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International Periscope

/ Source: Newsweek

Russia: Isotope of Death

Until a few days ago, U.S. and British government investigators had never heard of anyone being poisoned by the obscure and unstable isotope polonium 210. Now its extreme rarity is adding to the riddles in the death of exiled former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Who silenced Litvinenko? His family and supporters insist Russian agents did it. Investigators in London think such a lethal dose must have been industrially produced—a job that usually takes not only bismuth metal for raw material but a nuclear reactor to bombard it with neutrons. "It's not something you can go into a drugstore and get off a shelf," says one nuclear-agency official, asking to be nameless because of the sensitive topic. "To get this amount of highly concentrated radioactivity would take a very sophisticated operation, access to nuclear materials and support systems," Litvinenko's friend and fellow Russian exile Alex Goldfarb told NEWSWEEK. Last week Goldfarb released a statement he claims Litvinenko had dictated as he died, blaming Putin for the poisoning: "The howl of pro-test from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life."

Putin denied that he or his government had anything to do with Litvinenko's death. British officials say Moscow has made a serious effort recently to improve ties with London, and Litvinenko was not a big enough threat or nuisance for Putin to jeopardize so much hard work. All the same, exotic poisons have been a favorite weapon of Moscow's spy services and their allies ever since Soviet times. But earlier this year the Russian Parliament explicitly authorized the use of force against enemies living abroad. It's hard to think why Russian agents would use such a distinctive poison. But if they didn't, who did?

—Mark Hosenball, Michael Isikoff and Owen Matthews

U.S. Affairs: Hanging Around

It's "the long goodbye"—Pentagon style. Donald Rumsfeld's successor as Defense secretary, Robert Gates, is due to have his confirmation hearing in early December—a process Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada predicted would be swift. "We want the change to take place very quickly," Reid said.

Not so quickly, after all. A White House spokesperson confirms that Gates will be sworn in as the new Defense secretary "in the new year," a good two weeks after his confirmation. Many in Washington are currently speculating about the reason for the delay. One source close to the White House, who spoke anonymously in order to keep his job, believes President George W. Bush has decided to wait until after Dec. 29 "as a personal gesture to Rumsfeld." On that date Rumsfeld would become the longest-serving Defense secretary, beating Robert McNamara's record of 85 months. At the Pentagon, a senior official who didn't want to be named due to the sensitivity of White House matters, admits that he doesn't know "what the president's intentions are," and insists that Rumsfeld pays no heed to such things.

—John Barry and Gretel Kovach

However vicious, Taliban fighters have to abide by strict rules. Supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar began distributing a pocket-size pamphlet to his Afghan guerrillas last month. Among the guidelines:

No selling of Taliban weapons or equipment—and be sure to save all receipts.

Civilians are to be respected.

Do not "raid houses," or "take people's money or personal property."

No bringing "young boys without beards" into the combat zone.

No smoking!

—Sami Yousafzai

Music: Two to Tango

Duets are hip. They're such good business that everyone from Tony Bennett to Justin Timberlake has shared the mike recently:

Easy listening: Tony Bennett's new "Duets: An American Classic" is the highest-charting album of his 50-year career, hitting No. 3 on the Billboard 200. Taking a cue from Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, Bennett croons with Paul McCartney, Diana Krall and Bono. But simply trading lines doesn't always make a good cut. Thus, Bennett's solo reinterpretation of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" is the album's best track. Sometimes two's a crowd.

Hip-hop: Old-timers aren't the only ones laying down duets. The female singer-male rapper duo, or "thug-love duet," dominates the radio: Beyoncé and Jay-Z; Nicole Scherzinger and Diddy's "Come to Me" and Nelly Furtado and Timbaland's "Promiscuous," the biggest hit of 2006. But Justin Timberlake and T.I.'s "My Love" and Akon and Eminems's "Smack That" are more marketing marriages than artistic "collabos." Gone are the days of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

Surgery: Lusher Lashes

Growing up, Aleve Loh, a 30-year-old marketing manager in L.A., longed for thicker eyelashes. "My best friend always had amazing, huge, big eyelashes," she says. "I was like, 'I want those!' " Loh's dream became a reality after she underwent the latest form of cosmetic surgery: eyelash transplants. The procedure has been around for more than a decade, pioneered by hair-restoration surgeons as a way of helping burn and accident victims, or people who suffer from compulsive hair-pulling. But as word spread about the procedure, doctors have seen more and more healthy patients seek implants. "There's been a virtual explosion of these surgeries for cosmetic purposes," says Dr. Alan Bauman, a Florida surgeon. "In the past four or five months I've had about 100 inquiries. A couple years ago we were doing just maybe one a month."

Surgeons harvest a fingertip-size patch of hair from the back of the scalp. Then they isolate individual follicles and implant anywhere from 10 to 50 lashes on the top lid using a curved needle. Patients are awake throughout the procedure (after taking a sedative) and receive local anesthetic to minimize pain. Side effects may include temporarily puffy lids and scarring. There's also regular upkeep: the new eyelashes continue to grow at the same rate as the hair on your head, so they must be continually trimmed. "Whenever I tell people about the surgery, that's the thing that freaks them out," says Loh. The cost: as much as $3,000 per lid.

—Julie Scelfo

Books: Just for Kids Again

Donald Barthelme had a strange writing career. He became famous for publishing his uncompromisingly avant-garde short stories in The New Yorker. After his death in 1989, his allusive intellectual fantasias fell out of fashion. At last, the enterprising Overlook Press is bringing back his one National Book Award winner: a 1971 children's book called "The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine," illustrated with Barthelme's own collages of 19th-century engravings. It's the story of a girl named Alice who discovers a Chinese house in her backyard, in which she has Wonderland-like escapades—which she knows to expect. We can tell you the fire engine's a bargain because it's green, not red, but what it's doing there is for you to find out.

—David Gates

Reality Check

Chocolate, in the form of enriched cocoa bars, is good for you. In a 6 week study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, people who ate two servings per day of Cocoa Via Crunch, a chocolate snack bar enriched with 1.5 grams of plant-derived compounds called phytosterols, lowered their LDL, or bad, cholesterol by 6 percent and their overall cholesterol by 4.7 percent.