These "Syria for idiots" pieces are getting a bit much

Where will it end?

The Syria Question: It’s stolen the headlines and public debate this summer as Congress and Parliament come to loggerheads. But how can you have an answer if you don’t know what the Question is? Here’s a simple explanation from one K N Al-Sabah in a letter to the FT:

Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!

Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.

But Gulf states are pro Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!

Iran is pro Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!

Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!

Gulf states are pro US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!

Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.

K N Al-Sabah, London EC4, UK

Comprende? If not, don’t worry, the letter’s recent trending on Twitter inspired some uncomplicated visual graphics, most notably @TheBigPharaoh’s "The Complete Idiot’s Chart to Understanding The Middle East", as picked up by the Washington Post. One glance at the chart and its blue, red and green arrows depicting who "supports", "hates" and "has no clue" of who, and you will probably also have "no clue" about what is really going on in the fast changing region.

Perhaps this is overcomplicating things, especially for the American public, half of whom could not find Syria on a map, as surveyed by the Pew Research Centre "only 50 per cent of respondents correctly identified the shaded country as Syria. Almost one in five (19 per cent) thought it was Turkey, 11 per cent said it was Saudi Arabia, and 5 per cent said it was Egypt".

This inspired the New York Times columnist Nick Kristof to Tweet "Now members of Congress will have to consult maps and figure out where Syria is".

Perhaps this was meant as a joke, but then on Tuesday, General Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the US Army told the BBC "many of our politicians are not educated on what is really going on in Syria". Just as well, then, the UK has renounced intervening alongside the US.

The public – who have no say in the Syria Question – might not need to know who "supports" or "has no clue", who is "pro" or "backing", or who "hates" or is "against" who, or even, for that matter, know where Syria is. But if the Syria Question is so complicated that it confuddles the politicians, then a longer debate and strategy is surely needed. Perhaps Commons or Congress should invite Mr K N Al-Sabah to read out his letter to them, complete with the updated allegiances of the UK and US. Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.

Photograph: Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.