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Why fire is our best tool against megafires

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To live in many parts of the American West today is to live with wildfires. And to suppress those fires is only to delay, and worsen, the inevitable.

The gargantuan wildfires that have scorched states like California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado recently are vivid reminders of this fact.

A number of unique factors this year combined with long-term trends to create the devastating and unprecedented fires of 2020. But a major reason for the massive scale of the destruction is that natural fires and burning practices first developed by Indigenous people have been suppressed for generations.

Wildfires are essential to many Western ecosystems, restoring nutrients to the soil, clearing decaying brush, and helping plants germinate. Without these fires, vegetation in woodlands, grasslands, and chaparral shrublands accumulates, so more fuel is available to burn, especially when a megadrought keeps drying the fuel out, year after year. A debt to the landscape starts to mount, and when it comes due, there is hell to pay.

“If we’re not using fire in the same way that this landscape evolved with over millennia, then we could be creating a situation where we’re creating a further imbalance,” said Don Hankins, an environmental geographer at California State University Chico and a Plains Miwok Indigenous fire practitioner.

So a key part of the strategy to reduce the growing threat from wildfires is to burn parts of the landscape on purpose.

This is much easier said than done. It’s costly, it can be dangerous, and it demands a sophisticated and granular understanding of the land. But American Indians have used burning practices across much of the West for thousands of years, building up a vast reservoir of knowledge of when and how to start fires to protect themselves and to increase the bounty of the land.

Much of this burning stopped when European settlers arrived and drove American Indians away from their ancestral homes and deprived those that remained of their culture. Now there’s a growing movement to bring these practices back to the landscape, with Indigenous practitioners in the lead in places like California. But it requires confronting an ugly past and facing a future of growing wildfire risk.

Why Indigenous burning practices are a powerful way to mitigate wildfire risk

To understand how we arrived in this era of extreme wildfires across the Western United States, scientists have studied patterns like those in tree rings to get a sense of the history of fires across the West.

“It shows that a lot of these areas burned a lot, anywhere from every two years to every 15 years,” said Eric Knapp, a research ecologist at the United States Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station. “If you haven’t burned in a long time — some of these places haven’t seen fire in recorded history, or since 1910 — that’s a lot of fire debt.”

A tree ring section showing burn scars.
A tree ring cross-section collected near Redding, California, shows regular fire burn scars that became much less frequent after 1855.
Eric Knapp/USFS

The US Forest Service has even tabulated estimates for how often fires have historically occurred across ecosystems like sage scrub and ponderosa pine forests. These records, plus what we know about how fires were suppressed since the 1800s, point toward how much American Indians in the Western US engineered the landscape with their burning practices for thousands of years. European settlers arrived and saw a landscape that had been methodically cultivated, like forests with trees spaced far apart and with little leaf litter on the ground. But they often failed to recognize it as such.

“There’s this idea — the idea I was raised with — that this wilderness is untrammeled by man,” Knapp said. “The more work I’ve done in this field, the more strongly I believe that there was a pretty strong human imprint on this landscape.”

The gap between historical levels of burning and the current fires also illustrates how much more fuel is now available to burn in dangerous megafires. However, there’s more to paying off this fire debt than lighting a match.

Bill Tripp is the director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources. The Karuk Tribe’s territory is in Northern California and reaches into Oregon. Tripp, a member of the tribe and an Indigenous fire practitioner, explained that every bit of the landscape has its own terroir when it comes to fire, a unique set of traits in a given region that can influence a blaze. The ideal conditions for a burn depend on the mix of plants, sunlight, soil, and weather conditions. They can change from day to day, and from one hillside to another.

Bill Tripp, director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources, stands in a stretch of tribal land that was burned in June near Happy Camp, California.
Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

And these deliberate fires are not just about reducing wildfire risk, as is often the case with prescribed burns from government or private land managers. These Indigenous burns serve cultural purposes, like maintaining trails, helping food plants grow, and providing materials for building and crafts. Such fires don’t just hinge on “when” and “how,” but on “why,” which in turn demands sophisticated local insight. For practitioners, it’s not just a tactic, but a way of thinking about how they interact with the natural world.

“The Karuk people have historically been dependent on the food, fiber, and medicinal resources that come off the greater landscape,” Tripp said. “We’re still dependent on those today.”

When done right, these Indigenous-prescribed fires have natural breaks built in as they spread from one type of vegetation to another. Rather than having hundreds of thousands of acres suddenly engulfed in flames, Indigenous burning practices can create a mosaic of areas that can readily burn surrounded by areas that are more resistant to ignition. Those breaks can be areas that have previously burned, thereby having less fuel, or plants that retain more moisture and are less likely to catch on fire.

There are ecological benefits, too. A well-timed burn can also restore the biodiversity of the species of plants and animals in places where invasives have become dominant. For example, invasive grasses like ripgut brome and shrubs like Spanish broom in parts of California can outcompete local vegetation, but quickly turn into highly flammable tinder when it gets hot.

A robust mix of native plant and animal species can instead make an ecosystem more resilient to shocks like drought and extreme heat, as well as speed up recovery after a fire.

A comparison of ponderosa pine forests with and without prescribed burns.
This image shows how a ponderosa pine forest looks when fire is excluded (left) compared to a section of forest after multiple controlled burns (right).
Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment

“In California, in our foothill and valley ecosystems, we’ve got a lot of nonnative grasses,” Hankins said. “If we think about the seasonal timing of when it’s appropriate to remove those species with fire and favor native species in their place … we can still achieve the fuel reduction but then we’re shifting the dynamics in favor of native species.”

The Indigenous-prescribed fires can be slower and less intense than natural or inadvertent fires, creeping along the forest floor rather than tearing through tree canopies. The trees and plants that remain become more resistant to future fires.

Over time, with frequent controlled fires, the landscape starts to shift to a healthy mix of species. The fires become easier and safer to conduct, and eventually the risks of a devastating wildfire start to go down.

Halting Indigenous burning practices was part of a deliberate strategy to eradicate American Indians

When European settlers arrived in the Western United States, they intervened to stop American Indian burning practices, but not just out of fear of fire. Instead, according to Tripp, cultural burning practices were blocked as a deliberate tactic to threaten the survival of Indigenous people like the Karuk Tribe.

“It became part of the policy to remove that connection to the food systems well before fire suppression became a policy,” Tripp said. “When you’re going through a cycle of genocide and people are trying to remove the Indigenous component from a place, that [Indigenous burning practice] becomes a logical target.”

Laws in states like California stripped Indigenous people of their rights and prevented them from practicing their culture, including burning. As late as the 1930s, Karuk people were actively stopped, and even shot, for trying to conduct burns.

Fire exclusion policies also stemmed from a misguided impulse to improve the region’s ecology. Prior to the 20th century, forests like those in the Sierra Nevada were far less dense, with trees spaced much further apart. “The relative openness of forests was attributed to frequent fire, which many early foresters saw as a negative,” according to a 2012 study from the US Forest Service. “It was believed that if fire could be kept out the forest could support many more trees. This became one of the main arguments for suppressing fire.”

With the suppression of natural fires and indigenous burning practices, some sections of the forest grew to be anywhere from twice as dense to 10 times as dense as they were when fires were more frequent, increasing the likelihood of what’s known as a “stand-replacing fire.” These are massive blazes that can wipe out almost all of the living trees in an area, including towering overstory trees. When there’s a drought, more trees means there’s less water to go around, leading to drier and more flammable vegetation.

Today, the Karuk Tribe can only conduct burns on the tiny sliver of their ancestral lands across California and Oregon that is privately held and not part of federal land.

More than 135,000 acres of Karuk ancestral territory burned in the fires this year. But Tripp said that this could also be an opportunity to begin a regime of controlled burns in those areas. “We need to be putting some strategic placement of follow-up burning,” he said.

Vast swaths of land across the West are overdue for a fire

The question now is how to scale up these Indigenous burning practices across federal, state, and private land and develop an appreciation for the knowledge behind them. Even with the record-breaking blazes across the United States in recent years, there are still millions of acres of wildlands that have yet to burn and could still be devoured in megafires. And as the climate changes, more areas will become primed to ignite.

With controlled burns, the plants that could fuel a massive uncontrollable fire are depleted in smaller, easier to manage bursts. Many small fires can help prevent devastating megafires.

Burning is also just one of several ways to reduce the risks of dangerous wildfires alongside measures like mechanically removing vegetation and building fire breaks.

Bringing these tactics to all the places they’re needed stands to be a costly endeavor, and the investment is far short of where it needs to be. Already the federal government, which manages huge swaths of land in the Western United States — including 57 percent of the land in California — is struggling to implement its existing prescribed burning plans.

The US Forest Service conducts fire mitigation work, including controlled burns, across roughly 1 million acres of land per year across the whole country. But the agency has an 80 million-acre backlog built up after years of fire suppression and inadequate budgets, with 50 million acres “at high risk of wildfire, insects, and disease.”

Over the summer, the State of California reached an agreement with the US Forest Service to conduct fire mitigation treatment across 1 million acres in the state per year. That’s a big step up. Currently, California land managers conduct controlled burns on 125,000 acres per year across state, federal, and private lands. By comparison, Florida, a much smaller state, permits about 2 million acres of controlled burning each year.

And California has a lot of fuel it needs to eliminate. “An estimated 20 million acres of forestland in California with high wildfire threat may benefit from fuels reduction treatment to reduce the risk of wildfire,” according to a 2018 state report.

Karuk Tribal Chairman Russell Attebery looks over a map of the area burned by the Slater fire in Happy Camp, California, on September 30.
Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
An aerial view of the devastation that left scores of structures destroyed and thousands of acres burned by the Slater fire.
Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

For Indigenous fire practitioners like Hankins and Tripp, the aim now is to build a framework from the bottom up to support Indigenous cultural burning practices within and beyond the bounds of Indigenous lands. The Karuk Tribe, for instance, has launched the Endowment for Eco-Cultural Revitalization and is raising funds to help teach people about the culture around burning and to support burning practices over the long term.

“It’s not lost, it’s all still ingrained in our culture,” Tripp said. “If we wait a couple more generations, it might get lost. If we don’t start acting soon to revitalize the knowledge, practice, and belief systems, then a lot more than just information about our practices will be lost. We’ll be looking at large-scale biodiversity collapse as well. And we’re already starting to see it.”

Deploying Indigenous knowledge to reduce fire risks would also require recognition of tribal sovereignty over their ancestral areas, returning land to American Indian communities, and a frank accounting of what was lost and stolen over more than a century of settlement and colonization.

At the same time, when land managers start strategically deploying fire and thinking carefully about all the factors at play, they often come to practices and results that resemble Indigenous burning.

Jared Dahl Aldern, an environmental historian and lead researcher at the West on Fire Project, highlighted the recent example of a 15,000-acre plot of land managed by Southern California Edison near Shaver Lake. The area survived the recent Creek Fire near Fresno with much less destruction than adjacent federal land, becoming an island within a nearly 350,000-acre megafire. Prior to the blaze, the power utility deployed controlled burns, forest thinning, and timber harvests to help protect its assets on the land from wildfire.

“While they didn’t draw on a lot of Indigenous knowledge or consult with tribes in terms of figuring out how to do their land management, I call it a process of convergent evolution of their forestry practices because they ended up in the same place as historically what forest conditions were under an Indigenous fire regimen,” Aldern said.

But land managers don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to strategically deploying fire; by partnering with and following the lead of American Indian fire practitioners, they can build on an existing foundation of knowledge.

Prescribed burns are essential for reducing wildfire risk. But we need to do even more.

As important as it is to reduce the amount of vegetation that can readily burn, fuel is not the only driver of massive, destructive wildfires. The record-breaking 2020 fire season — which is still not over — is a case in point.

Many factors converged to create such a devastating year for wildfires in 2020. A series of unusual weather events, from a searing heat wave to a rare dry lightning storm to high winds to extraordinarily low humidity, left much of the West ready to burn.

But other long-term factors are at play as well. People have continued to build into the wildland-urban interface, where suburbs meet shrubland. Across the United States, the number of homes in these regions has grown rapidly over the last two decades. And more homes continue to be built. One study found that, based on current trends, 645,000 homes in California will be in “very high” wildfire severity zones.

Firefighters put out burning embers in the Fresno County community of Bald Mountain, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, on September 11, 2020
Firefighters extinguish the remnants of the Creek Fire, which ignited near Shaver Lake in California in September.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Since the vast majority of wildfires are ignited by humans, this can increase the likelihood of sparking a new blaze, increase the damage of the blazes that do occur, and lengthen the fire season.

Humans are also continuing to destabilize the climate. With the emissions of heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels, the planet is warming. That’s upping the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events and is increasing aridity in many parts of the West, making grasses and trees more likely to ignite.

California in particular is still experiencing the effects of a drought that stretched from 2011 to 2017. That drought, exacerbated by climate change, helped dry out forests and leave trees vulnerable to pests like bark beetles, fueling a die-off of more than 140 million trees across the state, potentially adding more fuel to fires.

There’s also risk in conducting controlled burns. Even a well-managed fire can behave in unpredictable ways, or winds can suddenly shift and drive embers over fire breaks and six-lane highways. Fires can even generate their own weather, and rising temperatures are making it harder to safely conduct controlled burns, whether by American Indians or by other land managers. There’s also the problem of air pollution stemming from wildfires; deliberate blazes also have to take steps to reduce the smoke exposure of people who live downwind.

In addition to restoring fire to the land, some of the existing vegetation may have to be removed in other ways. That can take the form of forest thinning, where trees in a given region are selectively removed to reduce fire risk.

Some forest thinning can yield salable products and generate money. But forest thinning is different from logging in that reducing wildfire risk is the priority. In fact, some forms of logging can increase fire risks, as hardy, fire-resistant trees give way to fast-growing, fast-drying plants.

People will also have to use fire-resistant building materials for their homes and construct a defensible perimeter around property. In some cases, people may have to retreat from high-fire-risk areas altogether. And humanity will also have to take aggressive action to limit greenhouse gas emissions in order to stave off the worst consequences of climate change.

Just like there’s no single cause of the increase in destructive wildfires in recent years, there’s no single fix. And since this situation took more than a century to develop, it will take decades to start making progress on a solution. However, without concerted action now, the risks will only get worse. There is a debt to be paid — both to the landscape and to American Indians — and restoring Indigenous burning practices is a small step toward paying off both.


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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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