CSE 320: Programming Languages @ CSU, San Bernardino

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Lab 3: Effects

Welcome to the third and final lab using Haskell. In this lab, we will discuss effects, how to control them, and how a collection of typeclasses makes working with them more pleasant.


Until now, we’ve tiptoed around the type signature for the main function in Haskell. In case you were wondering, it looks like this:

main :: IO ()

This means that main is a function that takes in no parameters, and returns an IO struct containing nothing (indicated by (), the unit type, as discussed in the first lab).

So what is this IO struct? Think of it as a “context” in which a value of some type can be placed. When you do input-output in Haskell, it’s done in this IO context. So, for example, the function putStrLn looks like this:

putStrLn :: String -> IO ()

This means that putStrLn takes in a Haskell string, and returns an empty IO context (there’s no return value for printing something, so there’s no value for the IO context to hold after this operation).

If you’re doing input, say, to get a single character, it looks like this:

getChar :: IO Char

This means that getChar takes in no parameters, and returns a Char in the IO context.

IO actually comes with a bunch of functions for doing input-output. Here they are:

putChar :: Char -> IO ()
putStr :: String -> IO ()
putStrLn :: String -> IO ()
print :: (Show a) => a -> IO ()

getChar :: IO Char
getLine :: IO String
getContents :: IO String
interact :: (String -> String) -> IO ()

type FilePath = String
readFile :: FilePath -> IO String
writeFile :: FilePath -> String -> IO ()
appendFile :: FilePath -> String -> IO ()
readIO :: Read a => String -> IO a
readLn :: Read a => IO a

Notice that all the functions doing output return some IO (), while all the functions getting input return some IO type (Char or String, depending on whether you’re getting a character or string).

All input-output in Haskell goes through these IO functions.

Operating in the Context

The question then is what to do with the context once you have it. For example, let’s say you have some IO Char value, and want to modify the character inside. How would you do that? You need some way to modify the value inside, maybe like this:

modify :: IO Char -> IO Char
modify (IO c) = IO (toLower c)

But hey, doesn’t it seem weird to have a function that only works for IO characters? Let’s split out the part specific to IO from the part specific to Char:

modifyIO :: IO Char -> IO Char
modifyIO c = mapIO modify c

mapIO :: (a -> b) -> IO a -> IO b
mapIO f (IO x) = IO (f x)

modify :: Char -> Char
modify c = toLower c

So now we have a pure, non-IO function for modifying the character, and a generic function for applying the non-IO function in the IO context!

It turns out there are other places this same pattern can be used. What if we have a value of type Maybe Char, and we want to modify the Char in the same way we just did with IO. It looks like this:

modifyMaybe :: Maybe Char -> Maybe Char
modifyMaybe c = mapMaybe modify c

mapMaybe :: (a -> b) -> Maybe a -> Maybe b
mapMaybe f (Just x) = Just (f x)
mapMaybe f (Nothing) = Nothing

modify :: Char -> Char
modify c = toLower c

Hang on! mapMaybe’s type signature is almost identical to the one for mapIO! Can we make a function that works for both? We can!

class Functor f where
    fmap :: (Functor f) => (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

That’s it! We’ve defined a new type class, called Functor that contains one function, fmap, which is the generic version of those mapIO and mapMaybe functions we wrote ourselves. It turns out that both the IO type and Maybe type are Functors! In fact, any type that can be mapped over in the same way is a functor, meaning we can operate on values in the context of that type, without polluting the functions we’re applying by forcing them to know things about the context.

Sequencing Contextual Operations

Okay, so we can operate on a value in a context, without having to mess up our functions by making them care about the context itself. What if we want to sequence contextual operations? Can we do it?

Imagine we have a function in a context, like so:

$ let x = Just (+ 3)
x :: (Num a ) => Maybe (a -> a)

We now have a function that maps numbers to numbers, inside the Maybe context. Unfortunately, we can’t give this function to fmap, because its type signature is wrong! It expects a function (a -> b), not f (a -> b). But could we write a function that does work with x?

class Functor f => Applicative f where
    pure  :: a -> f a
    (<*>) :: (Applicative f) => f (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

We’ll call <*> “apply.” “Apply” is a function that takes in a function in a context, a value in the same context, and uses the function to modify the value, returning a new value, still in the same context. pure is a simple function to take a value and put it into the context.

But just what kind of context is it? Well, it’s an applicative one! An applicative context is a context that can implement the Applicative typeclass. Simple as that.

But how does this help with sequencing? Well, let’s look at Applicative Maybe!

instance Applicative Maybe where
    pure x = Just x

    (<*>) (Just f) x = fmap f x
    (<*>) (Nothing) _ = Nothing

So pure simply wraps the value in a Just, and “apply” applies the function if it’s there, or passes on Nothing if there’s no function. Let’s see it in action!

$ pure (+) <*> Just 3 <*> Just 5
Just 8
$ pure (+) <*> Just 3 <*> Nothing
$ pure (+) <*> Nothing <*> Just 5

So, pure (+), takes (+) (which has type Num a => a -> a -> a) and puts it into the Maybe context, resulting in a value of just Num a => Maybe (a -> a -> a).

“Apply” then first applies the function to a value of type Maybe 3, resulting in a value of type Num a => Maybe (a -> a), thanks to partial application.

The second “apply” applies the function to Just 5, resulting in a value of type Maybe a. In this case, the value is 8, which is the result of 3 + 5.

That is how Applicative provides sequencing! With partial application, you give it a function with multiple parameters, and then apply that function to those parameters, all while staying in the same context! And thanks to pure, you still don’t need to pollute your functions by making them care about the context in which they’ll be applied!

Working with Contextual Functions

So, we know how to apply a pure function to a contextual value (with fmap), and we know how to apply a contextual function to contextual values. But what if we have a function like putChar, from earlier?

Remember, putChar has the following type signature:

putChar :: String -> IO ()

This function takes in a pure value and returns a contextual value. This type signature isn’t quite right for a Functor, and it’s not quite right for an Applicative. What is it?

class Applicative f => Monad f where
    (>>=) :: f a -> (a -> f b) -> f b

This function, which we’ll call “bind,” takes in a contextual value, and a function (like putChar) from a pure value to a contextual value, and returns a contextual value. Using it might look like this:

$ pure 'a' >>= putChar

pure 'a' gives us a value of type IO Char, and putChar has the type Char -> IO (). These match up perfectly with “bind”! So IO is a monad!

With the monad, we have the ability to sequence operations together! To show this, let’s write a little helper function, which we’ll call “sequence”:

(>>) :: Monad f => f a -> f b -> fb
(>>) x y = x >>= (\_ -> y)

This function says to run x first, throw away the result, and then run y. So, if we wanted to print multiple characters, it could look this this!

$ (pure 'a' >>= putChar) >> (pure 'b' >>= putChar)

In fact, Haskell provides a convenient notation for sequencing IO operations, that desugars into exactly this!

main = do
    x <- getLine
    putStrLn ("You typed: " ++ x)

This turns into:

main = getLine >>= (\x -> putStrLn ("You typed: " ++ x))

None of this is specific to IO! We can actually use it for any type that implements the Monad interface, like Maybe or [] (the list type).


So, we make sure effects can only happen inside a particular context by having all the functions with effects only operate in that context. Then we use Functor, Applicative, and Monad to make working with those contexts nice and easy, giving us the ability to operate on contextual values (with Functor), sequence contextual operations (with Applicative), and have that sequencing carry values (with Monad). Collectively, these provide an extremely strong and useful interface for controlling effects.

For this lab, I want something a little different. Please type a response to the following question: “what makes Functor, Applicative, and Monad different? Why are all Applicatives inherently Functors, and why are all Monads inherently Applicatives (and therefore also Functors). Email this typed response to me, as a PDF, before the next lab.”