How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Nathaniel Popper, who covers cryptocurrencies and financial technology for The Times from San Francisco, discussed the tech he’s using.
There are many cryptocurrencies and they often fluctuate in value. What tech products do you use to keep your finger on the pulse?
Most conversations about cryptocurrencies tend to start with the price, and there are now countless services that track the ups and downs of the thousands of digital tokens out there.
The most popular site, Coinmarketcap.com, was briefly getting more visits than The Wall Street Journal’s home page last winter. My personal favorite is Onchainfx.com, which makes it easy to compare lots of interesting stats, like how many people are using a coin, and how intensely programmers are working on the underlying software.
Beyond the price, though, cryptocurrencies are so fascinating because of the communities that develop around them. People tend to congregate on Reddit, Twitter and Telegram, so I have to check in there to see what people are talking about. This is also where you tend to see the first hints that projects are scammy or fraudulent.
For communicating with sources, I have to use way too many messaging apps. In China, where cryptocurrencies are big, everyone is on WeChat. Most other sources outside the United States are on either WhatsApp or Telegram. In the United States, the anti-government folks — and the privacy advocates who are concerned about surveillance — only want to chat on Signal, which encrypts messages in both directions.
You also cover financial tech. How has technology changed the way people do banking and what do you think of all the fintech start-ups?
There have been several advances in online financial services that seem like real progress to me and I’m always surprised that more people don’t take advantage of them. At the most basic level, the advent of online check deposits has made it so that I don’t need to go into a bank, which I’ll be happy to never do again.
Online banking has also made it easier to shop for better interest rates and benefits. Guided by sites like Bankrate and Nerdwallet, I’ve moved my money around quite a bit as I look for the best deals. I currently have an account with Ally, which is giving me 1.8 percent on my cash — compared with the 0.1 percent that Wells Fargo is offering — and reimburses me for any fees I get charged when I use out-of-network ATMs.
I do the same shopping for credit cards, often following the advice of The Points Guy to find the best perks and free miles. For people with good credit, there’s little reason not to be getting back 2 percent on everything you purchase, and for people with worse credit, it is now much easier to find lower interest rates.
Beyond these banking services, though, I’ve been somewhat underwhelmed by the products being offered by the enormous crop of fintech start-ups that have popped up over the last decade. I’ve tried lots of apps and tools to get my financial life in order, but few of them are sufficiently intuitive, or add much beyond what you can get from traditional providers like Vanguard and Mint — or a simple Excel spreadsheet.
When I was house hunting last year, I did use Credit Karma to stay on top of my credit score. But beyond that, financial arrangements are incredibly personal, which seems to make it difficult to automate. It’s also harder for people to experiment with financial apps than with other online services because it often requires entering lots of banking details that people don’t want to share. At this point, the only financial apps I regularly use beyond my bank are Venmo and Square Cash, which have made it so much easier to send money to friends and family.
You’re not allowed to invest in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies for ethical reasons. But if you could, would you?
When people ask me whether they should buy cryptocurrencies, my answer is almost always no. All of these digital tokens have a much higher chance of going to zero than most investments that are available to small-time investors.
I do make an exception for people who are genuinely interested in the novel qualities of Bitcoin and other virtual currencies, like the ability to hold money on a shared ledger, rather than in a bank, and to send money without going through intermediaries. But even for these folks, the place to start is by buying a very small quantity — say $50 of Bitcoin or Ether — to try it out and see what it can do. If, at that point, you still think this is going to take over the world, then buy more — but only what you are willing to lose.
Cryptocurrencies have tanked recently. Will the likes of Bitcoin, Ether and Ripple ever be worth nothing?
That is a distinct possibility. Even one of Bitcoin’s biggest cheerleaders, Wences Casares, has said there is still a 20 percent chance that it goes to zero.
For most other coins, which have weathered many fewer attacks and unexpected hurdles, the chances are undoubtedly higher. There are still basic questions about whether the technology underlying virtual currencies can scale to take on more users and preserve the privacy of those users. There are also economic questions about how the prices will behave, and how users will respond to the changing prices if and when more people start using the coins.
At this point, these are all still experiments in what happens when you put together a bunch of cutting-edge cryptography, legal theory and economics. But that is also what makes it so interesting.
What tech products do you obsess over in your personal life?
My love of music has me constantly searching for better streaming radio stations without ads or talk. I am also always trying to make better playlists on Spotify in the hopes that it will help Spotify better find new music for me. I am fascinated with why Spotify doesn’t give me better suggestions and generally just offers up the most boring version of what I’ve already listened to.
In both my personal and work life I’m a big user of services like Instapaper and Evernote that help keep all my reading and notes in sync across various devices. I do my best thinking when I am moving, so I wrote much of my book and the drafts of many articles in the Evernote app on my phone.
Around the house, we use an Amazon Echo and a Google Home device to set timers and play music for my kids. But I also love testing all the ways that these “smart” devices are still terrible at answering the most basic questions and completing the most basic tasks. One of my favorites was when I asked Alexa to play a symphony by Beethoven and she said: “I couldn’t find any symphony songs by Beethoven.”