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:

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.

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9 thoughts on “Cultural Measurement

  1. Ah! Fun to read when there’s much grim news elsewhere. Btw, I am also amused how many local chains use “burritos as big as your head”.

  2. I just measured my bare right foot at 260 mm, so their sandwich is more than long enough.

  3. The cutting guide in the subway near my work has a sandwich cutting guide that is in inches and cm. I have the 152.4 mm, they cut it to 15.25 cm. I don’t argue since I’m getting an extra 100 μm of sandwich

  4. The terms foot long and six inch used by Subway in the US or other English speaking countries is called 30 cm and 15 cm everywhere else. Just check out Subway’s website in non-English countries.

    Deutschland:

    http://www.subway.com/de-de/menunutrition/menu/product?ProductId=3997&MenuCategoryId=344

    Die Nährwertangaben beziehen sich auf ein 15cm-Sub mit Italian (Weißbrot), Salat, Tomaten, Zwiebeln, grüner Paprika und Gurken, ohne Käse und Soße.

    France:

    http://www.subwayfrance.fr/la-carte/les-subs

    1 SUB au choix 15 ou 30 cm ou 1 Flat Bread ou 1 salade

    España:

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CvBoODmVIAA_9Yy.jpg
    http://c8.alamy.com/comp/CMP9PF/lima-peru-estacion-central-station-metropolitano-bus-line-transportation-CMP9PF.jpg

    México:

    https://subwaymexico.com.mx/menu/tablas/nutrimentales/sub?sub=1,0

    Información basada en SUB de 15cm. Los valores reportados incluyen pan blanco, lechuga, jitomate, cebolla, pimientos y pepinos.

    Sverge:

    http://www.subway.com/sv-se/menunutrition/menu/product?ProductId=6302&MenuCategoryId=371

    Standardnäringsvärdena är baserade på standardreceptet för en 15 cm lång sub.

    Brasil:

    http://www.subway.com/pt-br/menunutrition/menu/product?ProductId=6304&MenuCategoryId=366

    Os valores nutricionais incluem pão 9 grãos 15 cm, alface, tomate, cebola, pimentão e pepino.

    Subway India didn’t mention a bread size, but when i was in one some years ago, the only offered 15 cm. I noticed that most of the Subway shops that I researched didn’t offer a 30 cm size, just 15 cm.

    I haven’t been to a Subway in a few years seeing that the bread is a high source of LDL cholesterol, but when I did go, there sandwiches weren’t shrinking lengthwise, but width wise and less product in order to offer less product with rising prices. Other sub shops don’t advertise a length so they aren’t bound to a fixed size as costs rise. Subway has to raise prices and an almost 10 $ sandwich can cost them a lot of business. Maybe that is why when you drive by one they are always empty.

  5. Another good essay by the Maven, this one involving Subway’s subs. [I typically go to one Sub once a week when the sub I want is “cheaper” on that day. (Sometimes when the server says “Foot long?” I would say “Make it 30 centimeters” — sorry, Maven, 300 mm indicates just too much (false) precision.)]

    On something somewhat related, the Tour de France had its opening stage yesterday, with the NYTimes reporting it as follows, in part:
    “[Geraint] Thomas took a little more than 16 minutes to cover the almost entirely flat 8.7-mile [Notice The Hyphen, Maven!] individual time trial…”

    To see how nonsensical this is, just take out a calculator and change it to kilometers. (Of course The Times should have had it as “14-kilometer (8.7-mile) individual time trial”.)

  6. Here’s another gem from the world of Kenneth Chang in today’s (7 July 2017) NYTimes:

    “The mass of the Xi-cc++ is about 3.8 times that of a proton. The particle is not stable. Dr. Spradlin said the scientists had not yet figured out its lifetime precisely, but it falls apart after somewhere between 50 millionths of a billionth of a second and 1,000 millionths of a billionth of a second.”

    What about simply 50 femtoseconds and 1000 femtoseconds (with “millionths of a billionth of a second” given parenthetically)?

    Also, just what is the mass of this just-discovered particle?
    (From what I could find, it is 3621 MeV, which looks like about 0.58 fJ, or about 580 aJ. Thus, we have 0.58 fJ / (300 Mm/s)^2 = 6 x 10^-33 kg, or about 0.000006 yg (6 millionths of a yoctogram) — anyone want to confirm this?)

    Mr. Chang, a “science writer” for The Times, is typically immune to SI and anything related to it. (At least he could have given the non-SI 3621 MeV…)

    • I believe something went really south in your energy calculation.
      I get 3621 Mev x 1.6022E-19 C = 580.2 pJ, so about 6.46E-27 kg.

      • John S and Others:

        Thanks for the correction!
        I used 1 eV = 160.219 zJ but forgot to put the mega (10^6) in as a factor.

        Thus, we have
        3621 MeV = 3621 x 10^6 x 160.219 x 10-21 = 0.58 nJ, and so the mass would be about

        0.58 nJ / (300 x 10^6)^2 = 6.44 x 10^-27 kg = 6.44 yg, which is precisely as John has it.

        Nevertheless, this is probably too massive as we still need a factor of sqrt (1 – v^2 / c^2). (The assumption used here was that v = 0).

        Sorry for the error.

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