TCS Daily

A Singular Sensation: The Strad

By Kenneth Silber - April 18, 2006 12:00 AM

Some 300 years ago, a technologist in northern Italy built devices that are widely regarded as superior to their counterparts today. Antonio Stradivari (c.1644-1737) constructed over a thousand violins and other instruments. Some Stradivarius violins (his instruments are known by the Latin form of his name, or as "Strads" for short) are now played by top performers in leading concert halls, and priced in the millions of dollars.

The secrets of the Stradivarius are a subject of longstanding study and speculation. Explanations that have been offered for the instruments' extraordinary sound quality range from the volcanic earth that Stradivari may have used in his varnish, to his practice of soaking the wood in a salty mix, to the prevalence in his time and place of dense wood with tight growth circles due to the Little Ice Age that ended in the mid-19th century.

Increasingly, modern technology has been brought to bear on the question. A team in Sweden, for example, aims to recreate a Stradivarius by first developing a computer model that can be tweaked electronically to match an original Strad's sound. Whether such efforts will lead to truly Strad-like instruments is questionable, however. For one thing, the precise conditions in which Stradivari operated would be hard to know, let alone recreate. For another, key factors in the excellence of Strads likely involve how their parts and materials change with time -- that the instruments have "aged to reach their potential" in the words of Toby Faber, author of Stradivari's Genius.

Modern technology is unquestionably transforming the art of violin making. Samuel Zygmuntowicz, a highly regarded violin maker based in Brooklyn, draws upon CAT scans and other such data to analyze subtle interactions of air and wood. Carbon-fiber bows have become an alternative to traditional horsehair. Some researchers are even working on radical new instruments using synthetic materials and computing capabilities. The MIT Media Lab's electronic hyperviolin has been played by top violinists including Joshua Bell.

Perhaps someday advanced technology will outstrip the Strad, producing violins widely regarded as superior. If so, it still will have taken a considerably long time for high tech to outdo the work of a craftsman who lived before the industrial revolution. In any event, there will be an element of subjectivity to any evaluation of which violins are best. It seems likely that the best future violins will be regarded as notably different from Strads, and not readily amenable to a direct comparison. One consideration is that Strads, in the view of many experts, already are at their peak and perhaps moving beyond it. It also remains to be seen what new qualities and subtleties current violins will take on with age.

There is, I believe, a broader lesson to be taken from the Stradivarius about the future of technology. Some futurists and technologists, such as Vernon Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, have argued that the world is approaching a transformation known as the "Singularity", marked by the advent of some form of superhuman intelligence. In this picture, technologies such as artificial intelligence and genetic engineering soar up a curve of rapid and inexorable change. In some versions, the Singularity is given a specific timeframe, occurring sometime around the year 2030.

The Stradivarius strikes a discordant note in this presumed crescendo of technological advance. These antique violins are a reminder that technology does not always progress, but sometimes stagnates or regresses. Far from following an exponential curve upward, technological change tends to occur in fits and starts, and to depend on happenstance (such as, perhaps, the growth patterns of woods near the town of Cremona, Italy in the waning centuries of the Little Ice Age). Sometimes, technological secrets are lost, as when Stradivari and then his sons died, leaving no one to carry on the family business.

Moreover, the Stradivarius shows that technologies, even once developed, often require time to reach their maximum potential. Strads did not become the most sought-after violins until decades after their maker's death, when their aging was well underway. This is not something unique to a technology built from wood. Consider the time lags that may be involved in the development of a superhuman intelligence. A robot might need to accumulate decades of memories in order to understand its world. Similarly, genetic enhancement of humans may require interventions before birth, lifetimes of evaluation, and the painstakingly gradual spread of the enhanced genes through the population.

In short, when someone mentions the Singularity, consider the Stradivarius. And be skeptical.

Kenneth Silber is a TCS contributing writer who focuses on science, technology and economics.



I've been dabbling in, and writing a bit on, the current cosmic change inadvertently overtaking mankind, that will launch it to 'higher' levels of humanity, science and technology. By this I mean the electronic melding of minds.

For billions(?) of years, life was confined by default to a single-cell potential. Then, the multicellular revolution spontaneously took place, and evoluation could select specialist cells closely cooperating in a single organism, which made many things possible, including nervous systems with brains.

Now, the previously individual human brains are being connected, specialized, and combined by electronic happenstance into super-organisms that will be available for evolutionary survival-of-the-fittest selection; analogous to the multicellular revolution. The first thing to do when discovering a new undescribed organism is to name it, scientifically of course, so it can be placed in the evolutionary tree and discussed.

Strads - overrated
A couple of decades back the BBC aired a radio program in which a number of concert-standard violinists and violin experts played and listened to various violins, including a couple of Strads. No listener or player could reliably tell a Strad from other violins of that era, a top 19th century violin, or high-grade modern instrument. The supposed-superiority of Strad was shown to be a figment of the imagination: "If they cost a lot of money they must be good...musn't they?" It boiled down to a lot of fuzzy thoughts about feelings.

Don: Take your stupid cosmic rubbish and peddle it in some more receptive forum. Keep up the medication.

from the horse's ass
"Carbon-fiber bows have become an alternative to traditional horsehair."

Any good bows is made of Pernambuco wood, Carbon-fiber is no alternative to that. Carbon-fiber is certainly no alternative to "traditional horsehair". (Nylon would be, but sounds awful.) After all, that's used on the _other_ side of the bow.

re: bmorey -- Although Strads do sound different than other very good instruments (whether better or not is a matter of taste or music), an important element is how easily they play. That - and their rarity - make the market price. By overrated do you suggest 'irrational exuberance' that has led to its market price? Or overrated in popular perception?

If strads are overrated, then how did they earn their reputation to begin with?

You say that trained professional musicians think, "if it's expensive then it must be good"? You have come pretty far in life for someone who believes that the price of something can be higher than what someone, somewhere, is willing to pay for it.

All art is hype - not objective
The other side of the coin is the occasional painting by an old master which hangs in a museum and then is found to be a forgery. If the "experts" could be fooled for 200 years then the forger was at least equal to the master.

Or maybe the Strad was given information by the space aliens who built the Pyramids.

Robot nonsense
"A robot might need to accumulate decades of memories in order to understand its world."

The implication being that it will take decades of real time to accomplish that? Yeah, right. And, on the same argument, it will take the thing 2 years just to learn to walk.

Someone who could produce a painting in the style of Van Gogh has mastered only the techniques of copying. If that's the criterion, then a talented mimic who could paint in the style of a dozen old masters would be the greatest artist who ever lived. But what does he do when he runs out of other peoples' work to mimic?

A strad

The Italian was just lucky in making his violins. The secret was the minerals in the river water. A guy at the University of Michigan can make a Strad becuase he duplicated what Strad did back then. Strad the master craftsman is just a myth!

Art and Technology
The author makes the mistake of confusing art with technology. This is like complaining that the Singularity won't result in greater poets than Homer and Shakespeare, or greater painters than Michaelangelo, David, or Picasso. A Stradivarius is a work of art even more than it is a work of technology. Perhaps some day some violin maker will come across the right combination of skills, wood, varnish, etc. to make violins even better than a Stradivarius. If he does, it will be due to art, not technology.

The Mad Pill-Popper
Kurzweil is so afraid of death that he takes dozens of pills a day to "slow down" his aging process. His conception of the "Singularity" is a fantasy, a wish for his own immortality. He's as wacked out as Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, only he's in love with technology rather then opposed to it.

All of that may be true about Kurzweil, but that does not affect the argument he makes. If we look at all growth trends related to human existence, they do all grow at an exponential rate, and this does seem to suggest that they will all converge at a given point. I think it is good to discuss what, exactly, that could mean. But we can't do that if we disregard the idea out of hand.

Incidentally, exponential growth looks an awful lot like what happens when you have growth along a catastrophe fold (in catastrophe theory). The result is not a singularity, per se, but a leap into a new level of complexity. Which, itself, will begin its own, new, exponential growth. It is hard to say what that could mean, exactly, but it is an alternative interpretation of the data.

It seems illogical to conclude that, because many growth trends are exponential, therefore human beings will transform into AI-robotic supermen. That is not a projection but a bit of crystal ball gazing. We may see creatures like that on the battlefield but hopefully not in my neighborhood.

That's a bit of a straw man you're constructing there. Certainly one cannot predict that future accurately. But Kurzweil is not the only one, or even the first one, to suggest human-computer fusions. Even before there were computers, let alone the internet, the Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin predicted that human minds would be interconnected to form a sort of superbrain. The internet is not too far off from that, if you think about it. COnsider this: when you read Shakespeare, you are taking into your mind Shakespeare's -- thus his mind continues to live in yours. The internet allows people to do the same thing on a larger scale. Whereas I would otherwise have to have this discussion only with people close to me in physical space that I know, with the internet I have the opportunity to do this with people around the world I do not know. Your mind creates ideas which get transmitted to my mind, and my mind created ideas which get transmitted to your mind. We will process each others' ideas differently from each other, but nonetheless, our minds now contain each other's. Thus we expand in complexity. This is all made possible by technology. Who knows what other things may happen in the future that will make this process even easier? But we do know from history that we have continually tried to make that process easier.

My trouble is that arguments like yours are purely metaphorical. You don't come near to taking in my mind when you read what I write. You take in my words and they all may be lies. Looking around, I don't see that the internet is not too far off from becoming a superbrain. That's more wishing than fact, Teilhard and William Gibson notwithstanding. In fact, Gibson seems much closer to reality than Teilhard or Kurzweil. Simply adding together different brains does not create a superbrain any more than adding together oranges creates a superfruit.

The difference between oranges and brains is that oranges are not complex, dynamic structures interacting with one another. Any given culture or subculture or society already has the qualities of a "superbrain," because in fact minds do interact with each other. They interact with each other through language, and all language is inherently metaphorical -- so your argument against my argument being "purely metaphorical" does not stand, as all arguments are necessarily metaphorical, including yours.

Even if you lie, I do take in a part of your mind (the lie it made). Every time you communicate anything to anyone, they take in part of your mind. You provide information, which informs the minds of others (this is the nature of information). It may be false information, or invalid information, but it is information nonetheless. I can then test and judge the information you have provided me for truth or validity, but even so, you have provided information for my mind to transform and consider.

The brain is a complex dissipative structure. When it is minding, it lives through the taking in of information, processing that information, and giving off of information. WHen it gives off information, that is taken in by other minds that are also complex dissipative strucutres that process it and give off information. Thus, by definition, our minds are always informed by all information given it. Insofar as my mind gives off information and your mind takes it in, my mind has informed yours -- and vice versa.

Singularosaur II
Just so zat.
And, it's already happening via these infernal instant, universal communication machines we're using. We not only do we take part of what's in Kurzwell's mind, but what's apparently not there, and associate his comments with others in forming a meme. This superbrain formation is not something we decide to do. It is just inadvertently, and inevitably, taking place. Cheers.

ANd it's been taking place for as long as there has been language. The internet has only allowed for the globalization of the process, just as de Chardin predicted.

You seem to think that by declaring a collective to be an entity, it therefore is an entity. So, for example, when the newspapers report that "the United States" is doing this or that, it is the collective that is doing it. That kind of thinking atomizes individuals. It leads to such nonsense as the idea of a "critical mass", as if people were simply objects with a property of "mass", to be added together to achieve something or reach some objective. If you like being an atom or thinking of yourself as an atom in some social entity, wonderful. Im my view, that kind of thinking is mindless, socialist, feel-good idiocy.

Society is not socialism
So you deny the fact that humans are part of a society, that we communicate to each other, and that we have any affect on each other? We are part of a larger social entity -- but nobody is in control of it (it is when people try to control it that it falls apart). Things happen socially as if by an invisible hand. That is how free market economics works. When people talk about "the United States" doing this or that, they are using a kind of metaphorical language to talk about the U.S. government, or the policies thereof. Only an atomistic individualist would even think that it is any sort of collective-speak.

Humans are social by nature. We are a social mammal. We live in complex societies, and those societies do have certain attributes. But more, it is the individuals who are affected. You can deny that your ideas have been formed by social interactions with others (whether it be in person or through books), but that does not affect the fact that you received all your ideas, including your particular language, from others. You too are a social mammal. If you had not been born into a social setting, you could have never even developed into a human being. Children without social stimulation do not learn language, have very low IQs, and are sociopathic. That is not an argument for socialism -- it is to point out what should be obvious to everyone, that we are a social species.

I will say this: there is nothing that destroys society and sociability like socialism. SOciety can only exist when allowed to exist naturally, meaning freely and dynamically. There is a complex feedback loop between individuals and society. We form it, and it forms us.

overkill from the nano-bots
The author, I feel, intention was not to write a science paper, or even a profound thought. It's appeal to look more closly at human attributes and not technological advances. That maybe we are discounting our humanity, look and see what else was going on in History and know that these new discoveries came from intuition, years of labor accummulating and given sudden rise to a little bit of perfection. When art and science were one, once again, as the Pyramids of Egypt, or Maya, years of labor, giving rise to art. Human emotional intention, with discipline of concentration, over a period of extended time, imagination greater than intelligence, access to the unknown through intuition, spontaneous creative intelligence mixed with time and intention, Art and Science. Just being Human

because you don't like being part of a mass doesn't mean you aren't part of it
Someone earlier mentioned that we might one day see cyborgs on battlefields but he wouldn't want to see one in his neighborhood.

Similarly Prussia, Austria, Italy and Spain once thought that they might see mass citizen armies on the battlefield but they wouldn't want them in their neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, when the ideas of the enlightenment infused into a critical mass of French citizens and a ruthless leader emerged those folks went off happily in their hundreds of thousands to butcher a good part of the known world while celebrating the death of monarchy with alternate shouts of "Vive L'Empereur" and "Liberte', Egalite', Fraternite."

You're part of the mass regardless of your preferences.

historical chess game
The seeds of Abraham, the deserty tribes that gave birth to Jews Christians and Arabs, in that order, this is a historical chess game, where three major players, play at once. Western free thinkers, vs the Islamic house of Allah, only one way to think, vs the Communists, only one way to act. This battle is part of the Muslim revelation to Mohammed, by Arch Angel Gabriel, of world religious domination. The communists China, says " I don't care what you beleive as long as you behave yourself. So Red China has a million Christians , a million Islamics, first female Imum. This past Sunday China threw the largest Buddhist Party, to promote Buddhism, said it was less violent than Christianity and Muslims. China is already in South America, both sides of the Panama Canal, largest bay ibn the Carribean, Bahamas, Cuba, etc, they will unite all communists, and communist want to be's like parts of Mexico. They are at the door step. Check-mate is when Islama's nukes boycott the oil, from Saudi's etc, sell it to the chineseand Russia goes back to communism to join Their buddies agaist the West, all this in less than ten years, Usa will be busy with natural disasters, along with europe, History is just a Madhouse it's turned over all the stones and its very careful reading leaves you little that's unknown.

Tech Evolution?
I tend to not think of technological advances in the same terms of biological evolution, viewing Tech as building blocks stacked on top of those that came before, as opposed to random mutations in reaction to external stimuli. OTOH, your passage here:

"These antique violins are a reminder that technology does not always progress, but sometimes stagnates or regresses. Far from following an exponential curve upward, technological change tends to occur in fits and starts..."

brings to mind SJ Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium. Interesting parallel, there.

Read Robert Wright's book "Nonzero," which uses game theory to analyze history. The fits and starts smooth out when considered from a global perspective. This does not negate punctuated equilibrium, of course, but I haven't see any real massive leaps in complexity yet. However, Kurzeil's Singularity may in fact be that leap coming up. It does have all the qualities of such a leap in complexity.

"All art is hype"
That is precisely one of the attitudes that annihilates civilizations.

virtual zero
I haven't come across Nonzero,but one of the things few are putting in their singularity computer, is weather devastations,nuke blasts, and other lethal enviromental issues which also include lifestle epidemics, Diabetes,heart failure, side effect to humans eating fast foods creating 61% obesity, they don't calculate the mischevious political enviroment, like Iranian nukes. Kurzeil was on CNN special on technology and longevity, looking at the Man who says he wants to live forever. More impressed by his brain than body, a very soft out shape humam. Not fat, richard Simmons body, soft, and fragile looking. Kurzeil needs some anti-gravity movements to create density in muscle and increase and maintain bone density. Walking the talk or waiting for nanobot nurishment. Between 2010-12, many minds will have changed

Ever since we got off all four and emancipated ours, which helped create the brain, using tools, the eyes of the body are the hands, today, no different let your fingers (hands)on key boards, play stations, remote control TV, everything is Hands developing the brain. Evolution accumulates to saturate and then suddenly a new springs forward, an inclusion of the past, the refining nature of evolution. The human spirit immersed in years of laboring hands springs forth a violin of perfection, that technology has yet to understand, the dfference between tec and man is emotions, energy in motion that is capable of manifestations so from nothing comes something, the visble is temporary, the invisible is eternal. Where God resides.

Art is philosophy, hands eyes and mind dancing wildly creating scenery of the heart. Youth would say it's hype, maturity falls to tears in the presence of Art. Your time will come. Patience is an art, life can be an art-form, to see God within and recognize your own soul, and express this with a chissle and granite or marble. At certain levels of thought, it's all art, body- mind and spirit its all art, smile be happy and appreciate the music in art, the laughter in comedy, the gasping and trembling of a good mystery movie, art, where fore Art thee, my blessed child.

Art is Human
To make art is one of the most human things in the world. Art helped to make us as we are, contributed to our complexity and growth. Art helps to make us more in tune with the world, and thus better able to live in it. I would go on, but I wrote a 250+ dissertation on the subject, so I'll leave it at that.

Progress and growth are fortunately not localized. Especially now, knowledge is extremely distributed. Take out an entire country the size of Russia, China, or even the U.S., and the amount of knowledge in the world won't have changed much.

Good health does not equal a Schwartzenegger-type body. It would not surprise me if he were not in fact very healthy, even if he does not look "fit." When I took Tai Chi, the Master there did not look the most fit either, but you may rest assured that he was.

Strad the Mythic Craftsman

Since "Strad the master craftsman is just a myth" (incidentally, hooking up with the phrase "just a myth" is itself a dubious method of debunking anything, riddled with conceptual cracks and fissures), I would like for you to begin building better-than-Strad violins for us.

Please do this, and then check back with us at a future date, after you have put your efforts where your mouth is.

The Mass Production Zone
"You're part of the mass regardless of your preferences."

Only if you let yourself be so.

There are people who (in the non-religious sense) are in the world but not of it.

If you speak any language, you were necessarily social.
If you interact with any human being, you are necessarily social, and what they say to you becomes integrated into you, and what you say to them becomes integrated into them.
Everything you do or say affects the social, and vice versa. It is a complex feedback loop. THe good news about this is that just because you are always necessarily social, that does not mean that you are anonymous -- but rather, it means you can, through butterfly effects, have huge effects. The little person can have huge effects, and "important" people can have little if any effect. But that is only if you are in a complex social community. Even cloistered monks and nuns have social effects -- as inspiration for others. They thus continue to effect society even as they separate themselves off from it. This is true of every person, as every person is necessarily social, being a human being and, thus, a social mammal. THere is no getting out of it. ANd if we tried to, all we would do it become antisocial, psychopathic apes without language.

Wonderful, yesterday's shamans are todays doctors, and the cycle moves to doctors now becoming Shamans Honolulu, registered Kahunas can practise their brand of healing in Castle Hospital Kaneohe Hawaii, Dr. E. Fujiyama. Medicine is an art, The Art of Humanity sometimes slips into other disciplines, beauty is the result, respect is in the eyes of the beholder.

Art and Man
I think it was Alice Miller, Man has an inate desire to express himself, Emotions, Energy in Motion manifesting on the physical plane, which includes music, dance, at a certain level it's all art, Let you life be your example, is also Art. The expression of God through Man, is art, always right time, art. Art is an attitude, it's all art.

The Strad
I like to contribute to the "Strad" item, as your article was about the 17 april, by sending information of my findings which you may read about at:
This may open the minds of people to understand what old giometry can bring about.

Kind regards
Robert Zuger

TCS Daily Archives