Monads and the meaning of imperative language – also, some musing

Monads and the meaning of imperative language — the delicious alpheccar does a lovely job of introducing denotational semantics without saying enough to scare you off, and shows how exceptions (or even assert) in imperative languages are, at bottom, the Maybe monad. This point generalises (apparently – I know enough to believe it could be true, but not enough to assert that it isn’t untrue) to “any formal description of control flow in an imperative language will be monadic in nature.” Gorgeous.

The stuff about defining domains (and that being the hard part) is resonating with me just now; I’ve spent the day nailing down definitions of sets describing a particular aspect of my pet specification language, CspCASL, and it’s not trivial. And this is the easy part: not proper “domains”, just sets without much internal structure. Markus does that, for the model semantics. Anyway, yay language design.

Formally describing languages is hard. That’s why it doesn’t happen much yet, which is one reason our current languages situation is so messy. My hand-waving prediction: it’s hard but not intractable, and we’re getting better and better at it; in time it’ll be a sufficiently managable problem, with sufficiently good tool support, that languages which aren’t formally described will stagnate in comparison to the new languages then appearing. Naturally, from where I’m standing I see the increasing convergance of computer languages (sounds like a dumbing-down term but I’m really just trying to cover both programming and specification) with full-blown mathematical logic in all its various and colourful forms. Mathematics is the language for describing things formally; a computer program is by necessity a formal description of something, therefore this convergance seems like it will be a good thing – again, from where I’m standing. Whether or not it appears that way because where I’m standing is a good place to get a view of what’s going on, or just because that’s all you can see from here, remains to be seen. ;-)

Why Haskell is Good for Embedded Domain Specific Languages

Why Haskell is Good for Embedded Domain Specific Languages — nice summary, I’d say.

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).

Monad wrangling, and the joy of #haskell

Three days ago, I enthused about the Python community, and what a great help to me they were back in the day.

These days it’s Haskell that has my brain feeling too small, and I’ve just had my first experience of the Haskell community. I installed an IRC client for the first time in four years just so I could log on to the #haskell IRC channel. I’m happy to report that the experience was entirely positive.

For an imperative programmer, learning Haskell is initially hard because you have to stop thinking in terms of issuing instructions which will be performed in order, and start thinking in terms of composing pure functions (which have no side effects) together to Get Things Done. It’s weird at first, but ultimately very powerful, as it lends itself much more nicely to higher-order programming, lazy evaluation, actually composing programs out of reusable parts, etc. I’d say I’m starting to get a reasonable feel for that, although I’ve got a long way to go.

Unfortunately, a little later, you realise that there are cases where you need side-effects (eg input/output), which leads you into this whole sort-of-imperative side of Haskell, at the heart of which lie the hairy monad things. You totally can’t avoid this, because sooner or later you need to do I/O. Monadic I/O (and monads in general) look & feel imperative at first, but you soon hit barriers thinking like that, and ultimately really have to read stuff like The I/O Inside Tutorial, Tackling The Awkward Squad, etc. in order to understand what’s really going on, which is actually really clever, decidedly not imperative, and at some point turns into lambda calculus or category theory (take your pick).

It’s monads that I’ve been wrangling with lately. I’ve been trying to do a fairly simple I/O task: I have some directory containing some files; I want to operate on a subset of the files in that directory, for each of them reading the file and creating some data object representing its contents. The details aren’t important. Doing this in Python (say) is trivial. Doing it in Haskell has had me stuck for nearly a week. :-) I spent all day last Friday working through “I/O Inside”, and now understand monads much better than I did, and maybe half as well as I should (but maybe not even). That was all very informative and educational, but still didn’t answer my problem.

Anyway, long story short, tonight I installed an IRC client, went on #haskell, asked the question, and got an answer immediately and in a wonderfully friendly fashion. Full #haskell chat log for today is here if anyone’s interested, but in essence it turns out that mapM is what I need for this task. Sweet, and actually incredibly simple when you know it. I think a lot of Haskell is like that…

By the way, the #haskell channel has this neato lambdabot running, which among other handy functions, remembers and repeats amusing/apposite quotes when instructed to do so. Given the sad theory geek that I am becoming, this quote it kicked up tonight made me chortle:

Binkley: the sex is all in the operational semantics, denotational semantics only deals with love.

vincenz, 14:41:22