One thing I recently found is more important than any other -- hard drive rotation speed. I bought a new laptop with a 7200 rpm drive and the increase in performance against a comparable machine with a 5400 rpm drive is impressive. HP offers the 7200 rpm drive for $10 or so. Best investment in a computer you'll ever make.
If you read the signs attached to the walk buttons at crosswalks it usually says something like: "Press Button Wait for Walk Signal" Note that nowhere in that statement is anything tying the button press to the appearance of the walk signal. Waiting for the walk signal is merely good advice in most places that aren't California.
Astronomy provides a lot of opportunities for serious, significant contributions by amateurs. One way to find out if it interests you enough is to find a local amateur group that is actually regularly involved in such projects. This is not your normal stargazing or imaging groups, but groups that are carrying out observations of astronomical phenomena that the professionals don't have the time or equipment availability to do themselves. This way you can get a feel for what the activity is like and learn how to understand where it fits in the broader astronomical research spectrum before you spend anything on equipment. If you like it, you may find that your local groups already have the equipment they need or you can buy your own - cost is not too high (in the $2-5K range). I'm personally involved with a group that does exoplanet sightings, NEO object discovery, cataclysmic variable monitoring among others. We're in the east side of SF bay and find we can usually observe over half the nights here.
"......Sotomayor wondered if speed-dating could be patentable, Breyer questioned whether a professor could patent a lesson plan that kept his students from falling asleep....." Uh hate to break it to Supremies, but there's a lot of patents already issued on both dating methods and teaching methods. Honest. You should get on your clerks case for not being able to find something anyone at all familiar with the patent system could find in about 5 minutes.
Actually using goats is common in the SF Bay Area. In the East Bay goats are regularly used to "mow" the steep hillsides in Berkeley and Oakland where mowers can't go. This keeps fire hazards down.
For the non-CS folks among us: The Art of Electronics - Horowitz and Hill Numerical Recipes - Press et al (I know it's got flaws, but this is an interesting and readable book on math!) Classical Mechanics - Goldstein Radio Amateurs Handbook - ARRL eds. The entire MIT Intro Physics texts by A.P. French Halliday and Resnick.