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From Prince to Whitney to Nicki: The Plight of the Black Pop Star

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Unpaid Royalties is a series about the myriad ways that the music industry exploits Black artists—and what’s being done to change them. Read more here.

When Lizzo ascended to the upper echelons of popular music’s ranks, it was supposed to be the kind of victory everyone could get in on. She graced the cover of nearly every magazine, from Allure and Elle to Vogue and, most recently, Time, propped up as a beacon of inclusion and a symbol of cultural progress. As the mainstream media and music apparatuses applauded (both her and themselves), the response among some Black listeners was little more than lukewarm, with her most vocal detractors suggesting she was cheesy, too extra, or even outright pandering.

It was, of course, Black listeners who championed her through her debut EP Coconut Oil and laid the foundation for her rise. But as the sticky fingers of capitalism creeped in, what once felt transformative suddenly felt performative.

“Yeah, there’s hella white people at my shows,” Lizzo told Rolling Stone earlier this year of the criticism. “What am I gonna do, turn them away? My music is for everybody.” It’s an ethos that mirrors the musical history of her hometown, Minneapolis, which traffics in a ubiquitous, fluid style that was key to the success of, most notably, Prince, but also Morris Day and the Time and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, all of whom forced marketers and consumers to reconfigure their ideas of Black music. These artists made work that laid waste to manufactured distinctions between genres like rock, funk, R&B and electronic music.

How does one exist as a Black pop musician when pop music has been defined to exclude parts of you?

Yet whatever the music sounds like and whoever is listening has no bearing on the fact of who Lizzo is, and who she is is a Black woman. “I’m making music that hopefully makes other people feel good and helps me discover self-love,” she said in the same story. “That message I want to go directly to black women, big black women, black trans women. Period.”

There’s an existential dilemma that swirls around nearly all Black stars of her caliber, who make the kind of music she makes: They come to be marginalized in a manner that creates an ambient conflict between identity and expression. This is underscored by the industry’s (and, indeed, the country’s) original sins of capitalism and racism. How does one exist as a Black pop musician when pop music has been defined to exclude parts of you?

The confusion draws some of its power from the ambiguity of what pop even is in the first place. There’s pop as quantity, in the shorthand for “popular” sense, and then there’s capital-P Pop, the sonic quality and style. The latter usage is the more opaque—a shape-shifting term that expands and contracts as the artists deemed pop stars keep putting out new music, but that also bears its own distinctive characteristics. The critic Craig Jenkins, astutely observing the sameness of the era’s pop at the end of 2017, summed it up as “‘indie’ flourishes—fluttering horns, folk-pop–indebted guitar licks,” along with “fat synth lines” and “drums that nod either to the hand claps and finger snaps of epochal post-millennial Cali rap hits like ‘Rack City’ or southern trap beats.” Despite its amorphous nature, or even because of it, there is a uniformity to this music.

Pop’s resistance to easy definition stems from the music industry’s long history of sleight-of-hand marketing, one that intentionally obscures the lines of sound while using categories like “race records” and “urban” to amplify those of race. Thus, the prevailing narrative of modern pop music is that it’s simply R&B music made by white artists. There’s no denying the breadth of songs for which that logic applies, from the 90s boy band street-corner balladeering of the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, to the “urbanized” posturing of Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande, to the blue-eyed soul of Sam Smith and Adele. But it neglects those releases that land outside of such a neat classification.

Pop remains, perhaps, music’s most racialized space—one that brings race front and center by asking you not to see it at all.

At its essence and most simple, pop is a hybrid genre; its makeup in any one era is an amalgamation of the popular sounds that define that time. In the past decade, pop has taken most of its cues from electronic and dance via the powerful influence of EDM (and wasn’t that really just the final financial frontier of the decades-long theft of dance music?), along with hip-hop (namely trap), and, as always, R&B (especially that of the 80s). But despite the racial roots of such a mixture, today’s pop doesn’t align with Black expression in the popular imagination; its bubbly neon production, escapist tendencies, and chaste, unburdened attitude are at odds with the hypersexual and aggressive stereotypes that tend to inform the white gaze when it comes to Black music. Such elements are also particularly troublesome in the Black Lives Matter era, not least due to the simultaneous, contradictory expectation that popular Black art—especially that of Black women—must also perform its politics explicitly.

Today’s effervescent pure pop, say Lizzo’s “Juice” or MNEK’s “Head & Heart,” carries with it the legacy of the “sonic color line,” the notion that racial cues exist audibly just as they do visually. Pop remains, perhaps, music’s most racialized space—one that brings race front and center by asking you not to see it at all.

Pop is meant to be neutral, much the way whiteness exists as a state of false neutrality—a default, the center from which all things evolve or devolve. Of course, that is neither true of race nor the music. Like the construct of whiteness itself, pop takes bits and pieces from other sonic markers and sands down their edges in the name of palatability, removing them just far enough from their origins so that it seems unique unto itself. Its connection to Black music’s history is illegible by design, so a Black performer entering that sonic space becomes disconnected from their people. (Think: Jason Derulo, the rare Black artist introduced as a pop star, as opposed to an R&B singer, but who initially struggled to connect as such. “Everyone thought he wasn’t black, whatever that meant,” the singer’s manager, Frank Harris, told Billboard in a 2014 interview. “That he was a corny kid who lacked swag and coolness.”)

A self-fulfilling prophecy emerges: if pop is a blank slate that white musicians have been predominantly allowed to fill, then pop music comes to be defined by the sounds they most comfortably and consistently inhabit. Everything else gets pushed to the periphery: It’s a feature not a bug that the phrase “pop star” doesn’t evoke an artist like Roddy Ricch, who spent 11 weeks atop _Billboard_’s Hot 100 this year, or why the term “pop music” doesn’t evoke a rap song (i.e. “The Box,” the single in question). This continues to create an insurmountable predicament for the genre’s Black artists—particularly those for whom traditional R&B and hip-hop designations do not fit—and it dates back to some of music’s most recognizable figures.

This tightrope act is one that has followed Black pop stars through time, with some of the biggest—from Jackson to Prince to Jimi Hendrix to Whitney Houston—facing similar scrutiny.

As Greg Tate put it in a 1987 essay about Michael Jackson and his relationship to race, there’s a “fine line between a black entertainer who appeals to white people and one who sells out the race in pursuit of white appeal.” This tightrope act is one that has followed Black pop stars through time, with some of the biggest—from Jackson to Prince to Jimi Hendrix to Whitney Houston—facing similar scrutiny. In each case, the prevailing narrative of their careers was one of race transcendence, because that is what pop demands—in spite of the impossibility.

In the 80s, the idea of crossing over, as Tate was referring to, was used explicitly to describe a non-white artist who “crossed over” to white audiences. It’s a phrase that’s (thankfully) rarely used openly today, but the concept remains—frequently as a way of describing artists who abandon their sounds of old in favor of what’s popular. In Usher’s shift from R&B chart-topping records like “Nice & Slow” to electro hits like “DJ Got Us Fallin In Love,” Ne-Yo’s move from multi-platinum singles like “So Sick” to splashy clubland jams like “Let Me Love You,” or Alicia Keys’ shift from it-girl R&B releases like “Fallin’” to anthems like “Girl On Fire,” a portion of their original listening audience was alienated. The leap to poppier frontiers brought side eyes from longtime fans who, at best, saw these creative evolutions as not creative at all and, at worst, saw them as cynical cash grabs, an exercise in trading in one cultural audience for another, more lucrative one. (It does little to help when an artist like Pharrell, for example, advances an idea of “new Black” just as he reaches his peak pop moment with “Happy.”)

But few of the modern era have caught as much flak as Nicki Minaj. At the beginning of her ascent, she was poised to be rap’s next big thing—an agile but compelling lyricist molded in New York’s roughneck tradition who could spar with the best of them. She made good on that promise and continues to be a showstopper on nearly every track she touches. But she’s always had a theatrical, Gaga-esque kind of pop in her sights, even as admirers of her rhyming prowess chose not to see it.

The world of pop, in its everything and yet nothing state, requires participation in a game that is predicated on stripping Black artists of their identity in order to render them hypervisible and disappear them at once.

Beginning with her 2010 debut album, Pink Friday (with tracks like “Check It Out” and “Super Bass”), and peaking on its follow up, Roman Reloaded (with its slew of quirky records, including lead single “Starships” and “Pound the Alarm”), fans who insisted on keeping her in a pure rap box were miffed by her forays into the bubblegum world of pop. Minaj came to exist in a perpetual state of tug-of-war, where questions of authenticity collided with her own aspirations as well as fans’ desire to lay claim to her. For Black artists, “crossing over” into pop fallaciously suggests that one has made a choice about who one’s people are—a predicament not shared by their white peers, no matter how much those peers dabble in hip-hop or R&B.

Further complicating the matter is the rightful suspicion Black people feel when watching white people watch us, especially in arenas where they claim dominance. The world of pop, in its everything and yet nothing state, requires participation in a game that is predicated on stripping Black artists of their identity in order to render them hypervisible and disappear them at once. “To be the only black man white women could desire was to become a new kind of invisible man, accepted as a cipher, not a real person born into a black community,” Ann Powers writes of Jimi Hendrix in her book Good Booty. And though five decades have passed since Hendrix’s death, Black artists with mass appeal—”mass” here, like “mainstream,” denotes white audiences—continue to function as caricatures onto which those who consume them can project whatever they need.

This tension has become a defining element of Childish Gambino’s career arc, with the artist publicly wrestling with his identity—his feeling of being an outsider, the tokenism he’s come to resent on early records like Camp and in his standups. “He’s vented about black people to white audiences, and white audiences have loved him for it,” the critic Justin Charity observed in a juxtaposition of Gambino and Kanye West. Both, Charity argues, are complex figures who “enamor black audiences and white audiences alike, while alternatively pushing and pulling against both groups.” Conversely, Normani, who knows all too well what it is to feel cast out in pop, has chosen to lean in. “I’m gonna make whatever I do black,” she told Cosmopolitan last year. “You’ll know that I’m a black girl, even if it’s on the quote unquote whitest record ever.” That this even needs saying is tell.

Due to the manner in which pop music has been constructed and marketed, its Black practitioners (and Black fans of pop) become stateless. Top 40 radio has long insisted on whitewashed programming, though it purports to be an objective representation of what’s popular. An artist like Beyoncé, despite being one of the biggest names in the world, hasn’t received generous pop radio airplay for the better part of a decade, and it has only dwindled further as her music takes Blackness more and more into its center. Elsewhere, award shows tip their hand in their determination of who lands pop nominations and who lands nods in other genre categories (see: The Weeknd’s recent Best R&B VMA for his Max Martin-produced “Blinding Lights,” or the racial breakdown of the Grammys Best Pop Vocal Album nominees over the past thirty years). It’s probably no coincidence that Rihanna’s 2016 album _Anti_—a rejection of her own commodification after years spent largely traveling the way of the pop princess—was at once her most culturally acclaimed album and her least decorated.

Considering the long racist history of the music industry as a whole, vocal Black audiences aren’t wrong for their disinterest, or at least their skepticism, in engaging with a pop apparatus that has so often stolen its “cool” from the community, only to attempt to sell it back to the world for mass consumption. Historically, the things intended for “everyone” have tended to mean things for white people; thus it’s hard, even, to find the language to discuss Black pop stars on their own terms, because so much of what’s associated with pop music has become shorthand for white or white-adjacent. That’s the thing about a systemic issue that runs as deep as racism: It swallows everything in its path. It muddies what gets released, who hears it, the way it gets heard, the very politics of taste. Perhaps most insidious of all, though it isn’t Black artists’ burden to bear, it often blurs the lines between who is using whom—and for what.

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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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