Does the name Nathaniel Popper ring any bells?
He is the author of Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money.
The book published in 2015 offers insights into the early days of Bitcoin. It describes the economic jostling within the young industry. It also highlights the hurdles the cryptocurrency had to jump for the mainstream to embrace it.
But writing this book is not all that Nathaniel Popper is known for. He is a reporter at The New York Times.
And since his book hit bookstore shelves, he has become some sort of expert on Bitcoin, especially amongst journalists in the mainstream media.
He has also kept churning out investigative reports on the cryptocurrency. The New York Times published his latest on 29th June 2016. He titled it “How China Took Center Stage in Bitcoin’s Civil War”.
In it, he tries to explain the leverage that Chinese Bitcoin miners have over the rest of the community. This is especially in the context of the debate on scaling the block size.
Over 70 percent of the transactions on the Bitcoin network are going through just four Chinese companies, known as Bitcoin mining pools — and most flowed through just two of those companies, he writes,
That gives them what amounts to veto power over any changes to the Bitcoin software and technology.
A failed experiment
Coinciding with this publication, Planet Money, a podcast that NPR produces two days a week invited Nathaniel to be its guest in its 708th episode, aptly titled “Bitcoin Divided”. NPR (National Public Radio) is an American non-profit media organization.
The program starts with the host, David Kestenbaum, explaining to the listeners how Nathaniel tried to send him $5 in Bitcoin, and days later the transaction wasn’t going through.
“Bitcoin is having some problems. We did this little experiment. A friend of mine (Nathaniel) tried to send me some bitcoin….. And we waited for the money to come through…Days later I looked at my digital wallet and there was just no sign of the transaction at all. It just disappeared.”
Then Nathaniel steps in to explain why the disagreement within the community on how to scale is the cause of that. But before that, there is an ad message reminding listeners that the episode is sponsored by Discover, a US credit card company.
Interestingly when David asks how long it will take before he has the bitcoins in his wallet, Nathaniel tells him hours to a day. This is supposed to be before he knows the transaction will delay.
Why is that important? On average its takes 10 minutes for the Bitcoin network to confirm a transaction. That’s the time Nathaniel should have quoted. The long delay should have come as quite a surprise.
Some time later, Mike Hearn is introduced to share his experience of trying to save the network and how the Bitcoin community couldn’t let him. He says that was despite him designing just the right fix for the problem.
Mike Hearn was a Bitcoin core developer before he quit at the beginning of 2016. This was after the Bitcoin community declined to adopt BitcoinXT, his version of the core Bitcoin software. At the time of his exit he had described Bitcoin as “a failed experiment”.
When David asks him whether Bitcoin is dying, Mike Hearn pauses, takes a deep breath and says,
Well. To me, a system that has no future is not interesting. Maybe it is not dead. But it is not interesting.
An intentionally messed up experiment
The other person heard in the podcast is Bobby Lee, the co-founder, and CEO of BTCC, one of the largest Bitcoin mining firms based in China. And his is a voice from the interview Nathaniel did while doing research for his New York Times article.
Bobby explains why Chinese miners found it hard to accept Mike Hearn’s proposal.
We felt that it was a little strange to be asked to switch to something different. And we actually ended up not supporting it, he states.
Why didn’t our $5 Bitcoin transaction go through? I teamed up with @davidkestenbaum and @planetmoney to find out, Nathaniel later tweets the podcast.
And it wasn’t long before Bitcoin enthusiasts were on his case.
Because you deliberately sabotaged it so you could write this article? Just thinking aloud here, responded one user.
Because you didn’t include a fee and are spreading FUD, chipped in another.
And Twitter wasn’t the only place where Nathaniel got blasted. The Bitcoin subreddit was rife too.
They send a $5 transaction over the network with no fee attached and wonder why it takes longer. But they don’t mention that they purposely left out the fee. Dishonest Media, one redditor observes.
No good scaling solutions….!? No mention of SegWit, Lightning Network, or Sidechains. Completely one-sided. Simply awful. Another terrible mainstream media piece on Bitcoin,adds another.
There are those who are debating whether this kind of coverage would positively or negatively impact on the adoption of Bitcoin. One of those is Jim Harper, who is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.
In an opinion piece Coindesk published, he states that the perception that Bitcoin is broken needs to be controlled.
Now Bitcoin is broken”, he writes, “At least in the eyes of millions of New York Times readers and Planet Money listeners. It is looking to them like Bitcoin is a technically constrained payment system that is hard to use.