Lukas Z's Blog

The Imitation Game

The title of the movie “The Imitation Game” is actually referring to the Turing Test. In this post however, I want to use it as a (catchy, I hope) reference to copying.

Recently, I’ve come across learning by copying on three occassions. First, I’ve read the “Boron Letters”. It’s a book, or rather a collection of letters with commentary, in which a marketer instructs his son, his protégé in the art of sales, to copy successful direct mail letters by hand. He says it is the best way to absorb the style and the method of the masters.

Another example is by Zed Shaw, a rather well known programmer who teaches programming the hard way. His method includes the verbaitim copy of example code. He emphasizes it repeatedly, to the annoyance of some students, I’m sure.

Finally, I’ve come across this method when reading about art schools. It seems that copying drawings or paintings is a bona fide method to learn how to draw and paint.

And sure, why not! It intuitively makes sense, doesn’t it?

As children we copied adults. Children have their own drive to explore, their curiosity. But they also seem to instinctively know to do as the elders do. Not just the elders, other kids, too. Remember Count Greystoke a.k.a. Tarzan? He was raised by apes in the jungle. And he became one of them by imitating their way of life.

The question is: Is even mindless, diligent copying enough? Will we learn the style of Ernest Hemigway by copying his books with a typewriter (or a pen)?

I believe so, yes. Because it’s not mindless after all. It can’t be. My reasoning goes like this: Let’s take a look at reading (books).

Reading probably is, perhaps next to hearing stories (from grandpa, or in Church or in a Buddhist satsang), still the best way to expand our knowledge. Why? Because our thoughts have to slow down. We get more processing time. The cognitive processing .. reaches deeper. We create more connections as we go.

Well, copying is what? Reading and writing. So it’s even slower! Yet we cannot be distracted.

If we want to copy a text verbatim or a picture as close to the original so they almost cannot be told apart, then we need to focus. We must put our mind to it. We must give it the full one hundred percent of our attention.

Sounds like it’s worth a try?

Whom would you like to copy?

P.S.: This reminds me of movies. Although I enjoy modern movies like “Thor” or the “Fast and Furious” franchise, something seems generally lost in modern film making. Has the audience lost the patience with the filmmakers or is it the other way round? (Or maybe I just watch the wrong films.)

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