Type-hackery for the practical programmer

So hvac has a pretty nice validation framework built on the withSomething idiom (i.e. withSomething (\something -> etc)) which is a sort of continuation passing model. More particularly, it has: withValidation :: [(String, ValidationFunc s String String)] -> ([String] -> HCGI q s CGIResult) -> HCGI q s CGIResult. This is to say that it takes a list of pairs of validation functions and the request parameters to retrieve/process/validate, and a success handler which takes a list of those retrieved/processed strings, and it returns a result. If the validation fails, the errors are stashed into an appropriate location, and the cgi action fails.

So far so good — but basic strong static typing gives us a wart here. It takes a list and returns (so to speak) a list — this means that everything must be of a uniform type. Currently that type is String, although it can be generalized. But even then, every validator associated with a particular call to withValidation has to produce something of the same type.

So say you want to retrieve and Int that is greater than 3 and a String. Well, you have a validator for the String. All good. And you have a validator that read the Int, and then checks its value is greater than three, and then finally, maddeningly, you have to show it again to convert it back to a string.

The handler function then must read the sucker again, which duplicates work, although not too much. Even worse, even though our validation has “proved” that the value can be read without error, there’s no way to express this. So there are important properties for the soundness of our program that are true and exist, but only in our heads, and only to the extent we remember them — what we want is a way to express this knowledge concretely.

The second concern is the bigger concern, but let’s ignore it for now and concentrate first on just getting this thing working with polymorphic types at all. Our use case is actually just what Dynamics are for. Dynamics give you two core handy functions — toDyn :: Typeable a => a -> Dynamic and fromDynamic :: Typeable a => Dynamic -> Maybe a, which, obviously, returns Just something if the Dynamic is of the right type, and Nothing otherwise. So now we can pack arbitrary (Typeable) objects into a single list of a uniform type, and unpack them afterwards.

Similar idioms are used very frequently — HDBC, which is the database interface used by hvac, uses toSql and fromSql. The Takusen database interface uses bindP, which is like toSql but, erm, fancier. Cleverly, it avoids using fromSql and instead allows for runtime failure (I think) should the result set of a query not type properly into what the code expects. I’d very much appreciate comments on where else this sort of thing crops up.

In any case, in the withValidation function, and the other examples given, there’s a significant silliness here. These are library functions, supposedly with nice clean interfaces — but we get an ugly situation with all these toDyns or toSqls cluttering up our pretty list of values. Intolerable!

Typeclasses to the rescue. toDyn and friends all share a certain trait — they’re all, in essence, of the form func :: (Typeclass a) => a -> ConcreteType. And conceptually, we’re mapping this polymorphic function over a heterogeneous list to get a homogenous one that we can then operate on. The first thing that comes to mind is, therefore, HList. But HList is pretty complicated, and furthermore, my sense is that once you use HList, you’re pretty much locked into the “HList way,” although I’m welcome to be proven wrong.

Instead, we can implement a solution without requiring all of that HList stuff. The end result here is an extensible, simple way to implement a mapFromTuple function that takes an arbitrary length tuple, all of whose members are subject to a typeclass constraint, and returns a list with the proper function mapped over them. This can then be used by any code that runs into a similar issue.

Rather than HList, we’ll be borrowing ideas from Scrap Your Boilerplate, and particularly “syb3” — i.e. the “Scrap your boilerplate with class: extensible generic functions” paper.

The trick here is pretty elegant, based on using typeclasses to abstract over dictionaries, apparently originally from Restricted Data Types in Haskell by John Hughes. Pretty much all the magic is in the one class declaration:

class Sat a where dict :: a

Seriously. That’s it. Reification of typeclass dictionaries in one simple line. Now we can write a concrete dictionary:

data MapFromTupleD a b = MapFromTupleD {toGenD :: a -> b}

And then a class which “unpacks” the dictionary:

class MapFromTuple a b where
    mapFromTuple :: a -> [b]

And boilerplate instances for tuples of various lengths:

instance (Sat (MapFromTupleD a x), Sat (MapFromTupleD b x))
    => MapFromTuple (a,b) x where
    mapFromTuple (a,b) = [toGenD dict a, toGenD dict b]

instance (Sat (MapFromTupleD a x), Sat (MapFromTupleD b x), Sat (MapFromTupleD c x))
    => MapFromTuple (a,b,c) x where
    mapFromTuple (a,b,c) = [toGenD dict a, toGenD dict b, toGenD dict c]

…and soforth. The key thing to think about is the magic of Sat in the context constraint. The context constraint on Sat specifies which dict gets pulled out of thin air, and so lets us write a function that abstracts over typeclasses the same way normal polymorphic functions abstract over concrete types.

Finally, we’re done with the machinery. Now to implement the dictionary for Typeable:

instance (Typeable x) => Sat (MapFromTupleD x Dynamic) where
    dict = MapFromTupleD { toGenD = toDyn }

And for Show while we’re at it:

instance (Show x) => Sat (MapFromTupleD x String) where
    dict = MapFromTupleD { toGenD = show }

Now we can do:

*Main> mapFromTuple (1,2) :: [String]
*Main> mapFromTuple (1,2) :: [Dynamic]
*Main> mapFromTuple ("foo",2.3, Just 43) :: [String]
["\"foo\"","2.3","Just 43"]

Now if we wanted to get this functionality for sql types, we’d just have to add the single instance declaration for Sat, along the lines of the previous two… and soforth.

This gets us everything we want for the basic database-style examples, actually. But for hvac’s validation, things are more complicated, because even if we can marshall a tuple into a set of dynamics, then we’re still just returning a list of dynamics, rather than a tuple of actual values. However, we’re partway there on that, and I’ll leave off the rest until the next post.


  1. > *Main> mapFromTuple (1,2) :: [Dynamic]
    > [<>,<>]

    That’s [<>, <>], surely?


  2. Wow, the comment system really managed that last one! Let’s try again:

    > *Main> mapFromTuple (1,2) :: [Dynamic]
    > [<<Integer>>, <<[Char]>>]

    That’s [<<Integer>>, <<Integer>>], surely?

  3. sclv said

    Zounds! thanks for the catch. fixed now. I think I caused that by wrangling with the same mangling in the first place.

  4. This is very promising!

  5. sclv said

    I should note that Saizan on #haskell kindly pointed out that all this Sat nonsense is just extra work and MapFromTupleD can be turned into a class directly, making life significantly easier (and probably more efficient too!).

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