The Kent State Shortcut

In August 1962 the Kent State Summer News reported a campus wide landscaping program that was concreting paths worn by social short cuts taken by students. This was the resolution of a long-run difference in understanding and using the university campus, between students seeking the shortest routes between buildings, and the superintendent of grounds, the beautifully named Mr Wooddell. Mr Wooddell had first retaliated against the appearance of desire lines by planting thorny bushes and then, when this effort was defeated, the university spent the summer laying concrete paths and stairs to “replace mud paths made by students”.

How much time does the mathematically-inclined student save by taking shortcuts? Four minutes an entire day, one aesthetic student researcher estimated, is the total time saved by the student who uses paths instead of regular walks. “We have tried to put walks in places convenient to students, yet enhancing to the natural beauty of the campus,” said Wooddell. “But new shortcuts are continually developing.”

Source (html)


See Portage, The Ikea Shortcut and the Tactic of the Shortcut


The IKEA Shortcut

The IKEA store floorplan has been the subject of significant criticism for its coercive manifestation of the sales funnel. Customers intent on making a single purchase find themselves leaving with a trolley full of cushions, candles and coat hangers.

Screenshot 2015-11-05 13.39.46Professor Alan Penn of University College London has studied the behaviour of shoppers making their way through the IKEA floorplan.

‘In Ikea’s case, you have to follow a set path past what is effectively their catalogue in physical form, with furniture placed in different settings which is meant to show you how adaptable it is,’ he said.

‘By the time you get to the warehouse where you can actually buy the stool or whatever’s caught your eye, you’re so impressed by how cheap it is that you end up getting it.’

Shoppers tend to collect their purchase when they see it because they fear that they won’t be able to go back and find it later.


In response to this criticism, IKEA have designed short cuts in their floor plan, with discreet signage. This raises questions about the difference between an institutionally marked short-cut, and a social shortcut.

Source: “Why Shoppers Find it So Hard To Escape from IKEA” (link)

See Portage and the Tactic of the Shortcut.

Tactic of the Short Cut

In 2003, Lance Armstrong took a much admired short-cut to avoid another cyclist crashing in front him.

Although at the time this move was widely understood to be a demonstration of Armstrong’s control and responsiveness as a cyclist, hindsight also suggests that the tactic of the short cut was part of race planning for many teams, and that Armstrong himself was a leader in developing the portage routes that became the drugs crisis in pro cycling.

Michel de Certeau writes of the tactic as the response of the weak to the strategies and constraints imposed by the powerful. In the case of portage routes, desire lines and drugs in cycling, it becomes necessary to reflect on what constitutes a constraint, and what is the true source of power that the tactical short cut seeks to undermine.

See also Portage.

Fastest Known Time | spoke&hub&flp

“On the Longest Hiking Trails, a Woman Finds Equal Footing” by Jennifer Pharr Davis (source), she explores questions of gender and physical advantages with endurance exercise using well-known endurance athletes Scott Jurek and Ann Trason. She concludes her article with the following:

Regardless, the one thought that remains apparent to me is that athletes who are pushing the boundaries of human endurance have more in common mentally than what separates us physically.”

Source: Fastest Known Time | spoke&hub&flp

The assumption here relates to endurance in terms of completing tasks by following the designed trail in the correct manner to its conclusion. So the fairness of the competition is based on the idea of the sameness of the trail.

This raises questions about the Tactic of the Shortcut.

See: Portage.

The neighbour that we all become

On his 1999 Album Mule Variations Tom Waits included a spoken word track, which he introduced in a live performance as being the story of the neighbour that we all become.

What’s he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?
He has subscriptions to those magazines
He never waves when he goes by

And he’s hiding something from the rest of us
He’s all to himself, I think I know why
He took down the tire-swing from the pepper tree
He has no children of his own, you see

He has no dog, he has no friends
And his lawn is dying
And what about those packages he sends?
What’s he building in there?

With that hook light on the stairs
What’s he building in there?
I’ll tell you one thing, he’s not building a playhouse for the children
What’s he building in there?

Now what’s that sound from underneath the door?
He’s pounding nails into a hardwood floor
And I swear to God I heard someone moaning low
And I keep seeing the blue light of a TV show

He has a router and a table saw
And you won’t believe what Mr. Sticha saw
There’s poison underneath the sink, of course
There’s also enough formaldehyde to choke a horse

What’s he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?
I heard he has an ex-wife in some place called Mayor’s Income, Tennessee
And he used to have a consulting business in Indonesia

But what’s he building in there?
He has no friends but he gets a lot of mail
I bet he spent a little time in jail
I heard he was up on the roof last night, signaling with a flashlight

And what’s that tune he’s always whistling?
What’s he building in there?
What’s he building in there?
We have a right to know


See also Love Thy Neighbour


The history of trade routes including rail lines and highways begins with the history of short-cuts in river trade. Portage is the practice of carrying boats across land as a safer, quicker way of cutting the corner made by a river bend. Over time, tracks made by portage practices themselves become known as portages. Portage is a verb-to-noun form.

On their return journey, the explorers met Indians who described a shorter route to Lake Michigan. The explorers taking the route, traveled up the Illinois River to the Des Plaines River. Canoeing up the Des Plaines they came to a place approximately midway between present day Summit and Riverside, Illinois. Here, at what is now known as the Chicago Portage, in September of 1673, they came to a little creek (Portage Creek the outlet of Mud Lake) which took them into and across Mud Lake to its eastern edge (the continental divide). At this point they carried – or portaged – their canoes across one and one half miles of open prairie to the west fork of the south branch of the Chicago River. The Chicago River led Marquette and Jolliet to Lake Michigan and back to Green Bay.

In the history of the idea of portage we find a precedent for the desire line made by walking feet finding social shortcuts across planned landscapes.

See the Tactic of the Shortcut