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The Route of the Problem

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 1999; Page C1

Cut to the chase: shortcuts.

Impeachment process. Too long. Some senators looking for swift way out.

Others not.

The motion by Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to dismiss the president's impeachment trial is an attempt "to shortcut the constitutional process," Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) observed.

Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) warned against "any shortcuts because it could have far-reaching ramifications."

One by one, Republican hard-liners are going out of their way to rail against "shortcuts" that might quicken the process.

Which leads to the question: What's wrong with taking a shortcut?

"Shortcuts are good," says John Allen Paulos, a math professor at Temple University and author of several popular books including "Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences" and "Once Upon a Number."

He quotes one of his favorite aphorisms: "Things should be as complicated as necessary or as simple as possible."

"You can simplify things," he says. "People tend to be long-winded, politicians especially. The downside is when you eliminate the crucial distinctions and salient nuances. There's always a tradeoff between precision and clarity."

America is the Shortcut Society. We even exalt our shortcuts -- our SCs -- as convenience, progress and the almighty time-saver. A brief sampling: drive-through windows, prefab housing, Cliffs Notes, abridged audio books, sliced bread, Headline News, Form 1040EZ, emoticons, instant coffee, microwave ovens, liposuction, powdered gravy, the Panama Canal, man-made snow, clip-on neckties, 7-Elevens, calculators, speed dialing, the Enola Gay, Velcro, Jack Kevorkian, Viagra.

Some Americans continue to eschew the easy way out. Frank Klausz, for example.

"In traditional woodworking," says Klausz, an artisan who for 40 years has been known for his fine furniture, "we don't do shortcuts."

Speaking from his shop in Pluckemin, N.J., Klausz, 57, says that when he was young he was often tempted to cut corners. But people can tell in the work, he says, and shortcuts in craftsmanship lead to wrack and ruin.

Some beelines have gotten us into deep trouble. The Y2K dilemma, for instance, is looming because of a technological shortcut -- eliminating the first two digits of a year -- 99 instead of 1999. Back in the '60s, explains Kelly C. Bourne, author of "Y2K Solutions for Dummies," programmers wanted to use as little memory as possible on computers. In 1970 it cost $3.2 million to store a megabyte of data. "So if you could reduce the size of a date," Bourne says, "that was a significant savings." By taking that little shortcut, "they saved themselves billions of dollars over the decades."

Now we're paying the piper. Fixing the problem worldwide will cost an estimated $600 billion, says Bourne.

Over the eons, some shortcuts have worked, some haven't. If Moses had known a shortcut he might not have wandered the Sinai for 40 years. If Noah hadn't followed the plan to the cubit, he might have sunk.

With shortcuts, the pyramids might never have been built. Or the great cathedrals.

On the other hand, new worlds were discovered when explorers took shortcuts, says Peirce Lewis, a geography professor at Penn State. "The Lewis and Clark expedition," he says, "once they tackled the Rockies, was a whole series of shortcuts, most of which didn't work."

We wouldn't be here if Columbus hadn't been looking for a shortcut to the Indies.

Yet there is still a sense that a shortcut is often the Devil's driveway. One of the first uses of the phrase appears in 1589 in Christopher Marlowe's "Faustus": ... the shortest cut for conjuring is stoutly to abjure the Trinitie."

Edmund Burke snorted at shortcuts. He wrote in 1790 of "the degenerate fondness for tricking shortcuts, and little fallacious facilities, that has in so many parts of the world created governments with arbitrary powers."

And so today Washington is conflicted. Some of us use shortcuts. Others build speed bumps.

"The whole concept of a shortcut in transportation is kind of weird," says Roger Roess, a professor of transportation engineering at Polytechnic University in New York.

In transportation, he explains, a shortcut is developed by "finding a route that you didn't expect people to use."

As an expert on expediency, Roess says: "In many cases shortcuts aren't, in terms of time, any better than the main route. People just think they are."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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