Newsmakers: August 11-18, 2011

Frances Bean Cobain comes of age, Ai Weiwei opens up, and Vladimir Putin’s latest macho stunt backfires

Colby Cosh, Richard Warnica and Alex Ballingall
<p>SMART Technologies assembly plant workers pose with their lottery win cheque on Friday Aug. 12, 2011 in Toronto. The workers are losing their jobs after their employer announced it was shutting its plant in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Will Campbell</p>

SMART Technologies assembly plant workers pose with their lottery win cheque on Friday Aug. 12, 2011 in Toronto. The workers are losing their jobs after their employer announced it was shutting its plant in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Will Campbell

Will Campbell/CP

Putin’s dive bombs

For a certain set, the phrase “jumping the shark” has come to represent the moment when a cultural product passes beyond relevance—usually by means of a desperate or deliberate stunt. “Finding the urn” may soon be the political equivalent. Last week, Vladimir Putin “discovered” ancient Greek urns during a Black Sea dive. The Russian prime minister, a novice diver, made his find in front of media at a depth of six metres in an area well picked over by archaeologists. Russian state television, on hand for the raising of the urns, praised the discovery, which came to “everyone’s utter surprise,” said Russia Today. But independent media have been a tad more skeptical. Putin’s devotion to the photo op is well-known: whether he’s shooting tigers, fishing topless or piloting a helicopter, the cameras are never far behind. But as he gears up for another possible presidential run, one wonders if the urn scoop wasn’t a photo op too far. Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, meanwhile, said he would consider accepting the post of prime minister—but only if he likes the incoming president’s agenda. The owner of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, who got his business start in the ’80s selling stonewashed jeans, provoked scorn in Russia recently by suggesting the country abandon the ruble in favour of the euro. No word yet on his archaeological skills.

Runaway cow

A race is on between hunters and animal rights activists in Bavaria. A cow named Yvonne, who in May broke through an electric fence, earned a price on her head when a police car almost hit her after she roamed onto a highway. Officials said she had to be captured, dead or alive, and sent two hunters to track her down. An animal sanctuary caught wind of the hunt and dispatched volunteers to find her—armed, in their case, with tranquilizer guns. Last week, the German tabloid Bild announced a US$14,000 reward for Yvonne, and a Swiss “animal communicator” has agreed to help with the dragnet. A handsome bull named Ernst—described as the “George Clooney of breeding bulls” by a local animal sanctuary—has also been corralled into action.

For love or country

Sandra Torres’s sacrificial quest to become president of Guatemala has come to grief—though it may save her marriage. The 55-year-old women’s rights activist is first lady of the Central American republic; her UNE party nominated her to follow her husband, Álvaro Colom, as president, despite a constitutional provision forbidding relatives and spouses from succeeding. Torres tried to evade the rule by filing for divorce, but Guatemala’s highest court outlawed her candidacy anyway. The ruling sets the stage for the probable victory of a law-and-order right-winger and ex-general, Otto Pérez Molina.

Her father’s daughter

The fashion world is buzzing over a series of alluring black and white photos of 19-year-old Frances Bean Cobain published recently by Hedi Slimane, a former designer for Dior Homme. The daughter of Courtney Love and the late Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain revealed tattooed phrases on her arms and back while posing with a cigarette hanging from her pouting lips. “Her intense, pale stare hauntingly recalls her brilliant but troubled father,” wrote the New York Times.

Up a creek

Jesse Bertram just wanted to cross Waiparous Creek in his pickup. Unfortunately, the 25-year-old electrician got stuck halfway across the unexpectedly deep stream in Alberta’s Ghost Forest area. Even more unfortunately, this turned out to be a spawning ground for bull and cutthroat trout. He pleaded guilty to destroying fish habitat in a Cochrane courtroom last week, receiving a rare $2,000 fine. “It’s really difficult to catch someone in the act,” federal prosecutor Erin Eacott told the Calgary Herald. “I wasn’t there to kill fish,” countered a gloomy Bertram.

Ai Weiwei opens up

When Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was detained last spring, he had no idea what a tight fix he was in. In an interview with the New York Times this week, Ai says two military sergeants were never more than 30 inches from his side during his three-month ordeal. They were there when he slept and ate—even when he used the toilet. “It is designed as a kind of mental torture, and it works well.” Ai, who was released on June 22 after signing what authorities described as a confession of tax evasion, agreed not to speak out publicly. But the artist didn’t stay quiet long. In his well-read blog, he’s calling on the government to free other dissidents.

They’re just roommates, okay?

Bert and Ernie were declared officially asexual recently, in response to an online campaign calling for them to marry. “Bert and Ernie are best friends,” says a statement posted on Sesame Street’s Facebook page. “Even though they are identified as male characters,” the show went on, “they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.” Bert and Ernie share an apartment, a bed, and a mutual love of cookies; more than 9,000 people recently signed a petition calling on them to share much more. Having the two marry, petitioners argued, would give kids a pair of positive gay role models. But the brains behind Sesame Street say the puppets already portray a positive message: “People can be good friends with those much different from themselves.”

From layoff to payoff

For workers at Ottawa-based Smart Technologies, playing the lottery probably wasn’t a smart way to plan for life’s uncertainties—but it worked. Ten employees of the software manufacturer learned on Aug. 10 that the company was laying them off and outsourcing their jobs to Mexico. Two days later, they were part of a group of 18 winners in the draw for the 6/49 top jackpot of $7 million. Some of the Smart guys will retire on their $393,000 individual winnings, while others intend to pay off mortgages; 33-year-old Shaun Hogan told a press conference he will use part of his prize for job retraining. “We are having the last laugh.”

The billionaire, the lover, the apartment

George Soros, the controversial 80-year-old billionaire currency trader and political activist, is being sued by his ex-girlfriend. Brazilian actress/heiress Adriana Ferreyr, 28, says Soros repeatedly promised to buy her apartments on New York’s Upper East Side but reneged, causing “extreme” trauma. The Columbia undergraduate also claims that Soros hit her during one of their fights, and that when she moved at her own expense into the same building as another Soros girlfriend, the magnate had her “stalked” by his security detail.

Now, every day is Friday

Rebecca Black, the 14-year-old schoolgirl whose vanity video Friday became a widely loathed YouTube hit, has had to leave school because of teasing from classmates. “When I walk by, they’ll start singing Friday in a really nasally voice,” she complained to ABC’s Nightline. “Or, you know, they’ll be like, ‘Oh hey, Rebecca, guess what day it is?’ ” Black will be home-schooled by her mother Georgina Marquez, a former teacher. Her latest YouTube video—My Moment, a biographical number about prevailing over her critics—has had over 23 million views. “Were you the one who said that I would be nothing?” she sings. “Well, I’m about to prove you wrong.”

A Texan rides in

Is the U.S. ready for another former Texas governor as president? Rick Perry, who last week threw his 10-gallon hat into the ring in the hopes of becoming the 2012 Republican nominee for president, sure hopes so. The same weekend, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann narrowly won the Ames straw poll in Iowa, and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty withdrew from the contest. Perry, a fifth-generation Texan from rural Paint Creek, has won three straight elections in Texas. He also claims responsibility for the “Texas miracle”: relatively rosy employment numbers and economic growth. But critics like Paul Krugman call Perry’s narrative a “myth,” noting that the state’s eight per cent unemployment rate is higher than New York’s, and that one in four Texans also lacks health insurance—the highest uninsured rate in the U.S. Texas’s job growth, he argues, is largely the result of population growth.

What life after the Kindle?

Aqua Books, Winnipeg’s much-admired arts mecca, has announced that it will close this autumn. The downtown bookstore was known for its writer-in-residence program, for the in-store studio space it provided creators and performers, for its readings—over 350 per year—and the untelevised talk shows hosted by owner Kelly Hughes. Hughes, who referred to the store as Winnipeg’s cultural city hall, attributed the closure of his store, which made a high-stakes move to a massive new space in 2008, to a permanent “cultural shift away from reading.” Book sales, he said in an email to customers, are down 30 per cent from last year.

You can’t go home again

Especially if you’re Milan Lucic, and you’ve defeated your hometown Canucks in an epic, bitter Stanley Cup final. The Cup’s visit to Vancouver was a private, family affair for the Boston forward; the Serbo-Canadian giant regretted that, his mother Snezana says, but “there is a certain amount of tension” in the city.