Richard Swan

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Life – after Telopea

Richard Swan

I was born in Canberra and attended the common sequence of Griffith, Forrest and then Telopea schools.  My father was a public servant and then an academic.  There is a story, which I can’t substantiate, that Robert Menzies walked up from the Lodge to congratulate my father with a bottle of champagne.  My mother was a trained Economist.  Both my brother Peter and my sister Barbara (now Spencer) went to ANU to study Economics, where my father was also in Economics.  So, by the time I was in Telopea I was at least certain that I would not study Economics.

I had only two breaks from the utopian country town called Canberra.  When I was 8 years old I spent a year with my family, flying around the world with several months in the US, a month in England and the continent and a number of months in New Delhi.  This opened my eyes to the world and particularly the abject poverty and contradictions of India.

In 1967, when my family went to England, I was able to take about 4 months away from 5th form Telopea and again travel the world.  This time I hitch-hiked around Europe, spending about $5 per day.  As part of wooing an Australian girl that I met in Austria, I got myself involved in driving a used Mercedes from Munich to the Middle East with a Lebanese smuggler who had a PhD from the Sorbonne.  On my way back from England I hitch-hiked down the West Coast from Oregon to LA.  This was just after the Summer of Love and a fantastic place for a 17 year old boy.  In San Francisco, there was somebody on almost every corner who would offer a backpacker a free joint.   I ended up camping in Big Sur with a lady who had picked me up hitch-hiking.  After that I had to meet up with my family in LA and got a ride from a guy who had just that day got out of jail for drug smuggling over the Mexican border.

I did not find it very exciting to returning to 6th form at Telopea.   Even first level mathematics did not compare with the excitement of travel.  As many people at the reunion remember, I did some fancy lighting for a rowing club dance using some of my technology left over from science competitions.  This attracted the attention of a local impresario who was running a dance at Brassey House.   On the basis of this, he asked me if I wanted to run a light show each week at the “Pacesetter Club” held at the Park Royal hotel.   Steve Bisset, who was probably as bored as I was with high school life, joined with me to create “Comoptic.”   Alec McPherson approved us borrowing the lights from the school hall for a nominal rent.   We spent a frantic 4 weeks creating “Frankenstein” which was a very heavy lighting control system that was programmable from a patch panel recycled from a vacuum tube/relay computer-like-system given to me by International Computer Limited.   Steve created a “whirligig” from borrowed science room mirrors and we also built an electronic strobe light.  Our most satisfying creation was a moiré projector built from the Bisset family slide projector, 35mm versions of moirés from Michael Burns, a color wheel and a double loud-speaker arrangement I had previously built for a “light communications” science project.   Many people helped with occasional setting up and pulling down lights at the Park Royal.

More or less by accident, I did not apply to University or for any scholarships.   I was having too much fun and making good money.   I was sickened by the idea of going off to ANU, following most of my family, as had been assumed all my life.   This must have horrified my parents but they did not say a word.   I contemplated continuing with the lighting for a few years.  Steve planned to go to Caltech in California - as I remember there was a woman involved.   From California Steve hatched this plan to export surfboards from Australia to the US.  I got contracts with several big name surfboard builders, including Midget Farrelly.  I packed and shipped boards and Steve tried to sell them.   In the process of finding packaging material in Sydney I connected with a company making foam and somehow got myself building an electronic controller for a foam injection press.   Len Whyte later helped maintain this device.   During my many visits to Sydney I would often visit Christine Harris at Sydney University.
Fortunately I did start looking at universities and found a place in England, University of Essex, which appeared to be the only place in the world with an undergraduate Computer Science degree.   This could combine my two major loves, of computers and travel.   John Pumpurs took over the lighting business.

Getting to England was an adventure.   Although I had a ticket to London via the US, I wanted to take the opportunity to hitch-hike across the States. Perhaps I hoped to relive the “Summer of Love"?   In those days hitch-hiking was well accepted and usually Americans in particular were very friendly and generous.   One adventure was when my ride dropped me in a freeway intersection in Chicago.   It was evening and there were four or 6 lanes of traffic to get across to reach a place where cars could possibly stop.   Once positioned at a freeway entrance, I was approached by a black policeman riding a kind of motor tricycle.  He was quite friendly but wanted to warn me to not ever walk into the local neighborhood, which was a ghetto, for fear of my safety.   With this “reassurance”, a car coming from the ghetto stopped and the driver asked where I was going.   I told him New York.   He said, “Great, jump in – we are also going to New York.”

I climbed into the back seat of this two door car.  The driver and passenger were large, young dudes (black men).  Once they asked me about contributing gas money for the trip I started to get nervous.  They established that I was from Australia and flying to London – they assumed I had money.   I like to think I learned to listen rather than talk by sitting next to drivers for around 100,000 miles of hitch-hiking – but in this case I began talking, much more than my usual shy self, trying to establish rapport.   We were out of Chicago and there were very few lights visible.  They said they were turning off the freeway to get gas.  The passenger said, “Give me your money!” I reached for my wallet in my back pocket, the driver said, “Watch him he might have a knife.”   I froze.   From the secondary road we turned into a totally dark area with a gravel road.  I think it was a quarry.  Once stopped in almost pitch darkness they pulled out my huge yellow backpack and started searching.  They missed the camera in the top pocket and found nothing else of value.

They turned to me and demanded that I hand over my money.   They searched me and found only the $10 cash in my wallet. [I kept little cash to avoid being robbed…] They had missed my money belt.   But they started getting very angry, being sure – correctly – that I must have some more money with me.   I then pulled my travelers checks from my money belt and said “Take them, take them!   They are no use to you! Take them!”   They did not take them, since they would have had to produce ID to cash them.  One guy held my head and I thought he was going to bash me in the face, but he was just blocking me from seeing the car number plate while the other guy drove it up the road.  This guy started walking towards the car and with feeling of total relief; I started packing my stuff back into the pack.  But this big guy stopped walking towards the car and instead walked back to me.   I figured he had decided it was better to not leave a witness.   But instead, he said “Now. To get back to the freeway walk up this road and take the first left and then the first right…”  I reached New York the following morning after hitch-hiking all night.

There we some ironies from my time in England.   I had a generous scholarship from Barclays Bank but participated actively in anti-Barclays protests due to their role in apartheid.   I also campaigned extensively against attempts by the “Socialist Society” to dominate the student organizations.   I was labeled a fascist by this group which ran the leader of the British Communist Party off the campus for being too conservative.   Essex was the most radical of English universities in this time of worldwide student riots.

While at Essex I visited Ian Barnes at his family home near Cambridge and also at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.   I remember that Inky’s dorm was a Quonset hut of WW2 vintage.   A girl (Pippa Hunt) I remember from age 4, living across the road in Canberra, was in the same dorm – very small world.   Ian had his motor bike accident riding to University in Norwich.   I visited him at Stoke-Mandeville hospital.   His recovery from having no movement below his arm pits to the full life he leads would be termed a miracle if any church had been involved.   Even in a wheel chair he was able to bring his Scandinavian physiotherapists for occasional weekend home visits.   I remember a subsequent visit to his new Uni, John’s College Cambridge, where my gift of my homemade beer led to my throwing up all over a bed.

On finishing at Essex, I explored either taking a job in London or going as a graduate student to America.  Turned out I could get paid better as a student in the US than as a worker in the UK.   As a student of Computer Science at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh I designed and built what was then the largest multiprocessor of its kind in the world.   I think of this as a fairly straight line from the “Noughts and Crosses computer” which I built with Jeremy Stanners in third or fourth form at Telopea.   I have always been the happiest designing and building stuff and making it work.  

In 1980 I joined Steve Bisset (and Ian Barnes) in Steve’s startup called Megatest which was based in Silicon Valley.   I thought at the time that moving to California was getting me closer to Australia.  We built semiconductor test equipment for companies like Intel and IBM.  I even managed to hire Fred Schodt for a brief translation task from Japanese.  There were quite a few Telopeans and other Australians that came to the Megatest sweatshop.  Despite working ridiculous hours a good time was had by all.

In 1986 I married Claudia Mazzetti, a native of San Francisco.  At that time Claudia was the Executive Director of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence.  Being married and having a child (Alexandra) certainly greatly improved my life but it also reduced the chances of returning to Oz.  Currently Claudia is trying to get elected to our local Water Board while Alex is doing a post-graduate business degree at Duke.

In 1987 I moved back closer to the computer and academic world by running a research lab in Palo Alto for  Digital Equipment (DEC).   The lab, DECWRL, operated the largest email and UseNet exchange anywhere in the world at the time.  We developed new computer architectures, chip design tools and networking capabilities.  One claim to fame was the first commercial Internet firewall which was used in the White House.   In 1993 we put a book store and the City of Palo Alto on the new fangled thing called the World Wide Web.  With other DEC labs, our technology led to the first large scale search engine, called Alta Vista.  DEC was nowhere near as much fun as Megatest.
In 1995 I left the mother corporation and tried my own hand at creating a startup in the Internet space.  RouteOne was a company that used digital satellite technology to deliver high quality broadcast advertising to television stations - a little quaint relative to the availability today of HD TV and movies directly on the public Internet.  This company failed to get sufficient investment.  However, I also started a consulting company called Tuross with an Cooma  born kid I met at Megatest called Steve Horne.  This was nicely lucrative until I moved back into the corporate world.  Steve Horne is now the creative force behind a major solar company called SolFocus.

I joined the enterprise software world in 2000 by starting a research lab at SAP, the very large German software company.  Work here lead to a 2004 opportunity to co-found a startup in the RFID space.  We developed analytic software resulting from the use of Radio Frequency Identification Tags.  This company, where I am Chief Technical Officer, is now called Retail Solutions.

Richard Swan
October 20, 2011

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