as to my chances. If the real test (3 weeks away) is as easy as that one was - which seems unlikely - I'll surely pass. If it's as hard as the one I did 3 weeks ago - which I suspect is more likely - I might well fail. I'd be surprised to not get something in the range of 55-65% but that doesn't help much given the 60% pass mark! I did manage to pass each individual section for the first time which was moderately pleasing. I've also still got another 100+ kanji to wade through which might be worth an extra point or two - although I'm probably forgetting old ones as fast as I'm learning new ones now :-)

The exam is (for me) being held in some out-of-the-way place I've never heard of called Fuchinobe. I'd been hoping/expecting it to be somewhere around Yokohama but it's nearer to Hachioji - a full hour by train and then a 30 minute walk (ok, in theory there is a bus, but they warn it might be too busy unless I'm early enough that I might as well walk anyway). Since I'm half-an-hour from the station at this end too it will be an early start for a Sunday morning.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Computer says "no"

Perhaps the biggest drawback of being an absentee slumlord is the need to deal with the morons who work as estate agents in the UK. Since we are now on the wrong side of the world, we appointed a local firm to manage the rental of our small apartment when we left. We've considered selling up, but then we'd have to deal with the accumulated junk in the loft - with any luck some tenants will steal it, saving us the bother of disposing of it.

When we bought it, our house was by far the cheapest property in the town, which is pretty much why we chose it. Perhaps this is related to it being situated opposite an undertaker's, but actually they are greatly under-rated as neighbours - all their visitors are very quiet and well-behaved (deathly silent, one might almost say). There are literally no houses for sale now at less than twice the price we paid, and the rent we charge is about 2/3 of the bottom of the "normal" market in the area.

We've had no problem finding tenants. The most recent set have been there for about 18 months and by all accounts are looking after the place properly.

We have, however, had problems with the idiot agents. The most recent saga dates back several months when there was a small bit of damage, which was just about worth claiming for via the buildings insurance. The insurance was by now arranged though the agents (our own previous policy would not handle rentals or empty periods), so we (or rather jules, who actually handles all of this stuff) asked them for the relevant policy details and forms to fill. The agents basically told us it was our responsibility to sort it out, and they could not provide any details (such as a policy number). It didn't even seem clear what company was providing the insurance. Clearly nothing was going to be forthcoming, and after a few attempts we basically gave up (it wasn't much money).

More recently, our tenants briefly got behind on their rent. They had contacted both us and the agents about it, and we all accepted that they would be able to catch up in a reasonable time (the debt never actually exceeded the deposit we already held). Then suddenly, completely out of the blue, a letter arrived in jules's email (pdf that had been posted from the agent to the tenants) giving them a week to pay up in full or the landlord (US!) would commence eviction proceedings!

Some frantic phone calls to the agents ensued (having recently told the tenants that they were ok, we were not keen to be painted as the Landlords from Hell and of course with no sitting tenant we would get no rent...) and we were told that their hands were tied, it was all down to "the insurance". You see, as well as the standard buildling insurance, we have insurance to cover legal costs associated with evictions and non-payment of rent. If the arrears exceed a modest threshold (which they did by a few days, under a payment scheme we had all already agreed) then "the insurance" kicks in and takes action to stop the debt building up. There was nothing we could do other than cancel the insurance.

Somehow jules managed to convince them that the arrears were not actually increasing in a real sense and persuaded them to stop the threats without actually cancelling the insurance. She even reverse-engineered what "the threshold" was and arranged a payment scheme that would not trigger the action again. At this point, we also installed skype to save on phone bills. However, we saw a window of opportunity to raise the issue of the property damage again. Surely the agents could hardly claim ignorance of the insurance, since it was the insurance that had just triggered the latest crisis.

Well, they did their usual trick of stonewalling and not replying to emails. Eventually, somehow, jules got a reply out of them:

Oh, we don't arrange your house buildings insurance at all - that is your responsibility.

Flabbergasted, we looked back through all the monthly statements, and noticed that the amount of money taken for insurance had gone down at the time our most recent tenants moved in. Sure enough, it seemed that we were paying for the legal stuff, but not the buildings insurance. This was certainly not something we had asked the agents to drop, but we'd now been uninsured for 18 months! So we asked them to put it back on. They had to send out forms again, with all the usual boxes to tick - have you had any previous claims, is the property unoccupied, do you have DSS tenants (ie those reciept of welfare payments)...

Oh, we DO have DSS tenants - the ones who moved in 18 months ago, the point at which the insurance cover vanished (in fact their rent arrears had been due to some bureaucratic cock-up over benefits).

Oh well, we thought, maybe that will put the premium up a bit, but tenants on benefits are hardly unique. The forms got sent back....and nothing happened. Oh, we'll try again. Another set of forms...the same boxes to tick....and somehow no insurance. jules got on the phone with the agent, who said she would do it all on-line..."Oh, there seems to be a problem. I'll get back to you".

A couple of days later; "Sorry, we can't do DSS. Computer says no".

After a brief moment of panic - what do we do with an uninsurable house with sitting tenants - jules googled and in about 30 seconds had found a string of companies who will happily provide insurance, for about what we were paying anyway.

So, just to re-cap: the agents had firstly introduced DSS tenants without considering the possibility that this could be an issue with the insurance, then simply allowed the insurance to lapse without even noticing, let alone telling us, then even after having had it pointed out to them that the insurance vanished when our new tenants moved in, and on being faced with a form with that specific box to tick, still did not realise that DSS tenants could be a problem, and finally had no ability to find insurance where such tenants are involved, even though it is easily available. And for this, we pay them.

The average salary of an estate agent is roughly 50% higher than that of a scientist in the UK.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Is (climate) change bad?

I put this on RealClimate and then globalchange (where comments would be most appropriately directed) but perhaps it's worth repeating here...

I spotted an interesting comment on RC, in the thread following the recent post "How much CO2 emission is too much?":




and a few subsequent replies to me

My comment on the comments on the comment on the comment on the comment got longer and longer and I repost it here as a more suitable forum for discussion:

Re 34, 35, 37, 39:

Even if one assumes the premise that we are "optimally adapted" to the present climate (which I think would be difficult to rationally defend), it does not follow that changes to the climate would result in net costs.

In fact, our adaptation to the current climate (eg in agriculture and infrastructure, as have been mentioned) is also a matter of economics, technology and politics, and we can guarantee that these will continue to change at quite a rate.

Of course we can all agree that a drought in an area that is already somewhat short of water is a bad thing that will likely cost money, compared to exactly the same situation without the extra drought. However, an increase in rainfall in such an area is likely to be beneficial (so long as it is not excessive and leads to flooding), even if society is well adapted to the status quo. The opening of the Northwest Passage is likely to bring significant economic benefits by reducing transport costs, even though (of course) we are currently adapted to its impassability. Warmer winters will reduce the winter death rate in the UK for sure, and this vastly outweighs any plausible estimate of heatwave deaths, at least for a range of modest warmings, even before we start to consider any adaptation to the summer heat. We could of course achieve a similar effect by insulating homes and reducing poverty, of course, but we are already "optimally adapted", right?

To boldly assert as axiomatic that "change = bad" is, I think, rather naive and simplistic. All sorts of (social, economic, technological) changes are inevitable, and the latter two at least have a strong record of bringing substantial (no, massive) benefits. Would anyone be silly enough to argue that these changes are bad because we are adapted to the status quo? While I am sure that some climate changes will increase pressure on some ecosystems and human societies, it seems to me to be a rather more nuanced situation than some of the comments above would indicate. Indeed, if the climate changes are slow and modest enough compared to the other changes, it might be hard to detect their overall effect at all (on human health, wealth and happiness, I mean - of course I'm sure it will be easy to measure environmental parameters that document the climate change itself, indeed this is already clear enough). I'm sure UK residents will have noticed the substantial northward march of maize as a crop in recent years (for cattle fodder). I'm not sure to what extent this is due to politics (subsidies), economics, climate change, breeding of better-adapted varieties, or even just farmers gradually realising that it grows better than they had thought possible. Even if climate change is the largest factor (which I doubt, but it's possible), it is not clear who lost out here, other than perhaps the bugs that prefer to live on kale (or whatever the displaced crop was).

Living as I do in a country where houses are expected to last about 30 years, I find it hard to take seriously any worry that they might not be optimally adapted to the climate 100 years hence (let alone the sea level a few centuries later). Note also that a change in fuel prices would change the optimal amount of insulation irrespective of climate change. Likewise, advances in building materials will likely render current designs somewhat redundant.

Extropians would assert that "change = good" and that we should encourage change unless it is proven harmful. Just to be clear on this, I do not endorse this point of view 100% but the difference in opinion seems as much philosophical as scientific. I think that understanding this POV goes a long way to explaining the differences between the environmentalists and the sceptics (even if it does not excuse the dishonesty of the denialist wing).

I hope this doesn't sound too much like a septic handwave, expecting techology to magically save the day. To the extent that climate change is rapid or substantial (which I will deliberately leave undefined here!), of course it's a threat that should be taken seriously. It is a little scary to think about how dominant the human influence can be, and perhaps a mental model of some hypothetical stasis is a comforting thought in which to ground our personal philosophies. But it would be a mistake to let one's comfort zone unduly colour one's perceptions of reality (or at least, such effects need to be openly considered and one should be prepared to see them challenged).

In case it's not clear, I'm not actually trying to argue that the expected changes are necessarily (or even likely) a good thing. But I was struck by the extent to which some people were asserting that no change would automatically be the best possible outcome, and moreover that this was a logical/scientifically-based judgement.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Do we need more scientists?

Blair has been bleating on about how Britain needs more scientists, and how we (scientists) should all pretend to live the lives of celebrities in order to con the kiddies into thinking it's an attractive career encourage more schoolchildren to study science. Or something like that. It doesn't move the debate on beyond where we were a few weeks ago, as far as I can tell.

Blair's primary concern appears to be the profits of UK PLC and, as I've already explained, an oversupply of compliant debt-ridden post-doc fodder is a great way of maintaining downward pressure on the salaries of those who (so we are told) are so important for the future of the economy.

Obviously, the schoolchildren who are abandoning science subjects in droves are having none of it, and I don't blame then.

Bryan Lawrence asks "who's going to do all the hard environmental science then?" To which I reply, how about the 200 redundant CEH scientists, along with those from Silsoe or the Hannah that I blogged about previously (and no doubt many more, jettisoned in smaller and less news-worthy tranches). Of course, some of these scientists may have skills that are not directly attuned to the priorities of today, since they committed the serious offence of being educated and trained a decade or several ago, and have probably been specialising ever since. (It's worth noting that all the rhetoric about "interdisciplinary science" almost always means Expert in field A talking (or pretending to talk) to Expert in field B, rather than anyone becoming moderately expert in both A and B. It's not for nothing that a scientist can be summed up as someone who knows more and more about less and less. Our career structures and evaluation pretty well force such specialisation upon us, in fact.) So all it takes is a change in the political fashions, and your decades of experience go down the tubes. This risk was very evident when I was working at Silsoe - an agricultural engineering research establishment - shortly after its parent Agricultural and Food Research Council morphed into the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (biotech is sexy: chicken harvesters [video here] apparently aren't). It seems clear to me that despite the Govt's urgings, the material rewards of a career in science do not come close to compensating for the personal investment and risk of a premature "retirement". For a similar effort (and assuming a comparable intelligence), you could become a doctor or lawyer and have a job for life with several times the salary. Unless and until there is some evidence of this state of affairs changing, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the declining interest in science continuing. Of course, there will always be a few eccentrics for whom the thrill of solving interesting problems is enough, but if the Govt or industry wants more than that, they will have to be prepared to pay for it.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Stop climate chaos catastrophic tipping point of no return hype

Interesting to see Mike Hulme come out with a broadside against the apocalypse-mongers. He lays into pretty much everyone: politicians and activists, and of course newpapers such as the Indescribablyoverhyped, but there also appear to be (un-named) scientists in his sights. He has particularly harsh words for the "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change" conference as a frenzied week of "climate change is worse than we thought" news reporting and group-think. I'm not sure I would have been quite that harsh, actually.

He also comments:

The language of catastrophe is not the language of science. It will not be visible in next year's global assessment from the world authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Just attempting to join the dots here: Blair's "only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points" was pretty much directly predicated on his upcoming Stern report, which (I think it's fair to say) has generally been praised as being in line with the IPCC consensus. Of course, we are all still waiting with bated breath for RealClimate's comments on Stern - they are usually quick to comment on newsworthy climate science stories, although I can understand this one giving them a bit of indigestion.


Mike Hulme can also be heard on the Today program here.

More housing fun

We are somewhat interested in the house mentioned at the bottom of this post, and the estate agent said it would take about 2 hours to explain its special circumstances, so we enlisted a couple of friends to act as interpreters and trooped off to their shop on Saturday morning, not really having any idea what to expect. In the UK, the estate agent is basically a con-man who tries to shift boxes at any price and most people rely on a solicitor to make sure the Is and Ts are properly dotted and crossed, but it seems that in Japan, it is relatively rare to employ legal assistance and the agent takes a much greater responsibility (and so they should, given their fees).

So, he seems to have looked into the land search and local regulations in quite some detail, and it took well over 2 hours to go through the details. Most of the substantive "issues" relate to the rebuilding rights - since houses are not expected to last more than about 40 years, this is crucial for the long-term value of the site. The house is in the middle of a non-residential area of woodland where rebuilding is generally not allowed, but the plot has a special exemption due to there already being a house there (two, in fact) when the land was so designated a few decades ago. That's great as it means there could not be an appartment block erected on the boundary. A bigger fly in the ointment is that there appears to be a strip of unowned land (in practice that means in national ownership) which separates the plot from the road, and this discontinuity prohibits a rebuild (and could in extremis even cause access problems if someone else bought it). Possibly it could be claimed for free after 10 years of occupancy (the previous owner is already at 8, and this count is not re-set on selling), and the strip can certainly be bought, but the whole area is unsurveyed which is a non-trivial expense that the buyer would have to bear. On top of that, 2 of the neighbouring landowners appear to be disappeared or deceased, which would make it problematic to arrange the surveying permissions. There are further issues due to the fact that the road is not an officially adopted one, and the land is dangerously steep, all implying more hoops to jump for a rebuild (but just paperwork and restrictions, not a ban).

After lunch we all went to have a look round, to see how the paper description matches the reality on the ground. It's still an amazing site with a well-built house that would be very pleasant to live in. Land rights problems are a bit of a red flag (certainly in the UK) and the sensible action is generally to walk away or wait until the current owner sorts it out. At the least, we need to find some legal advice about how much trouble and expense it would take to sort out. It might be easy, and it would certainly be interesting...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Cause or effect?

I see that Abbey is now offering to loan 5 times joint salary for a mortgage, which implies an interest payment alone of about 25% of gross salary (and that at historically low interest rates of about 5% pa) before anyone even starts to think about repaying the capital.

Way back in pre-history, AIUI loans were typically limited to something like 2.5 times a single salary (ie typically the man's salary), which morphed to 3x the larger plus 1.5x the smaller, then more recently 3.5x the total household income.

Abbey claims that even larger loans are necessary to enable people to buy houses: I claim that the increasing size of loan multipliers is directly fuelling house price rises, since ultimately this multiplier is what puts a ceiling on the amount people can pay (of course this is not an original idea).

A few years of 10% interest rates (let alone the 15% reached around Black Wednesday) would be interesting to see, not that I would wish that fate on anyone. Back in the era of high inflation, a large debt would rapidly erode in real terms, but today's house buyers will have this risk hanging over them for a long time to come.

In Japan, it seems that loans of 6.5x salary are available (that's just from clicking buttons on a bank's web site, I don't know if this is a general rule). However, the site I looked at does seem to limit this to a single salary (workforce participation of married women is amazingly low), and there are also long-term fixed rates of about 3% available which limits the risk.