Michael Koppelman: An Amateur Everything
Self-described know-it-all and founder of many Minneapolis things, Michael Koppelman chats with Ivan about his multiple careers and plethora of interests.
- Every sound engineer in Minneapolis has worked with Prince at some point, until they said the wrong thing and got fired, which is what happened to Michael (and his friend Chuck).
- Michael got a telescope for Christmas, which led to him to an astronomy talk, which led him to a degree in astrophysics, which led to him build a little observatory in Carver, Minnesota which led to him becoming one of the first people to capture a gamma ray burst on film.
- When Michael started working at Badger Hill Brewing as a master brewer, he applied his scientific mind to the making of beer, even making friends with folks from the nearby sensor company (who came in to drink) who gave him testing sensors he applied to every facet of the brewing process.
- On one hand the progress of COVID-19 is terrible, but on the other hand, it’s fascinating for data geeks like Michael, who love to see how the exponential function relates to the coronavirus.
- American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)
- Badger Hill Brewing
- “The Math Behind COVID-19,” from Michael’s podcast
- “How to Tell if We’re Beating COVID-19,” from MinutePhysics
- Michael’s music on Spotify, Apple Music and Soundcloud
IVAN STEGIC: Hey Everyone! You’re listening to The TEN7 Podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business, and the humans in it. I’m your host Ivan Stegic. My guest today is Michael D. Koppelman who has been referred to by Nancy Lyons as one of the visionaries in the internet space here in the Twin Cities, in that he was one of the people responsible for really starting the conversation around internet technologies before it was all mainstream.
Michael has worked with Prince as a producer/engineer, he co-founded BBS turned ISP Bitstream Underground which later turned into IP House, as well as the digital agency Clockwork. He recently assumed the majority ownership of Badger Hill Brewing where he was also head brewer, he’s involved in astronomy and is a self-described know it all who is always looking to learn more and do more and be a better person in the process. Michael also opines on a podcast, the Lolife Podcast, which is nearing 100 episodes and has been around since 2005, which is about 12 years longer than the TEN7 podcast.
It is a pleasure to have you on the podcast today, Michael, welcome to the show.
MICHAEL KOPPELMAN: Thank you. Thank you for having me, it’s an honor.
IVAN: It’s quite an introduction for you.
MICHAEL: Yeah, I have a short attention span, so like, my career spanned a lot of different things.
IVAN: [laughing] Okay, I suppose that makes sense. I was so glad Nancy talked about you in our podcast. How did you guys meet? What’s the origin story there?
MICHAEL: We had started Bitstream Underground which was this pre-internet bulletin board system which is a computer that other people called with their computers over modems over telephone lines. It started sort of just as a hobby and there was this appetite for the pre-internet online experience as well as the emerging internet online experiences. So, we found ourselves with actual customers.
Our first customer was BASF. So we were at this big advertising agency talking to BASF and these guys about how to do online stuff, and we were a bunch of musicians and, amateurs I guess you would say. So, Nancy was individually applied for a sales job opening we had and one of my business partners at the time, Tom Garnow, told me about her and said, “she has a brain.”
That was his main takeaway, “she has a brain.” And so I interviewed her and we hit it off and we eventually made her the CEO of Bitstream and the CEO of Clockwork. She’s one of my favorite people. We now go back to 1996 or 1997, I think, when she got hired on, so a very long career together.
IVAN: That’s a long time. And I agree, she certainly has a brain and is the nicest person you’ve ever met as well.
MICHAEL: Yup. And she’s hilarious. Her sense of humor [laughing] is one of my favorite things about her, and when we get going we can just be hilariously vulgar and it’s just fun. We’ve always prioritized having fun.
IVAN: It’s important, especially when you’re doing and working with so many different kinds of clients and customers.
IVAN: So, you’re a musician. She said you went to the Berkelee School of Music and you were this musician who worked with Prince. Is that true? You’re also a brewer. I’m still trying to figure this out, but [laughing] let’s go back to the music part. Tell me about your musical history.
MICHAEL: I was one of those kids that wanted to be a rock star. I’ve been playing in bands since seventh grade, and my parents were going to make me go to college, because I was like, “I could just move to LA and play music,” and they’re like, “no, you’re going to college.” So, I looked around and found Berkelee College of Music, the one in Boston. It’s not Berkeley, California, and it’s like a professional music school, and they had a recording program where they had recording studios there and really at the time the only place I knew of that you could actually learn how to work in a recording studio as a college degree.
So, I went to Berkelee for my undergraduate degree, and they make you be proficient on the instrument, which I wanted to anyway, but I also studied recording as my main thrust. So, after college I wanted to work in recording studios, and the second studio I worked at was Paisley Park, and I started there as a grunt, bottom-of-the-rung assistant engineer, and slowly worked my way up to working on the Prince Project as an assistant engineer, and has happened around Prince, people would just disappear one day, and his main engineer at the time just disappeared, he got fired. He said the wrong thing, whatever.
And me and some of my peers took over the main engineering jobs with Prince, so we were in the studio with Prince, just us and him for years and for trillions of hours ‘cause the guy works 24/7. And eventually I was producing, writing some songs, mixing some things, and pretty involved with the Paisley Park organization, until I said the wrong thing and I just disappeared over night, which is exactly [laughing] how it happened.
IVAN: Wow. Was that in the early nineties?
MICHAEL: Yeah, my main years with Paisley Park was like 89 to 93 I believe. It was burned bright and faded away.
IVAN: Wow. What albums were you working on at the time?
MICHAEL: The main ones I worked on was the album Graffiti Bridge, Diamonds and Pearls and then what’s called The Symbol Album.
IVAN: [laughing] Oh, yeah, when he changed his name.
MICHAEL: Exactly. And then because of how prolific he is, literally 10 years later I would still see my name on new records that came out, because you just work on so much music that stuff I’ve forgotten about will show up on a record and I’ll be, Oh, I got a new credit out there.
IVAN: And just out of curiosity, how does that work from a logistics perspective? If you have a credit that means there’s a royalty check for you now, 25 cents that you’re going to get somewhere at some point, right?
MICHAEL: Not really. As an engineer I was just work for hire. I just got paid hourly.
IVAN: Oh, I see.
MICHAEL: I did write a few songs and in those cases you sort of do get royalties, but I didn’t work on anything that really generated royalties unfortunately. So, it’s mainly just cred.
IVAN: Well, and street cred, which is awesome.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. It’s fun, if you Google my name and Prince’s name a lot of things come up. [laughing]
IVAN: [laughing] Cool. And then so, you said the wrong thing, left Paisley Park and where did you end up after that?
MICHAEL: This was, like I was saying, the pre-internet times. The internet was invented, but people did not have email addresses, they had never seen the web, it was very early, early in the internet. A friend of mine and I, who later formed Bitstream Underground with me, Chuck Hermes, we were computer buddies and we would dial each other's computers with modems, and we would dial BBS’s, and I never had a computer that was never networked.
My first one I had a modem, and I was calling things, so we started working on a BBS together, Chuck and I, while we were both still at Paisley Park. I eventually said the word no to Prince, which is when I got fired, and Chuck still worked there, and Prince was going to launch an online service, everyone was, you could just feel this pent up demand for cyber things. Then I believe the story goes, Prince saw what we were working on and pretty much fired Chuck on the spot, because Prince didn’t want people doing things that weren’t for Prince.
So Chuck and I started this BBS Bitstream Underground almost immediately thereafter, and I got into the technology internet world, sort of right after working with Prince. I kept doing music production, I travelled around the world and recorded bands, and made records, but that started tapering out as my internet career started taking off, and people couldn’t get internet. They were hearing about the internet, but no one knew how to really get it, so Bitstream Underground transitioned to be just offering people an easy way to get on the internet, and that’s what really set off us on this multi-decade adventure with Bitstream and Clockwork.
IVAN: Yeah, and Bitstream got acquired by IP House as well, right? That’s the genesis of IP House right?
MICHAEL: Well, IP House was our competitor. It’s sort of a boring story, but we sold our web development business to Gage Marketing Group, and we sold our internet service provider business to what would get absorbed into IP House. So, we were a small part of IP House by the time that all happened, but they still manage our domains, like my lolife@ bitstream.net address still works thanks to IP House just wanting to honor our legacy, sort of.
IVAN: That’s cool.
MICHAEL: It was cool, and it was really cool to have an opportunity to do a start over with Clockwork versus like a startup where we really came into Clockwork with having made every mistake you could make at Bitstream Underground and wanting to do it right our way without a bunch of business assholes fucking with us. [laughing]
IVAN: Yeah, that’s [laughing] always a problem isn’t it when you’re tied to those asses. You co-founded then Clockwork with, I think if I remember correctly, Nancy said, it was you and Chuck and Nancy and another Koppelman.
MICHAEL: Yeah, my brother Kurt also got involved with us at that time. And he had a lot of technology experience in AS400 and things like that, so he brought a different level of experience to the thing, where I was literally learning how to hack routers and stuff when the router showed up, and Kurt had a bit more computer experience that he brought to it and served us well.
IVAN: And Clockwork has gone onto great things in the Twin Cities and nationally as well. You must be very proud of where it’s at.
MICHAEL: Yeah, it’s the proudest accomplishment of my life. We basically started with a five year plan, and we’re approaching year 20, so, something is going right.
IVAN: Something is going right. There’s a lot of good people trying to do good work over there, and that’s well respected, and I look at Clockwork and I’m proud of Clockwork as well, and I think the two people I’ve talked to at Clockwork are Nancy and you. [laughing]
MICHAEL: Yeah, and you guys seem to do similar things as Clockwork, TEN7, so, we’re fellow co-conspirators in this weird industry.
IVAN: Yeah, certainly weird industry. I want to get to Badger Hill Brewing in just a second but, Nancy also said that you built an observatory in Chaska. What’s that about? Is that true?
MICHAEL: Yeah, and it plays a bigger role in my career than it seems, but my girlfriend at the time who became my wife, gave me a telescope for Christmas one year. Just a little, fairly small, and it opened my eyes to astronomy, and I loved it immediately. And I had a grandfather who was a scientist, and he was a person you could ask questions, like, “why is the sky blue,” or other things, and he would give you the actual answer. And I started thinking, I want to know more about how the universe works, and I remember sitting at an astronomy talk where a guy was using math to describe stars and I was like, “how could you describe stars with math?” It was just absolutely opaque to me.
I didn’t know what calculus was, and I was like, “what the fuck is calculus?” So, it drove me to actually get a degree in astrophysics from the University of Minnesota, where I did research with the professors there. I reduced data from the Hubble Space telescope. I was doing my own observing at my little observatory, doing variable star work.
So it was a wonderful revolution inside my brain in terms of understanding science better, and certainly understanding astronomy better and just enjoying the hunt for data. Like going out there all night having my telescope point at one star all night and watch its brightness change over that night, whether it’s an eclipsing binary or a pulsating star. And it was just really fun, and I figured out [laughing] calculus and other things, and it’s lead to the mathematical way that I think now.
IVAN: Data and science and fact. Why would you make up stuff if there’s such an abundance of data out there that you can make good evidence based decisions on?
MICHAEL: Exactly, and within reach of ordinary people. The Amateur Astronomy community is one of the more active amateur science communities, where our observations are very valued by the professional community, because we can do some they can’t because we have more time to do it, and we don’t have to get budgets to do it and stuff. So, I really enjoyed the amateur science community.
IVAN: And the telescope you received as a present, now I think most people will probably think of something like the telescope on pirate ships that you can extend and that there are lenses in, but I’m guessing that’s not what you received. It was probably some sort of technology involved there.
MICHAEL: It was a pretty simple Newtonion style telescope, where it reflects off the back mirror and you look into the side of the telescope, but otherwise I think it had a clock drive so you could plug it into the wall and it turns at the same rate as the Earth’s turning. That was the extent of the technology, but I immediately go into astrophotography, where I was putting cameras on it, and eventually got much nicer telescopes, and was taking photography which is really fun ‘cause you reveal the hidden.
There’s all sorts of stuff going on up there that you can see with a very cheap digital camera as long, as you have a telescope that can move with the Earth, and that lead into variable astronomy which is when I really, really got the bug.
IVAN: And there was a gamma ray burst I’m understanding that you caught on film?
MICHAEL: Yeah, I had my observatory, I had joined this through the AAVSO, the American Association of Variable Star Observers. They had this alert network for if things happened that we needed timely observations of. And gamma ray bursts were these mysterious things where we would see more energy in a few seconds, or minutes, than made sense.
We didn’t know why gamma ray bursts were happening, and it was very rare that we ever saw them in action. We would catch the gamma rays but we would never see what they call the optical afterglow. So, they would send alerts out for these gamma ray bursts, and usually they came at the wrong time, or the thing was below the horizon, and late one night I got the alert in, and I did the math and it was just rising, just a few, maybe 10 to 15 degrees off the horizon, and I was able to swing over there, took a bunch of images, couldn’t see it, stacked them all up, and then I saw it. I was like, That’s the afterglow.
And so I published it to the astronomy circulars and stuff. I just Googled it, because Nancy had mentioned in her podcast with you, which I listened to, that I was the first to do that, and I think I was the second to do it.
IVAN: Okay. Well, I’m glad that we have corroborated evidence here [laughing]. And you did that here in the Twin Cities? Where was that?
MICHAEL: Yeah, by Carver, Southwest Minneapolis, not far from where Badger Hill Brewing is now, but, friends of mine have a little hobby farm there and they let me put this observatory up. This dome, I would swivel by hand, and a pretty nice telescope in there where I could type in the coordinates to point to and it would slew over and point at it, and I could take a whole bunch of images and stack them up. I had a ton of fun out there just following variable stars and writing little papers about variable stars. And again, sort of sparked my interest in science as a mindset.
IVAN: Well, what do you mean by stack the images up?
MICHAEL: Well, basically, rather than just doing one hour-long exposure you can do 60 one-minute exposures and then just mathematically add them together. It’s just a way to drive down the noise and make things have higher signal-to-noise ratios. And with variable stars you want to take shorter exposures, because you’re looking for short-term variations, so, I would normally shoot between 100 and maybe 300 second images, but for all night, and either analyze them individually, or stack them up to make pretty pictures.
IVAN: And was the light from the city a problem?
MICHAEL: It was. You could sort or subtract it out for scientific observations. It’s a noise source basically, so, getting outside the city was important to me, because I was doing astrophotography from my home in Golden Valley, and the light pollution is a killer. So, just going 40 miles out of town and pointing away from town hopefully dropped the noise for a lot. I could actually see dark skies out there.
IVAN: Are you still doing that?
MICHAEL: I’m not. I still have my telescopes and I look at them lustily every once in awhile, but I had two kids, and it sort of took away from that elective time, and I didn’t want it to become something I felt like I had to do, so I was like, “no, you guys just stay there,” my telescopes, “I’ll come back, don’t worry.”
But the science stuff, as a brewer, as I got into home brewing I was instantly involved with the scientific side of brewing, like pH and how water works and the science behind brewing is an art. But also in science the art sucks if you don’t get the science right, you know.
IVAN: Yeah, right.
MICHAEL: So, just plotting data, gathering data. I have sensors all over the brewery that are using internet things, type technology IoT and posting to the Cloud, and I’ve got screens where I can look at pressure levels, water levels, flow levels, fermentation, diagnostics. So, it’s a very kind of high tech operation for the fact that we’re a very scrappy, small craft brewery.
IVAN: So, let’s take a step back here. So, you got into brewing as a home brewer and now you’re the majority owner of Badger Hill Brewing. And from what I understand you were the head brewer for some time as well. So, talk me through how someone who is a home brewer becomes the owner of a brewery, because there’s a lot of home brewers in the Twin Cities and across the nation that don’t have that story arch.
MICHAEL: Yeah, and a lot that do. A lot of the craft beer revolution has been by what I call “amateur brewers” going pro. For me, I had the scientific viewpoint of brewing so after having brought home brewed for a while, and I started home brewing in college in the eighties, so making beer was something that I had done, not a lot of, but for a long time I’d been interested in making beer because I love beer. In the eighties especially and even into the 2000s, you couldn’t find great beer. There was some, but it wasn’t fresh and it was really hard just to get great beer, so I still encourage people today, If you want really great fresh beer, brew it. It’s really fun. It’s easy and you make great beer.
You could see the craft beer revolution coming, and we had a brewery not far from my house which was Lucid Brewing at the time. So, I literally just showed up there and was like, “can I help?” I didn’t ask to be paid. I put labels on bottles. I cleaned bottles. I swept the floor. I did just entry level stuff, and eventually became a pro-brewer at Lucid Brewing, and that’s when I met the people who started Badger Hill, because they actually brewed out of Lucid Brewing.
So, I kind of was involved with Badger Hill right from the beginning, but not as an owner, ‘cause I was gonna start a brewery. Every home brewer eventually wants to start a brewery because it’s fun and you’re giving people your beer and they love it. They’re like, “holy shit dude, you’re great at this,” which I’m not saying they said that [laughing] about me, but they say that about home brewers because we make good beer, you know.
So, I definitely wanted to start a craft brewery and eventually hooked up with Badger Hill to do that and joined them as a minority owner and the head brewer in 2014, and then became the majority owner the beginning of last year because, you know, transitions.
IVAN: Yeah, things change, right. And so then at the beginning of this year it looks like there was a major undertaking to redo the brand and the positioning and this is how we’re going forward with the new look of Badger Hill Brewing.
MICHAEL: My original business partners and I are still great friends, and I respect and admire them, but once I didn’t have to debate things anymore, I could push things the way I like to do things which is like ask forgiveness, not permission. Really empower people to make changes themselves and not think that they have to ask to do it, and just have organic evolution occur. Everything evolves, and I think leadership sometimes stands in the way of evolution.
So, we did some rebranding and it evolved very naturally where we took this design from a one off beer we had made, and we’re like, “that’s like better than our logo,” and we’re like, “maybe that is our logo,” so we didn’t have a committee meet and go through options. We were just like, “that’s our new logo,” and everybody’s like, “yeah, it is.” And so we made it our new logo.
It’s been fun just tapping into the group intelligence of my excellent staff as we go forward just to keep things changing and keep them interesting, which is what I think the hallmark of being remarkable is. Literally, worthy of remark. That’s what I tell my staff like, Let’s be worthy of people telling someone about us. That’s our mission.
IVAN: How has the pandemic affected your brewing?
MICHAEL: It’s been up and down. When we got closed obviously it was a painful thing, all the bars/restaurants closed, that’s a painful thing. Luckily people want to drink beer. I mean, it’s a perfect time to drink beer in a sense. We were able to hang on with our To Go Growler business, and then once the Governor let us open up a little bit, people came out in “safe” droves because we’re all thirsty for social experiences and fresh beer. And they also want to support local businesses, so I felt very grateful that people were going out of their way, which you have to get to Badger Hill you have to go out of your way. So that people were coming out of their way to visit us and drink our beer and take home a growler with them. It’s been gratifying, and now we’re sort of not that much worse off in 2019 really, ‘cause 2019 wasn’t great either [laughing]. So things are not looking terrible for us but it changes all the time.
IVAN: And where exactly is Badger Hill? When it’s time for us to visit, you said it’ll be a little while to get there, just out of the city.
MICHAEL: It’s in Shakopee, Minnesota, so it’s right by Valley Fair, Canterbury Park the horse track and Mystic Lakes casino.
IVAN: Oh, right down there where all the entertainment is, right?
MICHAEL: Yeah, so there’s a lot of good options down there if you do come to visit us. There’s also another brewery in Shakopee, Shakopee Brew Hall, which are friends of ours. Lots of reasons to come down. I joke that it’s impossibly far away, ‘cause it seems like that. If you live in the Warehouse District or Northeast or something, it’s a 20 minute drive.
IVAN: That’s not that bad. Come on 20 minutes.
MICHAEL: That’s not impossibly far.
IVAN: Absolutely not. People make that trip all the time to go to work. Well, they used to anyway before the pandemic.
MICHAEL: Exactly. So, it’s worth a visit. We’ve done remarkable things there, and I think you have to show up to fully realize it.
IVAN: What’s your favorite brew right now?
MICHAEL: We have one called Turncoat, which is like a juicy pale ale and that’s my go to beer. I love hoppy beers. I got into brewing for hoppy beers. Our most popular has been Trader IPA. You can find that at a lot of bars, restaurants and liquor stores. We also have a Peanut Butter Stout which people love.
IVAN: A Peanut Butter Stout? [laughing]
MICHAEL: And, we’re always innovating on the beer side. It’s hard to put new beers out in the market in cans. We have our main three or four beers out there, in cans, but in the tap room it’s almost like every week where we’re releasing new beer.
IVAN: And are you guys distributed in the region here in the Twin Cities, or are you a little greater than Minnesota?
MICHAEL: We’re just in Minnesota, and really in the triangle between Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud, with the bulk of our customers being in the metro area. So, we’re a very local brewery.
IVAN: I love it. I love it. That’s so good. Can I hear a little more about your sensors? I kind of want to hear about the science that you have set up. When did you start doing that?
MICHAEL: Well, I find this fascinating. Just cut me off if I go on too long. [laughing]
IVAN: No, not at all, [laughing] I want to hear about it.
MICHAEL: We’re right next to this large Emerson plant, and Emerson is this public company that makes sensors for oil and gas primarily, but for all of industry, and they’re a giant, awesome company. They would stop by and have beer at Badger Hill, and I ended up getting to know some people and was telling them some of my goals from a data standpoint, and they just would hand me sensors. They’d be like, “here, check this out.” It’s like a wireless pressure meter was the first thing they gave me.
A pressure meter is sort of like what I call the least sexy sensor you can find, but I put this pressure sensor on a big water tank that we use for brewing so I could see the level of the tank, but I could see a lot more than the level of the tank. I could see what time the brewer got in and started the mashing in, how long it took him/her to mash in, when the second brewer got there, when we did the first knockout, the second knockout. I could really see our process unfolding in the level of this liquor tank. Liquor is a word for brewing water.
Inference is super powerful if you know what’s going on behind data. I can tell you a lot of things from this one little sensor. So, this introduced me to Modbus, which is this old technology for querying sensors and PLCs for data, and I started putting more sensors around. I plugged into our temperature control panel. And it’s all Modbus enabled, just out of the box. I was like, “holy shit. If I take an IoT thing that costs 20 dollars, hook it up into this Modbus, I get setpoints, temperature, whether the coolings on and off on all my tanks instantly.
So I could get tank utilizations, you could look at fermentation characteristics and all this cool stuff from just writing some arduino code basically, and some stuff on the Cloud side to capture the data. So I joke, and it might be true that I have more data than any craft brewery. [laughing] I’ve probably got 100 million rows of all this data from all these sensors and all done on a shoestring budget. Emerson is a great company, but for them to roll out at a brewery what I did, would, I’m sure be six figures in up type stuff, and for me it’s hundreds of dollars of type stuff.
IVAN: Plus all of your 25-30 years of experience and knowledge as well. There’s that part too that really helps you out.
MICHAEL: For sure. And also a lot of stuff I did not know like Modbus.
IVAN: Modbus is cool. I used to be in Honeywell, and we’d use that to collect data from all the sensors we had. That’s a trip down memory lane for me as well.
MICHAEL: And it was a super forward thinking protocol. I believe it was written in the seventies, but it’s two wires, and it does addressing, so you can address each device separately, and it’s really cool. It’s just very universally implemented, almost everything you buy probably does Modbus, which means a $10 arduino thing and you can get that data up on the Cloud.
MICHAEL: So, I just...go ahead.
IVAN: I was going to say it’s nice that it can interface with something like arduino, because arduino is so simple like, of course it’s going to interface there.
MICHAEL: Exactly. Two wires, you know.
IVAN: Yeah. Wow. Very cool. Well, your description of using science and brewing beer reminded me of a guy I’ve been watching on YouTube do cooking. His name is Kenji Alt Lopez, and he is this MIT graduate who really only ever wanted to cook, but studied science and ended up being an incredible chef and a James Baird award winning chef, and he has a restaurant out in California. And during this pandemic I’ve been watching him cook, and he talks about science, and how you really have to understand what’s going into your food just to make it do the things you want it to do. And he has this incredibly easy recipe for mayonnaise. And I always thought that mayonnaise is really hard to make. You know what? It’s not. If you just put the right things together and use the right tools, it’s great and easy to do as well.
MICHAEL: That sounds awesome. I’ve always thought with cooking it’s like, why don’t I hear people talking about pH more in cooking. Like, what your water is like is going to affect the acidity of things a lot, and you might not get the results that your recipe told you you would get because you’re using different source ingredients.
IVAN: [laughing] Exactly.
MICHAEL: So, I knew there had to be people like that out there, like, “no, let’s bring pH meters [laughing] into the kitchen, please.”
IVAN: Yeah, he’s great. We’ll link to him in the show notes, and I can always share the link with you later on as well. Speaking about science and math, you had a whole podcast episode on the math behind the COVID pandemic, and I wanted to talk a little bit about that, because there was some graphs that I’ve seen and then some other videos that I’ve seen that I thought might interest you. So, do you want to give us about a 10-second summary of that podcast episode that you talked about math on?
MICHAEL: Yeah, it was basically I think in March or something of 2020 where the shutdowns were just happening for the pandemic, and exponential growth was in the news all the time, still is. I’ve always been fascinated by the number e and by such exponential function, and like I say in the podcast, “viruses are inherently exponential.” It doesn’t mean it’s just going to be a nice smooth bell curve but they’re fundamentally exponential in terms of how they propagate.
So, I just wanted to explain to people how cool the number e was. How it’s used in finance, physics, epidemiology, all these things and try to shed some light on what we mean when we’re talking about that. And then also trying to understand COVID ‘cause I think it’s a data miner’s dream, it’s a freaking nightmare, but it’s a dream to have all this data about this pandemic. I don’t think we’ve ever had good data on a pandemic before really, so it’s just a fun time to be like a data hacker.
IVAN: Yeah, and I’m fascinated by the number e as well. The fact that these natural phenomena all basically do the same thing, and if you think about it, they’re phenomena that don’t really know about each other. There’s no information that’s been relayed from the natural decay of an atom over to a virus that is also exploding in the same general pattern. Yeah, e is awesome. There’s this great video by MinutePhysics. Do you know the YouTube channel MinutePhysics?
MICHAEL: Not until you shared that link. I watched the video you shared and it was super well done.
IVAN: Yeah, the guy, he’s just so good at explaining complex physics in a really approachable and understandable way, and he’s got a ton of videos that you should check out. But, the basis for our listeners of this video was how to tell if you’re actually winning against a virus. I always wonder, how are we going to know when we get on the other side of that bell curve, and it seems like plotting the data of how many cases and deaths we have against time doesn’t really give us what we want.
We want some other, sort of, indicator that tells us if we’ve won or not, and these guys talk about plotting the number of new cases versus the number of total cases, and then you see this cliff, you see this precipitous drop in the data. It’s so hard to talk about [laughing] charts in audio, but I looked at those charts and I thought to myself, Oh man, I haven’t seen the cliff yet for the United States. I’ve seen it in other countries. I’m a little worried. I’m a lot worried. I’m very pessimistic.
And I listened to your podcast and I was like, “wow you sound so optimistic in that podcast given that it was in March.” How do you feel about it now? Looking at the numbers and knowing that there’s all this data, what do you feel right now about it all?
MICHAEL: As that video pointed out, the MinutePhysics video, the conflation of testing rates and infection rates is intermingled in the data. It’s really hard to tell if how what we’re seeing relates to the actual infection rate, which is most of us are concerned about. It’s almost like a lesson in statistics. We will never know the actual infection rate. We’re trying to estimate it by looking at data, and that data includes total cases, new cases, hospitalizations, deaths, all these things, but we’ll never really know the true infection rate, so we’re trying to infer it from the data. And exponential growth, you can see when it ends very easily, especially if you’re looking at the rate of change, you can see it curving over, but that doesn’t mean tomorrow is going to behave, especially when testing rates are conflated in there.
Trump’s an idiot, but he’s right about one thing, if you test more you’re going to find more, and it took a long time for states to get their testing regimes working well. So, we absolutely saw more cases, because of more testing, but that’s certainly not the whole story. There’s a growth in infection rates as well, so we’re seeing double peaks. The time of my podcast, we had not seen anything have a double peak ever, and now we’re seeing these double peaks and you’re trying to unwind, just like, how much of this is testing, how much is infection, and how do we tell the difference.
So, I think a year from now, we’ll really learn a lot about how our thinking was wrong, and my thinking was certainly wrong in March in terms of if we’re going down that means the exponential’s sort of over. It’s like, well, no, there’s more than one exponential going on, it’s a whole bunch of them stacked together, and even though one virus, if you will, one infectious load is going to behave exponentially, there’s superposition of a whole bunch of those together, and in environments that we have no control or even knowledge of.
So, I think what we’re seeing is just the chaos that not understanding yields us. Even today, I think we understand very little about what this virus is doing.
IVAN: I think you’re right. I think we understand very little, and it behooves us to remain vigilant and to wear masks, and to social distance for as long as we can. I’m just thinking about the Fall and going back to school and wondering how my kids are going to deal with that, and whether we’re even going to have school this Fall. You mentioned you had kids. How are you feeling about the Fall and upcoming school?
MICHAEL: Well, I kind of sit in the middle of this. I feel like the cost of closing school, closing businesses, curtailing our economy, having people be out of work, depression, divorce, poverty, there’s a ton of downsides of saying, “no, everyone should stay absolutely home. Close everything.” There’s a ton of cost to that as well and in human lives and stuff too.
IVAN: Of course.
MICHAEL: 2In a sense more of us need to get the virus safely in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the hospitals, until we can get a vaccine, so I don’t think hiding from it alone is not the only way to do it. People are going to die no matter what, and I don’t think you can look at it and say, “well, kids will die.” Yes, kids will die either way from how we make these decisions.
There’s no case where kids don’t die or where people don’t die. So, it’s a super tough problem to solve. I feel like most of us can get exposed to COVID and not have it hospitalize or kill us, and the more of that that happens is good. But as soon as you give it to grandma and she dies, it no longer seems very good. So I don’t know the right answer.
I think we do have to have a balanced approach of, no let’s not hide from it forever, but let’s also be as smart and informed as we can be. I would send my kids to school, I think. If the Governor and everyone else thinks that we can do this safely and teachers are onboard, I think we have to roll the dice a little bit.
IVAN: Yeah, it’s a really difficult decision and everybody has to make the right decision and what’s good for their own family. I think if the sign shows that we’re better off with the kids at home, then we do that. If the sign shows we’re better off with the kids at school and the Governor mandates it or the Governor has good data and there’s a good state law, then I think I’m in favor of that too.
I would love to see a vaccine though, and I’m kind of concerned that a vaccine isn’t actually the silver bullet that everybody thinks it is. It feels like there’s, as with anything rolling out a vaccine is going to be fraught with cases that don’t work, cases where people are killed by it, cases where it’s super effective. I’d love to see a vaccine though. I think we all would.
MICHAEL: Absolutely, and that’s gonna be the only way that this ends from what we know about the vaccine right now. With the weird political environment we’re in where masks have become a polarizing issue, vaccine is going to be too. There’s people that think really dumb things, that you could get COVID from 5G.
IVAN: Yeah, what’s up with that?
MICHAEL: It’s hard to believe. It seems like satire, but with a vaccine too, people have, the anti-vaxxers have been suspicious of vaccines for health and/or conspiracy theory reasons, and that’s not going to change. Like you said, how many people have to die from a vaccine before people think it’s some plot to kill white people or whatever it is. I have no fucking idea. But, it’s not going to go easy. I think we’ve learned that. Nothing is going to go easy here.
IVAN: No, nothing is going to go easy, and the election is coming up here and boy, I don’t think that compounded by a Coronavirus, compounded with the economy, is going to be easy either. Man, what a great way to end a podcast, huh? [laughing]
MICHAEL: [laughing] Yeah, and an upnote.
IVAN: Well, you’re working on your brewery. Is there anything else that you have going on right now that you wanted to plug before we say goodbye?
MICHAEL: Well, yeah, I guess I’d be remiss in that I’m still a musician and I still write and release music, so, if you look me up, I’d say check out some of my tunes.
IVAN: Yeah, we’ll link to your Spotify account. Where are you publishing your things?
IVAN: Awesome. We’ll put those in the show notes, and we’ll make sure we link to all of those.
MICHAEL: Awesome. Fun chat and thank you.
IVAN: Yeah. Thank you so much for spending your time with me. It’s been really awesome talking to you.
You’ve been listening to The TEN7 Podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message. We love hearing from you. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.