Compose Tetris

Jul 13, 2018

In the Beginning there was Function Composition

So let's talk composition. As programmers we see composition constantly. It's there even if you're not aware. If we have two functions f and g and we apply them one after the other, we're doing function composition.

or in mathematical notation:

In Haskell this is so common that we have an operator for it:

It's fun to note that composition is associative. Meaning if we have three functions f, g, and h then it doesn't matter what order we compose them in:

And here's an example use of function composition in Haskell:

We can read this right-to-left: splitting the incoming String into separate words, i.e. [String], then map capitaliseWord over this list, and concatenate the list back into String. A simple and concise example to wet our whistles.

Take me Higher and Higher!

We can take the idea of composition to the next level. Before this though, we have to quickly go over higher-kinded types. Higher-kinded types are types that have a parameter. This means they are expecting types so that they can be a regular, happy type. Think of it like a type function:

Without further ado, let's look at examples! The first higher-kinded type that we will look at is the Maybe type. It goes by a few names but here is its definition in Haskell:

When we look at the left-hand side of the = we see that the Maybe type has a parameter calleda. We can fill the a with other types, e.g. Maybe Int, Maybe String, Maybe (Maybe Bool).

Another common type that is also higher-kinded is the list type:

Again, we have an a parameter that the list is waiting for to be filled. Exercise: Using the :kind command in the ghci-repl, explore the kind of the [] data type.

We can also talk about things that take a type parameter more abstractly. We can say there is some type constructor f that takes a type parameter a:

With that covered we can talk about a type called Compose, defining it here as:

It takes to two higher-kinded types f and g and a type parameter a and gives us f and g composed. This looks a lot like our function composition right?!

"So, what's special about this new type we've introduced?", I hear you ask. I'll tell you what! We can define functions over the composition of these two things, but abstractly! We can compose two Functors and two Applicatives. These commonly trip people up when exploring this. Especially since the nesting of two the f and g can make for some difficult type tetris when trying to implement (<*>) for two Compose values. I want to provide some further intuition on how to come to the solution to writing these instances.

But before you read on, I would encourage you to fire up your ghci repl, open up your favourite editor and try implementing these. If you reaaallllly get stuck then you can read on, but learn by doing first 😄

Exercise: Implement the Functor and Applicative instance for Compose.

Functors on Functors on Functors

We'll start off with talking about composing two functors. To begin we'll look at the instance declaration:

As we've said, we're composing two Functors so it would make sense that we rely on f and g being instances of Functor. The aim here is to change the a, nested within our f and g, into a b. This is more clear when we take a look at the signature for fmap specialised to Compose.

This gives us an idea of where to begin when trying to implement fmap. We'll need to introduce the function a -> b and the Compose f g value. We can also use pattern matching to unwrap the f (g a) inside the Compose.

Armed with the knowledge that we want to change the innermost value a, we will approach the problem by thinking inside-out. This method of working from the inside-out will be reused throughout the implementations and will help us think about implementing these instances.

The innermost thing we can work with is a, but this is trivial since we know that turning the a into a b can be done by using the function f.

The next level up we are looking at the g, more specifically g a. So how can we go from a g a to a g b?

Alarm bells 🚨🚨🚨 should be ringing in your head here because we know g is a Functor and we know how to get a function g a -> g b by using fmap. So we end up with:

So now we need to move to the next layer up and figure out how to turn our f (g a) into a f (g b). Inspecting the types of what we have at our fingertips will reveal how to get past this hurdle:

Again we see a familiar pattern of trying to access the inner part, in this case we want to access the g a inside of the f. fmap is our friend, once again, and the (a -> b) in this case is specialised to (g a -> g b). That is to say fmap looks like the following for f:

And here's our solution for fmap for the Compose Functor:

We can reduce this to show a cleaner solution by replacing gb with its definition (thank you equational reasoning 🙌🏼):

and the unwrapping of Compose with the function unCompose:

From there we can see function composition falling into place by removing fg:

To concretise the idea of our higher-kinded composition we can see how the composition of two Functors is just the two fmap functions coming together and forming our one fmap function for Compose. Neat!

Let's test out our implementation by choosing the two functors we mentioned earlier: [] and Maybe.

Mind melting Applicative

Going up the chain of typeclasses we will take a look at the composition of Applicatives. Again, we can start off with a similar instance declaration:

The Applicativetypeclass has two functions associated with its definition: pure and (<*>) (also liftA2, but we won\'t look at that here). We will go after the easier game first and write the pure implementation. Specialising pure to Compose we get the following function signature:

Again, we can work with our intuition of working from the inside-out. So how can we get a g a? You guessed it, pure!

Next, how can we get an f (g a), pfffttt you got this!

And to finish it all off we wrap our results in Compose:

In the same vein as fmap we can work back to a cleaner solution. The first step is to exchange ga for its definition:

We can then do the same with fga:

Now we can really see the composition shine by dropping the a and use the composition of these functions to define pure:


Now, here's the part that has tripped up many of us in the past. We'll define (<*>) for Compose. We are going to use a type-hole driven development approach alongside the idea of working from the inside out to converge on the solution for this function. But first, let's look at the type signature:

We can start off by unwrapping the two Compose values:

And it's important to keep track of the types we're working with from here:

It's good to also note that when utilising type holes GHC will provide us with relevant bindings in scope, as well.

Starting from the inner part first we will just consider the g part of the types. If we remove the f we end up with wanting an expression of type:

Well doesn't that look familiar! So now we know that we will need to work with the (<*>) function that's specific to g.

What we want to do is to access the g (a -> b) inside the f and supply the (<*>) with its first argument. When we are thinking about getting inside something we should start to think of fmap and that's exactly what we will use:

Notice that I have written the type signature as _liftedAp where GHC will be kind enough to tell us what the type of this expression is:

Unfortunately, we can't place this signature here without turning on some extensions so we will leave it as a comment to ensure that we remember the type:

From here we know that we want to end up with a final value of f (g b). Looking at liftedAp, we know that if we can lift some g a in then we will get back that f (g b). So let's look at what we have to work with again:

At this stage, I think we're pros at type tetris and realise that we're working with something that we have seen before. Indeed, this is (<*>) specialised:

Noting that we also have to wrap it up in a Compose in the end, we get the solution:

An astute reader will notice that this can be written differently knowing that fmap can be written using its infix operator <$>:

Which gives us the intuition that we're lifting the (<*>) over our fs and applying it to our gs.

Let's look at another concrete example using [] and Maybe:


I hope this provided some insight on how we can compose higher-kinds. In turn we were able to talk about composing typeclasses, specifically Functor and Applicative. The beauty is that now we can use fmap, pure, and (<*>) on any two Functors or Applicatives!

If you want to take this learning further, I would encourage you to implement Foldable and Traversable for Compose. Once you have done this, investigate why you cannot compose two Monads and then you will be ready to have fun with Monad Transformers! (Robots in Disguise)

Shoutouts: to Sandy (who's got excellent content on Haskell too btw), and Joe (\@jkachmar on FPChat) for helping me proof-read and polish this upe