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Nature's way: translucent menace vs. the overlords.

I KNEW IT WAS GOING TO END BADLY -- VERY BADLY. I'VE BEEN IN A NUMBER of dust-ups in my life; I've had guns pointed at me, a few have been fired; I have been at the center of attention of an edgy mob of 100 that was looking for some satisfaction. The list goes on. You often don't know what is going to happen, so you hope for the best and plan for the worst. Never sit with your back to the door (see story of Wild Bill Hickok), never call someone out who has a great deal less to lose than yourself.

But there was no doubt this night.

I was sitting with Oliver in a burger joint in Kalamazoo, and ragging on him about how I had pounded him mercilessly on the paddleball court. Suddenly, a young lady of perhaps 25 sprinted through the door, breathless and panicked. She grabbed Oliver by the arm.

"Oliver! They're beating up Sammy in the parking lot. Come quick!"

Oliver stood up and walled briskly, but in control, to the parking lot. It was dark outside, and a Michigan snowstorm during uncharacteristically warm weather had left the parking lot layered with two inches of sloppy slush. Off by a pickup truck, two gigantic rednecks were beating the hell out of the lady's boyfriend.

I sized them up. The first guy was maybe 235 pounds, and had the characteristic ox-like brow of a Cro-Magnon. He was the smaller of the two. His friend was perhaps a stone heavier, and resembled an even earlier species; I guessed Neanderthal.

Oliver, with his Whopper ingested, weighed in at about 135 pounds, maybe 140. He stood about 5'9". I winced as he walled into the middle of the fracas. I was guessing fractured mandible, most likely stitches, quite probably a concussion. Yes, this had the onerous hallmark of a nasty beating, and no good was going to come of it--for the rednecks.

I didn't feel sorry for these two cretins. They were viciously pummeling the smallish man as Oliver walked right up to the first one.

"Get your hands of him (expletive)--right NOW!"

Oh man, I thought, this is it. Oliver was not only a boxer, he was a great boxer, rumored to have lost only to Sugar Ray Leonard in the National Golden Gloves. If you follow boxing at all, as you get into the lighter weights, the hand speed and reflexes increase logarithmically. So when Cro-Magnon took a swing at Oliver, it must have seemed like the meaty fist was moving through water, or maybe glycerine; the motion retarded to that of a rusty gate closing. Without moving his feet, Oliver casually ducked the punch. The beast took another swing, this time with a left hook, and when Oliver let this one slip by, the hulking redneck was dangerously off balance.

Imagine, if you will, drumming on your own thigh with your hands. Hit yourself six times as fast as you can. Now imagine that same staccato sound coming from a head the size of Ted Kennedy's. The cave dweller hit the slush so fast, he must have thought he'd passed through a wormhole and was transported to the prone position. Meanwhile, in his only exercise of good judgment, the Neanderthal took off at a dead sprint for the Pizza Hut parking lot across the side street, leaving his fallen companion to soak his rapidly-swelling jaw in the crisp Michigan slush.

After Sammy and his girlfriend took their leave, Oliver and I retreated to our burgers and Cokes, and chatted idly, barely addressing the incident in the parking lot. In late 70s Kalamazoo, the chances of the burger joint being sprayed by a hail of nine-millimeter shells launched from a Glock in retribution for the dissing of the rednecks was simply not the possibility it would be today.

One should never underestimate the small guy--in a bar fight or in a bidding war for an informatics solution. Though many of the Tales of Doom I write about in this column concern multimillion dollar LIMS projects gone cockeyed, I try not to forget that the small fries of the LIMS world are thick as locusts. Looking at the distribution of LIMS, the 2005 LIMS Watch Report (1) indicates a preponderance of leaders in the middle range. These little workhorses log samples, take manual input of data, check it against test limits and dutifully sound the alarm when the rare out-of-spec result is posted.

Really, in water labs, for example, how many routine samples violate limits? For the government EM lab, where is the need for integrated statistical analysis? In mainstream public health facilities, where is the hankering for a slick Web browser interface? Do we really need stability? Lot tracking? Do we need a sophisticated chain of custody when the entire lab is 2500 sq ft?

That's real life, foils.

Every LIMS list server and discussion group is riddled with requests that some poor technician-cum-LIMS manager just needs to print out a barcode. How can he/she properly manage the five to 10 samples a day they receive? How can this little referral lab squeeze another few dollars out of a suite of tests?

But the ambition of LG (Little Guy) LIMS vendors varies greatly. Not everyone wants to penetrate Big Pharma. Some LG LIMS are perfectly happy in the nether world of LIMS where instruments aren't interfaced, and no one cares about operating on a Microsoft Access database. Use Microsoft Excel for grid entry of samples or results? Magnifico!

But some little guys sit back like the kid selling the million-dollar glass of lemonade who needs just One Good Customer. That's how complete metamorphosis starts in the LIMS world. The egg becomes the pupa, the pupa is furiously worked on by the development organization, and a little feisty butterfly emerges and starts winning orders.

Stuff happens when little guys impinge on the turf of the big guys. A few orders here, a few reference sites there, and pretty soon you're talking real money. That's how the thermoclines turn over in the frosty LIMS market. A small, hungry guy with an attitude may just leapfrog the complacent or turnip-squeezing vendors who eschew development in lieu of distilling dollars before setting sail.

Will the next big fish emerge from the evolutionary continuum where the genetic pool of scattered functionality coalesces into the DNA of a mainstream LIMS powerhouse? It's hard to say, but turnover in the LIMS field is inevitable.

When I worked in a toxicology lab where--among other things--we tested crops for pesticide residues, we weren't allowed to use any outside pesticides to kill off the ubiquitous cockroach population for fear of contaminating the analyses. The ecosystem was balanced by escaped lab mice that occasionally fooled around with wild mice from outside. I guess the bored white mice were attracted to the dangerous allure of the streetwise vagabonds, and a small clutch of spotted mutant mice roamed the lab. The main food supply of the mice was the cockroaches, themselves an alien breed with an almost transparent appearance; the result of a healthy diet of minute traces of spilled animal feed, also tested in the lab.

I did my part to bring imbalance to the natural order of things. Armed with a hypodermic syringe and a small beaker of diethyl ether, when I saw one of the little buggers running up a wall, I'd pick him off from 30 feet away. Ether takes care of a roach in an instant, then evaporates.

But I noticed that when the mice were slogged down in the numerous glue traps in the lab, the roach population increased beyond my ability to safely spray them down with my magic solvent. Too much ether in a room with various ignition sources invites an explosive display greater than the Hindenburg on a cubic-foot basis.

Mice go up, la cucaracha deplete. The only constant is change and, when the complacent LIMS vendors shutter their shops, demand will increase. The major leagues will be defined by the LG climbers and the skulking behemoths that are parked just above the ozone layer like the Overlords in Childhood's End. Where there's money, there's action. Who knows--will the transparent bugs rise to the occasion, or will a mutant race of dangerous rodents inherit the industry?

(1.) 2005 LIMS Watch Report. Scientific Computing, November 2005.

Randy Hice is the president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He can be reached at
Primary LIMS Product Currently Used
Source: 2005 LIMS Watch Report (1)

Autoscribe Limited 9%
Perkin Elmer 5%
Quality Systems
International 4%

More information on the 2000 LIMS Watch Report is available at

Note: Table made from bar graph.
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Author:Hice, Randy C.
Publication:Scientific Computing
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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