Learning Haskell

In the land of computer programming, newer has almost always meant better. Java was newer than C, and better, right? Python was better than Perl. Duh, Ruby is better than everything, so they’d tell you. But wait, Twitter is written in Scala. Guess that must be the new hotness, eh?

Haskell has been around for quite a while; somehow I had it in my head that it was outdated and only for computer science work. After all, there are always crazy weirdos out there in academia working on obscure research languages — at least, that’s the perspective from industry. After all, we’re the ones getting real work done. All you’re doing is sequencing the human genome. We invented Java 2 Enterprise Edition. Take that, ivory tower.

The newness bias is strong, which is why I was poleaxed to find people I respect like Erik de Castro Lopo and Conrad Parker working hard in, of all things, Haskell. And now they’re encouraging me to program in it, too (surely, cats and dogs are sleeping together this night). On their recommendation I’ve been learning a bit, and much to my surprise, it turns out Haskell is vibrant, improving, and really cutting edge.

The next thing

I get the impression that people are tired of being told that the some cool new thing makes everything else they’ve been doing irrelevant. Yet many professional programmers (and worse, fanboy script kiddies) are always looking to the next big thing, the next cool language. Often the very people you respect about a topic have already moved on to something else (there’s a book deal in it for them if they can write it fast enough).

But still; technology is constantly changing and there’s always pressure to be doing the latest and greatest. I try my best to resist this sort of thing, just in the interest of actually getting anything done. Not always easy, and the opposite trap is to adopt a bunker mentality whereby you defend what you’re doing against all comers. Not much learning going on there either.

There is, however, a difference between the latest new thing and learning something new.

One of the best things about being active in open source is the opportunity to meet people who you can look up to and learn from. I may know a thing or two about operations and crisis and such, but my techie friends and colleagues are my mentors when it comes to software development and computer engineering. One thing they have taught me over the years is the value of setting out deliberately to “stretch” your mind. Specifically, experimenting with a new programming language that is not your day-to-day working environment, but something that will force your to learn new ways of looking at problems. These guys are professionals; they recognize that whatever your working language(s) are, you’re going to keep using them because you get things done there. It’s not about being seduced by the latest cool project that some popular blogger would have you believe is the be-all-and-end-all. Rather, in stretching, you might be able to bring ideas back to your main work and just might improve thereby. I think there is wisdom there.

Should I attempt to learn Haskell?

I’ve had an eye on functional programming for a while now; who hasn’t? Not being from a formal computer science or mathematics background — (“damnit Jim, I’m an engineer, not an english major” when called upon to defend my atrocious spelling) — the whole “omigod, like, everything is function and that’s like, totally cool” mantra isn’t quite as compelling by itself as it might be. But lots of people I respect have been going on about functional programming for a while now, and it seemed a good direction to stretch. So I asked which language should I learn?

My colleagues suggested Haskell for a number of reasons. That cutting edge research was happening there and that increasingly powerful things were being implemented in the compiler and runtime as a result sounded interesting. That Haskell being a pure functional language (I didn’t know yet what that meant but that’s beside the point) would really force me to learn a functional way of doing at things (as opposed to some others where you can do functional things but can easily escape those constraints; pragmatic, perhaps, but since the idea was to learn something new, that made Haskell sound good rather than perceiving this as a limitation). Finally, they claimed that you could express problems concisely (brevity good, though not if it’s so dense that it’s write-only).

Considering a new language (or, within a language, considering various competing frameworks for web applications, graphical user interface, production deployment, etc) my sense is that when we look at such things we are all fairly quick to judge, based on our own private aesthetic. Does it look clean? Can I do things I need to do with this easily? How do the authors conceive of the problem space? (in web programming especially, a given framework will make some things easy and other things nigh on impossible; you need to know what world-view you’re buying into).

I don’t know about you, but elegance by itself and in the abstract is not sufficient. Elegance is probably the most highly valued characteristic of good engineering design, but it must be coupled with practicality. In other words, does the design get the job done? So before I was willing to invest time learning Haskell, I wanted to at least have some idea that I’d be able to use it for something more than just academic curiosity.

Incidentally, I’m not sure the Haskell community does itself many favours by glorifying in how clever you can be in the language; the implied corollary is that you can’t do anything without being exceedingly clever about it. If true, that would be tedious. I get the humour of the commentary that as we gain experience we tend to overcomplicate things, as seen in the many different ways there are to express a factorial function. But I saw that article linked from almost every thread about how clever you can be with Haskell; is that the sort of thing that you want to use as an introduction for newcomers? Given the syntax is so different from what people are used to in mainstream C-derived programming languages, the code there just looks like mush. The fact that there are people who studied mathematics are doing theorem proving in the language is fascinating, but the tone is very elevated as a result. A high bar for a newcomer — even a professional with 25 years programming experience — to face.

It became clear pretty fast that I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what I was looking at, but I still tried to see if I could get a sense of what using Haskell would be like. Search on phrases like “haskell performance”, “haskell in production”, “commercial use of haskell”, “haskell vs scala”, and so on. You get more than enough highly partisan discussion. It’s quick to see people love the language. It’s a little harder to evidence see it being used in anger, but eventually I came across pages like Haskell in Industry and Haskell Weekly News which have lots of interesting links. That pretty much convinced me it’d be worth giving it a go.

A brief introduction

So here I am, struggling away learning Haskell. I guess I’d have to say I’m still a bit dubious, but the wonderful beginner tutorial called Learn You A Haskell For Great Good (No Starch Press) has cute illustrations. :) The other major starting point is Real World Haskell (O’Reilly). You can flip through it online as well, but really, once you get the idea, I think you’ll agree it’s worth having both in hard copy.

Somewhere along the way my investigations landed me on discussion of something called “software transactional memory” as an approach to concurrency. Having been a Java person for quite some years, I’m quite comfortable with multi-threading [and exceptionally tired of the rants from people who insist that you should only write single threaded programs], but I’m also aware that concurrency can be hard to get right and that solving bugs can be nasty. The idea of applying the database notion of transactions to memory access is fascinating. Reading about STM led me to this (short, language agnostic) keynote given at OSCON 2007 by one Simon Peyton-Jones, an engaging speaker and one of the original authors of GHC. Watching the video, I heard him mention that he had done an “introduction to Haskell” earlier in the conference. Huh. Sure enough, linked from here, are his slides and the video they took.

Watching the tutorial implies a non-trivial investment in time, and a bit of care to manually track the slides with him as he is presenting, but viewing it all the way through was a very rewarding experience. By the time I watched this I’d already read Learn You A Haskell and a goodly chunk of Real World Haskell, but if anything that made it even more fascinating; I suppose I was able to concentrate more on what he was saying for the emphasis on why things in Haskell are the way they were.

I was quite looking forward to how he would introduce I/O to an audience of beginners; like every other neophyte I’m grinding through learning what “monads” are and how they enable pure functional programming to coexist with side effects. Peyton-Jones’s discussion of IO turns up towards the end (part 2 at :54:36), when this definition went up on a slide:

IO (a) :: World -> (a, World)

accompanied by this description:

“You can think of it as a function that takes a World to a pair of a and a new World … a rather egocentric functional programmer’s view of things in which your function is center of the universe, and the entire world sort of goes in one side of your function, gets modified a bit by your function, and emerges, in a purely functional way, in a freshly minted world which comes out the other…”

“Oh, so that’s a metaphor?” asked one of his audience.

“Yes. The world does not actually disappear into your laptop. But you can think of it that way if you like.”

Ha. :)

Isolation and reusability

A moment ago I mentioned practicality. The most practical thing going these days is the web problem, i.e. using a language and its toolchain to do web programming. Ok, so what web frameworks are there for Haskell? Turns out there are a few. Two newer ones in particular, Yesod and the Snap Framework. Their raw performance as web servers looks very impressive, but the real question is how does writing web pages & application logic go down? Yesod’s approach, called “Hamlet“, doesn’t do much for me. I can see why type safety across the various pieces making up a web page would be something you’d aspire to, but it ain’t happening (expecting designers to embed their work in a pseudo-but-not-actually HTML language has been tried before. Frequently. And it’s been a bust every time). Snap, on the other hand, has something called “Heist“. Templates are pure HTML and when you need to drop in programmatically generated snippets you do so with a custom tag that gets substituted in at runtime. That’s alright. As for writing said markup from within code there’s a different project called “Blaze” which looks easy enough to use.

Reading a thread about Haskell web programming, I saw explicit acknowledgement on the part of framework authors from all sides that it would be possible to mix and match, at least in theory. If you like Yesod’s web server but would rather to use Snap’s Heist template engine, you could probably do so. You’d be in for all the glue code and knowing what you’re about, but this still raises an interesting point.

A big deal with Haskell — and one of the core premises of programming in a functional language that emphasizes purity and modularity — is that you can rely on code from other libraries not to interfere with your code. It’s more than just “no global variables”; pure functions are self contained, and when there are side effects (as captured in IO and other monads) they are explicitly marked and segregated from pure code. In IT we’ve talked about reusable code for a long time, and we’ve all struggled with it: the sad reality is that in most languages, when you call something you have few guarantees that nothing else is going to happen over and above what you’ve asked for. The notion of a language and its runtime explicitly going out of its way to inhibit this sort of thing is appealing.

Hello web, er world

Grandiose notions aside, I wanted to see if I could write something that felt “clean”, even if I’m not yet proficient in the language. I mentioned above that I liked the look of Snap. So, I roughed out some simple exercises of what using the basic API would be like. The fact that I am brand new at Haskell of course meant it took a lot longer than it should have! That’s ok, I learnt a few things along the way. I’ll probably blog separately about it, but after an essay about elegance and pragmatism, I thought I should close with some code. The program is just a little ditty that echos your HTTP request headers back to you, running there. You can decide for yourself if the source is aesthetically pleasing; ’tis a personal matter. I think it’s ok, though I’m not for a moment saying that it’s “good” style or anything. I will say that with Haskell I’ve already noticed that what looks deceptively simple often takes a lot of futzing to get the types right — but I’ve also noticed that when something does finally compile, it tends to be very close to being done. Huh.

So here I am freely admitting that I was quite wrong about Haskell. It’s been a bit of a struggle getting started, and I’m still a bit sceptical about the syntax, but I think the idea of leveraging Haskell shows promise, especially for server-side work.