COOL GADGET: Autowit Batteryless Jump Starter

[clears throat]

[‘30 for 30′ voice]

“What if I told you a dead car battery could jump start… itself?”

[/’30 for 30′ voice]

Jump starting a dead battery has always been a pain. For one thing, batteries can leak hydrogen and\or other dangerous gasses. The reason you’re supposed to connect the negative alligator clip to part of the car frame (and not the battery itself) is to prevent sparks, which could cause any leaking hydrogen to explode, which will ruin your day.

Even though car batteries are much safer than they were even 20-30 years ago, jump starting is still no fun. You have to rely on the kindness of strangers (or AAA) and also hope you’re parked in such a way that someone can reach your battery with cables (like a parking deck, if you have cars parked on either side).

That’s why people were excited a few years ago, when companies that make power banks – you know, the battery packs you use to charge your phone – came out with larger capacity packs that included a set of alligator clips so you could jump start a car all by yourself. That’s cool, but it introduces a new problem – the battery pack is just a battery, and it needs to be charged, too. So you have to remember to take the battery pack out of your trunk once a month or so and recharge it. Else, the pack might be useless when you need it most.

But what if you didn’t need a battery pack? What if your car’s battery could charge itself?

Capacitors are small, solid state devices that hold a charge, kind of like a small battery. Most electronic devices have them, to provide a steady supply of current to components; they’re also the reason you’re often told to power off a device, wait 30 seconds or a minute, then restart: capacitors can hold a charge for a brief time after a device has lost power – to fully power cycle the device, you need to make sure that the capacitors empty, too.

capacitors
Capacitors are the black, barrel-shaped devices on this PC motherboard

Capacitors have a few advantages – for one thing, they can recharge quickly – in typical consumer devices, they can go from empty to fully-charged in milliseconds. For another, they can release their charge just as quickly. Lastly, they can be charged and discharged hundreds of thousands of times… unlike a cell phone battery, which typically starts going downhill after a few years.

So… here’s the thing: most of the time, your car’s “dead” battery isn’t actually “dead”… it’s simply below the threshold needed to start the car. There’s plenty of power left in the dead battery, power enough to, say, charge a bunch of capacitors… which you could then use to jump start the car.

Welcome to the Autowit Batteryless Jump Starter!

It’s dead simple to use – the actual starter is a largeish plastic box. You connect the red and black alligator clips to the respective terminals on the car battery, then connect the charger (a largish black box) to the starter using a keyed plug. Like most battery packs, there are lights on the charger to let you know you’ve connected everything correctly. You just press a button, wait anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple minutes, and once both lights turn green, you’re good to go! What’s more, the charger has additional inputs – you can charge it via another car’s cigarette lighter or via micro USB.

Here’s the Internet’s favorite mechanic Scotty Kilmer to explain it in detail:

But, like any device, the Autowit isn’t perfect. As Scotty says, the Autowit probably won’t work on very large engines, especially diesels. And if your battery is actually dead – as in, it’s just time to buy a new one – the Autowit might not work, where a traditional jump start might give you one last start so you can drive to the auto parts store. Also, the whole system is a bit bulky; it doesn’t come with any kind of case, despite having multiple parts. Perhaps the next generation of these won’t be quite so large.

Having said all that, I’ve had nothing but great experiences with the Autowit.

The missus and I have a “beater” car, and unfortunately it has a bad case of parasitic draw, where some device is using the battery while the car is off. So you have to start it at least once a week, or it won’t start at all. I’ve had to jump it three times since I got the Autowit, and it only takes around 90 seconds to charge the capacitors and start the car. But the main reason I bought one was because I accidentally left a door slightly ajar overnight in my Honda Odyssey, which meant the interior lights were on, which drained the battery. I’d planned to order the Autowit anyway because of the issue with the beater, but rather than call AAA for the van, I just ordered the Autowit from Amazon (remember when Amazon could deliver stuff overnight? That was nice!). I hooked the Autowit up to the van and two minutes later it started!

Yeah, the Autowit is a bit more expensive than most battery packs – I paid around $104 for it, versus around $70 for a battery pack I bought for my brother-in-law Christmas before last. But, given how well it works, and how it doesn’t need batteries, I think it’s worth it!

My Top Albums Of 2019

Wow… so you’re probably wondering why it took me until almost April to get out an article that I normally do in December, or, at worst, the first week of January.

To be perfectly honest, it’s because 2018 was such a ridiculously strong year for music that it didn’t really stop until late 2019 for me. The top 4 albums from 2018 – Pastel Ghost’s Ethereality , The Perfect Kiss’ Filter, Therapie TAXI’s ass-kicking debut Hit Sale, and You Drive’s eponymous debut – yeah, I just kept on listening to them non-stop until last November. As of Thanksgiving, there was only one 2019 album in my Top 20 “most listened to” stats. It took until the past couple of weeks that I found ten 2019 albums to make a list!

As always, below are my ten favorite albums of 2019. The list comes directly from my Last.fm stats; I have, however, tinkered with the order a bit, perhaps even a bit more than usual. After the list are a few honorable mentions, followed by the raw data from Last.fm.

My Top Albums of 2019

10) Wy – Softie – This Swedish band’s second album is a “solid, if a bit samey” experience. They’re more of a straightforward pop band than the lovely dream pop of Postiljonen and similar Swedish bands I’ve cottoned to in the past. But that’s OK – I love them anyway! It’s a good album to listen to on a sunny day at the beach with an ice cold beer:

9) Clairo – Immunity – 21 year-old Claire Cottrill shows lots of promise with this debut album… if she can resist the temptation to let producers have their way with her music. I agree with Pitchfork that there are many songs on this disc that have been tweaked within an inch of their lives, and that any more edits would ruin them. Still, “Bags” is a great tune, and I’ll be sure to stick around for her next album!

8) Graveyard Club – Goodnight Paradise – They make cool music in Minneapolis? Who knew? Just kidding, folks. Graveyard Club is a strange mix of 80s-style pop and Perry Como style crooning, as evidenced by the album’s lead-off single, “Witchcraft”. But that’s actually one of my least favorite tracks on the album: “Red Roses” and “William”, for example, are much better songs that the slightly gimmicky “Witchcraft”. But it’s an entertaining album, one of those where you kind of get lost and suddenly realize you’re on track 12.

7) Carla dal Forno – Look Up Sharp – This Australian lady is a singer, composer and music experimentalist, not unlike Julianna Barwick or Julia Holter. And this isn’t my first go-round with her, either: 2016’s You Know What It’s Like just barely missed the cut for an honorable mention in that year’s “best of”. Look Up Sharp is more of her swirly, dreamy, hazy music she’s known for. She doesn’t make “bangers”, but then she doesn’t flirt with ambient music as much as, say Barwick, either. So maybe something you won’t throw on during a rager, but something excellent for reading a book on a rainy day!

6) Electric Youth – Memory Emotion – Toronto-based Electric Youth are yet another in the seemingly endless supply of synthpop duos. They’re not the best, or the most original, or most memorable… but they’re nice. This is a really good album, even if it doesn’t break any new ground or won’t set the world on fire. Bronwyn Griffin and Austin Garrick have created a tight, yet dreamy sound that’s certainly a winner!

5) Clio – Déjà Venise – Clio is a French singer-songwriter, originally from Besançon, now living in Paris. Her music is infectious, each song a pretty little gem just waiting to be discovered. It’s also one of those albums where your “favorite song” keeps changing. First it was the hit “T’as vu” (below). Then it was “Amoureuse”, a classic French-style pop song. Then it was the title track. No matter which you settle on, they’re all good!

4) Minuit Machine – Infrarouge – Last year I discovered the French darkwave band Minuit Machine via their banger “Everlasting” from their 2015 album Violent Rains. 2019’s Infrarouge doesn’t really cover any new ground… but then, it doesn’t really need to. The opening track, “Chaos” gently draws you in to their beautiful, yet arctic world. And yeah, sure, lines like “The more I try, the less I exist” seem a bit sophomoric to my almost 50 year-old ears. It sounds like something “deep” I woulda scribbled in my journal as a teen. But the music – and the vibe – is still fun. There’s something about this band – not just the lyrics – that screams 80s angst, and in a good way. If you listen to just one of their tunes, make it “Everlasting” or the remastered version of their 2013 tune “I am a Boy” on this album.

3) Tempers – Private Life – This is a band I know very little about. They’re based in New York City and have two members: Jasmine Golestaneh and Eddie Cooper. Golestaneh was allegedly born in Florida and grew up in London (allegedly, because all the information I can find on her seems highly exaggerated). Whatever the case, Tempers’ newest album is one of those that snuck up on me. I didn’t notice it until much later, but I added a couple of their tunes to my “Discovered” playlist in Spotify. I guess because of that, the song “Leonard Cohen Afterworld” showed up in a Discover Weekly playlist. And from there I was hooked. And that’s weird.

2) Cannons – Shadows – Cannons are a band from the worst place on Earth: Los Angeles. But don’t it against them: they make really good music! It’s kind of a slightly funky synthpop affair with lead singer Michelle Joy’s waify vocals on top. Their cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” is all the introduction you need, but I think it’s unfair to judge them on a cover song. I love almost every song I’ve heard from them, from 2017’s Night Drive to 2018’s In a Heartbeat EP to 2019’s Shadows. Shadows kicks off with “Baby”, a good preview of what’s to come. But then there’s “Fire for You”, an infectious low-key banger that’s guaranteed to get stuck in your head. Then ya got “Talk Talk” (below), and next thing ya know the album’s over and you’re like “awwww, man! Is that IT? There should be MORE!” Seriously – check it out!

1) Chromatics – Closer to Grey – So see, here’s the thing: this album came out on October 1, and I liked it. Well, I don’t like the “The Sound of Silence” cover that opens the album, but that’s because I hate Simon & Garfunkel (having said that, Chromatics cover of “I’m on Fire” made me like a BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN song, so that could change). Anyway, the point is: I was looking through my Last.fm stats in December and was like “well crap… Closer to Grey is the only 2019 album in my Top 20 listened to albums”. So I kind of figured this one would win Album of the Year by default. And that bugged me. In 2018, my Top 4 albums duked it out in a fight to the death. You Drive ended up as album of the year, and deserved it. So as much as I like Chromatics, would they win album of the year just by showing up?

Well, yeah. A big part of it was seeing Chromatics (and Desire, and In Mirrors) live in Atlanta last May. That was absolutely an all-time Top 10 concert, maybe even a Top 5 show. I’ve got a framed picture of Megan Louise I took at the show on my wall. 2019 was, in so many ways, “The Year of Chromatics”. And, truth be told, no other album was really better than Closer to Grey last year.

It’s stunning at how often Johnny Jewel hits it out of the park. Between Chromatics, Desire, Glass Candy and all the other bands he works with, and all the soundtracks and solo projects… and the remixes he does, you wonder how he finds time to sleep!

I genuinely recommend heading over to Jewel’s record label site – Italians Do It Better – and picking up a copy of Closer to Grey, and all of the other fantastic tunes they have there. As far as I know, digital versions of all releases are available in WAV or MP3 format for $1, and they even accept Amazon Pay if you don’t want to give your credit card number to an unknown website.  They even have the massive, 47-track “Deluxe Edition” of Closer to Grey for ONE MEASLY DOLLAR! ONE DOLLAR! That’s 2.12¢ PER SONG! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? DO IT NOW!

Honorable Mentions

With the usual stipulation that “EPs and singles aren’t albums”:

Bon Entendeur – Aller-retour
Trevor Something – Bots Don’t Cry
Delphine Dupont – French Pop Attitude
L’Impératrice – Matahari
whenyoung – Reasons To Dream
Anteros – When We Land
Mexico City Blondes – Blush
Methyl Ethel – Triage
Pure Bathing Culture – Night Pass

Continue reading “My Top Albums Of 2019”

A BandsInTown Hack

BandsInTown is a service that tracks bands on tour. You download the app for iOS or Android, sign up, then enter a list of bands you want to track (or give the site permission to scan your Spotify or Apple Music\iTunes libraries). That’s it! You’ll get notifications (and emails, if you choose) any time a band you like is playing a venue near you!

There’s one problem with the service, though, and that’s that you can only choose one “home city”.  The concert scene in Charlotte has come a long way in the past 20 years, but if your music tastes could be described as “cutting edge” or “up and coming”, you may find yourself driving to Atlanta or Chapel Hill more often than you’d care to admit. So you can switch your BandsInTown home city to Atlanta… but then you miss out on local shows.  What to do if you’re in a situation like this?

While BandsInTown only allows you to have one home city, the app will allow you to expand your search radius to 150 miles. So in my case, I chose Greenville, SC as my home city and expanded the search radius to the max 150 miles. This way it covers Charlotte, Atlanta, Athens and Asheville:

Bands in Town

Bands in Town
(click to enlarge)

Hope this helps!

The “Smart” Bulb Conundrum

For years, most home and SOHO routers kept 2.4 and 5 GHz networks separate. In fact, you can probably open the Wi-Fi settings on your phone right now and see SSIDs like “Pretty Fly for a WiFi 2G” and “Pretty Fly for a WiFi 5G”.

I recently moved to a new house. Although I hadn’t planned on creating a “smart home”, I kind of did. See, I already owned a couple Google Home Mini speakers when my missus told me that she wanted some kind of “digital” thermostat at the new house. Right on cue, our power company sent us an offer for a Nest thermostat, along with another Google Home Mini and a GE Smart Bulb, for a very reasonable price. So we took them up on the offer, and now had a Nest and several Home Minis.

Due to the layout of my new office – that is, the furniture and power outlets within – the best option for me, lightwise, was to put a lamp on top of a tall bookcase. But it would have been a pain for me to reach up to turn the light on and off, and my missus would have to get a step ladder every time she wanted to turn the light on or off. No worries – we have that smart bulb Duke Energy sent us, right? I can just put the lamp on top of the bookcase then say “Hey Google, turn the lamp on”, yeah?

I could. But the light put out by the “C by GE” bulb is ugly. I’ve always preferred daylight bulbs over traditional “soft white” bulbs, but the “C by GE” light looked more like an interstate rest stop sodium vapor bulb than soft white light. So off to Amazon to buy some new bulbs, and when that failed, off to Home Depot… which almost failed, too.

Why the failure? Well, most modern routers – especially mesh routers – treat 2.4 and 5 GHz bands as the same. My network has both, but only has one SSID, and most devices can automagically switch from 2.4 and 5 GHz, whichever is the best fit at that moment. My Roku TV, for example, typically uses 5 GHz because it needs the bandwidth when we watch The Crown or Jack Ryan in UHD. My phone defaults to 5 GHz, but might switch to 2.4 GHz when I’m out in the yard because 5 GHz won’t travel that far, and 2.4 GHz is better than zero GHz.

Here, at last, is the problem this whole post addresses: it seems like all – or almost all – smart bulbs are 2.4 GHz only. This makes sense, because 2.4 GHz is better at penetrating walls and appliances, and such devices only send small bits of data occasionally. But guess what? Neither the LOHAS bulbs I ordered from Amazon nor the Philips bulb I bought at Home Depot would connect to my mesh network.

One option would have been to go to the router’s settings and have it separate the Wi-Fi signals into discrete 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. You know, the traditional “My WiFi 2G” and “My WiFi 5G” situation. And when I did that, it worked. But I didn’t want separate bands. It’s almost 2020!

So… what to do? Well, I had an old TP-Link range extender – model TL-WA855RE – lying around. Fortunately, the range extender can connect to the mesh network, despite being 2.4 GHz only. And since it’s only 2.4 GHz, the smart bulb can connect to it… and, by extension, the rest of my network.

Setting it up is pretty straightforward:

– If your smart bulb and\or extender requires an app, go ahead and install them from your app store before doing anything else.

– I reset the extender to its default settings, then logged in to its Wi-Fi network with my phone. I believe the SSID is just the model number: “TL-WA855RE”.

– I then used the extender’s app to connect and initiate the setup process. This is basically just “let it scan for networks, then login to the target network”. Keep all other settings at default, unless you want to: a) use a more complex password for this extended network (which I did); b) hide the new SSID (which I didn’t, because the password I gave the extended network looks like I smashed my fist on the keyboard); and c) this extender also has a “power level” setting which I turned to LOW, because I only need to broadcast the signal a few feet. ‘Cos the neighbors can’t steal your Wi-Fi if the signal never reaches them!

– By default, the new network will have the same SSID as the “mother network”, but with “_EXT” added to the end. So: “My Wi-Fi_EXT”. I logged in to the “_EXT” network on my phone and went through the setup wizard for the WiZ software I had to download for the Philips bulb. The WiZ software inherits the Wi-Fi settings from your phone and sends them to the bulb, which is why you have to do this step.

– Once the WiZ setup was complete, I switched my phone back to the regular Wi-Fi network and added the WiZ service to Google Home. That way I can say “Hey Google, turn on the lamp”.

– Finally, just to be safe, I reserved the internal IP addresses of both the extender and the bulb. That way, now that it’s working, there’s no reason it won’t keep working.

So… if you find yourself in a similar situation, you can buy the same model extender from Amazon here for $14.99, or Netgear’s EX2700 2.4 GHz extender here for $24.99.

FUN PLACE: Saint Pierre and Miquelon

Saint Pierre and Miquelon are two tiny islands off the northeastern coast of Canada. But they’re not Canadian: they belong to France, and they are the last tiny bits of French North America.

saint-pierre-and-miquelon-north-america

The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Year’s War (sometimes called the “French and Indian War” in the US). The terms dictated that France give up all her claims to land in North America. But, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, the British gave Saint Pierre and Miquelon back to France a few weeks after the treaty was signed.

Due to the way the French constitution works, the land that makes up the islands isn’t “a piece of land owned by France”, it’s a “piece of France itself”. The people who live there aren’t “colonials” – they’re French citizens. They belong to the EU and use Euros. If you get a passport stamp there it says “France”. Although it’s 2,373 miles (3,819 km) from Saint Pierre and Miquelon to Brest (the nearest point in Metropolitan France) it’s only 478 miles (770 km) as the crow flies from Hamlin, Maine to Saint Pierre and Miquelon. So if someone asks you how far France or the EU is from the US, you can win a bar bet with that little bit of trivia!

So… what’s so “fun” about it?

Well, aside from having a tiny bit of France just 1,307 miles (2,103 km) up the coast from me, it’s kind neat that street names generally aren’t used on the island. It’s a couple of tiny islands of a few thousand people whose families have lived there for generations. It truly is the kind of place where people say things like “yeah, turn left at Andre’s gas station, then make a right at Florian’s farm, then make a hard right after Gaston’s old treehouse. If you see the old red pickup truck by the side of the road, you’ve gone too far.” Only it’s in French.

Also, some islanders got filthy rich during Prohibition. Canadians sold plenty of Canadian whiskey to Americans. But it was, in fact, illegal under Canadian law to sell alcohol to Americans in quantity. But you know what wasn’t illegal? For Canadians to sell whiskey to French people. In 1931, the islands imported a total of 1.8 million US gallons of whiskey from Canada … for population of around 4.300 people. Almost all that liquor was bought by American smugglers who’d sailed up from New York or Massachusetts  or even Virginia. Prohibition was a golden time for the island.

But there’s dark stuff, too. Saint Pierre and Miquelon was the scene of the only known execution by guillotine in North America. A man named Joseph Néel was found guilty of murdering a Mr Coupard on Île aux Chiens on December 30,  1888 and executed 8 months later.  He probably would have been executed earlier, but the guillotine had to be shipped from France’s Caribbean outpost of Martinique. And it was damaged in transit, so authorities had to find someone to fix it. A few more weeks then passed as no local wanted to do the actual execution part of it. A recent arrival was coaxed into it on August 24, 1889. The whole sordid story is the subject of the 2000 film The Widow of Saint-Pierre starring Juliette Binoche. The guillotine still exists and is now in a museum on Saint-Pierre.

OMD

View this post on Instagram

OMD

A post shared by Jim Cofer (@jimcofer) on

View this post on Instagram

Andy McCluskey looks and sounds FANTASTIC, y'all!

A post shared by Jim Cofer (@jimcofer) on

Random Fact #1604

As you probably know, the Internet works because of something called DNS. Computers only communicate via a numerical IP address, like 64.233.177.113. People are, of course, terrible with numbers. DNS acts as the Internet’s phone book, translating human-friendly domain names like “google.com” into the IP address your computer needs to connect to a site.

While domain names have been around longer than you might think, the idea really isn’t new, though. When telegraphs were the thing, a company, person or organization could set up a telegraphic address. Like a domain name, people could address telegraphs to FORD or STDOIL and they’d be passed down the telegraph lines until someone who knew the actual address sent it to its final destination. Just like domain names and trademarks, telegraphic addresses were a valuable property, and were fought over when companies split up. Competitors even bought addresses similar to legit ones, like COKECOLA or COCOCOLA.

A few companies and organizations are named for the previous telegraphic address.

Interflora rose to fame by using telegraphic (later, telephone) lines to send flower arrangements anywhere in the country. In the pre-Internet days, if your uncle on the other side of the country died, it was difficult to find a florist on in that area on your own. Instead you’d send the order from a local florist via Interflora, who’d telegraph an in-network florist near your uncle’s funeral home… for a cut of the money, of course. Which is kind of a good example of how this whole system worked.

Interpol, the international crime-fighting agency founded in Vienna in 1923, was originally known as the International Criminal Police Commission. It later changed its name to its telegraphic address. So if you wanted to squeal on someone, you just send a telegram to INTERPOL.

Oxfam, a charity founded at Oxford University, but with independent branches all over the world, was founded as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief in 1942, initially to help fight the famine in Greece due to its Axis occupation and the Allies’ retaliatory blockade during the war. OXFAM was, of course, it’s telegraphic address.