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How ‘Raji: An Ancient Epic’ Falls into The Indian Far-Right’s Trap

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Gaming’s hottest emerging market is India. The country is predicted to have around 300 million gamers and a $1 billion dollar games market by 2021, and all that cash and hype has fueled a modest local game development scene. While most of those game startups pan for gold on the freemium mobile game market or take up outsourced work from foreign developers, a few indie studios are struggling it out at the fringes of the economic boom, creating idiosyncratic and ambitious work like QUICKTEQUILA’s Lovely Planet, Studio Oleomingus’s Somewhere, and now Nodding Heads Games’ Raji: An Ancient Epic.

The release of Raji: An Ancient Epic on the Switch last month, and PC, Xbox One, and PS4 this month, has been greeted with cheers by Indian gamers both local and abroad. It is a kind of first for the domestic games industry, but one that’s hard to sum up in a factoid. It is not the first Indian game: that title belongs to 2008’s Agni: Queen of Darkness. It is not the first Indian game to feature Indian mythology, nor is it the first Indian game to get a high-profile console release (those belong to 2009’s non-violent action game Hanuman: Boy Warrior). It’s not even the first Indian game to drop on the Switch (that’s 2017’s Asura). 

Beyond all these records is a height yet unachieved in Indian gaming, one that Raji aspires to surmount. Gaming is still marginal among the arts in contemporary Indian culture, and so far, there has been no “crossover” game to bridge it to its peers in film, television, or literature. But amid a pan-national, multimedia boom in epic mythological fantasy, Raji is on the edge of making that crossover. It may very well be India’s first prestige game: the one that finally lives up to the nascent industry’s promise and establishes gaming as a vital cultural frontier.

Raji is an action-adventure game that plays like a cross between Prince of Persia and Limbo; it stars the titular young street performer who travels across picture-postcard versions of Indian landmarks to rescue her brother from the clutches of a demon lord. Accompanying her on journey are the disembodied voices of two Hindu gods, Durga and Vishnu, who comment on the action and furnish their young heroine with divine weapons and blessings. As Raji runs and leaps her way across temples, palaces, and mountains, she is confronted by wave after wave of malicious Rakshasas, who she slays using the familiar light and heavy attacks strung together in eye-catching combos—call it Goddess of War. Short puzzles help break up the grind of the combat, as well as allowing time to drink up the game’s stylish art direction and level design. While the plot is a bit perfunctory—saving a person is the default template of video game plots—the game takes a couple narrative detours to retell the classic Hindu myths behind its small cast of gods, goddesses, and divine peacocks. 

It’s that last function that is clearly most important to the developers, who stress in interviews their mission of “authenticity” and “cultural representation” of Indian culture and history. 

Considering that mission, there’s not a more opportune moment for a game like Raji to arrive than at the present. Just this August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the domestic game industry to adapt “Indian culture and folk tales” and promote “Indian ethos and values.” And the Prime Minister is only reflecting the national mood: fictions that look toward an imagined Hindu past like the Shiva Trilogy book series and the Bahubali film series have become unstoppable cultural juggernauts, demolishing sales records on the back of public hungry for stories about the country’s glorious Hindu past.

It’s hard to disentangle this surge of cultural chest-beating with the ascent of Hindu right, which rose to power with an eclectic ideology that pairs neoliberalism with fascist calls for a Hindu-first India. Raji: An Ancient Epic has the best intentions at heart, but it is not exempt from the cultural eddies that swirl around it. It wants to highlight the beauty of Indian art and architecture, which has been too long confined to lithe bronze Natarajas and one white marble mausoleum. It also tries to rewrite Indian mythology to make a progressive, feminist case for the warrior goddess Durga, who here bumps Brahma off the Trimurti, the trinity of major Hindu gods. 

These ambitions are unimpeachable, and if Raji summoned the critical acumen and original thinking to pull them off, it could have sat alongside Estonia’s Disco Elysium as some of gaming’s most sophisticated attempts at national allegory. But what Raji ends up demonstrating is how far the progressive vision of Indian history and culture has deteriorated under sustained attack by Hindutva fundamentalists. This is still a crossover game, but it crosses over in all the wrong ways, appealing to popular, lucrative, and conservative delusions rather than grappling with the truth. Amar Chitra Katha, the mythological comic book series beloved by generations of middle-class Indian children, is Raji_’s blueprint: they both share the slick epic plot, the mission of educating a young audience, and the cultural nationalism simmering underneath. Much like its predecessor, _Raji conceals an uncritical ideology, which it sells in the guise of education, though what it really proffers is alienation. Rather than produce a new, authentic image of India’s storied past, Raji is only able to refract and multiply the familiar ones, deepening the already large rift between the truth and a politically expedient fiction, and revealing how far conservatism has penetrated the nation’s sense of itself. 

Raji has a flawed understanding of what it is and what it wants to do, and that starts with its confusion about the time period it is set in. School children learn the basic tripartite division of Indian history, Ancient-Medieval-Modern, which thinly papers over the old flawed British periodization of Hindu-Muslim-Colonial. Raji calls itself an “Ancient Epic,” and evokes the tropes and themes of Hindu mythological fiction written in that era, but the game’s sumptuous architecture very clearly depicts North India’s Medieval era, with its scalloped arches and Mashrabiya screens. The young Raji finds herself dashing past market stalls hawking Persian carpets and trapezing through Rajput forts sporting geometric tile work and Chhatris. The developers even claim that the overall art style of the game pulls from Mughal miniatures, which is fairly evident in the game’s rococo eye for detail. The artifacts of Indo-Islamic culture are everywhere; missing, however, are any actual Muslims, except, perhaps, for a few white-clothed, curved-sword-holding corpses.

Though Raji is technically a work of fantasy that doesn’t claim historical accuracy, that disclaimer is irrelevant in an era where, for many Indians, the fantasy of India is more appealing than the reality. The Bahubali films, for example, are set in a one hundred percent fictional composite of Ancient Indian clichés. Yet when the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh wanted an authentic vision of “our history, folklore and mythology” for the new state capital city of Amaravati, he asked the films’ director, S. S. Rajamouli, to take the helm on its design. 

_Raji_’s gorgeous, supposedly authentic scenery is its strongest selling point: Rajamouli’s famous CGI sets are its kissing cousin. Rajput palaces, Gujarati step-wells, and Pahari mountain temples are all depicted in loving detail. Sumptuous in-game paintings draw upon many different folk art traditions, most prominently the Pahari and Madhubani styles, while cutscenes are acted out in Balinese shadow-puppet theater. It links all of these traditions—which encompass several regions and with that last one, nations—together under the aegis of representing Indian culture, and, with the quiet erasure of Islam, something more like Hindu culture. 

Hinduism as we know it was fundamentally a creation of successive waves of conquest and immigration. The first people to collectively call India’s diverse folk religions “Hindu” was a Persian, and the “Hindu” identity was solidified thanks to the meddling of British Orientalists. Hindu art, architecture, practice—everything—was transformed by these contacts into the religion we know today. It’s the repression of that fact, the need to backdate any and all syncretic inventions into an ancient past, that creates anachronisms like _Raji_’s Indo-Islamic world with no Islam. 

Predictably, the Indian cultural industry has been happy to create more and more realistic simulacrums of this anachronistic past. One glaring example of blatant propaganda is a certain educational theme park ride that you can take at New Delhi’s Akshardham Temple, one that features “Vedic” Hindus circa 1000 B.C.E inventing the airplane and, more to the point, living in suspiciously Mughal-esque palaces. Raji, as a fully-realized digital world, is the most realistic yet in this trend of phony historical dioramas. The idea of authentic Indianness here is somehow both elastic enough to accommodate any Hindu tradition, no matter how geographically disparate and culturally immiscible, and yet inflexible enough to not permit a cultural contact and exchange that actually did happen, namely between North Indian Hindus and Muslims. Raji creates a world where it is easier to imagine Balinese Hindiusm in Rajasthan than Islam. That failure of imagination has its trickle-down effects.

While the game is on firmer ground when it comes to story and not history, the narrative’s boldest decision, its choice to put a heroine at the front and center of the action, misses the mark. Our protagonist, Raji, is a scrappy street performer, which is also a convenient explanation as to why she can perform death defying leaps across crumbling towers or backflip off pillars to sever the necks of her enemies. She has an underdog charm, and a stellar voice actress, though the game puts both to poor use: through most of the game Raji is stuck in one boring emotional gear, a single-minded determination to find her brother. The first inklings of psychological complexity occur only in the last hour of the game, where we briefly encounter Raji’s struggle with her own insecurity, and then just as quickly overcome it. Without depth, Raji is more symbol than character, channeling a whole host of powerful women: not only the goddess Durga, to whom she is a faithful devotee, but also many legendary virangana, warrior queens, like the Rani of Jhansi. There’s no questioning that Raji, like her foremothers, is armed to the teeth and ready to kick some ass. But it is to what ends Raji’s agency is used towards where the game’s conservative visions of culture and gender dovetail. 

Hindu mythology in Raji interacts uncomfortably with the in-built conservative ideology of action games. Games need a flimsy justification of why it is acceptable for us to genocide a small country’s worth of enemy footsoldiers, so Raji pulls from the puranic rogues’ gallery of Rakshasas, or mythological demons, as its big baddies. What it neglects to mention is that Rakshasas have sometimes been claimed by counter-hegemonic traditions as representations of the peoples that India’s elite caste see as reprehensible and sanction violence towards.

Rakshasas are contested symbols that cannot be flattened into bullet-spitting monsters without some violence of the epistemic kind, but Raji, nevertheless, endeavors to do so. They are not the orcs and ogres of Western fantasy, which have no resonance beyond nerd culture. They are very much alive as a slur and political symbol. _Raji_’s October 15th release was timed for Navratri, the nine-day long holiday where some Hindus celebrate the victory of Durga over the buffalo demon Mahishasura. But the Durga Puja season also marks a counter-holiday celebrated by Adivasi communities in West Bengal, who turn the myth on its head and mourn for Mahishasura, who they claim as their ancestral king, and jeer Durga as a bloodthirsty, land-grabbing invader. _Raji_’s plot is essentially a retelling of Durga’s most famous triumph, but with only the victor’s side of the story told. Any mythological fantasy that doesn’t grapple with the polyvocality and clashing perspectives behind its own mythology is, at least, lazy, and at most, harmful. To put the cherry on top, the game’s script is uncomfortably charged with casteist invective: Rakshasas are polluting and corrupting the world, turning the water poisonous and the trees grotesque, which draws on a long symbolic tradition of apocalypse when the Brahminical hierarchy is overturned. The only solution the game offers you is their systematic annihilation. 

It’s this attitude towards violence that makes the game hit its moral low point: the boss battle against the witch Rangda. Much like the male demon, the demoness is a figure that embodies the Other, but in her case, the latter-half of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. These symbolically wayward women, like the lusty widow Surpanakha and the poisonous mother Putana, take as their punishment for their violation of feminine norms mutilation and murder, respectively. Raji meets Rangda in an underground Vishnu temple, and she is quickly tasked with firing celestial arrows into the cackling crone’s shriveled body, whose breasts are exposed and flapping in the wind as if to highlight her villainy. This battle between symbols comes out in the Good Woman’s favor, of course—but that’s hardly a feminist outcome.

India’s tradition of militant women can and have been reclaimed as feminist symbols. But they exist within the context of Hindu patriarchy, and their ultraviolence have also been appropriated to support it. The feminist Paola Bacchetta has written about the rising trend of feminine Hindutva, who take from the warrior goddess her strength, and then channel it towards anti-Muslim violence, analogizing the Goddess’s fight against demons with their own fight against Muslims.

All this is to say: the virangana is not a symbol Raji can appropriate apolitically for its fantastical plot. Neither can it appropriate the Rakshasa. Nor the Rajput fort, nor the Pahari painting, nor the Balinese shadow-puppet. Maybe all of _Raji_’s flaws hinge on its lack of an explicit political program, an omission that only hides its implicit one. 

That doesn’t make Raji malicious, but it does make careless in its own educational mission. In all fairness, it’s not like Raji isn’t making the same mistakes that aren’t being made by others in its genre or in pop culture at large, countless times over. This kind of stuff is everywhere—just look at the paradoxically demure warrior women mowing down hordes of dark-skinned barbarians in films, or the literal erasure of India’s Muslim history in a right-wing campaign to rename cities

The “folklore” that media like Raji peddle have very little to do with the common folk at all, which is perhaps why the game is dubbed in no other Indian language besides English. Raji creates a world where the 21st century’s upper-caste, middle-class Hinduism is projected onto the far-off past, which tells us nothing about the past but does reinforce a widely-held delusion in the present. It speaks to how deeply nationalist ideology has penetrated the subconscious that Raji finds it easier to flatten Indian history and mythology into a caricature than try to probe beyond the narrowly-defined Hinduism enshrined by Brahmin elite. The irony is that the ancient Indians themselves managed to pull that off—the great living epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are chock full of dissident, non-hegemonic voices, challengers from female, Dalit, and non-Hindu perspectives. If Nodding Head Games and other young, curious artists want to look to the past for inspiration, it would be best to start there. 

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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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