Periscope

Rising Fears of 'Freelancing'
What began as a minor incident in the Persian Gulf is becoming a major hostage crisis. In the two weeks since 15 British sailors and Marines were detained near the Shatt al-Arab waterway while inspecting an Indian-flagged merchant ship—allegedly by Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats—tensions have heightened. British P.M. Tony Blair has appealed to the U.N. Security Council for help while under pressure at home for not reacting more combatively to the crisis. Tehran, meanwhile, has paraded the captives on TV. Iran's chief international negotiator, Ali Larijani, issued a veiled threat to put them on trial.

Western intelligence officials say the biggest problem is figuring out who is really behind the seizure. Were the culprits Revolutionary Guard zealots acting on their own, forcing the government to back them up? Or was the detention ordered by someone high up in the Iranian government, possibly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who warned only a day before the seizure that if the United States and Europeans "take illegal actions, we too can take illegal actions and will do so"? According to a retired Iranian diplomat, what Washington and London fail to appreciate is how much "freelancing" really goes on inside Iran. Revolutionary Guard extremists are angry and looking for payback. In recent weeks a former Revolutionary Guard general disappeared in Turkey, possibly in a defection; around the same time, an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad was reportedly seized by an Iraqi Special Forces unit that collaborates closely with U.S. forces. U.S. troops in Iraq also arrested Qais al-Khazali, an alleged liaison between Iranian Guard operatives and "secret cells" of the Mahdi Army. "It usually happens like this: one small group does something, and then it's the whole system that has to clean up after them," the diplomat says. With Blair now declaring he won't negotiate, and Iran resisting further U.N. pressure, the standoff may drag on for a long time.

Israel: Model Makeover
In an attempt to improve its image abroad, Israel is trying to shift the world's focus from historic Jerusalem to modern Tel Aviv. Six months ago, David Saranga, an Israeli consular official in New York, approached Maxim magazine and offered to fly a camera crew to the Jewish state. And last week photographer Jim Malucci hit the Tel Aviv beach. A Hasidic man in a black hat walked by as Malucci praised the arch in the back of his bikini-clad model. "Love the guy with the hat!" Malucci chortled. "That's hot, right there."

Not everyone agrees. Settler leader and former Tourism minister Benny Elon says Israel's "unique selling proposition" is its religious heritage. But pushing religion could alienate liberals, says Alan Dershowitz, author of "The Case for Israel." Ultimately, he says, "Israel is both countries. A country where models pose at great holy sites."

The Test
Is ethanol the fuel of the future? World heavy-weight producers Brazil and the United States think so. But new demand has raised corn prices, enraging Mexican tortilla producers. The price of corn-fed livestock has also jumped, and could jack up food prices in importing nations like South Korea and China. Switching feedstock could help; Brazilian biofuel distilled from sugarcane is a third cheaper than the stuff the farmers up north brew. But don't tell that to folks in Iowa, where corn is king and fortunes rest on the stiff taxes the U.S. levies on imported ethanol. As demand for renewable energy soars, perhaps the two biofuel titans can strike a compromise. If not, everyone else may have to decide between filling their tanks or their larders.

Working out online is catching on. Cardiocoach.com now has customers in more than 70 countries. iTrain.com has 25,000 followers, up 400 percent since January 2006.

Now the health-club industry is fighting back, claiming there is no substitute for "face-to-face contact" with a personal trainer. Kathie Davis, head of IDEA Health and Fitness Association, the world's largest fitness trade group, says e-mail can't inspire or teach as a trainer can. And doctors do recommend trainers for novices and those with medical conditions. But the fact is: once you learn a routine, you can do it without a trainer, for a lot less than $100 an hour. The Web will win this contest.

Brooklyn Bad Boy
Brooklyn-born graffiti painter Jean-Michel Basquiat is making an elegant comeback. The French Embassy and La Francophonie, an association of 53 countries that use the French language, are now claiming the late American wunderkind as one of their own by exhibiting 41 of his drawings in the grand building of the French Embassy's Cultural Services in New York. A far cry from his humble, funky East Village hangouts, it was within these walls that Basquiat's father, Gerard, worked as a young French-speaking Haitian student when he received news of his son's birth in 1962. The exhibit is a testimony to just how far Basquiat has traveled. The drawings on display come from collections in France (including that of French art dealer Enrico Navarra, who organized and financed the show) and have not been seen in the United States before. Mostly small works on paper, they are charmingly childlike and near primitive in their use of stick figures. The cartoon-like characters, drawn in brilliant colors in crayon, ink, felt pen or ballpoint, evoke both the graphic zip and minimalism of Basquiat's art and the nightmares of his troubled personal life. A single large black piece with its thick, bold squiggles hints at the graffiti art that he was to create during his drug-addled decline. A regular drug user who constantly tested his limits with cocaine, heroin and LSD, Basquiat died of an overdose at 27. During his time, he gained notoriety for his bohemian lifestyle and was befriended by the likes of Andy Warhol. Now, as this exhibit makes clear, he's become eminently respectable.

ROBOTICS Meet 'Big Dog'
All armies need supplies. Will U.S. Special Forces of the future use "Big Dog" to carry theirs? The creation of robotics pioneer Marc Raibert skirts obstacles it "sees," climbs rock-strewn slopes and can jump a three-foot ditch while carrying double a soldier's load—all without human aid. Big Dog is funded by DARPA, the Pentagon agency that explores "the far side" (as it puts it), bringing way-out ideas to reality. Its record includes the Internet and stealth aircraft, so when DARPA's John Main says "biodynotics"—robots inspired by nature—are "potentially revolutionary," he's worth listening to.

There may be an upside to emotional damage, says a recent University of Southern California study. By asking how their subjects would react in various hypothetical scenarios, researchers found that damage to a key emotion-processing center, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, makes people more likely to make tough "utilitarian" choices that maximize public welfare, like shooting an HIV-positive friend who intends to infect others.

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