• en | es

Conventional Interfaces in Functional Programming

Whilst reading Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, also known as the SICP book, I discovered the concept of Sequences as Conventional Interfaces. Even though it is an idea that I was somewhat familiar with, it was the first time I encountered a more formal definition for it. Reading about it has helped me to better understand its full power.

Most of the ideas and some of the code samples contained in this post originally come from the SICP book. Although it is written using Lisp the ideas and concepts are applicable to most languages. We will be following them in Haskell as it is the language I am currently learning and enjoying, its terse syntax also makes it a great fit for a blog post.

What are Conventional Interfaces

SICP describes conventional interfaces as a design principle for working with data structures. It is composed of a set of standard operators or combinators that connect the different steps required to implement computations in computer programs.

The combinators in question may be familiar to you as they will probably be provided in some form in your preferred language, e.g. map, filter, flatMap (also known as bind), reduce (also known as fold). They let us capture common patterns in the implementation of programs that are a priori structurally different, enabling us to think and reason about different programs in the same way. This is of great importance as it enables us to intuitively express completely different and unrelated programs applying function composition to this set of combinators.

SCIP also introduces the concept of signal-processing as a metaphor to reason about this programming style.

A signal-processing engineer would find it natural to conceptualize processes in terms of signals flowing through a cascade of stages, each of which implements part of the program plan.

We will expand more on this metaphor later on, but for now, it is important to emphasize that making the signal-flow structure evident in the design of our programs increases the modularity and readability of the resulting code. It is also important to emphasize that the use of these combinators increase the level of abstraction at which we can write code by abstracting the implementation of low-level operations such as iteration, recursion or conditional statements.

To demonstrate the importance of the principle, let's consider the two following functions taken from SICP, which I have translated from Lisp to Haskell.

A simple type representing a binary tree

data BinaryTree a =
    Leaf a
  | Node (BinaryTree a) (BinaryTree a) deriving (Foldable)

Sum squares of the leaves of a tree that are odd

sumOddSquares :: (Integral a) => BinaryTree a -> a
sumOddSquares (Node l r)           = sumOddSquares l + sumOddSquares r
sumOddSquares (Leaf x) | odd x     = x ^ 2
                       | otherwise = 0

All the even Fibonacci numbers up to a given number

evenFibs ::  Integer -> [Integer]
evenFibs n = go 0
  where go k | k > n     = []
             | otherwise = let f    = fib k
                               next = k + 1
                           in if even f then f : go next else go next

Fibonacci sequence

fib :: Integer -> Integer
fib 1 = 1
fib 0 = 1
fib n = fib (n - 1) + fib (n - 2)

Hidden Signal-Flow structure

These two functions solve completely different and unrelated problems and they also are completely different in terms of the structure of their implementations. However, we are going to step back and look at them from a different perspective, so that we can discover the hidden similarities between them and expose the signal-flow structure in the implementation.

Let's break down at a high level what the functions are really doing.

sumOddSquares:

  1. Enumerates the leaves of the input tree.
  2. Filters out the leaves that contain even numbers.
  3. Maps the remaining leaves squaring each one.
  4. Folds (or reduces) the mapped leaves using +, starting at 0.

evenFibs:

  1. Enumerates the interval 0 to n.
  2. Maps each number to its corresponding Fib.
  3. Filter out the odd Fibs.
  4. Folds (or reduces) the remaining elements using : (List constructor), starting with [] (empty list).

Note how both implementations are now based on a similar composition of stages. It is also worth nothing how each number contained in the list provided by each enumeration emulates a signal going through a serie of stages, filter followed by map, map followed by filter, respectively. Both implementations finish up by folding or reducing the signals using + and : respectively.

Breaking down the implementation of both functions

It was a truly insightful moment when I realized that indeed both functions are almost identical in structure as opposed to how it seemed at first. The reason why the given implementations are so different is the mixing of concerns that hides the signal-flow structure. To prove this, let's take a deeper look at the implementations to analyze where the mixing of concerns happens.

sumOddSquares:

  • The enumeration is partially implemented by the Leaf pattern match, and partially by the double recursion, tree-like, in the Node pattern match.
  • The filtering is mixed with the mapping in the odd case in the Leaf pattern match.
  • The folding or reduction is partially implemented by the + that joins the double recursion in the Node pattern match, and partially by the otherwise case in the Leaf pattern match.

Each pattern matching is mixing several concerns, increasing the complexity of the implementation and hiding the signal-flow structure of the computation.

evenFibs:

  • The enumeration is partially implemented by the k > n case and party by the next expression.
  • The mapping, although extracted to the f expression, is mixed with the even filtering in the otherwise case.
  • The folding or reduction is partially implemented by :, the list constructor, and partially by the [ ], empty list, in the k > n case.

As in sumOddSquares, each pattern matching in evenFibs is mixing different concerns, failing to exhibit the signal-flow structure of the computation.

Let's refactor both functions following the steps defined previously, so that we can expose the hidden similiarities and the signal-flow structure.

It is worth noting that . is the operator for function composition in Haskell.

sumOddSquares:

  1. Enumerates the leaves of the input tree.
  2. Filters out the leaves that contain even numbers.
  3. Maps the remaining leaves squaring each one.
  4. Folds (or reduces) the mapped leaves using +, starting at 0.
sumOddSquares :: (Integral a) => BinaryTree a -> a
sumOddSquares tree = foldr (+) 0 . fmap (^2) . filter odd . enumerateLeaves $ tree

enumerateLeaves :: BinaryTree a -> [a]
enumerateLeaves tree = foldr (:) [] tree

The original implementation

sumOddSquares :: (Integral a) => BinaryTree a -> a
sumOddSquares (Node l r)           = sumOddSquares l + sumOddSquares r
sumOddSquares (Leaf x) | odd x     = x ^ 2
                       | otherwise = 0

evenFibs:

  1. Enumerates the interval 0 to n.
  2. Maps each number to its corresponding Fib.
  3. Filter out the odd Fibs.
  4. Folds (or reduces) the remaining elements using : (List constructor), starting with [] (empty list).
evenFibs :: Integer -> [Integer]
evenFibs to = foldr (:) [] . filter even . fmap fib . enumerateInterval 0 $ to

enumerateInterval :: Integer  -> Integer -> [Integer]
enumerateInterval from to = [from..to]

The original implementation

evenFibs ::  Integer -> [Integer]
evenFibs n = go 0
  where go k | k > n     = []
             | otherwise = let f    = fib k
                               next = k + 1
                           in if even f then f : go next else go next

Signal processing metaphor

Now that we have seen how different computations can be shaped similarly by using the same set of combinators composed in different ways, let's expand on the signal processing metaphor.

As mentioned in SICP, the key to organizing programs so as to more clearly reflect the signal-flow structure is to concentrate on the "signals" that flow from one stage in the process to the next. SCIP uses Lisp, where everything is a list, therefore the signal processing metaphor fits very nicely with lists. If we move away from Lisp to Haskell for example, the metaphor may not be as evident, but as we just showed it is equally applicable. In most of the cases, Haskell abstracts the different combinators from the concrete data structure using type classes, let's break down a few of them.

  • Enumerate generates the signals that initiate the computation. Haskell names the concept of enumeration unfolding and provides the Data.Unfoldable type class. List comprehension is also available as a convenience to generate lists of values.

  • Filter discards unwanted signals by only keeping the ones that satisfy a given predicate. As far as I know, there is not a concrete type class in Haskell that abstracts the concept of a filterable data structure from the concrete implementation. However, there is a filter combinator defined in each of them, e.g. List, Map, Set, Seq.

  • Map converts each signal to a different type. Haskell defines the concept of data structures that can be mapped in the typeclassData.Functor. In Haskell the map function is called fmap because it is considered as a function that maps functions, hence the f prepending map.

  • Bind nests signals so that we can use each of them and do some extra computation based on their values. bind is provided by type class Control.Monad and it can also be applied as an index operator with >>=. Bind is also known as flatMap in other languages.

  • Zip joins two sequences of signals as a sequence of pairs. As far as I know, there is not a concrete type class in Haskell that abstract the concept of a zippable data structure from the concrete implementation. However, it is defined in some of the most usual ones, such as List or Seq.

  • Fold combines the signals to create a summary value. In the case of data structures that can be folded Haskell defines the type class Data.Foldable. In other languages fold is know as reduce.

To demonstrate that the idea of Sequences as Conventional Interfaces is not limited to lists, let's show a few examples of data structures that can be thought of as sequences:

  • The Map data structure can be thought of as a generator of sequences, e.g. It can generate sequences with its keys, with its values or it can pair them together as a sequence of pairs where each element is composed of a key and a value.
  • Maybe, also know as Option, could be considered as a sequence that can contain zero or one signal.
  • Either as a sequence that contains a single signal which can be of one of two possible types.
  • Tuples in general and pairs (,) in particular could be considered as a sequence that contains exactly two signals.

Different sequences have different constraints, structures and semantics, but they are equally valid from the combinators point of view. These sequences are just concrete examples of abstract mathematical structures.

Conclusion

By now you may have realized that both examples described in this post have a structure with the following shape, enumeration followed by a composition of standard combinators, terminating with a fold or reduction to a summary value, in other words:

  1. Computations always start with some sort of enumeration, which generates the initials signals. This is not limited to what we have seen so far, e.g. as enumerating the leaves or a tree or the integers in a given range. Enumerate could also be a query to a database that returns a sequence of products, or a sequence of products that we received via a REST endpoint. Considering lazy evaluation enumerate could also generate infinite sequences.
  2. Once we have the initial signals we pass them through the different stages of processing, e.g. filter, map, flatMap, zip, required to get the signals into a form in which we can extract the desired result from.
  3. To finish up the computation we fold or reduce the signals to a summary value.

I see the pattern Enumerate -> combinators -> Fold as a very intuitive programming style that comes as a consequence of using Conventional Interfaces and it can be applied to most, if not all, computations out there.

To close up the post, here is a FizzBuzz implementation that follows the signal-flow structure, as an extra demonstration of this pattern.

FizzBuzz

fizzBuzz :: Integer -> [String]
fizzBuzz to = foldr (:) [] . fmap fizzBuzzOrNumber . enumerateGame $ to

fizzBuzzOrNumber :: (String, Integer) -> String
fizzBuzzOrNumber (fizzBuzz, index) = fizzBuzz `orElse` (show index)

enumerateGame :: Integer -> [(String, Integer)]
enumerateGame to = zip fizzesBuzzes $ enumerateInterval 1 to

fizzesBuzzes :: [String]
fizzesBuzzes = zipWith (++) fizzes buzzes

fizzes :: [String]
fizzes = cycle ["", "", "Fizz"]

buzzes :: [String]
buzzes = cycle ["", "", "", "", "Buzz"]

orElse :: [a] -> [a] -> [a]
orElse [] ys = ys
orElse xs _  = xs

References

SICP

About the author

Carlos is a developer who is constantly looking for new ways to master the art of crafting software. He firmly believes in the software craftsmanship principles and bases his journey towards mastery on them.

He has been working professionally as an Android developer for more than 3 years. His current focus is on mastering a new set of skills that will let him continue to grow and make progress in his career.

Enjoying this article?

Sign up to our monthly newsletter to get content like this in your inbox!

Related Blogs

Katas For Functional Calisthenics

  • Jorge Gueorguiev Garcia

Side effects

  • Christian Panadero Martinez

Functional Calisthenics

  • Jorge Gueorguiev Garcia

Akka basics

  • Felipe Fern├índez