COOL GADGET: Autowit Batteryless Jump Starter

[‘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 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!

NIFTY GADGET: CANZ Bluetooth Speaker

The funny thing about gadgets is that sometimes you buy them thinking they’re going to change your life… but they don’t. And sometimes you buy them on a whim, and they do change your life.

It’s probably a stretch to say that 808 Audio’s CANZ Bluetooth speaker “changed my life”, but it was an impulse purchase that I ended up being very pleased with. See, the missus and I have a Sam’s Club membership, and we go there every couple of months to pick up the same six items: bacon, gallon-size tea bags, generic Benadryl, lotion, and a few other things. We were there a few months ago when I spotted a display of Bluetooth speakers on sale for $19.99. I figured at that price, it wouldn’t be a big loss if it sucked.

CANZ speaker
(picture via

But the thing is, it doesn’t suck. Yes, the speaker tries way too hard to put out bass, and yes it rattles so much at higher volumes that it slowly moves across tables, desks and anything else you put it on. At high levels the sound becomes quite distorted. But at moderate levels the sound is quite good, and the Bluetooth works well. I’ve had no trouble pairing it with my new iPod nano, my Asus MeMo tablet, or my Samsung phone. The speaker is smaller (much smaller) than a drink can, so you can have Bluetooth-enabled goodness everywhere you go!

I carried it on a couple of trips, and it was nice having music in the hotel room. I sometimes take it downstairs to listen to when doing household chores, too. But the awesomeness of the thing didn’t really hit home until I carried it to a local brew shop.

If you’re not into the whole “craft beer thing”, you might not know that there are beer stores out there that have sofas and tables, and the owners encourage people to stay a while and enjoy themselves, much like how cigar shops have long had comfy sofas and newspapers lying around so customers can relax for a while. But the thing is, many of these craft beer stores have a BYOE policy: bring your own entertainment. I took my Android tablet and this speaker to a local beer shop one night, and had a GREAT TIME passing the tablet around and letting my friends queue up tracks in Spotify. It was downright magical, really, and it was all possible thanks to this speaker. Sure, there are tons of better Bluetooth speakers out there, and there are many speakers in the same small form factor that sound better. But you won’t find them for $19.99. In fact, you probably can’t find a better bang for your buck anywhere!

Don’t just take my word on it: PC Mag says pretty much the same thing: there are better Bluetooth speakers out there, but you won’t find them in such a small size for so low a price.

NIFTY GADGET: Braun M90 Mobile Shaver

I’ve worn glasses since the 4th grade, and so I’m intimately familiar with all the minor annoyances that come with wearing them. There’s falling asleep in them and waking with a mess of twisted metal on your face. There’s playing sports and the fear of a baseball destroying your glasses. There’s rain: I could never work on one of those Deadliest Catch boats, ‘cos I’d have to stop and clean my glasses every 14 seconds. There’s even being careful what you order at a restaurant, ‘cos you don’t want to accidentally get spaghetti sauce or fried chicken grease on your glasses (even though I usually carry glass wipes, you can be sure that the day I forget it is the day I get kung pao sauce all over my glasses!)

One of the biggest annoyances for glasses wearers is shaving. My vision’s so bad that I can’t shave at a sink without glasses. But if I do wear glasses, there’s a good chance they’ll get covered in shaving cream. I could shave in the shower, but I’d need one of those anti-fog mirrors with magnification. This also takes extra time, something I don’t normally have in the morning. That’s why I became such a fan of electric shavers. No shaving cream is required, so I can shave with glasses on and not make a mess. And if I’m running late… hell, I can shave in the car!

But electric shavers have their own set of problems. The “block and foil” (the bit that actually cuts your beard, and the thin piece of metal that covers it, respectively) need to be replaced every 12-18 months or so. Replacements usually cost $25-$30. It’s not a huge expense, but it’s an annoying one. But the big kick in the ass is the battery: most electric shavers use a very uncommon Ni-Cad battery that must be soldered into the unit. It’s not a matter of just popping in a fresh set of AA batteries. You have to: a) order the battery online, take the shaver apart, take the old battery out, solder the replacement in and then put it all back together again; or b) send the shaver somewhere to have someone else do it.

Most repair shops charge $30-$40 to replace a battery. And since hardly anyone actually repairs things locally these days, you’ll most likely have to ship it somewhere, which is probably another $10. And should you need to replace the block and foil at around the same time the battery dies (a common thing), you’re looking at something like $65 to $80 to replace consumable parts on a shaver that probably only cost $79.95 to begin with. It’s kind of like how you can buy an inkjet printer for $39.99 these days, but replacing the ink cartridges costs $65.

I got a Braun shaver a couple Christmases ago. It works fine… except for the battery. I can get two shaves (barely) before the “low battery” light comes on. I used to be able to use it for a whole week before needing to charge it. Irritated at this, I decided to look for a new shaver, one with user-replaceable batteries. And believe it or not, there don’t appear to be any… except for “mobile shavers” or “travel shavers” – tiny units designed to fit in a glove box or weekend bag with ease. Since I’m a big fan of Braun (except their batteries), I went with the Braun M90:

Photo by Amazon

The shaver takes two AA batteries, which you install by twisting the bottom of the unit and pulling the cover out. A built-in cover swings open to reveal the shaver; the cover also locks the ON\OFF button in place, preventing you from turning it on accidentally. The M90 also features a hair trimmer, seen on the left in the picture (it doesn’t normally stick out like that; Amazon slid it out for the photo). There’s even a nifty brush tucked in to the bottom of the shaver!

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A Worthy Upgrade

“Hi, my name’s Jim, and I have a flashlight fetish.”

It sounds strange, but it’s true. Every time the missus and I go to Lowe’s or Home Depot, I have to check out two things – the spray paint aisle, and the flashlight aisle. I’m fascinated by all the different types of spray paint they have these days (I’m sooo tempted to paint my desk with the chalkboard spray paint!). I’m also fascinated by all the different types of flashlights.

It might seem odd, then, that I currently only own two flashlights.

The first is an Inova X5 LED flashlight I got for Christmas a few years back. It’s pretty boss. It’s made out of “aircraft aluminum” and is almost indestructible. And its multiple LEDs are bright as hell. The downside is that it uses odd size batteries (123, if you’re curious). These are relatively expensive at the few places that carry them (Energizer brand 123s are around $10/pair at Walmart and Lowe’s, although Lowe’s also carries the Sure Fire brand that are only around $4.75/pair). So I’m somewhat loathe to use the flashlight for an extended period of time, given that I’d have to find a store that carries a range of camera batteries to get replacements.

My other flashlight is an old AA Maglite. Maglites need no introduction; I’m sure there are few Americans who haven’t at least seen one, if not own one. They’re built like tanks and are reliable as hell. I don’t even remember when I got my Maglite, but I know I’ve had it for at least 15 years. But while it’s cool that the Maglite takes common, easy to find AA batteries, the light it puts out seems kind of wimpy compared to today’s LED lights.

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REVIEW: “A Death in Belmont”

Writer Sebastian Junger – author of such popular books as Fire and The Perfect Storm – grew up in the suburban Boston town of Belmont, Massachusetts. From an early age, Junger knew that a woman was murdered in a house not too far from his own, but his parents always glossed over the details when he was a boy, and Junger eventually forgot all about it.

That is, until one day, years later, when he came back to his parent’s house for a visit. He was going through a box of family memorabilia and came across this picture:


The photograph shows a one year-old Junger sitting on his mother’s lap in the family’s living room. Behind his mother, Ellen, is an elderly handyman named Floyd Wiggins. Standing next to Wiggins, and directly behind the Jungers, is a man named Albert DeSalvo, although you probably know him better as the Boston Strangler.

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RETRO REVIEW: Lectric Shave

Lectric ShaveYou know the old saw in films and television about the little girl who gets into her mom’s makeup and tries on all her clothes? Little boys do that too (hopefully with their father’s stuff, though). I know I did.

When I was a little boy, my Dad’s vanity was a wonderland of colognes, balms, creams, combs, sideburn trimmers, and all kinds of exotica. More than once I played “Daddy getting ready for work”, and one thing I’ve always remembered about that was his Lectric Shave.

Lectric Shave is a “pre-shave balm” for people that use electric razors. It’s supposed to lube your face, making it easier for the razor to glide over your skin, and it supposedly makes your facial hairs “stand up” for easier cutting. It’s something that’s been around for years, but I hadn’t thought about it until I saw a commercial for it a few weeks ago. On a following trip to Wal Mart I saw a small bottle of the stuff and decided to give it a try.

Guess what? It works! After using it for a couple of weeks, I can absolutely say that I get a better shave using Lectric Shave then I do without… and with less effort, too! It really does lubricate your skin, and that really does make shaving easier.

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REVIEW: “Hard Candy”

Madonna - Hard CandyHard Candy is Madonna’s 11th studio album. Will it be an instant classic (like Ray of Light or Confessions on a Dancefloor) or will it be an instant bomb (like American Life)?

Honestly, in this “true blue” fan’s opinion, it falls somewhere in between. I like much of the music, but Madonna’s lyrics (never that great to begin with) could really use some work. What made Ray of Light so great was that we got a peek behind Madonna’s veil; the lyrics were heartfelt and real. This honesty continued on Music, but had largely disappeared by American Life, where Madonna tried (and failed) to skewer George Bush, Hollywood, and other aspects of “American life”. by Confessions, she’d mostly gone back to doing straight pop music, which was a relief. Which sounds hypocritical, I know. On the one hand, I want her to stay away from political messages and other “deep” topics, yet on the other hand I criticize her for writing “silly” pop tunes. But it’s deeper than just that. Sure, Madonna isn’t known for being a deep thinker, and her songs work better when she shies away from such things. But that doesn’t mean that she has to rehash the same lyrics again and again. Check out these lines from the new album’s opening track, “Candy Shop”:

All the suckers are not all we sell in the store
Chocolate kisses so good
You’ll be beggin’ for more
Don’t pretend you’re not hungry
I’ve got plenty to eat
Come on in to my store
‘Cos my sugar is sweet!

Hmmmm. Fine, I suppose, but not much different than anything else she’s written over the years.

You’ve probably heard the next track on the album – “4 Minutes” – so I won’t waste a lot of time on it. Suffice it to say that although I don’t dislike the song, I’d probably like it better if it was someone else singing it, not Madonna. Is that weird? Does that many any sense? I will say one thing: I hate it when the artist of a song is mentioned in the lyrics (which is one of the many reasons I hate rap music). I don’t know why… it just gets on my nerves.

“Give It 2 Me”, the third track on the album, is one I actually like a lot. It loses much of the Timberlake \ Timbaland \ Pharrell Williams \ Kanye West influence and sounds more like something Stuart Price would have done.

“Heartbeat”, the fourth song on the disc, sounds suspiciously like something Nelly Furtado would do… and, let’s be honest here, Furtado would have done it better.

The fifth track – “Miles Away” – is a bit more downtempo than the others on the album so far. Although it has a nice beat, the somewhat spartan music – mostly an acoustic guitar, with some synths thrown in for good measure – the song just seems slower than the other tunes on the disc. It’s also an interesting tune in that it seems written directly to Madge’s husband, Guy Ritchie. Many of the songs so far contain a few hints of trouble in the Ritchie marriage… but this one seems aimed directly at Guy:

I just woke up from a fuzzy dream
You’d never would believe those things that I had seen
I looked in the mirror and I saw your face
You looked right through me, you were miles away…

As if that weren’t enough, the next track – “She’s Not Me” – is directly written to a man that’s having an affair on Madonna:

She started dyeing her hair and
Wearing the same perfume as me
She started reading my books
And stealing my looks and lingerie

I just want to be there when you discover
You wake up in the morning next to your new lover
She might cook you breakfast and love you in the shower
The thrill is momentary, cause she don’t have what’s ours

She’s not me
She doesn’t have my name
She’ll never have what I have
It won’t be the same
It won’t be the same

Wow. Bitter much? The song’s pretty good (I’m not a fan of the “love you in the shower” line).

The next song, “Incredible”, also sounds like something Nelly Furtado would put out, but it works much better than “Heartbeat”. It’s an infectious tune, one of those songs you crank up on the car stereo but carefully turn all the way down when you cell phone rings. You just can’t help but get the song in your head for hours at a time… and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Beat Goes On” is the 8th song on the album. It’s got a nice, “bouncy” bass line… but is sounds too familiar. For reasons I cannot fully explain, it almost sounds like an updated outtake from Erotica or Bedtime Stories. It’s pretty decent, but is ruined for me by the background vocals.

“Dance 2night” is a nice (if forgettable) throwaway pop tune. It really reminds me of a 70s disco\R&B tune – especially the bass line, which actually kicks ass. It’s like Chic came back to life for one song!

The 10th song on the disc – “Spanish Lesson” – couldn’t be a bigger Furtado rip-off if it tried, with hip-hop influenced percussion over “Spanish style” acoustic guitars. It’s not… bad, but I’ll probably skip this tune when I listen to this album in the future.

The 11th song – “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” is the album’s “hidden gem”. It’s slow and introspective, with a nice melody, accentuated by piano\synths. It’s a really nice track, so it’s sad to see it burned so far near the end of the disc. If I were in charge of the track list for this album, I’d move it to just after “Miles Away”. Seriously, listen to this song.

The final track on the album “Voices” might as well be a B-side. It’s decent enough, but not good enough to write more about here.

All in all, it’s a better album than I had feared it would be. Any time I see the words “Madonna” and “urban” in the same sentence, it’s usually a sign of awfulness. It’s also a bad sign when Madonna “hooks up” with the “latest and greatest” producer (like Timbaland, in this case). Notice that the best Madonna albums happen when Madge picks a DJ or producer out of relative obscurity (like Stuart Price for Confessions or William Orbit for Ray of Light). She should always stick to her won instincts, rather than do “what’s cool at the moment”…. which I guess is my main complaint with this album.

It seems to me that Hard Candy is Madonna’s blatant attempt to “black up” herself in order to win back a US audience. Confessions was a huge hit in almost every country but the U.S., so I guess Madonna thinks that getting Kanye West to sing backup will help her gain fans here. And I suppose she’s smart to think that. The album is actually pretty decent (even if I’m not especially excited about it as I was for her past few albums). Just like a loyal puppy, I’ll stick with her through this “phase”, and I’m guessing most of her hard core American fans will, too. So she can essentially release this album “risk free”. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like that she’s hanging out with Justin Timberlake and Kanye West.

REVIEW: DiGiorno Ultimate Pizza

I am a sucker for food descriptions. When I go out to eat and am handed a menu, my brain instantly clicks off and I’m almost unable to decide between the “juicy USDA Prime ribeye steak, topped with melted bleu cheese” and the “grilled boneless chicken breast marinated in lime juice and tequila and topped with a Monterey Jack sauce”. Everything sounds so good that I focus on how it would taste. I lose all of my rational thinking and revert back to some primal state . It’s bizarre, I know. Most people probably do it to some degree, by I always seem to go overboard with it.

So, as you might imagine, my “eatin’ brain” went in to hyperdrive when I found out about DiGiorno’s new line of “Ultimate Pizzas”. I found out about it from a food website, and my mouth started watering the instant I read the description for the “Four Meat” pie:

Capicolla ham, julienne-cut Genoa Salami, sausage and pepperoni, along with a sauce made from crushed vine-ripened tomatoes, as well as whole-milk mozzarella cheese…

I just about couldn’t stand it! I had to find one of these pizzas, and I had to do it soon! Sadly, though , they simply weren’t to be found here in the Charlotte area. I checked the local Bi-Lo and Wal Mart stores and even had the missus check the Harris Teeter close to her work during her lunch break one day. No dice. I had almost given up hope, but then the missus decided to buy a chest freezer one weekend. Although the main reason we got it was to have more room in the kitchen freezer, we had plenty of space for new stuff, so we went to Wal Mart to see what kind of frozen foods we could fill the new freezer with. And lo and behold… there in the pizza section… was the new DiGiorno Ultimate Pizza!

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REVIEW: “Amélie” DVD

What: A 2-DVD set of the 2001 Jean-Pierre Jeunet film
Where: Stores Everywhere!
How Much: $29.99 MSRP; I paid $19.95 at Wal Mart


It’s rare to hear the phrase “blockbuster French film”, but last year Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie stormed America’s shores to become one of the top-grossing foreign-language films in U.S. history. And it’s not hard to see why – Amélie is without a doubt one of the sweetest movies of all time. The achingly adorable Audrey Tautou plays Amélie Poulain, a shy and sheltered young girl who remains perpetually single. We see the world through the innocent lens that is her heart, a world in which she tries to fix the problems of all of those around her. Whether trying to pull her widowed father out of his self-imposed exile, bringing together two lonely people at the café where she works, bringing a invalid neighbor out of his shell or exacting her revenge on a green grocer who’s mean to his slow (but sweet) assistant, Amélie’s quixotic mission of spreading happiness forms the basis of the film. Then – thanks to a chance encounter with a beautiful stranger – she realizes that her own life needs the same love she’s spent so much time and effort spreading to others.

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REVIEW: Catch Me If You Can

What: The amazing book that inspired the Steven Spielberg film.
Where: Bookstores Everywhere!
When: Though out of print for years, now available anywhere.
How Much: $10.47 at Amazon

What is it about “elegant crime” that’s so appealing to us? I don’t think anyone ever dreams about being a violent criminal, but I – and a lot of others out there – feel a pang of jealousy and\or envy when I watch movies about complex jewel heists or art thefts. Somehow using your wits, cunning and a bunch of high-tech gadgets is appealing and darn-near sexy in the commission of a crime, yet sticking up old ladies at ATMs is appalling. Most of us at some point in our lives cheered for – and maybe even wanted to be – Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair or Robert DeNiro in The Score or Gene Hackman in The Heist. But what if the best crime story you ever heard was actually real?

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