Jeremy Elson's Life Story

The Somewhat Longer Version

(You can also read the short version.)

Growing Up

I was born in 1974 in California. My parents moved to the suburbs of Washington, DC about 10 months after I was born, and I lived in the area until 1998. We were living in Silver Spring, Maryland when my sister Franny was born in 1977, and moved to a house in Bethesda, MD when my brother David was born in 1980. Living in Bethesda, I ended up going to Burning Tree Elementary School, Pyle Middle School, and finally Walt Whitman High School. (I don't expect that anyone will actually care what schools I attended growing up; I just mentioned it so that old friends from those schools can find me using Web search engines.)

During those years I started spending a lot of my spare time learning how to use computers, starting with my trusty Commodore 64 and eventually moving on to the IBM PC. I also spent a lot of time playing raquetball, doing black and white photography (my parents' basement still has the darkroom), and small boat sailing (preferably on a Laser!). At this point, my Life Plan was to become a Nice Jewish Doctor; I took a lot of advanced science classes in high school, read Helena Curtis' college-level biology textbook from cover to cover, and started working at the National Institutes of Health every summer. In my senior year of high school, I applied to 5 colleges: Yale, Brown, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and University of Maryland. The Ivy Leagues weren't interested in me, so I moved to Baltimore, Maryland to attend Hopkins.

My first years at college

In the summer before my first year of college, Hopkins sent me their course catalog and asked me to select my classes for my first semester. I originally applied to college as a biology major with intentions of joining the pre-med program, as had been my plan for many years. But instead of jumping in and taking pre-med classes, I found myself looking at the list of classes offered by the Department of Computer Science instead. The course descriptions sounded really fascinating to me, so -- almost on a lark -- I signed up for one of the CS department's introductory classes for incoming freshmen: Computational Models, taught by S. Rao Kosaraju.

Kosaraju changed the course of my life, probably without even realizing it. Before I met him, every one of my high school computer classes and books had always been concerned with the messy details of computers -- things like how to use an operating system or how to program in some programming language. Kosaraju's class surprised me. It was a computer class that didn't use computers at all! He taught pure computer science theory, the fundamental and elegant and beautiful formal underpinnings of what it means to "compute". Kosaraju taught the class brilliantly, and I was hooked. I decided to become a computer science major. (The Hopkins CS department no longer recommends Kosaraju's class for incoming freshmen; they are advised to take an introductory C programming class instead. What a mistake!)

Even after I had changed my major to computer science, my plan was still to go to medical school after graduation. I had really enjoyed my summers at the NIH, working on various projects that integrated computers into medical applications. It seemed that the perfect way to train myself for a career doing that sort of work was to get a formal education in both: first computer science at Hopkins, and then formal medical training in med school.

As the semesters passed, I became more and more fascinated with all aspects of CS, but especially with computer networking. Networks really caught my attention because of the way they bind everything together. With networks, I could exchange ideas or software with people around the corner as easily as with people around the globe. I could use the network to join computers together, getting them to solve problems as a group much faster than any individual computer ever could. And in the networked world of a college campus, there is no concept of "here" and "there" -- everything is accessible from everywhere. The entire time I was at Hopkins, I never felt the need to buy a laptop. Why should I, when I can sit down anywhere on campus and work as if I'm at home? My computer could tell me the news of wars on another continent or how many Cokes were left in the soda machine. (Don't get the wrong idea about me: asking your computer to tell you how many Cokes are left in the machine will never replace the experience of walking to the machine and finding a friend there who wants to chat. The network should never replace human interaction, but only augment it.)

My junior year of college came, and I had still focused mainly on my CS studies, completely ignoring my premed requirements. Even so, I still considered my interest in computers only to be a hobby. I realized that if I was at all serious about wanting to go to medical school, I would have to start taking premed classes, starting with the worst one of all: Organic Chemistry. When I finally sat down to make my course selections, I was horrified to learn that Organic Chemistry and Computer Networking were both offered at the same hour!! I was devastated, and spent the next few days deliberating. I really wanted to take networking -- it was my primary interest within CS, after all -- but that meant not taking Orgo. No Orgo meant no med school. How serious was I about wanting to go to med school? Was CS just a silly hobby of mine compared to the "serious" business of going to med school? Was CS a hobby at all? I hated that I had to choose between them.

I finally decided to take Orgo, and the semester after that, Orgo II. One morning, halfway through Orgo II, I woke up with my face in my Orgo textbook and realized that I was miserable doing what I was doing. CS really did feel like my true calling. I called my Dad and told him that I'd finally decided that CS was what I wanted to do, then went straight to the registrar and dropped my premed classes.

Fall 1994: Not my favorite school year

Most of my close college friends left Hopkins in the summer of 1994: some were a year ahead of me, some were my year but graduated in 3 years, and some were graduate students whose programs ended. When I came back to school in the fall, most of my friends were gone.

In the meantime, ever since high school, my friend Josh Adler and I had been slowly building Scholastic Matchmakers, a computer dating service that high schools use for fundraisers. The idea was that we would send multiple-choice personality surveys to the school; the school's student government would distribute the surveys and collect them once they were completed, and send them back to us; we'd process the surveys and print out a list of "Top 10 Most Compatible Matches" for each student who completed a survey. The student government would then sell the Top 10 Lists for a profit.

Valentine's Day 1995 was our first really big year: whereas previous years we'd processed maybe 3 or 4 schools, suddenly we were swamped with 200 schools! We became victims of our own success. Because the volume of schools that we processed in previous years was so low, we were still doing everything manually. Josh made the deals, did the marketing and planning, and handled customer service (our 1-800 number rang in his bedroom!), and I was responsible for all of the actual processing, including developing the software, keeping the hardware running, pushing all of the completed surveys through our ScanTron machine, printing the Top 10 Lists, and shipping everything.

Starting in December of 94, the huge wave of completed surveys started to arrive, and I did nothing 18 hours a day but push surveys through the ScanTron machine while desperately trying to keep our laser printer running and making 80-mile-per-hour runs to the FedEx office to ship completed Top 10 Lists before they closed. I was working continuously throughout the Christmas vacation and continued well into the spring semester. After 4 weeks of not going to class because I had no time to do anything but run the business, I realized that taking the semester off was the right thing to do -- there was no way I could possibly hope to pull off a successful semester after missing 4 weeks worth of lectures and exams. I applied for a 1-semester leave of absence, which was granted.

Taking the semester off of school did reduce my stress somewhat (at least I didn't have to worry about failing all my classes!), but the Scholastic Matchmakers workload grew ever greater as Valentine's Day approached. It reached a fever pitch by the beginning of February; day in, day out, I was doing nothing whatsoever except for the continuous incredibly grueling, depressing work of trying to get all of the schools processed within the promised deadlines. Since most of my friends had left Hopkins already, I didn't have much of a social life, either -- just work, work, work. It was terrible.

Finally, around March, the tension let up. Most of the Scholastic Matchmakers processing was finished, and I was left with nothing to do because I was taking the semester off. I took a couple of weeks to thoroughly de-stress -- seeing movies, reading, watching TV, and otherwise trying to forget what had happened. Then, my friend Guy Shechter introduced me to Ham Radio, so I started spending my free time learning Morse code, getting my Ham license, buying radio equipment, joining Ham Radio clubs, and doing a lot of public service.

[ To be continued when I get a chance to write more... but I doubt anyone has read this far anyway. :-)]

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Last updated 31 Dec 1997