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Kiran Shah: The hero with a thousand faces

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Standing on the deck of a sinking Titanic, Kiran Shah prepared to jump. Fifty feet below, the water waited, cold and indifferent to the moment. It was another long, challenging night, but Shah was a professional; when the call came he did not hesitate.

Cut to Paris and Shah teetering on the Archeveche bridge across the River Seine. The tide had gone out and the drop was higher and the water shallower than planned. He jumped anyway, landing on his back.

Cut again, to Shah in a flimsy canoe whipping down the Kawarau River, New Zealand. As the boat rocked from side to side, he whispered to the actor behind him: “Don’t worry about me. If we flip over just save yourself. I can’t swim.”

You’ve almost certainly seen Kiran Shah before. You’ve likely been watching him most of your movie-going life. You also might not recognize him.

Shah is 4 feet 1.7 inches (1.26m) tall and since the late 1970s he’s been in demand as the world’s smallest stuntman, an actor and scale double. He’s played Superman, survived Aliens, died aboard the Titanic, journeyed to Mordor (and back again) and visited a galaxy far, far away six times over. He’s worked on three Academy Awards best picture winners and his movies have grossed close to $19 billion.

Yet despite a storied career, Shah has largely slipped past the limelight. But befitting a man around for so many cinematic milestones, he isn’t short of a story.

Breaking and entering

Born in Kenya in 1956 to first- and second-generation Indian immigrants, Shah’s father owned a shop and his mother embroidered saris. They lived in the Ngara neighborhood of Nairobi, where he would play cricket and football on the dirt road outside his house. “It was a really good life as a young kid,” he said via video call.

Cinema was a mainstay. He’d watch Bollywood movies and Westerns on his cousin’s TV, then when he moved to Mumbai, India, age 12, he begged an uncle, a grocery supplier to actors and producers, to let him tag along on his rounds. He met Bollywood royalty: Dharmendra, Dara Singh and Hema Malini — “It was like, ‘yeah, I need to be like them,'” he recalled.

Shah was born with a hormone deficiency, meaning by the time he’d decided show business was for him, he’d already stopped growing. “Perfectly formed” is how he describes himself today — an apt response from a man who has parlayed his unique features and talents into achieving many of his dreams.

After moving to the UK, Shah joined the Red Buddha Theatre Company at 17, learning traditional Japanese mask and mime work. It was during his stint at the troupe that he answered a casting call for a small actor to perform in an upcoming sci-fi movie.

The film was shrouded in mystery, and following an interview he was driven to Elstree Studios outside London to meet director George Lucas. “I went into this prototype R2-D2,” Shah remembered. “I was a tad tall, but I still managed to work it.”

He received a call offering him the part in “Star Wars,” only for Lucas’ first choice, Kenny Baker, who had left the production, to walk back on his decision. Casting director Irene Lamb delivered the news but sugared the pill by offering to set up Shah with an agent. Within a month he had an audition and was soon on his first film set being taken under the wing of Oscar winner David Niven.

“Candleshoe,” a 1977 Disney crime caper, starred Niven and a young, post-“Taxi Driver” Jodie Foster. Shah was a stand in for one of the cast’s young girls, filling in for takes where her face wouldn’t be shown and working the long hours a child actor could not.

“David Niven came up to me one day,” Shah remembers, “and went, ‘Young man … I can see a twinkle in your eye. You want this; you’re hungry to get into this industry. My advice to you is to study everything that is happening on set. Don’t be an actor like me and go into your trailer and have a nap in between start-ups. Study everything and you will go far.'”

But it was a different intervention that set Shah’s path. Stunt coordinator Bob Anderson (a sword master known for playing Darth Vader in fight scenes in “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”) encouraged Shah to perform stunts for the character he was standing in for.

“The stunt people took me in very quickly,” Shah said. With no formal qualifications he learned on the job: high falls, wire work, fencing and body burns. “A lot of little people didn’t want to do what I was doing,” he said, and believes never saying no to a stunt distinguished him in the industry. Only today, in his sixties, has he started to reassess that policy.

Left: Christopher Reeve as Superman in the 1978 blockbuster. Right: Kiran Shah in costume as Reeve's perspective flying double for the same film. The effects team had Shah wear a mask of Reeve's face when shooting scenes.

Left: Christopher Reeve as Superman in the 1978 blockbuster. Right: Kiran Shah in costume as Reeve’s perspective flying double for the same film. The effects team had Shah wear a mask of Reeve’s face when shooting scenes. Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo/Kiran Shah/family collection

Shah was a perspective double for Christopher Reeve in “Superman” (1978), flying on wires against back- and front-projected aerial shots of New York. (The more distant Superman appeared in shot, the smaller the double used. After Shah, the production resorted to puppets, he said.) He performed stunts in “Superman II” (1980) and unwittingly served Indiana Jones poisoned dates in a small acting part in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). Then he broke into creature work with “The Dark Crystal” (1982), taking on full body performances and stunts for a number of characters in scenes where puppet work by Jim Henson, Frank Oz, et al. wasn’t possible.

One day, while shooting “The Dark Crystal,” Shah remembers being pulled off set. Lucas was visiting and asked if Shah could test a prototype Ewok costume for his next film; he wanted to know how the creature would move and what its limitations were.

The costume was hot, sweaty and the head misted up. “I did (a) roll … I couldn’t even get to a seated position,” he says. “I went (to Lucas), ‘can we make it a little bit slimmer?'” Lucas replied in the negative, he recalls.

Shah tests a prototype Ewok costume, and right, wearing the finished version for

Shah tests a prototype Ewok costume, and right, wearing the finished version for “Return of the Jedi.” Credit: courtesy Kiran Shah/family collection/Alamy

But Shah made it work. He entered the Star Wars universe in “Return of the Jedi,” playing a robot, an Ewok and performed stunts. After the CGI-packed prequels, the franchise pivoted back to practical creature work in “The Force Awakens” (2015) and he returned, featuring in all five films, sequels and spin-offs.

Creature effects supervisor Neal Scanlan is the brains behind Star Wars’ aliens and has worked with Shah since their days creating commercials in the 1990s. He’s transformed Shah into everything from space scavengers to private eyes, and refers to his “unique height” and “great artistry.”

“Without a great performance the character would neither be convincing nor entertaining to watch,” Scanlan told CNN. “Kiran brings both of the above.”

Shah on the set of

Shah on the set of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” It was the sixth Star Wars film the actor had performed in; each time as a creature or robot, and sometimes as both. Credit: Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

“I’ve been very lucky,” Shah reflected. “(By) doing creature work I’m not typecast. I’m not playing me as a little guy — just a little guy. With creatures I can play anything I want; I can be anything I want.”

Behind that statement lies another truth: diverse roles haven’t always been available — particularly when performing in his own skin. “(There were) limited expectations of little people out there,” he explains. Did his height sometimes define him in the eyes of scriptwriters and casting directors? “Yeah, it probably would.”

New frontiers

Shah credits Terry Gilliam with changing perceptions. The director’s 1981 crime caper “Time Bandits” placed a group of short stature actors including Kenny Baker and Malcolm Dixon center stage, while established Hollywood stars including Sean Connery provided support. Their characters were rounded, stereotype-bucking and downright heroic at times. “Little people were shown as actors and not freaks,” Shah said.

“My surprise was when I realized no one had given (them) the chance to prove how genuinely talented all of them were,” Gilliam recalled in an email to CNN. “They would not have to depend on only working inside tin cans and uncomfortable Ewok costumes.”

“The finished film was turned down by all the major studios,” he added. “Their argument was that people wouldn’t want to watch a bunch of dwarves as the leading men. How wrong we proved them!” (The movie grossed $42 million in the US and Canada on a reported $5 million budget.)

Shah was cast in “Bandits” but ultimately his scenes were cut. The director cast him in “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988) to make amends. Shah played the assistant to a blind executioner, a pairing of brains and brawn that unfolds like a mini silent comedy of its own.

“I loved working with Kiran,” Gilliam said. “He was ballsy, funny and full of ideas, he looked good in a dress and was always refusing to accept limitations. He’s a very big personality. He may be taller than me.”

Clockwise from left: Shah as Ginarrbrik, the devious servant of Tilda Swinton's White Witch in

Clockwise from left: Shah as Ginarrbrik, the devious servant of Tilda Swinton’s White Witch in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (2005); alongside Tom Cruise in Ridley Scott’s “Legend” (1985); as the executioner’s assistant in Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988). Credit: AF Archive/Alamy/Universal Studios/Columbia Pictures Industries

Shah traces a line between Gilliam’s groundbreaking movie to the roles he played in Ridley Scott cult fantasy “Legend” (1985) and Andrew Adamson’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (2005) — meaty little characters with motivations of their own. Much has changed since he began, though he takes no personal credit, citing the advances made by Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”) and Warwick Davis (“Harry Potter,” “Willow”), among others. “The whole idea is that we could be as good as actors, not just for height,” he reflected. “Height is secondary for us.”

The professional became personal for Shah when he returned to Kenya in 2013 on an awareness-raising tour, advocating for the rights of short stature people. In Kenya, stigma at home and in the workplace are ongoing issues, he says. On national TV he raised the issue of little people being paid less for their work. “We’ve got the same brain as everybody else,” he lamented.

Ultimately, Shah believes change in the country of his birth will come from within. “It will take time,” he said, adding “in Western countries it took years of demanding and pushing for people with disabilit(ies) to be treated equally.”

Clockwise from left: The pivoting Titanic set from which Shah and other stunt crew would hang; a stunt sequence from

Clockwise from left: The pivoting Titanic set from which Shah and other stunt crew would hang; a stunt sequence from “The World Is Not Enough” (Shah played a child avoiding the boat piloted by James Bond); a still from “Aliens,” in which Shah performed stunts for child actor Carrie Henn. Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo/AF Archive/Alamy

Gravity doesn’t know inequality: if you jump, you’re going to fall. And when acting parts weren’t around for Shah, there were always stunts.

His height meant he would frequently perform stunts for child actors — like Carrie Henn, who played Newt in “Aliens.” Shah was overseen by pioneering stuntman Simon Crane for James Cameron’s action-horror sequel, a relationship that continued into the ’90s when the two cooked up some of Shah’s most hair-raising escapades.

“I’ve tried to drown him on ‘Titanic,’ hang him from buildings on ‘Braveheart,’ run him over with a boat on ‘The World Is Not Enough’ and various others. He still comes back smiling and asking for more,” Crane told CNN.

In “Titanic” Shah was hired as part of a 120-person stunt crew working at a giant water tank in Rosarito, Mexico. “Anything undertaken on ‘Titanic’ was bigger than had been done before,” said Crane. “As a stuntman, if you work a lot, you are definitely going to get hurt as the odds are stacked against you. Because of the huge scale of ‘Titanic’ the odds were definitely stacked against us.”

“Kiran jumped from the ship, hung from lifeboats, got hit by numerous dump tanks of water and was in the sinking portion of the ship,” he added. “He will try anything.”

Director James Cameron was “fun to work with,” Shah said, although “he can get angry very quickly as well.” However, Shah mostly remembers the director wanting to keep him safe. What Shah considers his most dangerous stunt didn’t even make the final cut. Dressed as a young Slovakian boy who Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) tries to save, he was wiped out by a wall of water breaking into a narrow corridor below deck. But flooding the set with one tank of water proved insufficiently terrifying. In the end more water was added — 200 tons in total, Crane estimates — and a dummy used instead. Which is a relief, given Shah can’t swim.

It’s an alarming thought — especially considering his plunge into the Seine (for 1998 children’s book adaptation “Madeline”) — but Shah takes it in his stride. “Give me a wetsuit and I’ll be happy,” he said, laughing. “I know I’m going to float up again.”

“A pro’s pro”

And then there was “The Lord of the Rings,” still probably his best-known work to date.

Peter Jackson’s ambitious three-part adaptation featured hobbits, a diminutive human-like race from Middle-earth. Although the films would break boundaries with computer-generated imagery, Jackson opted to use forced perspective scale doubles as much as possible in scenes where hobbits interacted with other characters.

Shah was recruited for the trilogy and set to studying the respective actors’ movements and mannerisms, learning from DVDs of Elijah Wood (Frodo), Sean Astin (Sam), Billy Boyd (Pippin) and Dominic Monaghan (Merry), and from his previous encounters with the late Ian Holm (Bilbo) (“I worked with Sir Ian in ‘Greystoke‘ so I knew he had a limp”). Usually doubling as the lead in the scene, in one day he could end up playing all five characters.
Kiran Shah in the makeup chair and in finished hobbit hair and makeup for

Kiran Shah in the makeup chair and in finished hobbit hair and makeup for “The Lord of the Rings.” Credit: courtesy Weta Workshop/New Line Productions

Costumes and weapons were scaled down and the makeup department fitted him with pointy ears and hairy feet prosthetics. But for shots when his face might be seen, Shah wore silicon masks cast from each actor.

“Seeing my still, unmoving, but extremely lifelike face on Kiran for the first time was a mixture of thrilling, as to how much he looked like Frodo as one would imagine, and a little unsettling in the best way,” Wood recalled, via email.

“Kiran was a delight,” he added, describing him as “the unofficial leader” of the hobbit scale doubles.

Viggo Mortensen played Aragorn and describes Shah as “a pro’s pro” and a “true team player.” “Although he had already worked in an impressive number of productions by the time we started shooting in Wellington, he never lorded it over any of his less-experienced colleagues,” he told CNN.

Set of Lord of the Rings The Two Towers

Shah (top left) on the set of “The Lord of the Rings,” among the cast and crew receiving direction from Peter Jackson (center). Credit: © 2002 New Line Productions

The trilogy was filmed simultaneously, and for 15 months Shah worked all seasons. He was in demand, sometimes traveling by helicopter as he skipped between units shooting in different parts of the country and changing costume mid-flight. It was not always comfortable — hobbit feet don’t do much to protect from the snowy Southern Alps — but cast and crew were in it together. “We became a very big family out there,” said Shah.

“One of the best things about him was his sense of humor,” Mortensen remembered. “That is an important asset on a long, hard shoot like ours was.”

“We worked hard and played hard,” he added, recalling a game of rugby they played in a rare moment of downtime. “Since Kiran was a stuntman, he could give and take a good tackle, and was a very good wrestler as I recall! He is very quick on his feet … more than once I ended up doing a face-plant in the tussock grass or the mud when I thought I finally had him in my grasp.”

Yet by the end of the shoot Shah was left with a few battle scars of his own. One day, during a scene for “The Return of the King,” Shah was riding with another stunt person on a horse that kept bolting. Shah wanted to try one last take.

“That was one too many, and I came off and fractured my back,” he said. “I missed one month of filming and they had to keep me behind because I couldn’t fly back (to the UK). I was in a brace and on crutches for about another two or three months.”

A decade later, when Peter Jackson returned to Middle-earth with “The Hobbit” trilogy, Shah was back, acting, performing stunts and as scale double for Martin Freeman’s Bilbo.

Twenty years after “The Lord of the Rings” shoot, Shah says he’s lost contact with most of the cast. Some he’s crossed paths with on other jobs. He still has a pair of hobbit feet somewhere about the house, a memento of the films and the endless hours in the makeup chair. He keeps them in a box; the latex is delicate now and liable to crumble if he leaves them out.

Designed to last days but still intact — cherished, even — they’re a fitting totem. “It’s a connecting bond, though, that we were all hobbits together,” said Wood; “an honor that we’ll never take for granted.”

Shah isn’t one for nostalgia, always occupied with the next job. The coronavirus pandemic has forced a pause, however. A couple of projects — neither of which he can discuss — have ground to a halt and during lockdown he barely left his house in Hounslow, West London. In his newfound spare time he’s writing poetry (“beautiful,” Scanlan says) to be published in an anthology with all proceeds going to Great Ormond Street Hospital, the London children’s hospital that treated his hormone deficiency as a boy.

He bats away notions of legacy. Often it takes other people to remind him of his films. When he does reflect, it feels good to have been somewhere in the frame at so many pivotal moments in movie history. But otherwise Shah doesn’t think about it.

“I’m like, ‘yeah, I was there.’ Maybe I was the right person at the right time, every time.”

A nightmare made good

There are countless stories from Shah’s TV career, appearances in music videos from Spandau Ballet to Aphex Twin, and a riotous streak of commercials, that will have to wait. When he finally made his Bollywood debut. The time he played Miss Piggy.

From watching Westerns on a TV in Nairobi in the 1960s, Shah has come a long way. And after a career behind a mask, under a wig, in the throng, seldom seen for who he is and, less frequently still, heard, it’s beyond time for his close-up.

But although Shah has never particularly courted fame, he’s aware it has its uses.

In the late ’80s Shah was in New York, hunting for an agent. He’d recently had a small part in “Gothic” by Ken Russell, in which he was cast as a demon terrorizing Mary Godwin, played by Natasha Richardson. The job was only a day’s work, but the image of him crouched atop Richardson — an homage to Henry Fuseli’s painting “The Nightmare” — was splashed across marketing art. It was his first poster.
Movie poster for 1986 film Gothic

US poster for “Gothic” by British director Ken Russell. Credit: Vestron Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Shah found himself on 42nd Street after dark. It was still the bad old days and he’d been warned not to linger. No taxis were stopping, and some strangers took an unhealthy interest. Mid-mugging, “one guy looked at the wall and did a double take. There was a poster of me on Natasha Richardson’s chest. He went, ‘Is that you, dude?’ I went ‘yep,’ and he goes, ‘Oh God, we’ve got a star here!'”

“They got me a cab and threatened the driver, saying if he took money from me, they’d harm him,” he recalled. When the driver realized the actor had left his keys on the back seat, he even returned to drop them off. “(Russell) saved my life that day,” Shah said, catching his breath between laughs.

“You know those posters were banned in London?” he added. In the UK, Shah was replaced with his own silhouette. The question hangs in the air and the spotlight drifts away.

Illustration by Gabrielle Smith.

Images: Kiran Shah family collection/Lucasfilm Ltd./Alamy/AF Archive/Universal Studios/Moviestore Collection Ltd/Weta Workshop/New Line Productions/Vestron Pictures/Everett Collection/Paramount Pictures/HCK Photography

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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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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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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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