The monads of Haskell

Published on April 16, 2019

This one reads almost as if it’s a 1st April joke, but as a matter of fact it’s not. It’s 16th April joke. It’s serious.

If we look at Haskell from outside of its community, the first word that comes to mind of people who hear the name of the language is monads. If we look from inside of the community… well, it’s probably also monads. In a typical Haskell program, there are quite a few.

In tutorials, Haskell beginner will find the wisdom of modelling various things with monads such as state, writer, reader, etc. There are also monad transformers, and they sort of compose. Except that they don’t compose well enough in practice. Some of them leak. If you’re not knowledgeable about the subject, you’ll most likely write a program that leaks memory. If you are knowledgeable, you’ll most likely also write a program that leaks memory. Finally, if you’re knowledgeable enough and explicitly optimize what you write not to leak, you may leak less than usual.

All too easy we get into the mindset “but this is how things work, you have to care if you want to be a cool Haskeller and produce high-quality code”. And here we go, remember the rules how to write code that doesn’t leak.

I would rather not. I don’t want to care about space leaks. I could care, on special occasions, in fact I’m paid to, but I don’t want to. When I do, I feel so acutely the limitations of the technology that I use. If I have to pay attention so much to how it’s going to work operationally, then it’s not really declarative code, right?

Even if you don’t leak, a complex monadic stack is not handy with exceptions. The gold standard is often said to be something like ReaderT Context IO. You just need the ability execute and mutate. As a Haskeller I’ll favor this simple stack over almost anything else. Sure. But again, is it actually still declarative programming?

Where are we going? Are we just converging to a much simpler approach which actually does the trick (tm)? Non-declarative code is OK. It’s well-known to humanity and works well. The only problem is that we wanted to have declarative code instead.

What about all the lies you told to that young Haskell apprentice about WriterT? Look in his eyes, he still believes it. He still tells you how he would design the right monadic stack for a problem. Beautiful stack, which makes sense, not your discovered-through-pains-and-experience reader-over-IO thingy. Put it away. I don’t wanna see it this evening.

This is a bad post, but in a sense, I’m innocent. Deep down inside people know something is wrong. And they seek to recover the beauty of proper declarative programming.

Some of these people deem monad transformers dim. They use free and freer monads instead. And then they regret that and publish posts about their regrets on Haskell sub-reddit. Sure,

there are just some problems with exceptions, and concurrency and a few other things. So we spent most of the time actually <censored> instead of just doing the stuff that works.

Doesn’t seem to work that way either?

So what is the conclusion regarding monads and monadic effects? They’ve been around for a while, but still the experience is far from perfect. The only reasonable thing that works is so rudimentary that I’m embarrassed when I talk about it.