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Our cities may never look the same again after the pandemic

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For advocates of walkable, unpolluted and vehicle-free cities, the past few weeks have offered an unprecedented opportunity to test the ideas they have long lobbied for.
With Covid-19 lockdowns vastly reducing the use of roads and public transit systems, city authorities — from Liverpool to Lima — are taking advantage by closing streets to cars, opening others to bicycles and widening sidewalks to help residents maintain the six-foot distancing recommended by global health authorities.
And, like jellyfish returning to Venice’s canals or flamingos flocking to Mumbai, pedestrians and cyclists are venturing out to places they previously hadn’t dared.
In Oakland, California, almost 10% of roadways have been closed to through-traffic, while Bogota, Colombia, has opened 47 miles of temporary bike lanes. New York has begun trialing seven miles of “open streets” to ease crowding in parks, with Auckland, Mexico City and Quito among the dozens of other world cities experimenting with similar measures.

There are many purported benefits of “reclaiming” the streets during a pandemic. Encouraging cycling may reduce crowding on buses and subways, where people can struggle to get distance from one another. Vehicle-free roads also offer those without access to parks the ability to exercise safely.

A woman cycles through a bike lane in central Milan.

A woman cycles through a bike lane in central Milan. Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Other urban initiatives have been introduced to directly control the spread of the virus. Cities in the US, Canada and Australia have reconfigured traffic lights so that people no longer need to touch crosswalk buttons. (In any case, many pedestrian crossings are equipped with “placebo buttons” that have no impact on whether the lights go green).
It is unclear if these urban interventions will continue once the pandemic is over. Milan plans to build 22 miles of new cycle lanes and permanently widen sidewalks after its lockdown lifts. Authorities in Hungary’s capital, Budapest, have suggested that its new bike lanes may become permanent if the measures “prove favorable,” while planning officials in Providence, Rhode Island, have said crossings will now remain button-free.

But few other cities have been so committal. And it will be harder to make the case for pedestrian- and cycle-friendly streets once their benefits are weighed against the knock-on effects of congestion elsewhere — especially in countries as dependent on cars as the US.

Indeed, the cities in which pandemic-era measures seem most likely to stick are those already committed to change. Take Paris, for instance, where more than 400 miles of pop-up bike lanes (or “coronapistes”) are set to open when France’s national lockdown ends on May 11. Mayor Anne Hidalgo has called returning to a car-dominated status quo “out of the question,” but she was already backing a huge overhaul of biking in the city.
A recently expanded bike track in Berlin's Kreuzberg district.

A recently expanded bike track in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. Credit: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

In other words, the pandemic may only have served as a catalyst. But urban planning is a long game in which change is piecemeal and the legacies of past decisions take time to overcome. Public spaces and amenities cannot always be expanded or reconfigured at will.

So, looking to the coming years rather than the coming months, how else might the virus — or attempts to prevent future ones — re-shape our cities?

Reimagining public space

Parc de la Distance, a speculative proposal by Austrian design studio Precht, imagines a public park made from a maze-like network of three-foot-wide hedges. The layout provides 20-minute walking routes that can, in theory, be completed while maintaining distance from others, thanks to gates indicating when paths are occupied.
Austrian design studio Precht has imagined a maze-like public park that encourages social distancing.

Austrian design studio Precht has imagined a maze-like public park that encourages social distancing.

Czech firm Hua Hua Architects has meanwhile proposed a “Gastro Safe Zone” (pictured top) which uses brightly colored ground markings to encourage passersby to keep their distance from al fresco diners. And in Milan, one of the cities worst hit by Covid-19, designer Antonio Lanzillo has envisaged public benches equipped with plexiglass “shield” dividers.
Other ideas have ranged from self-disinfecting “smart” elevators to door handles that can be easily operated with elbows, rather than hands.

It is too soon to know which, if any, may be realized. But each idea suggests that the practice of social distancing and unease over shared surfaces could continue long after the current crisis.

“Planners talk about creating ‘sticky’ streets — places where people linger and stay around. So the question now is: Will those efforts continue, or how will they need to be changed? Can we still achieve connectivity if we all keep social distancing?”

Jordi Honey-Rosés

If they do, the widely-publicized six-foot distancing guidelines could redefine the layout and spacing of new public facilities, according to Northeastern University’s Sara Jensen Carr, whose forthcoming book “The Topography of Wellness” considers how urban landscapes have been transformed by epidemics like cholera, tuberculosis and obesity.

“Everybody from Daniel Burnham — who was the planner of Chicago — to Le Corbusier came up with arbitrary measurements on their own,” she said in a phone interview. “Le Corbusier writes extensively that every ‘unit’ in the Radiant City (or “Ville Radieuse,” the celebrated architect’s proposed utopia) needed a specific amount of light … and a certain amount of cubic feet of air to circulate within it.

“So six feet could be the new unit we use when we think about cities and public parks.”

Yet, the idea of keeping people apart seems to contradict the emphasis planners have traditionally placed on human interaction. Architects, whether designing parks or social housing, have often valued meeting points as sources of collaboration, inclusion and community-building.

“That contradiction is very interesting,” said associate professor at the University of British Columbia, Jordi Honey-Rosés, who co-authored one of the first academic studies into the potential impact of Covid-19 on public space.

“In fact, if you look at the literature on the health benefits of green spaces, one of the primary (advantages) is social connectivity — people seeing their neighbors and being part of a community.

“Planners talk about creating ‘sticky’ streets — places where people linger and stay around,” he added, speaking on the phone from lockdown in Barcelona. “So the question now is: Will those efforts continue, or how will they need to be changed? Can we still achieve connectivity if we all keep social distancing?”

Credit: Antonio Lanzillo & Partners

Milan-based architect Antonio Lanzillo has envisaged public benches equipped with plexiglass

Milan-based architect Antonio Lanzillo has envisaged public benches equipped with plexiglass “shield” dividers. Credit: Antonio Lanzillo & Partners

Rather than outlining solutions at this early stage, Honey-Rosés’ paper (which, subject to peer review, is set to publish in the journal Cities & Health) instead lays out the questions facing urban planners. Many relate to how cities manage the green spaces that he thinks “will, overall, be more valued and more appreciated” after the current crisis.

In addition to their well-documented health and psychological benefits, greener cities may also be more resilient to future pandemics. A recent Harvard study has indicated a possible correlation between air pollution and the likelihood of dying from Covid-19 in the US, while Italian scientists have detected the virus on pollutant particles (and are looking at whether pollution may aid its spread).

Neither line of inquiry has yielded conclusive results. But should a definitive link between pollution and the virus emerge, it would “really be a game-changer” for green urban planning, Honey-Rosés said.

“Then, cities will be able to say, ‘We’re going to redesign our streets not only because we need social and physical distance, but because we need to increase our probability of survival,” he suggested.

A matter of density

The biggest questions may center around population density. Fears that disease spreads more easily in busy urban centers could already be having an impact on people’s attitudes towards living in cities.

Data from Harris Poll found that nearly a third of Americans are considering relocating to less crowded places as a direct result of Covid-19. The poll, conducted at the end of April, indicated that respondents aged 18 to 35 were the most likely to be considering such a move.
A desire to distance ourselves from others in public may continue long afer the pandemic.

A desire to distance ourselves from others in public may continue long afer the pandemic. Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

“Space now means something more than square feet,” Harris CEO John Gerzema said in a press release. “Already beset by high rents and clogged streets, the virus is now forcing urbanites to consider social distancing as a lifestyle.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also appeared to blame the severity Covid-19 in his city on urban density. “There is a density level in NYC that is destructive,” he tweeted. “It has to stop and it has to stop now. NYC must develop an immediate plan to reduce density.”

So will there be a long-term push for cities to sprawl outwards in order to reduce downtown populations?

According to Carr, the backlash against city centers may be especially acute in America, where high rates of car ownership make suburban life less inconvenient. “The United States has always been a country that somewhat fears density,” she said.

Credit: miss3/Hua Hua Architects

A proposed

A proposed “Gastro Safe Zone,” which uses brightly colored ground markings to encourage passersby to keep their distance from outdoor diners. Credit: Hary Marwel/Hua Hua Architects

But she, like other experts, worries that a potential retreat from cities will come at a cost. After all, density makes mass transit systems viable, improves access to public facilities (including hospitals) and promotes innovation and creativity.

“I think as designers and urban planners we have to think about how we emphasize the benefits of density,” Carr added. “Because now, whenever anyone tries to build new housing anywhere, it’s probably going to be the first question that people have.”

Even before the development of germ theory, people have distrusted the benefits of living in close quarters. The Victorians’ widespread belief that miasma (or “bad air”) helped spread disease partly justified the clearance of London’s 19th-century slums. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, the perils of density were seemingly laid bare when faulty plumbing saw the deadly virus sweep through Hong Kong’s Amoy Gardens housing estate.

“Six feet could be the new unit we use when we think about cities and public parks.”

Sara Jensen Carr

But there is not, yet, any clear evidence linking population density to the spread of Covid-19. Hong Kong (which is more densely populated now than it was in 2003, with some neighborhoods housing more than 60,000 people per square kilometer) has more effectively contained local transmission of Covid-19 than sparser cities in Europe and the US. Robert Steuteville, editor of the journal Public Square, has argued that data from the US (such as the high transmission rates in the relatively sparsely-populated New Orleans, for instance) disprove what he calls the “‘density is dangerous’ narrative.”

Whether the use of public transport is a significant factor in Covid-19’s spread is a theory still being explored. And while, again, the findings remain far from conclusive, mistrust of buses and subways may nonetheless see their use decline.

Honey-Rosés suggested we may instead see the growth of “micromobility” — vehicles like scooters and e-bikes — though this could be accompanied by reduced demand for initiatives like bike-sharing schemes.

“The sharing model is going to have additional costs related to hygiene and cleaning, which will be very challenging,” he said, adding that sharing schemes “might get hurt in this pandemic.”

A man rides an electric scooter across the Parco Sempione park in Milan.

A man rides an electric scooter across the Parco Sempione park in Milan. Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Blue-sky thinking

Epidemics can have radical and unexpected effects on architecture and design.

The 1918 flu pandemic, for instance, helped transform home bathrooms, leading property owners to install brass fittings and powder rooms to keep guests from the main lavatories. Later that century, sanatoria built to treat tuberculosis came to inspire the white, clinical aesthetic of modernist architecture (while beliefs the disease could be remedied by sunlight influenced the movement’s penchant for terraces and roof gardens, according to Carr).

So although considering the impact of Covid-19 is, at this stage, largely speculative, there’s plenty of scope for innovation.

Perhaps we’ll see the widespread adoption of automatic doors. Perhaps the popularity of urban farming in recent months will offer new relief from the threat of bare supermarket shelves. Or perhaps the installation of sewage monitors will be used to decipher if — and where — certain diseases are growing among city populations.
A recent skyscraper design competition was won by a prefabricated emergency healthcare tower dubbed

A recent skyscraper design competition was won by a prefabricated emergency healthcare tower dubbed “Epidemic Babel.” Credit: Gavin Shen/Weiyuan Xu/Xinhao Yuan

There have been more outlandish ideas, still. Italian designer Umberto Menasci has envisaged a series of plexiglass boxes that allow beachgoers to relax in isolation. Elsewhere, this year’s eVolo skyscraper design competition was won by a prefabricated emergency healthcare tower — a concept dubbed “Epidemic Babel” — that its Chinese designers claim could be rapidly erected in a future outbreak.

Regardless of such proposals’ viability, there is plenty of optimism that this crisis can improve the way cities are designed and run, said Honey-Rosés. But he caveated this by saying politics and opportunism may play significant roles in dictating which ideas come to fruition. (“I’m seeing a lot self-interest in the optimism — the cyclists are talking about having bigger bike lanes, because that’s in their interests,” he offered as an example.)

A man rides along a temporary cycle lane put into place to relieve pressure on public transportation in Grenoble, France.

A man rides along a temporary cycle lane put into place to relieve pressure on public transportation in Grenoble, France. Credit: Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images

But despite his self-professed skepticism, the researcher nonetheless believes that the pandemic has presented real opportunities to rethink public space.

“This is a time for humility on the part of pundits,” he said. “And researchers need to be asking good questions. But I also think it’s time for city leaders to be bold.

“Things that were not possible before, now are.”

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All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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(CNN) —  

Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.

Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.

So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.

Coffee

Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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

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Open Sourced logo

Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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