RIP Tony Hsieh (1973 - 2020) / Humans + Tech - #56

+ Spaceflight does some weird things to astronauts’ bodies + Your old electronics are poisoning people at this toxic dump in Ghana + The apps keeping Rio’s residents safe from stray bullets


Sadly, Tony Hsieh, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Zappos, passed away on Friday [Katie Abel, Yahoo].

Tony was an exemplary human who used technology as a force for good. People like him are few in this world.

As CEO of Zappos, his mantra was to Deliver WOW Through Service. Zappos’ culture was built around this, and the Zappos call centre is famed for their legendary customer service.

In his own words, here’s one story from Tony Hsieh’s book “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose” [Amazon]

The majority of phone calls don’t result in an immediate order. Sometimes a customer may be calling because it’s her first time going through the returns process, and she just wants a little help stepping through the process. Other times, a customer may call because there’s a wedding coming up this weekend and he just wants a little fashion advice. And sometimes, we get customers who call simply because they’re a little lonely and want someone to talk to.

I’m reminded of a time when I was in Santa Monica, California, a few years ago at a Skechers sales conference. After a long night of bar-hopping, a small group of us headed up to someone’s hotel room to order some food. My friend from Skechers tried to order a pepperoni pizza from the room-service menu, but was disappointed to learn that the hotel we were staying at did not deliver hot food after 11:00 pm. We had missed the deadline by several hours.

In our inebriated state, a few of us cajoled her into calling Zappos to try to order a pizza. She took us up on our dare, turned on the speakerphone, and explained to the (very) patient Zappos rep that she was staying in a Santa Monica hotel and really craving a pepperoni pizza, that room service was no longer delivering hot food, and that she wanted to know if there was anything Zappos could do to help.

The Zappos rep initially was a bit confused by the request, but she quickly recovered and put us on hold. She returned two minutes later, listing the five closest places in the Santa Monica area that were still open and delivering pizzas at that time.

Now, truth be told, I was a little hesitant to include this story because I don’t actually want everyone who reads this book to start calling Zappos and ordering pizza. But I just think it’s a fun story to illustrate the power of not having scripts in your call center and empowering your employees to do what’s right for your brand, no matter how unusual or bizarre the situation.

As for my friend from Skechers? After that phone call, she’s now a customer for life.

—Tony Hsieh

From listening to customer’s pandemic worries [Jenny Gross, The New York Times], to a customer service rep buying an air ticket to hand-deliver some expensive jewellery a customer left in their Zappos return box [Micah Solomon, Forbes], and several more incredible customer service stories [Infinit-o], Zappos fully embodies Tony’s vision for WOW service.

Here’s a recollection from Josh Reich about what a wonderful person Tony was.

RIP Tony. If more of us can be a bit more like you, the world will be a much better place.

Spaceflight does some weird things to astronauts’ bodies

We have a lot to figure out before we send humans on long space flights [Neel V. Patel, MIT Technology Review].

Astronaut Scott Kelly famously lived and worked on the International Space Station for 340 days—the longest time an American has spent in space. His mission gave scientists some vital insight into what happens to the human body during long-duration stays in orbit. That’s because Kelly has an identical twin, Mark (also an astronaut, and now soon to be a US senator). The Kelly twins offered scientists a rare opportunity: as they studied what happened to Scott’s body during his year in space, they had the benefit of a control subject, Mark, who stayed on Earth.

The NASA Twins Study provided more evidence for what we already suspected. In a confined capsule under microgravity and prolonged exposure to radiation, the immune system takes a hit, the eye changes shape for the worse, and there’s some significant loss in muscle and bone mass.

But we also learned about some surprising effects. Kelly experienced changes in his gut microbiome, his cognitive abilities slowed down, certain genes would turn off and on, and his chromosomes experienced structural changes. 

Having the ability to study the effects of spaceflight on humans with twins is the perfect scenario to really understand what changes happen in the body and how we can mitigate them.

Six common changes occur in astronauts when in space:

  1. Oxidative stress (an excessive accumulation of free radicals in the body’s cells)

  2. DNA damage

  3. Dysfunction of the mitochondria

  4. Changes in gene regulation

  5. Alterations in the length of telomeres (the ends of chromosomes, which shorten with age)

  6. Changes in the gut microbiome. 

The longer telomeres have also been noticed on climbers of Mount Everest.

Most of the changes reverse themselves when astronauts return to Earth, but some gene expression changes do not. Until researchers and scientists figure out how to mitigate these changes in Space, long-haul journeys such as trips to Jupiter and Saturn may not be possible. Mars may be ok.

“I don’t think we’re close to sending untrained people into space for really long periods of time,” says Scott Kelly. 

Physiologically, he thinks it’s probably safe to send people to Mars and back. In the distant future, however, “instead of going to Mars, we’re going to be going to the moons of Jupiter or Saturn,” he says. “You’re going to be in space for years. And at that point, we’ll have to take a closer look at artificial gravity as a mitigation. I wouldn’t want to be arriving on the surface of another planetary body and not be able to function. A year or so is workable. Several years probably isn’t.”

Your old electronics are poisoning people at this toxic dump in Ghana

A dump that spans 20 acres in Accra, Ghana, is home to e-waste from all over the world [Jacklin Kwan, WIRED]. Burner boys – a name given to young boys and men who try to salvage copper, gold, steel, or aluminium from the gadgets – make about £2 on a good day and £0.50 on a bad day.

The burner boys have no money to buy tools or protective equipment, so the work consists of smashing monitor screens using just a hammer or a stone to get at the valuable materials inside: copper, gold, steel and aluminium. When the skies are clear, Ibrahim and the other burners set fire to the e-waste – melting away the plastic insulation around wires or in circuit boards to salvage the metal. The black smoke makes Ibrahim cough incessantly and the scrapyard air smells of chemicals and incinerated rubber.


Work ends at six in the evening when the sun begins to set and the toll of breathing in the toxic fumes sets in. Ibrahim has chest pains and headaches due to the smoke, and Shaibu sees streaks of blood in the phlegm he expels during his coughing fits. Sometimes when he can afford the expense, he buys a traditional remedy from a man who sells medicine to the e-waste burners – a drink that he says will “wash his heart.” Another burner boy, who is only 16, complained of body aches that painkillers did nothing to ease.

Though the burners speak of similar symptoms, the long-term exposure to e-waste pollution on adults is poorly researched. However, the severe health consequences for children who are born to e-waste worker parents or who are e-waste workers themselves are better documented. Workers on e-waste sites in India experienced decreased lung function, skin disorders, and gastric diseases that cause cramps and liver damage. Pregnant women in those same conditions also experience an increase in stillborn and premature births. Some of Shaibu’s colleagues who became too ill to continue work returned to their home villages in the north. “Some never recovered. Others are being treated with traditional medicine in their villages,” says Shaibu.

There are numerous challenges to solving this problem. The increasing use of electronics means e-waste is on the rise.

Although the 1992 Basel Convention criminalised the transport of hazardous materials from OECD countries to the developing world, there is an exemption for electronics that will be repaired upon arrival. This exemption is often misused.

Over 85% of electronics imported into Ghana is from the EU. A significant portion is immediately dumped as e-waste. Even though second-hand markets are huge and some of these electronics are refurbished and resold, they don’t last very long and find their way back to the dump soon after.

The apps keeping Rio’s residents safe from stray bullets

Shootouts are common in Brazil’s cities. 106 people have died from stray bullets in 2020, just in Rio. The favelas are the most dangerous areas. A few apps have launched [Raphael Tsavkko Garcia, MIT Technology Review], that are trying to help crowdsource the locations of these shootouts to warn people and keep them safe as well as to pressure their politicians to address the matter.

Living in Rio is like “being a hostage to violence,” says Rafael César, who lives in the neighborhood of Cordovil, west of the city. 

Like many residents, César has started using apps to help keep himself safe. These crowdsourced apps help users keep track of dangerous zones on their way home and let residents warn others about which areas to avoid. 

One of the most popular apps, Fogo Cruzado (Cross Fire), was started by a journalist named Cecilia Olliveira. She had planned to do a story about victims of stray bullets in the city, but the information she needed was not available. So in 2016 she set up a Google Docs spreadsheet to collect information about shootings, logging where and when they happened, how many victims there were, and more. That same year, with the help of Amnesty International, the spreadsheet was turned into an app and a database to help those monitoring and reporting on armed violence. The app has been downloaded over 250,000 times and covers both Rio and Recife.

Another app, Onde Tem Tiroteio (OTT), which means Where There’s Shooting, started as a Facebook page created by four friends in 2016. OTT covers the entire state of Rio and São Paulo. Its network of users double-checks the accuracy of shooting reports.

Once you download the OTT app you can choose what you want to receive alerts about, whether it’s shootings, floods, or demonstrations. Each anonymous report is reviewed by a network of more than 7,000 volunteers on the ground and confirmed before being uploaded to the app. Weekly reports are also released to the press. More than 4.7 million people used the app last year, according to Dennis Coli, one of OTT’s cofounders.

While these apps help keep people out of harm’s way, their other goal is to put pressure on the authorities as well as serving as data that can be used to challenge similar data compiled by governments. Fogo Cruzado deliberately chose the city of Recife as the second city they launched in because the state government stopped releasing data and started censoring journalists.

In this way, data collection apps can help challenge the information provided by governments, says Yasodara Córdova, an MPA/Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts.

In the past, the state had a monopoly on official information, but today things have changed, she says. “It is healthy to maintain redundant databases, collected by active communities, so that data can be challenged in order to keep the civic space open and global.”

Often, technology is used for negative purposes. But Fogo Cruzado and OTT are showing how technology can be used positively to make people’s lives safer as well as hold the government more accountable, in a way that only apps with the power of crowdsourcing can.

Quote of the week

A lot of people may think it’s strange that an Internet company is so focused on the telephone, when only about 5 percent of our sales happen through the telephone. In fact, most of our phone calls don’t even result in sales. But what we’ve found is that on average, every customer contacts us at least once sometime during his or her lifetime, and we just need to make sure that that we use that opportunity to create a lasting memory.

—Tony Hsieh, co-founder of Zappos

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)