All posts by ccrook

Vaping: A Success Story

Per the advice of a co-worker, I purchased my first vaporizer in an effort to quit smoking.  He set me up with the same rig he had and walked me through the number of variables involved in setting up a vape properly.

That was over two months ago and I haven’t looked back.

Since that time, additional research has come out regarding vaping and as more information comes out, I believe I’ve made the correct choice in moving from cigarettes to vaping, and I consider the arguments against vaping to be largely nonsense.  My experience with vaping also makes me question the wisdom in attempting to get people to quit smoking via pharmaceutical means like Wellbutrin and Chantix, both drugs with which I have had poor experiences.


I had picked up smoking as an unfortunate habit while partying in college; then, it became a stress crutch when studying for finals.  I first started smoking Camel Lights, then moved to Camel Wides and Turkish Silvers with an occasional pack of Marlboro Reds (aka “Cowboy Killers”) or unfiltered Lucky Strikes, and finally to Marlboro Smooths.

Once I was finished college, moving into the real world and starting at a new job,

Previous Attempts

When e-cigarettes first came out, specifically the Blu brand e-cigs, I figured I’d give them a shot, despite not knowing what was necessarily in them ingredients-wise.  This first attempt was unsatisfying — the flavor wasn’t great from the e-cigs, especially as a menthol smoker, and I found the vapor to be harsh and left be coughing.  Early on, the ability to control nicotine levels with any level of granularity didn’t exist, and the e-cigs themselves were expensive — even more so than cigarettes.

My roommate had tried another re-fillable vape (possibly an EVOD if I recall correctly) but it didn’t seem to put out enough power to, again, provide a sufficient vaping experience.

The Tech

At the suggestion of my co-worker Brent, I picked up a Kangertech TopBox Mini Starter Kit, two batteries, and a charger on Amazon.  For the record, I don’t have any relationships with the companies that make these products, other than being a customer myself.  The total cost came to about $115.

The batteries and charger are recommended as not all batteries of that format and size will be able to output sufficient amperage to power the vaporizer.  I’ve confirmed this with two batteries bought at RadioShack (charging circuits removed) and they only work at certain wattages, and only when fully charged.  The charger is a good idea as there is no smart-charging functionality built into the vaporizers charging circuit itself, meaning it can damage your batteries or even possibly cause a fire if left unattended for a long period of time.  I generally charge my batteries overnight and one will typically last me a full day (or very close to a full day).

Now that I’ve covered the capital investment component of vaping, I’ll move on the on-going expenses.

“E-Liquid” or “Vape Juice”

Vaping has a number of consumable involved, but the most obvious is the nicotine-bearing “juice” or “e-liquid”.  This comes in a huge number of flavors, and one can even make their own juice by purchasing the component parts.

But Chris, what about safety?!  Most juices contain only a small number of ingredients: vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, nictoine, and flavorings.  Given that both vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol have such other uses as being the suspension agent for inhaled asthma medications and are used in both foods and theatrical smoke machines, my concern from these substances are pretty low as they are generally regarded as safe.  There are some unknowns to the effects on the lungs of inhaling pure nicotine, since pretty much every study has been in the context of tobacco consumption, rather than inhaled nicotine in isolation.  The largest unknown, though, is the long-term effects (if any) of inhaling flavorings.  At least artificial butter flavoring enhancer (diacetyl) for popcorn, which is known to cause “popcorn lung”.  This existed in some marketed savory flavored juices and was promptly removed once the connection was made.  Given that the flavorings are “generally regarded as safe” by the FDA for consumption in foods I believe the risks are relatively low.  When looking at the opportunity cost (the alternative) which is, unfortunately, going back to smoking actual cigarettes, I think this is an acceptable risk compared to the very well-known dangers of smoking.

My “everyday vape” juice of choice is the award-winning “Lemon Ice” from Mister E-Liquid.  It has a touch of menthol (the level of which is adjustable when ordering) which satisfies the “cool” feeling I was used to from smoking menthol cigarettes.  I also figure that this cooling sensation is part of what makes the vaping experience feel realistic to me.  There is something to be said about the number of variables involved in a given juice for how it vapes — the ratio of PG to VG, the nicotine level, and the amount of menthol.

I found 12mg and 18mg juice (measured per milliliter) to be far too harsh to be pleasant to vape (I describe the nicotine sensation as a “scratchiness” in my throat, which I think anyone who has ever tried nicotine gum can relate with), even though it is a nicotine level analogous to the amount of nicotine I was getting from smoking a pack a day.  Once I dialed this back to to 6mg/mL, I had no problem.  Since then, I’ve stepped down to 3mg/mL, and will be stepping down to 1.5mg/mL in my next order most likely.  So to re-cap, I’m not consuming any of the 3000-4000 other chemicals that exist in cigarettes anymore, including a number of carcinogens, I no longer am having my lungs coated in tar, and have dialed back my nicotine consumption to about half of what it used to be (3mg * 4mL per day = 12mg nicotine, versus ~20mg/pack I was consuming before).

I’ve also found the juice that I purchased to be far, far less expensive, on a nicotine content basis, than cigarettes.  My calculation was that with 135mL of 6mg juice, my per-pack equivalent cost was about $1.10, instead of closer to $8 per pack in the Maryland/D.C. area.  The best part is that no one is able to bum a cigarette off my anymore, which also saves me money (I frequently gave cigarettes to people that asked).  People don’t even bother asking anymore once they see that I’m carrying a vape!


There are a number of materials that coils can be made from — kanthal, stainless steel, nickel, titanium, ceramic, etc.  There are also a number of coil designs — vertical vs. horizontal, twisted, “claptoned”, helixed, etc.  People will mix materials on occasion.  It certainly makes a difference in the vaping experience, but for the beginning vaper, I would say the easiest thing to do is use pre-built coils from the manufacturer (the Kangertech kit I got came with a couple different types of coils which can be used with the temperature control mode of the vape).

Once you know that vaping is for you, then it may be worth exploring other material types and consider using the RBA (re-buildable atomizer) that the Kangertech kit comes with, but I’ll save that for another blog post.


I couldn’t be happier with the choice to move to vaping from smoking actual (or as we now call them at work compared to our digital e-cigs: “analog”) cigarettes.  I’ve tried smoking one or two cigarettes since, just to see if there was anything missing from the vape experience in terms of buzz, but I really just found the taste to be disgusting.

My fiance is happier now that I don’t constantly smell like smoke, and we’re both happy that I’ve taken steps towards mitigating my risk for lung-related disease in our future.  Short of any new studies coming out that indicate vaping carries its own set of risks that approach anywhere near the level of risk tobacco use, I find any attempt to discourage vaping as a means to get people to stop smoking to be ill-conceived as it is certainly an effective means of harm reduction.







Baltimore City: IMSI Hell

After The Sun revealed massive use of IMSI catchers in Baltimore City over the 8 years, I decided to try to FOIA BPD.  Well, first road block is that their submission form online doesn’t even work.  The SMTP server is jacked up.  Further, the CAPTCHA code at the bottom of the page never changes and can be copied and pasted.

The idea that an NDA that a private company forces a police department into trumps court orders is utterly insane and must be stopped.  Many of the claims made in the NDA do not hold up to scrutiny anymore either, so I’m considering it null and void on those grounds and intend to take this to court if necessary.

Here’s my request:

Dear Custodian of Records,

I am writing, pursuant to Maryland Public Information Act laws and regulations, that any and all usage of IMSI/IMEI catcher, cell phone tower simulators, or devices similar to models known as “Stingray” or “Hailstorm” devices be provided.

This information should include how many times devices were employed and whether or not a warrant was obtained for their use, and if so, which judge authorized such warrants. No information that would be exempt under seciton 3 (Court Rules) is requested, just a broader amount of counts of use, and number of warrants broken down by which judge ordered them.

Separately, any records derived from the above devices that include my IMEI number (REDACTED) are also requested to ensure my privacy has not been unduly invaded in the course of business by Baltimore City Police’s excessive use of the aforementioned devices over the past 8 years.

Further, I request to know if Foxtrot (BPD’s helicopter) is capable of carrying an IMSI/IMEI/Cell phone simulator/stingray/hailstorm device, and if so, whether it has been employed.

Further, I also request information pertaining to the number of the aforementioned devices the Baltimore Police has purchased, and at what cost.

I expect this request to be honored individually among its parts rather than approved or denied wholesale. Information may be provided through digital or hard copy (digital preferred). If the cost exceeds $50 please contact me.

This request is not exempt from the Maryland Public Information Act as the NDA entered into by Baltimore City Police with Harris Corp is unlawful in that it is at odds with the public interest and prevents me from determining if my Constitutional right to privacy was violated. There is no non-public information about these devices and the counter-party to the NDA does not even hold a patent to such technology, as it is the same technology as a cell phone tower, thus no trade secrets or confidential information can possibly exist.

Thus, the non-disclosure agreement regarding the equipment is invalid, and as a basis of denial of records and court orders to that effect is purposefully deceptive and unlawful. Now that the public knows these devices have been in use for 8 years, the NDA’s claims to protecting the lives of officers is no longer valid, nor is the claimed benefit of concealing information valid any longer as the public is aware of such devices and actions by the police. The conclusions drawn no longer hold.

In the event any part of this request is denied, the requester intends to fully invoke the remedies in the Maryland Public Information Act to the fullest extent, up to and including holding the custodian of records legally accountable for improper denial.

Looking forward to your response,
Chris Crook


Should be interesting to see if I get a response.  Had to guess some email addresses – apparently webmaster and legal got through.  Next step: Building a mesh network of counter-detectors.  If they won’t give me the information, I’ll find a way to provide it.

Catching IMSI Catchers: Part 1

I had picked up a GSM/GPRS shield for my Arduino a while back without any specific plans for it — I just thought it would be cool to have a project in the future that was able to communicate wireless over the Internet for either report purposes or to react to events (texts, tweets, etc).

After reports came out regarding local law enforcement’s use of IMSI catching devices like the Harris Stingray, I decided to start experimenting with the shield as means of at least detecting the use of IMSI catching devices.  Since I believe in the balance of power between law enforcement and citizens, and strongly believe in privacy rights,  I wish there were countermeasures (blacklisting after discovery?) that could be developed, but perhaps that is the next step after accurate detection of the devices in the first place.  The project is still under development, but so far here are my assumptions and how they figure into my plan of action.

Assumptions & Background Knowledge

IMSI catchers generally broadcast an extraordinarily strong signal in order to ensure that target cell phones in the area opt to connect to it versus other, real, cell phone towers.  This means signal strength analysis is important to identifying an IMSI catcher.

Further, most, if not all IMSI catchers interrupt service to some degree.  Since they aren’t part of the true cell phone network, typically issues arise when receiving calls and/or texts.  This information should also be possible to leverage during the IMSI catcher identification process.  I’m thinking an SMS notification service like Amazon’s SNS could be useful in this case to have the Arduino trigger texts to itself (since data typically still operates even when connected to an IMSI catcher) and see if they are actually delivered in a timely manner or not.  This could indicate whether the Arduino is connected to a false tower.

We also know there are multiple physical deployment options for IMSI catchers, from stationary devices, to ground-based semi-mobile (i.e. surveillance vans), to airborne (i.e. drones & specially equipped planes (with assistance from the CIA).  Since may of these can be mobile, I think my detection of the devices will have to be from stationary position(s) such that it is possible to detect the movement of the “tower” through signal strength changes and/or triangulation.

It may also be an interesting exercise to toggle through a number of directional antennae (or a single, rotating directional antenna) to see if the direction of the tower or IMSI device could be deduced, potentially leading to the ability to confront and shame law enforcement personnel utilizing the device (say, from a surveillance van) against innocent individuals’ devices (i.e. my Arduino “phone” which has never even made a call).

Out of convenience, and for lack of an adapter for my phone’s existing nano SIM card, I picked up a prepaid GSM SIM from the local Dollar General for about $10 for the kit, and $35 for the first month of service.

Next Steps

I plan to get acquainted with the GSM shield and commands to see what I need to do to create a device that can alert to and log the presence of potentially fake GSM towers, preferably with GPS coordinates marking the location of detection, and possible base station locations.

More to come as this project progresses.  I also recently picked up an RTL-SDR device that should allow straight up spectrum analysis in GSM frequency ranges, so that may change the direction of this project as well.

Since novel legal techniques are being used to suppress information regarding the use of these devices by law enforcement (non-disclose agreements between law enforcement and the manufacturer, which somehow trump Constitutional concerns, WTF?) it is time for this citizen to take matters into his own hands to at least reveal the extent of surveillance being performed on the average American using Stingray-like IMSI capturing devices.  It has become clear from the Snowden revelations that the court system cannot be relied upon to protect citizens, or even to provide information with respect to FOIA requests.  The only alternative is to play the same game the government is playing, utilizing technology, but play it back harder in order to force transparency in these programs.

On Curiosity

I tend to have a breadth of interests from which my hobbies spawn:  computer science, finance/economics, welding, construction, electronics, coins, cooking.  The common theme that ties them all together is that they rely on an understanding of how things are built or created.  I have a thirst for knowledge about how things work in the world around me — I love learning new stuff about how a product operates.  This curiosity is probably the biggest driver in the personal projects I take on, from repairing my own plumbing after a burst pipe, to building an ugly Christmas sweater that lights up and plays music.

The reason I feel these things are important, besides being interesting to me, is that it allows an individual to be much more self-reliant in a number of areas. Frequently, too, there is overlap or transferable skills between two subjects interest.  Sometimes this overlap leads to really great “mashups” where concepts from one subject area flow into or are applicable to another.  These sort of mashups are from where innovation often spawns.

What amazes me is how few people share that genuine curiosity about the world, or at least the drive to learn and discover more about it.  It is just amazing to me that, with the wealth of information we have at our finger tips, that there isn’t a concerted, individual effort towards expanding upon one’s base of knowledge.   Instead, I frequently encounter people who are actively committed to ignorance, when I either start talking about how something works or suggest they look it up.  Even when it comes to something as trivial as cooking (that thing we do to take raw food to a processed state for consumption, which originally expanded our food offerings in ancient man by allowing humans to eat previous unsafe foods, which then allowed our brains to grow due to a better diet), I know many people who are paralysed even with a recipe, because “I don’t know how to cook!”.  Well, have you ever tried looking up any of the techniques in a recipe?  Watched a YouTube video on knife skills?   Done anything at all to remedy that hole in one’s personal skill set?  The answer is usually no.

We focus very much on educational outcomes in this country, typically based off math and reading test scores.  Such a focus on metrics seems to have purged the educational system of a lot of that curiosity and drive for knowledge.  I don’t know what the solution is that will make people want to learn more — it is a matter of “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.”, except we are now all horses surrounding an ever-expanding trough that is capable of intellectually hydrating every one of us.  Scarcity has effectively been removed from knowledge — we no longer rely on purely academics, or on physical books.  We can copy and send a wealth of information around the world in a number of keystrokes.

Yet, so many Americans are content watching sports, the next episode of “Married at First Sight”, the Kardashians or binge-watching House of Cards.  The irony being that a very large number of these same Americans aren’t content with their economic circumstance, yet with this wealth of information available to anyone with a smart phone or connection to the Internet, so few even attempt to engage in ad hoc learning on their own.  I imagine some of it is a fear of failure, but failure is requisite to success.  Without it, success cannot be defined.

With each failure (perhaps a meal that is edible, but you wouldn’t serve to guests) comes knowledge gained and lessons learned for the next time one engages in the activity at hand.  Over time, aggregate successes and failures are what makes up knowledge and expertise.  Mix two things with clashing flavors?  You just discovered a new way not to make a meal.  The next time you won’t repeat that combination.  Implement some piece of software inefficiently and performance ends up suffering?  You’ll be more performance-cognizant on the next app.

Comparatively, what does consuming huge amounts of purposeless TV get you?  Pop culture trivia facts, and small-talk points with other people who spend their time that way.  There is little innovation that can spawn from this sort of thing since it basically is regurgitation of content.

I guess it’s time I end this rant before I become an old man and start yelling at kids to get off my lawn.  In all seriousness though, I wish there were a better way to convey that personal success often hinges on personal hobbies and interests.  If you’re not pursuing something worthwhile that increases your wealth of applicable knowledge, then you’re stagnating;  it may not even be apparent that it is helping you towards some future goal, but in the aggregate it may assist you.   I’m not saying turn off the TV and pick up a book (it’s rare that I read actual books any more); I’m suggesting folks contemplate how spending their time and whether it has value.   I understand sometimes there is a need to relax and do mindless activities, but it shouldn’t be an everyday occurrence.

Unleashing Economic Growth

Kickstarer.  SeedInvest.  GoFundMe.

Let’s ask ourselves why crowdsourcing exists.

Answer: Because of regulations against normal people raising capital to bring new products to market is restricted if you simply want to see shares of your new enterprise; you need high net worth individuals to invest privately.

As demonstrated by Bain Capital’s retirement accounts, private equity can be extremely valuable; restricting this to already-high net worth individuals inherently concentrates wealth further.  If we allowed normal individuals to invest in private enterprises, some of that wealth could be spread around.

The argument that high net worth rules exist to protect investors is absolute bullshit.  Having a high net worth says absolutely nothing about your ability to choose future investments and not be defrauded.  Speaking of fraud, which is presumably what these private investment regulations tries to prevent, we already have laws making fraud illegal.  There is no sense in restricting investment further when fraud protection already exists in the form of other laws.

Let’s remove the hindrance to commerce that Reg. D and allow any individual to own private shares of a company.  General solicitation should be allowed to firms of all size.  Some people will lose money, some people will make out fantastically.  Worried about fraud so much?  Stick to publicly-traded companies and traditional investments, but do not make that choice for me.

Considering how FUBAR the publicly traded markets are at this point, I’d like to see normal investors like myself be given the option to choose how to invest in smaller, local enterprises.

Welcome to the Unsecured Credit Bubble

Can we admit we’re in an unsecured credit bubble yet?

Here’s a shot of all of the offers I received over the week of New Year’s in the mail. This is a fairly typical week:

  • Amex – Year of Amazon Prime + $20,000 points
  • Citi – 0% on Balance Transfers & Purchases for 15 months
  • GM BuyPower Card: 0% APR on purchases for 12 months
  • Discover: 0% APR for 18 months on Balance Transfers or $0 Balance Transfer fee

Granted, I have pretty good credit – a score of around the mid-700s.  But I receive non-stop offers for credit despite having nearly as much unsecured credit available to me as my annual salary; more than half of the credit required to pay off more than half of my house.  And I still get additional offers!

Even someone I know who had to deal with collections agencies in the last 5 years (including balance write-offs) receives multiple credit card offers each week as well.  I think we’re witnessing the peak of the unsecured credit bubble.  It is complete insanity.

Used responsibly, however, I’ll gladly take money from someone offering me an effectively free short-term loan (“I’ll gladly pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today.”).  But ultimately, one has to be responsible with their use of credit and make sure there is a payment plan setup to pay off the balances before the begin accruing interest; typically American’s aren’t very good at this part of things, which is what the credit card companies are banking on.

However, if too many Americans take these offers and take them too far, we could see an implosion of consumer credit as these offers expire (especially if rates have risen 18 months from now).  It could get REALLY ugly for the American consumer that drives ~70% of the U.S. economy in about 2 years from now.  Perhaps I’ll start looking into buying some puts on credit card and financial companies 2-ish years out…

Non-Confidence: Why Joan Pratt can’t be Trusted with Oversight

While I will give credit to Comptroller Pratt for personally calling me to provide me the details of Frank M. Conaway, Jr’s resignation from his mail room job, my admiration for her immediately ends there.

I have, as I write this, submitted a FOIA request to the Office of the Comptroller as well as Baltimore City Office of the Inspector General in order to ensure timely compliance and production of all requested records.  A copy of the FOIA request is attached to the post with my personal contact information redacted.

My concern with how this investigation and subsequent outcome was handled stems from several different issues, the first of which is the simplicity of the investigation involved.

This investigation should have taken all of 48 hours at most.  To verify whether or not these videos were taken within the mail room would have taken significantly less than that.  Whether or not they were created using city equipment or on city time would take slightly longer.  Considering the metadata analysis I performed previously, while I cannot confirm they were *recorded* during City time, it is abundantly clear at least one video was published during city time.  This is why I am FOIAing the details of the investigation — there is significant public interest into how Ms. Pratt conducted this investigation and drew the conclusions that were released.  Given the body of evidence I have discovered without access to 1) Mr. Conaway himself and 2) city offices, it appears malfeasance did occur with respect to City time.

The second concern I have is with Comptroller Pratt’s on-the-record statements to the Baltimore Sun regarding Mr. Conaway:

Pratt said he was a “good employee” and the videos were the only instance she knew of where he had behaved in a questionable manner. “I’m sorry to see him go,” she said.

Considering the original Baltimore Sun piece contains the following:

Conaway declined to say where he filmed the videos, but said it was not “a professional environment” and not the City Hall mail room.

We now know that both of these statements are, in fact, absolute lies.  So we have the Comptroller who presumably was made aware of such false statements made to the media in the course of her investigation, who then ultimately allows Mr. Conaway to resign rather than be fired, and in the process effectively praises him, while suppressing all of this until Mr. Conaway’s re-election bid was finished and in the bag.

That absolutely reeks of corruption.

Not to mention, we have a Delegate representing our district who has demonstrably lied to the media and public regarding his behavior.  This must absolutely be considered an ethics violation and I urge any sitting delegates to begin expulsion proceedings of Frank M. Conaway, Jr. from the Maryland House of Delegates on these grounds.

So, in the course of exposing the tale of Mr. Conaway, this story now expands into the tale of Comptroller Joan Pratt and the blatant corruption of Baltimore City politicians and the steps they will take to protect their own while shafting the rest of us and turning a blind-eye to malfeasance and fraud perpetrated by officials at nearly every level of government.

I will continue to use any and all resources at my disposal to expose corruption, graft, fraud, dishonesty, and stupidity at absolutely every level of the Baltimore City government.  Information is my weapon, an honest and transparent government is my goal.

While I have never been particularly politically active in the past, this has pushed me to action and I hope others join me and Adam Meister in this endeavor to save The Greatest City in America from the political class that actively undermines it.

Conaway Back for Term 3


Despite a valiant last-ditch effort by Shawn Tarrant, Conaway still managed to pick up 13k votes, compared to just over 3000 for write-in candidates (presumably largely Tarrant).

Disappointing.  I only wish I had found the videos sooner than I did so there could have been more time to spread the word!

Looking forward to following up with the Comptroller today to see if her investigation has been completed (consisting of literally checking work schedules and looking in the mail room – because that takes days to complete…).

Conaway Update 3: Investigation Update

Just spoke with Baltimore City Comptroller Pratt and she assured me that a thorough investigation was taking place and it should be completed “by early next week”.

My guess is that means after the election, but we shall see.  I would imagine it should be fairly easy to walk around City Hall and locate the filming location, if it is indeed on premises…

Awaiting Responses From…

  • Baltimore City Comptrollers Office
  • Baltimore City Office of the Inspector General
  • State of Maryland Office of the Inspector General

Regarding investigations into:

  1. The timing of the publishing of Mr. Conaway’s YouTube videos (during work hours?)
  2. The location of the recording of Mr. Conaway’s YouTube videos

All offices were contacted between Friday 4PM and Sunday evening.