These Influencers Aren’t Flesh and Blood, Yet Millions Follow Them

On a public Google Doc that functions as the company’s website, Brud bills itself as “a transmedia studio that creates digital character driven story worlds” and says Lil Miquela is “as real as Rihanna.” Its “head of compassion,” in Brud-speak, is Trevor McFedries, whom Lil Miquela has referred to in several posts as a father figure.

Before co-founding Brud, Mr. McFedries was known as Yung Skeeter, a D.J., producer, director and musician who has worked with Katy Perry, Steve Aoki, Bad Robot Productions and Spotify. He has helped raise millions of dollars in financing from heavyweights like Spark Capital, Sequoia Capital and Founders Fund, according to TechCrunch.

Last summer, Lil Miquela’s Instagram account appeared to be hacked by a woman named Bermuda, a Trump supporter who accused Lil Miquela of “running from the truth.” A wild narrative emerged on social media: Lil Miquela was a robot built to serve a “literal genius” named Daniel Cain before Brud reprogrammed her. “My identity was a choice Brud made in order to sell me to brands, to appear ‘woke,’” she wrote in one post. The character vowed never to forgive Brud. A few months later, she forgave.

Fans followed along, rapt.

The online drama was as engineered as Lil Miquela herself, part of a “story line written by Brud,” according to Huxley. It echoed “S1m0ne,” a 2002 film starring Al Pacino as a film director who replaces an uncooperative actress with a digital ingénue.

While virtual influencers are becoming more common, fans have engaged less with them than with the average fashion tastemaker online, according to data from Captiv8, which connects companies to social media influencers.

“An avatar is basically a mannequin in a shop window,” said Nick Cooke, a co-founder of the Goat Agency, a marketing firm. “A genuine influencer can offer peer-to-peer recommendations.”

There may be hope for the humans yet.


What Abortion Access Looks Like in Mississippi: One Person at a Time

When she arrived, the JWHO receptionist told her there were no appointments that day; she would have to come back later for an initial consultation, then a third time for the procedure. This amounted to a gas bill A. couldn’t afford. She walked out to the parking lot, numb, and dialed the number the clinic had given her for the National Abortion Federation, whose hotline offers income-based assistance for the procedure, but nothing else. When A. said she needed gas money, N.A.F. directed her to M.R.F.F., which covered everything. Other than the friend who drove A. to the clinic, Roberts was the only person who knew it happened. “Miss Laurie is real and didn’t sugarcoat things,” A. remembered. “Nothing could really make it easy, but she made it easier.”

In 1994, worried that Clinton-era Democrats were considering sacrificing reproductive care from health care reform in an appeal to Republicans, 12 black women met at a Chicago abortion rights conference to have what Loretta Ross described to me as “our W.T.F. moment.” Ross, now an author and lecturer on race and reproductive issues, was at the time doing anti-Ku Klux Klan organizing in Atlanta. As the conversation in Chicago went on, her fellow activists started talking less about reproductive rights and more about how the movement surrounding it was failing black women.

“One of the things we talked about,” Ross says, “was that, since the Civil War, the African-American community has been subject to strategies of population control, trying to make sure that we don’t have children. So we have to fight equally hard for the right to have the children that we want to have. As we thought about it further, we said, Well, once we had kids, no one seemed to care. So we have to fight for our right to parent our children in safe and healthy environments.” They eventually named their new framework “reproductive justice” and their group SisterSong. The idea took decades to gain traction. Khiara M. Bridges, a law professor at Boston University who studies how poor women of color navigate health care systems, told me that the concept “just wasn’t a thing” when she studied law at Columbia University in the late 1990s. But at the same time, “reproductive rights alone didn’t make sense to me or the work I was doing. It’s just not a useful tool to describe how people’s lives are on the ground.”

When applied to an individual abortion, reproductive justice involves taking into account everything else in a patient’s life. After Roberts helped A. receive her abortion, M.R.F.F. began paying for her birth control. When Brandy got a new job after her trip to Tuscaloosa, Roberts’s children helped look after her kids. Reproductive justice is why Roberts named her organization the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund and not the Mississippi Abortion Fund.

Four years in, Roberts concluded that M.R.F.F. couldn’t carry out this mission without its own physical address. Funding abortions, birth control, groceries — this could be done from her home. But in a state that mandates abstinence-based sex education and has the nation’s highest infant-mortality rate, her ambitions were bigger: comprehensive sex education, breast-feeding classes, a food pantry.

She tried to rent, but when landlords learned what she planned to do with the property, they stopped returning her calls. So in 2017, she says, she spent $12,000 — almost half the fund’s money at the time — on a two-bedroom with a cottage in West Jackson, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, which is 98 percent black. She wanted, she says, to invest in the community, and the location also offered a slight buffer from anti-abortion activists. “They are less inclined to come to the ’hood,” Roberts says. “I don’t think the city of Jackson would take kindly to a bunch of white folks showing up to protest a group giving away diapers to black moms.”

Last winter, Roberts stopped by the house, which she had taken to calling the “fundshack,” to make sure the grass was trimmed and the squatter that she’d had to evict hadn’t returned. “These are all going to be new and energy efficient,” she said, pointing to front windows missing half their shutters. In the backyard, a bare-branched oak towered over dense weeds. “We’re going to have cookouts and movie nights here.” She opened the cottage door and waded into standing water. “We’ll clear all this out” — mildewed couches, broken glass — “and tidy up the little kitchen in here, maybe set up some beds for folks who need a place to stay.” The front house, she said, would host classes, the M.R.F.F. office, a playroom and whatever else clients end up needing. And, if possible, a Plan B vending machine on the porch. “If someone drops $300 in my lap tomorrow, I’m buying the damn vending machine,” she said, cackling at the thought. “If Plan B is illegal to put in there, I’ll do condoms.” She sighed. “I know it don’t look like much, but it’s going to be amazing.”


Marriage Is a Mess in ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’

By Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Great novels warned you: Marriage is a mess.

Madame Bovary despised her stifling union. The dreary husband in “Middlemarch” nearly ruined Dorothea Brooke. And as soon as Anna Karenina tumbled into the wrong bed, she fell from society, and leapt onto train tracks. In 20th-century fiction, wedding bells tolled as forbiddingly, with a plethora of disgruntled husbands yearning to ditch capitalist conformity and hit the road. But wedlock was a lock. Which demoted many a protagonist’s wife to the role of shackle.

In her witty and well-observed debut, “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” Taffy Brodesser-Akner updates the miserable-matrimony novel, dropping it squarely in our times, where a husband complains that his wife sees him as “a blinking cursor awaiting her instructions,” and extramarital affairs involve emojis. The most significant adjustment, however, is to focus on the left-behind spouse, and to make it the husband.

Toby Fleishman, 41, is a doctor at a major New York hospital, which counts as a pitifully low-income job to his wife’s friends. In this milieu, a house in the Hamptons is mandatory, kids are with the nanny or at Mandarin lessons and parents do spot-checks on the appalling things their little ones just posted on Instagram.

After 14 years of marriage, Toby is splitting from Rachel, a successful talent agent whom he finds unloving. He nurtures their kids while she gets the soaring career, flouncing through their home “like a special guest star,” as Toby complains to a divorce lawyer, noting that Rachel is also the big earner. Yes, the lawyer tells Toby, “You’re the wife.”

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of June. See the full list. ]

Newly single, he is gripped by his phone, which pings with texts of cleavage and crotches from middle-aged women found on the kind of dating app where the dating is perfunctory at best. One day, Rachel deposits the kids at his place, and vanishes. Abruptly, he’s a single parent. Toby struggles to cope at work while also trying to protect his 9-year-old, the solemn Solly, along with 11-year-old Hannah, who is smart but scathing — “becoming, it seemed to him, the kind of girl that it was completely exhausting to be.”

[ “Three years ago, as I looked into the future and saw the arc of my marriage shaped like a rainbow and not like a lightning bolt,” Brodesser-Akner wrote in a recent essay. “I pulled up a Word document and got to work on a novel.” ]

Trouble isn’t limited to Fleishman. Almost everyone over 40 is in the soup. The novel’s narrator, Libby, befriended Toby two decades earlier, when they were on a college year abroad in Israel. She ended up as a journalist (whose résumé bears a passing resemblance to that of Brodesser-Akner, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine). But Libby has transitioned to stay-at-home motherhood, married to a steady fella who can’t grasp her panic over New Jersey suburbia. “It’s the order of things,” he explains, patting her head. “Now we focus on the kids. We mellow with age. It’s how it goes. It’s not our turn anymore.” She sobs.

Another friend of Toby and Libby is the ever-partying financier Seth, who offers a third iteration of midlife malaise. He’s safely single, enjoying rampant sex and drugs and video games. But Seth lacks human connections; he’s lonely.

Meantime, nobody knows the trouble Rachel has seen. In past novels, the runaway spouse might have been a sympathetic cad. Rachel, in her husband’s telling, is just a nightmare. Yet this cleverly paced novel doesn’t leave her story at that.

Brodesser-Akner has written a potent, upsetting and satisfying novel, illustrating how the marital pledge — build our life together — overlooks a key fact: There are two lives. And time isn’t a sharer. You cook dinner, or I do. In marriage, your closest ally may end up your nearest rival. “You complete me” is an awful lot of pressure.


The Speed Freak Who Transformed Running

“Running to the Edge” is at its most gripping when Futterman is reconstructing the early days of the Toads, outliers and long shots like Terry Cotton, who “runs as though he is being chased by a man with an ax.” Written largely in the present tense, these early chapters don’t feel reported. Rather, the narrative is smooth and immediate, almost effortless in its detail, if occasionally breathless, like a good fast run; the book makes it easy to forget these scenes involve obscure runners at obscure races that happened more than 40 years ago. Futterman places the reader in the middle of the action, a spectator to the story’s improbable unfolding. While Larsen’s later athletes — most notably the Olympic medalists Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor, who dominate the book’s second half — ran to international glory and lend a glimmer of star power to the story, it’s the long-forgotten Toads who will elicit the most cheers. “They are chasing victory, but also the primal idea of doing what the body was meant to do, doing it beautifully and to its fullest extent, which are really the same thing.” Long after they faded into obscurity, the Toads stand as testament that the joy of sport doesn’t lie in the results but in the process, the pursuit of excellence and self-discipline, the rigors and rewards of dedication.

“Want to see Meb’s training log? Have a look,” Futterman writes genially. In 2001, Keflezighi and Kastor followed Larsen to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., at 8,000 feet, where they ran 135 miles a week, including five days of “doubles,” twice-a-day workouts, plus strength training. Sometimes they would descend to 4,000 feet to run on an uneven, hole-strewn cinder track that Kastor dubbed “the [expletive]box.” Altitude became their secret weapon, by conditioning their bodies to perform at a higher output with less oxygen. Their times slowed but their endurance grew. It was all part of Larsen’s carefully crafted plan: “Making every mile and every minute count as much as it can. … Because if you do that up high, where it is hardest, then, when you come off the mountain, you feel the power and you begin to imagine doing everything that once felt like a dream.”

In the end, of course, speed is relative and all too fleeting — Futterman’s included. In personal vignettes interspersed throughout the book, the author recounts his own forays in the sport, from his first five-miler, at age 10, to soggy slow marathons and hitting the wall in Central Park. Though at times these scenes distract from the central narrative, they remind us that the allure of running — just like its tolls — is universal, regardless of where we finish in the pack. Even the Olympic hero Keflezighi falls victim to the inevitable ebb and flow of fitness, though his triumphant 2014 Boston win, at 38, proves that age, like time, is just a number. It’s a consoling thought for all runners, who seek something sweeter than Olympic medals and age-group victories: the redemptive, timeless pleasure of long-distance running — a way to “be a part of something so much larger than ourselves … to make some sense of our stupid little lives.”


Opinion | A Down and Dirty White House

WASHINGTON — It is very disorienting when those who are supposed to be our highest moral exemplars have no morals — not even of the alley-cat variety.

During the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, it was stunning to see wide swaths of clergymen, responsible for teaching children right from wrong, perverting right and wrong.

Now it is shocking to see an American president with a twisted sense of right and wrong. In yet another Nureyev leap into the absurd, Donald Trump went from no-collusion to pro-collusion, as Susan Glasser put it in The New Yorker, saying that he would welcome foreign governments’ peddling dirt on his political rivals. Why bother to alert the F.B.I. if you are getting good oppo?

I have seen a lot of politicians lie — even ones I swore never would. I have watched other Republican leaders play on white fears and choke off checks and balances. It’s tough to match Dick Cheney for putting yourself above the law.

When I covered Bush 41, Bush loyalists were looking overseas for dirt on Bill Clinton during the 1992 race. There were unfounded rumors that, while he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Clinton had written a letter about renouncing his citizenship to protest the Vietnam war.

As Michael Isikoff and Eugene Robinson wrote in The Washington Post in October 1992: “A senior State Department official this month ordered the U.S. Embassy in London to conduct an ‘extremely thorough’ search for files on Bill Clinton’s years as a graduate student in England, including any documents relating to the Democratic presidential candidate’s draft status and citizenship, according to department officials.” The instructions came at a time when Republicans were escalating their attacks on Clinton’s draft history.

Around the same time, the Britons went on their own fishing expedition for Clinton’s files. Betsey Wright, a former Clinton campaign official, told reporters that the campaign had received reports that Republicans had approached Tories for help in rifling through files to find damaging information on Clinton.

James Baker, Bush’s chief of staff, was so anguished about “that awful little passport pimple,” as the president called the scandal, that he offered to resign.

Such shame seems quaint in Trumpworld. The president is an unabashed gargoyle atop the White House, chomping on American values.

The way Trump publicly wallows in his mendaciousness and amorality is unique in presidential history. His motto might as well be: “I cannot not tell a lie.” His ego is too fragile to play patriarch to the country, so he takes the more ruinous role of provocateur.

There’s no vaccination against the vile machinations of Trump. But there are some signs, in this sickened capital, that antibodies are kicking in. The president and his top officials are getting taken to task by a range of government watchdogs.

Ellen Weintraub, the chair of the Federal Election Commission, tweeted on Thursday, “I would not have thought that I needed to say this,” as a preface to her stern statement: “It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election. This is not a novel concept.”

Even craven Republican lawmakers — at long last — were squirming over Trump’s contention to George Stephanopoulos that foreign interference in our election would be swell.

Also on Thursday, Special Counsel Henry Kerner recommended that “repeat offender” Kellyanne Conway be removed from her job for violating the Hatch Act, also known as the Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, which bars federal workers from tainting the workplace with politics.

Kerner said his move was unprecedented, but told The Post: “You know what else is unprecedented? Kellyanne Conway’s behavior. In interview after interview, she uses her official capacity to disparage announced candidates, which is not allowed.” The president, tireless champion of the First Amendment, said Conway was merely exercising her right to free speech.

The Onion chimed in with this headline: “Kellyanne Conway Decides to Lie Low Until Rule of Law Dies Down.”

Trump may have lost his knack for stiletto nicknames. “Sleepy Joe” and “Nervous Nancy” don’t cut it. (Pelosi looked anything but nervous in her “Kill Bill” yellow zippered motorcycle jacket.) And he may be nervous himself because of “devastating” internal polling showing him trailing Joe Biden in key states, as The Times’s Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman wrote. He denied the polls existed but later instructed his campaign to play up different data.

Trump doesn’t want to lose just when he seems to be getting more comfortable with all the power he wields.

He makes it so easy for everyone to focus on the tweets and the maniacal, moronic reality show that you have to struggle to look away and take the measure of what he’s doing.

And what he’s doing is altering domestic and foreign policy in terrible ways while running up huge deficits.

The Trump White House may be a clown show and a criminal enterprise. But it’s also an actual presidency.

It’s turning out to be a genuinely reactionary administration led by a wannabe authoritarian who refuses to recognize constitutional checks on power. The real danger is not the antics but the policies. If Trump isn’t careful, he’s going to add substance to his administration. And it won’t be the kind we want.


Keith Botsford, Man of Letters and Saul Bellow Associate, Dies at 90

Dismayed that literary magazines of the day were, by their lights, either too chic or too academic, the two friends founded one of their own, The Noble Savage, which made its debut in 1960. Ralph Ellison, Arthur Miller and Wright Morris, among others, wrote for its first issue. It later published a couple of unknowns, Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover, before ceasing publication after five issues.

They followed The Noble Savage with another literary magazine, ANON, in 1970; it lasted just one issue. They put out the first issue of News From the Republic of Letters in 1997, featuring in its pages an excerpt from an unpublished Bellow novel, “View From Intensive Care.” Bellow called the magazine, published twice a year, “a tabloid for literates,” and said that he and Mr. Botsford were “a pair of utopian codgers who feel we have a duty to literature.”

The magazine took its name from Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, first published in 1684 by the French philosopher Pierre Bayle. It introduced new and newly discovered writings from American and international writers, both celebrated and obscure, including fiction and nonfiction, memoir, correspondence, biography, poetry, essays and reviews. Writing under the Bayle-inspired byline “P. B.,” Mr. Botsford contributed sharp opinions on everything from drone attacks to crime fiction. Agatha Christie, to his way of thinking, “can’t write for toffee.”

The magazine continued publication until at least 2008.

In 2001, Mr. Botsford and Bellow edited “Editors: The Best From Five Decades,” a 1,000-page mosaic of stories, poems, articles and essays by writers as diverse as Victor Hugo, Martin Amis, S. J. Perelman and John Berryman, most of the material never before published in book form.

Editing provided Mr. Botsford with a welcome respite from the rigors of writing. “I found editing myself difficult and being edited by others humiliating,” he wrote. “I got around this by editing others with generosity and rewriting with humility.” He called translation “the supreme exercise of mastering someone else’s style.”

In his journalism, Mr. Botsford was equally at ease writing about movie stars, concert pianists, bullfighters, novelists and race drivers. Formula One racing and the Boston Red Sox were two of his passions, along with literature, music and food.


The Unseen Worlds Beneath Us: Places of Beauty, Danger and Wisdom

In a characteristic flourish, Macfarlane braids Nicolaisen’s tales of water and oil into Edgar Allan Poe’s story “A Descent Into the Maelstrom.” It could not be more timely. “Such structures captivate us,” Macfarlane writes. “Their victims are trapped before they are even aware they have been caught.” Poe’s story speaks “in part of the mid-19th-century dreams of the ‘oceans of oil’ that were imagined to exist under the earth.” And now “our modern species-history is one of remorselessly accelerated extraction, accompanied by compensatory small acts of preservation and elegiac songs. We have now drilled some 30 million miles of tunnel and borehole in our hunt for resources, truly riddling our planet into a hollow Earth.”

“Underland” is a book of dares. Macfarlane dares to go deep into earth’s unseen world and illuminate what we not only shy away from but what we don’t even know exists. In a chapter called “Invisible Cities,” he dares to follow a fearless shape-shifter of a guide into the catacombs of Paris, where in 1786 the city began “evacuating” its cemeteries, transferring the remains of more than six million corpses into a maze of tunnels and rooms dug out of the limestone. Macfarlane joins a party of catacomb aficionados who forgo sunlight for days, wading in flooded tunnels, coming face to face with hundreds of skulls lining the cold chalky walls. They sleep in a niche lit by tea-candles “in each of the eye sockets” of the carved monkeys who keep watch over the bones. Stuck in a narrow vein of stone, they pull their packs along, attached to their toes, as they flatten their bodies, inching their way forward and praying for an opening. Claustrophobic by nature, I became sickened by Macfarlane’s description: “I can feel the stone around me, the stone that encases me, the stone that is measuring me up like a coffin, starting to vibrate.” Thankfully, with a quick turn of the page, I found him released from the tunnel, in a chamber with a group of artists and musicians sitting down to a table set with fresh fruit, baguettes and Brie.

This is just one aspect of the book’s mesmerizing kaleidoscope of provocative encounters, many of which are tethered to the terror and surreal nature of a post-human world. Macfarlane labors in uncertainty and loves the big questions. Chapter titles like “The Understorey,” “Starless Rivers” and “Meltwater” hint at their subjects: the collaborative intelligence of fungi as a network of entanglements; the danger of being carried away by underground torrents; the seduction of turquoise waters slicing through the retreating glaciers as the “ice left language beached.”

Sweeping journeys across the globe like “Underland” and Barry Lopez’s recent masterpiece, “Horizon,” may one day be seen as unthinkable extravagances, the paradox of privilege that has allowed us to fly wherever we wish and bear witness to the endgame of life as we have known it, before it disappears. There is a morality here that each of us must face on our plundered planet. Macfarlane confesses to being haunted by a vision shared by the Saami people of the Arctic, who see the underland “as a perfect inversion of the human realm,” so that “the dead and the living are standing sole to sole.”

What does it mean to be human at a time when we’re struggling with the nature of our humanity, when the world as we thought we knew it is fluid and not fixed? “Underland” is a portal of light in dark times. I needed this book of beauty below to balance the pain we’re witnessing aboveground. Macfarlane reminds us of Walter Benjamin’s belief that one must “make some sign to the world one is leaving.” How, Macfarlane asks, do we reckon with the fact that “over a quarter of a million tons of high-level nuclear waste in need of final storage is presently thought to exist globally, with around 12,000 tons being added to the figure annually?” How do we communicate danger to future generations, how to let them know that these spent rods of uranium are not to be touched for tens of thousands of years? Robert Macfarlane asks us not only to consider but to face the haunting and crucial question: “Are we being good ancestors?”


Store’s Bid to Shame Customers Over Plastic Bags Backfires

A Canadian store’s attempt to help the environment and gently shame its customers into avoiding plastic bags by printing embarrassing messages on them has not gone quite as planned.

Far from spurring customers to bring their own reusables, the plastic bags — variously emblazoned with “Dr. Toews’ Wart Ointment Wholesale,” “Into the Weird Adult Video Emporium” or “The Colon Care Co-op” — have become somewhat of a surprise hit.

“Some of the customers want to collect them because they love the idea of it,” David Lee Kwen, the owner of the store, Vancouver’s East West Market, told The Guardian newspaper.

The store began the campaign this month, printing up 1,000 bags with the eye-popping slogans. Shoppers who chose to use a plastic carrier would not only be charged 5 cents apiece, they would theoretically walk out onto the street with the cringeworthy messages for all the world to see.

In smaller print, the bags revealed the true purpose of the campaign: “Avoid the shame. Bring a reusable bag.”

The grocery store’s sly campaign reflects how the nation is trying to become more environmentally friendly. On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the government would seek to eliminate single-use plastic as early as 2021, following the lead of the European Union, which last year approved a ban on 10 single-use plastics by 2021.

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Greenpeace Canada named shopping bags as one of the top 10 most common plastic items found on beaches and in rivers in the country, and Canada currently recycles only 11 percent of its plastic waste, according to a report published last year by Environmental Defence, a Canadian advocacy group.

More than 40 countries have banned or restricted the use of plastic bags as part of the fight to reduce plastic pollution. Kenya introduced what has been called the world’s toughest law against plastic pollution in 2017: Anyone caught producing, selling or using plastic bags faces a potential prison sentence of up to four years or a fine of up to $38,000.

Less stringent measures are in place in England, where since 2015, shoppers have been charged 5 pence (about 6 cents) for a plastic bag, but the government laid out plans to increase the fee to 10 pence next year.

Humans, too, are ingesting plastic, but on a microscopic level, according to a study released this week from Australia’s University of Newcastle and commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund. Every week, people could be consuming approximately the weight of a credit card — 5 grams, or about 2,000 tiny pieces of plastic — mainly through water containing microplastics, the research found.

Despite warnings of the health and environmental effects, not everyone seems entirely sold on the idea of reducing their use of plastic. An Australian supermarket chain last year reversed its decision to ban single-use plastic bags because of customer complaints.

Even the Vancouver store that was trying to shame its customers into shunning plastic bags uses copious amounts of plastic packaging. Recent photographs of the store’s wares on Facebook show figs, mangoes, minicucumbers and sweet red peppers all for sale while wrapped in plastic.

One online review of the store from 2013 noted, “They’re obsessed with sealing everything in plastic, even the lettuce.”

The review encouraged the store to change its ways. “Come on guys, be sustainable and quit using plastic if you don’t have to. It’s gross,” the reviewer wrote.

The store’s latest campaign to get customers involved drew reaction on social media, but probably not what it expected.

“I would 100 percent not use reusable bags, just to see which awesome bag I get next,” one commenter wrote on Facebook.

“Now that the entire region knows they are purposefully embarrassing, I’m even more inclined to get one. I might even buy extra bags to give to people,” a Twitter user said.

Another person denounced the campaign on Twitter, writing, “This is not a good idea, unless you want to sell more plastic bags!”

Efforts to reach the owner of East West Market on Wednesday were not immediately successful.

Although the store’s campaign went awry, Paul Foulkes-Arellano, a member of an antiplastic pollution campaign group, A Plastic Planet, explained that the backfire was actually a “great piece of anti-plastic P.R.” because it caught the public’s attention.

“These sorts of initiatives which strike a chord with consumers and are shared millions of times have a huge effect on big businesses,” he said. “It keeps the topic being discussed in boardrooms and it spurs them on to reduce plastic from their supply chain.”

Sabine Pahl, an associate professor in psychology and member of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, said of the store’s campaign: “The problem is that the messages are not so negative and shameful. They are quite funny, so people probably think it is quirky to carry the bags.”

Although the anti-plastic bag campaign went sideways, the Vancouver grocery store intends to keep sharing the messages on more bags, The Guardian reported. It plans to print the images on canvas bags instead.


Why Did the Moon Landing Matter? A Slew of New Books Offer Answers

The moon landing is a matter of public memory, which is another way of saying that it’s contested history. In 1971, Collins became the director of the Smithsonian’s National Air Museum, overseeing the addition of “Space” to its name in 1976, and he provides the introduction to APOLLO TO THE MOON: A History in 50 Objects (National Geographic, $35), by the curator Teasel Muir-Harmony. Included is an artifact borrowed from the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History, a tin can plastered with a photograph of the Reverends Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, King’s successor as the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The S.C.L.C. used that sort of can to collect donations at rallies, like the one Abernathy led at the Kennedy Space Center on July 15, 1969, the day before the launch of Apollo 11. Abernathy carried a sign that read: “$12 a day to feed an astronaut. We could feed a starving child for $8.” Muir-Harmony quotes Abernathy as saying, “On the eve of man’s noblest venture, I am profoundly moved by the nation’s achievements in space,” but weirdly leaves out the meaningful part of that speech, which you can see Abernathy deliver in the opening scenes of an ambitious and affecting three-part PBS/American Experience documentary, “Chasing the Moon,” scheduled to be released in July, along with an accompanying book, CHASING THE MOON: The People, the Politics, and the Promise That Launched America Into the Space Age (Ballantine, $32), by the film’s director, Robert Stone, and one of its producers, Alan Andres. “We may go on from this day to Mars and to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond,” Abernathy said, “but as long as racism, poverty and hunger and war prevail on the Earth we as a civilized nation have failed.” By this measure, the last 50 years is a history of defeat heaped upon defeat.

In AMERICAN MOONSHOT: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race (Harper/HarperCollins, $35), the best new study of the American mission to space, rich in research and revelation, the historian Douglas Brinkley carefully considers this and other attacks launched by civil rights activists, like the National Urban League’s Whitney Young. “It will cost $35 billion to put two men on the moon,” Young complained. “It would take $10 billion to lift every poor person in this country above the official poverty standard this year. Something is wrong somewhere.” But Brinkley concludes that, as a purely economic matter, the mission was worth it, given the gains that extended to matters of public health. He writes, “The technology that America reaped from the federal investment in space hardware (satellite reconnaissance, biomedical equipment, lightweight materials, water-purification systems, improved computing systems and a global search-and-rescue system) has earned its worth multiple times over.”

In ONE GIANT LEAP: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon (Simon & Schuster, $29.99) Charles Fishman suggests that criticisms of the program were forgotten because in the summer of 1969, almost overnight, Apollo came to stand for the very opposite of Vietnam: one the nation at its best, the other the nation at its worst. Fishman isn’t especially interested in this point; instead, most of his book is a long argument that the mission was worth it, for reasons many readers will wonder at. “The race to the moon didn’t usher in the Space Age,” he insists, “it ushered in the Digital Age.” He points, specifically, to the development of integrated circuits and real-time computing. But there’s something else, something bigger, that Fishman wants the shot at the moon to get credit for: “In 1961, when the race to the moon kicked off, there was no sense in popular culture of ‘technology’ as a force in the everyday lives of consumers as we think of it now.” His argument goes like this: Apollo didn’t bring us to Mars, at least not yet, but, hey, it brought you Alexa. A counterargument goes something like this: My country went to the moon and all I got was this lousy surveillance state.

The race for the moon began as a race to the White House. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched into orbit the first satellite, Sputnik. The American public began to panic, and Democrats decided to put that panic to political use. “People will soon imagine some Russian sitting in Sputnik with a pair of binoculars and reading their mail over their shoulders,” the Democratic strategist George Reedy wrote to Lyndon Baines Johnson on Oct. 17. “The issue is one which, if properly handled, would blast the Republicans out of the water, unify the Democratic Party and elect you as president.” Even before Sputnik, the Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy had been attacking President Eisenhower, accusing him of failing to devote adequate funds to the missile program, leading to the United States falling behind the Soviet Union in the arms race and leading to what Kennedy dubbed a “missile gap.” In November 1957, Johnson, as Senate majority leader, opened Senate hearings into why the United States was lagging and warned Americans, “Soon, the Russians will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.”


When Britney Spears Posts on Instagram, a Thousand Conspiracies Flower

However meager our lives, celebrity Instagram accounts offer certain reliable comforts: front-facing studio-quality portraits of our favorite stars standing or sitting alone in careful outfits; a high percentage of photos taken from the manubrium up, so that our entire phone screen is dominated by their proportional features. And, if the celebrity is Beyoncé-level famous, a gorgeous unending color story we can fall through forever: a block of white, silver, gold and indigo clearly curated by someone with the patience to learn color theory. This is the fame trade-off in 2019: We give them attention and a lightly engaged readership with the potential to translate to advertising revenue; they give us stylized, intimate glimpses of a life more elegant and photogenic than our own.

What is the result when someone ignores these conventions and attempts to use their account like a regular person? Clashing colors, “Minions” memes and cellphone videos shot from the middle distance. What is the result when that someone has spent decades living the cloistered existence of one of the most successful entertainers of all time, and has a limited understanding of what a regular person is like? The aberrant Instagram account of Britney Spears.

On Spears’s Instagram, the light is uncalibrated — as likely to charge in from floor-to-ceiling windows offering 360-degree California views as to issue from a single overhead light bulb located behind her, casting her face in shadow. Her feed is a place where frenetic, solitary dance routines are performed with total commitment for Spears’s unseen reflection in the mirror of her home gym, which is lined with purple string lights. It is a place where Britney can share her favorite quotes, be it a typographical exhortation to stay “extra sparkly” or a musing from Nietzsche about an artist’s inability to endure what is known as “reality.” But her most memorable, jolting posts are ones that crop up every once in a while, seemingly with no rhyme or reason to their frequency: Britney, alone, pretending to be walking on a runway inside her home.

The plot of each is roughly the same: Spears quickly struts straight-as-an-arrow toward the camera in a selection of outfits that are not particularly fancy — the sort of clothes a woman might have in her closet, if she had one: a red off-shoulder minidress with glittering embroidery; a red off-shoulder minidress with flamenco sleeves. The editing is fast, amateurish and jarring; frequently Spears is back at her point of origin striding forward in a new outfit before she has finished walking out of frame in her old one. Every video is overlaid with music, by artists ranging from Beyoncé to Tracy Chapman to Britney Spears. There is a surreal lack of momentum to the clips; Spears never seems bound for anywhere in her vibrantly demonstrated ensembles. The footage presents her as a human GIF, repeating small motions with minute adjustments ad infinitum in the hallways, passages, corridors and loggias of the Italianate airplane-hangar where she lives.

Because the videos are a kind of art brut expressionism, empty of context, they fill viewers with questions. Who is filming? Why these clothes? Did Spears learn how to edit video clips? And, most perplexing, what does she want us to feel when we watch? Is she to be viewed as an innocent girl playing dress-up? An empowered stylish woman stomping across marble floors she bought herself? A sexy human Barbie with an infinite closet? Regardless of intention, the clips are illegible, generating primarily a voyeur’s guilty, mystified confusion.

Spears’s mental and physical well-being has been a subject of renewed speculation in recent months, ever since she canceled a planned Las Vegas residency and announced an “indefinite work hiatus” in January. In April, TMZ reported that she had checked into a mental health facility. An hour before the TMZ story was published, her Instagram account featured its first new post in months (an unusually long fallow period; before the hiatus announcement, a typical rate was several posts per week). It was an image of an inspirational quote, alongside the caption “We all need to take time for a little ‘me time.’ :)” Subsequent posts have made it clear that Spears is continuing to care for herself. She made a series of funny faces at the camera “after therapy.” She reclined peacefully on an inflatable peacock in her lapis pool.

But rather than deterring gossip, each new post has only watered the conspiracy theories flowering in the tens of thousands of comments beneath it. Would a message authored by Spears really feature an emoticon smiley, when history has demonstrated her preference for emoji? Would Spears really post herself working out to a Michael Jackson song two months after her former choreographer (and rumored former romantic partner) Wade Robson accused Jackson of years of sexual abuse in a well-publicized documentary — with a hairstyle and outfit identical to those in a video she posted 13 months earlier? Do apple emoji mean the legend Britney Jean Spears is about to release a single called “Apple Pie” or does that song not exist?

It’s widely known (though never acknowledged on her page) that Spears’s adult welfare is under the conservatorship of her father. Although herself a mother of two adolescents, Spears is legally unable to make personal or financial decisions without his oversight; even minor incidental purchases are tracked. Inevitably, this arrangement leads people to wonder if Spears is slapping on a smiley face because she wants to or because she has been ordered to by the entity in charge of her. In recent months, the hashtag #FreeBritney has gained popularity on social media among fans who suspect the latter.

Every generation produces a youth icon hounded into instability and dissolution by fame; for millennials who grew up listening to Top 40, it’s Britney. The last time the public watched Spears this closely, they mainly saw her in moments frozen by paparazzi zoom lenses: Britney with a tonsure of long brunette hair studying her reflection in a salon mirror mid-self-shear. Spears bleary-eyed and frantic in the back of an ambulance. Now the photos are coming from inside the house — they must, to convince an audience of casual observers that she is not being held hostage. Spears is allowed to exist out of the public eye but only if she can prove her existence by sharing private videos of herself with the public. Instagram has made it not only easier but virtually obligatory for celebrities seeking favor to show scenes from their home lives. Yet the histrionic reactions below Spears’s posts (“Something is very wrong here”) suggests viewers are seeking not real-life depictions but the boudoir photo equivalent.

Spears’s most recent runway video opened with Spears before a garment rack — her eyes rimmed in makeup as black as midnight reflected in an infinity pool — angling a phone camera onto herself from above. In a perky voice edged with exasperation, she addressed the lens: “For those of you who don’t think I post my own videos, I did this video yesterday. So, you’re wrong! But I hope you like it.” And then there was Spears, in a pink dress, a white dress, a blue dress, shifting back and forth against the exterior walls of her cavernous palace, clutching at the hems of her skirts, dragging them ever higher on her thighs, before suddenly, rotely, strutting toward the camera. Decades of performing have given Spears uncommon poise in heels, but the display is slightly off-kilter. She doesn’t smile. Because Spears is on a “hiatus,” this was ostensibly a peek at her free time. But it certainly looks like a job.