Friday, May 13, 2011

Immutable, mutable, higher order designs and monads

One of the great pleasures of programming functionally is to be able to rely on immutable data. With immutability, side effects need to be explicitly defined, either as return values from functions or as encapsulations in monadic states. Immutability allows two important properties: first it increases productivity by diminishing what needs to be cared about (freeing the mind to care about the right things!), then, almost as more importantly, it provides the foundation for higher order programming concepts by preserving an acyclic relationship between functions and data. By higher order, I mean that data is replaced by functions or that functions encapsulated in data; for example, in a context like data differentiation or in the use of monads. By acyclic, I mean that all trace trees are acyclic (trace tree can be seen as dynamic call graph where recursion is not a loop). Let me explain…
It is OK to have cycles in the static call graph. That is because we know how to infer invariants (e.g. like types) from inter-dependent and recursive functions. Likewise, recursive data types are also OK. Nevertheless everything is a bit trickier if we look at things from a data flow dependency point of view. This is the view we need to take if we really want understand how the functions are working on data and producing new data. And the sad reality is that it is generally hard to work out invariants from dependency graphs that have cycles because of mutable data, Nevertheless, there are cyclic dependency graphs that are easier to work with than others. More specifically, the more local, or of limited life span, a part of the dependency graph is, the easier it is to understand it scope and properties.
I mentioned trace trees above because they give me the bridge I need to wrap up this posting. The insight is the following: mutability brings in cycles in dependencies, cycles in dependencies kill invariants that allow higher order code constructions, trace trees are a down to earth way to work with dependencies, monads can seen as redefining call points in the trace tree (nodes), and as a consequence one the safest way to introduce mutability is within the scope of a monad. Again, we know the local trace tree will end up with cycles when we introduce mutability, but if this trace tree is “protected” in a monad, then its impact into the rest of the trace tree is easier to understand because of the intimate relation between monads and trace tree nodes.
You could argue that we do not need mutability. Yet real world I/O is mutable and therefore you you cannot escape working with mutable data. Not to mention that to get performance you may need to go mutable too.

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