Saturday, April 19, 2014

'Q' is for Quine

So, yesterday ('P' is for Predicate) I forgot to mention to whom we owe our gratitude, and that is Gottlob Frege. After Wittgenstein, Frege is considered to have made the most important contributions to philosophy through his formalization of predicate logic.

I mention this, in fronting (as opposed to 'in passing') because this post is about 'quining.' And the word 'Quine' comes from the American philosopher Willard 'Van' Quine.

Quining is a neat thing. What a quine does is it's a program that outputs itself.

That sounds simple enough, but there's a problem here. If you were using BASIC, for example, then you might start off with:

10 PRINT "10 PRINT \"10 PRINT \" ...

but then, whoops! We've just run into a problem, haven't we?

So how do we solve that? With a GOTO statement? Even though the "GOTO Statement Considered Harmful"?

Crusty BASIC programmer: HECK! I've used GOTO zillions of times, and it never smacked me once!

Yeah. Okay. Whatevs.

But, okay, let's give it a try:

10 PRINT "10 PRINT \""
20 GOTO 10

The problem here is that it prints:

10 PRINT "
10 PRINT "
10 PRINT "
... blah, blah, blah ...

but it never gets to the

20 GOTO 10

That solved a whole ton of nothing.

Writing quines in non-functional languages is a big-ole pile-o-pain! But totally doable, in tons of languages (and since languages have no weight, that's saying a lot)!

Here's the ones for BASIC (the first one is totally cheating, by the way) (or totally clever) (I'm not sure which).

Now, in functional programming languages, writing a quine is trivial.

Here's one in combinatory logic:


because, as you recall,

M = λx → xx

So, MM is M where x is also M so MM = MM

Piece of cake!

Now, since, usually, functional languages are in an evaluator, that gives instant feedback to what you just entered, for example:

3 + 4



right away.

Well, then just simply evaluating a function that returns itself is easy enough:




(the 'unit' value)





(the empty list)

And even:




... and we can skip all this 3 + 4 nonsense.

So, there's that.

Same thing for any programming language that has an evaluator, like Prolog, (SWI, for example, or interpreted on the web) (ooh, look at the cute little 'witch' example on the online Prolog interpreter!):

? X = 3

X = 3

So, there are those that might consider this cheating, too, like that BASIC program that uses a BASIC command to print itself as its own list. I say P-SHAW!

But also, as the quine it to get you thinking about recursion and bootstrapping, maybe those blow-hards saying you can't use the evaluator to write a quine may be onto something.

Quine was a man who exercised his brain, and let to some serious reexamination of what it is to be true, that there may be things we consider 'obviously' true to be examined again under the light of our experiential knowledge.

A little quine program just may do the same thing for me and my ideas.

p.s. Happy Easter!

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