Book Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This month I’ve already read the book club book. The actual book club get-together is still almost two weeks away, so I’m actually in some danger of forgetting all about it by then. I seem to have a talent for forgetting the details of a book, which can come in handy, since it justifies me keeping a copy of good books on my book-shelf – I know I can enjoy them all over again.

But this book was one that I nominated, so I really should try to remember something about it for the discussion. Hence, I’m going to note my thoughts down here, in easy-to-reference form.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

A personal tale masquerading as an ethics tale hidden inside a science tale

When this book was selected for book club, it was partly on the basis that it had over 1,000 reviews on with an average score of 4.5 out of 5. I think this is a fair rating – there is something in this book for everyone.

The author, Rebecca Skloot, takes us through her journey of discovery regarding the family and story behind the “HeLa” line of cells – cells still alive today and involved in important science. Her close connection to the family becomes an important part of the tale, both because it allows her to access the detailed history of the family but also because it provides a very human face for the abstract cells.

The absence of such a human face is part of the context for so many of the ethical issues that occur in the history of the cell line. Examples of racism, exploitation of the poor, the law trailing scientific advances, lack of informed consent, lack of compensation, industry profiting from volunteers, scientific denial, and many others. The book is long-ish and I feel like I should’ve taken notes of these issues so that I could remember them to discuss later.

The tale is at times amazing, horrific, uplifting and sad. For me, one of the saddest aspects was how disadvantaged the family has been. Their ancestors were exploited as part of slavery on a tobacco plantation and they never seem to have escaped the legacy of that. Although, the book itself promises to assist, so perhaps the family will have a happier future than their past.

Rating by andrew: 4.5 stars

The moral of the storey

We’re all thankful for the RBA’s recent 1% cut in the cash rate. Hopefully it will help Australia avoid a recession. However, it seems that the Tenants Union of Victoria is trying to leverage this into improvements in rents for their members, using the argument of ethics. The claim is that landlords are morally obliged to reduce rents when their costs fall.

I am sympathetic to the plight of renters: I have been one for most of the time I’ve lived out of home, and it is possible I will be one again in the future. However, I am also a landlord and I speak from experience when I say that the price of rents is generally unrelated to the level of interest rates. The current rental crisis is more due to population pressures driving a level of demand beyond that of the existing supply. Market forces set rents, not the mercenary nature of landlords.

Over the last decade, up until the last two years, I have had to keep my rents more or less static, despite rising interest rates, since it was a renter’s market, and market forces meant I had to wear the increase in costs. In the last couple of years, it has swung around and it’s more of a landlord’s market in Melbourne (although less so than 12 months ago), so rents rose in line with demand. When more apartments are built, supply will increase, and things will balance out again. I know, this isn’t helpful to those renting today, but housing is a long term proposition. People renting can get a house of higher quality than if they bought, as they are paying off a historical mortgage (i.e. when the house was cheaper) rather than a current mortgage (assuming house prices have risen).

Another flaw to the proposition by the Tenants Union of Victoria is that if you extend their argument to its logical conclusion – that rents should be set at a fixed margin above costs – then you get absurd outcomes. For example, rents would be cheaper on properties where the owner had paid off more of their mortgage, and almost free when there was no mortgage left at all.

However, there are some ethically grey practices by landlords around rents that do deserve scrutiny and complaint. I am thinking here of when a property is advertised at a particular weekly rent but then the landlord expects prospective tenants to offer to pay above that level of rent, or selects tenants for the property based on offers of above-advertised rental payments. The issues here are transparency and fairness: all tenants should be given equal opportunity to apply for a property. If landlords wish to receive higher rent, then they simply need to advertise their property at that level of rent. There is no need for secret, above-advertised payments.

But even with such dodgey practices in the market, overall rents will respond to market forces. It’s simple supply and demand. No matter what the Tenants Union of Victoria demands.

The Karma of Kringle

Christmas is a time of giving, and this is keenly illustrated by the tradition of the Kris Kringle. A group of people committing to give presents to each other, often anonymously, and generally randomly, up to a fixed dollar value. It’s fair, fun and festive. However, what if people don’t play by the rules?

The other week I went out to dinner with my Toastmasters club for our Christmas break-up, and everyone who came had to participate in a Kris Kringle, up to a value of $5. The other rule was that everyone had to give a short talk on the present they got – well, it was Toastmasters after all.

It took me a long time to find something for no more than $5 that I would like to receive as a gift, and was interesting enough to be able to talk about. Ironically, once I left the shop, I immediately found something better, but I felt I had to stick with the original present. What’s worse: spending $5 on a $4 present, or $10 on a $5 present? I thought that the latter bent the spirit of Kris Kringle a little.

Unfortunately, on the night it became clear that almost everyone had cheated. Most presents would have been between $8 to $10.  One person appeared to have spent $15 on a $15 present – the RRP was printed on it! I get it that people may have valued their own time highly, and traded off searching time against present cost. But it was not a level playing field any more – not everyone was giving a talk about a $5 present, and some people were probably disappointed at what they received versus what they gave. Personally, I benefited, since what I received would have cost more than $5, but I felt a bit let down on behalf of the person who received my gift. If I’d known that the Kris Kringle was a minimum, not a maximum, then I would have shopped differently.

Should you keep to the Kris Kringle limit? Can you conscientiously break the implicit agreement between the group? Is it just about the giving, not the shopping? All I’ve been told is that Santa knows who’s been naughty or nice …