Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel was an early supporter of Donald Trump and served on the president’s transition team. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images
How Palantir and Peter Thiel might lead the biggest tech IPO of the year.
In the earlier days of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of the country’s public health departments, still reliant on fax machines, were woefully unprepared for the massive amounts of data they needed to process. Looking for a tidy private-sector solution to a messy government problem, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) paid a shadowy Silicon Valley company with ties to the Trump administration to build something new. That company is called Palantir Technologies, and if you don’t know much about it, that’s by design.
A lot of that could change in the coming months, however: Palantir is about to go public.
Palantir specializes in data-gathering and analysis, most of which it does for government agencies. It has about $1.5 billion in federal government contracts alone, including, recently, with the Space Force and the Navy. In July, with new Covid-19 case numbers breaking records daily, the HHS announced an abrupt shift in how that data would be reported: hospitals would now report their data exclusively to HHS Protect, a new platform Palantir developed that would be run by another private company called TeleTracking. This would effectively replace the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Healthcare Safety Network, per the Trump administration’s orders to hospitals to stop reporting their information to it. HHS Protect, which was not accessible to the general public, was now the only source for this information.
“Today, the CDC still has at least a week lag in reporting hospital data,” Michael Caputo, assistant secretary of the HHS for public affairs, told the New York Times then. “America requires it in real time. The new, faster, and complete data system is what our nation needs to defeat the coronavirus.”
A month later, however, the order to bypass the CDC was reversed as public outcry along with complaints from state attorneys general, members of Congress, and health workers mounted against it. HHS Protect also unveiled a public data hub for the information, though this has been plagued by reports that the data is incomplete, inaccurate, and more delayed than the CDC’s ever was.
Palantir, the architect of this complete data system, isn’t a household name like its Palo Alto peers, but the 17-year-old company founded by Peter Thiel is one of the most valuable private companies in Silicon Valley. That anonymity is a feature, not a bug: Palantir does most of its work for the government, including national security and intelligence operations. Its recently released financial documents say the company hopes to extend that reach even further, taking advantage of the Trump administration’s push to use commercial products rather than build its own to “become the default operating system for data across the US government.”
In recent years, headlines about the company have stressed its access to everything about all of us, which privacy advocates have long criticized. Palantir’s data-mining software has been credited with killing Osama bin Laden (a claim that has never been confirmed) and blamed for tearing unauthorized immigrant families apart.
As the notoriously secretive surveillance startup that the White House is entrusting with the nation’s coronavirus data is about to go public, some details of how the company works and its Trump administration-inspired vision are, too.
The Lord of the Rings-based solution to 9/11
Palantir was founded in 2003 by venture capitalist and Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel along with Joe Lonsdale, Stephen Cohen, Nathan Gettings, and Alex Karp, its eccentric CEO who has a law degree and a PhD in neoclassical social theory and keeps 20 identical pairs of swimming goggles in his office. The company’s name comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “palantíri,” which are magical orbs that let their possessors see anything happening in the world at any time. The name fits, too, as Palantir’s vision has always been to create software that can mine and analyze large and disparate data sets, putting them all in one place and finding connections between them.
The company came together not long after 9/11, when Palantir was pitched as a tool that could have identified and stopped the hijackers and would prevent similar attacks from happening in the future. Sure enough, by 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek was calling Palantir “an indispensable tool employed by the US intelligence community in the war on terrorism.” The magazine added, “Palantir technology essentially solves the Sept. 11 intelligence problem.”
Indeed, the CIA was one of Palantir’s earliest investors through its venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel (yes, the CIA has a venture capital arm). It was Palantir’s only customer for years as the company refined and improved its technology, according to Forbes. By 2010, Palantir’s customers were mostly government agencies, though there were some private companies in the mix. Having managed to quietly work its way toward a $1 billion valuation, it was then one of the most valuable startups in Silicon Valley. By 2015, Palantir was valued at $20 billion.
“I think it’s worth keeping in mind that Palantir sees itself not alongside Uber, Twitter, and Netflix, but alongside Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Booz Allen,” said the Intercept’s Sam Biddle, who has covered Palantir for years. “Palantir wants to be a defense contractor, not a Silicon Valley unicorn.”
Palantir has grown into a company with roughly 2,400 employees, most of them engineers who write the software that collects data, and embedded analysts who work on site with Palantir’s customers to make sense of it. Company culture has been described as cult-like, big on T-shirts and Care Bears, and “more Google than Lockheed.” Employees are called “Palantirians.”
One of Palantir’s product demonstrations, as described in Bloomberg Businessweek’s 2011 article, presents a fictional example of the software’s capabilities: A terrorist leaves a trail of data across Florida, including one-way plane tickets, condo rentals, bank withdrawals, phone calls to Syria, and security camera footage from Walt Disney World. Taken separately, these details don’t add up to much, but Palantir’s software ties together thousands of databases across various agencies and helps clients see connections across them. In this case, actions that are innocuous on their own are much more suspicious when combined, and the CIA could identify and stop a terrorist’s plan to attack a theme park.
Again, that was a hypothetical product demonstration, but Palantir’s technology has been credited with saving its financial institution customers hundreds of millions of dollars, being used to detect Chinese spyware on the Dalai Lama’s computer, thwarting Pakistani suicide bombers, and unraveling Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Its customers have included the CDC, police departments in America and abroad, and large corporations like JPMorgan and Home Depot. Palantir even sued the US Army in 2016 to force it to consider using its intelligence software after the Army chose to go with its own. Palantir won the suit, and then it won an $800 million contract.
Despite its high valuation and lucrative contracts, however, Palantir’s financial documents show the company has never made a profit, with a net loss of about $580 million in 2018 and 2019 and nearly $165 million in the first half of 2020. Those numbers are trending in the right direction, though the company admitted in the filing, “[W]e expect our operating expenses to increase, and we may not become profitable in the future” and “we may not be able to sustain our revenue growth rate in the future.”
“A monstrous government snoop”
Palantir’s work, the government agencies that contract it, and the relative lack of details about the company’s inner workings mean it’s often seen as secretive, all-knowing, and even malevolent. Seven years after touting Palantir’s terrorism-fighting abilities, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a feature on the company with the headline “Palantir Knows Everything About You.” In a book with the phrase “destroying democracy” in the title, Robert Scheer called Palantir a “monstrous government snoop, mining our most intimate data.” The company’s software has been criticized for its dragnet ways, pulling in records about millions of innocent people so it can catch a few possible criminals.
“Palantir’s data-mining software is used to analyze vast amounts of personal data held by the federal government to make determinations that affect people’s lives with little to no oversight,” said Jeramie D. Scott, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which successfully sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to get records on its work with Palantir. “Palantir analyzes databases containing telephone numbers, email addresses, financial data, call transaction records, and social media information. … The documents EPIC obtained showed that ICE’s Palantir-based databases could analyze call records and GPS data as well as conduct social network analysis of the information linking different individuals.”
The company suffered one of its first rounds of bad press in 2011 when a hacker discovered it was part of a proposal to Bank of America to sabotage Wikileaks. In response, Palantir issued a public apology, created a “Council of Advisors on Privacy and Civil Liberties,” and suspended — but did not fire — the engineer responsible.
The post-9/11 world that Palantir was born into in 2003 then changed considerably in 2013 when leaks from Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency used the directive of protecting the country at all costs in order to mass-collect the phone records of millions of Americans, leading to widespread outcry and some reforms. Palantir denied working with the NSA on that particular project but has worked with the agency on others, according to an internal video that was leaked to BuzzFeed News.
Palantir’s work with various police departments across the country has also brought renewed scrutiny to the company, especially in light of recent protests against police brutality. Palantir’s software powers the Los Angeles Police Department’s predictive crime program, called Operation LASER, which tries to identify and target potential criminals for increased surveillance. The program ended in 2019 amid doubts that predictive policing was an effective crime deterrent, as well as criticism from civil rights organizations that it unfairly targeted minority communities. It’s hard to get exact numbers on how many police departments Palantir has contracts with, but New Orleans’s and New York’s police departments are known customers, and Palantir boasts on its website of its work with the Salt Lake City Police Department.
Palantir declined Recode’s request for comment, but the company has said its technology is built with protections for privacy and civil liberties. While the company’s software obviously collects and works with data for its clients, the company says it doesn’t collect or use any of that data for itself.
Palantir’s less-than-great public image has come with some consequences. In the past few years, nonprofits have dropped Palantir as a corporate sponsor, and students regularly protest Palantir-related campus events and recruiting sessions. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Karp noted that a “small group” of protesters regularly assembles outside Palantir’s offices, and he’s said that his own home is the site of near-daily protests. He has a personal security guard at all times. The Investor Alliance for Human Rights criticized Palantir’s work with the government and ICE, saying it was “failing to fulfill its human rights responsibilities” and noting that its use of personal data came with “legal risks” and could be in violation of state laws.
That reputation has followed Palantir even as its technology seems to be doing some good during the Covid-19 pandemic. The company is providing its services at almost no cost to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), but headlines focused on how much patient data the company was getting access to in order to do that work and what it would do with it. The NHS has also provided patient data to other companies, including Microsoft and Amazon.
Stateside, there’s HHS Protect — another example of Palantir’s expansion into how the government collects and manages data and whom it trusts to do it (and, it seems, whom it does not). A spokesperson for HHS told NBC News in June that ICE would not have access to HHS Protect and that all information in it was de-identified anyway. But some politicians have still expressed their concerns about if and how patients’ personal health information will be protected, and that it won’t be shared with other federal agencies. They’ve specifically cited Palantir’s work on the project as one of their issues.
“Our concerns that HHS Protect could be misused in this way are compounded by the fact that Palantir has a history of contracting with ICE, including two active awards worth over $38 million in total,” they said in a June letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.
Palantir admitted in its filing that negative coverage — which it said was often inaccurate and misleading — and the resulting public perception of its services could damage its relationships with current customers, dissuade potential new customers, and upset both investors and employees.
“Palantir is complicit in the surveillance, arrest and deportation of our communities through their work with ICE,” Jacinta Gonzalez, a senior campaign director at Mijente, an advocacy hub that has railed against Palantir and its ICE contracts for years, said in a statement to Recode. “Their S-1 recognizes that these are risky contracts to take on. We’re calling on investors everywhere not to invest when the IPO happens. An investment in Palantir only serves to profit off the continued surveillance and exploitation of communities by ICE.”
Palantir’s Peter Thiel problem
Palantir is also controversial because its co-founder and board chair, Peter Thiel, is controversial. Thiel, who was one of Facebook’s first outside investors and maintains a position on its board of directors, has seen his share of criticism over the years, but the libertarian billionaire really came into the public eye in 2016 when he revealed himself as the money behind Hulk Hogan’s privacy lawsuit against Gawker (which would ultimately kill the site) and an early Trump supporter.
As most of liberal Silicon Valley’s big names publicly came out against Trump, Thiel was one of relatively few public figures who supported his candidacy. After speaking at the Republican National Convention, he gave the Trump campaign $1.25 million, and when Trump won the election, New York magazine said he was “poised to become a national villain.” Thiel has been rewarded for his support: He was chosen to be a member of the president’s transition team; in the early days of the Trump presidency, Politico dubbed Thiel “Donald Trump’s ‘shadow president’ in Silicon Valley”; and Thiel’s chief of staff and protégé, Michael Kratsios, served as the White House’s chief technology officer from 2017 until this month, when he was named acting undersecretary for research and engineering at the Department of Defense. Thiel’s Trump support is said to have changed going into the 2020 election, however, and he hasn’t donated to Trump’s campaign since October 2018.
Due, in part, to Thiel’s Trump links, the company has faced a new round of scrutiny. Its contract with ICE caused numerous civil rights organizations to blame Palantir for helping the agency find and deport unauthorized immigrants. While other companies were ending their relationships with certain government agencies over purported ethical concerns, Palantir renewed its ICE contract in 2019 despite reported opposition even from its own employees, some of whom left the company over it. Palantir’s CEO, on the other hand, has said it’s not his company’s place to decide how its software is used.
The company appears to have doubled down on this reputation, according to statements made by Karp in a letter included with the company’s public filing documents.
“Our company was founded in Silicon Valley. But we seem to share fewer and fewer of the technology sector’s values and commitments,” Karp wrote. “We have chosen sides, and we know that our partners value our commitment. We stand by them when it is convenient, and when it is not.”
Perhaps to that end, Palantir recently moved its headquarters from its longtime home of Palo Alto to Denver, Colorado.
“For a while, it suited Palantir to paint itself as this lean and mean ‘secretive” startup,’” said Biddle, who used to work at Gawker. “Now that they’re established and have clearly weathered popular outrage over their work with ICE and a lifetime association with Peter Thiel, it’s time to cash in.”
The company that would never go public is about to go public
Karp famously and repeatedly said that he would never take his company public, believing that staying private gave Palantir an edge its public company competitors didn’t have.
“The minute companies go public, they are less competitive,” Karp said in 2014. “You need a lot of creative, wacky people that maybe Wall Street won’t understand. They might say the wrong thing all the way through an interview. … You really want your people to be focused on solving the problem.”
But Karp has seemed more amenable to the idea in the last few years. When Palantir added its first female board member in June, a public filing seemed all but certain — according to California law, public companies must have at least one female board member. Palantir filed its initial paperwork with the SEC on July 6 in a confidential filing that allowed it to avoid revealing much about its inner workings to the public. Twitter, Uber, and Spotify, among other startup giants, have done the same thing. There’s no timeline for when the company might actually go public.
Despite Palantir’s enormous valuation, the company has never made a profit and “struggled to live up to” its “hot startup image,” as the Wall Street Journal said in 2018. Bloomberg reported last year that Palantir’s valuation had plummeted to half, maybe even a quarter, of its 2015 peak, as investors wrote down the value of their holdings and the company offered discounted shares to employees to boost morale. Big corporate clients such as Coca-Cola, American Express, Hershey, Nasdaq, Home Depot, and JPMorgan have dropped the service, as has the NSA, according to BuzzFeed News.
But 2020 has been mostly good to Palantir, if to no one else. The company pulled in $480 million in revenue in the first half of the year, putting it on track to possibly hit $1 billion by the year’s end. It has that $800 million contract with the Army and is said to be increasing its corporate customer base with its “Foundry” product, which requires significantly less time, money, and employees to set up than the company’s custom-built solutions. Meanwhile, as evidenced by its recent work with HHS, the pandemic has increased worldwide demand for its software. Investors and employees alike have been itching for a return on their investment for years, and now might be the best time to make their wishes come true.
“The market right now is crazy,” Ashu Garg, a partner at venture capital firm Foundation Capital, told Recode. “There’s a junk rally for tech stocks in the public markets, and most tech stocks are very richly valued without a lot of discrimination around quality.”
Going public will mean Palantir’s opaque business practices will have to be more transparent, and the company may not be able to simply wave off public outcry over its work as it has in the past. But experts and advocates seem to doubt much will really change on either of those fronts.
“Going public might make some additional information public, but it does not guarantee oversight or accountability,” Scott said.
Garg doesn’t think Palantir’s work with agencies like ICE and the resulting bad publicity will be too much of a detriment in the market, given how interwoven that work is and has always been with the company’s business model — not the case for, say, the Facebooks and Ubers and Zooms of the world.
“Palantir’s core business, and probably its most profitable business, is its government business — especially work for three-letter agencies and the Department of Defense,” Garg said. “I don’t think that’s going to change.”
What remains to be seen, then, is if Palantir’s ability to marry 21st-century Silicon Valley disruption to 20th-century defense contracting will live up to its valuation when it hits the stock market. At a time when Big Tech companies are trying to make their data collection practices more transparent and say they’ll give consumers more control over them (and are facing increased pressure from lawmakers to do so), Palantir has been able to keep much of its work with our data secret. A successful IPO will only give it more reasons and opportunities to do so.
Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.
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All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year
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.
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.
Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)
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.
Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)
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.
Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)
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.
Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)
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.
Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)
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.
Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)
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.
Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)
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.
Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)
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.
Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)
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.
Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)
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.
Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)
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.
Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)
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.
Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)
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.
Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)
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.
Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)
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.
Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)
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.
Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)
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.
Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)
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.
Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)
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.
Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained
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.
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.”
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.
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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year
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.
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.
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.
1/4 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. https://t.co/hVl4b032W6
— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) October 27, 2020
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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