Where’s the Sandbar?

I was standing on a sandbar, in chest-high seawater. I decided to swim over the sandbar. After a few yards, decided to stand again, as I was uneasy with swimming.

Oops! Where was that sandbar?

Time to panic and deploy my safety net: elementary backstroke. After what seemed an eternity, I did reach the shore.

I was lucky that beautiful summer day years ago.

Lucky because there was no rip-tide or even gentler current that would whisk me away.

Lucky because there was no wave to enter my nostrils during my backstroke.

I was also foolish that day. What was I thinking? Swimming in the ocean after learning to swim just a few months prior!

“Luck is for fools. It’s all they have to hope for.” — Stephen King

I haven’t swum in the ocean since. Even fools can learn!

Freedom can be a problem

A simple mindset is your solution

Freedom is to not feel like this guy.

Freedom is our ability to roam where we like, when we like, how we like.

Freedom is our ability to do what we like.

Freedom is our ability to choose what we experience.

Is this choice, the freedom of choice, the absolute best you can have?

Say, you go shopping. Grocery shopping. With a cart full of stuff, you approach the check stand. If your grocery store is like mine, what do you find? Several checkout lines and a choice for you to make. Perfect, right?

But if you are like me, the pressure builds…you take a quick look at the length of each line…perhaps even how many items are ahead of you in each line. After a fast calculation in real-time, you make a quick decision and before someone else beats you to it, join a line of your choice.

Perfect, right? If you are like me, I can guarantee you that one of the lines you rejected will move faster and you just kick yourself for your poor choice!

I want to contrast this with another store we used to have in our area, Fry’s Electronics, which I found refreshingly unique in their approach. When you are ready, you join a single line, sometimes long, and wait your turn. With several cashiers serving, the line moves fast and you feel good about the first-in-first-out service.

Did you notice that you had zero choices in the second scenario? Yet you felt properly served; at least I always did.

What’s this paradox?

How can choice be bad? What does this say about freedom of choice?

In the supermarket scenario, I have, at times, observed gleefully that I did better than people in the other lines; I got through well before people who were already in the lines I had rejected. When that happens, it gives me a cheap thrill for having enjoyed an unfair advantage. So, it’s not always bad; just chancy. Still seems less desirable than having a fair process that serves people in order.

What’s the real story here?

The solution

I turn to the serenity prayer to put things in perspective:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

 — Serenity Prayer

In the Fry’s Electronics example, I have no choice. No freedom to change anything. So, I accept whatever comes my way and practice serenity by taking solace in the first-in-first-out justice. I ignore the lack of freedom to engineer any unfair advantage in my favor.

In the supermarket, I try my best to make my choice — it takes courage to make the choice because I can easily be wrong if I care about the first-in-first-out service. Look at the benefits choice offers: I may choose a line because I like the cashier working that line. Or that the line is not in a high traffic location. Choice opens new doors.

There’s more

When I first moved to the USA, I was pursuing graduate study and went through the usual application process to gain acceptance in graduate programs. I applied to 10 different universities to increase my chances of success.

Guess what, I got into exactly one program and struck out with the other nine! Talk about lack of choice. This actually was a blessing because there was zero pressure. No chance of any remorse for a wrong choice made in choosing the program. Everything has worked out and I have thrived.

I know of a different scenario unfolding just now. There is an instance of someone having a job offer in hand and holding out for a better offer that may be coming through in a matter of days. By choosing to wait beyond Sept 30, he loses one of the incentives in the first offer worth thousands of dollars! If the second offer doesn’t come through, what heartache! If the second offer does come through, he will have the truly difficult choice of turning down one of the two stellar offers. This is not anything out of the ordinary; millions of people have faced similar predicaments.

While the choices are tough in the short term, the loss of the incentive bonus can be offset in the future with the advantages realized by the second job offer, should it come through.

What’s the lesson here?

In both pairs of scenarios above, lack of choice comes through as a ‘blessing’. But we need to look deeper and ponder the case with the choice to understand its benefits. Its core benefit of providing desirable choices should not be overlooked by giving too much importance to the ‘problem’.

Freedom of choice is, indeed, a blessing. It just tests our character at times and keeps us on our toes to keep making rational decisions. 

Once in a while, when we are faced with the lack of freedom to choose, we just need to see the opportunity to be serene!


The above is my response to a writing prompt.

I am beginning a new project — responding to the “Writehere” writing prompts from the Creators Hub, a Medium publication (you may recall that I am a Medium member).

I am collecting these prompts here and plan to work my way through them at my own pace.

In this post, I offer my response to the prompt that started it all:

Week 1, prompt 1: What does “freedom” mean to you?

Appalachian Trail: Start of my “Journey of a Thousand Miles”

A walk on the serene Appalachian Trail
A walk on the serene Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park, VA

One of the earliest features of the USA that I came to know about was the Appalachian Trail. But it would take 45 years before something came off that knowledge!

When my friend, Doug Greene, reported recently on his travels on the Pacific Crest Trail with gorgeous photos, it had an immediate effect: I wanted to experience that myself first-hand.

But the challenges of such a hike brought me down to earth.

Then I discovered that our trip to the Sundial Bridge actually put us across the PCT! Sadly, we had crossed it while we were on the highway and didn’t even know that we did.

So, a new possibility dawned on me. I wanted to be on the lookout for sampling the trail in segments. I can drive to various points where day trips along the trail would be feasible.

Long before knowing about the existence of the PCT, I had heard about the Appalachian Trail. Only, walking along that trail was just a distant dream; I had always considered it to be too remote and beyond my reach. But the curiosity always simmered in my mind about what that would be like.

Last weekend, quite unexpectedly, I had the chance. We went on a family excursion to the Shenandoah National Park along the Skyline Drive atop the Blue Ridge Mountains west of DC. Our main target was the Dark Hollow Falls, a pretty, multi-level falls in the park.

Dark Hollow Falls
Dark Hollow Falls, Shenandoah NP

Having enjoyed the descent to the falls and back, we were primed for more hiking in the park. We discovered that a segment of the Appalachian Trail was right there, within a mile!

Naturally, we went for it.

Access was super easy, with a quick connection from the Milam Gap parking lot. The segment we walked was level, well maintained, and was picturesque with trees all around.

We met a number of hikers along the trail in the hour or so we spent there. A solo hiker was going from Harper’s Ferry, WV, all the way south to the trail’s end in Georgia. He was impressed by how well the trail was maintained where we were. I guess we lucked out.

We also met members of a group of hikers, pacing themselves into smaller clusters. One pair was just like us; on the trail for a quick day trip.

It was bear country and we were nervously surveying our surroundings for bear sightings as we walked along. Armed with the knowledge that bears may leave us alone if we talk to them or sing to them, my wife asked me to keep singing just as a preventative! I was voicing my doubt about the wisdom of that approach; we may be inviting bears to visit us with our captivating music, but I don’t think that reasoning went far!

Our round trip that day on the trail was just a little over 2 miles; a far cry from the 2200-mile stretch of the entirety of it. But, I can claim now that I have walked on the famed Appalachian Trail!

Moreover, we were treated to a little frolicking by a couple of fawns grazing in the meadow with their mother. I caught the tail end of it in the video below.

Deer and fawn near the Appalachian Trail
Deer and fawn near the Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park

It was a fitting end to our quick trip to the park. With a little push from serendipity (or synchronicity as Julia Cameron calls it), I was able to get on the board with a walk on one of the famed Triple-Crown trails of the USA: the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

— A Chinese proverb

Now, my “journey of a thousand miles” has started; I just need to take my next steps by learning more about how to sample segments of these grand trails in small increments.

Sundial Bridge: An Architectural Gem with an Uncommon Design

The Redding, CA landmark offers easy access, away from the bustle

The Sundial Bridge (All photos by the author except where noted)

I stood mesmerized by the sleek, slanted, gleaming white column brightly lit by the evening sun against the clear blue sky. The cables tying the column to where I was standing, a pedestrian bridge across the Sacramento River in Redding, California with translucent glass panels for the deck, made it all the more intriguing and aesthetically pleasing.

I got the first glimpses of the Sundial Bridge when a friend of ours had visited and posted its pictures years ago. The photos were so intriguing that I wanted to visit the bridge. But it would be more than five years before I could fulfill that plan!

The wait was worth it.

Design

Designed by Santiago Calatrava, a Spanish Swiss architect of international renown, the bridge sports a massive tower. As a structural engineer, Calatrava has a long list of projects around the world known for their architectural statements.

The Sundial Bridge in Redding uses many of the design elements of Calatrava’s other projects but adds a twist too.

The bridge features a tower, slanted at 42 degrees, that appears to reach for the heavens. It acts as a cantilever and counterbalances the weight of the bridge with the help of 14 cables. The strength and integrity of these cables are vital. They support both the tower and the bridge by helping them counterbalance each other. Their visual aesthetics are what we see and enjoy as we take a stroll.

The Sundial Bridge is an assembly of parts manufactured in faraway locations. The steel cables were made in England; the translucent glass panels that form the deck came from Quebec; the steel support structure of the bridge itself was made in Vancouver, Washington; and Spain provided the broken white tiles used for decoration of the sundial.

Interestingly, this bridge uses gravity in a creative way. The conventional design uses support on either bank (and sometimes more) of a river. This keeps the deck of the bridge from collapsing due to gravity. Calatrava’s design uses the gravitational pull on the bridge as well as the pylon tower to cancel each other through the tension in the cables.

Yoga poses illustrate the bridge structures

I visualize these by picturing two yoga poses — the plank (left) and the modified boat pose (right). Plank exemplifies the conventional bridge where the torso and the legs are like the deck of the bridge with firm supports on both sides, namely the feet and the hands (or elbows depending on how the yogi does it). The modified boat pose I am thinking of is where the body is in the boat pose but the hands are grasping the legs. In this picture, the legs are the bridge deck and the upper body is the pylon, with the hands acting like the cables that help the two parts counterbalance each other. We take a little artistic license here, as the legs are not horizontal. The model applies, however, in depicting the forces involved.

While it looks sleek and inviting, the cantilever design is not as strong as the regular construction. Think of someone pushing the yogi in the poses above. It would take considerable effort to push a yogi in the plank pose to fall over. But it is quite easy to do the same to the yogi in the modified boat pose. The Sundial Bridge serves just pedestrians and bicyclists and so the challenges to its stability are more manageable.

Aesthetics and driving traffic

The engineer in me marveled at the delicate details of the construction. But the artist in me just saw the aesthetics and the ambiance on that cloudless, balmy, summer day.

The evening sun adding shimmer to the full flow of the Sacramento River

The emphasis on aesthetics at the expense of robust engineering appears deliberate. The project started in the early 1990s with the goal of increasing tourism in the Redding area. It was a conscious decision to add a bridge where there was none before and drive more traffic to the area. The project ended up costing eight times the original estimate. But it was successful after its opening in 2004. Visitations rose 42% in the first year. Millions of dollars worth of commerce and tourism ensued each year thereafter.

Sundial Bridge cares about ecology

One of the design decisions was to leave the river free of obstructions for salmon to migrate up the river during the salmon run. The Sacramento River offers an important spawning habitat for the Pacific Salmon that swim upstream to multiply for the next season.

The 700-foot span of the bridge has no touchpoint in the river itself. The cantilever design made this possible, as seen below.

The cantilever design leaves the river undisturbed
Translucent deck of the bridge — Photo by Razster at the English Wikipedia

Another aspect of the bridge that’s special is the translucent structural glass panels that form the deck of the bridge. These allow light to pass through them, and this is supposed to maintain the natural environment as intact as feasible (by not blocking sunlight) for the salmon in the water.

Night lighting is great for humans. How about the fish?

But the bridge is lit from below in the night. That ruins the advantage of translucence if you ask me; it compromises the night experience for the salmon! The only beneficiary seems to be the pedestrians and cyclists who would have light in the night for their own safety and enjoyment.

The sundial

The tower doubles as the sundial gnomon
The sundial markings on the ground

Keeping with the theme of entertaining tourists, a twist in the construction adds to the experience: The sundial. The 42-degree angle of the tower, as it is pointing precisely North, opens up the possibility of a sundial. There is a sundial patch built into the grounds. The tower acts as the giant gnomon and the markings on the ground act as the dial. But it may be that it is more of a talking point than of any utility. It indicates the correct time on only one day of the year: the summer solstice, on June 20 or 21. Regardless, it gives the bridge its catchy name.

Verified!

While my first trip to the Sundial Bridge was part of a massive road trip in 2017, it didn’t happen on the solstice day for me to verify the accuracy of the sundial. This year, the summer solstice was on Sunday, June 20th. So, my wife and I undertook a convenient weekend trip to Redding in June to do that verification.

The adventure started early. It was supposed to be a simple 4-hour drive up to Redding where we would take in the sundial’s performance, check out a couple of other locations in the area, and get back home on Sunday.

The drive up was anything but smooth! Though sobering after the fact, we are grateful for our luck that kept us reasonably on schedule and, most importantly, safe. Once in Redding, everything went according to plan.

Sundial Bridge in action, showing accurate time on summer solstice day 2021

You can see that the sundial was spot on, with one edge of the shadow showing the precise time when the photo was taken: 11 am.

Sundial Bridge: A worthwhile stop

All in all, the Sundial Bridge lives up to its purpose. It attracts tourists with its interesting architecture, beautiful views of the Sacramento River, and fun with the sundial. It attracted me to make the trip, contribute to the local economy through our lodging and food expenditure, among others. I found that, despite COVID-19 concerns, there were a number of visitors in the scorching sun to check out the accuracy of the sundial!

Want to visit?

Location of Sundial Bridge (Map courtesy of Google)

Sundial Bridge is situated in the city of Redding, California, with quick and easy access from Interstate 5. Yet, it is secluded and shielded from city noise for a peaceful sojourn.

The bridge and its surroundings offer a perfect day trip destination for the entire family. If you are visiting with children, you will want to check out the Turtle Bay Exploration Park in the vicinity. Parking and bridge access is free, and the bridge is open through the night.

For more information on the bridge including its history, please visit Turtle Bay Exploration Park website.

The Day We Tempted Fate

Every once in a while we do things that make us shudder after the fact. The possibilities of what could have been are sometimes daunting.

One such thing happened to my wife and me last week.

Praveena and I were on the road, driving along a segment that we have travelled many times before. An unremarkable section, if you ask me.

Not last Friday.

We were carrying on a happy conversation on the phone with our son to salvage an otherwise drab period of driving.

As we were moseying along, south of Fairfield on I-680N and approaching the Marshview interchange, we came across a captivating and dangerous sight.

We saw thick smoke. We saw it develop into black smoke.

A few hundred yards closer, we saw actual flames on the west side of 680 North, in the median. The wind was fierce and caused the smoke to scoot eastward before it had any chance of rising.

The wind kindled the flames and drove them towards the road surface. We actually saw the flames jump over the road where we would have been travelling just a few seconds later.

Slowly, and uncertainly, we took the exit and followed some vehicles eastward. That road just got us to a frontage road close to the freeway. We saw one of the vehicles, a truck which was right in front of us on the off-ramp, make a left turn and travel north braving the flames which had already spread to the brink of the frontage road by that point. It was now or never.

It looked more never than now.

Chickened out

Photo by Praveena Raman

As I slithered over to the stop sign at the end of Marshview Road and needed to decide which way to go on the frontage road, I started to turn left as though I was going to do the same maneuver as the truck. Praveena’s heart stopped, I am sure, for a moment. Incredulous, she was blurting out “What are you doing?” in a rather forceful way. In my usual calm and collected manner, I said nothing and did a cool u-turn, offering Praveena the best seat in town to see the flames and take a video of it using her iPhone. We got the picture above!

After I crawled back to the on-ramp to I-680 and found it hopeless in terms of offering safe passage, I did another cool u-turn right in the intersection—much to the bewilderment of the two cars stopped at the off-ramp stop line. Our eyes met and there was a visibly puzzled question arising out of the lead driver: “What are you doing?”

It was the day for that question to be hurled at me with equal intensity by two completely unrelated individuals in a span of two minutes! I dutifully indicated what I was about to do and that spurred that driver into quick action whereby she got in front of me going eastward!

At the end of the T-junction again, I made the only choice left—an inevitable turn to the right. It took me away from the fire and I felt safer. Only, the road took me in the direction I didn’t like. Eventually, I did turn around and headed right back to the troubled messy area.

Of course, I was at the tail end of the line of cars waiting to get back to the freeway. We saw firefighters beginning to get set up to fight the fire.

As we dutifully waited in line, we saw another pick up truck swiftly pass us all in one fell swoop and smoothly reach the on-ramp to I-680N and turn in there!

What? Is that allowed?

As I was pondering that question, I saw that every vehicle in front of me in the line dared the same maneuver. I promptly followed the truck in front of me, not to be left behind.

Video by Praveena Raman

As we were approaching the on-ramp, our hearts sank. There was thick smoke with very little visibility and an acrid smell welcoming us to the on-ramp. Our solace was the truck in front of us. With a high perch if he could see things and feel safe enough to brave that landscape, who am I to complain! I confidently entered the on-ramp.

Perhaps I gave too much credit to the truck driver.

With a fire engine blocking half of the on-ramp, he was gingerly trying to find his way to the freeway. We saw him driving over actively burning brushes.

I had enough clearance behind the fire engine on the road, but wanted to make sure I didn’t scrape it. I had to be slow when I didn’t want to be.

Within a hundred feet of this ordeal lay clear skies and fresh air! We left the smoke and fire behind.

So, what’s the problem?

Our ordeal seemed to be minimal. Why shudder after the fact?

Just that fires can spread really fast (remember the Santa Rosa fire or the Paradise fire?) and all the cars on the highway were sitting ducks with nowhere to go, should the fire have gotten out of control.

But more than that, we voluntarily entered the on-ramp, expecting a quick passage through the trouble spot, but got stuck behind the truck right in the smoke and the fires still going strong, mere feet from our van.

We were able to do that because we had arrived on the scene right when it happened and the police hadn’t yet arrived to stop/reroute the traffic.

Later that night, we learned that we had escaped a two-hour closure of the road. We were very lucky to have had minimal delay and also no damage to the van due to the fire or our lungs due to the smoke.

Only, our van still stinks of smoke!

Lemon Pickle Recipe

The South Indian style of making Lemon Pickle

I have grown up enjoying lemon pickle as a kid and even today, I look forward to its taste in the creative ways I add it to my food. It bears mentioning that the South Indian style pickle is generally too hot and spicy to consume directly. It needs to be added as a condiment, in small quantities, to the main food.

I am fortunate to live in California where lemons grow well. We have a lemon tree in the backyard and I have made many batches of the lemon pickle over the years.

The beauty of it is that with proper canning, the pickles made can be stored at room temperature for a very long time, from months to even years, as long as the seal holds. Let’s take a look at the simplest recipe I follow to make this delicacy.

Variations to this are possible to make the taste further refined and nuanced, but this is the core recipe.

Ingredients

Lemons – 10-15 (Makes 2-3 quarts of pickle)

Extra Hot Chilli Powder – 1/4 cup per quart of pickle made (adjust to taste)

Salt – 1/4 cup per quart of pickle

Sesame Oil – 1/4 cup per quart of pickle

Turmeric Powder – 1/2 tsp

Black Mustard Seeds – 1/4 cup

Procedure

Day 1

Wash the lemons well and remove all surface dirt.

Cut each lemon in half and remove the pits. I generally use a handheld wooden lemon juicer to drain the pulp and juice into a sieve over a pot. This makes it easy to fish out the pits and not lose the pulp and any juice along the way.

Cut the cored shells into small pieces and collect them in a stock pot. After all the pits have been removed, transfer the pulp and juice into the stock pot. Add a little water if it is too thick.

Add the turmeric powder and stir well.

Bring the stock pot’s contents to a boil. Then let it simmer for 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and let the pot cool.

Add the salt and chilli powder and mix well.

Cover the stock pot and let it stand overnight for 12-24 hours. Stir the contents periodically and mix it well.

Day 2

In a frying pan, add the sesame oil and start heating. Add some of the mustard seeds  and wait for them to pop. Once the initial seeds pop, add the rest of the mustard seeds and cover the pan with a slight opening. You can hear the seeds pop vigorously. When all the seeds finish popping, turn off the heat.

Transfer the hot oil into the stock pot and stir to mix it well.

Using the canning funnel, start transferring the pickle mix into the Mason jars. Leave a 1/4 inch air gap on top in each jar. Make sure the rim of the jars are clean and don’t have stray pickle mix on them. Wipe it clean if necessary.

Secure each jar with its lid and the ring. Screw the ring on hand-tight. Place all the jars in the canning stock pot and fill water in the pot to above the top of the lids. The bottles need to be fully submerged throughout the canning process.

Heat the canning pot and bring the water to a boil. Let the water boil for 10 minutes. Remove heat.

Using canning tongs, lift each jar and place on a cooling rack on the countertop. Do not touch the lid or the rings, even after they start to cool.

One by one, within a few minutes, you should hear the lids pop down to seal, due to the vacuum created by the cooling.

After all the lids have sealed, unscrew the rings to see if any debris needs to be cleaned on the outside of the jars. Clean the rings and the grooves on the jars if necessary. Screw back all the rings, hand-tight, to get them ready for storage.

At this time, if you apply a slight pressure on the center of the lid, there should be no movement. All the seals should have been made by the cooling. If any jar had a lid that hadn’t popped down, store it in a refrigerator and earmark it for consumption sooner than later.

Any jar that has been properly sealed is ready for long term storage!

Consumption

The South Indian Lemon Pickle is a great condiment to add to any meal. The traditional, classic, use is in adding it to a course of yogurt and rice mixture. But you can let your imagination fly in adapting it to your taste.

For example, I used to drive my wife nuts by adding it to my bowl of oatmeal in the morning, after I added some milk to it.

Proof that you can invent your own comfort spot in how you can add it to your meals!

Mortgage Refinancing—What’s the Catch?

Why would my current lender encourage me to refinance for a lower rate?

I recently came across a question by a neighbor who wondered about the motive of their current lender in encouraging them to refinance their mortgage for a lower interest rate:

My current lender is sending me a lot of communications to refinance with a lower rate.

I’m trying to determine why my current lender would try to reduce the interest rate. If it’s someone else, I can understand: they are trying to earn new business. But I’m not able to figure out what’s there for current lender—apart from usual fees etc.

What’s the catch here? What does the lender gain by refinancing my existing loan with lower interest rate?

This is a legitimate question. On the first look there seems to be something fishy going on here. Why would a lender willingly accept reduced interest payments on the mortgage note they hold?

Mortgage lifecycle

Before we try to answer the question, let’s keep in mind what happens during the lifecycle of any normal mortgage loan.

  • The loan is originated. Money is lent and the borrower gets the capital to pay for their real estate purchase. The paperwork starting from the application all the way to closing of the loan is taken care of by the origination department, be it a mortgage company, a bank, a credit union, etc. They get paid for this service along with other service providers in the process like the title company, the county registrar and so on. Often these expenses are passed on to the borrower in the form of closing costs. Sometimes the lender absorbs these costs in return for a slightly higher interest rate than what it could have been.
  • Once the origination is complete, the mortgage can be sold in what is termed secondary market where these transactions are unseen by the borrower. The secondary market is complex and doesn’t have to be understood by the borrower. Regardless of who actually owns what part of the loan, they will be earning the interest rate agreed upon during the origination process.
  • In order to keep the backend ownership and changes in that ownership opaque to the borrower, there is a mortgage servicer who actually takes in the borrower’s monthly payments on behalf of the actual owners. They take care of distributing these monthly payments accordingly.
  • The servicer, the borrower-facing business, can change over time as well. One servicer may sell the account to another and the borrower would then make payments to a different business, but keeping to the origination agreement.
  • Home mortgage agreements normally contain no prepayment penalty. This means the borrower can payoff the outstanding loan amount any time and will not incur any penalty for the lost income stream to the lender. This means that the loan can be closed out at any point in time and the lender needs to be prepared for it. On a payoff, the loan ceases to exist.

Borrower’s perspective

Let’s take a look at the above from the viewpoint of a borrower:

  • The borrower applies for and obtains a mortgage loan with certain terms. These terms are generally the interest rate to be paid on the outstanding capital and how long the payments can take in time. Typical durations are 30-year and 15-year periods from the time the loan was originated.
  • The borrower makes monthly payments to the loan servicer on record. The amount paid is in accordance with the agreement at the time of origination.
  • Even with a significant capital still outstanding, the borrower can payoff the mortgage by refinancing, that is borrowing, using a new set of terms, enough money to pay off the earlier mortgage. Note that there is no assumption that the new lender must be different from the original lender.

The original question

Now, back to the question that started it all.

Why would a lender actively encourage a borrower to refinance in order to reduce the interest rate?

We will never know the true answer, but it is normally without any malice. Some of the possible reasons:

  • Different departments may handle mortgage origination and mortgage servicing, and they may not talk to each other. The origination department may be unaware that they are acting to reduce the earnings on the current mortgage note held.
  • Lenders expect borrowers, as a rule, to refinance to reduce their interest rate by watching the market. As a result, to earn the origination fees, it is good practice to promote without worrying about whether the borrower already has a mortgage loan with the organization. If they don’t promote, someone else’s promotion may prevail!
  • The origination department is aware of the current relationship with the borrower, but may seek a new loan anyway to retain them as a borrower, with the possibility of increasing the capital or loan duration, or both.

Therefore, the borrower should not try to second guess why they received a promotion. Rather, they should use it as a stimulus to take a look at the market; evaluate and decide for themselves whether there is any reason to consider a refinance at that time.

Sounds good. How to evaluate?

This is a huge topic. It deserves its own discussion. We’ll cover it in a future post. As a glimpse of the issues involved, let me mention a few:

  • Fixed vs. Adjustable mortgages
  • 15 or 30 year mortgage? (Or others too, like 10 year, 20 year and the like)
  • Monthly payments change
  • Total interest payments
  • Cash-out financing
  • Why increasing your interest rate may even be justified
  • Break-even analysis
  • and more …

So, as long as you follow the steps to evaluate your needs and come to a decision using your own analysis, there is no need to second guess why a particular lender is asking you to refinance. Their promotions are just reminders for you to be constantly vigilant.

The man who influenced four nations for over 20 years as the sole resident of a 134-room building

The year was 1966 when this period of his life started. October 1, 1966, to be exact.

For many years, he had a few co-residents who participated in this process as well. This group of people first became residents of this building in 1947. But all of the others left, at different times, finally leaving him in charge of his peculiar role.

The funny part is that it was not even his own idea to exert all this influence. He sort of fell into this fateful role when he embarked on his solo flight to Scotland as far back as 1941.

This man was none other than , Deputy Fuhrer of the Nazi Party, second in command behind Adolf Hitler in the Nazi Germany between 1933-41.

The building he had occupied as the sole resident was none other than the which was built in 1876.

Changing of the Guards at Spandau Prison
(Used with permission from
)

A 134-cell structure that had held as many as 600 inmates at times, Spandau was relegated to hold just seven inmates post World War II for their war crimes. Situated in West Berlin, it was located in the section controlled by the British. Spandau was operated by the World War II victor nations of France, United Kingdom, United States, and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the guard duty rotated among them.

Deputy Fuhrer Hess is purported to have reached Scotland on a solo flight mission in 1941 to engage Britain in peace negotiations with Germany. But he was held a prisoner in the U.K. until Germany surrendered unconditionally in 1945. He was later transferred to Nuremberg for the trials by the war crimes tribunal. He was sentenced to lifetime imprisonment at Spandau along with six others.

Between 1954 and 1966, all the other six prisoners were released. Hess was the sole remaining prisoner.

There were several attempts over the years by family members to release Hess on humanitarian grounds, and every time the soviets vetoed the idea. Being the last prisoner at Spandau, Hess was their only excuse to retain visitation rights to West Berlin. They were not going to relinquish it.

Hess had attempted to commit suicide multiple times, in Britain as well as at Spandau, but was unsuccessful. Finally, on 17 August 1987, at the age of 93, he did commit suicide and died in prison. The prison had lived out its usefulness to the nations involved at that point.

Before another use can be proposed for its existence, the British took swift action and demolished the prison in the same month, August 1987, in a mere 14 days! The Soviets lost their claim on their West Berlin presence.

I first learned of this stalemate situation in 1975 when a fellow student in college was describing how that prisoner (didn’t know his name then) was never going to get out of that prison. The political leverage was too dear for the Soviets who held a veto power.

Noting that Hess had attempted suicide multiple times, and wanted to be released multiple times, loneliness in the prison seems to have been the harshest punishment he endured. All accounts seem to indicate he had been treated well and had freedom to move around in the prison grounds. But not having interactions with other people, for over 20 years, must have taken its toll.

Interestingly, around the same time that Hess went through this solitary confinement in a genteel setting, another man went through harsh, physically abusive, confinement for political reasons. Nelson Mandela, who endured such treatment for 27 years in South Africa, did emerge out of prison eventually and enjoyed Presidency shortly thereafter.

A comparison of these two men offers a stark difference in their circumstances and almost explains the turn of events.

Hess, as Deputy Fuhrer during 1933-1941, arguably the darkest period of life in contemporary Europe, clearly subscribed to racist doctrines.

Mandela, a political prisoner incarcerated for opposing racism, eventually blossomed.

The course of history may be meandering, but has reached an understandable endpoint in both the cases.

Actions do have consequences.

Sundial Bridge: A Sight to Behold

I stood mesmerized by the sleek, slanted, gleaming white column brightly lit by the evening sun against the clear blue sky. The cables tying the column to where I was standing, a pedestrian bridge across the Sacramento River in Redding, California, with see-through glass panels for the deck, made it all the more intriguing and aesthetically pleasing.

I got the first glimpses of the Sundial Bridge when a friend of ours had visited and posted its pictures years ago. 

Design

Designed by Santiago Calatrava, a Spanish Swiss architect of renown, the bridge sports a massive tower. As a structural engineer, Calatrava has a long list of projects around the world known for their architectural statements. The tower, slanted at 42 degrees, appears to reach for the heavens.  It acts as a cantilever and counterbalances the weight of the bridge with the help of the 14 cables. The strength and integrity of these cables are vital. They support both the tower and the bridge and keep them in place. Their visual aesthetics are what we see and enjoy as we take a stroll.

Interestingly, this bridge uses gravity in a creative way. The conventional design has supports on either bank (and sometimes more) of a river. This keeps the deck of the bridge from collapsing due to gravity. Calatrava’s design uses the gravitational pull on the bridge as well as the pylon tower to cancel each other through the tension in the cables. 

I visualize these by picturing two yoga poses: the plank and the modified boat pose. Plank exemplifies the conventional bridge where the torso and the legs act like the deck of the bridge with firm supports on both sides, namely the feet and the hands (or elbows depending on how the yogi does it). The modified boat pose I am thinking of is where the body is in the boat pose but the hands are grasping the legs. In this picture, the legs are the bridge deck and the upper body is the pylon, with the hands acting like the cables that help the two parts counterbalance each other.

While it looks sleek and inviting, the cantilever design is not as strong as the regular construction. Think of someone pushing the yogi in the poses above. It would take considerable effort to push a yogi in the plank pose to fall over. But it is quite easy to do the same to the yogi in the boat pose. The Sundial Bridge endures this reduced stability due to the cantilever design. But as it serves just pedestrians and bicyclists and the challenges to stability are more manageable.

Aesthetics and Driving Traffic

The engineer in me marveled at the delicate details of the construction. But the artist in me just saw the aesthetics and the ambience on that cloudless, balmy, summer day. 

The evening sun adding shimmer to the full flow of the Sacramento River

The emphasis on aesthetics at the expense of robust engineering appears deliberate. The project started in the early 1990’s with a goal of increasing tourism in the Redding area. It was a conscious decision to add a bridge where there was none before and drive more traffic to the area. The project ended up costing eight times the original estimate. But it was successful after its opening in 2004. Visitations rose 42% in the first year. Millions of dollars’ worth of commerce and tourism ensued each year thereafter. 

Sundial Bridge cares about ecology

One of the design decisions was to leave the river free of obstructions for salmon to migrate up the river during the salmon run. The Sacramento River offers an important spawning habitat for the Pacific Salmon that swim upstream to multiply for the next season. 

The 700-foot span of the bridge has no touch point in the river itself. The cantilever design made this possible, as seen below.

The cantilever design leaves the river undisturbed

Translucent glass panels on the deck of Sundial Bridge

Another aspect of the bridge that’s special is the translucent structural glass panels that form the deck of the bridge. These allow light to pass through them, and this is supposed to maintain the natural environment as intact as feasible (by not blocking sunlight) for the salmon in the water. (Photo on the right by  Razster at the English Wikipedia)

But the bridge is lit from below in the night. That ruins the advantage of translucence; it compromises the night experience for the salmon! The only beneficiary seems to be the pedestrians and cyclists who would have light in the night for their own safety and enjoyment.

The Sundial

Keeping with the theme of entertaining tourists, another twist in the construction adds to the experience: The sundial. The 42-degree angle of the cantilever tower, as it is pointing precisely North, opens up the possibility of a sundial. There is a sundial patch built into the grounds. The shadow moves about one foot per minute, so you can see it move! But it may be that it is more of a talking point than of any utility. It indicates the correct time on only one day of the year: the summer solstice, on June 20 or 21. Regardless, it gives the bridge its catchy name.

Sundial Bridge: A Worthwhile Stop

All in all, the Sundial Bridge lives up to its purpose. It attracts tourists with interesting architecture, beautiful views of the Sacramento River and fun with the sundial. It is situated in the city of Redding with quick and easy access from Interstate 5. Yet, it is secluded and shielded from city noise for a peaceful sojourn. 

I am glad I went and enjoyed the bridge and the surroundings on a summer day. I think I will visit it again, this time on the summer solstice, to experience the sundial in precise action!