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From BTS fandom to video games: How 4 new friendships formed during lockdown

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Before the Covid-19 pandemic and the isolation of lockdown even reached US shores, Americans were lonely. A recently published survey showed that in 2018, loneliness, defined in part as few social interactions and a sense of lacking social support, was at an all-time high among US adults. Young people in particular, many of whom lack the intimacy of IRL interactions, reported the highest levels of loneliness.

So when cities and states across the country imposed social distancing rules to slow the spread of the coronavirus in March, the loneliness phenomenon was confronted with an unconventional challenge. Access to office spaces, gyms, bars, and other physical spaces that help facilitate social relationships was gone. But much like dating, people have searched for ways to not only virtually connect with friends and family but also seek community and forge new friendships amid this period of prolonged isolation.

“The pandemic really showed me the people I really treasure and value in my life,” said Portland, Oregon, resident Maria Lorienes Solis, who found new friends through the online K-pop fandom during the pandemic. “We lost a lot of connections, but we also made some. Obviously, I never wished for the pandemic to happen, but I do see a silver lining in my life. I gained some blessing under these circumstances.”

The internet has played a huge role in these virtual connections, offering profound ways for people to link up digitally while abiding by physical social distancing rules — whether that’s meeting new people who also like listening to BTS, playing the same video games through Facebook groups, or boldly reaching out to people on Twitter or Instagram they never thought they’d talk to.

Vox spoke with several people who forged these “unlikely” digital friendships in recent months. One thing they had in common: They were all looking for a sense of community, specifically people with whom they share similar interests and hobbies. In many ways, they say, these newfound friendships would not have been possible if it weren’t for Covid-19.

The friends who met through Animal Crossing

“It was an accidental friendship. … I would never have gotten the chance to meet any of the people in the group in person.”

Juan Escalante, 30, Washington, DC; Cristela Alonzo, 41, Los Angeles; Libby Condon, 33, Green Bay, Wisconsin; Rebecca Cokley, 41, Washington, DC; Sydney Robinson, 27, Pensacola, Florida

Before the onset of the pandemic, this group of friends hardly knew each other. But they had one thing in common: They all played the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons on Nintendo Switch. Juan Escalante, who created what was initially a small group of people he knew from Twitter who had posted about the game, wanted to build a fun community to serve as an escape from the uncertainties going on in the world. Little did he know the group would quickly grow and turn into what feels like a lifelong friendship.

“We all kind of evolved over time and realized that we were a lot alike, even though we were living in different places and [are] different people in general,” said Cristela Alonzo, a producer and comedian. “It was cool to have a community [where] because we were strangers, we didn’t have any judgment or assumptions about each other, so it made it easier for us to bond.”

The group hanging out and having a “catalog party” on Libby Condon’s island Honey Bay in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Courtesy of Juan Escalante

As the seemingly endless pandemic dragged on, the group evolved from chatting about the leisure of Animal Crossing to nurturing a friendship that involves sending each other mail and gifts, as well as comforting and offering advice to one another at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests or when someone lost their job.

“The thing that made us so close is that in the game, you [can virtually] send things to people and help people out, so we can all be extremely generous in a way that doesn’t actually cost us any money or barely any time, like sending different kinds of fruits or clothes,” said Sydney Robinson. Inspired by the game, Robinson now physically mails gifts to people in the group and once crashed her UberEats app after sending food deliveries to six different cities. “It’s all very easy for us to love each other and be hopeful.”

For Rebecca Cokley, a disability rights activist, the group has “been one of the best things for [her] mental health.” She didn’t have a Switch at the beginning and was consumed by stress brought on by the crises happening around her, including “watching disabled people die all over the country and having to respond 24/7.” One of the other group members saw on Facebook that Cokley was planning to buy a Switch, so everyone who already played together surprised her with one and asked her to join. “There aren’t many places like this,” Cokley said.

“As an introvert, quarantine has not been hard for me, but this is something I had no idea I needed,” said Libby Condon, who’s known in the group as the Oprah of Animal Crossing because she owns two islands and virtually provides people with necessities. “We’re just a group of people who are so similar but so vastly different. Our lives are insane, and it is so cool to have this tiny community that I get to talk to every day.”

Alonzo, who has severe depression and anxiety, said she was “completely frightened” at the beginning of the pandemic to see how she would cope. “I really thought it was going to be bad, but it hasn’t,” she added, “and it’s all because of this group.”

The friends who met in a Facebook group for artists

“We all met each other during some vulnerable moments, so when I see them landing a good gig or having a good day, I can’t help but feel proud because I know the struggle.”

Rachel Summer Cheong, 25, Austin, Texas; Madison Mendez, 23, San Francisco

The arts and creative industry is among the many fields struggling to stay afloat in the pandemic. But some artists, like Rachel Summer Cheong and Madison Mendez, are taking this time to create content, network with other artists, and foster friendships. Cheong, an illustrator, started a Facebook group in April for Asian women, queer, and nonbinary artists to share creative work they’ve done while staying at home.

“I think a lot of creative people feel that they’re this weird, sensitive, outside-looking-in [type of person], but if you get a bunch of people like that together and then they all connect, it’s really a special and magical moment,” Cheong said.

Madison Mendez said that their friendship, illustrated here by Rachel Summer Cheong, “never would have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic.”
Illustration by Rachel Summer Cheong

Cheong invited a bunch of her creative friends to join, allowed them to add other people they knew, and even cross-posted the group to a larger artist community on Facebook. Members would champion each other’s artwork, post relevant articles, and share photos of their pets. Surprisingly, she said she never came across one negative comment.

Cheong met Mendez, a model and actor, through the group, and they got to know each other through various digital social activities, such as drawing on doodle nights (when they choose a topic and doodle together on an online board), organizing mutual aid funds, and meeting virtually for group art challenges. They even found ways to support one of their artist friends whose mom went into a coma during the pandemic, holding an online vigil and drawing flowers on a doodle board to represent physical flowers being sent.

“Rachel is so cool, and I’m glad I met her,” Mendez said. “She’s always teaching me things about her experience and art. We really became a tight-knit group of people, and being able to reach out to anyone in the group and having that environment to get to know people on a deeper level is important.”

Before the pandemic, Mendez described her daily life as a packed schedule of photoshoots and content creation that left very little time to meet new people. But now that she spends her days at home, she’s been channeling all of her “go, go, go energy” into making new friends. “It really opened my eyes to look at more opportunities to join virtual groups and meet new people in the future,” Mendez said.

Beyond her newfound friendship with Mendez — who noted that their connection “never would have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic” — Cheong said the group became a safe space for people to express themselves and vent, especially as the country goes through a serious moment of racial and climate reckoning.

“With everything going on and all of us so deeply involved in caring for our communities, people forget that their own tanks can also get tapped out,” Cheong said. “So just having people in your life who are thinking about these bigger movements alongside you … and checking in — ‘Are you okay? Is there anything I can do to just kind of fill your tank?’ — I think that’s really important.”

The friends who met through BTS fandom

“It’s really nice to look forward to something, but it’s even better when you look forward to something together with people who understand.”

Maria Lorienes Solis, 21, Portland, Oregon; Marianne Alvarez, 24, Brentwood, California; Elaika Celemen, 23, San Bruno, California; Danielle Mirano, 19, Antioch, California

If you’ve been paying attention to pop culture, you know that BTS, the seven-member South Korean boy band, has attracted an international fan base that calls itself the ARMY. For these four ladies, their own faction of the ARMY was created via ripple effect.

“One of my fondest memories is after the ‘Dynamite’ music video was released. We were Facetiming … collectively screaming and crying a little bit, and we just understood each other,” Danielle Mirano said.
Courtesy of Maria Lorienes Solis, Marianne Alvarez, Elaika Celemen, Danielle Mirano

Marianne Alvarez, who was already an ARMY member, reunited with Elaika Celemen before the pandemic. (They knew each other from a youth ministry group.) But it wasn’t until March, when Celemen began listening to BTS, that they bonded over being stans. Alvarez later pulled in Danielle Mirano, whom she had met in the same ministry group; Celemen later inducted Maria Lorienes Solis, a former college classmate, into the ARMY, too.

By May, they all connected through their so-called “stan Twitter accounts,” which they use separately from their personal profiles to stay updated on BTS content, talk about all things BTS, and interact with other ARMY members.

“After school ended in May, I was super bored and I had nothing else to do, so I thought I might as well check out these links that Elaika’s been sending me this whole time,” Solis said. “Next thing I knew, I was making my stan Twitter account.”

Mirano, meanwhile, would stay up until 3 am watching videos. “I got into BTS before quarantine, but it was quarantine itself that really launched it,” she said. “At the time, I would only talk to Marianne, but I would see Elaika on stan Twitter and always thought she seemed cool. Then Maria hit me up and was like, ‘Hey, you’re a baby ARMY [new BTS fan], I’m a baby ARMY, too,’ and I really thought this was the nicest thing and I felt so warm inside.”

Members of the group would send each other BTS content and watch videos together using FaceTime. At one point during the pandemic, BTS started doing surprise livestream videos, prompting them to create shifts and vow to wake each other up whenever BTS went live so nobody would miss it. “It was so funny, but at the same time it was so nice to have people make sure you weren’t missing anything you were interested in,” Alvarez said.

Beyond a shared love of BTS, the four of them formed a special kind of friendship talking about other issues going on, such as the ongoing protests for racial justice, the wildfires ravaging the West Coast, their personal problems, and their overall mental health and well-being.

“What I really appreciate about this friendship is that it started out as just talking about BTS, but eventually we talk to each other about other life things, too,” Alvarez said over Zoom, photos of BTS members in the background. “Over time, the friendship grew in that way because it evolved from just being ARMY together to actually being friends. I didn’t expect to gain new friends during the pandemic, but I did through BTS, and I’m really thankful for that.”

With every drop of BTS content, livestream videos, and most recently the band’s new single “Dynamite,” their friendships grew closer. “One of my fondest memories is after the ‘Dynamite’ music video was released,” Mirano said. “We were FaceTiming each other, and we were just collectively screaming and crying a little bit, and we just understood each other.”

The friends who met through political activism

“Even though we’ve never met in person, we definitely know each other a lot better because expectations are different online.”

Avery Kim, 21, Sandisfield, Massachusetts; Benjamin Oh, 23, Towson, Maryland

Throughout the pandemic, Avery Kim managed to remain highly involved in politics, specifically boosting Joe Biden’s campaign at a grassroots level. She manages the Columbia University for Biden account on Twitter, where she virtually connected with Benjamin Oh, the person behind what is now the Young Asian Americans for Biden account.

A few messages and a phone call later, they decided to launch a Korean Americans for Biden campaign on the social media platform. Their second call, through Zoom, was what really kicked off a friendship based on common interests. “What I had planned to be a quick call to break the ice turned into a seamless conversation that lasted hours,” Kim said. “Those hours flew by and it wasn’t until we saw the time did we realize just how long we were on the call.”

“Those hours flew by and it wasn’t until we saw the time did we realize just how long we were on the call,” Avery Kim said.
Courtesy of Benjamin Oh

It was all political and professional at first, but eventually their friendship evolved into meme-sharing, bonding over Korean music and culture, and sending photos of their pets (who both love to nap). Their text messages and DMs increasingly turned to what seems like friendship between two people who spent some time together in person, when in reality, they have yet to physically meet each other.

“Whenever we would get celebrities following these accounts, we would be equally excited about them,” Kim said. “And I think that was something that was really nice, because it’s sort of hard to meet new people that just automatically have the same interests as you and get equally excited when someone like Ken Jeong follows the account.”

“The content thing is especially important, and we found that to be true across our friendship — that the digital age and the pandemic [have] really caused us to connect a lot more by content-sharing,” Oh said. “Across all the conversations we have, it’s really nice to have someone else [with] similar interests and similar hobbies and characteristics. It’s hard to find people like that.”


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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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Open Sourced logo

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.

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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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