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How The Vow’s directors went past the “sex cult” headlines to tell NXIVM’s deeper story

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How does a successful, self-aware, well-adjusted person get sucked into a cult? And once they get out — if they even can — how do they live with themselves?

Those are the questions that HBO’s documentary series The Vow seeks to tangle with, and it does not give easy answers. The show is a look into NXIVM, a “company” that provided self-improvement classes but also spiraled into something more, leading to the indictment of its founder and several members (including Smallville actor Allison Mack) for sex trafficking. A “secret society” for women, dubbed DOS, is at the center of the allegations, especially since news reports revealed that part of the group’s initiation involved branding the initials of the group’s leaders onto the women’s pelvic areas.

The series primarily follows former NXIVM members Mark Vicente, Bonnie Piesse, Sarah Edmondson, and Anthony “Nippy” Ames, along with Catherine Oxenberg (whose daughter India Oxenberg was in NXIVM), as they recount their experiences and grapple with their futures. On October 18, the nine-episode first season of The Vow concluded its run with a bang, with characters who had only been seen in video footage — like NXIVM leader Keith Raniere, who’s currently held in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center ahead of his October 27 sentencing hearing — finally talking directly to the filmmakers. A second season seemed imminent.

And so a part two is, unsurprisingly, in the works. HBO announced just days before the finale that there would be another season of The Vow next year. It makes sense; with the court cases and verdicts happening as the show was airing, there seemed to be more to the story than what the first season covered.

A woman sits with a sash around her neck.
Sarah Edmondson, one of the subjects of The Vow, in footage from the series.
HBO

Curious about what comes next and the mechanics of making a series like this, I spoke with the series’ directors, Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer. Nominated for an Oscar for their 2013 film The Square, the pair have made it a habit to explore the ways people become committed to ideas and then to radical action, whether it’s the Egyptian Revolution in The Square or American political action in last year’s The Great Hack.

We spoke by phone the day after the series finale aired about their goals in making The Vow, Noujaim’s own involvement with NXIVM, and how the pair’s backgrounds as Egyptian Americans prepared them for this work. Our conversation follows, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

Going into the project, did you have a sense of how it was going to end? Or were you flying blind?

Jehane Noujaim

Absolutely flying blind. And that’s how we make our films. That’s what’s exciting about making a vérité film — we follow the story as it unfolds. Often, you imagine where it might go, but you really don’t know. So you’re learning things as the characters are learning things, as the subjects. Our job is to follow as closely as possible.

This story started as a very personal story about a crisis of faith that my friend Mark Vicente was having in his relationship with [his wife] Bonnie Piesse. And then it just blew up, and we hung on for the ride. We were following the story before the New York Times, before anyone knew about it. We had just found out about the branding. I had just finished a class [with NXIVM]; I had taken ESP [Executive Success Program, a NXIVM foundational course] in 2010, and I had tried to make a film about the organization at that point in time. I spoke to all of the leadership at that time, but I couldn’t get the kind of access that I needed to get multiple perspectives on things.

Soon after that, I went back to Egypt, and the Egyptian Revolution started. So, I made The Square with my husband Karim. I met Karim during the Egyptian Revolution. I was jailed at that time. So, I was living a completely different life.

[But I] got out. We then got married. Got nominated for an Oscar, got married, had three kids, and moved to LA. I always wanted to finish the ESP class, because I never finished it. Mark Vicente said that there was a class happening in Venice, [California,] which was a couple minutes away from my house. So I finished the class this time, and had a party at my house [for my classmates].

I invited Mark, and Mark didn’t show up, and didn’t return my texts or calls. I was very confused as to why because this was something that he had been trying to get me to do and he was so excited about me finishing, for such a long time. It just didn’t make any sense to me.

And then, a couple of weeks later, he told me that he didn’t really understand what was going on, but that he had been hearing rumors of things [happening in NXIVM]. We started filming at that time.

A woman stands at a podium with a man to her side.
Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson in The Vow.
HBO

Alissa Wilkinson

One thing that people sometimes question is whether a documentary has to be “objective,” or whether your involvement in the group, even at a fairly minimal level, actually enhances the filmmaking process and the final product. How do you think about that?

Jehane Noujaim

There is no way that I would have been able to build the kind of trust and access with people who were, in real time, questioning all the decisions they had made over the previous 10 years. They were questioning the trust that they had in themselves. The most important relationship that you have is the relationship with yourself. For people who are questioning themselves and feeling very vulnerable to allow you in in real time, as they’re going through it, is an incredible leap of faith.

In order to do that, they have to trust the person filming, and trust their intentions. In this case, it was very important that the people I started filming with actually knew me, and knew I had taken the introductory class.

A number of films about NXIVM entered production after the news came out because of that “sex cult” headline. When I started this, though, it was much more. It was a story about people’s crisis of faith and questioning what they believed. It was not a salacious story. My intention was, and still is, to understand how this all happened, rather than to flash another salacious story across the television set.

But I know what you’re asking. Of course, having taken the classes, I have a perspective [on NXIVM]. I think it’s a good perspective to have — I took the classes with actors, doctors, lawyers, Ivy League graduates. I understood how enticing it was, and how much people got out of it.

This is not just a sex cult story. It’s a story about our times. But to understand it journalistically, I think it’s very important to understand it from a number of different perspectives. I’ve always had the dream of making a Rashomon-type project. It’s a gift, it’s magic, when you’re able to do a project like this, where it has both journalistic and artistic integrity.

Karim Amer

I also think it’s the way you’ve made all your films. Like with The Square — we lived that story.

Jehane Noujaim

Right.

Karim Amer

We didn’t show up and say, “Hey, let’s go make a film.” We were protesters. We lived the story. For three years of our lives, we lived 50 feet from Tahrir Square. So this kind of vérité storytelling, which takes place as something unfolds, it’s very different from sitting people down and doing interviews with a range of people …

Jehane Noujaim

After the fact.

Karim Amer

After the fact. That’s not to discredit that kind of filmmaking — the majority of documentaries are made that way — but that’s just not the style that we’ve ever embraced. So we work within the parameters of our form. Are we journalists? We do journalistic work, but we’re not journalists. We’re filmmakers, and we do journalistic work at times within our work. But we serve the story, and the story is about the characters.

So, to us, it’s about honestly representing the emotional truth of the characters. That’s what we’re after. The characters give us insight into what it was like to be them in that period of time, for us to observe that, and come to our own perspectives. Some [audiences] love that, and some people want more of a traditional kind of explainer. That’s just not what we do, and we’ve never done it, on any film.

With The Vow, it’s not about everything that happened to these characters in NXIVM. It’s only about them and their relationships, to make sense of NXIVM during this period of time. This isn’t a biography of Mark and Bonnie and Sarah [Edmondson] and Nippy [Ames]. Nor is it a biography of NXIVM. That’s just not what we do.

Jehane Noujaim

Since it’s a personal story, for this project, it was absolutely necessary that that one of us had taken the introductory class.

Karim Amer

Absolutely. It was very different for people to speak to us, because Jehane’s introduction to the world wasn’t seeing it as a sex cult. For years, NXIVM was just a company that sold classes. It didn’t have that association. It’s very different to have a relationship with people in that world — before that headline and after.

A binder open to a page that reads Executive Success Program, with a date and Sarah Edmondson’s name.
Sarah Edmondson’s notebook from a NXIVM class, as seen in The Vow.
HBO

Alissa Wilkinson

Was there a point at which you wondered whether you should be part of the documentary, too?

Jehane Noujaim

Yes. A couple of editors on the project very much felt that I should be a part of the story, but I did not feel the story was about me. I had taken an introductory class, like 17,000 others had. But I never lived in Albany. I’d taken two weeks of classes. It wasn’t part of my life. But some of the subjects that we follow devoted decades of their lives. Everybody that we followed devoted at least seven years of their life. They had a much, much deeper understanding than I did. So I never felt that it would be the right thing to do to be a part of it.

Alissa Wilkinson

So, thinking about the finale episode, how much of what transpired was a surprise for you? Obviously Keith and the others knew, by the time you were working on the last few episodes, that the documentary was airing and you were making it. He called you. Did you anticipate any of this? Was there a point at which you thought, some of these people who weren’t talking to you might start talking to you?

Karim Amer

Our job as vérité filmmakers is to follow the story and where it takes us. So the trial was something that we knew we were [going to film].

I know it’s been framed in the media as, “Oh, HBO renews The Vow for Part Two.” But that’s kind of a media thing — that’s not what happened. We always knew it was going to be in two parts. The first part was about getting out [of NXIVM]. The second part was the trial. That was always the way it was going to be. We shot the trial story last summer, so that was something we’d been working on for a while, with HBO’s participation. They just announced it, recently.

But now, we just continue to see where the story takes us. When people who are central to the story and have been talked about immensely throughout the story are potentially willing to speak, we have an obligation to hear from them. That process, of getting access to different participants, is a delicate and complicated one and has taken a lot of work with their legal teams to figure out the parameters of what’s accessible.

But did we know what the ending of episode nine was? No, we always knew we were ending the end of this episode with the arrest. We just didn’t know what was going to happen right after. So that was a surprise to us, as well.

Jehane Noujaim

I believe that there is no way to tell this deeply complex, fascinating story without understanding it from a number of different people. So, from the beginning, I think it sounded crazy to many of my team that we would ultimately be able to sit down with various people. But I am the endless optimist, and so I did believe that we would ultimately sit down with NXIVM insiders.

Karim Amer

One thing to remember is that, because we are both Middle Eastern American, Egyptian American, and have lived between both cultures during the War on Terror, we have traversed people who have a weaponized, hostile relationship with each other, and have had to speak to all sides. We’ve had to hang out with Trump supporters and Islamists, you know what I mean? All my life.

So being with different people who are diametrically opposed to one another, as uncomfortable as it is, is a space that we’ve had to embrace in our own identity as filmmakers of color who are immigrants and live between two worlds, East and West, that have been at war with each other for so many years now. I’ve had to tell my American friends that people in the Middle East who look like me don’t all want to kill them. And I’ve had to tell my Egyptian friends that people who are white and American don’t all want to bomb the Middle East for their oil. Those conversations are ones I’ve, unfortunately, grown up with. I know that seems weird for people who have not had to do such a thing. But it’s something that’s come with our life experience. And so, I think it’s allowed us to be open.

EE British Academy Film Awards 2020 Nominees’ Party - VIP Arrivals
Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim in February 2020.
David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

Jehane Noujaim

Yes. My father’s last name is Noujaim, and he’s from Egypt. My mom’s maiden name is Watson. So as you can imagine, during the War on Terror, the Kuwait wars, in the Iraq War — I’ve sat at dinner tables in the Middle East and in the West, with people that I love dearly, who have completely different perspectives on what’s happening in the world. When you grow up with that from a very young age, you learn that the most important thing to do is to keep an open mind to different people’s truth — whatever that truth is.

That’s our ultimate goal: to learn for ourselves, and to be able to share that learning and that understanding of the subject.

Alissa Wilkinson

I’ve seen people try to describe The Vow as an “exposé” on NXIVM, but it’s obviously not that — it’s about the people rather than the organization. But you also described it, Jehane, as a Rashomon-like project, which is fascinating. In Rashomon, the same story is told from different viewpoints in a way that calls the whole idea of “truth” into question. It makes us wonder if we can ever really understand the truth. Is that what this project really is about? What would you like people to come away with from watching The Vow?

Jehane Noujaim

This project is 10 years in the making, for me. And I think that what I hope people would get out of it has changed along the way.

Karim Amer

What do we want people to get out of it? It’s interesting for me, having made The Great Hack and The Vow — both companies, ESP and Cambridge Analytica, described themselves as behavior change companies. There have been so many skeptics about both stories. People were like, “Oh, what Cambridge Analytica did — that wouldn’t work on me. What happened with NXIVM — that wouldn’t work on me.”

We like to think that we have this impenetrable psyche, that we’re in full control of everything we do. This story can make us pause and realize that our minds are a lot more vulnerable than we think they are. That vulnerability isn’t necessarily something that we should shun, and be cynical and close up, because that vulnerability is where we access our humanity. But at the same time, that vulnerability can be exploited and can be taken advantage of and can be compromised by another agent. That situation can happen to anybody. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. It doesn’t matter how you were raised. People like to say, “Oh, you have to have low self-esteem.” I asked all those people, “Do you wake up every morning with the same exact amount of self-esteem? If you do, let us know, because I haven’t met anybody who does.”

If we know that our self-esteem fluctuates, then we know that our receptivity to certain ideas and norms, who we think we are and what we think we’re capable of, fluctuates as well. I hope this can inspire people to have radical empathy for each other. Especially in a time like now, where we’re in a once-in-a-century pandemic. We’re living in a time in American history where I don’t think Americans have been more scared of each other than we are right now. So that’s what I think, and hope.

The first season of The Vow is available to stream on HBO and HBO Max. The second season is set to air on HBO in 2021.


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World

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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World

Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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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.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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World

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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