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Why it’s so difficult to abolish sororities and fraternities

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The summer of 2020 will go down in history as a period of institutional reckoning as Americans of all ages confront the inequalities inherent within their police departments, schools, and workplaces. For some college students, the national unrest has led to scrutiny of a more insular institution, yet one that’s rooted in America’s higher education tradition: Greek life.

Taylor, a sophomore at Mississippi State, began the school year determined to drop out of Greek life — more specifically, the historically all-white, male-dominated system of social fraternities and sororities. The 19-year-old, whose full name and gender are omitted for privacy reasons, felt compelled by calls to abolish the institution, which were being posed nationwide at campuses like American, Duke, Northeastern, Tufts, Vanderbilt, and Washington University, on social media and in campus opinion pieces.

Taylor was soon confronted by the reality of what would be feasible at Mississippi State, a Southern college with a hugely influential Greek presence.

“Abolition isn’t possible, at least in the near future, because of the way it’s so ingrained within our school culture and student organizations,” Taylor told me, estimating that about a quarter of enrolled undergraduates participate in Greek life. “So if people like me, people who want reform and change, were to drop their fraternities and sororities, that would lead the space to become even less inclusive than it already is.”

For now, Taylor is still a member of their chapter, although they quietly started @abolishmsstategreeklife on Instagram to feature student voices critical of the Greek system.

Months of protests against police brutality and racism have pushed the concept of abolition — of radically transforming the current criminal justice system — toward the mainstream; more Americans have begun to question the excesses of municipal police budgets and, specifically, policing tactics. According to abolitionists, reform is impossible because reforms have failed, time and time again.

The same abolitionist argument is currently being lobbed at the historically white Greek system, which was established in the early 19th century as a sort of secret society for US college-educated men. Nationwide, students are rallying around the slogan “Abolish Greek Life,” establishing Instagram accounts that display anonymous student testimonies and informational slides on the many human and financial costs of the system.

Many involved in Greek life, in addition to unaffiliated students, are now questioning the basis of its existence while weighing the decades of baked-in harm it has imposed on students. The history of racism, sexism, classism, and mental and physical abuse within these organizations is hard to ignore.

A handful of fraternity and sorority chapters at certain campuses, like American, are publicly disbanding or having conversations about disbanding. At Northwestern, about 75 percent of Sigma Nu fraternity members have disaffiliated, including its former president, the Daily Northwestern reported. The Panhellenic Council at Tufts, which oversees its sorority system, announced in late July that it would suspend fall recruitment — something that also occurred in spring 2017 — to reflect and educate themselves “on the structurally and situationally problematic nature of Greek life.”

That internal push is one some experts have not witnessed before from members, who have historically been hostile to criticism. (A student exodus also occurred during the 1960s civil rights movement, the New York Times reported.) But the mobilization necessary to excise Greek life entirely from the American college education system is much more complex and difficult to achieve compared to these grassroots efforts. While members could withdraw from their campus’s chapter or vote to dissolve it, the national organization can still deploy resources to recruit new members and rebuild the chapter in later years.

For student activists, however, the ongoing movement is not defined by the odds against them but the piecemeal progress made so far, campus by campus. “I think this movement is on the right side of history,” said Roy, the anonymous student behind the national Abolish Greek Life movement and Instagram account. “We’ve seen this formally done at Swarthmore, Colby, and Williams, so there’s no reason to believe that fraternity and sorority life can’t disappear eventually.”

A rebellious history

For white men, fraternities have historically produced a long list of leaders in business, law, and politics: “An astonishing number of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, congressmen, and male senators, and American presidents have belonged to fraternities,” the Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan reported. The revolving door of influence that surrounds fraternities, arguably the bulwark of the Greek system, is ironic in retrospect, considering their highly exclusive and secretive origins.

“These groups, which have always been exclusive by definition, were a way for men to express their independence and rebelliousness against an institution that said they couldn’t exist,” Nicholas Syrett, a historian who has published a book on the history of white college fraternities, told me. “They started in secrecy, until the first and second generation of men who entered frats became professors and college admins, who became much more sympathetic to their cause.”

This relationship gradually became more symbiotic and less hostile, and in the late 19th century, sororities were established as a sort of “sister” group that men socialized with.

Yet the debate over Greek life — primarily the purpose of frats — has been around since its conception. They’ve drawn comparisons to gangs, in light of a harsh pledging process that theoretically inspires loyalty to one’s house.

One former member of American University’s Delta Tau Delta chapter recently told the Washington Post, “The pressure was on those of us in Greek life to justify our existence and we couldn’t do it. … I realized that remaining complicit in the system was a moral issue, and it was one I could not live with.”

Only a small minority of undergraduate students go Greek, despite outsized media attention on the system: The National Panhellenic Conference has about 400,000 sorority members nationwide while the North American Interfraternity Conference (NAIC) has about 384,000. But beyond membership numbers, there isn’t comprehensive data on the Greek system in the US; few campuses provide a clear demographic breakdown of members by ethnicity or socioeconomic standing, and things like membership dues and housing fees aren’t widely publicized.

It has taken decades for a body of research and reporting to emerge that quantifies the system’s social and physical harms: A 1993 Harvard study found that four out of five fraternity or sorority members were binge drinkers. Women in sororities are 74 percent more likely to experience rape than other college women. In a 2013 survey distributed to over 200,000 Greek life members at nine public universities, about 72 percent self-identified as middle- or upper-middle class, while only 18 percent and 6 percent categorized themselves as working-class or low-income, respectively.

Beyond these statistics, frats and sororities have a documented history of exclusion, especially toward non-white members. Students of color say racial bias still persists in the rush process, and almost every year, a fraternity is in the news for engaging in blatantly racist behavior.

Usually, it requires a shocking national incident — usually a death or severe accident — affiliated with Greek life to spur this cycle of conversation. (Syrett himself was interviewed in a 2014 Business Insider story with the headline, “Why fraternities will never disappear from American college life.”) But after the chapter suspensions are handed down and schools publicized stricter policies, the Greek system still appears to be intact.

The Greek system has extensive financial ties. Colleges have no interest in getting rid of them.

If Greek life is so troublesome — as a hot spot for sexual assault, hazing, and civil lawsuits — why have most universities not taken a hardline stance against its existence? The short answer is money.

“Many of these fraternities and sororities have been on campuses for decades, and that’s led them to accumulate a strong alumni network that can be tapped as donors,” said Noah Drezner, a Columbia associate professor of higher education who researches alumni giving. “I would say that Greek alumni are disproportionately represented on trustee boards and in administrative positions.” It’s not in a college’s financial interest to anger or alienate their donors, he added.

Fraternities and sororities traditionally offer housing for students, a boon for universities, and wealthy alumni often pitch in funds for the construction of chapter houses and the land they reside on. Frats own about $3 billion worth of real estate across 800 US campuses, reported Bloomberg’s John Hechinger in his book True Gentleman: The Broken Pledge of American Fraternities.

This funding is key in small college towns where housing is limited and most members live together. If, for example, a university sought to disband a fraternity, it would then have to purchase the house (or the parcel of land) to turn into student housing.

“The thing is, students in Greek life are richer to begin with, but they also may be more loyal monetarily,” said Syrett. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: As members graduate, some return as generous donors, eager to become beneficiaries for the next generation. And with money comes power — at both the student and institutional level.

The University of Alabama is an extreme case of how Greek organizations can harness their influence: For over a century, an informal underground society called “The Machine” has allegedly influenced how members, who comprise over 34 percent of the undergraduate population, vote in campus and local city elections. These students are, according to AI.com, “a powerful bloc of voters from fraternities and sororities” who have reportedly used intimidation and voter coercion tactics.

Part of a member’s dues toward the national organizations could also become contributions to the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee, or FratPAC, which has historically donated a majority of its funds to Republican candidates and lobbied for pro-Greek legislation. “By remaining in these organizations, both through your membership and your financial contributions, you are allowing these organizations to influence politics and races in ways that may not align with your own opinions,” read one post from Richmond University’s “Abolish Greek Life” account.

Even at the chapter level, “Greek life is terrified of lawsuits,” said Gwendolyn Strasberg, a junior at the University of Southern California who recently dropped her sorority. “They have lawyers on retainer, ready to work if there are any actions that make them look bad.” Several Greek organizations at USC filed lawsuits against the university in 2019 after administrators set forth new recruitment standards that deferred the rush process from fall to spring. “Greek life is more than just influence at schools,” Strasburg added. “There is a political presence, and ultimately these organizations want to maximize their influence.”

How the coronavirus and the abolitionist movement could impact Greek life’s future

Many former members like Strasburg are cutting ties to the national chapter, highlighting certain nefarious aspects of Greek life that are typically swept under the rug: rampant misogyny in frat culture, body shaming, popular hazing practices, substance abuse, and more.

Although some students have voiced their support of eventual abolition, they are advocating for different solutions. Some like Strasburg see disaffiliation as the answer, since the culture is “beyond the capacity for reform.” Others like Taylor, the student at Mississippi State, believe their internal efforts could improve a system that is an entrenched aspect of campus life. In recent weeks, several fraternity and sorority group chats have been leaked online, which suggests that a few active members are exposing these behaviors, although it’s unclear if their goal is for their chapters to be abolished or reformed.

“Greek life is spending all of its energy fighting people like me who are speaking out, rather than looking to fix the system,” said Strasburg, who says she has faced online attacks for her beliefs. “How do you enforce anti-racist policies when half of Greek life centers around alcohol and intoxication? Can you hold people to these standards when they’re in an altered mindset?”

The response to “Abolish Greek Life” has similarly varied by campus; some chapters are acknowledging the validity of certain criticisms, while others are moving ahead with fall recruitment and actively ignoring the burgeoning movement. And as much as Vanderbilt is a poster child for Greek life abolition, students on campuses like USC or the University of Georgia with a well-known fraternity and sorority presence are reacting more negatively. This reaction in defense of the system is why Strasburg and Taylor are doubtful of change.

“I do believe that most adults who lead the Interfraternity and Panhellenic Councils work tirelessly to improve Greek life from within,” Taylor told me. “But no one’s ever seen those results, which is why people are turning to abolition.” Yet according to some former Vanderbilt Delta Tau Delta members, who approached the school’s Greek life director and the national organization, they felt their concerns were dismissed, the Times reported.

The North American Interfraternity and the National Panhellenic Conferences, two national groups that oversee most existing fraternities and sororities, have maintained that abolition is “not going to happen,” according to the Washington Post, and that those disaffiliating are among a small minority.

“Abolishing fraternities is not the answer to addressing cultural challenges across campus,” wrote Todd Shelton, a spokesperson for the NAIC, in an email. “The vast majority of students involved in fraternities want to work through their organizations to improve campus culture by enhancing diversity, inclusion and respect for all students.”

And while the National Panhellenic Conference didn’t address the concept of abolition, CEO Dani Weatherford admitted that sororities “must reckon with the legacy and manifestations of systemic racism and other forms of bias that impact the sorority experience.” In August, the organization formed an “access and equity advisory committee” to improve the recruitment process with the aim to “eliminate structural and systemic barriers.”

The coronavirus pandemic, however, could very well be a factor in the decline of Greek life. Colleges across the country have seen Covid-19 clusters emerge in student housing facilities and fraternity and sorority houses, some of which have not ceased in-person recruitment or social events. The Times’s coronavirus tracker has identified at least 251 cases tied to Greek members.

Plus, the pandemic has exacerbated financial stressors on students, particularly those from lower-income or middle-class families, who might no longer be able to afford Greek life membership dues. (Dues and additional fees for housing, meals, and apparel vary from chapter to chapter, but members are expected to pay about $500 to $1,500 per semester.)

“The coronavirus could stress the relationship between higher education institutions and Greek life, specifically because of the many risks that fraternities and sororities exacerbate on college campuses,” said Lisa Wade, a sociologist at Tulane University who has advocated for Greek abolition. “We’ve adapted to those threats — the rise of sexual violence and physical harm to students — and have accepted them as a cost of doing business in higher ed. But Covid introduces another risk that’s especially dangerous.”

Universities tend to tolerate the Greek system, Wade said, but in recent years, administrators have cracked down on fraternities and sororities. Some schools began monitoring parties in 2017, and at campuses with severe allegations of hazing and sexual assault, fraternity activity was entirely suspended. Public university presidents even attended a conference on Greek life in 2018 as part of an effort to create a nationwide Greek chapter scorecard to track student misbehavior. (Penn State’s newly established Piazza Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research and Reform is in charge of collecting data for the national scorecard, but it has not yet published a public annual report since its 2019 launch.)

In the meantime, the coronavirus will likely remain the top priority of administrators nationwide, but it could be an unexpected accelerant in the favor of Greek life abolitionists. This time feels different, students say. “That’s what everyone hopes, right? That this time, we’re a little better and society is willing to demand and make more change,” Taylor said. “I’d rather fight a losing battle than sit passively on the wrong side.”


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

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(CNN) —  

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

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

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

Coffee

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

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

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

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

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

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

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

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

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

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

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

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

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

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

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

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

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

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

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

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

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

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

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

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

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

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

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

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

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

Beauty

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

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

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

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

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

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

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

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

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

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

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

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

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

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

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

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

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

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

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

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

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

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

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

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

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

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

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

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

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

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

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

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

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

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

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

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

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

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

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

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

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

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

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

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

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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

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Open Sourced logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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