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‘Tell Me Why’ Smothers Its Representation in Bubble Wrap

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Tell Me Why crashed immediately after the last big binary choice I was asked to make. No matter what I did or how far back I started the final episode. Every single time. To my amusement, it appears to be doing this in an attempt to display a pop-up content warning. The best intentions for player safety, brought low by a conflict buried deep within the system.

Insecurity is the word that circled around my head the most while playing Tell Me Why. The puzzles are too easy, too obvious puzzles (often solved by brute force or using a homemade collection of fairy tales as a guide). The game constantly resorts to quick time events that attempt to disguise how little happens and how few actions the player performs in this game. Even the representation feels insecure. The desire for safety swaddles every decision DONTNOD has made for this game.

There’s a world where Tell Me Why is my game of the year. In fact, this latest offering from Life is Strange developer DONTNOD Entertainment, should be my game of the year by a country mile.

Two twins, Tyler and Alyson, reconnect a decade after Tyler (a trans man) was sent away to an extremely fancy boarding program for juvenile offenders and Alyson was adopted by the local Tlingit police chief after the traumatic death of their mother in an evening that is shrouded by a coastal fog of confusion and mystery. It’s a story that pulls in threads of estrangement and reconciliation, gender and sexuality, family mysteries, a tragic (but generally well-realized) mother and cagey townsfolk all wrapped up in a dialogue-driven 3D adventure game in a beautiful, small town gothic vision of Alaska. Also, the twins are low-key psychic.

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On paper, this couldn’t be more my shit than if they also said “Oh, and it’s King’s Field V.” These aren’t just my interests. This is my life.

But I haven’t been able to shake this nagging disappointment for days. How did this end up so badly? I guess in part it has to do with my expectations.

I wouldn’t call them high, certainly not unmeetable. But for the first decades of my life I was an adventure gamer to a fault. From early IF to parser-based graphical adventures well beyond the FMV Titan, Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within. It was a genre I loved deeply. But that also means it takes a lot for adventure games to surprise me, and far more to impress.

Tell Me Why refuses to be daring. I’ve solved all these puzzles before in some incarnation, I’ve had these conversations, seen meta-commentaries on how silly these genre conventions are by funnier, more acerbic developers in countless games before this. It’s too safe and predictable — a drugstore paint-by-numbers kit. And DONTNOD just won’t paint outside the lines.

Aside from the usual adventure game “highlighted object-of-interest prompts a contextual verb which begets dialogue,” the core mechanic revolves around the twin’s ability to manifest memories of specific emotional resonance (at least, that’s what they say – sometimes it’s just a plot or puzzle device and the memories conjured up are incredibly mundane). Think of it as Tacoma-lite. Or a dialogue-heavy version of Dark Souls’ bloodstains. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s hallucinatory lore dumps. Whichever your preferred comparison — you’ve seen this before. They’re basically visual audio logs. You can’t interact with them. You’ve seen all this before.

It’s not groundbreaking. Replaying scripted scenes has been done before, and with more daring. So, what does Tell Me Why bring to the table?

At key points you will be asked to choose between one memory or another (typically Tyler or Alyson’s, but not exclusively). There’s not many of them, and only one is truly make-or-break. But, in those instances, you must choose. And, of course, that has consequences. It’s something.

For six months in the early aughts, after work and class, I wrote a children’s novel. I was committed. I worked hard. And I wrote something that at the time I thought was pretty good. People liked it when they read drafts. It was well-received by friends, classmates, and professors who all offered guidance. I ended up commissioning artwork from a friend who drew me the most fabulous inky cats. I wrote breathless emails talking about the process of fiction writing and my progress. I went out for drinks with friends who wouldn’t let me forget there was life beyond the page. There was a new Garbage album and I danced my way to work with it blasting away on my iPod. I was consumed, but happy.

That’s one memory.

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One of my closest friends, and roommate at the time, would tell you that for six months in the early aughts I didn’t really eat, drank heavily, barely spoke to her, and when I did it was a growl if we weren’t both completely drunk. She’d tell you how I straddled the line between completely flat affect and quarrelsome as a default mode. That I chainsmoked with an unmatched consumptive greed, curled into a ball in the window sill. How below the banging of keys, I looped “Sandpaper Kisses” by Martina Topley-Bird endlessly. That when I did go to sleep, it was after an hour plus of sobbing into my pillow. And whatever I was doing from sundown to sunrise, wasn’t writing, not really, no matter how decent and coherent the final product. She’d say the only reason that period came to an end is because we had a fight that shook the warped frame of our antebellum house turned triplex apartment, our relationship was devastated beyond our capacity to repair it, and it lived miserably for another year until she pulled the ripcord, ejected, and we ceased to know one another the same way ever again.

Which of these is the truth? Are these the only possibilities?

If I think about the big fights in my life, most of them are from differences in perception — sometimes huge ones. Sometimes things are easy and one person is just flat out wrong, something resembling an objective reality can be found. But most of the time those memories are simply different interpretations of raw data. I grew up, in part, with loud Slavic relatives where shouting was the normal conversational tone — “I wasn’t yelling” might be true for me, but not my partner. When I was frantically writing my children’s book, I was happy, social, and being successful at work and school.

I was also profoundly depressed and in a three-person abusive relationship nightmare where my friend and I were both terrified of each other and passively suicidal for a year.

The truth of a situation is often a synthesis of recollections.

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But in Tell Me Why, there is only one answer. For as psychically connected the twins are — Tyler and Alyson can never just have a conversation about how both their memories might contain truth, or even what their divergences say about themselves. This is the part where Tell Me Why fell apart for me completely — it’s perfectly binary. Choices must be made: one winner, one loser. No quarter given.

I get it, dualism is easy. It’s safe — thematically, developmentally, and mechanically. Balancing and writing the flowchart for two outcomes is far less pressure than provisioning mediated resolutions. But in a game that wants to be about reconnection and relationships — it feels like a grand disservice to these characters and what the story could be. It feels like a cheat, something to hide insecurity in.

Wanting to “get it right” is also its own form of safety. When it comes to representation, we’ve seen the outcomes that are “Wrong” so many times. From white actors playing Black characters which are often thoughtlessly crafted to Blizzard’s literal cowpeople NDN stereotypes. We’ve had heteronormative relationships forced on players’ explicitly queer interpretations of Kassandra in Assasin’s Creed Odyssey. There are so many templates for how to fail at representation in stunning and spectacular ways. The backlash can be swift, tremendous, and marr a successful launch. But setting representation up as a binary where one can either be right or wrong with their depictions is misguided and naive. Experiences of these identities are as varied as the people who live them.

Tyler Ronan is a transgender man, which is daring. Or it would be, even when trans characters exist in video games (or any other media) typically it’s trans women on display. But as with everything else, it’s too safe. I know it will resonate with other critics, and that many trans players will respond positively to it. They’re not wrong to do that. But “the representation” in Tell Me Why also comes across as too practiced, almost unctuous. I have no doubt that this comes from a sincere desire to “get it right.” Just like the overly eager FAQ they released promising no one gets hurt and they followed all the right steps. Because it does. It hits every checkmark, as though the developers were quietly lurking through years of discourse, compiling data to produce the Correct Result. It feels desperate for approval, for someone to say “this is how you tell a trans man’s story correctly.”

No. This is how you tell a trans man’s story safely.

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There’s no tension, no willingness to be daring. As the FAQ states (and the review guide urges me to convey), Tyler is never subject to (physical) violence because of his gender identity.

Tyler is never deadnamed by the game, but his name (as is his perceived gender) before coming out and deciding on Tyler is used throughout (and frequently commented on). The subtitles never refer to this pre-transition character as anything other than “Young Tyler” even as other characters call him “Ollie.” The game, through Tyler, brings up things like HRT and top surgery and struggling to learn a non-toxic expression of masculinity. And the game rarely draws a lot of attention to this. When Tyler mentions his plans for surgery, it’s simply met with a compassionate offer of help during convalescence. And that’s it. They even go out of their way to explain that Alyson got permission to out Tyler to various locals.

There are no slurs, no pointed “insults,” and the game never insinuates Tyler is trans because of trauma (which they insist I tell you about and caution that this is a false narrative about transness). Of course, there are some people who don’t get it, are clumsy with Tyler being trans after having only known “Ollie.” All but two are very quick to try and course correct for their gaffs in a believable and even endearing way. The biggest offenders here are simply non-characters and one who despite her beliefs, still doesn’t misgender or deadname Tyler.

Which, if I’m honest, is a little weird.

Actually, it’s kind of a lot weird. Because there is transphobia in this game, it’s just been defanged to seem like no big deal when it happens. It’s trying to be sensitive, but it just feels naive, even dismissive at times.

Any trauma Tyler experiences regarding his identity is routed through the much larger central trauma around the twins’ mother. It’s transgender trauma divorced from itself.

But I don’t see any way around it.

After the violence experienced by The Last of Us 2‘s Lev, the kindness and sensitivity Tyler receives in his treatment is a welcome reprieve. The low-pressure, low-stakes encounters he must deal with regarding his gender identity are easily resolved and never truly explosive.

Isn’t this what we bargained for? Depictions of identities that are marked by trauma that both acknowledge the trauma exists, but refuse to directly engage with it. We pushed for better representation only to have the edges of our identities filed down and wrapped in Nerf foam.

For our safety.

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Of course, as much as I am critical of how transness is portrayed and used in Tell Me Why, I’m deeply sympathetic. They simply can’t be daring. We won’t allow it. Which is fair, I absolutely hold people to task when they screw these things up. But…

How do you convey marginalized identities to outsiders? Is there an answer? No, I don’t think so. Not when we’re still misusing “let queers be messy” and raking them over the coals for being messy and exploring and interrogating their own identity-dependent traumas. How can we expect cis creators aim for anything but safe perfection? This is it. This is The Representation. Is it everything you hoped for?

If it is, you don’t need me to tell you that’s totally okay. We deserve to have safe representation, we deserve safety. But I would argue, we could have that safety in media that doesn’t directly try to invoke our traumas. “What if Harvest Moon, but for Trans People?”

As much as Tell Me Why wants to believe it’s not about transness, it front-loads and centers Tyler’s identity to the point of diminishing the central narrative. It even occludes Alyson’s part in most of the story. For the Native characters, however, DONTNOD goes the opposite route. Indigeneity is never really brought up.

An early moment with Alyson mentions the important meaning of gift-giving in Tlingit culture, but that’s basically it as far as dialogue. It doesn’t factor into the story. Mostly it’s set-dressing. You can’t go more than one room without bumping into Formline something. Denali is frequently, correctly, referenced as Denali, and not by it’s official settler name, Mt. McKinley. There are some dreamcatchers, which aren’t culturally something Northwestern Coastal peoples are known for, but NDNs do buy any NDN stuff we can, so it tracks for me. There’s even a reference about how some of the objects you’ll run into are white people forgeries.

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The strongest presence that indigeneity presents in this game is in a cemetery. Where Tlingit funerary traditions are left to be read on a bulletin board. As Sucker Punch Creative Director, Nate Fox said of Infamous: Second Son, “Native Americans are part of the population, so…” Though this is Alaska, so these are Alaskan Natives, but that’s roughly the feeling here.

At least DONTNOD consulted with the Huna Heritage Foundation, hired Tlingit artists, and both of the game’s Tlingit characters are portrayed by Natives, and one of them is even Tlingit. So we’ve come a long way since 2014. Praise be to the Representation.

But do two Native characters ever occupy the same space? Nope. Do they reference each other? Not really, not noticeably. Pause for a joke about the invention of the Indigenous version of the Bechdel Test.

And while I guess most Natives don’t talk about Native Stuff to non-Natives, the vacuum of it here felt uncomfortably weird? But it’s better than the alternative, I guess. It was nice seeing two Natives played by Natives, even if one was just a recapitulation of Deputy “Hawk” from Twin Peaks.

No one really talks about it, but the fictional town of Delos Crossing is actually pretty diverse. There’s a Latina surgeon who shows up, a Black woman police officer, the conservative Filipina store owner, a Black mother transplanted from Georgia, and the conspicuously Italian-American town mayoral candidate. It’s a regular United Colors of DONTNOD. But like the clothing brand I’m using as a joke here, it’s all pretty superficial beyond casting. Tessa, the filipina shop keeper? Basically reduced down to a few mentions of “kare kare” (presumably made with locally-sourced Alaskan Musk Ox tail). There’s safety in just not bringing these things up in any significant way.

The problems with Tell Me Why really aren’t to do with it’s representation though. It’s fine. Probably good. I know it will hit with people much harder than it missed with me.

Honestly, DONTNOD knows how to build a space and populate it with things to click on. The limited scope of the world more or less works, and it certainly is beautiful, like a faded gas station postcard. And the way characters speak what would normally be internal thoughts about world objects, often prompting characters in entirely different rooms to respond in conversation is charming, quirky, and gives this marvelous sense of community improv theatre. I even love the ridiculousness of early ’00s European adventure game puzzles. And I really like the idea of manifesting memory to solve those puzzles and provide clarity and resolution.

But it pulls every single punch. It can’t commit. It’s too insecure to make full use of the memory gameplay, or even the twin’s telepathic voicechat. And because the game is unwilling to let truly bad things happen, to provide the possibility for new trauma, or even momentary danger — there is no tension. For as long as Tell Me Why is, the core mysteries the game presents just aren’t enough, and they’re never allowed room to breathe — overly pat answers are forced on players in machine gun bursts (but honestly, you can see them coming well in advance).

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Does Tell Me Why stick the landing? Do the accumulation of choices make an impact? Can it possibly weave all these disparate parts together into a satisfying conclusion after the final binary decision? I don’t know. The game keeps crashing so it can post a content warning (which should be patched by the time Chapter 3 releases).

But, I doubt it would make much of a difference. While at this point there’s a curiosity in seeing how DONTNOD’s writers have decided to wrap up the choices they’ve asked me to make — I just couldn’t invest deeply enough in these characters to find out how their lives turn out in the wake of uncovering so much repressed and secreted trauma. The conditioned gamer in me wants the outcomes on a purely Skinnerian level, I know they’re there, the light came on, I pushed the button, now dispense the food.

What do I actually want though? I mean beyond a purely mammalian response.

For the game to have been just a bit gutsier for the first ten hours, so this ending might matter to me. I wanted the game to imbue the characters with enough depth and humanity that I didn’t have to spackle cracks and wallpaper over the flimsy mystery and broad stretches of tepid tragedy with my own. I wanted to see a reflection of my life in them, not graft mine onto them.

I want to want to play the game to the ending because it compelled me to, not because it was my job as a reviewer. And I know they could do it. There are a few moments in this game that I can’t discuss in this review that truly affected me. I know this team can do it.

But to do that, they have to be so much braver than the overwhelming majority of Tell Me Why is. This isn’t a safe and friendly world, and I wish the game reflected that.

Ultimately, there’s no satisfying ending here. I know how trauma works, and not just the big momentous kind, but the long lingering slow decline. The trauma of years living with a parent who’s own depression can’t be bargained with. The never knowing if “can you please pass the butter” will be met with hostility, tears or a simple passing of the serving dish. I know what not being able to pick up the phone to call your sister is like.

Epilogues are the final safe decision. They can show us characters having moved on or not, but it can’t contain the tremendous effort and time it takes to heal and move forward, to reconcile. They’re jump cuts to resolutions, to player satisfaction. But they avoid the messy work of needing to build them in the narrative. They work, when we’ve already been through hell and come out the other side. But we have to go through hell first. I really wish Tell Me Why had been brave enough to take that journey.

Source : ViceRead More

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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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