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Troubled Blood sees J.K. Rowling at the mercy of all her worst impulses

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J.K. Rowling’s latest novel made headlines for generating controversy well before its US release date of September 29. That’s because Troubled Blood, the newest installment of the detective series Rowling publishes under the pen name Robert Galbraith, features a serial killer who lures his victims into a false sense of security by dressing as a woman.

Fears of a bad man in a dress are one of the main justifications for anti-trans legislation across the globe. In the US and the UK over the past few years, that’s taken the form of the bathroom bill controversies: Trans people want to be able to use public restrooms and changing rooms that correspond to their gender identity.

But opponents argue that if trans people were allowed to use the public bathrooms that corresponded to their gender identity, women and children will undoubtedly be menaced by sexual predators using this legal loophole to ogle women in their most vulnerable state. In practice, however, US states that have allowed trans people to use the facilities corresponding to their gender have seen no increase in sexual harassment or assault in public restrooms.

Rowling, however, has stated that it is “the simple truth” that allowing trans women to use women’s bathrooms will lead to violent men using those loopholes to attack “natal girls and women.” She began outlining her views on gender in a series of tweets last fall, then elaborated on them in a long essay published this June. There, Rowling perpetuated a series of outdated myths about trans people while repeatedly stating that she’s not transphobic, because she knows and likes trans people. She just also thinks that trans women aren’t real women, that they’re taking advantage of resources meant for “biological women,” and that they are enabling predatory men to commit violence against those “biological women.”

To be clear, regardless of Rowling’s personal feelings toward trans people, all of the ideas she expressed in her essay are transphobic. They actively seek to take rights away from trans people, and they treat trans identity as something that is up for debate, rather than an intrinsic part of human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity. But Rowling has threatened to sue publications who describe her and her views as transphobic, forcing at least one children’s site to issue a public apology.

So to some critics, Troubled Blood is just the latest sign of J.K. Rowling’s increasingly outspoken and retrograde ideas about gender. Others have countered that the book contains no trans characters, that detractors were judging the book without reading it, and that dismissing Troubled Blood before its publication over worries about a trope is cancel culture at its worst. What it would mean to cancel J.K. Rowling, a billionaire with theme park attractions built around her intellectual property, remains unclear. But in any case, Troubled Blood debuted at No. 1 in the UK.

I’ve read all of Troubled Blood’s many pages, and I can say that this book is transphobic. But it’s also just not very good.

What Troubled Blood is, above all else, is an example of Rowling at the mercy of all her worst impulses.


Troubled Blood is the fifth volume in Rowling’s Cormoran Strike books, a series of noir-inflected murder mysteries. The name of the series comes from their protagonist, a grizzled army police officer-turned-private detective named Cormoran Strike, who solves crimes with his partner/obvious eventual love interest, Robin.

The Cormoran Strike books have never been perfect, but they’re usually fun. The part of writing that Rowling is best at is constructing a mystery, so her whodunnits are always absorbing and twisty. And writing under a (masculine) pen name seems to grant Rowling freedom to be playful and flippant in a way she hasn’t been since the very first Harry Potter novels. (Rowling published the first volume in the Strike series, 2015’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, in genuine anonymity. She was unmasked a few months after the book came out, but she’s continued to use her Robert Galbraith pen name for all the books in the series that have followed.)

But Troubled Blood is not fun, and it’s not playful. It feels bloated and resentful, turgid with an ethos of grim duty. It’s the writing of someone who feels she has no choice but to bring some home truths to you, the reader, and damn the consequences.

Troubled Blood also reads like nothing so much as a stylistic sequel to Rowling’s incredibly boring 2012 novel Casual Vacancy.

Casual Vacancy was a dour class satire that seemed to be animated most strongly by Rowling’s desire to be taken seriously as an author of literary fiction for adults. Troubled Blood seems to be animated most strongly by Rowling’s desire to share her political opinions on feminism and other gender issues with the world.

It features Strike and Robin setting out together to solve the disappearance of one Margot Bamborough, a feminist doctor who vanished from the world in 1974. The police strongly suspected that Margot was abducted by the serial killer Dennis Creed (the one who wears women’s clothes), but they were never able to solve the case. And now, 40 years later, Margot’s daughter Anna — a lesbian, Rowling notes with an air of triumph, as if to say, see, she’s not homophobic — has hired Strike and Robin to try to bring her closure on the mystery once and for all.

Over the course of the year-long investigation that ensues, Strike and Robin manage to establish the following: Fourth-wave feminism, with its Slut Walks and pro-porn stance, is nothing but a bunch of idiotic children having airy, academic discussions about words, while enabling the sexual assault of women and the sex trafficking of children.

In contrast, Margot’s brand of ’70s second-wave feminism was correct and righteous, except for its lamentable pro-choice stance. (All sympathetic characters in Troubled Blood, except for poor misguided Margot, are pro-contraception but anti-abortion.) Moreover, women are all bound together by their biological destiny, which leaves them in danger of being victimized by predatory men. And the most dangerous predator of all is the predator who cloaks themselves in femininity.

This final category of dangerous predators includes Creed the serial killer, who is obsessed with women’s clothing. Creed wears a wig and a women’s coat and lipstick to abduct his victims, because his disguise makes the drunk women he targets perceive him first as another woman and then as a harmless drag queen. But his interest in cross-dressing isn’t purely utilitarian. He also steals trophy garments from his victims and masturbates into them.

“I felt I stole something of their essence from them,” says Creed of his penchant for taking women’s underwear, “taking that which they thought private and hidden.” (Per Rowling’s Galbraith website, Creed is loosely based on two real serial killers. Per the Guardian, both of them stole women’s clothes from their victims, and one of the two may have worn them, although the evidence there seems to be fuzzy.)

But there are other predators besides Creed in this most dangerous category of deceptive femininity, and one of them manages to fool Strike. “Like the women who’d climbed willingly into Dennis Creed’s van,” Strike muses of this villain at the end of Troubled Blood, “he’d been hoodwinked by a careful performance of femininity.”

This particular predator who manages to best Strike is cis. But within the world of Troubled Blood, it’s this predator’s cold-blooded and inauthentic performance of femininity that makes them monstrous. And in her nonfiction writing, Rowling has strongly suggested that she believes trans women are cold-bloodedly performing a gender identity that does not truly belong to them, and that, in the process, they are stealing away resources that exist to help what Rowling calls “biological women” cope with the world’s misogyny.

In Troubled Blood, the overt performance of gender is done with an eye to deceive, to misdirect, to harm. Cis women may experiment with their femininity — there’s a recurring motif that sees Robin test driving different perfumes as she decides what kind of woman she wants to be in the wake of her divorce — but men who take an interest in femininity are dismissed even by open-minded Robin as “camp.” Meanwhile, the good gay man who Robin lives with is clean-cut enough to get an acting job playing a straight army vet. Anna the good lesbian is non-threateningly feminine, by which Rowling usually means pretty. (When Rowling writes a woman in touch with her masculine side, the result tends to look like Harry Potter’s wicked Aunt Marge.)

And anyone in this book who wields their gender across boundaries with deliberate intent is a monster.


All of these political ideas are what Troubled Blood is, broadly speaking, “about:” They are where the narrative tension lies, where the juice of the book is. But Troubled Blood is also ostensibly a murder mystery, and the murder plot provides the skeleton from which the political ideas are hung.

So is it a good murder mystery? Not really. It is way, way, way too fucking long.

Rowling’s always had a tendency to go long and sprawling whenever the pressure is on. The Harry Potter books turned into doorstoppers with Goblet of Fire, right at the time they’d become such a phenomenon that the midnight release parties were starting. And Troubled Blood, which comes just as Rowling is beginning to speak more and more publicly about her views on gender, is even longer than they are, clocking in at a hefty 927 pages long, and with the plot stretched out across a full year.

Within that year, Strike and Robin sift their way through innumerable red herrings. Ordinarily, this is a part of plotting at which Rowling excels; she’s very good at flashy authorial sleight of hand, directing the reader’s attention this way while she seeds the information that will turn out to be vital just where you’re not looking. But in this case, the red herrings pile on so heavily and for so long that they begin to feel meaningless. There’s no pleasure to be had in trying to sort through them to figure out what’s worth paying attention to and what can be discarded, because there’s just more information than any reader could possibly hold on to.

I began to feel unpleasantly reminded of that part of Deathly Hallows that turns into a long, sad, pointless camping trip where nothing happens: Are we really just checking every random tree in this forest for clues? That’s how we’re going to solve this one?

But in a way, the plotting in Troubled Blood is even less satisfying than it is in Deathly Hallows and its fellows. While the second half of the Harry Potter series is bloated, there’s still pleasure to be had in those books from all the genre-blending Rowling is doing. When the mystery fails, the fun of the magic and the friendships and the boarding school coziness can take over. Maybe you don’t particularly care about where Voldemort’s Horcruxes are, but there’s still magical camping and teen angst and wizarding revolutionary radios to be had, right? Maybe you’re getting distracted by the frankly wild ethics of the house-elves and their slavery, but boy, that Marauder’s Map sure is a blast, right?

In Troubled Blood, when the mystery falters and you aren’t taken by the political ideas animating it, what’s left for you to care about is the long slow-burn romance between Robin and Strike. And I do more or less want Robin and Strike to be together, in the same way I sort of vaguely wanted Ron and Hermione to be together but never particularly bothered too much over it either way. But I definitely don’t care about them one-thousand-pages-of-refusing-to-talk-about-feelings much. At this point, with both of them single and both of them gazing endlessly at each other, what is even keeping them apart anymore? It’s exhausting just to contemplate.


There’s a plotline in the Cormoran Strike books that I’ve been thinking about ever since Rowling first began to talk about trans issues in public.

Other critics have already discussed the way she treated trans women in the second volume of the series, The Silk Worm. In that book, the two trans women Strike meets in the course of his investigation are ostensibly sympathetic characters, but Strike treats them as mockable. When one of them isn’t forthcoming with the information he wants, he casually threatens her with prison rape.

But what’s been haunting me is a subplot from the series’s third volume, Career of Evil.

In Career of Evil, Strike’s investigation leads him to a subculture built around people who want to become physically disabled. On hidden forums, they discuss the operations they plan to get in order to manifest the disabilities they believe they already spiritually possess, and they complain bitterly that the rest of the world doesn’t understand their plight. Does anyone think they would choose to live like this, with such inaccessible and easily mocked desires? Don’t people understand that they were born with these wishes, that these desires are an intrinsic part of their identity?

Strike, who lost a leg in the war, takes this group’s obsession personally. He is incensed and offended by them. How dare they try to playact at an identity which became his so painfully, at such great cost? How dare they try to appropriate his own personal, private pain?

He has lunch with two people from the forum, and they rudely force him to pay while ordering the most expensive options on the menu. One of them is in a wheelchair. Strike at last loses his patience and pushes her out of the chair, only to find that she can walk just fine without it.

I don’t know what’s going on in J.K. Rowling’s mind or how she sees the world. But she writes about trans people the way Strike thinks about this particular subculture: as people appropriating a disability — and Rowling does write about womanhood, and its attendant dangers, as if it were a disability — that is rightfully hers. And that idea is becoming more and more central to every book she writes.


I don’t know what to do with J.K. Rowling anymore. I don’t know what anyone should do with her and her books.

I don’t believe that it’s sustainable or valuable or even really possible to ask every author you follow to enact some sort of ideologically pure, progressive worldview in every book they write. Most readers, I think, would agree with me on that. That’s part of why so many readers stuck with Rowling despite the politics embedded in the subtext of the Harry Potter novels, which have always been centrist at best, and through the increasing crankiness of the Cormoran Strike series.

I don’t think that you have to throw away the Harry Potter series to prove you’re a good person. I don’t know if it’s even possible to avoid those books: They’re so embedded into the grid of pop culture by this point that they feel like a utility, like an electric company. How do you avoid electricity every single day without becoming a hermit? How do you choose to throw out a series you grew up on, that you built beloved childhood memories around?

Every reader has to have their own dividing line between what they are willing to work with and what they are not. Every reader has to choose the way they will approach a text, and what they’re going to take out of it and what they’ll leave behind. And that’s a choice you have to make for yourself.

I’ve written positively about the Cormoran Strike books before, despite what happened to the trans women in book two and that bizarre trans-disability subplot in book three, and despite that ongoing thing where Rowling always treats fat people as inherently grotesque and probably evil. I thought the mysteries were fun, and I found it easy to ignore the politics. That was a choice I was used to making after growing up on Harry Potter, and because I am a thin cis non-disabled woman, it was easy for me to make that choice without thinking too hard about it.

But I can’t ignore the politics of Troubled Blood, and I don’t think that’s just because of all of the essays and tweets Rowling’s written over the past year. I think that’s because the politics are the only part of Troubled Blood she really cares about, and that shows in the writing.

So here is what I do know.

Troubled Blood is a book in which aesthetics have been rendered subordinate to politics. There is no “there” there besides Rowling’s political ideas. And those ideas are reactionary and hateful.

I don’t see anything left in this book worth sticking around for.

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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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