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The new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches is incredibly strange and almost offensively bad

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Many movies that fail to win critical regard still frequently succeed as entertainment, if only because they turn into delightful excuses for their actors to have fun. One might certainly expect this to be the case for The Witches, Robert Zemeckis’s new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic, horrifying children’s novel, now streaming on HBO Max.

But I must, alas, report that no one — on-screen or off — is having enough fun to save The Witches from being a dull and puzzling thing. While Anne Hathaway as the head witch seems to love swanning around the great coastal Alabama hotel to which Dahl’s witches have bizarrely arrived, no one else seems to be enjoying themselves. Perhaps it’s because the premise of this new version of The Witches inexplicably overlays two separate stories onto one another, and no one else in the cast is quite sure which one they’re in at any given moment.

Are they in a story where a young Black boy in the post-Jim Crow South confronts racism and ethnic hatred through the thinly veiled guise of a convention of kid-ocidal witches? Or are they in a macabre, modern-ish cautionary tale, one where boys can meet monsters and be forever altered at the whimsy of a delightfully unpredictable universe?

If you’re not sure these two stories go together, you’re not alone: The Witches isn’t sure either. Despite the film’s quizzical efforts to blend them together, the two halves never cohere into something that makes much sense — or remotely justifies the strange execution.

The Witches is an oddly literal adaptation, except when it’s a wild departure

The Witches, transplanted from its original Nordic and English setting to 1960s Alabama, recounts the delightfully morbid story of an unnamed Boy (Jahzir Bruno) who moves in with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after the death of his parents. Shortly thereafter, he encounters a witch at the local drug store, and his grandmother, something of a spiritualist herself, initiates him into a world in which child-hating murderous witches are everywhere. These witches, unfortunately, look exactly like the typical woman of the ’60s: They always wear wigs and nice shoes, they have giant expanding nostrils, and they always wear gloves.

Not long after this revelation, the Boy comes face to face with not only one witch, but an entire huge coven of witches who’ve all assembled — where else? — at a large hotel convention. And it’s, ironically, held at the very same hotel to which he and his grandmother have traveled to try and escape the witch! Because his grandmother has taught him how to recognize a witch, he immediately realizes what he’s stumbled upon. The results are calamitous (and genuinely creepy) for the Boy.

At first, Zemeckis’s version of The Witches appears to be made to order. But Dahl’s novel is really less about a story than it is about a feeling, a sense of things being terribly disordered, unreal, and unfair. This is where everything quickly goes awry.

Roald Dahl, the author of childhood classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda, gave us a body of work that feels almost intrinsically British. In the classic tradition of British children’s literature, he represents the world to children as a cold and indifferent place, in which wonders, magic, and human kindness are rare, sought-after treasures. In a Dahl story, children are often abused by their caretakers and other indifferent adults until they discover some form of fantastical escape. His work built on and influenced the youth-oriented fantasy genre, with series like Harry Potter later providing direct echos of Dahl’s work.

It’s important to understand this context because, when you watch The Witches, you’re hit with the discrepancy between Dahl’s story world — where the universe is both randomly cruel and full of random mystical delights — and the “real” world in which Zemeckis sets his film. Zemeckis’s The Witches takes place in a post-segregated Southern Alabama, where Black life is still radically unequal to that of white Southerners, and where a Black woman staying at a grand hotel on the Gulf is so extraordinary that the Black bellhops jaw-drop at the sight of her. This dissonance is striking even if you’ve never cracked open a Dahl story.

In Dahl’s version, the Boy is originally Norwegian and encounters witches after moving to England with his cigar-smoking granny. In Zemeckis’s version, co-written by Zemeckis, horror icon Guillermo Del Toro, and Girls Trip screenwriter Kenya Barris, the Boy’s grandmother is a tough, determined homemaker who coaxes her grandson out of his grief with helpings of cornbread and plenty of Motown.

Spencer, typically a master of comedic timing, has too many elements working against her to pull that off here, starting with a script that can’t quite figure out what her deal is. Is she a sensitive grandmother masking her own grief in order to care for her grandson, a voodoo practitioner with a secret life, or a would-be adventuress? It’s hard to know what the film intends her to be. Then again, it’s equally hard to know what the film itself intends to be.

Is it a campy, rollicking farce with a touch of rosy pastel-tinged nostalgia for … a South that’s barely past segregation? Is it a creepy, sinister children’s tale? Particularly when compared to the classic 1990 film adaptation from horror icon Nicolas Roeg, it’s certainly not very scary — which is probably the worst thing to be said about a movie based on a book whose witches are terrifying. In the original novel, there’s a truly chilling moment when our narrator, the Boy, realizes that all the women in the room he’s trapped in are wearing gloves. We never come close to anything that scary in Zemeckis’s version of The Witches because we’re all assumed to be in on the joke that the witches are in the hotel the whole time.

But the joke just isn’t that funny. As the head witch of the coven, Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch is both Catwoman and the Joker, with a hilariously overwrought German accent. While Hathaway has her moments of melodramatic fun, she’s the only actor who does.

And then there’s the matter of race. Even though on the surface, Zemeckis is faithfully retelling Dahl’s story of a boy and a coven of witches, he’s also giving us a story of a Black boy facing racial and class prejudice in the South that resonates with the American political climate today, even if the prejudice has been dialed back so far as to be barely more than a hint. Every Dahl story puts the trappings of white British privilege front and center, pitting our maligned waif hero against snooty rich children and their terrible parents. When that story gets transplanted onto the story of Southern life, however, it inevitably feels much different.

Dahl’s stories depend upon their hyperbolic caricatures of childhood and adulthood for much of their whimsical appeal and their ability to speak directly to young children. It’s difficult for an American viewer to find this kind of hyperbolic whimsy, however, in a recently desegregated South. It’s even harder when the potential for larger world-building around the theme of racial injustice seems to have been utterly ignored. (What does it mean that a boy would rather be a mouse than a boy in America? There’s a question ripe for exploration — but The Witches doesn’t think to ask it, let alone suggest an answer.)

In the Witches novel, what’s striking about the narrator and his grandmother is their aloneness in the world — they really only have each other. But in Zemeckis’s version, Spencer’s character lives in a small town, goes to church, visits her local shopkeepers, and has a whole history of growing up in a Depression-era community where witches were apparently a part of the local lore. But whatever community she’s a part of is only shrugged at, never brought to bear on her actions or the story itself.

What’s even more glaring and strange is that in a community of church-going Black women in the 1960s, where most women typically wore nice shoes and gloves, just like witches, the film doesn’t attempt to address the problems that would inevitably arise if you’re a kid trying to decide who is and isn’t a witch. The film could raise this extremely obvious question, and because it’s chosen to take Black characters living in a Black community as its heroes, you’d think it would. That it doesn’t just adds to the level of disconnect between Zemeckis’s impulse to inject modern-day diversity into The Witches and the all-British story he’s telling.

But perhaps we should discuss why a modern retelling of The Witches would want to be diverse. Because the other crucial piece of context for The Witches involves its subtext — and to understand it, we have to ruin your childhood a little. (Sorry.)

Roald Dahl was an anti-Semitic, misogynistic misanthrope

Roald Dahl is one of the most celebrated children’s authors who ever lived. But he was also indisputably one of the most bigoted. He was a profound anti-Semite, perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes and falsehoods — like that of Jewish people controlling the economy and the publishing industry. In 1983, Dahl, then 67, told The New Statesman that Jewish people “provoke animosity” and blamed them for being too “submissive” to fight back during the Holocaust. “I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere,” he said. “Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

Unlike, for example, the ongoing debates around H.P. Lovecraft’s racism, we know Dahl was anti-Semitic because he literally said so. “I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic,” he reportedly told The Independent in 1990. Still, despite these direct quotes to the media, critics were calling reports of Dahl’s anti-Semitism “unjustified” as late as 2009. And in 2016, Steven Spielberg, director of the Dahlian adaptation BFG, expressed disbelief that someone who could write such a kindhearted book could really be anti-Semitic. Spielberg argued that, as a classic misanthrope, Dahl often said contentious things just to aggravate others. “Everybody in his life, basically, his whole support team, was Jewish,” Spielberg added.

Dahl might have surrounded himself with Jewish staff, but that doesn’t mean he treated them well; in fact, Dahl’s increasingly anti-Semitic attitude toward staff members at his longtime publisher, Knopf, ultimately led to Knopf’s extraordinary decision to fire him as a client late in 1980 — though that was also because Dahl was allegedly horrible to the staff in general. Dahl has also been widely read as a misogynistic writer, in large part due to the openly misogynistic theme of The Witches, in which women are literally demonized for dressing up, feminizing their appearances, and framed as monsters lurking inside seemingly sweet and complacent disguises. They’re also coded as anti-Semitic, with large, hooked noses, reptilian features, a ready stash of mysterious cash, and a plot to take over the world and kill children, all tropes derived from longstanding anti-Semitic conspiracies. (As a bonus, while I’m ruining your childhood, Matilda, a sweet telekinetic orphan, was originally meant to be something of the villain of the book, terrorizing her parents instead of the reverse.)

Perhaps it’s an awareness of this troubled history and a desire to do better — or perhaps just a desire to engage in diverse casting — that sparked Zemeckis’s attempt to build his version of The Witches around Spencer’s character and her grandson. But if that’s the case, it seems the exercise hasn’t shown us much — except, perhaps, to underscore that a thoughtless kind of diverse representation isn’t much better than no representation at all.

The Witches falls apart because of its inability to reconcile its very different stories

The recent trend among Dahlian adaptations has been to assign the task of adapting his works to Jewish directors, like Spielberg or Zemeckis. (Taika Waititi, who is Maori and Jewish, is currently adapting Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for Netflix.)

Yet Zemeckis’s version of The Witches seems to offer nothing whatsoever to attempt to remedy the embedded issues in Dahl’s original writing. The writers have chosen not to substantially re-work the story, not even to think through the ways a bunch of witches might manipulate their Southern gothic environment. (In Alabama, on the Gulf of Mexico, are there really no swamp witches around? No Cajun priestesses doing spells in moss-covered mansions or nearby pirate coves?) Then again, none of the witches really exist at all outside of their single-minded goal to squash children.

The anti-Semitism Dahl himself professed doesn’t necessarily play a role in most of his other works, but it’s directly relevant to The Witches, a story that’s explicitly about detecting imposters in the midst of society. This is, to be blunt, the theme of most anti-Semitic conspiracies throughout history, and has led in its most extreme form to the idea that Jewish people “hide” in plain sight while essentially controlling the world.

In The Witches, witches hide in plain sight by disguising themselves as ordinary women — but the tells that give them away are also coded as anti-Semitic: they’re bald beneath their wigs, have reptile-like hands and feet, and have noses that expand when they sniff out children. The grand high witch also speaks with a German accent, one that can easily pass for Yiddish.

The 1990 film unfortunately perpetuated all of these traits, and I hoped that Zemeckis’s version would take pains to shift its witches far away from this stereotype. But it’s not clear if any attempt was made to remove the story’s discriminatory bits. At least the hooked noses are gone. Even so, there’s a lot of anti-Semitic coding ported over, especially when you’re also trying to signal a commitment to diversity by casting Black actors (and an entirely atonal Chris Rock as narrator) to deliver this story. It seems as though zero forethought or even insight went into the portrayal of the witches; and honestly, perhaps this movie needed to hire a culture critic as a consultant in order to save it from itself.

Perhaps that lack of insight about the film’s symbolism and coding is why everything else in The Witches just feels so off-kilter. There are shoehorned CGI mouse adventures that don’t feel remotely fun; the CGI effects feel flattened against the perpetually pastel tones of this movie, and our talking mice are given very little character development outside some cursory backstory (and some obligatory fat-shaming of Boy’s portly friend Bruno, because it wouldn’t be a Roald Dahl adaptation without some fat-shaming). And given Stanley Tucci’s vacillating faint Southern accent, for example, he doesn’t seem to be entirely sure where he is, just like it’s not entirely clear whether racism exists in this universe or not.

Y’all, Kristin Chenoweth is in this film, and I was so discombobulated I didn’t even notice her — that’s how weird this film is.

The Witches is a children’s film, and perhaps this deep overanalysis proves that children’s films should never be subjected to this much rigorous scrutiny. But children’s films that endure are the ones that remain compelling in adulthood. With The Witches, so little thought has gone into the process of creation that it seems as though it’s destined to be a lesson in how not to adapt a problem-laden story for the 21st century.

It’s a cautionary tale, alright — just not the one the director intended to make.


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

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(CNN) —  

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

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

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

Coffee

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

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

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

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

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

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

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

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

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

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

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

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

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

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

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

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

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

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

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

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

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

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

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

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

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

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

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

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

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

Beauty

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

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

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

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

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

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

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

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

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

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

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

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

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

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

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

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

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

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

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

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

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

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

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

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

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

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

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

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

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

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

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

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

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

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

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

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

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

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

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

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

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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