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Latest revision as of 14:44, 5 June 2011
It is very common for functional programmers to write functions as a composition of other functions, never mentioning the actual arguments they will be applied to. For example, compare:
sum = foldr (+) 0
sum' xs = foldr (+) 0 xs
This style is particularly useful when deriving efficient programs by calculation and, in general, constitutes good discipline. It helps the writer (and reader) think about composing functions (high level), rather than shuffling data (low level).
It is a common experience when rewriting expressions in pointfree style to derive more compact, clearer versions of the code -- explicit points often obscure the underlying algorithm.
Point-free map fusion:
foldr f e . map g == foldr (f . g) e
versus pointful map fusion:
foldr f e . map g == foldr f' e where f' a b = f (g a) b
Some more examples:
-- point-wise, and point-free member mem, mem' :: Eq a => a -> [a] -> Bool mem x lst = any (== x) lst mem' = any . (==)
 1 But pointfree has more points!A common misconception is that the 'points' of pointfree style are the
f x = x + 1
f = (+ 1)
where there is no mention of the value on which the function is acting.
 2 Background
To find out more about this style, search for Squiggol and the Bird-Meertens Formalism, a style of functional programming by calculation that was developed by Richard Bird, Lambert Meertens, and others at Oxford University. Jeremy Gibbons has also written a number of papers about the topic, which are cited below.
 3 Tool support
Thomas Yaeger has written a Lambdabot plugin to automatically convert a large subset of Haskell expressions to pointfree form. This tool has made it easier to use the more abstract pointfree encodings (as it saves some mental gymnastics on the part of the programmer). You can experiment with this in the Haskell IRC channel. A stand-alone command-line version is available at HackageDB (package pointfree).The @pl (point-less) plugin is rather infamous for using the
Recently, @unpl has been written, which (attempts) to unscramble @pl-ified code. It also has a stand-alone command-line version (package pointful).
> pl \x y -> x y id > unpl id (\ a -> a) > pl \x y -> x + 1 const . (1 +) > unpl const . (1 +) (\ e _ -> 1 + e) > pl \v1 v2 -> sum (zipWith (*) v1 v2) (sum .) . zipWith (*) > unpl (sum .) . zipWith (*) (\ d g -> sum (zipWith (*) d g)) > pl \x y z -> f (g x y z) ((f .) .) . g > unpl ((f .) .) . g (\ e j m -> f (g e j m)) > pl \x y z -> f (g x y) z (f .) . g > unpl (f .) . g (\ d i -> f (g d i)) > pl \x y z -> f z (g x y) (flip f .) . g > unpl (flip f .) . g (\ i l c -> f c (g i l)) > pl \(a,b) -> (b,a) uncurry (flip (,)) > pl f a b = b a f = flip id > pl \ x -> x * x join (*) > pl \a b -> a:b: (. return) . (:) > pl \x -> x+x+x (+) =<< join (+) > pl \a b -> Nothing const (const Nothing) > pl \(a,b) -> (f a, g b) f *** g > pl \f g h x -> f x `h` g x flip . (ap .) . flip (.) > pl \x y -> x . f . y (. (f .)) . (.) > pl \f xs -> xs >>= return . f fmap > pl \h f g x -> f x `h` g x liftM2 > pl \f a b c d -> f b c d a flip . ((flip . (flip .)) .) > pl \a (b,c) -> a c b (`ap` snd) . (. fst) . flip > pl \x y -> compare (f x) (f y) ((. f) . compare .)
For many many more examples, google for the results of '@pl' in the #haskell logs. (Or join #haskell on FreeNode and try it yourself!) It can, of course, get out of hand:
> pl \(a,b) -> a:b: uncurry ((. return) . (:)) > pl \a b c -> a*b+2+c ((+) .) . flip flip 2 . ((+) .) . (*) > pl \f (a,b) -> (f a, f b) (`ap` snd) . (. fst) . (flip =<< (((.) . (,)) .)) > pl \f g (a,b) -> (f a, g b) flip flip snd . (ap .) . flip flip fst . ((.) .) . flip . (((.) . (,)) .) > unpl flip flip snd . (ap .) . flip flip fst . ((.) .) . flip . (((.) . (,)) .) (\ aa f -> (\ p w -> ((,)) (aa (fst p)) (f w)) >>= \ ao -> snd >>= \ an -> return (ao an))
 4 Combinator discoveries
Some fun combinators have been found via @pl. Here we list some of the best:
 4.1 The owl
> ((.)$(.)) (==) 1 (1+) 0 True
 4.2 Dot
dot = ((.).(.)) dot :: (b -> c) -> (a -> a1 -> b) -> a -> a1 -> c
sequence `dot` replicate == (sequence .) . replicate == replicateM (=<<) == join `dot` fmap
 4.3 Swing
-- Note: @pl had nothing to do with the invention of this combinator. I constructed it by hand after noticing a common pattern. -- Cale
swing :: (((a -> b) -> b) -> c -> d) -> c -> a -> d swing = flip . (. flip id) swing f = flip (f . runCont . return) swing f c a = f ($ a) c
Some examples of use:
swing map :: forall a b. [a -> b] -> a -> [b] swing any :: forall a. [a -> Bool] -> a -> Bool swing foldr :: forall a b. b -> a -> [a -> b -> b] -> b swing zipWith :: forall a b c. [a -> b -> c] -> a -> [b] -> [c] swing find :: forall a. [a -> Bool] -> a -> Maybe (a -> Bool) -- applies each of the predicates to the given value, returning the first predicate which succeeds, if any swing partition :: forall a. [a -> Bool] -> a -> ([a -> Bool], [a -> Bool])
 4.4 Squish
f >>= a . b . c =<< g
(readFile y >>=) . ((a . b) .) . c =<< readFile x
An actually useful example, numbering lines of a file.
 5 Problems with pointfree
Point-free style can (clearly) lead to Obfuscation when used unwisely. As higher-order functions are chained together, it can become harder to mentally infer the types of expressions. The mental cues to an expression's type (explicit function arguments, and the number of arguments) go missing.
Point-free style often times leads to code which is difficult to modify. A function written in a pointfree style may have to be radically changed to make minor changes in functionality. This is because the function becomes more complicated than a composition of lambdas and other functions, and compositions must be changed to application for a pointful function.
Perhaps these are why pointfree style is sometimes (often?) referred to as pointless style.
 6 References
One early reference is
- Backus, J. 1978. "Can Programming Be Liberated from the von Neumann Style? A Functional Style and Its Algebra of Programs," Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery 21:613-641.
which appears to be available (as a scan) at http://www.stanford.edu/class/cs242/readings/backus.pdf
A paper specifically about point-free style:
This style underlies a lot of expert Haskeller's intuitions. A rather infamous paper (for all the cute symbols) is Erik Meijer et. al's:
- Functional Programming with Bananas, Lenses, and Barbed Wire, http://wwwhome.cs.utwente.nl/~fokkinga/mmf91m.ps.
Squiggol, and the Bird-Meertens Formalism:
- A Calculus of Functions for Program Derivation, R.S. Bird, in Res Topics in Fnl Prog, D. Turner ed, A-W 1990.
- The Squiggolist, ed Johan Jeuring, published irregularly by CWI Amsterdam.
Pointless Haskell is a library for point-free programming with recursion patterns defined as hylomorphisms. It also allows the visualization of the intermediate data structure of the hylomorphisms with GHood. This feature together with the DrHylo tool allows us to easily visualize recursion trees of Haskell functions. Haskell Manipulation by Jose Miguel Paiva Proenca discusses this tool based approach to re-factoring.
 7 Other areas
Are there pointfree approaches to relational algebra? See First Steps in Pointfree Functional Dependency Theory written by José Nuno Oliveira. A concise and deep approach. See also the author's homepage and also his many other papers -- many materials related to this topic can be found there.