Exactly how much work is a half-assed job?

If you tend to work smarter, not harder, you may at some point in your life have been accused of doing a half-assed job. But what, exactly, does that mean? How much work are you doing? How much energy are you putting into it?

Answer: About 125 Watts, or 450 kiloJoules per hour.

This question came up at work when some internal developer documentation was prettied up to share with a wider audience of French colleagues, and this particular tongue-in-cheek assessment of our implementation didn’t make the cut. Someone quipped that we could probably leave it in as long as we included the appropriate metric conversion. So, without further ado…

In preindustrial America, domesticated beasts were the major non-human source of motive power. This gave rise to units such as the horsepower – the amount of power it takes to move 550 pounds one foot in one second – which works out to about 750 Watts, give or take. But horses, with their build for speed, long legs and high center of gravity, just didn’t have enough ass in their pants for jobs like ploughing a rocky field, so an actual ass (donkey) was often used instead.

One plough, one donkey was a pretty easy fit; indeed, ploughs, carts, wagons, wellwater lifts and mills were often sized with the animal in mind. While multiple donkeys could be teamed for bigger jobs, in practice burdens were often scaled for a single animal working at full capacity. A single donkey doing a one-donkey job and giving its full power was delivering, by definition, one full ass worth, or one donkey-power. However, some burdens were scaled such that a juvenile or elderly animal could be used, or a healthy animal could operate at a reduced burden for a longer duration. These were sized to approximately 1/2 of one donkeypower: a half-ass job.

The donkeypower is, I kid you not, a real unit with citations to back it, and is equivalent to 1/3 of a horsepower. Therefore a 1/2-ass job = 1/6 horsepower = 125W = 450kJ/hr, and the requirement of SI unit equivalences is satisfied.


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