November 28, 2000

Feasting on life with veteran programmer Ken Manheimer

Author: JT Smith

- 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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