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History of the Forest Products Laboratory

Interview #932: Miller, Regis B. (June, 2009)

View all of First Interview Session (June 12, 2008)

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00:44:12 - 00:54:21 Association Of Wood Anatomists

Association of Wood Anatomists, Center for Wood Anatomy Research, IBM card-sorters, database, website

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00:44:12

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LB

So were there any professional organizations that you were a part of or felt particularly affiliated with?

RM

Oh yeah. The one that I was particularly affiliated with was the International Association of Wood Anatomists, and acronym is I-A-W-A. And I've been associated with that practically since 1970. Probably, and maybe a little bit before, can't remember. But, and I was first just a member and then eventually helped out, organized some meetings or helped organize meetings for them. One of them was here. Then they asked me to become the deputy executive secretary, and I was the deputy executive secretary for, I don't know, four or five years. And then they asked me to become the executive secretary. And I'm not sure when I took over, goodness, but it seemed like forever. But I, and I'm still the executive secretary of IAWA, and it's getting a little bit difficult for me to do a good job as the executive secretary of IAWA because I should be attending the IAWA meetings, most of which are overseas. So, because I'm not, I'm now retired, I don't have anybody to pay to help me go. So, the last three meetings I think I've attended, I had to pick out of my own pocket. I got a little bit of help from the organization, but it just only covers part of it. And I just got back from London, spent about ten days there, and, yeah, they helped me a little bit, but boy is it expensive over there. I mean, it's going to cost me a lot, and that's all out of pocket. So, I, I need to, you know, pass this on to the next, to the younger generation. But it's difficult to convince the younger generation to take it over. So I won't keep them in a lurch, for sure, and just say, I quit. But, I am looking at trying to do this in the next year or, you know, so that I can pass it off to somebody. I just have to convince them to take it I think. Anyway, ok, and that's, that was, now I've been really involved in them for a long time.

00:46:44

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LB

While you were here were there any particular projects that you worked on that gave you more satisfaction than anything else, or your favorite project that you worked on while you were working here?

RM

Favorite project, wow. I, well first of all I should say that I, I've always told people that my job is divided into three areas: one is research, the second is wood identification for the public and generally anybody, and the third is the, maintaining the wood collections and herbaria that we have in the Center for Wood Anatomy Research. So, one of the things, one of the projects that I got involved in---there's several projects I guess, I don't want to talk about all of them, but I'll just mention them quickly. One of the ones that I got involved in a long time ago was the, what I would, what I called computer-assisted wood identification. And I, I believe that I was one of the first people to really push this idea. I pushed the idea; I got it rolling and then people picked it up and started doing it. And that was really way back, almost before PCs, you know, desktop computers. And, if you look in the history, you'll find that I wasn't the first. I mean, it was started way back in the '40s almost when card-sorters, IBM card-sorters, were available and Kukachka of all things---I didn't even know he did it until I got looking---and he and a Dutchman kind of got the same idea in the '50s, I think. Yeah, it must have been the '50s. They got this idea using a card-sorter to do or help with computer assisted wood identification. And that was used in a machine to do the sorting because they had these edge---you don't know what edge punch cards are do you?

LB

Yes, I do.

RM

Oh you do! Amazing!

LB

My mom was a computer scientist.

RM

Ok, these edge punch cards where you use a long needle and you shook the card, that's what we had for wood identification. And essentially was changing that to IBM cards and then, but more recently there was a program that's, that got going and I really pushed for it. And, anyway, we now have that as one of the wood anatomists and computer ID. The other thing that I started, very early at the Lab, was pushing the idea of the Web and using computers and putting things up on the Web. And, I mean, the Center, themselves---I don't know if we were, had a website before the Forest Products Lab, but we certainly were up and running very, very early. I mean, I almost think that maybe we had a website before they did, but maybe not. Anyway, we were really pushing this stuff early. And one of the other things that I was pushing very early was databasing. And I was trying to get a database of all of the information for all of the wood specimens we had. And I started that before we had desktops; we were doing it on a Univac computer, and the restrictions were ungodly. But, we kind of got it going, then we switched from the Univac over to the PC and had to switch some more. Long, I kept switching and switching. So, bottom line is now, today, we have a website, which we get more hits than the Forest Products Lab combined. I mean, we really have a, I think, a great website, because we have information that people want. We have Tech Sheets of all the tropical species, not all, but a lot of tropical species and also North American hardwoods, North American softwoods. And it's all in the computer. You get, essentially, a click and you get a page or two pages of everything that you wanted to know about this wood. So, it works, it works quite well for people who want to know something about, you know, a Slippery Elm. I mean, they can click a page and they can get some data right there, right off the web, and they can get it in PDF file, and, you know, it works good. We also have a database of common names, because that's the other thing that, that really is, has caused great tribulation in the area of wood anatomy and wood identification. And that is somebody has a common name, they don't know what it is. What is this wood? And we were answering the phone constantly and looking up these names in various places, various books. And a friend of mine in Australia got the same idea, and we talked about it, and he said, yeah, lets do a database. And ok, well, it took us years, years to put this thing together. I mean, working at it when we could, and we always intended to publish a book. Well it got to, by the time we were finishing up, the cost of printing the book was astronomical; nobody wanted to print it. So then we messed around with it a while. Finally, the Australians were going to publish it, well we messed around with it a while. Finally, they said no, we're going to do it as a DVD, or no a CD, well we messed around with that a while, we were going to do it that way. And then at the end, I just, nothing was happening in Australia, frankly, and I finally said, you know, I'm going to put this on the Web. And I got this friend of mine, who I call my Mac guru, who I hired as a summer student, who was working at the University in botany. And he just happened to pop over to see what the heck we were doing over here one day. He started talking computers and I was looking for somebody who knew something about computers and stuff. Well that was the start of a very long relationship with Eric and I. He now works at the University and I, I mean, every once in a while I call him and ask him, you know, how do you do this? How do you do that? Or, he helps, he actually works sort of as a contractor, fixing our Mac computers. We're one of the few people that have Macs, and we got the database and a website all working off a Mac. And this, this is the database, we did the data, he does the SQL stuff, front-end. Anyway, so he does that and everything's worked out well. And that database has like 180,000 common names, records, there's about 100,000 unique names. So you can go on the Web, type in your, what you think is your common name, and you can come up with some results. And, you know, you can start searching a little bit, using the Web to help you just get some information without me answering the phone and telling you all this stuff. And often we can tell people, well, go to the website and look it up; there it is, you know, just download it, you know. So, that, we got that much done. And I had visions of doing more but I just ran out of time; I retired.

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