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31 May 2008

Of Seeds and Quines

Tonight I caught the bloom of a chive in my garden. The miracle of a flower, accompanied by the plant that creates it, never fails to amaze me. I did not plant this chive--it planted itself and grew, mostly with no help from me. I planted chives 3 years ago and they self-seed every year.

One of the fun challenges in my field is to produce the shortest possible program whose output is itself, for any given language (this is known as a quine). If you're a programmer, and have never tried it, you're missing out. The challenge comes from deciding what to keep, or more precisely: what must be kept. The fun comes from the kind of thinking this problem induces--brute minimalism is what I call it. It really tickles the brain.

Seeds (or plants, or flowers), to me, represent the ultimate in this kind of minimalism, but in hyrdrocarbon domain. Every part of a seed is there because it must be. Nothing can be shed and still have something viable. Seeds are there at the beginning. Then when the growing and dying and and all the thrashing are over with, seeds are what remain.

In about two weeks the chive flower will have dried. The petals, having a achieved a paper-like quality, will contain the seeds of next years chives. At some point in the fall or maybe the winter, the wind or a careless gardener will cause the dried flower to shake, releasing the seeds into the soil where they will sit and wait for spring. And then the miracle will repeat itself.