The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 08 Aug 2018

[ Previously: [1] [2] ]

In my original article, I said:

I was fairly confident I had seen something like this somewhere before, and that it was not original to me.

Jeremy Yallop brought up an example that I had definitely seen before.

In 2008 Conor McBride and Ross Paterson wrote an influential paper, “Idioms: applicative programming with effects” that introduced the idea of an applicative functor, a sort of intermediate point between functors and monads. It has since made its way into standard Haskell and was deemed sufficiently important to be worth breaking backward compatibility.

McBride and Paterson used several notations for operations in an applicative functor. Their primary notation was !!\iota!! for what is now known as pure and !!\circledast!! for what has since come to be written as <*>. But the construction

$$\iota f \circledast is_1 \circledast \ldots \circledast is_n$$

came up so often they wanted a less cluttered notation for it:

We therefore find it convenient, at least within this paper, to write this form using a special notation

$$[\![ f is_1 \ldots is_n ]\!]$$

The brackets indicate a shift into an idiom where a pure function is applied to a sequence of computations. Our intention is to provide a sufficient indication that effects are present without compromising the readability of the code.

On page 5, they suggested an exercise:

… show how to replace !![\![!! and !!]\!]!! by identifiers iI and Ii whose computational behaviour delivers the above expansion.

They give a hint, intended to lead the reader to the solution, which involves a function named iI that does some legerdemain on the front end and then a singleton type data Ii = Ii that terminates the legerdemain on the back end. The upshot is that one can write

iI f x y Ii


and have it mean

(pure f) <*> x <*> y


The haskell wiki has details, written by Don Stewart when the McBride-Paterson paper was still in preprint. The wiki goes somewhat further, also defining

 data J = J


so that

iI f x y J z Ii


now does a join on the result of f x y before applying the result to z.

I have certainly read this paper more than once, and I was groping for this example while I was writing the original article, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Thank you, M. Yallop!

[ By the way, I am a little bit disappointed that the haskell wiki is not called “Hicki”. ]

In the previous article I described a rather odd abuse of the Haskell type system to use a singleton type as a sort of pseudo-keyword, and asked if anyone had seen this done elsewhere.

Joachim Breitner reported having seen this before. Most recently in LiquidHaskell, which defines a QED singleton type:

 data QED = QED
infixl 2 ***

(***) :: a -> QED -> Proof
_ *** _ = ()


so that they can end every proof with *** QED:

singletonP x
=   reverse [x]
==. reverse [] ++ [x]
==. [] ++ [x]
==. [x]
*** QED


This example is from Vazou et al., Functional Pearl: Theorem Proving for All, p. 3. The authors explain: “The QED argument serves a purely aesthetic purpose, allowing us to conclude proofs with *** QED.”.

Or see the examples from the bottom of the LH splash page, proving the associative law for ++.

I looked in the rest of the LiquidHaskell distribution but did not find any other uses of the singleton-type trick. I would still be interested to see more examples.

A friend asked me the other day about techniques in Haskell to pretend to make up keywords. For example, suppose we want something like a (monadic) while loop, say like this:

      while cond act =
cond >>= \b -> if b then act >> while cond act
else return ()


This uses a condition cond (which might be stateful or exception-throwing or whatever, but which must yield a boolean value) and an action act (likewise, but its value is ignored) and it repeates the action over and over until the condition is false.

Now suppose for whatever reason we don't like writing it as while condition action and we want instead to write while condition do action or something of that sort. (This is a maximally simple example, but the point should be clear even though it is silly.) My first suggestion was somewhat gross:

      while c _ a = ...


Now we can write

      while condition "do" action


and the "do" will be ignored. Unfortunately we can also write while condition "wombat" action and you know how programmers are when you give them enough rope.

But then I had a surprising idea. We can define it this way:

      data Do = Do
while c Do a = ...


Now we write

      while condition
Do action


and if we omit or misspell the Do we get a compile-time type error that is not even too obscure.

For a less trivial (but perhaps sillier) example, consider:

    data Exception a = OK a | Exception String

data Catch = Catch
data OnSuccess = OnSuccess
data AndThen = AndThen

try computation Catch handler OnSuccess success AndThen continuation =
case computation of OK a        -> success >> (OK a) >>= continuation
Exception e ->            (handler e) >>= continuation


The idea here is that we want to try a computation, and do one thing if it succeeds and another if it throws an exception. The point is not the usefulness of this particular and somewhat contrived exception handling construct, it's the syntactic sugar of the Catch, OnSuccess, and AndThen:

    try (evaluate some_expression)
Catch (\error -> case error of "Divison by zero" -> ...
... )
OnSuccess ...
AndThen ...


I was fairly confident I had seen something like this somewhere before, and that it was not original to me. But I've asked several Haskell experts and nobody has said it was familar. I thought perhaps I had seen it somewhere in Brent Yorgey's code, but he vehemently denied it.

So my question is, did I make up this technique of using a one-element type as a pretend keyword?

[ Addendum: At least one example of this trick appears in LiquidHaskell. I would be interested to hear about other places it has been used. ]

[ Addendum: Jeremy Yallop points out that a similar trick was hinted at in McBride and Paterson “Idioms: applicative programming with effects” (2008), with which I am familiar, although their trick is both more useful and more complex. So this might have been what I was thinking of. ]