First-Class “Statements”

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One thing I’ve really always appreciated about Haskell is that all “statements” in Haskell (or at least, what would be statements in other languages) are first-class members of the language. That is, (imperative) statements are literally just normal objects (no different from numbers, or lists, or booleans) — they can be saved to variables, passed to functions, transformed using normal functions, copied, etc. Haskell doesn’t have statements — everything is an expression, representing normal data! This really opens up a whole world of possibilities for not only reasoning about your code, but also for new ways to frame ideas in contexts of parallelism, concurrency, exceptions, DSLs, and more.

To clarify, by “statement”, I mean it in the sense of a “command” from traditional imperative programming that, when control flow reaches it, executes some sort of action or modification to some state. The wikipedia article has a nice explanation. Some typical statements from common imperative languages include:

int a = 4;              // declaration & assignment
a += 5;                 // modification
printf("hello world");  // call
return false;           // exit points

In these languages, whenever control flow reaches these statements, something happens. We do not differentiate the act of evaluating these statements (figuring out what they are) from executing these statements. Something just happens when you see an assignment.

It is clear that in these languages, something about these statements are magical or a special part of the language. They are wholly different than, say, an integer, or a boolean. They aren’t normal “objects” or “data” in your system.

Even if your programming languages have first-class functions, printf might be a first-class value, but the call of it (usually indicated with parentheses, like printf()) is definitely something…different altogether. You can simulate this in languages by creating a sub-language inside the language, but you’re always going to have an interplay between the two. There will always be the dichotomy between statements and data.

Statements as data

In Haskell, putStrLn "hello world" is literally just a normal, boring object, of type IO () (If you come from an OOP background, IO a is sort of like a generic/template, IO <a>). Like an Int, or Bool, or a String, or a [Double] (a list of Double). Evaluating it doesn’t really do anything. It’s like evaluating the number 1, or the expression 2 + 5. Cool — you evaluated 2 + 5 into a 7; now what? Does anything happen? Not really. It’s still just an Int.

putStrLn "hello world" is just a normal data/term/value that represents (through some abstract representation that isn’t really important) the act of a computer printing the string "hello world" to stdout.

Aside

The type IO () means “an object/abstracted data structure that represents the act of a computer computing a ()” — or, in other terms, “instructions for a computer to produce a ()”. () is sort of like the empty tuple…it’s a type that is only inhabited by just…well, (). You can think of () as being analogous to a function returning “void” in other languages.

If you have experience with object-oriented languages and templates/generics, IO a sort of corresponds to something like IO<a>.

There are definitely many values of type IO Int or IO String, which represent actions that produce an Int or a String, respectively. One common example is getLine, which is of type IO StringgetLine is an object that represents the act of a computer getting input from stdin; the “result” of this action is a String. An IO Int would represent a CPU computation/IO-based computation that produces an Int.

For the sake of this discussion, we’ll only be considering IO ()s…but in real life, these other types pop up just as often.

Haskell gives you a bunch of combinators/functions to work with these IO ()’s (and IO a’s in general). To manipulate then, merge them, sequence them, compose them…anything you can dream of!

The most popular and common combinator is (>>), which is usually used as an infix operator. A common use case: Say you want to create an IO action that prints “hello”, then “world”. But you only have putStrLn "hello", which represents printing “hello”, and putStrLn "world", which represents printing “world”.

If you have those two IO ()s, you can use the (>>) combinator to “merge” them and create a new IO ().1 In this case:

-- :: means "has the type"

-- putStrLn "hello" is an object with type IO ().
putStrLn "hello" :: IO ()
putStrLn "world" :: IO ()

(>>) :: IO () -> IO () -> IO ()

The type signature of (>>) says (in simple terms) that it’s a function that takes two IO ()s and returns a shiny new IO (). It’s a function that takes two objects and returns one.

We can apply (>>) as an infix operator:

helloThenWorld :: IO ()
helloThenWorld = putStrLn "hello" >> putStrLn "world"

-- define `helloThenWorld` as putStrLn "hello" >> putStrLn "world"; and its
type is `IO ()`.

That new IO () is a data structure that represents the act of printing “hello”, then printing “world”.

Remember that this new one is, still, only a normal object. No printing actually ever “happens” if you evaluate putStrLn "hello" >> putStrLn "world". If you ever reach that expression in a Haskell program…nothing is printed. It’s simply just taking two regular old data values, running them through a function, and giving you a third one. The process of defining helloThenWorld — or even later evaluating it — doesn’t cause anything to happen. They are inert data structures.

In many other languages, sequencing actions is a special part of the syntax — a semicolon, usually. In Haskell, sequencing is not special — it’s just a normal function on normal data structures.

You can even make your own “first class” control flow!

when :: Bool -> IO () -> IO ()
when True  p = p
when False _ = return ()

(return () is an IO () that represents the act of doing nothing…it doesn’t actually have anything to do with the return keyword in many other languages. It basically represents a no-op.)

when is just a normal function! It takes a Bool and an IO (); if the Bool is true, then the “result” is just that same IO ().

We can evaluate a call to when (4 > 0) (putStrLn "it's True!") by hand:

when (4 > 0) (putStrLn "it's True!") :: IO ()
when True (putStrLn "it's True!")    :: IO ()  -- evaluate 4 > 0
putStrLn "it's True!"                :: IO ()  -- definition of when True

when (4 < 0) (putStrLn "it's True!") :: IO ()
when False (putStrLn "it's True!")   :: IO ()  -- evaluate 4 < 0
return ()                            :: IO ()  -- definition of when False

The above is not an “execution”…it’s an evaluation. Execution involves executing actions on a computer, where evaluation is simply a reduction, like 1 + 1 ==> 2. when is a function that takes a Bool and an IO () object and evaluates to that IO () object when the boolean is True. But remember, calling when doesn’t actually execute anything! It’s just a normal function and normal expression. An IO () goes in, and IO () comes out. Just a normal function on normal data. And we know it’s just a normal function, because we wrote it ourself from scratch!

You can’t write when in this naive way in a language like, say, Javascript:

var when = function(cond, act) { if (cond) { act; } };

when(false, console.log("hello"));
// "hello" is printed, even though the condition is false

(You can simulate something that works by having when take functions instead of statements…but that’s the point! You can’t pass in a “statement”, you have to pass in a function/data. In this sense, statements and data behave completely differently.)

With only a basic knowledge of functional programming (using a fold/reduce/inject, basically, or even recursion), you can easy write this function:

sequence_ :: [IO ()] -> IO ()

Which says, “give me a list of IO ()s, and I’ll give you a new IO () that represents executing all of those IO ()s one-after-another”.

Aside

If you are curious, here is the definition of sequence using a fold:

sequence_ :: [IO ()] -> IO ()
sequence_ xs = foldr (>>) (return ()) xs

If you’re familiar with folds/reduces, return () is the “base value”, and (>>) is the “accumulating function”.

sequence_ [putStrLn "hello", putStrLn "world", putStrLn "goodbye!"]

-- evaluates to:
putStrLn "hello" >> (putStrLn "world" >> (putStrLn "goodbye!" >> return ()))

Note that all of these functions take anything of type IO ()…so I could really be passing in named IO ()’s, or the result of combinators, or…

hello :: IO ()
hello = putStrLn "hello"

world :: IO ()
world = putStrLn "world"

helloworld :: IO ()
helloworld = hello >> world

helloworldhelloworld :: IO ()
helloworldhelloworld = sequence_ [hello, world, helloworld]

Remember – nothing is being called or executed. It’s just all normal functions on normal data. The inputs are data, the outputs are data.

But wait! There are a lot of things I can do with two IO ()s besides executing them one-after-the-other. I can…merge them in parallel!

I can write a combinator:

bothPar :: IO () -> IO () -> IO ()

That takes two IO ()s and create a new shiny IO () that represents the act of executing them in parallel.

Then I can also write a new sequencePar:

sequencePar :: [IO ()] -> IO ()

That takes a list of IO ()s and returns a new shiny IO () that represents the act of executing them all in parallel!

This is one great thing about IO-as-data: If you have a bunch of IO actions, you have the choice in how you want to “sequence” or “combine” them. In Haskell, combining a bunch of actions in sequence and combining them in parallel is just a matter of swapping out your combining function! There is no difference at the syntax level!

Compare this to other languages, where the syntax for sequencing statements — the semicolon — and the syntax required for launching a bunch of parallel actions is noticeably different. In Haskell, “sequencing” isn’t a part of the syntax (the semicolon) — it’s just a regular ol’ function!

Aside

sequencePar’s implementation is pretty much identical to sequence’s, but swapping out (>>) for bothPar:

sequencePar :: [IO ()] -> IO ()
sequencePar xs = foldr bothPar (return ()) xs

By the way, bothPar isn’t defined by default, but we’ll define it really soon.

There are an entire wealth of combinators by which to compose and sequence and manipulate IO ()s together. And many of them you can even write yourself, from scratch.

There are also many “IO action transformers” you have access to — one notable one being makePar:2

makePar :: IO () -> IO ()

That takes an IO (), and “transforms” it into a “parallel” IO (). Or rather, it takes an object representing a computer action, and returns an object representing launching that computer action in a parallel fork.

We can write bothPar ourselves, then, with this:3

bothPar :: IO () -> IO () -> IO ()
bothPar x y = makePar x >> makePar y

Give bothPar two IO ()’s representing computer actions, and it’ll give you a new one that represents launching both computer actions in parallel. To do that, simply launch them both one after the other!

Another common transformer on an IO () is catch:4

catch :: IO () -> (SomeException -> IO ()) -> IO ()
--       ^         ^                          ^
--       |         |                          +-- modified object
--       |         +-- handler function
--       +-- original object

Which takes an IO () object and a handler function, and imbues that IO () with “error handling capabilities”. It returns a new IO () object that represents doing the same thing as the original one, except with built-in error handling if things go wrong. Neat!

So if I used catch (putStrLn "hello world") myHandler…I’m “transforming” the IO () (putStrLn "hello world"), representing printing a string to the console, into a new IO () which represents printing a string to the console, with built in error handling if things go wrong for some reason.

Again — no execution is being done. We’re simply taking an object representing an IO action, and returning a new, modified one representing a slightly different IO action.

Aside

This is a pretty aside-y aside, and you can definitely skip it if you want!

One particularly important combinator I have not mentioned yet is called “bind”: (>>=)

Let’s say you wanted to read a line from stdin, and then print it out right away. You can do this with getLine :: IO String and putStrLn :: String -> IO (). But wait! This doesn’t work:

getLine >> putStrLn "hello?"

(>>) acts like a semicolon…it just sequences them together one after the other. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had something like a unix pipe? It “sequences” the two things, but the result of the first can be used by the second?

Well, if (>>) is a bash semicolon ;, then (>>=) is a bash pipe |!

getLine >>= putStrLn
                      :: IO ()

does exactly what we want!

The type of (>>=) is:

(>>=) :: IO a -> (a -> IO b) -> IO b

And in our specific case, it is:

(>>=) :: IO String -> (String -> IO ()) -> IO ()

Which says, “give me an IO String and a function taking a String and producing an IO (), and I’ll give you a shiny new IO ()” This might sound a little weird at first, but see how getLine :: IO String and putStrLn :: String -> IO () fit into this, and see how it basically works like a unix pipe in a lot of ways.

As it turns out, (>>=) is actually a lot more powerful than it might seem at first. As soon as you add the (>>=) combinator to your arsenal…the space of programs you can construct using various IO a’s opens up in crazy ways. Just imagine bash with no pipes, and only semicolons! If you ever decide to implement some system of first-class statements, and it might be tricky to state/model imperative computations without (>>=).

Much More

This is only a small subset of what you can do with “statements as data”. In fact, there are many frameworks that completely abstract over statements entirely. For example, you can “construct” a system declaratively using a simple DSL, and never even worry about statements or IO. You can specify an entire program, with a full description of its interactions, without ever even touching the IO type. The DSL might provide you with a way to specify a high-level overlook of your program in simple terms. The DSL might be abstracting/wrapping over complex IO actions, and all you ever see is the simple API.

And then, you might have a function: DSL -> IO (). Construct the elaborate high-level thing in simple terms…and then, at the end, convert it to an IO () object. That you can copy, or clone, or throw into a function, or do anything we just mentioned here!

If that DSL is your entire program, then you also have certain guarantees about what IO your program can even do, if the DSL library forbids users from mixing in arbitrary IO.

Execution

That’s nice and all. We see how having first class statements as data is useful for manipulation and abstractions and stuff. But it all seems kind of useless if our data structures remain inert and don’t actually do anything.

Luckily, one can think of a Haskell compiler as a giant function: IO () -> Binary. Give the Haskell compiler an IO (), and it’ll convert it to a “binary” for a given architecture/computer/CPU. It “translates” the representation of a computation into concrete bytecode that a computer can actually execute.

Your computer can then execute that generated binary, and…off we go!

Every Haskell program by convention compiles one single IO (). That is, you might have a bunch of IO as in your program, but you “offer the compiler” one IO () for it to compile, and it compiles it for you. So if you have a lot of different IO computations you wish to do, you basically continually sequence, merge, pipe, combine, transform, etc. them until you get one final IO () which represents your entire desired computation. And then you name it “main”. When your compiler compiles the Haskell file, it’ll find the IO () named “main”, and compile that one.

In a way, one can think of Haskell as a very elaborate metaprogramming system, providing a DSL to “generate” byte code.

By the way, did you see how IO () is completely separate from its binary representation? Hm. Why do we have to compile it to binary, anyway?

Enter in other Haskell compilers, like ghcjs — instead of being IO () -> Binary, it’s IO () -> Javascript! That is, give it any ol’ IO () (the same one that you would design for a CPU/processor), and instead of translating it into bytecode/binary, it translates it into Javascript! This is another power of having IO () being its own, abstract object that is independent of the architecture or computer that it will be eventually run on. Because it’s so abstract…it can be compiled and run really on anything!

Haskell

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment, drop by freenode’s #haskell, #nothaskell, or #haskell-beginners, or find me on twitter.

In this post I’ve suggested that IO () is some sort of data structure that stores the “action” it represents in some abstract way. If you’re curious on what this representation/storage might look like in concrete terms, Chris Taylor has a post on what you might see if you “peek into” the internal representation of (a possible implementation of) an IO action type — you could even use this to implement first-class statements in your language of choice! 5

This post is a distillation of concepts I have mentioned in some other blog posts in the past; I’ve had a lot of new thoughts after writing both of them and I figured I’d condense them and make a new post summarizing the new ideas in a new and more concise way, to have them all in one neat place. Anyways, if you want to go into this topic in more detail, those posts above might help!

If you’re interested in learning Haskell, try picking up Learn You a Haskell and giving it a read, it’s pretty accessible! bitemyapp’s guide also lays out a nice roadmap for learning Haskell.

Also, I encourage you to try to implement your own system of “first class IO” in languages in which it is possible! Like a normal data structure (like in the Chris Taylor post), or an abstracted function call. I’d love to hear of any results or attempts you’ve made implementing this in your language of choice (even if Haskell is your language of choice, you can write a MyIO type :D ); let me know in the comments or via twitter!

(Credit to computionist and bitemyapp for proofreading/helpful suggestions)


  1. The type of (>>) is actually more general: (>>) :: IO a -> IO b -> IO b. We do only use it for IO () in this post, though.

    Actually, would you be mad at me if I told you that its true type in Haskell is even more general? It’s actually m a -> m b -> m b, for any type m that is a member of the Monad typeclass. You can think of it like any type that “implements” (>>) for that type, and more, following some rules on how it should behave.

    Ah! This rabbit hole is a bit deep though, so I recommend you not to worry about it!

  2. makePar actually exists in the standard Haskell libraries as forkIO…kinda. forkIO :: IO () -> IO ThreadId. Our makePar is basically forkIO, but with the return value ignored. Basically, it is makePar x = forkIO x >> return ()

  3. Note that this action doesn’t “wait” for both threads to complete; all it does is launch the two threads.

  4. Again, the real definition here is slightly more general.

  5. For performance reasons, the way IO is implemented in that article actually isn’t the way it’s implemented in the popular Haskell compiler GHC. GHC’s implementation is best described as “hacky”, and doesn’t really line up too well with the semantic picture of what IO () is supposed to represent. But remember that this is really just an (admittedly ugly) implementation detail. The outward-facing API that it offers for the IO () type works as you would expect, of course. One would hope, at least! In any case, it’s important to remember the difference between Haskell the language, and what the IO type is supposed to “represent”, and Haskell the implementation, which provides the semantics of the language, abstracting over ugly implementation details.

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