A pragmatic look at monads in Haskell

(Within an hour or two of publishing this, it was pointed out to me that this talk is really about the IO monad rather than monads in general, and that in particular the assertion that a monad represents a computation which performs a side-effect is not, in general true. A nice example is the Maybe monad. So a better title for this talk is “A pragmatic look at monadic I/O in Haskell”.)

A pragmatic look at monads in Haskell (PDF, 293KB) – slides from a talk I gave last Friday in Swansea University’s Computer Science department, as part of our “No Grownups” series of non-research talks given for and by postgraduate students.

The aim of the talk was to explain monads to a non-expert (and, largely, non-Haskell-programming) audience: why do we have them, what problems do they solve, and how are they used? The approach is pragmatic in that the talk explicitly does not go into technical details, instead focusing on a broad understanding, and on some specific useful “rules of thumb” for programming with monads in Haskell. I don’t claim to be an expert on monads or to have produced a talk which is authoritative or even necessarily completely correct. I do hope to have produced something reasonably comprehensible and useful, however. I would welcome any feedback, comments, corrections, clarifications, etc.

The talk was filmed, but I don’t know if my delivery was good enough to warrant putting it online. :-) Let me know if you’re interested. The post-talk discussion was quite useful, so it might be worth it for that. In particular, there was a question about when exactly the “non-purity” happens – when does referential transparency go away? My answer was that it happens when it needs to (ie when the result is required) and that yes, obviously somewhere there is some code which isn’t pure Haskell and which is doing the impure operation – eg an operating system call. Markus opined that a big part of the point of monads is to give us a clear indication, in the type system, that an operation is impure and thus, in some sense, unsafe/not nice. I thought that was a good enough point that I’ve since added a bullet saying that to the talk – but that’s the only addition I’ve made before publishing.

Background/reference material: A History of Haskell: being lazy with class (historical context), monads @ wikibooks (the nuclear waste metaphor), IO inside: down the rabbit’s hole (probably the point where I started understanding monads), rules for Haskell I/O (not an influence, but something with a similar flavour which I saw when I’d nearly finished), do-notation considered harmful (desugaring), monads on the unix shell (just because the dirty string “dramatisation” is so great).