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What was fun?

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It is Saturday night in mid-October, and I am at an outdoor comedy show in a public park hoping to rediscover the sensation I’d once understood as “fun.” What was fun? I can no longer remember. A comedian makes a bad joke about ketamine, and a different comedian makes a better joke about puppy mills, and in the distance, I can hear the strains of several competing dance-pop DJs. There seem to be a lot of people, or maybe it just looks that way, when everyone is sitting at least 6 feet apart. Am I having fun? I wonder. Is this what fun is?

I am no longer sure. It’s like being the hatchling in Are You My Mother?, except I am confused not about the nature of maternity, but about the concept of fun. “Are you fun?” I wonder, staring at focaccia recipes on the internet. Is Emily in Paris fun? Is a Zoom birthday party fun, is ordering a pizza fun, are jokes fun, is wine fun? Have I ever experienced fun?

Seven months into the Covid-19 pandemic, I have lost track. In the first weeks of the pandemic, if you weren’t sick, if your family wasn’t sick, if you were marginally but not essentially employed, if you were lucky, you could get through the day hopped up on the adrenaline of panic from the relative safety of your home. All routines had been disrupted — schools were closed, offices were done, grocery stores were minefields, toilet paper was out — and everything was terrible, but at least fear was a novelty. Now nothing is new — even the news is not new, so much as it is escalating variations on the same ghoulish set of themes. To be lucky, now, is to have all the days feel like all the other days.

“At this point,” Jennifer Senior wrote in the New York Times in early August, “weren’t we expecting some form of relief, a resumption of something like life?” It is now the end of October. Something like life has resumed and suspended panic has mellowed into sustained malaise. The streets are lined with outdoor restaurants; there is entertainment in the parks. Online, there are lectures and performances and readings and concerts; on television, there are live sports. In real life, several different people I know have gotten haircuts. Is a haircut fun?


There is surprisingly little research about the precise nature of fun, given how much we all apparently enjoy it. There is robust and growing literature on overlapping topics — happiness, pleasure, leisure, flow — but fun itself is rarely discussed as such, except in books for children. There is Little Miss Fun and Fractions Fun and Squirrel’s Fun Day, about a squirrel trying to get his fellow forest creatures to break out of their ruts, and Is Everyone Ready for Fun?, which I have ascertained is about a small herd of enthusiastic cows. I am ready for fun, I think, if only I could remember what it was.

“Fun is all about our brains feeling good — the release of endorphins into our system,” writes game designer Raph Koster in A Theory of Fun For Game Design, one of the few texts to seriously address the question of what qualifies as fun (for game design). “Fun is the act of mastering a problem mentally,” he explains, suggesting that the fact we enjoy this process is an “evolutionary advantage right next to opposable thumbs in terms of importance.”

The world is not a game, and a global pandemic is not fun, but in the beginning, there was a perverse thrill in learning to adapt: Here is where you can still get dried beans; this bodega still has hand sanitizer; do you want to Zoom? But now we know all that, and nothing has changed, there is no new information, and no I don’t “want to Zoom.” Mastery right now is out of reach, because the problem — a contagious new virus and the corresponding cascade of nightmares it has wrought — can’t be mastered, only weathered, and weathering an onslaught is the opposite of fun.

A happy, furry monster.

This, Michael Rucker tells me, is a problem. Rucker is an organizational psychologist and author of the forthcoming book The Fun Habit, about the science of fun. “It’s clear that we thrive when we believe we have autonomy,” he says, “and that autonomy has been ripped out from underneath us, right? And if we don’t feel like we have a certain amount of control over any given situation, it causes us stress.” Stress is very unfun.

His definition of fun is, in his own estimation, “very loose”: fun is “any activity on the positive side of valence,” he says, laying out what he calls the old-school theory of charting emotion. The x-axis is “valence,” or “hedonic tone” — the tenor of how you’re feeling, positive to negative. The y-axis is arousal, or the intensity of that feeling, from very low to very high.

For Rucker, fun is the entire right half of the matrix. He loves heavy metal rock concerts, and his wife loves reading in solitude, and both of them are experiencing what Rucker would classify as fun. “What’s so awesome about fun,” he explains, quite seriously, “is that it’s unique to the individual,” which may explain the dearth of literature about it. “Happiness has been boiled down to these survey instruments, where we can fill out bubbles on a Scantron, and then the positive psych gurus of the world can tell us whether or not we’re happy. But fun is meant to be owned by you.”

In theory, my pandemic experience has been full of pleasant low-arousal activities that I would have once considered fun. I baked cakes and read books and streamed a lot of British murder content, and eventually, it all felt the same. And at the same time, it began to dawn on me that the “pause” that had begun in March was in fact my life.

“Isn’t that … what you did before?” my boyfriend asked, which is insulting but also not untrue. But the difference is that it all used to be fun. It is possible this is a symptom of low-grade depression, but on the other hand, it is also possible that I am right. “Everything you used to turn to that was fun for you is either not available, or it’s in such a different form that you’re still getting used to it,” says Marybeth Stalp, a sociologist at the University of Northern Iowa. “And if you are having fun, how long is it before guilt sets in?”

By April, those of us not in acute distress seemed desperate to find scraps of joy, judging by the number of SEO-optimized articles promising ideas about what to do for fun while in a prolonged state of isolation. The problem with these articles is that nobody seems to have any ideas at all. “Restock your bar,” suggested Thrillist (“50 Fun Things You Can Do at Home Right Now in Quarantine”), explaining that a fun activity might be ordering bottles of liquor to your home. “Get more sleep,” offered CNN (“50 fun things to do this fall”), while Real Simple proposed it would be fun to “trade in your sandals for a cute pair of boots” (“33 Fun Things You Can Still Do This Fall (Even During a Pandemic)”). Travel + Leisure wanted you to adopt a rigorous schedule of virtual tours of European castles. Have you considered watching Netflix? What about a bubble bath?

It was a valiant effort. We were trying. There was Zoom. There was streaming — anything you used to do, there is a streamed equivalent — and when you ran out of things to stream, you could take basic acts of life maintenance and declare they were fun. Acquiring seasonally appropriate footwear: fun!

“Consumption,” Kathleen Casey, a social historian at Virginia Wesleyan University, reminds me, “is also a form of fun.” That morning, I had ordered several canvas pouches for no reason. Was it fun?


Travis Tae Oh is a marketing professor at Yeshiva University who for the last five years has been studying fun, because nobody else seemed to have any satisfactory answers. “A lot of marketers want to position their brands as ‘fun,’” he found, but there was very little psychological research into what that meant.

“It’s different from other emotional or affective terms,” he points out. “You never say you ‘have sadness.’” But we frame fun as coming from somewhere else, which gives it unique commercial potential. It is packaged as an external product but is also an internal state. You can, as everybody knows, go to an amusement park, which is designed explicitly for fun, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have any.

Oh’s theory rests on a simple-sounding premise: “When people actually experience fun, it’s coming from some sort of hedonically engaging experience that is also, in some sense, liberating.” Fun, he points out, is a spectrum. For the maximum 10/10 experience, though, you need to be both totally absorbed in the pleasure of the thing you’re doing, and “released from some sort of prior psychological restriction” — usually social obligation or your own self-discipline. (This is the reason a forced office karaoke, while potentially amusing, will never truly qualify as fun.)

It is hard, though, to be 10/10 absorbed in anything, even when there is not a pandemic, and you are not perpetually interrupted by a steady stream of apocalyptic news alerts, and you don’t have to brace yourself, every time the phone rings. But it can be easier to lose yourself if you’re doing something new.

“When you do something for the first time, or something slightly different from what you used to do, you tend to be more engaged,” Oh says. A sense that you’re connected to other people has a similar effect; other people jolt you from the prison that is yourself. It is the difference between watching a movie alone and watching a movie with rapt friends. It almost justifies a Netflix watch party (“12 fun ideas to keep you busy at home this summer”).

The current situation checks approximately none of his fun boxes. Unless you really put some muscle in (take a bubble bath?), nothing is conveniently novel, nothing is effortlessly social, and very little is spontaneous, which is another factor in Oh’s theory of fun. All the usual hotbeds of happenstance — parties, coffee shops, public transportation — are limited, if they exist at all.

There is a reason that, in New York City, people have taken refuge in the antics of raccoons: Say what you want about raccoon behavior, there is, at least, an element of chance. The final prong of his fun framework is a sense of boundaries, and we don’t have many of those lately either. Fun requires you to “set aside a space or a time to let loose,” he explains. “Most people are not just going to start dancing in the streets, but you have clubs. There’s a bounded play area, where you can go in and you’re allowed to liberate from your normal behaviors.”

I don’t know what my normal behaviors are at this point, but I am pretty sure I am not liberated from them. In the last several months, whatever boundaries I’d had have collapsed. My office is my sofa and weekends are weekdays and I am not efficient at work but I am never not slowly working. I tell Oh I am worried I am supposed to find work fun, but Oh is extremely clear that I am not. “The term ‘fun’ has become so common that I think it’s overused,” he says. Work, he tells me, could be meaningful, and it could be enjoyable, but “work should not be fun.” Fun is a release; work, at least in the contemporary United States, is the thing you are releasing from.

The obvious solution to this is to impose some kind of spatial and temporal structure on my life. “You could set aside a space at home, if your home is large enough,” Oh suggests, half-heartedly. “I guess that’s why people have those man caves or women’s …” he trails off. The word he is looking for is “she-sheds.”

A smiley face flower surrounded by hearts, butterflies, and a rainbow.

Space, having it or not having it, is of the many ways the pandemic has exacerbated existing class divisions. “Families who have multiple homes, or larger homes, have room to have a playroom, to have a movie room, to have different bedrooms for each child and places for them to do their schoolwork,” Casey says. People who don’t have that space are living on top of each other, because one effect of social distancing is that, while we are largely separated from anyone we don’t live with, we rarely get a break from the people that we do. “There’s sort of a fun gap there.”

But having space and time is not enough. Now even creating the conditions for potential fun demands internal discipline. You are responsible for maintaining the sanctity of your dance corner. You are supposed to separate your workspace from your life space, if not actually then emotionally. You are supposed to single-handedly decide it’s time to close your email and take a virtual tour of the Amalfi Coast.

I had imposed boundaries on my life before mostly by changing company and shifting locations and making plans for pre-set times: now I am out to dinner, now I’m at a friend’s house, now I’m at a wedding, I’m on a trip, I’m eating dim sum. Now, you are supposed to set an alarm for 8 pm so you remember to tune into a Zoom book launch. “I’m at a reading,” I told my boyfriend, who wanted to know, urgently, if the diced tomatoes in the refrigerator had gone bad. But I wasn’t. I was on the couch.


Though it previously existed, as a concept and a word, fun “really became embedded in our lives in the 20th century, as it became commercialized and increasingly took place outside the home,” says Casey, and now, in 2020, against our will, we have come back. But what once was labor is now supposed to be leisure.

The reason there is a national shortage of canning jars is not that stores have abandoned jam, but rather that canning — like pickling, or gardening, or sourdough and sewing — is “a safe and somewhat solitary activity that can preoccupy us,” she suggests. “Which is partly what fun is about, right? A sort of diversion from our usual drudgery?” The problem I am having in my own kitchen is that cottagecore diversions start feeling remarkably like labor very fast. I liked domestic hobbies better when they were my personal quirk, and not the only option.

Until mid-March, I hadn’t realized how much of what I did was possible because I had the freedom and resources to get out of the house. I would have said I didn’t do much, but in fact, I did things all the time. I went to the gym and sat in coffee shops and browsed in bookstores and in drugstores and in stores selling “home goods,” and so much of what read to me as fun was in fact commercial leisure, which I’d depended on for formal permission not to work.

Leisure is not the same as fun, but it can be a kind of vessel for it. Part of the joy of being on vacation is that it is a socially sanctioned opportunity to temporarily abandon your real life. This is also the joy of going to a restaurant (on a much smaller scale); I cannot attest to it personally, but this may also be the joy of golf. If the pandemic has been hard on fun, it has eviscerated leisure. The leisure industry, with its airlines and cruises and museums, its hotels and restaurants, its sports clubs and gyms, may not fully recover for years.

“Leisure and work are usually paired together in a kind of binary couple,” says Stalp. Leisure is not always fun, but it is by definition unpaid, and also elective. It is, as Casey puts it, “what people choose to do, when they don’t have to do anything else.”

There is no perfect analogue to this moment — there are no perfect analogues to any moments — but the question of what to do with ourselves amid a global pandemic is one we’ve faced before.

During the 1918 flu pandemic, people talked so much on the telephone that newspapers ran ads begging them to stop clogging the lines with “idle and useless telephone conversations.” In November 1918, during the pandemic’s second wave, an article in the Los Angeles Times titled “Watchu’ Doin’ With Yourself?” surveyed what Angelinos were doing with “every place of public amusement, churches, schools and resorts tight shut by ’flu orders.”

The answers are strikingly familiar: children were playing outside, mostly war (“naturally, nobody wants to be the Germans”) but sometimes tennis; teens were having picnics with too many people at them and “holding hands” in parks. “Books are popular,” the paper observed, especially romances and histories, and music stores reported a “great run on phonographs and player pianos,” and some people had gotten into fortune telling, and others were having the “time of their lives” complaining about nonexistent symptoms, and when all of that failed, “there is always golf.”

None of this feels terribly illuminating. I, too, am reading books and complaining, and while those are among my favorite things even in the best of circumstances, I cannot lose myself in either.

The problem with my fun-free life is not a lack of fun-seeming activities. The ability to “have fun” is not contingent on access to fun-adjacent institutions, which have and do exclude all kinds of people, who nonetheless, for centuries, have managed to have fun. The leisure industry as we know it could collapse forever; fun would continue to exist.

It is fun to go for walks, to see friends on outdoor benches, to stream movies, to make doughnuts; what is not fun is me. What was once “novel” and “spontaneous” is now an exercise in planning — what is an equidistant park, is there a bathroom, will it rain? — and the effort of Zoom game night is more than I can give. Instead of a release, fun is yet another obligation: you are so lucky, I keep thinking. Why don’t you want to go apple picking?

“We’re getting a moment to pause,” Stalp tells me. “We’re getting a moment to reconceptualize what fun can be.” Maybe we will emerge from this slower and less task-oriented; certainly, I have spent no other period of my life so attuned to the minutiae of the weather. Alternatively, we will pick up as we were. It’s hard to imagine what the world will look like when this is over, and harder to predict how we are going to feel: the acute awareness that a moment is historic is not the same as knowing how it ends.

If there is anything to take from history, it is reassurance: There will be fun again because there has always been fun before. “I think it’s part of being human,” Casey tells me. It is comforting to hear this. I have felt less like myself, indeed less human, without the fun. This is appropriate: The conditions are terrible. We’re being set up to fail. But fun finds a way, it always has. Its return will come.


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World

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

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(CNN) —  

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

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

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

Coffee

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

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

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

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

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

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

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

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

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

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

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

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

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

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

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

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

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

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

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

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

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

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

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

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

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

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

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

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

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

Beauty

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

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

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

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

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

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

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

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

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

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

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

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

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

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

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

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

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

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

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

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

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

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

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

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

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

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

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

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

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

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

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

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

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

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

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

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

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

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

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

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

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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