10 Ways to Learn Stuff While Procrastinating Online

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It's Monday. You've had a nice, long, idle weekend, and—what's this? Someone who says they're your boss wants you to do work?! Well, we'll have none of that, will we? Of course not - this is the internet.

Frittering away hours in front of mental_floss' Amazing Fact Generator is always an option. But here are 10 other easy ways to put off whatever you're supposed to be doing while also getting your knowledge fix.

1. Learn how to write your name in Elvish

I wish I were better able to speak and read Spanish, but that takes a good bit of time to master — on the other hand, learning to write in Elvish takes all of ten minutes, according to this website. Granted, this is far less useful day-to-day than Spanish, but it's awfully nerdy, and that's a positive in my book. Elvish is a lot simpler than you'd think. Using the instructions on the site, I tried writing out "mental_floss":

elvish mentalfloss

Did I get it right? Check out the site and try your hand at writing your name.

2. Learn how to do anything

You've probably heard about the man who delivered his baby son after watching a how-to on YouTube. But there are plenty of less daunting how-to videos out there, like how to spin a pencil, how to play the ukulele (y'know, in case you have a ukulele lying around the office), or how to waltz. But my favorite has got to be the instructional video for how to talk like a pirate:

wikihowOf course, you shouldn't limit yourself to YouTube for these sorts of how-tos. The websites wikiHow and Instructables are also great resources. When I'm wasting time on the internet, I sometimes find myself reading articles on Instructables, even if I have no plans to follow them. I never played with Transformers as a kid, and I haven't seen either of the movies, but this Optimus Prime Costume is too impressive not to read about.

3. Learn how stuff works

This one's a no-brainer: HowStuffWorks is a great complement to mental_floss, covering pretty much every topic of inquiry you can think of. Just as with Instructables and wikiHow, you'll find plenty of articles about stuff that will almost definitely never apply to you, like "How Can I Survive a Night in the Alaskan Wilderness?" However, you're better off safe than sorry — if Sarah Palin calls you up tomorrow and asks you to go hunting with her, wouldn't you say yes? OK, me neither. But, reading about disaster scenarios is still more fun than filling out TPS reports.

4. Learn why a number is so important

0 1 2 propertiesThis one's for the math nerds: at this website, you can read what makes any number special, from 0 all the way up to 9999 (Spoiler alert! 9999 is a Kaprekar number, meaning that if you square it you get 99,980,001, and 9,998 + 0,001 = 9999). Reading about these seemingly random quirks of numbers is all well and good, but I find the site is best utilized when you put pencil to paper and work out the math behind the quirks. Plus, if someone's watching over you at work, it looks like you're very busy with some important calculations.

5. Learn why today is so important

Brad Williams, who runs Triviazoids.com, has hyperthymesia, which means his autobiographical memory is incredibly sharp. It's fitting, then, that his blog is all about what happened on certain dates in the past. For example, take June 26 — did you know that June 26, 1870, was the day the first part of the Atlantic City Boardwalk opened? Or that June 26, 1963, was the day President Kennedy informed the world that he was a jelly donut by telling a German crowd "Ich bin ein Berliner"? I sure didn't. Triviazoids is a treasure trove of little "Huh!" moments that'll keep you going till 5 p.m.

6. Learn what's in the stars

polluxThe Ancient Greeks looked to the sky at night and saw little blips of light. They couldn't quite explain what they were looking at, so they gave the blips names and told stories about why they were placed the way they were. Those stories have endured for millennia; thank goodness we're not under any pressure to be as creative as the Greeks were. The Neave Planetarium will explain the stars that are currently over your head, and you can give it any time or location to see what the night sky is like then and there. Even in full-screen mode, it can't quite compare to looking at the real thing, but it's a good substitute for those planetarium shows you probably sat through on field trips in elementary school.

7. Lean how to juggle

jugglingThis one's simple, but it's perfect for anyone with too much time, and a few roundish objects, on their hands. Follow the instructions here to learn how to juggle three or four objects. Just don't break anything!

8. Learn at the speed of random

wikipediaEveryone loves Wikipedia, right? Well, maybe not the editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. But one of the niftiest features of the free online encyclopedia is the "random article" link. There are nearly 3 million articles on the site, so for solitary procrastinators, clicking it is a great way to blow off some steam and to be exposed to new facts.

But if you have two or more people in the room, the random function gets really interesting: you can use it to play an intensely competitive game, called "The Wikipedia Game" (creative title, eh?). Here's how it works: a player clicks the "random article" link once and gets a start page; then, he clicks it again and gets an end page. The players race to navigate from the start page to the end page, using only the links within the article (no category links, and no editing articles—that's cheating!). The first person to reach the end page yells "Done!" and must read back their clicking history. If their history checks out, then they become the player who retrieves the starting and ending articles for the next round. If you're organizing a few rounds of the Wikipedia Game, remember: the more people playing, the better.

9. Learn to count in binary on your hands

twelve binarySpeaking of hands, did you know it's possible to count to 31 on one hand? It's also nifty because you can covertly flip someone off while pretending that you're counting to four.

10. Learn what words mean (and give to charity while you're at it)

It's too bad not all charitable organizations can be as fun as FreeRice.com. It's a game that quizzes you on the definitions of words, increasing in difficulty as you get more and more correct. For each right answer, the site's administrators donate 10 grains of rice to the UN World Food Program. And if words aren't your thing, you can also tell the game to give you questions about famous paintings, chemical symbols, world capitals and more.

September 18, 2010 - 8:30am
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