Computers have taken up the role of the enablers of so many things that it seems like there’s absolutely nothing to do once your computer is out. Let’s do a quick checklist to illustrate that:
Things I do with my computer
Check the time (and I have a clock right above my screen)
…and frankly this list doesn’t do justice to the the biggest, most important service it gives me: it’s intellectually stimulating.
Whether it’s playing chess or programming, learning about stuff on Wikipedia or participating in online debates, computers and the internet are both the second most important brain trainer in my life after the university I’m attending. Without it, I would be terminally bored.
But before there were computers, somehow people managed to find things to do, or maybe what I should be saying is that- even intellectuals managed to find things to do. Darwin had his pigeons, Feynman repaired radios and had cryptology contests with his wife, Einstein was… figuring out how to have sex with his cousin… Everybody managed to find some way to stimulate their minds, and we can still do that now, even without computers.
The following is a list of “hobbies for smart people” that you can engage in without sitting in front of computers. A few of these will be obvious suggestions, but many will not. By “hobbies for smart people” I’m talking about things that satisfy the following criteria:
- There is a lot to learn about them.
- They are challenging. Not necessarily in an intellectual way, but preferably so.
- The more you immerse yourself in them, the greater is the pay off. Presumably you can spend years doing them and still feel like you have something to learn/improve.
OK so this is one of those obvious entries I mentioned, and I wanted to start with it first because it is a game that has so much depth that it can really be the only thing you need to get yourself occupied for hours. Chess is a game of skill and of intellectual prowess, and it can take time before you get good at it, but the nice thing about it is that the better you get- the more rewarding it becomes.
Beginner players are often only able to look at the individual pieces; they find it difficult to plan ahead and generally play as if the game is a skirmish between the different pieces, and your goal is to somehow manipulate it so that it ends in your favor. If they can exchange pieces they immediately do, if they can capture a piece they will do so, and then somehow their opponent out maneuvers them in a way they couldn’t possibly foresee, and mates their king. But as you progress you start to notice patterns, and you start to notice the pieces in the context of their environment. You begin to consider positions, and tempo, and treat empty squares as important resources you don’t want your opponent to have. You begin to plan further ahead, analyze your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and even sacrifice major pieces for strategic advantage. Your strategy becomes more sophisticated, and the possibilities for creativity soar high.
The following commentary on a Karpov vs. Kasparov 1985 World Championship game from thechesswebsite.com should give you a great example of what I’m talking about:
Here’s another game, this time not Grand Master level, but still interesting:
If you like this, go to thechesswebsite.com where you will find not only commentaries, but also lots of chess puzzles and strategy tips. Follow them on Facebook too.
When we think about Astronomy we think about huge, multi million dollars telescopes, space probes, and an astro physics degree. But the truth is that there are actually lots of amateur astronomers who can spot nebulas, stars, and satellites all with a reasonable budget. Yes you heard it right.
This is not the cheapest hobby in the world, but it certainly has a cheaper entry fee than a computer (unless you’re one of those people who buy netbooks, in which case my advice is to get a real computer and stop screwing around with toys). You can buy a great beginners telescope for $300, according to this web site, and this should be enough to get you to notice some interesting things.
Astronomy is a very scientific and technological hobby- there’s quite a lot to learn about it: technical details about telescopes, high tech imaging methods for telescope photography, information about the different galaxies and star charts, and even the physics of optics, and the more you learn about it the greater your reward will be: better viewings, better photography, and better sense of our place in the world. For most of us space is something that we could never explore for ourselves, and there’s something very epic in the realization that, actually, yes we can.
So what can you see as an amateur astronomer? Believe it or not, some damn amazing things. For example, the images in the following video, are actual images taken with a telescope, and that includes the ones that look too good to be true.
I looked around YouTube and found a lot of similar videos taken by amateur astronomers that also included the models of their equipment in the info section, and most of it was definitely not super expensive.
From the author of this left one: “Yes, it is a very decent scope. Not on the pro end, but definitely a good beginning and intermediate scope. The 10″ is good too..if you want a bit more aperture and weight. “
You should not expect to see such great images on your first try, especially since they also depend on how still the air is, but yes, these are possible.
You can also use your telescope to take some amazing pictures, like this guy did.
He uses a professional telescope, but let’s face it, if you can afford a Macbook Air, you should be able to find a way to afford his telescope as well.
The more advanced you’ll become the more you will have a need to take a laptop with you, but the point is that you’ll be going out, camping in the outdoors, and looking at the stars for real.
Here are a few links to get you started:
There are plenty of people who build small scale, motorized models of planes, boats, submarines, helicopters, and even small rockets with various types of launch systems, all of which can fly/float/swim for real. Building a remote controlled plane that can actually fly from scratch would require a lot of planning, good craftsmanship, and of course- time to learn the aerodynamic principles and electronics side of things. Building a boat that’ll float should be easier, but will still require planning and craftsmanship on your side. But the point is- if you want an intellectual challenge, you got one. And while complicated, it is also a feasible thing to do.
But you don’t even have to do the whole thing from scratch. There are plenty off the shelf models for self assembly, and even when you have that part of the work done for you, it doesn’t mean you can’t add your own improvements…
Frankly just flying it should be a lot of fun, but as I’m writing this I find it difficult to suppress the image of mounting a rocket-launcher/BB-gun on two off the shelves model planes and have a fight to the death with someone. (death of the plane, not the controller).
Rockets are an entirely different deal, and you will have to come up with a way to get them off the ground, keep them stabilized, and get them to fly as high as possible. This might involve some deal of chemistry, and figuring out an ignition system. Gyroscopes might be involved.
Of course if you are John Carmack, you may want to skip the bullshit altogether and start building space rockets. Just don’t expect to do that for 20 bucks.
This might sound like a peculiar suggestion for an “intellectual” hobby, but it’s more relevant than you think. Playing musical instruments actually uses a lot of different areas of your brain simultaneously. In fact, some people theorize that this is why women are often attracted to musicians- the skill tells them that that person has a well developed brain. So it is, in fact, a pretty good mental workout, and it actually goes both ways; many musicians say that performing a brain intensive task like reading a complicated book or doing math actually improves their playing ability. I myself felt short term gains in accuracy after doing math, and feel long term gains in accuracy now that I have 3 years of computer science education behind me, so as a training mechanism for your brain it’s not a bad one because it’s all intimately connected.
Music is also a vast domain and you can study it for years without ever reaching the limit of what can be known about it. There’s a huge wealth of ideas to familiarize yourself with, many different levels to excel on (technique, creativity, style, feel, etc.), and there is a well defined underlying theory to it that acts as the back bone of the field.
To get you started with inspiration, here are a few songs by a band which I feel excels in all aspects of music making- technique, creativity, style, sound, feel, and just about anything else you can think of- the mighty Dream Theater.
…or you can just browse my favorite artists in my profile page.
Role Playing Games
If you need convincing that investing yourself in (A)D&D is a non-trivial intellectual endeavor, I’d like you to consider the following picture:
According to the author what you see here is:
From top to bottom:
* D&D 3.5e
* D&D 4E
* AD&D Rulebooks
* AD&D 2nd Edition Rulebooks and supplements
* D&D 3rd edition
* A very small number of d20 System publications
* AD&D 1st & 2nd edition Modules and Boxed Sets (mostly 1st edition).
Aside from the huge collection of rules, monsters/items/spells statistics, and fantasy world concepts that there are to learn, role playing games can also be as intellectually loose or strict as you want to. There’s certainly enough formalism and potential in most systems for them to be very strategic games, and the level of difficulty and challenge is all a function of your Dungeon Masters’ creativity and imagination. These are games that give you the tools to challenge yourself as you see fit, and the nice thing is that you also have the option to be either a player who tries to play through the adventure, or the Dungeon Master- the person who comes up with adventures for the group and acts as the driving engine behind them. In that role, you’re essentially building puzzles, worlds and conspiracies, and take on many roles as the group comes across the inhabitants of your world.
But these games also have a nice perk in that they are social activities, and when you have a good group going it can be very fulfilling in that respect as well. In fact, from all the videos I’ve seen of D&D sessions I’d say that role playing games really tend to be more of a social activity than an intellectual one, but then again it really all depends on your group. Finally, if none of this is enough for you, you can try to invent your own system, which would mean an added mathematical challenge as you try to balance the different attributes of the game elements. I can guarantee that seeing the finished result being experienced by other players will be very satisfying.
The following links should help you started on role playing games.