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The YouTubers Keeping Pets Entertained During the Pandemic

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Since the pandemic started, I’ve been using YouTube far more than I used to. Workout routines, sewing tutorials, mindless feel-good clips of babies hugging animals: YouTube has all of these in abundance. But all of these pale in comparison to the type of video I put on most frequently. In our house, kitty TV reigns supreme.

YouTube is filled with content aimed at dogs, cats, and their owners. The varieties are endless. Birds alight at a feeder, a GoPro hidden nearby to record their comings and goings. An invisible hand drags a string toy back and forth. Fish in a koi pond bobble to the surface of a pond. A camera moves smoothly through a park, capturing trees and squirrels. These videos are long, often over four hours, and the most popular ones have millions of views. I put on at least one video per day, which amounts to, at minimum, 28 hours of pet TV per week. Most YouTubers would kill for those numbers.

It wasn’t always like this. But one of our cats, Graymalkin, got much more attached and energetic when I started staying home all the time. He used to sleep during the day, while I was at grad school. Then, in the mornings and evenings, he’d sit on my lap and purr as I worked. In the spring, he lost his tiny mind. He spent all day zooming around the apartment, mrrrring and chirping for attention. He begged for treats. He planted himself on my keyboard. He constantly fought my partner for control of his gaming chair.

One afternoon in July, I searched “cat tv” on the advice of a friend. Maybe some videos of birds or squirrels would take Gray’s mind off the gamer chair. And it worked, at least for a little bit: Graymalkin hopped up on the TV stand and parked himself as close to the TV as he could. In his glassy, green eyes were reflections of hummingbirds. When he was most engaged, he reached up to bat at the screen with his weird little cat-hands.

After about five minutes, he curled up in my lap, bored. But I wasn’t bored. After the video ended, I put on another. And another. There were so many videos for cats and dogs. I sat on the couch, watching Graymalkin watch TV.

For both of us, it was a portal into the strange, sometimes eerie world of The Algorithm. In one video, an enormous cockroach skittered across the screen, freaking us out. In another, an otherwise tranquil recording of a bird fountain, a Minion toy loomed ominously above the birds. Every few minutes, the footage would jump cut to a slightly different angle, making it look like the Minion teleported a few inches to the left or right. Eventually, I selected so many videos from Japanese creators that YouTube, confused, started serving me ads in Japanese. While I tried to follow the plotlines of commercials in a language I don’t speak, Graymalkin swished his tail, impatient for images that triggered his hunting instinct.

No video captivated his attention for more than a few minutes, but for those minutes, he was rapt. Sometimes I caught him staring at the screen even if it was switched off, as if he was trying to suss out the TV’s inner workings.

Eventually I noticed the viewer counts on the cat videos: hundreds of thousands, sometimes even millions, of views. Many of the videos came from the same channels, and these top channels were monetizing their content by running ads. How much money, I wondered, were these creators making from pet TV? Had they stumbled upon success by accident, or had they worked hard to win the chaotic gamble of making money through YouTube? And were animals really watching these videos for hours at a time?

Identifying the inner workings of the pet TV biz became an obsession. I wanted to know more about the people who had figured out this YouTube niche, harnessing the power of SEO plus the fretting of helicopter pet parents for ad revenue. So I reached out to two YouTube creators: entrepreneur Amman Ahmed, the founder of Music for Pets (which includes the YouTube channels RelaxMyDog and RelaxMyCat), and Bini, who runs TV BINI.

RelaxMyDog and RelaxMyCat both post new videos almost every day. No two are the same, but many follow a similar formula. The first element is either still photos or slow footage of expansive natural landscapes, sometimes with wild animals in the background. The second element is slow, soothing piano or strings, the kind of music you’d hear at an upscale spa. The audio loops infinitely and the video plays on and on, sometimes for up to fifteen hours.

Ahmed really is a savvy businessman who saw an opportunity, then threw everything he had at dominating it. Though RelaxMyDog now has 587,000 subscribers and RelaxMyCat has 472,000, they started out much smaller. “I self-funded it, had no investors. I 100% owned the company. It’s luckily, over the years, got bigger and bigger,” Ahmed said, video-chatting me from his temporary home in Kiev. Music for Pets is headquartered in Manchester, in the UK, but Ahmed travels frequently for work. He spent the beginning of 2020 in Brooklyn, but then saw the COVID-19 writing on the wall and left the country. Fortunately, Ahmed told me, many of Music For Pets’ fifteen employees – including filmmakers in Indonesia, South Africa, and Romania – work remotely. Music For Pets is a complex operation, with lots of cogs and levers. Luckily, Ahmed can make sure all those cogs are turning properly from anywhere in the world.

In 2012, Music for Pets was just Ahmed and his new business partner, a music producer from El Salvador named Ricardo Henriquez. Ahmed had wanted to start a business centered around relaxing music for people, and in searching a freelancing website for music producers, stumbled across Henriquez. Henriquez’s dog suffered from anxiety, and so Henriquez and Ahmed wondered if calming music would work just as well on dogs as it did on people.

Eight years later, Music For Pets makes much more than just music. There’s a subscription service, which allows users to play ad-free videos for $4.99 a month. They even have a mobile app, called Games for Cats, that lets cats bat at fish and bugs on a smartphone screen. “In 2019, l think twenty million cats and dogs around the world consumed content on RelaxMyDog and RelaxMyCat,” said Ahmed. Music For Pets’ viewership numbers have hit an all-time high in 2020, and Ahmed thinks that worldwide COVID-19 quarantines are at least partially responsible. Pet owners who have started working from home are disrupting their animals’ routines, potentially causing anxiety. “Cats are looking at their owners like, ‘Why are you still here?’” he said. Another possible explanation for Music For Pets’ popularity is that people find the videos soothing. “Our content is now becoming more designed for humans and pets to watch together,” Ahmed told me. Music For Pets ran a survey that asked viewers if, during quarantine, they were watching RelaxMyDog alongside their pets. 87% of respondents said yes.

It’s easy for me to see – and sense – the human appeal. Focusing on a sunlit beach and mellow music is exactly what my meditation app asks me to do. I seem to get more out of these videos than Graymalkin, who wanders away after he realizes he can’t actually commit any bird murders. And I am not the only one who feels this way, according to Ahmed. “We see a lot of comments where people are like, ‘Look, I don’t have a dog. I enjoy watching this while I’m high,” he said. But motivations notwithstanding, enough viewers have clicked on RelaxMyDog and RelaxMyCat videos to generate a business that Ahmed says is valued at seven to eight million dollars.

Bini runs a very different kind of operation, one that doesn’t generate the same kind of profit. While Ahmed said he regularly talks to journalists, Bini – who declined to give her real name – rarely does. When I reached out to her to ask for a phone interview, she said she would prefer to talk over email. “I’m an extremely private person,” she wrote. Her reclusiveness contrasts with the popularity of her channel, TV BINI, which has 105,000 subscribers. Some of her 156 videos are filmed, while others are animated, but she makes and edits them all. “TV BINI is a one-woman production,” she wrote.

Bini, who lives in California, started TV BINI in 2014. However, she’s only recently gotten a high enough subscriber count to feel like her efforts are paying off financially. “It wasn’t money that kept me going, that’s for sure,” she told me. What’s kept her going is the thought that she’s helping both cats and cat owners. Many viewers have posted clips of their pets reacting to her content. “The cat reaction videos and positive comments by pet owners motivate me to continue making videos,” she said.

Bini told me that videos of prey, or objects that move like prey (such as string dragged across the screen), help cats exercise their basic predatory instincts. And though she creates content with cats in mind, other species react, too. Bini sent me a list of videos depicting other animals, like a peacock, a praying mantis, a dog, and a lizard, interacting with her videos.

But how should we interpret animals’ reactions to pet TV? According to Dr. Kersti Seksel, a veterinary behavioral expert who practices in Sydney, Australia, it’s hard to know. “There’s very little research on [pet TV],” she said. Some studies have indicated that certain genres of music may decrease stress responses in dogs, such as a 2012 study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior that linked classical music with more sleeping and less shaking or barking in shelter dogs. In addition, Ahmed pointed me towards a 2017 study in the journal Physiology and Behavior which suggests that soft rock and reggae music relax kenneled dogs.

However, Seksel says that the way cats and dogs perceive video is starkly different than the way we perceive it. Both species have a far sharper sense of smell than we do, which means that they rely on olfaction – a sense that video doesn’t cater to at all. They also hear a far broader range of frequencies than humans: dogs can hear up to 45,000 Hz (hertz), while cats hear up to 64,000 Hz. (We only hear up to 23,000 Hz.) Furthermore, the placement of both cats’ and dogs’ eyes means that their field of vision is much wider than a human’s, allowing them to sense more peripheral motion. “[Cats and dogs] live in their world. They hear ultrasound and infrasound sounds that you and I can’t even detect,” said Seksel. “Maybe the birds outside are making noises that we can’t hear, but the animal can hear.”

As a result, Seksel told me, it’s hard for us to know if the basic concepts conveyed by videos come across the same way to our pets as they do to us. While a video with fluttering feathers and a high-pitched song may convince us that it’s depicting a bird, cats and dogs may only perceive some of the signals they associate with birds. That’s what might have happened with my cat, Graymalkin. A video could suggest the presence of a bird, so he checks it out. But when he inspects the TV, he doesn’t smell a bird, or hear the ultrasonic frequencies a real bird would make. In the end, he might be wandering away because he’s bored.

Seksel said that pet TV likely caters more to our understanding of entertainment than to a cat or dog’s. “I think our expectations of what the animals will do are wrong,” she explained. “It’s based on, ‘Well, I can sit and watch a TV show, I can watch a movie.’ But even with humans, if the movie doesn’t have something that changes every five to seven minutes, you lose interest. Same with video games.”

Ultimately, the audience that pet TV caters to isn’t pets. It’s us, the pet owners. As in the children’s publishing industry, the supposed target audience isn’t the one making choices. Little kids don’t have the purchasing power to buy books, so publishers market to their parents. Similarly, cats and dogs don’t have the opposable thumbs necessary to put on games or videos. Their owners are the ones who scroll through YouTube results and pick the option that seems best. In this context, the “best” video might appeal to a cat or dog, but it might also be “the video that appeals most to people.”

However, Seksel said that just because there isn’t research to support pet TV, that doesn’t mean it’s completely ineffective. “We need to think about animals as individuals,” she said. “Just because my dog doesn’t react to TV doesn’t mean that someone else’s dog wouldn’t react to it.” Seksel stressed that dogs and cats, like humans, respond to stimuli based on their preferences. Those preferences don’t have to conform to logic, or to scientific consensus. “You might like playing golf, I might not like playing golf. That doesn’t mean golf is good or bad,” Seksel added.

In a follow-up email, Ahmed agreed with Seksel’s analysis. Because there isn’t much research on how cats and dogs react to TV, “we took the approach to pump out loads of experimental content because we have a huge audience,” he said. That way, Music For Pets could engage with as many animals’ preferences as possible.

Bini hopes the popularity of pet TV will spark more research into animals’ responses. “It would be exciting to learn the differences between human and animal motivations and perceptions,” she said. Ultimately, she believes that any entertainment that makes sedentary indoor animals move around is a good thing.

Speaking with Seksel made me realize that, for me, pet TV is a small way of asserting control. It makes me feel like I’m taking steps to improve the life of a living creature. Existing in a pandemic, especially a pandemic that so many people in my country seem hellbent on minimizing, makes control over anything seem like a pipe dream. I’ve lost the power to make life much better for myself, or for people that I care about. But my cat? I can fill his days with endless clips of birds. Maybe that means something to him. Even if it doesn’t, it is still soothing for my world to contract, to become as compact and frictionless as a cat watching a TV screen, birds of prey reflected in his lambent eyes.

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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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