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Feature: Open Source

Feasting on life with veteran programmer Ken Manheimer

By JT Smith on November 28, 2000 (8:00:00 AM)

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- By Julie Bresnick -
Open Source people
Currently employed by Digital Creations, publishers of Zope, Ken Manheimer has been working with or on Open Source projects since he first learned to write code.
Like most, he started with BASIC and FORTRAN and since has: Worked with LISP, contributed to emacs (including incorporating icomplete.el and allout.el), studied Scheme, researched and developed Knowbot, resurrected Mailman after the original was decimated in a systems crash, contributed to and administered Python, enhanced ZWiki, a Zope-based Wiki clone, and so far, while at Digital Creations, has developed an issue tracking system for Zope which passed the first round at the Software Carpentry Competition (had to withdraw after that because of lack of time).

His voice is calm, steady, but with a certain momentum, excitement, like he's always explaining something cool, like he's introducing a group of wide-eyed third graders to the unusual digestive mechanisms of marine life at the aquarium. In the life of Manheimer, nothing is an isolated detail. He is not someone who compartmentalizes. He doesn't leave one thing and go onto the next, but rather, evolves so that everything is part of a larger force or rhythm. Take for instance, how he started programming.

Just after junior high school, around 1972 or 1973, he needed to get a summer job. Lured by the sounds of rock 'n' roll spilling forth from the stereo, young Manheimer had been led into the miracle of the mechanism itself. His mom, attuned to her only son's preoccupation with stereos, suggested he speak with the gentleman up the street who worked in audio. The gentleman acquiesced and Manheimer was soon wandering around the labs at what was then known as The National Bureau of Standards, now called NIST. It didn't take long for him to find his way to one of the lab's Interdata mini-computers and proceed to teach himself BASIC. He interned there for three summers.

What continues to interest him about programming is "how computers seem to offer the possibility to organize information in a way that makes it easy for us to find it. I have a terrible memory in some ways so I love the prospect of using computers for external memory." (This is surprising considering he appears to have no difficulty recalling stories from the very beginning.)

Driven by his interest in organization, he dedicated much of his time at Hampshire College, building a "lexically-scoped LISP interpreter." It didn't catch on, but he did and, after receiving his BA in computer science, returned to NIST where he worked for the next 10 years. There he was introduced to Unix and Python. Python mixed with his interests and he followed the relationship to CNRI and eventually to Digital Creations.

In everything he does, Manheimer strives for cohesion, for a system that includes access to the spectrum of perspective, minute to grand, the view from 10 feet, to 100 to 1,000.

His programming is only part of this journey which seems almost science fiction in its idealism or in its daring sense of sitting on the edge of comprehension. The other facets of his life also have sublime repercussions. Take for instance his choice of sport, contact improv.

"The very simple form is two people in a 'duet.' They make a point of contact -- shoulder to shoulder, hand to back, hip to nose -- and just follow the small movements, follow the point of contact. The dancers share weight, share flying, falling. There's always something for people to read and those small movements that go on in you are kind of representative of your body state and really what you need to do as opposed to what you want to do and there's sort of a fine line between introducing and choosing what you do, and following."

In this "sport dance" there is no leader and no follower, but individuals tapping into and channeling the flow of energy around and between them. It seems to be the most primitive form of Manheimer's greater beliefs concerning truth -- about connecting to truth, about accessing and exposing greater realities.

It's not surprising he would try something unusual like contact improv. Having battled debilitating digestive dysfunction since childhood, Manheimer has been investigating basic alternatives his whole life.

Originally determined by doctors to be suffering from celiac, a catch-all diagnoses that Manheimer now considers inaccurate, he has consulted countless doctors and experimented with a number of strategies to combat the bloating and blockage caused by his body's reaction to so many types of food.

Considering the uniqueness of his reaction (wheat products containing the gluten most celiac sufferers are allergic to he found to be one of the only friendly foods) he has been largely left to his own wit in determining what information applies to him. Starting at the age of 25 or 26 he has been eating only once a day and consuming nothing but water outside of that. After a youth spent testing different foods, his meals now consist mostly of meat and potatoes, no sauces, minimal vegetables, no simple sugars. He laughs slightly, recognizing anybody's surprise that a progressive thinker with a delicate stomach would end up a meat and potatoes guy.

One thing that having to fend for himself achieved is his secure sense of discernment.

"Finding people with insight is not an easy thing in this world ... it's like finding a good car mechanic, it is hard to know how to judge them except with experience."

But Manheimer is patient, willing to give ideas, be they at work, in the kitchen, on the dance floor, the time needed to discover their potential role in reality. His process in discovery is organic, natural.

He speaks like a true scientist. His theories and hopes are elusive, vague. His latest theory on the search for his "holy grail" is "turning answers into stories." He's not really sure what it means but he rolls it around on his tongue, in his brain. Like dough on a dusted countertop, he's kneading it, massaging it, squeezing it between his fingers, infusing it with the energy that runs around and through him, he's baking an idea hoping to feed evolution with a new reality.

"Programming is a kind of funny sport. Everything you build is built on other people's work. You're so much more effective having access to the source.

"Ultimately computers are a really elaborate communications mechanism...[and] the strength of our species is in collaboration."

"Turning answers into stories..." It is taking the detail, the seemingly isolated truth and putting it into something alive, moving. It is much like history, which exists on the backs of the countless individuals that make up societies, civilizations, their individual answers creating a larger reality, their minute perspectives joining to reveal a grander one.

Seems that when the gods handed out organs they got a little mischievous with Manheimer, labeled the stomach line "brain" and the brain line "stomach." Now all the digestion in his body is going on in his head and boy, does he have a healthy appetite.

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