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My California ballot, 2020

Every election year, the Bay Area rationalists put together a slate to help each other vote. This year the coronavirus made it hard to come together as a whole community, so I'm drawing off the work of the Valinor group house in Oakland in particular. When I say "we" in this post, I mean the ~10 residents of Valinor - though this is my ballot and not theirs, I disagreed with them at a few points, and all views expressed are ultimately my own. I've changed a few things after the fact based on readers' arguments, so this does not perfectly reflect my actual votes.
This will be more relevant to Oaklanders and Californians than to anyone else. We are mostly center-left-libertarianish YIMBYs, and we trust endorsements from YIMBY Action and aligned local politicians like London Breed, Buffy Wicks, and Libby Schaaf. The less you agree with that political package, the less relevant this will probably be for you.
We put a few hours into this and weren't able to give every issue the attention and seriousness it deserved. For a more complete voting guide for the same area, see this one by Zachary Reiss-Davis, and the recommendations by YIMBY Action and SPUR.

California Ballot Measures

California propositions are a way for voters to go over the legislature's head and pass their own laws. Direct democracy is good in principle, but sometimes voters don't know what they're doing, and legislators can't repeal or amend a proposition that goes badly. Most famously, Proposition 13 was a Reagan-era initiative which hard-coded low property taxes into the state's constitution. This is good for homeowners, bad for everyone else (the state just makes up the difference with really high income taxes), and overall creates a weird system of epicycles and perverse incentives.
Hard-coding a law against the wishes of the legislature is a big deal, so we start with a strong (but overcome-able) presumption of "no" on propositions. The exception is propositions requested by the legislature to overturn previous propositions, or for other arcane reasons that require the legislature to request propositions.
Prop 14: Yes?
Prop 14 issues $5 billion in state bonds and gives the money to stem cell research.
This is pretty weird - the state government already has a research budget, and presumably already decided how much money to give stem cells compared to other things. There is not some kind of catastrophic stem-cell related emergency that requires the electorate to rise up and demand the state invent a completely new budgeting process just to fund stem cell research.
I think what's going on is - in 2004, stem cell therapy was new and super-exciting. The Bush administration banned federal funding for religious reasons, this was in the middle of the atheism-religion culture wars, and so liberal California decided to strike a blow for scientific freedom. They passed Prop 71, which gave $3 billion to stem cell research and made California a world leader in the developing field. After 15 years, they've run through the Prop 71 money and need more, so they figured they'd try the same thing again. But the Prop 71 stem cell research was mostly based on hype, which has since receded.
I originally urged voting "NO" on this, based on these considerations. I got push back from a stem cell scientist in the comments, but of course stem cell scientists would support this. But I also heard from some people at the Open Philanthropy Project that they have researched this super-in-depth, talked to various experts, and believe that the specific stem cell research being funded here is incredibly promising, so promising that we should set aside our presumption against ballot box funding and support it. On the strength of Open Phil's recommendation, I am changing my recommendation to yes.
Prop 15: Yes
This weakens Prop 13. Prop 13 originally restricted property taxes on a variety of properties. This repeals it for commercial and industrial properties worth more than $3 million, ie big business. I don't think we need a hard-coded super-law saying we can't tax big businesses.
Our presumption is to support propositions repealing other propositions, and this seems like an especially good one. Support. But see this discussion for the alternative perspective.
Prop 16: No
This is the nationally-newsworthy one that repeals the part of the California constitution banning racial discrimination and makes affirmative action legal again.
You all know my opinion on this sort of thing. Maybe I'm too emotional on this issue, but California institutions already seem pretty Orwellian. If you want to get a tenure track position at some California universities, you have to write a "diversity oath" where you swear that you support diversity and talk about everything you've done to promote it; applicants' oaths get graded, and only the ones that seem most heartfelt are allowed to enter the normal process where anyone even considers how good a professor or researcher you are. How many of history's most important thinkers would have had their careers snuffed out if this process had existed in their own time? I don't trust the sort of people who come up with this kind of thing enough to remove constitutional safeguards against them. Even if you're okay with discriminating for college admissions (the most likely use case), you would also have to be okay with the next form of legalized racial discrimination people will think up, and the one after that.
Possibly there's an argument for accelerationism here - the more obvious it is that college admissions aren't based on merit, the less employers will obsess over who has degrees from what college, and the more chance we have of breaking the stranglehold that $200K-tuition colleges and their lacrosse-obsessed admissions committees currently have on public life. But I would have to be more confident in this argument before actually voting based on it.
The California constitution's current ban on discrimination was itself passed by proposition in the 1996 election. That means there is no particular presumption against this, and maybe a presumption for it. I nevertheless oppose.
Prop 17: Yes
Felons are currently banned from voting in California. This proposition says they are allowed to vote after they complete their prison term. I'm not sure it's ethical or democratic to prevent people from voting just because they committed a felony sometime long ago. If you complete a prison term, you've paid your debt to society and should be in the clear. Also, I expect these people will have interesting things to say about prison reform once they're allowed to have a voice.
Although our presumption is usually to oppose propositions amending the constitution, this overcomes that presumption. Amending the constitution to give disenfranchised people the right to vote seems in keeping with the inherent solemnity of the constitutional amendment process, and isn't the kind of thing we hate where you legislate every little change in tax policy directly into the constitution just because you can. Support.
Prop 18: Yes
This gives 17 year-olds the right to vote in primaries if they will be adults during the associated general election. Sure, sounds reasonable, whatever.
Although our presumption is usually blah blah blah see above.
Prop 19: Yes?
This changes Prop 13 tax regulations (you may be noticing a theme). Currently, the government cannot raise your property taxes very much while you live in a house, even if the house increases in value. Once you sell the house to someone else, the government can raise the property taxes to market value. According to the current Prop 13 law, a child inheriting a house from their parents does not count as a sale; so if your grandparents lived in a house and leave it to you when they die, you will still pay however much tax your grandparents did (maybe an amount corresponding to the value of the home 50 years ago). Part A of this proposition says you can only do this for one property at a time. If you inherit twenty houses from your super-rich parents, you will have to pay normal-person taxes on nineteen of them.
Part B says that various sympathetic groups of people (elderly, disabled, disaster victims) can switch houses and keep their low taxes. Suppose you are an elderly person who raised a family in a big house in the city. Now your family is gone/dead and you want to move to a smaller house in a quiet suburb. If you got your current house 40 years ago, Prop 13 guarantees you will be taxed at its 40-years-ago value, ie very low, but if you get a new house it will be taxed at its current level, ie very high, and maybe you won't be able to afford it. This is a market inefficiency, since it incentivizes a single person to live in a very large house instead of giving it to others who could make better use of the space, so it effectively exacerbates the housing shortage. Current law already mostly addresses this by saying people in these sympathetic groups can move once. This law increases it to three times.
Last election cycle's Prop 5 was just Part B of this current proposition. It was sponsored by real estate companies, who are naturally very excited about solving market inefficiencies that prevent people from selling their houses and buying new ones. Lots of people opposed it because they were annoyed that it gave even more rights to homeowners chasing unnaturally low taxes. I abstained, because I couldn't decide how to balance the market-inefficiency-solving (good!) with the unfair-privilege-expanding (bad!). Overall voters rejected it soundly.
This proposition is the real estate industry trying again. They argue Part B will still solve a market inefficiency (and make them lots of money), but Part A will roll back another kind of unfair tax privilege we give homeowners, so the balance is more obviously good. The state budget people say that overall it will cause the state to have more money, so the real estate industry's claim that this tightens tax loopholes on net seems fair.
We had some disagreements on how to apply our presumption against ballot propositions, leading to the rest of us voting no on this. My position is that this should be considered only an amendment to an existing constitutional amendment, not a new one. So I see it as having a weaker presumption against it, and as managing to overcome that presumption. I support.
Prop 20: No
This makes California's criminal justice system stricter in various ways.
Existing law says nonviolent criminals can get out early on parole, but violent criminals can't. There is some controversy over the current list of which crimes are violent - for example, it seems like some rape and sexual offenses don't always qualify. Part A of this proposition replaces the old, supposedly-too-short list of 23 violent crimes with a new list of 51 violent crimes. The new list includes classics like "murder" and "assault", but also more questionable choices like "sodomy" and "mayhem". I'm going to give these people the benefit of the doubt and assume that sodomy here means nonconsensual violent sodomy, and that mayhem is a real crime of some sort somehow. I didn't get far enough into the weeds to determine whether this list is better or worse than status quo.
Part B of this proposition redefines some misdemeanors and "wobblers" (crimes that can be either misdemeanor or felony) as definitely felonies. These include firearm theft, car theft, and (most notably), shoplifting things between $250 and $950 (I think more than $950 is already a felony).
Part C says more kinds of criminals have to submit DNA samples to the state database.
This is a response to various past ballot propositions that have made California's criminal justice system more lenient in various ways, under the banner of "criminal justice reform" or "prison reform". It seems to be a joint effort between victim's rights groups who are angry that their abusers/assailants/whatever are getting out of prison too quickly, and retail groups who are angry that people keep shoplifting from them and mostly getting away with it. I have a few patients in retail, and they broadly back this up - they say people steal from them all the time, it really hurts their already-tenuous ability to stay in business, they see it happening, but they feel like nobody cares and there's nothing they can legally do about it. It sounds really unpleasant.
On the other hand, spending years in prison because you shoplifted a $250 fleece or something also sounds really unpleasant, California prisons are already overcrowded, and it seems especially worth worrying about this in the middle of a coronavirus epidemic.
My philosophy of criminal justice (which I think is supported by the evidence, but I'm too lazy to find and cite it right now) is that punishment should be swift, certain, and minor. A world where every shoplifter gets caught and immediately has to spend three days in jail is safer and fairer than one where 1% of shoplifters get caught and have to spend three years there. I don't think reclassifying minor shoplifting crimes as felonies is in the spirit of that, and I have a strong presumption against anything that increases the prison population.
I'm not sure how this fits into the presumption against ballot initiatives, since it's responding to previous initiatives, but still, oppose. See here for a somewhat different perspective from someone with retail experience.
Prop 21: No
The Costa-Hawkins Act was a 1995 California state law that limited cities' ability to pass rent control laws (though some types of rent control are still legal and common). Ever since then there have been various propositions trying to overturn it, most recently last cycle's failed Proposition 10. This time around there's Proposition 21, which is supposedly different because it exempts properties under 15 years old.
I am against rent control, because 95% of economists say it is bad for the poor and reduces the availability of affordable housing. But I'm also against the state government telling cities what they can and can't do. If you're a libertarian who's against regulation, how do you think about the electorate trying to regulate the legislature's trying to regulate cities' trying to regulate landlords' ability to set prices? Do you just count whether the sentence contains the word "regulate" an even or odd number of times? Last year I decided it was a tie and abstained. This year it's still a tie, but in honor of our general presumption against ballot initiatives, I'll just go with no.
Prop 22: Yes?
Last year California passed AB5, a law which reclassified most gig workers as employees. The intended targets were Uber and Lyft, who famously classify their drivers as gig workers rather than employees, exempting them from lots of labor regulations. The unintended targets were everyone else; for example, the state may have accidentally banned freelance journalism, photography, etc.
Uber and Lyft made some cosmetic changes and claimed the law didn't apply to them; California said it definitely did; it escalated to a point where Uber and Lyft threatened to suspend service in California; and finally it got tied up in court, with Uber and Lyft allowed to continue employing gig workers until a final decision comes down sometime next year. Prop 22 is backed by Uber and Lyft, and lets them ignore AB5.
I really hate AB5. It enshrines all the worst parts of the modern economy - inflexibility, you have to have exactly one employer who controls your entire life, health insurance is tied to employment, nobody can choose their own hours or working conditions. It throws independent professionals under the bus in favor of everyone having to be a corporate drone of the exact same government-approved kind.
And there's the libertarian aspect - it bans people from making mutually beneficial contracts on whatever terms they want, in favor of having to do things the exact government-approved way. If you look at any literature from before the 1970s, it shows that almost any able-bodied person who wanted a job could get one within a few days just by asking around and walking into the first place that wanted them. I don't know all the changes that led to our current dystopia of endless resumes, applications, and disappointments, but I suspect it was the government transforming employment from "sure, let this person do some work for you for a while" to "oh, you employed this person? now you have two thousand different obligations to them that you can never get out of". The government has tried to create a faux social services net funded by people's employers, but it turns out businesses are happy to have workers but less happy to have social service dependees. The solution is for the government to fund its own damn social services and stop hanging more and more things on the employer-employee relationship.
But Uber and Lyft are great. Some of my mentally-ill patients who could never get an official employee job at a fast food place or something now have jobs with Uber and Lyft that they can feel really proud of and use to support themselves or supplement support from the government or their family. Anyone who's taken an Uber or Lyft knows that they're the first destination for new immigrants who get excluded from traditional employment. Or you've probably also met the single mothers who say they were never able to have a job before because they needed to be home at X, Y, and Z time for child care, but now that they're gig workers who can choose their own hours it's let them get back into the workforce and help support their families. It really feels like the same sort of situation you read about in pre-1970 books - a place where anyone, even if they're poor or disadvantaged or foreign, can get a job and earn an honest living for themselves in a way that the rest of the economy has completely dropped the ball on. I want to support these people, and the only polling I know of suggests most ride share drivers support Prop 22.
And Uber and Lyft have also really earned my trust and respect. Five years ago I worked in a clinic that wasn't on any of the public bus routes. Some of my poorer patients didn't have cars, and it would take them hours to get to my office, and sometimes they would miss some crucial public transportation step and not be able to make their appointments at all. Sometimes if they were desperate they would take a taxi, which would charge them through the nose and take its sweet time getting there. This was right when Uber and Lyft were expanding to Michigan, I was usually the first person to tell them about it, and it changed some of these people's lives. It's really easy for privileged people who own their own transportation to dismiss ride-sharing as a luxury, but if you don't have a car, you used to have severely limited mobility. Now you can get anywhere in town for a quick $5 Uber ride.
In a world of quickly-closing opportunities, Uber and Lyft are this rare bright spot, where uncredentialled blue-collar workers excluded from most positions can get flexible jobs with whatever hours they want, and where poor people who were previously locked out of most of the world can get anywhere they need to be for cheap. So of course California is trying to destroy them. It's the most California thing ever to California.
So I should support something like Prop 22. But the proposition itself is pretty bad. Uber and Lyft carve out exceptions for themselves while leaving most of AB 5 intact. This is a pretty naked power grab by ride share companies that does nothing to help all the other groups affected by this bill, and some commenters are suspicious they'll find ways to use it to quash competition (though I'm not clear how). Although it solves part of the immediate problem and appropriately humiliates the California legislature, it's also a cynical ploy by Uber and Lyft to trick Californians into giving them what they want while leaving everyone else to rot. If it passes, the legislature might give up and repeal AB5, but the proposition might also just placate the only powerful AB5 opponents (ride shares), making any further opposition to AB5 impossible. Maybe the most important thing a yes vote here could do would be prevent other states from trying the same thing.
Presumption should probably be against, although I feel like letting the voters explicitly veto an unpopular law is less inappropriate than random interest groups making random new regulations by ballot box. I did vote yes on this, but after reading the comments here I'm no longer sure of anything, except that I hate everyone involved and would totally understand either choice. See here for another argument against.
Prop 23: No
This proposition places extra regulations on dialysis clinics, for example forces them to have a doctor or NP present at all times. I am generally suspicious of regulations to increase cost of and decrease ability to provide medical services, and a lot of these "doctor has to be present" things end with some heavily-credentialed doctor drawing a salary to do crossword puzzles while the nurses who actually know what's going on do the real work.
A previous version of this guide assumed this was a cash grab by medical guilds, but I owe them an apology - the California doctor's associations are against this - which actually says a lot, since they stand to profit. Patient associations and nurses' associations also oppose. It's unclear who does support this - all I can find is a big service employees' union, but I'm not sure what their interest is.
And there's our presumption against ballot initiatives again. California already has medical regulators, and they didn't see fit to enact this. The federal government has regulators and they didn't see fit to enact this. Why should dialysis regulations go before 40 million Californians who probably have only the vaguest idea what a kidney is or why having one fail is bad? Oppose.
Prop 24: No
This "amends consumer privacy laws" to "permit consumers to prevent businesses from sharing personal information".
I have a strong presumption against consumer privacy laws after the disasters that were HIPAA and GDPR. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the privacy watchdog I trust most, doesn't support this one. Oppose.
Prop 25: Yes!
This replaces California's money bail system with a system based on trying to predict flight risk, like Washington DC successfully uses. Money bail systems keep lots of innocent poor people in jail (and some guilty poor people in jail longer than necessary). It also causes some people who would otherwise be found innocent to plea bargain in order to get out of jail before various disasters befall their job or family. Flight risk prediction systems have been shown to avoid these problems without causing a noticeable uptick in criminals who escape justice. See this blog post I previously wrote on the topic. Some people I know in the effective altruism movement are pretty in support of this.
The legislature has already passed this, but the bail industry somehow got it on the ballot instead. This proposition affirms the decision of the legislature, rather than overturning it, and so the presumption should be in favor, which is convenient because I'm in favor of this. I put an exclamation point at the end of this one because I think it's probably the most important measure on this year's ballot; if you only take my advice on one of these, make it this.

Oakland/Alameda County Ballot Measures

Measure Y: No
This issues $735 million in bonds for schools. Oakland's school district already spends above the national and state average per student, and has a reputation for mismanaging funds. These funds would mostly go to repairing administrative buildings, the least sympathetic category of school budgetary problem. Also, I kind of want to destroy the entire modern educational system for complicated reasons. Although I realize rejecting Oakland school bonds is at best a minor victory in this crusade, it's probably better than supporting them.
Measure QQ: Yes
This lets children age 16 and up vote for school-related officials; currently it's 18 and up. As with Proposition 17, I support letting incarcerated people vote in ways that might let them do something about the system incarcerating them, so yes. Also, who names these things? QQ? Really?
Measure RR: Abstain?
Currently fines for ordinance and code violations are capped at $1000; this measure lets the city increase that. This affects both minor "street crimes" like littering and graffiti, and more building-y crimes like not keeping things up to code.
I previously said "no", on the grounds that I am against "tough-on-crime" style bills that try to increase fines poor people who already don't have the money to pay existing fines. But ZRD's guide argues this is supposed to punish big polluters who can't be effectively punished under the current system. I can't find anything in the proposition itself to indicate this, so until I learn more I'm going to abstain.
Measure S1: Yes
How come this one has a 1 after it? How come the measures go Y, QQ, RR, and S1, in that order? Is the Oakland city council trying to communicate with us in some kind of deranged code? Anyway, this slightly rearranges the way an independent monitoring body monitors Oakland's police force.
The city recently had a close call with defunding the police, but as far as I know this isn't really related to that effort. This is related to a law passed a few years ago, during the Ferguson fallout, saying there would be an independent commission monitoring the police. Apparently the law was poorly specified and confusing, and this measure is supposed to be a common-sense clarification of how it works. It is "supported by all eight city council members", and my usual sites that list arguments pro- and con- are unable to find anyone willing to write the con side of this one. Maybe if we ever cracked the code of Oakland ballot numbers we would get the secret case against Measure S1. Until then, support.
Measure V: Yes
This renews an existing utility tax on unincorporated areas, to fund the utilities of unincorporated areas. This seems fair and everyone I check seems to support it, so sure, whatever.
Measure W: Yes
This increases sales tax by 0.5% to fund social services for sympathetic groups, especially homeless people. There are a lot of homeless people in Oakland, they clearly need help, and studies show supporting homeless people tends to save money in the long run (though if this were true, wouldn't this measure be a tax cut rather than a tax increase? Hmmmmmm). Oakland has no particular record of catastrophically mismanaging pro-homeless funds. And I've already rejected other tax increases this election, so I feel like in order to maintain the cosmic balance I should support this one. Support.

National Races

US President: Biden
I'm against Trump for the same reasons I was last time, plus everything that's happened in the past four years - of which the worst of a bad lot was the bungled response to the coronavirus. Trump also refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, which should be disqualifying in itself even aside from everything else.
California isn't a swing state, so I considered voting Jo Jorgenson as a gesture symbolizing I hate the two-party system. But I decided instead to vote Biden as a gesture symbolizing I really hate Donald Trump. I'll vote Libertarian on some irrelevant downballot race to make up for it.
13th Congressional District Representative: Lee
Barbara Lee is the incumbent. We disagree with her on many things, but in 2001 she was the only member of the House of Representatives to vote against invading Afghanistan. We appreciate this kind of prescience and willingness to defy the mob, so we have instituted a presumption that she gets our vote for life unless there is some super-strong counterbalancing consideration.
Her opponent, Nikka Piterman, doesn't seem very serious - unsurprising since serious people don't run as Republicans in the Bay. But let's take a moment to appreciate his website, including proposals to split California into two states, implement the metric system, and create a spaceport in the center of San Francisco Bay. Also, he's pretty hot. If I batted for the other side and didn't already have a committed voting relationship with Barbara Lee, who knows?

State And Local Races

15th State Assembly District: Wicks
Buffy Wicks is the Democrat and the incumbent (which in the Bay Area are kind of the same thing). She's an Obama admin veteran, and a YIMBY advocate who briefly made national news for appearing postpartum with her newborn to vote on housing on the California Assembly floor after they wouldn't let her vote remotely. We continue to support her and appreciate her vampire-slaying work.
Sara Brink (independent) is the challenger. Her webpage begins "This race does not matter", which is a bold opening move. It says that "We live in a trash democracy and a bullshit two party system" so she has abandoned all hope of winning the race, and instead of voting for her we should start working on prepping to resist an upcoming wave of violent white nationalist repression. I appreciate the reminder that this is still the Bay Area and I still live here for some reason, but overall I pick the friendly Democrat with the cute baby.
9th State Senate District: Dluzak?
Nancy Skinner (D) is the incumbent. She gets good scores from YIMBY Action and we generally like her. She is broadly popular and a shoo-in to win re-election.
Her challenger Jamie Dluzak is a Libertarian; the GOP didn't even bother with this one. His website is unreadably bad, and boasts of deliberately having the world's ugliest political bumper sticker, because "they say that to try to fail is the underpinnings of success" (who says that? why?). He is a little unclear on what policies he supports, though his site suggests he is broadly in favor of black people, and I assume he is libertarian in some way.
I said I would symbolically vote Libertarian in a meaningless down-ballot race, and this one is my chance, so Dluzak it is! Your preferences may differ.
Oakland City Council Member At Large: 1 Sidebotham, 2 Kaplan, 3 Johnson
Rebecca Kaplan is the incumbent. YIMBY groups have mixed feelings about her, not exactly denouncing her but liking her opponents better. She's also a pretty strong opponent of Uber and Lyft. And I get the impression she is some kind of nemesis of Mayor Libby Schaaf, who we like. Meh.
Derreck Johnson superficially looks better. He has full support from YIMBY groups, is endorsed by the local politicians we like (Libby Schaaf, London Breed, Buffy Wicks), has the (extremely generous) support of Uber and Lyft, and boasts an inspiring story as a small business owner who founded a beloved local restaurant, hired formerly incarcerated people to work there, and navigated it through the COVID crisis. Unfortunately, a recent expose reveals that he does not in fact own the restaurant. He lost it in 2017 for financial malfeasance issues, including taking some of the restaurant's money for himself. All his claims to have owned the restaurant after that time have been lies. Seems really sketchy.
Nancy Sidebotham is an outsider with an extremely 90s website. It's unclear what she supports besides being outraged, a goal she has accomplished reliably over a sixty year career of being vaguely adjacent to civic life. She could charitably be described as a protest candidate, but luckily for her, I really feel like protesting these people!
My ranked choice voting is 1 Sidebotham, 2 Kaplan, 3 Johnson.
Oakland City Council District I: 1 Kalb, 2 Walton, 3 Ngo
Dan Kalb is the incumbent. I start out with vaguely negative feelings to him because he sends me junk mail flyers, but the rest of us have vaguely positive feelings because he was instrumental in getting bike lanes on our local roads. According to his website, Oakland Magazine named him the “most effective member of the eight-person Council", and East Bay Express named him "Good Government Politician Of The Year". He has endorsements from Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin.
Steph Walton is the main challenger, but fails to distinguish herself. Her website says she likes good things, like equity and is against bad things, like homelessness, but her proposed policies and plans seem like the same vaguely leftie ideas everyone around here has about everything. She does hit all the right notes about housing, and has endorsements from Buffy Wicks and YIMBY Action.
Tri Ngo seems like a protest candidate, though his website is actually quite good. His most unusual issue seems to be government transparency, including "an online voting system that enables residents to propose and vote on council measures...with kiosks in post offices and libraries".
Some of us are voting Walton based on her endorsements, but I don't feel like she was able to overcome my presumption for voting for Kalb as an unusually successful and widely-liked incumbent.
Alameda County Transit Director At-Large: Peeples
The Mercury News suggests reelecting all current transit directors, because they seem to be doing a good job, and also the coronavirus has been a disaster for public transit and they need experienced hands to guide them through financially. So I'll start with a presumption of reelecting incumbents unless I see a good reason otherwise.
The incumbent here is H.E. Christian Peeples. I want to take a second to appreciate his amazing name and its combined monarchist/theocrat/populist vibe. I can't find a campaign website, but all the newspapers endorse him, say he has done a good job, call him a financial wizard. Articles about him use the word "competent" like it's going out of style, and praise his role in an apparently revolutionary environmental initiative to run buses off fuel cells.
Dollene Jones is running to become the first transit worker to serve on the transit board - she's a former bus driver. This is her sixth attempt. She is inspiring and sympathetic, but East Bay Times warns that she sees "district issues strictly from a labor perspective and her role, if elected, as an advocate for the drivers". Given that the Bay needs better public transportation and the unions are part of the challenge that has to be overcome, I'm ruling her out.
Victoria Fierce is the most interesting candidate, and has a great website with cute graphics and excitingly wonky plans to improve transit in various ways. She's a YIMBY, and she's clearly thought a lot about the transit system and identified the most important and solvable problems, like the lack of comprehensible transit maps, and the need for a good Trans-Bay service. She seems probably closest to me in terms of tribal affiliation, and she might be the only person on this whole ballot who I predict I would like in a "would enjoy a conversation with her" way as opposed to a "has an inspiring backstory" way. On the other hand, she describes herself as a "radical socialist" and seems to think part of a public transit's department job is destroying individualism. In general her oeuvre makes me kind of worried that if she ever gained office she would identify me as a counterrevolutionary and arrange to have me get hit by a public bus, or whatever else power-mad transit directors do.
Like the people of 1930s Spain, Oakland transit voters are faced with a choice between monarchist-theocratic-populism and radical socialism. In this case, I don't think the challengers manage to overcome my presumption in favor of the incumbent, so I'm going with Peeples.
Alameda County Transit Director, Ward 2: Harper
Harper is the boring incumbent who nobody has anything particularly against. Daily Californian says he "has served on the AC Transit Board fairly well for 16 years".
Jean Walsh is the challenger. Her website supports the usual things about how she wants transit to be better, but fails to differentiate herself from Standard Candidate #X in any particular way.
I don't see anything to overcome my presumption in favor of the incumbent, so Harper.
I’m reaching the Reddit character limit, so I’ve stuck BART director, school board, Superior Court Judge, and City Attorney in a followup comment.
submitted by ScottAlexander to slatestarcodex

A Deep Dive into Nikola's FCEV Design and Price Model

Hey everyone. I'm a mechanical engineering student with a hobby interest in finance. I've spent the last few days figuring out if Nikola's leasing model is actually possible. There's some really wacky stuff going on in Nikola's presentations and financial projections, and I wanted to share my findings.

This is an absolute wall of words, and I wouldn't be offended if you didn't want to read it all. In the first half, I try to tease out the cost per mile of an actual Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) given the specification Nikola lists. Next there is a portion where I look at the discrepancies between their Financial Projections and their Lease breakdown. Then a quick little peanut gallery where I look at their unrealistic assumptions and the hypocrisy of their comparisons. Finally, a more serious portion where I discuss the design, efficiency, and utility implications of Nikola's chosen power output and battery capacity. Hope you guys enjoy!

Let's get started:
Nikola claims that they have the industry first holistic leasing program, including maintenance, fuel, and use of the vehicle. They plan on leasing for $.95 per mile @ 30% margin. This implies an expense of $.73 $.67 per mile to Nikola.
Hydrogen costs:
According to the DoE, it currently costs $5.10/kg to produce, compress, and dispense hydrogen. Nikola claims they can do this for $2.47/kg. I highly doubt their estimate, and will elaborate on that later. Hydrogen has a specific energy 33.3 kWh/kg. A Fuel cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) has an average thermal efficiency of 55%. A diesel semi tractor, which easily compares to Nikola’s offerings, consumes about 1.25 kWh of work per km (or 2.125 per mile) of useful work loaded.
This implies the Nikola truck will use 3.86 kWh of hydrogen per mile, at a cost of $0.59 per mile, or $.29 using their estimates. The DoE estimate could be pretty rosy as well, Hindenburg cited a practical price of $16 per kg for hydrogen in their report. Nikola’s estimate in the leasing breakdown is 7.5 miles per kg of hydrogen @ $2.47 per kg. That works out to $.33/mile. Our estimates are pretty close, excluding hydrogen costs. It looks like, in a surprising twist, they actually overestimated the energy consumption of a tractor. Or maybe not. We’ll get to that
ICCT Tractor-Trailer Fuel Consumption: https://theicct.org/sites/default/files/publications/EU_HDV_Testing_BriefingPaper_20180515a.pdf
Why do I doubt their hydrogen cost estimates? $2.5 per kg implies $.075 per kWh of hydrogen produced The average price for Industrial electricity in Arizona, the state they are headquartered in, was $.068/kWh, some of the cheapest in the US. Of course, there isn’t a 1:1 conversion of electricity to hydrogen: an electrolyzer uses about 50 kWh per kg of hydrogen ( specific energy of 33.3kWh/kg), making the electricity expense alone in excess of $.10 per kWh of hydrogen. Electricity must also be used to compress the hydrogen. This would take another ~4 kWh, though we’re already over budget. God forbid they use California electricity at an average cost of $.15 per kWh. The electricity expense for the Electrolyzers alone exceeds their estimates, much less depreciation expense, cost of capital, maintenance expense, salary expense, etc. Clearly a bogus number.
I suppose they can use renewable excess during off-hours for cheap, but the rapidly decreasing costs of energy storage will likely level out those low prices rather quickly. This also only works in Arizona and a select few other states; California not included. There is the issue of a startup paying to build huge electrolyzers that might have a utilization factor of ~30%, and additional high pressure storage will be needed. The abhorrent upfront capex needed to try and drive down operating costs is not viable for them.
EIA electricity prices nationwide: https://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.php?t=epmt_5_3
NREL H2 cost analysis from 2011. This is just about the most recent research I can find. The abject lack of new material tells me it’s not exactly a hoppin’ field: https://www.nrel.gov/hydrogen/production-cost-analysis.html#fn3
Fuel Cell costs:
Part of the reason there are currently so few FCVs on the road today is the limited service life of a fuel cell. Fuel cells are precision manufactured components that degrade quickly when jostled & vibrated too violently. This is not good when combined with the rock-hard suspensions of semi tractors.
The DoE targets a useful life of 150,000 miles for a fuel cell. Currently, there is no information confirming this target has been met. A Toyota Murai comes with a 100,000 mile warranty on its FC. For the sake of argument, I will assume Nikola FCs can meet this target. The DoE targets a cost of $40/kW for fuel cell production in 2020, provided mass hits 500,000. This hasn’t happened yet, but I will again assume this to give Nikola the best chance. As an aside: Nikola’s decision to use exclusively GM FC technology in their Badger pickup indicates to me they have nothing “up their sleeve” to make the technology more viable, despite my optimistic assumptions.
I’ll assume the Nikola Two’s Fuel cell is 500 kW, less than the 750 kW claimed output. I think it likely their horsepower claim will be a peak power figure only achievable when the motors draw on the battery & FC. I cannot confirm this, because Nikola does not list the output of their motors and FC separately (along with myriad other questionable, or lack of, claims). I think this is reasonable, considering FC thermal efficiency is maximized between 20% and 30% load, and a semi will average ~90 kW of useful work required on the highway, translating to ~170 kW of FC usage. This is near the peak efficiency band of a PEMFC. This assumption also allows steady-state operation at 66% of the “rated” output. This implies an upfront cost of $20,000. A targeted useful life of 150,000 miles implies a depreciation expense of $.13 per mile.
NREL Stack Durability and Performance vs load chart: https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy19osti/73011.pdf
Battery costs:
Using BNEF 2023 battery cost estimates of $100/kWh, that equates to $25,000 of battery expense. Assuming a useful life of .25M miles, more than any existing warranty currently covers, that results in a depreciation expense of $.125 per mile.
Chassis and the rest:
Lastly, I extrapolated an FCEV COGS of $175,000 per truck from their Financial projections, minus the $45,000 of equipment already listed, and a 15% scrap value I pulled out of my ass to try and help nikola here, leaves $104,000 depreciated over 700k miles, or a $.15 depreciation expense per mile.
Maintenance costs:
Nikola assumed a $.061/mile maintenance cost. Any engineer should be able to see such a claim and immediately question it. Tires alone should account for $.03 per mile. That leaves…. $.031 for brakes, air lines, HVAC, wiring, electrical equipment, motors, inverters, those battery and FC expenses I already calculated, sensors, etc. They make no additional provisions for the battery/FC in their leasing breakdown. Pure, unadulterated bullshit. The ICCT puts BEV per mile maintenance at ~$.19/mile. How they squeezed 70% of those costs out, as an unproven startup, by going for a more complex FC-BEV hybrid is beyond me.
Cost of trucking: https://www.thetruckersreport.com/infographics/cost-of-trucking/
Nikola Leasing cost breakdown, p19: https://d32st474bx6q5f.cloudfront.net/nikolamotouploads/investopresentation/presentation_file/5/NikolaInvestorRoadShowPresentation042720.pdf
Leasing Conclusions:
Adding their laughably low per mile maintenance expense of .061 + .15 + .125 + .13 +.59 gives us an aggregate $1.06 per mile expense for Nikola. Using their fuel expense estimate of $.29, this equates to $.76; still more than their projected gross expenses. The first estimate is 50% over they need for their claimed 30% gross margin at $.95 per mile. Note: I used a projected battery expense, projected FC service life target, and projected FC production expense. None of these have been met. I used the average resitive forces acting on a US tractor-trailer, which appear to be lower than the number Nikola uses. I did not include warranty expenses in my estimate. Additionally, these are EXPENSES, and includes 0 profit for the suppliers of these parts. The GM-Nikola deal clearly shows there will be little vertical integration in their production, and such allowances would have to be made.
A more reasonable estimate, including a still optimistic 3% interest expense for truck capex, a .4% annual warranty expense (corresponding to their presented 3% estimated reserve). That reserve, btw, is very optimistic: Tesla used a higher reserve on the S for years, while building a simpler product with a warranty length/distance a literal order of magnitude lower than the Nikola truck. A *STILL* low maintenance expense of $.12, and a 10% margin for battery & FC production, we end up with an $.92 per mile expense, or more than Nikola can afford, even when using their untenable $2.5 per kg hydrogen estimate. This is before G&A expenses. Their leasing business model is not possible.
Lease Projections v. Income Projections: Internal Chaos or Outright Fraud?
It’s possible some of the folks at Nikola have already found those problems out, though. Nikola says they have plans to Lease their trucks. They’ve had presentation slides including the idea, and their truck descriptions on their website include a leasing plan. In their most recent presentation at the DB Global Auto Industry Conference in June, however, the Leasing cost breakdown slide was conspicuously missing. Their Financial projections slide showed 2,000 FCEV trucks being produced in 2023, and 470 million in revenue from FCEV sales. This represents $235,000 per truck, and their FCEV revenue scales exactly linearly into their 2024 projected sales; no room for residual from the 2023 trucks. They’re projecting to sell them! Revenue from maintenance and Hydrogen sales are also listed separately. Their Financial projections clearly show the upfront sale of trucks with additional Hydrogen fueling and maintenance revenue, and the leasing model slide has disappeared. It’s easy to see why. Their projected combined expenses and capex exceeds $7.5 billion through 2024, significantly more than their current $1 Billion in assets and a couple of lease payments would allow for. This would take some intense share dilution (not something I think Trevor would be on board with) or extremely expensive leverage.
It’s not like they’re going to get cheap loans secured against their proprietary trucks, requiring their proprietary stations, to run only their customers’ preset routes. A bank wouldn’t want that kind of collateral. The leasing idea is a real mess.
Nikla DB presentation, projections are 2nd to last page: https://d32st474bx6q5f.cloudfront.net/nikolamotouploads/investopresentation/presentation_file/7/Nikola_and_VectoIQ_Conference_Presentation_DB_Global_Auto_Conference__6.10.2020_.pdf
One can claim that the lease model is still in the description of the trucks, but so are battery and fuel cell specifications for the Nikola one. The Nikola one was, ostensibly, never actually powered by hydrogen, and development has since been abandoned. It looks like their leasing Idea may have been abandoned as well.
I’ll also point out that an expected 2024 FCEV maintenance revenue of 56 million on 7000 trucks sold, assuming an average of 50,000 miles per truck sold in 2024 (the average mileage if the trucks are sold at a constant rate through the FY) and 100,000 per truck in 2023, equates to 12.4 cents per mile, more than double the $.061 projected maintenance costs in the april lease presentation. Either they plan on making a killing from maintenance, or there was some aggressive re-shuffling of numbers when maintenance went from an expense to revenue stream, or vice versa.
The same analysis of hydrogen expenses puts their per kg revenue at $4.08. Still low, but a hefty sum above their $2.47 cost average on the leasing slide.
If we use their projected FCEV maintenance revenue of $.124, $4.08 per kg H2 revenue, and $235,000 truck price depreciated over 7 years w/no interest expense, the cost of ownership, according to their income projections, is $1 per mile for a 100,000 mile year. More than they say a diesel will cost. OOPS!
That’s most of what I wanted to talk about. It’s pretty clear that Nikola cannot possibly make a profit with their lease model, and Nikola’s finance department has indirectly acknowledged this. Hydrogen tech is still many, many years away. Nikola’s move fast and break things approach (though I’m not convinced we’ve seen much moving outside of gravity assists) will end up a “move fast and bankrupt things” strategy.


I now want to take a few moments to look at some of the sillier things I found in my research:
In a laughably exuberant turn of events, Nikola projects 25% gross margins during their first year of production. That’s downright cute! They plan on, ostensibly, slapping GM FCs & batteries on IVECO platforms, and beating the margins of all publicly traded auto companies sans Ferrari within a few months of production start. It's that easy. Get your shit together, Ford!
On Nikola’s website under their trucks, they have a comparison of FCs, BEVs, and Diesel where they seem to forget their trucks have hundreds of kWhs of battery storage onboard. They claim “Hydrogen acts as a buffer and grid balance,” while “batteries are a drain on the grid.” You heard it hear first, folks, batteries can’t be used as a grid buffer, only a grid drain. They also claim H2 is the “most abundant element on the planet,” while “Batteries [are] made of non-renewable resources; dangerous/costly to mine.” Makes me wonder why they chose to put so many on their trucks. Also hilariously hypocritical, considering Platinum -required for PEMFCs- is one of the rarest metals on earth.
Design considerations and odd choices:
I want to take a moment to talk about chassis design and the implications of Nikola’s set power parameters. And I want to start with a quote from Elon Musk during the Tesla Semi reveal:
“We designed the Tesla truck like a bullet,” Musk said. “A normal diesel truck is designed like a barn wall.” The Tesla Semi is more aerodynamic than a $2 million Bugatti Chiron sports car, he said.
A bold claim, but I believe this to be correct. Cheesy, but correct. Why? Cooling requirements. The more cooling air you need, the less favorable aerodynamics you’ll have. In the simple representation of an engine, there is a fuel input, a work output, and a heat output. A gas engine -especially one not designed with fuel efficiency in mind like the Chiron’s- will likely only output ~20-25% of its fuel input as a work output. The Chiron makes 1,500 hp, and needs to reject 4,500-6,000 hp of heat at full throttle. The goal of a Chiron isn’t to slip through the air, au contraire. It’s designed suck in as much air as possible for cooling and brute it’s way to 270 mph through raw horsepower. Most modern sedans have more favorable aerodynamics than a Bugatti.

On the other hand, about 90% of the inputs from an EV charger make it to the wheels -- a major factor that makes EVs so efficient. This means Elon can put, for example, 1000 hp of motors in his truck and only worry about rejecting 100 hp of heat at full load, an easy task. That’s less cooling than a Prius needs, and the truck can be designed with virtually zero air input constraints. He can swing his “3x the acceleration” dick around, and the only tradeoff is beefier driveline bits for the extra torque and bigger motors.
C_D lists on wikipedia: Note almost every production car below Cd=.24 is either a small displacement diesel or electric. No supercars in sight. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automobile_drag_coefficient
The Chiron’s standard Cd is .38. A 1995 ford windstar minivan has a standard Cd of .35. Not exactly a prestigious club, haha:
Hydrogen is a different story. The thermal efficiency of a FCEV -above 50% load- will dip down into the 40-50% range. The average efficiency of a diesel truck is ~45%, and it will dip to ~35% at max rpm, full load. ‘Ever seen the video where Trevor says the production trucks won’t need as much cooling as their current prototypes? He’s lying through his teeth. A 1000 hp FC would need more than 1000 hp of cooling; as much if not more than a 500hp diesel. It's also important to note that less heat is lost in exhaust from a PEMFC, and lower operating temps mean that actual cooling airflow required is significantly more than an equivalent diesel would require. 500 hp diesels are already built like a brick with a front aftercooler & radiator the size of a football field. Trevor’s dick swinging has major consequences. More cooling means more drag, more weight in heat sinks/radiators, and more power draw to move coolant. These all create positive feedback loops, e.g. more air requirements mean less favorable aerodynamics & more drag, which means more power draw at speed, which means more cooling, which means more air requirements... It’s not all fun and games like the pure BEV Tesla is making.

Daimler’s recently announced H2 semi offering only has 300 kW, and they can recycle their waste heat to warm up incoming liquid hydrogen, Nikola uses compressed hydrogen and won’t have the same luxury. Running so much horsepower is a real head scratcher; one would think their head of R&D’s only experience was pouring concrete or something.

It’s also important to note US tractor-trailers are hard capped at 80,000 lbs. This means that every pound of tractor weight is a pound taken from potential cargo. Y’know… the part that actually makes money. One has to wonder why Nikola is keeping ~5000 lbs of batteries on the tractor; their website showed they aren’t fans of the stuff. It’s enough to run a loaded tractor two full hours on battery alone, more than a regenerative braking system would require or power peaking during a hill climb. It’s dumb; 100 kWh would be more than enough when an on-demand primemover like a hydrogen cell is also onboard. It’s an expensive and opulent display to the vexation of customers, who would, in all likelihood, much prefer an extra 2 tons of cargo capacity.
Features like 1000 hp and 250 kWh of battery appeal more to retail investors than trucking companies.

Actual conclusion time: I think that I pretty conclusively showed that:
  1. Nikola’s hydrogen cost projections are bogus. There isn’t even enough money there to pay for the electrolysis and compression, much less maintenance, depreciation, or labor.
  2. Nikola’s leasing costs undercutting diesel is bogus. One can disprove that with their own financial projections, much less the real costs of FCs and H2 electrolysis.
  3. Nikola’s plan to lease the trucks is totally divorced from reality, according to their own financial projections.
  4. Nikola’s projected per mile operating & maintenance expenses are beyond indefensible.
  5. A myriad of odd, marketing focused design choices limit the trucks on-road efficiency and utility to potential customers.
If you made it this far, congrats!
submitted by thri54 to investing

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