The Cart Before The Horse

By The Metric Maven

Many times I’ve heard the phrase “you put the cart before the horse.” It generally metaphorically implies that you have attempted to implement something in an order that will not work. Generally, it is easiest to have a horse pull a cart. It is said that the notion that the horse comes first, and then the cart, is psychologically responsible for the assumption that a car engine should be in the front of a car. Even when no horse is present, one will automatically make an assumption about the position of the device that provides locomotion, and how many horses it has.

When we see a Hindu number, we assume the leading digit on the left is the largest multiple value of ten, and the trailing value on the right is the smallest.  If I write 123, clearly the 1 stands for 100, 2 is for 20 and so on. This is the basis for the interpretation of Hindu numbers around the planet. If I claimed that in my view 123 should be written 213 with the twenty, and then the 100 and then 3, most people would be aghast. It took over 1000 years for the world to settle on rightward descending digits in terms of 10, changing this logical order would be considered just plain bonkers. It would be like a stairway with a bulge in its middle.

A while back I was looking at how my Tivo was listing programs and noticed a considerable change. Some programs in the guide are  listed by date like this:

I was appalled. What on Earth? Someone decided to adopt the dashes of the international date standard, but reject the order of the date? Perhaps one could argue that the order for a date could be jumbled if the entire planet used the same sequence, but they do not. In the case of say 03-04-2017, most Americans would see this as March 4th of 2017, but a person in the UK would look at it and see April 3, 2017. This April date would also be true for Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia and others, but with dots 03.04.2017.

Brazil likes forward slashes 03/04/2017, again going with the day first, month second and year third. The Germans used this format, but since 1996-05-01, they have officially adopted ISO 8601.

Greenland uses both forward slashes and dots 03/04/2017 and 03.04.2017 for April 3rd 2017.

Canada, “our metric neighbor to the North,”  use three different versions to express a date.

Wikipedia has a nice list of date formats by country, and it really appears the US is yet again in the minority when it comes to how we write our dates. Some countries include leading zeros, and some do not. A great majority do not put the date in descending order, and have the current year last. This is rather fortunate in a way. If one sees a date with the year first, then it is almost a dead certainty that the date is ISO 8601 format. The one numerical standard that exists throughout the world, is that for Hindu numerals, where the largest value comes first, the next largest second, and so if one sees 2017-03-04 this value will only be rationally interpreted in terms of ISO 8601. While the world, with the exception of the US and two others, have all adopted the metric system, International dating has not been universally adopted. It seems long overdue that the world should finally put the horse before the cart when it comes to dates.

Related Essay:

International Dating

Cultural Measurement

By The Metric Maven

Mini-Bulldog Edition

A long time back I used to spend a lot of time at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu California. The museum has a large collection of classical Greek and Roman artifacts. On display they had an example of a set of armor that a Roman soldier once wore. What immediately struck me was the size of the armor—it looked like it would fit a small woman. One of the guides told me that Roman soldiers were not all that large. It should be obvious to anyone who has a modern world view (I’m looking at you John Quincy Adams) that using body sizes as a measurement standard, is, well, ludicrous.

In 2013 a controversy unfolded when patrons of Subway in Australia, and later in the United States, discovered their footlong sub sandwiches were only eleven inches long.

Now, one must keep in mind that Subway appears to have only stated their torpedo with toppings was a “foot long” and did not define the length in inches (as far as I know). In this case, we must consult a reference to determine the distance in question. My favorite reference is Measure for Measure by Richard A. Young and Thomas J. Gover. They have these definitions for a foot:


Ancient Babylon 353.9 mm

Canada Quebec 325.0 mm

Ancient Egypt 360.0 mm

France 324.8 mm

Greece Ancient Olympic 320.5 mm

Greece Ancient 308.9 mm

International 304.8 mm

Iraq Ancient 316.0 mm

Netherlands 283.1 mm

Phoenicia Ancient 495.0 mm

Rome Ancient 296.0 mm

Russia 304.8 mm

South Africa 304.8 mm

US Survey 304.8 mm

Assuming the eleven inch subs were measured in US inches, 25.4 mm per inch, then they are 279.4 mm. Well, Subway is still way too short, even when compared with the
foot of the Netherlands (283.1 mm – 279.4 mm) = 3.7 mm. This is close but no cigar for Subway. Even with all the variation in feet over the ages, they still managed to create a sandwich that is not even within the range of the most common definitions of a foot.

But the complaint was that the Subway sandwich offered was only eleven inches, and not twelve. Well, then let’s see if we can show that the sandwich is actually plenty
long and indeed a 12 inch sandwich by using “traditional measure.” The smallest definition of an inch I can find is for Spain at 23 mm per inch. This means that 12 Spanish inches is equal to 276 mm, and therefore the Subway sandwiches are indeed 12 inches long. As the complaint was that the sandwich was not 12 inches long, I must protest that when using pre-metric units, the Subway sandwich in question, is longer than 12 inches, and therefore endowed with enough length to justify its claim—at least in Spain.

But did Subway actually have the good sense to argue this way? Nooooooooo……they had to claim that “footlong is not intended to be a measurement length.” Then Subway changed their mind, and embraced the footlong rubric as a measurement length. Good move, because now I’m sure you have the backing of the former NIST director who embraces “multilingualism” in measurement, and does so specifically with Spanish. He must be on board with the idea that Subway in the US has met its claim, and Subway sandwiches are 12 Spanish inches long, and that’s good enough for US multicultural measurement. This conversion will finally make American footlong hotdogs match their name. Indeed there seems to be a human obsession with long hotdogs, currently 203.8 meters is the longest.

There is a nearby chain burrito establishment that sells “Burritos as big as your head.” They managed to avoid any measurement unit comparison by using a head instead of a foot. I’ve never found a unit called a head. But then the burrito chain just might mean “big as your head” as a metaphor—-perhaps? Many American men have this as their only excuse for unjustifiable measurement distortion when dealing with the opposite sex. The concern about the size of Subway sandwiches started in Australia, with good reason. They are a metric country and it seemed that rather than proclaiming their sandwiches are as big as your head, Subway tried to slip implied measurement into metaphor. As Australia is metric, one would think that Subway might realize that in metric countries comparing their sandwiches with feet might not be a good marketing strategy. Everyone knows a quarter pounder with cheese in France is a Royale with cheese. Why was Subway so culturally insensitive to Australians! They only managed to put their foot in their mouth. You know what I mean!

The Metric Maven has published a book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.