Shanks on a Plane

A Review of LabAutomation 2008

My star-crossed trip to the Association for Laboratory Automation’s LabAutomation 2008 conference in Palm Springs began with a string of text messages to my phone indicating flight delays out of Denver. By the time I screeched into the airport, the delays had predictably eroded into a cancelled flight. As I stood in a line

There seemed to be a few more LIMS vendors at the show than last year, but what caught my eye as I strolled around was a large robotic play area for the First high school Robotics Competition. 

12-deep in the Red Carpet Club in the Denver airport, like any seasoned traveler competing for rebooking space, I multitasked my options by whipping out my cell phone and calling the United reservations line. Soon, I was speaking with a remote, disembodied voice in India.

“Oh, yes, that flight is cancelled, the next one to Palm Springs is also full.”

“Well, how close can you get me to Palm Springs?”


“As long as we’re talking the city, and not the province, book it.”

With that, I had no reason to stand in line at the Red Carpet Club any longer, so I hauled down to the concourse, and walked up to the counter to change my boarding pass. A United gate agent with all of the charm of a Marine drill sergeant with gastrointestinal distress, looked at my pass and scowled at me.“Did you book this through an agent?”

“Of course. There were a dozen people in front of me in the Red Carpet Club. I wasn’t about to wait.”

“Well,” she wagged her finger at me, “they aren’t supposed to do that. This flight is overbooked. We’ll have to wait to see if we can get you on it.”I leaned over close to her.

“Look,” I said, just above a whisper, “I’m a Premier Executive frequent flyer on United, and I have a long, almost shameful history of writing flaming hot letters when the service occasionally drops below what I believe to be the standard for United. Now, let’s just start over. I’d like an exit row, since you have no Business Class on this thing, so if you think you can’t accommodate me, just give me the correct spelling of your name and I’ll just huddle over there with my laptop and dash off another epic letter. I think the last surly gate agent I wrote about is now handling bags in Baltimore.”

I shook my head, looking at her hands.

“Don’t worry, you’ll save money on manicures because all of those pretty nails will snap off like rotten bark after a day or two on the job. But, at least you’ll have calluses so thick on your hands you’ll be able to stop a slug from a 9mm.”

Within two minutes, exit row boarding pass in hand, I was lugging my bag onto the cattle car.

Of course, with such short notice, I had no opportunity to switch my car reservation from the original Palm Springs location to Ontario, so I bolted off the plane in a dead sprint to the AVIS counter, easily outdistancing my fellow passengers in the same boat, and snapping up a huge, hideous Chrysler M300. The bull-nosed monstrosity was hard to stomach from the curb but, not wanting to take a chance on another car with so many anxious customers, I tossed my bag in the back, affixed my GPS to the window, and burned rubber all the way to the checkout booth. The horrified agent came out of his hovel and looked at me with astonishment as I rolled down the window.

I said “this beast has a hair-trigger gas pedal. Better watch it when you park it.”

He nodded, seeming to understand. Off I went, windshield wipers on high, and cruise control locked on a suitably brisk velocity as I pointed the brute down I-15. I quickly figured the only redeeming value of this gas-sucking whale was its massive power plant, and I intended to exercise it fully.

Finally on location…

As I had procrastinated for hotel reservations, I ended up in a depressing tenement of a hotel seemingly staffed by moonlighting gang-bangers. I thought I might have to Lysol the entire room to keep the savage viruses lurking in the room at bay, but I decided instead to find some sushi.

The first place I found, Okura, looked far too upscale for what I had in mind. I like to isolate myself at the corner of a sushi bar with a few newspapers and a magazine, while waging epicurean warfare on a host of fish, crustaceans, mollusks and anything else swept from the sea looking remotely edible. But this place looked a bit stuffy for such gauche behavior, and I envisioned black-cloaked ninja popping out of hidden alcoves to rain a firestorm of shurikens on me the moment I popped open a newspaper. So, I drove a little further until I found a less ostentatious place a few blocks away where I hunkered down totally alone at the sushi bar. As I pulled out my glasses and opened my paper, I was met immediately with disorienting vertigo, and tried to reckon the feeling against my memories of college parties long past to figure out what was happening. I hadn’t touched the toxic blowfish, nor had I launched into the large Kirin before me, so where were these wild hallucinations coming from?

Then I looked at my glasses case and saw one lens sitting in there. Evidently, a screw had fallen out, and so did the lens, so my left eye was battling my lens-less right eye for visual superiority, causing the type of disorientation normally reserved for passengers lashed into a plane in a death spiral tailspin that is seconds from auguring into a freshly plowed field somewhere. I had the option of trying to read the menu with one eye closed but feared the sushi chef might take offense at my winking, so I ditched the glasses, and just stabbed the pencil on various illegible items on the sushi card and hoped for the best. Since I’m here writing this piece, it apparently turned out well, though there was a slippery orange thing that had the consistency of a past-prime oyster.The conference was the same as I remembered it from last year, with a few exceptions. My check-in as a speaker and a journalist was met with a slight problem, but I asked for an organizer who cheerfully sorted out the issue in a few seconds. I was led to the Press Room and noticed a guy occupying the two laptops in the room, turned to the NYSE and NASDAQ quotes, while jabbering on the phone with a broker.

“Yes, yes. Sell that $260,000 dog of a stock. With the primaries going on, that’s sure to tank. Get me $20,000 in (pharmaceutical company ‘A’) and $30,000 in (pharmaceutical company ‘B’).

Was he Australian? New Zealander? I couldn’t tell, but he wasn’t from around these parts.

I ditched my coat and headed for the exhibition floor…

Robotics competition

There seemed to be a few more LIMS vendors at the show than last year, and I chatted with some of them as I strolled around. But what really caught my eye were a couple of fairly large robots tossing inner tubes about at the corner of the exposition hall. On the periphery of the robotic play area, a few high school-aged students zipped around on Segways. It turns out, I had wandered up against a display of robotics developed by some Californian high school students who were competing in the First Program’s Robotics Competition. As a gadget hound, how could I walk away from this? I started chatting with some of the mentors and chaperones, and what unfolded was pretty inspiring.

Remember the Segway Human Transporter? Well, they may not be as ubiquitous as originally predicted, but they are pretty cool to see. The inventor, Dean Kamen, is the mastermind behind the First organization, as well as all of the robotics competitions under the umbrella of First.

There is a national contest every year for students from nine-years-old through high school to build robots. The actual contests demarcate the three levels of competition. The First Robotics Competition (FRC) are the big boys of the world. Students are given specs for the robots, and only six weeks to engineer them from a common set of parts. These bots ain’t cheap, and they ain’t small. Schools competing at this level generally seek sponsorship money of $15K to $30K to participate in two or three regional competitions. These fleet-footed bots weigh in the range of 120 pounds, and the ones I saw were remarkable in their diverse designs and agility.

One adult mentor was a science teacher from southern California. When she started a team, she had a half-dozen girls who, she said, “couldn’t handle a screwdriver.” But, many corporations and schools assist in these competitions, and to the rescue came “a guy who looked like a movie star” who happened to have an advanced degree in robotics from Cal Tech. The girls were thus motivated on several levels and, in time, cranked out a serious bot.

More than 1500 teams square off in First Robotics Competition, and more than 12,000 corporations are supplying engineers/mentors to help the teams around the U.S.

For those with similar intellectual gifts, but less fiscal firepower, there is the First Tech Challenge (FTC), which is aimed at high schools as well and utilizes a commercial Vex Robotics Design System. These students also square off in competitions around the country. And, for the Dean Kamens in the making, there is the First Lego League and Junior First Lego League that has students ranging from six to nine (for the Juniors) to nine to 14 (for the mainstream league). These little bots are crafted from the Lego Mindstorms Technology.From what I learned, even inner-city schools with high dropout rates were getting stoked by these competitions, and some report an increase in graduating students. So, when the deadly robots of the Terminator movies actually come to life, shaking off their chains of repression and leveling Earth to a dusty moonscape, somewhere, somehow, you can thank an engineer who started off staging fights with Lego robots, and simply moved up to the giant death machines as a natural progression.


The rest of the conference was fine. I gave my informatics track talk, “The New Age of LIMS — Technological Advances in the Design and Use of Laboratory Information Management Systems,” on Monday. It was attended by perhaps 300 people and seemed to go well.

It is customary for conference organizers to give speakers some little memento in appreciation for their efforts. I received a little white box and tossed it in my briefcase. Normally, I wouldn’t even bother to open it until I got home, but I was mildly curious as to what the gift might be. Seconds before entering the line for the metal detector, I popped open the box and was staggered for a moment when I realized the LabAutomation conference organizers had given me a knife. I almost sent a blade through the x-ray machine, and that would have created all sorts of fun with the TSA. Not realizing it was there, I probably would have been indignant, maybe even obstinate, and I’d still be in the Orange County jail…maybe even whisked to the Super Max in Florence, CO, to be thrown in a sterile, pitiless cell next to Ted Kaczynski or maybe Ramzi Yousef.

Ah, I’m hallucinating again…gotta get that lens put back in before I spill over the edge.

Randy Hice is the president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He may be reached at

LabAutomation Resources

• Association for Laboratory Automation

• First Program

• First Competitions

• LabAutomation 2008