Haskell monads for C++ programmers

I’m not going to get into the monad tutorial fallacy. Also, I think this blog about another monad fallacy sums it up nicely: the problem isn’t understanding what monads are, but rather understanding how they can be used. Understanding the monad laws isn’t hard. Understanding how to use the Maybe monad isn’t hard either. But things get tricky pretty fast and there’ s a kind of monads that are similar to each other that took me a while to understand how to use. That is, until I recognised what they actually were: C++ template metaprogramming. I guess it’s the opposite realisation that Bartoz Milewski had.

The analogy is only valid for a few monads. The ones I’ve seen that this applies to are IO, State, and Get from Data.Binary. These are the monads that are referred to as computations, which sounds really abstract, but really functions that return these monads return mini-programs. These mini-programs don’t immediately do anything, they need to be executed first. In IO’s case that’s done by the runtime system, for State the runState does that for you (I’m stretching here – only IO really does anything, even runState is pure).

It’s similar to template metaprogramming in C++: at compile-time the programmer has access to a functional language with no side-effects that returns a function that at runtime (i.e. when executed) actually does something. After that realisation I got a lot better at understanding how and why to use them.

The monad issue doesn’t end there, unfortunately. There are many other monads that aren’t like C++ templates at all. But the ones that are – well, at least you’ll be able to recognise them now.

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One thought on “Haskell monads for C++ programmers

  1. John Wiegley says:

    Actually, I think the “real problem” is simply that new abstractions are difficult for the mind to grasp, since they require time, thought, and exercises. There is no problem here that will ever be fixed such that monads become intuitively obvious to everyone, except teaching them to students at such a young age that by adulthood everyone assumes they’re intuitively obvious.

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