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How bookstores are weathering the pandemic

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The pandemic arrived early for Emily Powell, owner of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. The state had one of the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US in February. As she watched more cases pop up across the country, “I felt an increasing sense of panic and crisis,” she said. On March 15, she abruptly closed her stores in the middle of the day. She immediately shrank her staff from 500 to 60 who were “just helping us turn the lights off and put out-of-office messages on the website.” Almost overnight, she shifted her business entirely to online orders.

She’s since been able to bring back around 150 employees, and thanks to a flood of online sales, a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal Small Business Administration, and partial reopenings of her stores, she’s made it this far.

Still, Powell’s and other independent bookstores across the country face an uncertain and undoubtedly difficult future: Government assistance has dried up, foot traffic is still low, and the virus is again threatening to bring everything to a screeching halt. Independent bookstore owners dug deep into their wells of creativity and passion and found ways to transform their businesses to cope with Covid-19. But even so, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), 35 member bookstores have closed during the pandemic, with roughly one store closing each week. Twenty percent of independent bookstores across the country are in danger of closing, the ABA says.

Between mid-April and June, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC) distributed $2.7 million to store owners in need. “That equals the distribution that we had had in the previous eight years,” said executive director Pamela French. The individual grants it gives out have increased 443 percent over last year. The level of need has subsided somewhat since the peak of the pandemic, but it’s remained consistently elevated, even with many stores now open.

A number of bookstores shut their doors voluntarily before any government lockdowns were imposed. “We were one of the first places in our town to close down,” said Suedee Hall-Elkins, manager of Dickson Street Bookshop in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her store’s aisles are very narrow, so they felt the need to close “for morally responsible reasons.”

Closing off browsing meant a seismic shift in bookstore business models. Kris Kleindienst’s shelves at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri, were fully stocked with newly released books in March. “All of a sudden, they just became décor,” she said.

Still, owners pivoted as quickly as they could. “These independent bookstore owners are just tenacious,” French said. Owners suddenly found themselves arranging curbside pickups, shipping thousands of online orders, and staging completely virtual events.

Many factors boosted sales just when stores needed them. Customers flooded online ordering systems, many in the hope of helping their local stores, others simply desperate for something to read during lockdown. Amazon started prioritizing essential goods over things like books, giving an edge to independent stores. Annie Philbrick’s online orders at Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut, and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, Rhode Island, are about 10 times what they were each year for the past five. Michael Fusco-Straub, co-owner of Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, New York, sold 50,000 books during his city’s lockdown.

Then the Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd took off, prompting another deluge of purchases as readers were eager to get their hands on books about race and racism. “The summer was mostly fulfilling … anti-racism orders,” Kleindienst said.

The switch to online and curbside ordering saved bookstores from ruin. But it wasn’t easy, nor was it enjoyable. “It started to feel like a fulfillment warehouse for widgets,” said Steven Salardino, manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, California. “It really took a toll on us psychologically.” What kept him going, he said, was getting notes in online orders saying thank you.

Philbrick took it upon herself to pick up books from her two stores and drive them to customers’ homes. “I was a UPS driver for a month or so,” she said. She would hang bags of books on their doors, ring the bell, and walk back to her car. She even drove an hour and a half out of town to bring books to a couple who would leave her snack bags in thanks. “That was a pleasure,” she said.

In many ways, online ordering is the antithesis of what independent bookstores are. “We are a community space that thrived with that in-person, face-to-face conversation about ideas and literature,” said Hilary Gustafson, owner of Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her store typically stages 300 events a year, and the in-store ones pack 50 people “elbow to elbow,” she said. Now, she’s been entirely focused on online orders, which requires “10 times as much work for a sale of one book.”

Stores like Gustafson’s quickly moved their programming — author events, book clubs, classes — to online platforms. But it’s a difficult and often money-losing way to do them. Stores typically make money from free events when people buy books, often getting them autographed. Online, it’s different. “Sales are down even though audience levels are, in some cases, up,” Graham said. Readers also now have a vast array of stores’ events to choose from because they’re all online. “The competition has just become fierce,” Philbrick said.

Despite the many hurdles small-business owners faced in getting PPP loans, all of the stores I spoke to were able to secure loans, and the money was vital. “The thing that got us this far and avoided bankruptcy was the PPP money,” said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose in Washington, DC. Even so, it was gone within a couple of months.

Other money came from unexpected places. Philbrick got $5,000 from Spanx, which was offering grants to women-owned businesses. That, she said, was a turning point of sorts, when she realized that not only would she have a cushion to get through, but “we’re all in this together trying to figure this out.”

Some customers even gave their local bookstores donations in the hope of keeping them alive. Gustafson’s store launched a GoFundMe, which was a “lifeline,” she said. She raised more there than she got in PPP money.

But at this point, most of the money has dried up. “Given the current level of economic activity, it’s not realistic to think that bookstores or other retail businesses can, on their own, make a go of it,” Graham said with a heavy sigh. “More federal assistance is needed so long as the pandemic persists.”

Some stores are doing as well as they would otherwise expect thanks to loyal customers and a thirst for books as people stay closer to home. But those factors aren’t making the numbers work for everyone.

Vroman’s, which bills itself as the oldest and largest independent bookstore in Southern California, has warned that without a significant increase in sales, its 126-year tenure will come to a close. Powell’s has exhausted its PPP loan and isn’t making enough in sales to support the business. Politics & Prose is still not breaking even, and the store will need to make enough in the next few months to have a cushion headed into 2021. “It’s not a sustainable position to continue to operate in the red,” Graham said. Laughing, he added, “You don’t need a degree in anything to understand that fact.”

A number of stores have opened their doors simply to remain as financially solvent as possible. When we spoke, Gustafson was preparing to open with limited hours and days. “Our rent is still due and we still have payables,” she said. “We want to survive, so it’s like, ‘How do we make this work?’”

“We face this tension between the need to welcome in more customers for the holiday shopping season in order to at least get back in the black,” Graham said, “while at the same time being very careful not to create a public health hazard.”

Public health has been at the forefront of the minds of owners who have reopened as fully as possible. All stores have reduced their hours as well as their capacity. Everyone has installed Plexiglas barriers at cash registers and hand sanitizing stations throughout their stores. There’s crowd control not just to limit the number of shoppers but to ensure that masks are worn correctly. Many stores have rearranged their layouts so customers don’t have to squeeze by each other in tight aisles.

Hall-Elkins went even further, installing UV lights and ionizing cleaners in all three of her HVAC units, putting fans around the store, and keeping the door open as much as possible to better ventilate. She replaced her old carpets and installed touchless credit card systems.

Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, New York, in May 2020, before reopening at limited capacity.
ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Owners have found themselves in entirely new roles, worried not just about their business’s finances but the health of their employees, their customers, and their own families. Hall-Elkins finds herself up late reading medical articles. “I’m in a heightened state of anxiety for sure,” she said. Laughing, she added, “I feel responsible for everybody’s life, and that’s a really weird thing to feel as a manager of a bookstore.”

Some have kept their doors closed. When we spoke in the first week of October, Kleindienst said she was planning to open that weekend by appointment and only after 6 pm. “Our staff really did not feel like they wanted people to be just walking in off the street and wandering around,” she explained. “It just didn’t seem like it was worth risking our lives.” She’s hoping that allowing a very select group of customers back in will be enough to keep the store afloat. But, she added, “I don’t see us opening the doors to walk-in traffic for quite a while.”

The holiday season will be crucial. Nearly every bookstore owner mentioned how important the season is normally — and therefore what it will mean now. Graham said the store typically makes anywhere from a quarter to a third of the whole year’s sales in December alone. “It’s an absolutely critical period.”

To help stores that need to see high sales without big crowds, the American Booksellers Association has begun a campaign urging consumers to shop early called “October Is the New December.” Other things will have to change, too. Normally, Salardino’s store offers gift-wrapping for a fee, and he’d have a long line of people waiting to have books wrapped. That’s not possible now.

One book could make or break the future for many stores: The first volume of President Barack Obama’s memoir will be released November 17. Not only is it destined to be a bestseller — the publisher ordered a first printing of 3 million copies — but it’s pricey, coming in at $45. “I literally think that that book is going to save a lot of stores,” Fusco-Straub said. His store will be ordering a whole pallet.

The future, of course, remains completely uncertain. It’s difficult just to plan ahead. Philbrick noted she’s ordering paperback copies of hardcover books that she struggled to sell during the shutdown, which means the data she typically relies on to predict future sales are almost useless. “As a business person, we’re all used to being able to forecast,” Powell said. But now, “we can’t see beyond a 30-day time horizon.”

Hall-Elkins worries that a virus spike or just cold weather will keep people home from holiday shopping. Then there’s what could happen with the election or the economy. The immediate pandemic-caused contraction appears to be turning into a full-blown recession. “We don’t know how much folks will be able to shop,” Powell noted. “Books aren’t … groceries or rent. How much will people be willing to come out to our stores?”

Few owners were willing to contemplate what another complete shutdown would mean. “I don’t even know what we would do,” Hall-Elkins said. “We would probably be in pretty big trouble.”

Losing an independent bookstore is a huge blow to a community. “These are places where folks can come together to discuss what’s going on in the world, to also have a safe haven and a safe place for exploring new ideas,” French said. Bookstores “provide everything from sanctuary to just meditative spaces.” And they help keep an economy humming, retaining money in the local community and generating jobs and tax revenue.

Still, independent bookstores have been through a lot, including competition from big chains and Amazon. “People have been predicting the end of indie bookstores since the Great Depression,” said Kate Weiss, programs manager at BINC. Even with a pandemic, 30 bookstores have opened this year so far, although that’s still a far cry from the 104 that opened in 2019.

“We’re a stalwart bunch,” Philbrick said. “We’re just going to keep going. We’re not dead.”


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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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