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The Law that Indebted the USPS Is Even Worse Than You Think

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This article was sent on Tuesday to subscribers of The Mail, Motherboard’s pop-up newsletter about the USPS, election security, and democracy. Subscribe to get the next edition before it is published here, as well as exclusive articles and the paid zine.

At 4:35 a.m. on December 9, 2006, the 109th Congress adjourned “in a blaze of bickering,” as the Miami Herald headline put it. But before cementing its place in history as one of the least productive legislative sessions in history, the Senate did manage to wedge through a bunch of bills which would soon get President George W. Bush’s signature and become law. One of them, in the words of its sponsor Senator Susan Collins, “will ensure the continuation of universal postal service at an affordable rate.” She went on to call it “great news.” 

But within a few years, it would be obvious to nearly everyone this law, called the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), was killing the USPS. Today, there is virtually universal agreement among Democrats and Republicans alike that a key provision in that law, one that went virtually unmentioned at the time of its passage, was an historic oversight that saddled the USPS with tens of billions of unnecessary debt.

The PAEA’s most important provision invented debt that, by any common or practical accounting method, the USPS didn’t have. It then labeled this fabricated debt “unfunded liabilities,” which makes it sound like the USPS had real debt it couldn’t pay. So, the law forced the USPS to pay it, turning the made-up debt into money it actually owed. All of this was done under the guise of modernizing the post office for the 21st Century.

This little noticed rule in the PAEA was a classic case of the “starve the beast” small government ideology, in which withholding or removing funds from a public service makes it less effective, thereby justifying even further cuts. The PAEA made the USPS put billions of dollars a year into a low-interest yielding account managed by the federal government, essentially transferring wealth from the USPS—which is technically an independent agency—to the federal government. This wealth transfer simultaneously saddled the USPS with unnecessary debt making it harder for it to be an effective postal service and allowed republicans to say the USPS is a failing institution to spur additional cuts and reforms.

Although nearly everyone recognizes in retrospect this provision of the PAEA was bad for the post office, the rhetoric surrounding it in the years afterwards was hyper-partisan. And to some extent, it still is. Conservatives frame this provision as a good idea gone wrong because of the fiscal hit the USPS took during the Great Recession. Meanwhile, progressives believe it was intentional sabotage by the conservatives in their ultimate quest to privatize the post office.

But neither of those are the full story behind the PAEA. Instead, the more complete truth is the PAEA was a cover up. In fact, it wasn’t the USPS that was in debt. It was the federal government that was in debt to the USPS. And the PAEA’s entire purpose was to change that.


In November 2002, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) discovered something that made “jaws drop” in the U.S. Treasury Department: the USPS had been quietly overpaying into its pension fund, which was held by the Treasury Department, for decades. Not by a little bit. But by a lot. In fact, the Treasury owed the USPS $71 billion (a subsequent USPS Inspector General investigation in 2010 found the overpayment to be $75 billion), roughly equivalent to an entire year of USPS revenue.

Because this is a newsletter and not an accounting textbook, I’m going to oversimplify here by quite a bit. There are reams of literature and decades of debates on this overpayment issue. Some studies have found the overpayment was less, others more. It actually turned out the USPS was potentially overpaying the pension fund in two different simultaneous ways, although OPM would later change its stance and argue USPS in fact wasn’t overpaying its pension at all using logic many actuarial experts reject.

The pension issue stems from an incredibly mundane question: who is on the hook for the increased pension costs when USPS workers get raises? After USPS became an independent agency in 1971, USPS employees continued to be enrolled in government benefit programs, but the costs of those programs had to be split between the Treasury and the Feds, since prior to 1971 they were federal government workers and after 1971 they were USPS workers. Congress decided that, since it had no control over the raises workers got once USPS was its own thing, they shouldn’t have to pay for the associated increased pension costs. Sounds fair enough, except the subsequent math used to calculate pension payments assumed no postal workers would ever have gotten raises had the post office remained a federal department. That obviously isn’t how things work, skewed the books, and ended up putting far more of the pension bill on the USPS side of the ledger than the Treasury’s.

As you can imagine, trying to calculate how much each side really owes is less a science than a combination of philosophy and art, resulting in many legitimate disagreements about how such things are calculated that I definitely won’t get into here. For all the gloriously nerdy details, this Save the Post Office post is a great place to start. 

But the upshot is, by any standard accounting practice or actuarial measure, the USPS way overpaid its pension fund. And, somehow, the Treasury and USPS had to settle the books.  

And it had to be dealt with in a big way, because the Bush administration was running up a deficit even as it pretended to be fiscally conservative. It would require an act of Congress to lower the USPS’s pension payments so the postal service could take advantage of the unexpected windfall. This, the Washington Post noted, “would result in the loss of a multibillion-dollar cash stream at a time when the White House and Congress face budget deficits.” The Post quotes an anonymous Senate aide rhetorically asking “Do you need something to offset the change?”

In April 2003, five months after the pension windfall discovery, President Bush signed a law that appeared to fix this, but in reality punted it down the line by putting the USPS’s pension payments into escrow to be dealt with later. The PAEA was when the punt landed.


At the same time this was all happening, a Presidential Commission on the future of the post office issued a wide-ranging report about the future of the USPS in the digital era. It reported, among other things, that the USPS had some $100 billion in financial liabilities, a massive and concerning number on its own. But the looming spectre of the internet and digitization threatened the post office’s revenues, too, combining with its supposed debt to destroy the post office. Something would have to be done, both to “modernize” the post office and deal with that $100 billion in liabilities. 

The largest chunk of that $100 billion number came in the form of some $48 billion for “Obligation for Retiree Health Care Benefits.” That number came from a January 2003 letter from the Congressional Budget Office to Rep. Jim Nussle, which itself was about what would happen to the federal budget if Congress opened up the can of worms about how the USPS funds its pension and retirement programs. Among other things, the CBO study found lowering the USPS’s pension payments could cost the federal budget “by as much as $10 billion to $15 billion over the 2003-2007 period and by as much as $36 billion to $41 billion over the 2003-2013 period.”

By the time the punt landed, Congress had figured out a way to make sure that money would continue flowing from the USPS to the federal treasury. The law created the Retiree Health Benefits Fund (RHBF)—I’m sorry about all the acronyms, the USPS has so many of them it even has its own glossary—a new and separate fund under the Office of Personnel Management and therefore the federal government. And the USPS had to put a lot of money in this account. Some $5.5 billion per year, on average, for the next ten years. There it would sit and accrue low interest rates on US Treasury bonds, so the USPS could then tap the fund down the line to pay for the health care of its current and former employees.

While this may sound fiscally sound and perhaps even prudent, the problem is the debt is completely made up. 

The logical flaw at the center of this budgetary chicanery is actually quite simple. Future health care costs, be it for employees or retirees, are just that: in the future. It’s not money anyone owes anyone else any time soon. It’s just a guess about what will happen. To put it right next to current expenses and revenues as if these are debts the USPS has is Einsteinian in bending the fabric of space-time. It is an accounting lie.

The analogy I often see presented—including in Save The Post Office’s indispensable coverage over the years of the PAEA’s impact on the USPS—is that of a mortgage. Imagine you took out a mortgage for $300,000 including interest over its 30-year life, working out that’s $833 per month in payments (mortgages aren’t that simple but for our purposes here it’s fine). That does not mean you start budgeting your monthly finances as if you now owe $300,000. “Sorry honey, we can’t afford to replace your car that keeps catching on fire,” you would never say to your significant other, “because we have a $300,000 mortgage.” 

That’s not how a mortgage works, because you’re paying off the mortgage over 30 years, during which time you will earn an awful lot more money (hopefully) than you do every month. If you make, say, $65,000 a year, then $300,000 over 30 years is not that high of a debt burden, entirely manageable even if you encounter some short-term money woes. So, too, is $100 billion in USPS “debt” not that big a deal for an agency with annual revenues upwards of $70 billion and one that was actually making a profit in the early 2000s.  

So not only is this not how mortgages work, It’s also not how health care costs work. The proof of that is nobody else pays for health care costs like the Post Office now has to. Private companies and every level of government calculate health care costs on a pay-as-you-go basis, much like the family mortgage. You budget for what you owe every month/quarter/year, perhaps set aside a little extra for contingencies, and otherwise use money that keeps coming in to keep paying as you go.

The PAEA forced the USPS to be the exception to this generally accepted accounting practice. Rather than just continuing to pay its health care costs as it went like everybody else, the USPS now had to “prefund” its current and future retirees’ health care to the tune of some $56.1 billion over 10 years. That’s $56.1 billion it would no longer have to spend on investing in better equipment, fixing dilapidated post offices, paying more employees to do more work, or buying trucks that don’t catch on fire, the exact kind of investments it would need to make to adapt to a rapidly changing business landscape, the problem the PAEA was supposedly trying to address.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, something big happened afterwards, and I mean right afterwards. The ink on the PAEA was barely dry before the entire financial industry collapsed and the Great Recession hit, taking with it huge swaths of junk mail that pay the USPS’s bills

This reduction in mail volume was indeed nothing to sneeze at and did impact USPS’s finances, just as virtually every business was hit hard by the recession. But the recession would largely be blamed for the USPS’s financial problems for years to come, and to some extent still is today. But that’s simply not accurate. All things considered, the USPS weathered the financial crisis pretty well compared to many other corporations. Except, of course, for one problem: the $5.5 billion it had to put aside every year for a completely made-up reason. 

Starting in 2011, the USPS was in such dire financial straits it could no longer afford to put money into the RHBF without jeopardizing its main purpose of delivering mail. Either that or clever USPS lawyers discovered there is, in fact, no penalty for failing to put money into the RHBF. Either way, they stopped making payments. Overall, the USPS deposited $17.9 billion into the RHBF. 

Even though the USPS cut and cut and cut to try and save money during these years, this was money the USPS couldn’t spare. A pretty clear picture emerges after looking at the USPS’s annual 10-K disclosure forms: the USPS would have been very close to profitability if not for these prefunding requirements and other less impactful financial chicanery from the PAEA. 

Postal historian Philip Rubio, who has done far more extensive analysis of the numbers than me, concurs. “If you check the USPS figures for expenses v. revenue, and literature pertaining to same, since 2006, you will see a pattern: most years they finished in the black with a giant asterisk known as the RHBF prefunding mandate.*,” he wrote via email. “Even 2007-2010 they covered the Great Recession and its aftermath, their surplus (some would call it profit) was $611M.  Six of the nine years from 2010-2018 they also finished in the black each year.  In 2006, the year the PAEA passed by a voice vote in Congress, they had almost a $1B surplus.”

In other words, the USPS financial crisis is just as imaginary as its unfunded liabilities.

Today, Democrats in particular are quick to decry the PAEA with harsh words, calling it a “blunder” or “overly burdensome.” But that’s only true if you accept the premise the PAEA was a mistake. It wasn’t. It’s doing exactly what it was supposed to do. It’s keeping the money flowing in the same direction it always has.

Over all, the PAEA was not a departure from how things used to be. It ensured things would continue as they had, with the USPS subsidizing the US government by billions of dollars every year. In 2012, former Postal Regulatory Commission chairman Ruth Goldway said “The Postal Service has been a kind of cash cow for the federal government for the last 40 years.” Rubio, the postal historian, quipped that it is no longer the government’s cash cow. Now, it’s a drained cow. 

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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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