I was so uncool at university that I only made it to the periphery of a gang of sad scientists. One full member of the group could play immaculate air drums. I think he might have owned a small drum kit at some point, but he wasn’t a drummer. He’d sit on a chair in the middle of his room; someone would cue up a record; and the rest of us would gather round.

Neil Peart would open up a track with a fancy fill. Dave would match it precisely, hitting invisible toms with invisible sticks. Then the rest of Rush would join in and he’d be away, nailing every last beat with creepy accuracy. His imagining of the layout of the kit was so complete that you’d start to see it yourself: double kickdrum, cymbals, cowbells and all.

In the tiny Guardian “guide” magazine on Saturday, there was a tiny mention of DJs losing work at the coolest clubs to indie band members. The clubbers, it seems, are more than happy to have inexperienced hipsters play records for them instead of highly practised turntablists. Reading this news, I felt the way I would if I walked into a garden and saw a swarm of wasps attacking a nest of fire ants, or I turned on the radio and heard that the LibDems had elected a new leader and would begin to regain votes they had recently lost to the Tories.

Skilled practitioners of many other non-productive activities often, however, inspire and delight me like Dave the air drummer. You’ve probably heard of the videogame—the phenomenon that is—“Guitar Hero”. If not, then Wikipedia is, as often, your friend. Slashdot links to an article in which a bystander witnesses a teenager transcend his mall-bound self to attain axe-tasy:

The inclusion of Fire and the Flames in Guitar Hero 3 always struck me as something of a cruel joke. Upon beating the game, Fire and the Flames plays as the credits roll. It plays in a kind of practice mode, so that you have the opportunity to flail on the ridiculous note chart. The song itself is classic hair-guitar, and while watching the original guitarist play it is a jaw dropping “holy-Jesus-on-a-popsicle-stick” experience, as music goes it’s not the kind of thing I put on my iPod for casual listening. It exists purely as an expression of guitar hubris.

As the stage swirls on the screen, a calm comes over Kyle. His face slackens a bit. He closes his eyes. His lieutenants absorb his tension, shuffling their feet, biting their nails. The highway of the fret board starts rolling, and as the first note falls, Kyle’s eyes open.

The display of virtuosity that follows is gloriously pointless. During an episode of South Park, Stan’s parents observe that the time he and his friends spend learning to play Guitar Hero could be applied to far greater real-world effect in learning to play an actual guitar—an idea extended graphically at the WAREHOUSE comic. Developing extreme Guitar Hero skills somehow manages to be still more meaningless than learning to do this kind of thing with a real guitar.

Someone in the comments at Slashdot answers a criticism of the article by linking to another one in the New York Times, marvelling at the talent of Roger Federer. The Slashdot commenter is admitting that tennis is as trivial as Guitar Hero, but also pointing out that, when you have some understanding of the mechanics of it, watching a master practise such a craft can be a moving experience:

Agassi’s moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does—Federer’s still near the corner but running toward the centerline, and the ball’s heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there’s no time to turn his body around, and Agassi’s following the shot in to the net at an angle from the backhand side…and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi’s side, a winner—Federer’s still dancing backward as it lands. And there’s that familiar little second of shocked silence from the New York crowd before it erupts, and John McEnroe with his color man’s headset on TV says (mostly to himself, it sounds like), “How do you hit a winner from that position?” And he’s right: given Agassi’s position and world-class quickness, Federer had to send that ball down a two-inch pipe of space in order to pass him, which he did, moving backwards, with no setup time and none of his weight behind the shot. It was impossible. It was like something out of “The Matrix.” I don’t know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs.

If you want to see what a(n amusingly self-aware) Guitar Hero guitar hero looks like in action then check this out.