Why ‘Fred’ Is the Best Friend of Economics WritersHow do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Neil Irwin, a senior economics correspondent at The Upshot in Washington, discussed the tech he’s using.
You are a self-described Luddite. What makes you say that?
Obviously that is a relative term for anyone who works in digital media in 2018. I have an iPhone in my pocket almost all my waking hours, and spend an enormous proportion of my time, both at work and at home, looking at a screen.
But I tend to be a late adopter of new tools, intentionally. I think of myself as a bit of a free rider on the people who really have fun experimenting with the latest app or gadget, and start using something new only when the evidence is overwhelming that it will make my life better.
So I do most of my writing in Microsoft Word, the same program I used for term papers in high school. I got an iPhone a few years after everybody else because I liked my old BlackBerry so much.
I also favor using different devices for different purposes, which I realize is a little old-school. When I record an interview, I bring a little Olympus digital recorder instead of using an app on my phone. I’ve been using those digital recorders for my whole career and know exactly how it works — and I know it won’t get messed up if somebody calls me in the middle of the interview.
There’s a psychological, sanity-maintenance element, too. At home, I have an old-fashioned clock radio next to my bed because I don’t want to sleep near my phone and be tempted to check my email and look at Twitter right before bed or if I wake up in the middle of the night.
For the same reason, I keep a laptop in the living room for piddling around, a desktop computer in my home office for doing serious work and a Kindle for reading books. It’s a bit of a psychological trick: My brain knows that each device is for a different purpose.
What is your theory behind this Luddism?
I think most digital technology is more mature than we think. People have been using personal computers since the 1980s, and smartphones for more than a decade. And the thing about a mature product is that improvements tend to be marginal rather than transformational.
So if you go to a hardware store and pick up a hammer, it probably has a better grip and is made of a stronger material than it would have been 10 years ago, but it’s still basically the same hammer. The improvements aren’t enough that you would buy a new one just to upgrade — you’d wait until your old one broke or got lost. I think more technology products than many tech people would like to admit are at or approaching that phase of maturity.
I’m not sure that there is any app or device I use frequently that didn’t exist in something close to its current form five years ago. Other than Uber for transportation and Dropbox for storing files across devices, it may be more like 10 years. I only recently started ordering pizza with an app instead of by calling the pizza place. And that was because my wife made fun of me.
Economics is a topic full of data. What tools do you use to parse that data? And what sites or apps do you use to keep on top of the latest economic trends?
Every economics writer’s best friend is named Fred. It stands for Federal Reserve Economic Data, and it’s maintained by the Fed bank in St. Louis. It allows you to use a single interface to pull, at last count, 509,000 different data series from 87 different sources of economic and financial data.
A big part of the advantage is simply that once you’re familiar with the interface, which is intuitive, you don’t have to relearn the data retrieval tool for each statistical agency every time. So, for example, I write about the European economy only now and again, so I have to relearn how to use the Eurostat database every time if the data isn’t in Fred. That’s not for the faint of heart.
I generally use Microsoft Excel for data analysis, which is powerful enough to do most of the stuff I know how to do on my own. That’s to say, if a project requires a bigger data set or more complex statistical techniques than Excel can handle, I probably will need help from a colleague with more advanced programming skills anyway.
Or for a quick calculation of, say, percentage change I use a Texas Instruments scientific calculator I keep on my desk (see previous discussion of separate devices for separate purposes).
What tech do you use a lot at home that you don’t use at work?
I use a Bose SoundTouch 30 speaker to play music via Pandora when I’m around the house. I basically listen only to a single station that is built around songs I liked when I first set the system up seven or eight years ago.
My wife makes fun of me for that, too. She was very amused that I was taking part in this exercise.