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How to Have a Safe-ish Friendsgiving This Year

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“Happy” “Holidays” 2020 is a series about feeling connected and vaguely festive during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the Before Times, typical Thanksgiving prep included coordinating travel plans back to your hometown or the abode of your partner’s somewhat distant relative; considering what side dish you’d have the best chance of pulling off; and mentally bracing for potentially uncomfortable dinner conversations.

This year, however, any hope for a traditional holiday season has been thrown by the wayside. The pandemic has made in-person gathering, travel, and visiting with elderly or at-risk family members hazardous—not that sharing food with a bunch of people in the midst of a very contagious global health crisis is particularly appealing.

But given the year we’ve had, it’s reasonable to want to connect with loved ones and celebrate something. “You need a community together and you need your circle,” said San Francisco-based party planner Edward Perotti, who’s produced events for the likes of Ariana Grande and Nick Jonas.

Now that our local COVID bubbles have become our support system, Friendsgiving takes on more importance than ever. And if you’re located in a city or town where COVID-19 transmission is low, hosting a small dinner among friends can be a relatively low-risk way to celebrate the season—if you take precautions. Call it a micro-Friendsgiving: a very small get-together with your chosen family to share your gratitude for one another.

Without question, the safest bet for a micro-Friendsgiving is to hold it outside. According to the CDC’s holiday safety guidelines, an outdoor meal with friends and family within your community poses a moderate risk. “The air recirculates and it’s much harder to be exposed to enough viral load to be infected,” Richard Wender, chair of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told VICE. “Everything you can do outdoors, do outdoors.”

But depending on the climate where you live, an outdoor dinner may not be the most comfortable experience, even with the help of blankets and space heaters. However, it is possible to have a safe indoor micro-Friendsgiving, Wender said, but you’ll have to do a significant amount of planning—and then adhere to those plans.

If you’re thinking of rallying your chosen family for a small Friendsgiving dinner, here’s how to make sure everyone is safe and well-fed.

First, a bit of caution:

People have been gathering in person to various extents for months now, so Friendsgiving may seem like a natural way to celebrate for some friend groups. But you absolutely cannot be lax with everyone’s safety. As cases continue to rise in most of the country, in large part due to small gatherings according to the CDC, you should only host a micro-Friendsgiving under specific circumstances. First, check the community infection rate where you live. If more than 3-5 percent of tests taken in your town or city are positive, you shouldn’t gather with people outside your household.

If your community percent positive rate is below the 3–5 percent threshold, you can start planning your micro-Friendsgiving. This should be a local event, meaning guests shouldn’t be traveling in from out of town—nearby friends only. However, should positivity rates climb the closer you get to Friendsgiving, or should anyone on the guest list start having any symptoms, hosts should be willing to cancel. No hard feelings: It’s just to keep everyone safe.

Regardless of where you’re hosting your gathering, here are some general tips to keep in mind.

For both indoor and outdoor micro-Friendsgivings, it’s important to make some decisions and safety guidelines ahead of time.

Think about the guest list.

For both indoor and outdoor gatherings, be selective about who you invite to your micro-Friendsgiving, Wender said. Those who are already within your established COVID bubble and who you know are adhering to safety guidelines are fair game. That friend who only sometimes wears masks and regularly attends indoor house parties (and posts about it on Instagram)? They should probably stay off the guest list. If there’s any chance that your outdoor gathering could transition to an indoor dinner due to weather, keep your guest list small enough to ensure everyone will have enough room to social distance inside, Perotti said.

Now is the time to show extra kindness to folks who may be in need of more social interaction, Swann said. If you’re stuck on who to invite, prioritize friends who live alone or have shared that they’re emotionally struggling. “Dive a little bit deeper and decide who needs to have more social connection,” etiquette expert Elaine Swann told VICE.

Set safety protocols and share them in advance.

Along with your invite—whether you send a text, email, or mail an invitation—should be a note about how many people you’re inviting and the safety guidelines everyone should expect to follow come Friendsgiving. (These will largely be the same for both indoor and outdoor gatherings.)

While a strict two-week quarantine isn’t necessary prior to your micro-Friendsgiving, Wender recommends hosts and guests be meticulously careful in their day-to-day activities for no less than 10 days before the event. This means avoiding crowds, always wearing a mask, paying attention to symptoms, and being honest about possible exposure—which are all things we should be doing anyway. Getting tested before the gathering won’t necessarily hurt, but, as VICE has previously reported, false negatives can happen, and testing should really be done in conjunction with limiting your exposure to other people. Both hosts and guests should be transparent about any symptoms they may have, regardless if they tested negative, and be willing to cancel if there’s any chance they might be sick.

You should also tell your guests that masks and social distancing are mandatory throughout the entire evening, except while eating. Yes, that means you must wear a mask even if you’re six feet apart, Wender said. But if you have to take it off, try to keep at least 10 feet away from other people if you’re outside, Wender said.

For indoor micro-Friendsgivings, inform your guests that the windows will be open the whole time and surfaces will be disinfected regularly (and then… do those things). “If you’re going to be indoors together, it’s the combination of masks and keeping six feet apart,” Wender said.

While the likelihood of catching the virus from a surface is relatively low, Wender said it isn’t a bad idea to have disinfecting wipes in the bathroom and to ask guests to wipe down any high-touch areas after each use.

For an extra layer of protection, air purifiers (which cost a couple hundred dollars on the low end) can limit the spread of COVID-19 indoors.

To help make masking feel like it’s woven into the fabric of the party, Perotti suggests supplying guests with masks beforehand that they can decorate, or holding an ugliest mask contest. If you’ve got a little extra cash, you could get custom masks made for the occasion, like facial coverings printed with a funny or iconic photo of the friend group, he said.

Let your guests know only one person at a time is permitted to use the bathroom (so, no loitering around the door) and that they’ll be expected to sanitize their hands frequently throughout the night.

It’s up to the host to set—and enforce—these safety precautions, but avoid casting judgment or shame if you do see someone slipping on social distancing or masking. Instead, Swann said to frame the correction as a gentle nudge or reminder: “Don’t forget to keep your mask on if you’re not eating,” or “Oh, would you mind wiping down the microwave before you head back to the other room? The sanitizing wipes are right here!”

Stand firm in your safety expectations, Swann said, because if you bend the rules to fit one guest’s preferences, you’ll find yourself making tweaks and excuses for everyone who voices their opinion, while letting your other guests down. If a guest isn’t comfortable with your rules, they can decline the invitation. (And don’t feel offended if they do!)

Inform your guests about the menu.

Tell your guests how the meal will be prepared and served. Since there have been no recorded cases of  COVID-19 spreading through food, Wender said a potluck is still a viable option. However, if you’d prefer to keep everybody’s portions separate, Perotti is a fan of bento boxes: The host prepares dinner and pre-portions everyone’s meals into bento boxes that also serve as a party favor.

If just the thought of cooking an entire meal is exhausting, tell your guests you’ll be placing an order ahead of time for takeout. Swann suggests designating one person to handle ordering, pickup, and payment; everyone else can Venmo or Zelle them for their portion. Do not, under any circumstance, eat your dinner out of to-go containers, Swann said. The host should still plate everyone’s meals on actual dishes—and it’s totally fine if they’re disposable.

When it’s time to eat, once everyone is seated at least six feet apart—this is absolutely not the time to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, Wender said—they can take off their masks to grub.

So, you want to host an outdoor Friendsgiving…

From keeping warm to building the ambiance, here’s how to make sure your outdoor Friendsgiving is more special than your average picnic.

First, consider your space.

“The event can only be as big as you’re able to keep safe,” Wender said. Take stock of your outdoor space and think about how many people you can realistically invite over while ensuring each guest can keep a minimum of six feet from one another. If you have a small back patio, the guest list will be considerably smaller than someone with a large backyard. (Perhaps you can kindly suggest the friend with the large backyard host the gathering if they’re comfortable.)

Instead of trying to cram as many people as possible into one small backyard, it might make more sense, if you’re able, to host multiple micro-Friendsgivings to ensure you get to celebrate with everyone, Perotti said.

For those with large outdoor spaces, pick the most idyllic area for your event to ensure your guests have the most picturesque dining environs. “You might have a beautiful deck with a great view or a lush garden area that is very welcoming and inviting,” Swann said. “Place your guests in the area that’s going to extend the best experience for them.”

Set up your space.

For those who live in a place where Thanksgiving means brisk air and winter jackets, you’ll need to make sure your guests are warm and comfortable. Depending on your budget and the size of your space, you can purchase an outdoor patio heater (a decently rated low-ish price heater will run you anywhere from $150 to $199) or you can build a good old fashioned fire (some cheaper fire pits range from $35 to $90; check local regulations on these items first if you live in an urban area). 

Don’t drive yourself crazy on decor and instead focus on the materials you have available at home already, Perotti said. One of his recent clients had a bunch of wood pallets stored in the garage, so Perotti bought fabric to lay over the pallets and turned them into makeshift tables where guests sat on pillows on the ground. “If you have vases sitting in a closet somewhere, bring them out, build around it,” he said.

But for safety’s sake, Perotti suggests seating guests based on their household. So if your guests consist of a couple and then three friends who happen to be roommates, everyone who lives together sits together. (This goes for indoor Friendsgivings, too.)

If you’ll be sitting on hard chairs or picnic benches, supply your guests with pillows or at least blankets to sit on, Swann said, and tell guests to bring their own blankets if you don’t have a ton.

Stock your bathroom with plenty of hand soap and paper towels, Perotti said, and make sure hand sanitizer is readily available throughout the dining area.

Find festive ways to stay warm.

Use this as your excuse to perfect your hot toddy. Throughout the evening, make sure the warm beverages are flowing, from warm apple cider to hot sangria, Perotti said. “Think about what it’s going to do for people’s emotions,” he said. “You want them not just happy, but you want them feeling some quiet joy.”

For another creative party favor, Perotti suggests gifting your guests insulated thermoses or cups to keep their wintry drinks warm.

Even if booze is plentiful, make sure everyone stays on top of their safety game. A buzz might impact guests’ decision to flout the rules—a quick hug here, the removal of a mask there—so consider designating one person to be the sober buddy for the evening. Just like a designated driver gets their friends from point A to point B safely, this COVID sober buddy will ensure social distancing is adhered.

Also: be everyone’s hero and have a supply of HotHands hand warmers at the ready for guests to stuff in their pockets.

Have a contingency plan.

Even the best laid outdoor plans can be thwarted by a snowstorm or rain. That’s why, before a menu is set and the forecast is predicted, you should have a contingency plan if it’s simply unrealistic to go forward with an outdoor meal. Enlist one or two friends to help you move the party into the garage if need be, Swann said. Or set up a Zoom link a few days in advance and turn the gathering virtual the day of if necessary.

There’s nothing wrong with rescheduling or calling off the event altogether if the alternative means suffering through a freezing meal or by putting your guests in an uncomfortable position by inviting them inside. “If your plan is outside and you really don’t have any other means or any other options and the weather causes your event to be canceled, that’s not bad etiquette, that’s thoughtfulness toward your guests,” Swann said.

If an outdoor event isn’t in the cards, here’s how to have a safe indoor Friendsgiving…

While outdoor micro-Friendsgivings are preferable, Wender said small indoor gatherings can be executed safely if you’re particularly careful.

Again, think about your space.

As in all spaces where there are people, Wender advises guests to keep a minimum of six feet apart if you’re going to be hanging inside, and even further while eating. Be realistic with how much room you have in your apartment (and maybe even use a tape measure) when it comes to the guest list. If the main living area in your home can accommodate two guests in addition to you and your roommate, the micro-Friendsgiving has to be capped at four.

To optimize your indoor space, Perotti suggests moving furniture out of your largest room into another area and getting creative with social distancing. For his own Friendsgiving, Perotti is clearing the furniture out of his living room and setting up distanced two-person cocktail tables for each guest and their plus-one. Or, you could turn your micro-Friendsgiving into a camp themed fete with blanket fort tents for each guest. “It’s just a matter of taking a step back and looking at what you have and looking at the possibilities,” he said.

Make sure there is 10 feet in between people from different households when eating or drinking.

Before dinner is served, make sure everyone (one at a time) washes their hands with soap and water. Then, when it’s time to eat, have everyone make their plate (or grab their bento box) one at a time—whether it’s takeout or homemade—and bring it back to their designated eating area. When eating inside, Wender said to keep at least 10 feet of space between guests since you’ll all have your masks off. You could also ask guests to bring their own dinnerware and silverware from home to avoid sharing high touch items. “This is probably not as important, but it doesn’t hurt to ask,” Wender said.

Keep it quiet.

When humans talk, sing, and yell, particles—both small aerosols and larger droplets—are expelled from our mouths. Speaking at quiet volumes results in fewer of these particles floating in the air, and can limit how far the particles go. Since we know the virus travels in these particles, and getting these particles in your mouth, nose, and eyes is how COVID-19 is spread, remember to keep the music low to avoid loud talking and yelling indoors.

Sure, this might not feel like your typical Friendsgiving dinner, sharing hugs, dishes, and gossip. But it’s still worth it to celebrate. While hosting a micro-Friendsgiving involves a bit more legwork than in years past, don’t let it deter you from sharing gratitude with your inner circle—whether that’s 10 feet or 1,000 miles apart.

There are a few affiliate-linked products in this article that were independently selected by our editor. If you buy an item we link to, VICE Media may make a small commission on your purchase.

Follow Allie Volpe on Twitter.

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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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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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