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Learning Functional Programming through Multimedia 200

Posted by timothy
from the function-of-art dept.
ijones writes "Andrew Cooke recently reviewed for Slashdot Purely Functional Data Structures, which is on my book shelf next to The Haskell School of Expression: Learning Functional Programming through Multimedia by Paul Hudak from the Yale Haskell Group. In his review, Cooke presented an overview of some available functional programming languages, such as OCaml, SML, and of course Haskell. Havoc Pennington once called Haskell 'the least-broken programming language available today.' Haskell is a purely functional, lazy, statically typed programming language. You can read more about Haskell itself here." Read on for ijones' review of The Haskell School of Expression.
The Haskell School of Expression: Learning Functional Programming through Multimedia
author Paul Hudak
pages 363
publisher Cambridge University Press
rating 9
reviewer Isaac Jones
ISBN 0521644089
summary Learn to program in a functional style in Haskell by implementing graphics, music, and robots simulations.

As the title implies, The Haskell School of Expression introduces functional programming through the Haskell programming language and through the use of graphics and music. It serves as an effective introduction to both the language and the concepts behind functional programming. This text was published in 2000, but since Haskell 98 is the current standard, this is still a very relevant book.

Haskell's standardization process gives us a window into two different facets of the community: Haskell is designed to be both a stable, standardized language (called Haskell 98), and a platform for experimentation in cutting-edge programming language research. So though we have a standard from 1998, the implementations (both compilers and interpreters) are continually evolving to implement new, experimental features which may or may not make it into the next standard.

For instance, the Glasgow Haskell Compiler has implemented a meta-programming environment called Template Haskell. Haskell is also easy to extend in directions that don't change the language itself, through the use of Embedded Domain-Specific Languages (EDSLs) such as WASH for web authoring, Parsec for parsing, and Dance (more of Paul Hudak's work) for controlling humanoid robots.

Before we get too far, I should offer a disclaimer: The Haskell community is rather small, and if you scour the net, you may find conversations between myself and Paul Hudak or folks in his research group, since I use some of their software. That said, I don't work directly with Hudak or his research group.

In fact, the small size of the Haskell community is a useful feature. It is very easy to get involved, and folks are always willing to help newbies learn, since we love sharing what we know. You may even find that if you post a question about an exercise in The Haskell School of Expression , you'll get a reply from the author himself.

I consider this book to be written in a "tutorial" style. It walks the reader through the building of applications, but doesn't skimp on the concepts (indeed, the chapters are meant to alternate between "concepts" and "applications"). In some ways, the code examples make it a little difficult to jump around, since you are expected to build upon previous code. The web site provides code, however, so you can always grab that and use it to fill in the missing pieces.

For readers who wish to use this book as a tutorial, and to implement all of the examples (which is highly recommended), I suggest that you grab the Hugs interpreter and read the User's Guide while you're reading the first few chapters of The Haskell School of Expression. Hugs is very portable, free, and easy to use. It also has an interface with Emacs. Unfortunately, some of the example code has suffered from bit-rot, and certain things don't work out-of-the-box for X11-based systems. The bit-rot can be solved by using the "November 2002" version of Hugs. This is all explained on SOE's web page.

The Haskell School of Expression should be very effective for programmers who have experience in more traditional languages, and programmers with a Lisp background can probably move quickly through some of the early material. If you've never learned a functional language, I highly recommend Haskell: Since Haskell is purely functional (unlike Lisp), it will more or less prevent you from "cheating" by reverting to a non-functional style. In fact, if you've never really looked at functional programming languages, it may surprise you to learn that Haskell has no looping constructs or destructive assignment (that is, no x = x + 1). All of the tasks that you would accomplish through the use of loops are accomplished instead through recursion, or through higher-level abstractions upon recursion.

Since I was already comfortable with recursion when I started this book, it is hard for me to gauge how a reader who has never encountered recursion would find this book's explanation of the concept. The Haskell School of Expression introduces recursion early on, in section 1.4. It is used in examples throughout the book, and if you follow along with these examples, you will most certainly be using it a lot. The introduction seems natural enough to me, but I note that Hudak does not give the reader any extra insight or tricks to help them along. Not to worry, though; recursion is very natural in Haskell and the reader may not even notice that they are doing something a little tricky.

The use of multimedia was a lot of fun for me, and should quickly dispel the myth that IO is difficult in Haskell. For instance, Hudak has the reader drawing fractals by page 44, and throughout the book, the reader will be drawing shapes, playing music, and controlling animated robots.

Any book on Haskell must be appraised for its explanation of monads in general and IO specifically. Monads are a purely functional way to elegantly carry state across several computations (rather than passing state explicitly as a parameter to each function). They are a common stumbling block in learning Haskell, though in my opinion, their difficulty is over-hyped.

Since input and output cause side-effects, they are not purely functional, and don't fit nicely into a function-call and recursion structure. Haskell has therefore evolved a way to deal safely and logically with IO through the use of monads, which encapsulate mutable state. In order to perform IO in Haskell, one must use monads, but not necessarily understand them.

Some people find monads confusing; I've even heard a joke that you need a Ph.D. in computer science in order to perform IO in Haskell. This is clearly not true, and this book takes an approach which I whole-heartedly agree with. It gets the reader using monads and IO in chapter 3 without explaining them deeply until chapters 16 (IO) and 18 (monads). By the time you get there, if you have heard that monads are confusing, you might be inclined to say "how is this different from what we've been doing all along?" Over all, I was pleased with the explanation of monads, especially state monads in chapter 18, but I felt that the reader is not given enough exercises where they implement their own monads.

If you're worried that drawing shapes and playing music will not appeal to your mathematic side, you will be pleased by the focus on algebraic reasoning for shapes (section 8.3) and music (section 21.2), and a chapter on proof by induction (chapter 11).

After reading this book you will be prepared to take either of the two paths that Haskell is designed for: You can start writing useful and elegant tools, or you can dig into the fascinating programming language research going on. You will be prepared to approach arrows, a newer addition to Haskell which, like monads, have a deep relationship to category theory. Arrows are used extensively in some of the Yale Haskell group's recent work. You will see a lot of shared concepts between the animation in The Haskell School of Expression and Yale's "Functional Reactive Programming" framework, Yampa. If you like little languages, you'll appreciate how useful Haskell is for embedded domain-specific languages. It may be even more useful now that Template Haskell is in the works. Andrew Cooke described Purely Functional Data Structures as a great second book on functional programming. In my opinion, The Haskell School of Expression is the great first book you're looking for.

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Learning Functional Programming through Multimedia

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  • Here We Again (Score:3, Interesting)

    by myownkidney (761203) on Tuesday March 16, 2004 @02:26PM (#8580465) Homepage
    I haven't got the exact figures, but I reckon 99% of all code written out there must be written in Imperative (sometimes pseudo OO) languages. There must be SOME reason functional languages are not so popular.

    Functional language are only good in theory. Sure, you can easily write programs in them, but they abstract over how the program is executed. And the programs are going to be executed in an imperative manner; machine code is imperative, remember?

    Thus, there's a MASSIVE performance loss when a functional programming language is executed on any of the existing processors. Because the compilers can't think and optimise the code to best fit the imperative model. Where as the human being s can. That's why we should stick to imperative programming languages.

    The day someone actually invents a function processor, we could start promoting these fringe langauges. Till then, let's keep Haskell as part of CS811

    Thank you for listening. That's the end of my rant.

  • way back when in college, the most interesting thing was that the program couldn't do I/O during the execution, only as an exit value. That makes useful daily programs difficult to write in a 'purely functional' language. The review talks about monads being a solution, but I can't see that putting something on the screen our worse a printer is something that can be undone. Therefore, I/O must be a side-effect, so how can a real 'purely functional' language like haskel do I/O?
  • New vs. Old (Score:3, Interesting)

    by moberry (756963) on Tuesday March 16, 2004 @02:30PM (#8580503)
    I think that there is a problem with newer programmers going into a language such as say, java, or C#. When i learned programming i learned C++ in ms-dos. We wrote our own string classes, used pointers, learned ADT's like, linked lists, and binary trees. Nowadays in java you write a program and use everyone elses stuff. there is a linked list class in Miscrosoft's .NET framework. Nothing is ever written from scratch anymore. IMHO you cant learn actual programming without getting into the nitty gritty your self.
  • Languages (Score:3, Interesting)

    by benjiboo (640195) on Tuesday March 16, 2004 @02:30PM (#8580504)
    Do people think it's a good thing for a C++/Java/.NET programmer to go back to the drawing board for a few months and learn stuff like functional programming? I thought about coming up with a syllabus for myself of C, Haskell, LISP and Perl (which just evades me....)
  • It's Real (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Vagary (21383) <> on Tuesday March 16, 2004 @02:31PM (#8580508) Journal
    mod_haskell []
  • by Godeke (32895) * on Tuesday March 16, 2004 @02:35PM (#8580553)
    Herein lies the rub in getting adoption of any of the more "esoteric" (read: not procedural) languages into the mainstream: libraries that require "understanding" of the functional model. After spending years interviewing programmers I can safely say that most barely remember the functional languages they were taught (if they were taught). Try to then force them to use an "alien" library that works in a functional way, and you might as well ask them to chop their arms off and thresh wheat.

    I sometimes suspect that .NET may be the only hope of getting functional programming adopted by the maininstream. Currently the CLI has limitations that hamstring functional languages, but Microsoft has actually been bothering to try to rectify those problems. If they do, I would *love* to run ocaml or Haskell with the .NET infrastructure to back up the boring routine work. For that matter *any* major libarary of functionality accessable to a functional language.
  • Re:Here We Again (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Waffle Iron (339739) on Tuesday March 16, 2004 @02:55PM (#8580747)
    I think that this choice of approaches to programming is similar to the choice in electrical engineering between solving problems in the time domain vs. frequency domain.

    To me, functional programming is similar to the frequency domain. There are certain problems that are almost impossible to solve in the time domain that are trivial to solve in the frequency domain. However, the frequency domain is harder to understand, and the real universe actually operates in the time domain. Moreover, some problems that are trivial in the time domain blow up when analyzed in the frequency domain.

    There few if any EEs who would advocate discarding all time domain calculations in favor of the alternative. That also applies to tools; few people would throw away their oscilliscopes just because they have a spectrum analyzer available.

    That's what bothers me about "pure" languages of any form. You're intentionally throwing away some of the available tools to prove a point.

    Sometimes a functional approach can provide an extremely powerful way to solve a problem with a tiny amount of code. However, sometimes another part of the same program would be better done in a more mundane fashion. The functional style's tendency to make you think about every problem "inside out" and to make you solve every problem in a "clever" way can get to be grating. I like to keep the option to use each style as needed, so I prefer languages that support features from a variety of programming styles.

  • by jovlinger (55075) on Tuesday March 16, 2004 @03:16PM (#8580976) Homepage
    The problem is that haskell is lazy.

    yes, this is a real problem. I've spoken w/ some of the implementors, and they really thought that strictness analysis would get them a whole lot more.

    Lazyness sucks not so much for speed (but this is indeed an issue), but for interacting with foreign functions, and mostly because it breaks tail-recursion. You don't often notice, because haskellers tend to use programming idioms which don't rely solely on tail-recursion.

    It also makes predicting the performace of your program almost impossible. Chris Okasaki mentions that most lazy programs are analysed as if they were strict.

    A second, smaller problem is that haskellers are really smart. really really smart. This makes easily approachable texts pretty thin on the ground. Two sentences in, you're being bombarded by catamorphisms, anamorphisms, and monoids.

    Bird and Wadler is a really nice introductory text.

  • by cheezit (133765) on Tuesday March 16, 2004 @03:34PM (#8581129) Homepage
    This statement, from the 'more about Hskell' link:

    "Furthermore, malloc is fairly expensive, so programmers often malloc a single large chunk of store, and then allocate "by hand" out of this."

    I've seen this type of statement elsewhere in defense of non-C languages. And yet I've very rarely seen this done in code that wasn't either in 1) an embedded system or 2) a device driver or kernel module.

    In those cases where I have seen this in application code, it has been accompanied by lots of other newbie gaffes. I'd question the sanity of anyone who thinks that a user-level app will benefit from a hand-coded heap manager.

    But perhaps there are exceptions...does anyone actually do this routinely?
  • by Godeke (32895) * on Tuesday March 16, 2004 @03:42PM (#8581229)
    MSDN Academic Alliance [] has some articles on progress being made on using functional languages on the CLI. Microsoft seems to be aware that there is value here, but they are moving cautiously.
  • by smitty_one_each (243267) on Tuesday March 16, 2004 @03:45PM (#8581272) Homepage Journal
    One interesting point on the haskell website was that SQL is almost a functional language.
    I, for one, do all kinds of wild data gymnastics in SQL, and wonder if more could be done to 'get people in the door' with SQL DML statements as a lead-in.
    Always wanted to do more with functional programming, wondering if EMACS Lisp might prove more immediately fruitful...
  • by Godeke (32895) * on Tuesday March 16, 2004 @03:49PM (#8581310)
    Playing with F#, the entire library is accessable. Obviously, in some ways using these libraries funnels those sections of the program into a more procedural mind set, but other sections work very well.

    C# and F# interop [] has a link on how to call C# from F#. However, it is interesting that F# uses some of the OCaml library [] *in addition* to the .NET libraries, as obviously OCaml has functionality specifically for manipulating functional structures, which is still valuable for F# programmers.
  • by Paul Crowley (837) on Tuesday March 16, 2004 @06:13PM (#8582990) Homepage Journal
    Here's a simple C function which finds the inverse of a permutation, in linear time.

    void invert_permutation(
    int in[],
    int out[],
    int len
    ) {
    int i;

    for (i = 0; i < len; i++)
    out[in[i]] = i;

    Write the same function in Haskell, in linear time. Use whatever representation of a list seems natural for you.

    I set this very simple problem to every pure functional programming enthusiast I meet, including several professors at a University known for that sort of thing. I've yet to hear a good answer...
  • by Godeke (32895) * on Tuesday March 16, 2004 @06:20PM (#8583063)
    SQL is a declarative language, which is probably why it feels functional. Declarative languages allow the user to specify *what* you want, and then the underlying engine determines *how* to get it. SQL in some ways is closer to PROLOG, which is a declarative logic language (in fact, it is trivial to create SQL like queries in PROLOG).

    Functional languages can implement declarative syntaxes easily, but the real defining factor is that functions are "first order" objects, which can be applied, manipulated and passed. Frankly, if SQL had first order functions, many wild data gymnastics would be vastly simpler. I grumble at the lack of code reuse in SQL (and I say that as a big fan of the ease of use of SQL on the whole). For example, in SQL I must repeat my subquery every time I wish to apply it.(1) Calculations must be specified both in the select list and the conditional if they are used in both places, instead of being defined once and the results being available (some SQL dialects have workarounds for this). Recursion is right out (a hallmark of functional languages is heavy use of recursive functions) which makes navigating tree structures a total bear (PSQL has extensions for trees, but not very clean ones).

    Perhaps future developments that bring SQL closer to the true relational model (which has deep roots in set theory) which would make it possible to bring it closer to a true functional language as well. I think SQL would benefit wildly from the ability to define common structures (functions) and yet be able to apply the optimizer to the end result.

    (1) Footnote: T-SQL has "user defined functions", but the impose a nasty overhead because they are not part of the query optimization process.

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