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A third of Poland is covered by ‘LGBT-free zones.’ What it’s like to be trapped inside one

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Karolina Duzniak and her fiancee Ola Głowacka drive away from Kozy.

Kozy, Poland (CNN) — Karolina Duzniak has lived in the drowsy, tree-dotted Polish village of Kozy for 26 years. But she doesn’t feel herself until she gets into her car each morning, shuts the door and drives away.

“I prefer big cities,” she says, reflecting on her daily journey to work in nearby Bielsko-Biala, an industrial urban sprawl near the border with the Czech Republic. “I come back home and I feel bad. It’s not me.

“All the time I hide something.”

Duzniak is a confident, amicable career coach with a partner of 10 years, but she has good reason to hide one important aspect of her personality. She is gay, and gay people are not welcome in Kozy. An official document reminds them of that.

Last year, the surrounding Bielsko county — which includes Kozy and dozens of other towns and villages, but not Bielsko-Biala — passed a resolution supporting “traditional family values” and rejecting the LGBT community for “undermining the concept of a family model.”

“We encourage young people to start families which are by their essence a natural environment for self-realization,” the text reads. Families “shaped by the centuries-old heritage of Christianity,” and which are “so important for the comprehensive development of our homeland.”

The region is not an exception. In little over a year, hundreds of regions across Poland — covering about a third of the country, and more than 10 million citizens — have transformed themselves, overnight, into so-called “LGBT-free zones.”

Duzniak, left, and Głowacka hope to marry in Poland, but the country currently prohibits any kind of formal same-sex unions.

These areas, where opposition to LGBT “ideology” is symbolically written into law at state and local levels, have put Poland on a collision course with the European Union and forced sister cities, allies and watchdogs across the continent to recoil in condemnation. Local laws have been contested, and some communities that introduced such legislation have seen their EU funding blocked.

But the impact is felt most painfully — and daily — by the gay, lesbian and transgender Poles who live in towns that would prefer they simply weren’t there.

“I’m more stressed. For the first time in my life I’m very, very scared,” Duzniak says, reflecting on the resolution as she walks CNN around her hometown with her girlfriend Ola Głowacka.

Kozy — which translates as “Goats” — claims to be Poland’s most populous village. It is a slumbering place with a neat, well-maintained park, several churches and an 18th century palace that once welcomed local nobility and now serves as a cultural center and library.

But Duzniak tries not to talk about her partner when she’s in her hometown. “People would talk behind our back,” she says. “It’s strange for them. It’s something terrible. It’s unnormal, unnatural. They say that, sometimes.” Things are easier in Bielsko-Biala, where Głowacka lives, and where anti-LGBT intolerance has not been adopted in law.

Instead, the affection between the two is noticeable only in their glances, half-smiles and the engagement that they keep well-hidden when walking through Kozy. While they briefly hug when they meet each other, they would never — ever — hold hands.

“Of course not!” Duzniak says with a dismissive laugh, as if the concept were so outlandish as to not warrant a thought. “It’s not possible here,” adds Głowacka.

Poland is a country still steeped in Catholic custom and fiercely, reflexively defensive of its national tradition. Around nine in 10 Poles identify as Roman Catholics, and about 40% attend Sunday mass weekly.

A family arrives to Sunday mass at a Catholic church in Istebna. Poland is staunchly Catholic, and nearly half of Poles attend church weekly.

Parts of its particularly conservative, rural regions to the southeast have never embraced LGBT people; but now, homophobic rhetoric is uttered by the state and preached in churches, and hostility on the streets is boiling over.

During a reelection campaign partially dominated by the issue earlier this year, incumbent President Andrzej Duda — a staunch ally of US President Donald Trump — warned of an LGBT “ideology” more dangerous to Poland than communism. The governing party’s powerful leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, has claimed LGBT people “threaten the Polish state.” Its new education minister said last year that “these people are not equal to normal people.” And last year, Krakow’s archbishop bemoaned that the country was under siege from a “rainbow plague.”

“The church tells (worshippers) we are dangerous,” says Głowacka. The couple say that a few years ago, “people would just ignore us.” But not anymore; the surge of anti-LGBT rhetoric from governing officials has been met by a number of high-profile acts of violence at LGBT events, pro-government media frequently parrots the populist government, and Poland has now become the worst EU country for LGBT people in Europe according to continental watchdog ILGA-Europe.

When a massive EU study earlier this year found that LGBT+ people on the continent generally feel safer than they did five years ago, Poland was the glaring exception; two-thirds of gay, lesbian and transgender Poles said intolerance and acts of violence against them had increased, while four in five said they avoid certain places for fear of being assaulted — the highest rate in Europe.

And last year, a pro-government magazine was met with an angry backlash after handing out “LGBT-free” stickers to readers — allowing them to mimic their lawmakers by proclaiming that their homes, vehicles or businesses welcome only heterosexual people.

“My mum all the time asks me, are you OK? Are you with Ola?” Duzniak says. “All the time, she rings or texts,” worried about her daughter’s safety.

“I love this country. I was born here,” Duzniak says as she wears her engagement ring around Kozy. “It’s very important to me that if we have a wedding, if we get married and she is my wife, that it is respected by the law of this country.”

The couple have avoided the worst, for now. But neither Duzniak or Głowacka, who wear engagement rings despite the fact that same-sex marriage and civil partnerships are illegal in Poland, can avoid the daily stress of being who they are.

“It’s like I’m just less human than the other people,” says Głowacka. “They can hold hands, they have children. Just because they’re like they are, they are better. But why?”

“A lot of people know me,” adds Duzniak, referring to her neighbors in the village of 12,000 people. “I’ll never tell them (that I’m gay),” she says. “But I know that they know.”

‘John Paul II wouldn’t approve’

Homophobia exists not just on many of Poland’s streets, but in the closed-door council meetings where the freedom of LGBT people is debated; and where a visceral, deep-rooted and alarmingly casual sentiment is laid bare.

In Swidnik, a small town near the Ukrainian border, councilors painted gays and lesbians as “radical people striving for a cultural revolution,” accusing them of wishing to “attack freedom of speech (and) the innocence of children.” In Nowa Sarzyna, another eastern town, homosexuality was labelled “contrary to the laws of nature” and a violation of “human dignity.” And in the Lublin province, a sprawling area of eastern Poland home to more than 2 million citizens, LGBT rights campaigners were condemned by local lawmakers for seeking “the annihilation of values shaped by the Catholic church.”

It is from these debates, and amid a relentless eruption of anti-LGBT rhetoric from the country’s populist government and religious leaders, that the local laws emerge.

The country’s pursuit of intolerant, anti-LGBT legislation decorated as a defense of traditional values has also spurred comparisons with Russia, a typically unwelcome connection to draw in Poland; Moscow’s 2013 law banning LGBT “propaganda” relied on many of the same arguments, and fostered a similar global outcry.

But unlike Russia, where the international community has little sway, Poland has been thrust into a battle with Brussels over the legislation. At least six towns have lost EU funding over their adoption of “LGBT-free” bills. In the face of such global condemnation, the ruling Law and Justice Party has furiously rejected the “LGBT-free” characterization; when US presidential candidate Joe Biden condemned the regions last month, one Polish lawmaker retorted angrily that it was an LGBT activist who had used the label, and that he would stand trial for doing so.

The Polish government did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment for this story.

“Nationalism and Catholicism are very connected in Poland,” explains Tomek Zuber, a young gay man living in Czechowice-Dziedzice — a larger town just a few miles from Kozy that also lies within the wider “LGBT-free zone” of Bielsko.

Tomek Zuber sits in the center of Czechowice-Dziedzice. In the past year, he has come out, attended his first Pride parade, and suffered his first experience with homophobia.

At a square in the town center, a statue of Pope John Paul II looks upon the church Zuber used to attend as a schoolboy. The late Pope, an icon who evokes almost sacred adoration among many older Poles, wears a shy smile on his face, his arms outstretched as if he were about to embrace passersby in a hug. The pontiff was born just a few towns to the east, and is revered for giving Poles hope during the era of martial law — but his staunch opposition to homosexuality widened the chasm between many LGBT people and the church.

“His words are used for not giving LGBT people rights,” Zuber says. “‘John Paul II wouldn’t approve,’” he adds, imitating the admonitions of conservative Poles.

Those lessons are learned from an early age. At school in nearby Katowice, Zuber said his principal issued a warning to all students before their final-year prom: “No drinking, no smoking (and) no same-sex dancing.” He and his classmates rallied against the rule and, with the help of some of their parents, got it overturned.

“I had a phase where I was a really Catholic and spiritual person,” Zuber says. “But in the end … the Catholic church doesn’t seem to me like it’s true to most of the teachings they claim to follow.”

A statue of Pope John Paul II greets passersby in Czechowice-Dziedzice.

Zuber’s former church, which he attended as a child and a teenager.

The “LGBT-free zone” he lives in is a regular reminder. “The zones themselves don’t have any legal power, they’re mostly symbolic,” he notes. No signs go up overnight; no businesses become immediately empowered to refuse custom. “(But) it encourages the opposite-minded people to speak out against us, and be more active.”

Just two weeks before meeting with CNN, Zuber said he overheard an elderly lady say she was disgusted by his rainbow tote bag.

“It increases the fear,” he says.

What drives so many regions to adopt a bill that sends fear through many of their residents? “The interest of communities (is) not to protect romantic, emotional relationships, but the relationships that are fruitful,” Nikodem Bernaciak, an attorney whose firm wrote a template for an “LGBT-free” resolution that has since been adopted by dozens of Polish towns, tells CNN in a phone interview. His group, the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, is despised among many Polish LGBT activists for its prominent role in driving the national backlash against LGBT rights.

A child on a scooter rides past the Bielsko council building, where the resolution to create an “LGBT-free zone” was drawn up.

“Informal relationships are not as strong as marriage, so the state chooses the kind of relationship that is more helpful.”

“The family needs to be protected against all kinds of threats,” Bernaciak says, explaining the basis of his group’s resolution. He argues that its wording is “positive” and does not mention LGBT people specifically, which critics say is merely an attempt to evade legal challenges.

Others, like the Bielsko region, choose instead to write their own resolutions that more directly single out those campaigning for equal rights for LGBT people. The Bielsko council refused multiple requests to comment on their reasoning for passing the bill, telling CNN they do not discuss the resolutions they enact.

But the message to LGBT people in Poland has been clear. “The Polish government used to use immigrants and the migration crisis as their scapegoat,” says Mathias Wasik, director of programs at the New York and London-based LGBT+ monitoring organization All Out — one of many human rights groups watching Poland from abroad. “Now, they’ve found the LGBT+ community as the next scapegoat.”

“The rhetoric they’re hearing from the government, from the pro-government media, from the church — all of that shows them, you don’t belong here.”

People gather at the Katowice Pride event on September 5.

‘He told us we were pedophiles’

For a few hours on one gloriously sunny recent Saturday, the scene in Katowice resembles any other European city.

In the bustling and more liberal southern location, rainbow flags flutter underneath a baby-blue sky. Revelers from the region, including Zuber, have gathered for the city’s third annual Pride parade.

The event hardly rivals events in London, Madrid or Berlin. Authorities estimate 200 people are present — and the crowd is dwarfed by 700 police officers, some in riot gear, who tightly surround the festivities.

But the parade provides comfort. “It gives this feeling of living in a normal city, in a normal country, where we don’t have nationalists wanting us to be gone,” Zuber says, after marching past the school in which he came to terms with his sexuality — and which tried to ban him from dancing with another man.

Zuber marches past his former school, where he says his principal tried to ban same-sex dancing during prom.

Dominika Danska came to the event with her mother, young sister and 11-year-old brother. “We want to show him that LGBT people are normal,” she explains.

Hours earlier, she was on a train with a dozen others, travelling to Pride from “LGBT-free zones” around Bielsko-Biala. As the train approached Katowice, many changed into their Pride attire. Their rainbow socks, flags and T-shirts with slogans emerged from plain bags. Pins were attached. One young couple went to the bathroom to put makeup on, a move that would be unthinkable back at home. Few attendees wanted to risk boarding the carriage in rainbow colors.

But even before arriving at the parade’s starting point, the group was reminded of the daily dangers they face. A car pulled over, and the driver shouted “F**k faggots” out of the window.

It’s the first insult of many. “He told us we were pedophiles. He told me not to smile or he’d take my flag,” Danska says. Moments later, a man walks past, shouting and theatrically pulling his children in the opposite direction as if to protect them from the group. An elderly lady weighs in, telling the group to go away.

From left: Dominika Danska rides the train home from the Pride parade with her mother, Agata; brother, Szymon; and sister, Gosia.

“Two people love each other and they call them pedophiles just because they are different,” Danska’s mother says. “This is hard. It’s hard.”

Pride parades have taken on a tangible tension in Poland since violence at Bialystok last year, where an event was overrun by nationalists throwing rocks and bottles.

“I feel bad in Poland,” says David Kufel, an 18-year-old attendee at the event. “The President says I am not human.

“I have one friend who was kicked out of his home because he was gay. I don’t want to live in this country,” he says. “I just don’t want to have to fight all the time, just when I go out of my house.”

People watch from balconies as the Pride parade moves through Katowice.

David Kufel wears his rainbow socks to the Katowice Pride march.

Even in Poland’s larger cities, the antipathy is never far away. At one counter-protest near the parade, anti-LGBT activists set up a makeshift stall to gather signatures for a petition against LGBT events. They brought a big speaker that plays long homophobic monologues denouncing the LGBT community as “deviant” and “dangerous.” Many of those passing by stop to sign the petition. At times, a line forms.

“In Poland, we have a civil war between LGBT and normal, conservative people,” says Grzegorz Frejno, the 23-year-old who co-organized the protest with his wife. “We want to stop Pride parades.”

“We don’t want our kids to see that, to see the naked people on the street,” his wife Anna adds, gesturing towards a small group of clothed revelers doing the macarena nearby. She refers to LGBT activists as coming from “the dark side,” and says their petition has garnered 5,000 signatures in one afternoon, far outnumbering those celebrating at the event.

Anna Frejno and her husband Grzegorz Frejno, right, gather signatures for their petition.

Patryk Grabowiecki signed the petition to ban Pride marches.

Marchers are reflected in a police shield during the Pride parade. An estimated 700 officers packed Katowice during the event.

Several of those who came to support the anti-LGBT gathering told CNN they identify as Polish nationalists. Some wear high black boots and T-shirts adorned with slogans written in Fraktur, the old German typeface favored by Eastern European far-right groups. A few complained about “Antifa” infiltrating Poland’s streets among the protesters.

“I am disturbed. For them, anti-conception and abortion are the same thing. They are talking about murdering people,” says Patryk Grabowiecki, a tall man with a shaven head, wearing suspenders and black boots with white laces — classic identifiers of Eastern European far-right nationalism.

The gaggle of petitioners briefly and bitterly engage with Pride marchers, before police intervene. Danska wearily says that engaging with the opposition is “pointless.”

“Of course I wouldn’t like for someone to try to hurt me, to beat me. But I am prepared for that — I have this pepper spray,” she says, displaying an item she keeps as a last resort. “I don’t want to use it.”

Anti- and pro-LGBT demonstrators confront one another following the Pride march in Katowice. Violence at previous events across Poland have made Pride parades tense encounters in the country.

‘We are the public enemy’

A day later, under a drab grey sky, locals in the southern village of Istebna filter into Sunday mass.

The village, surrounded by mountains and walking distance from both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, is home to just over 5,000 people. But since its “LGBT-free” status was deemed unconstitutional and annulled by a local court in July, the dozy town has been thrust into the heart of Poland’s battle over gay rights.

The court found that claims the zones target an LGBT “ideology” — and not LGBT people themselves — turn “a blind eye to reality.” The designation “harms LGBT people and strengthens their sense of threat,” it said.

Campaigners were overjoyed by the ruling. But activists in Istebna are already working to regain the “LGBT-free” label, and Sunday morning is an ideal time to rally support.

A family of parishioners make their way to Sunday mass in Istebna.

Jan Legierski stands outside the church, where he collects petitions to turn Istebna back into an “LGBT-free zone.”

“People here are against the (LGBT) ideology,” says Jan Legierski. He spends hours standing in the drizzle outside the church collecting signatures, lobbying for the court’s decision to be reversed.

“I don’t want this to affect my grandchildren,” he says, insisting that “children and future generations are not indoctrinated, and that they are not depraved.”

The church hosted four back-to-back packed masses that morning. Nearly everyone attending — older people, youngsters, children — signed the documents. Legierski started the small-scale movement with around a dozen friends, inspired by the resolutions being passed across the country.

Parishioners crowd around a table outside the church to sign Legierski’s petition.

The battle ongoing in Istebna, and countless towns like it, is rapidly pushing Poland into a geopolitical quagmire.

“There is no place for LGBTI-free zones in the EU or anywhere else,” Helena Dalli, the European Commissioner for Equality, tells CNN. Dalli has rejected town-twinning applications and pulled EU funding for a number of regions that pursued the designation, while Poland has been publicly condemned by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“The claimed ‘LGBTI ideology’ that these charters supposedly address is only a veil to mask the underlying discrimination,” Dalli says. “Poland joined the European Union on a voluntary basis and must now respect the EU treaties and fundamental rights.”

“I’m in favor of normal families,” says Jerzy, a 71-year-old worshipper who signed the petition, arguing that the “LGBT-free” designation makes him feel safer. He declined to give his last name.

But inside the Istebna clergy house, deputy priest Grzegorz Strządała defends his town’s sentiment. “There are certain communities, societies, groups on this planet who try to impose a different way of thinking, which is in conflict with natural law,” he says, telling CNN he is comfortable with his parishioners supporting the petition outside. He says the organizers can count on his support.

“Jesus loved everybody, and this has not changed,” he adds. “However, sometimes people use certain words for certain supposedly Christian concepts, but really they’re talking about something completely different.

“The words love, acceptance, dignity, freedom — these words in the context of scripture have a particular meaning. In dialogue with LGBT people, we used the same words, but we mean something totally different.”

Deputy priest Grzegorz Strządała in the clergy house in Istebna.

Strządała’s comments reveal the glaring chasm between LGBT Poles and many of their staunchly Catholic compatriots — an abyss so wide, it can feel as if they’re speaking different languages.

Activists, including Bartosz Staszewski — arguably Poland’s most prominent LGBT rights campaigner — are determined to bridge that gap. Staszewski’s long-running attempt to highlight “LGBT-free zones” by plastering warning signs around every applicable region has drawn national attention, and made him the target of anti-LGBT organizations. Staszewski, along with other LGBT activists in Poland, is facing legal action over his demonstrations.

“This is a witch hunt, where we are the victims,” Staszewski tells CNN. “We are second-category citizens. It’s never happened before — we were simply not the subject. And now we are the subject, we are the public enemy.

“They all are against us.”

Istebna’s rolling hills and houses lie draped in fog.

Homophobic legislation and resolutions have forced many Poles to make a choice: leave town or stay quiet.

But the wave of resolutions has inspired many more to join Staszewski and find their voices. Zuber, Duzniak and Głowacka count themselves among those newfound activists, ordinary Poles for whom merely existing is an act of defiance.

“To be honest, I can move to a bigger town,” Głowacka says. “But there are many people who are younger, and cannot just move out from their families, and parents, and school.

“I think we have a job to do here.”

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World

All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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(CNN) —  

Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.

Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.

So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.

Coffee

Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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