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Monday, April 18, 2016

You are a physicist. And you are working at a newspaper. But you don't write articles. What do you do? And why?

As I am getting this question a lot, I am trying to give an answer here.

To be quick: As a data scientist at Neue Z├╝rcher Zeitung I am dealing with predictive analytics, statistical modeling, advanced data analysis tasks as well as everything "algorithms" (e.g. recommendation & personalization). I am mainly using R for tasks involving small data and Apache Spark for tasks dealing with not-so-small data. Python and bash are my favorite scripting languages. I just happen to have a background in theoretical physics -- could be engineering, math or computer science as well.

But why media? I have always been looking for challenges and opportunities, intellectual and societal. And, well, being in media these days one finds both. The publishing business is super exciting, because everything is changing: how news are done, the way stories are told, distribution channels, the audience, the technology, the business models, ... Indeed, many of these issues are still open, are just being explored and the future of many publishing houses is still uncertain. So why is this?

Not-so-long ago news were mainly distributed using one medium: paper. For the individual there were exactly two possibilities: either you want to be informed daily, then you'd have to pay for a newspaper subscription, or you don't. If you (or your parents) happen to belong to the first group, chances are you only had one daily newspaper subscription. At the end, they are not cheap (NZZ subscription for example is roughly 600CHF/year) and you chose the one that suited you best. However, fast-forward less than 10 years and you find that reality today looks quite different. If you want to be informed, you can do this mainly for "free" on the www. Also, as you have immediate access to all these manifold resources and they do not cost you a dime, you have a much wider variety at hand. No need to stick to one newspaper. 
So newspapers are not only suffering from the problem that technology has been changing fast (from print to web 1.0 to web 2.0 to mobile,...), but that this change undermines the very basis of the (news) publishing industry: loyal customers who are paying for the service you provide and, given this loyal, well-known customer base, to be able to monetize on the advertisement market. 
Actually, from a balance-sheet perspective, the publishing industry has mainly been an advertisement industry -- only 20%-40% of revenue have been revenues due to subscriptions -- the rest was advertisement.

So what do you do, when the very basis of your business model is eroding? You innovate -- and this is where, among others, people like me come in.
Innovation comes in two parts. First you innovate in the sense that you optimize your current operations: you cut costs were possible and increase efficiency. And data, clearly, should be the basis for this: understand the numbers, then you can optimize. For example in marketing: use predictive analytics to help you decide where to put your marketing budget best. Or use customer analytics to better understand the need of your readership and to improve the customer experience accordingly.
The second part is what I like to call "true innovation". True innovation for me is not mere optimization, but novelty -- doing things that have not been done before. For this, on the one hand, data can be used as a decision criterium ("where to innovate"). On the other hand, data can also be the very basis for innovation. Here I am mainly thinking about data-driven / algorithmic products & services: things like smarter search, automated recommendations or personalization, in all its facets, that have the potential to greatly improve the customer experience, explore new ways of news consumption and reach a more tech-savvy audience.

I am contributing my part to this transformation at NZZ. Founded in 1780, NZZ is one of the oldest still published newspapers in the world. A heritage like this comes with a lot of responsibility -- balancing the tradition with the modern is a worthwhile challenge. At the end, a diverse and well-functioning media landscape is the basis for democracy. And I am glad to be part of it.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Why you should go to college

April 2016: just found this weblog that I drafted ... don't know when. Certainly some time end 2012. Don't know why I did not publish it at that time. I still agree. So here it is:


I just read the following slashdot

http://news.slashdot.org/story/1212/03/1317234/just-say-no-to-college

commenting on an article from the NYTimes

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/fashion/saying-no-to-college.html?pagewanted=all

And, as an academic, I simply cannot not comment on this. First of all: Kids, please, think twice! Especially the part where he talks about not attending college at all. Let me explain why.
Often people confuse correlations and causality. Example: because Einstein played the violin, if I play the violin I will be super smart. There is no correlation here (at least not in this direction). Dropping college, because Mark Zuckerberg dropped college and now is who he is, will not bring you big bucks. Not seriously attending college at all and instead traveling through India will not make you a legend.

In general I disagree with how college education is judged in the article. Maybe what follows is simply my European perspective, but anyways. Attending University is about more than just "getting a degree at the end". It is about developing your mind, in an environment where free-thinking is allowed and, even more, specifically wanted. You are surrounded by smart people 24-7, somewhat isolated from reality. This enclave permits you to read and learn and work on the things you would not be able to in "the corporate world" - simply because in reality you would have to think about surviving. University life is different - and it is supposed to be. It is a period in your life to not worry about these things - because you have a scholarship, your parents can afford to pay or (if you happen to be in the USA) you got a students loan. But you won't need a lot of money anyways: you share a flat, you ride a bike, you eat noodles every day. But you are free from all wordly hastles. Free to think. Free to learn. Free to transform yourself into a beautiful and sharp mind. In classes (sure, not in all) you will be exposed to cutting-edge research or crazy theories you will never ever need in real life but that are simply fascinating and mind-boggling. You will spend nights awake discussing with your mates about Darwin and Freud and Einstein and this fu**** integral that took you the whole night to solve. College is about suffering on many levels: intellectually, financially and even physically. You will be some kind of ascetic, living only for the mere purpose of embedding yourself in an intellectual world and to fill your head with knowledge. College will lead you to the edge of wisdom, to the edge of your mind and will push you beyond. Sure, a hacking course will teach you how to program Angry Birds and eventually to become a Millionaire. But attending university is a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience. An experience you will only be able to appreciate at a young age. An experience and exposition to human culture you should not miss. Sure, if during this experience you realize that you had enough and instead are inspired to found an awesome company, then dropping out might be the right choice. But remember (and this was the case for Zuckerberg and Brin and many others): college atmosphere most likely was the reason that you had this spark of inspiration in the first place.