24 days of Hackage, 2015: day 7: semigroups; NonEmpty list and a case study of types and tests

Table of contents for the whole series

A table of contents is at the top of the article for day 1.

Day 7

(Reddit discussion)

How often has the following runtime error happened to you, whether in Haskell or in some other language?

*** Exception: Prelude.head: empty list

Basically, code blew up that assumed a list was nonempty but it wasn’t.

In fact, posted on Reddit recently was a question about code that failed with

** Exception: Prelude.foldl1: empty list

which is the same problem.

Today, I present a case study: refactoring that code to take advantage of an important data type that is going to be part of the Haskell standard library, the NonEmpty list type. This is part of Edward Kmett’s semigroups package that is going into the standard library.

In general, should we adopt defensive or confident programming?

It’s easy to say, “well, we should program defensively and not call unsafe functions like head and foldl1 but should always check for an empty list”. But what if we know that the list is supposed to have at least one element, perhaps because we validated that fact earlier on in our data model. For example, say you are buying tickets for a concert. You have to buy at least one, but could buy more than one. So the business logic for the ticket pickup should always assume that there is at least one ticket for you. It should not perpetually check for emptiness because that should have been caught up front when you ordered.

The situation is exactly analogous to the problem of NULL in many languages: languages that use NULL don’t distinguish at the type level between something that is possibly-nonexistent (0 or 1 element) and something that is always there (1 element). It is unfortunate when we know something about our data but aren’t saying it in our type. In the case of lists, the situation is that a possibly-empty list can have 0 or more elements, while a nonempty list can have 1 or more elements. Both situations are extremely common (think of regex matching that distinguishes between x* and x+) and should be modeled by different types!

I believe that the real solution to this kind of problem is not to go defensive and litter all our code with random NULL or isEmpty kinds of runtime checks. The solution is also not to just go “cowboy hacker” and invite possible and actual runtime exceptions by skipping all checking.

Instead, the solution, when practical, is to use the right types so that in the appropriate delimited scope of our code, runtime exceptions cannot possibly occur and therefore within that scope we can program confidently rather than defensively. If we don’t use our language’s type system to our advantage, we are just doing ordinary dynamically typed programming in a typed language and missing out on the full benefits of types. Since we made some sacrifices in adopting a statically typed language instead of a dynamically typed one, we should take advantage of what we got ourselves into. There’s an interesting asymmetry in the programming world: it is impossible to write statically typed code in a dynamically typed language, but it is easy to write dynamically typed code in a statically typed language!

A nonempty list type

Let’s look at the NonEmpty list. You can already use it today before it becomes part of the standard library, by just adding semigroups to your dependencies.

What are the requirements for a nonempty list?

Roughly, a NonEmpty list should

QuickCheck for specifying laws (properties)

On day 3, I mentioned that QuickCheck is very useful for specifying requirements when designing a new module. Ideally, when designing an API around a new type, we treat it as an abstract data type and check the behavior of operations on that type. The NonEmpty list is simple enough that you might think it’s overkill to do that, but I just wanted to present a taste of what one might do up front if one were starting out with property test-driven development. Let’s imagine we are creating a module Data.List.NonEmpty:

{-# LANGUAGE ScopedTypeVariables #-}

-- Part of a hypothetical test module for the semigroups package.
module HypotheticalSemigroupsSpec where

import qualified Data.List.NonEmpty as NonEmpty

import Test.Hspec (Spec, hspec, describe, it, shouldBe, shouldSatisfy)
import Test.Hspec.QuickCheck (prop)
import qualified Test.QuickCheck as QuickCheck
import qualified Data.Maybe as Maybe

spec :: Spec
spec =
  describe "semigroups" $ do
    describe "Data.List.NonEmpty" $ do
      describe "constructor NonEmpty.nonEmpty" $ do
        it "fails on trying to construct from an empty regular list" $ do
          NonEmpty.nonEmpty ([] :: [Int]) `shouldBe` Nothing
        prop "succeeds on any nonempty list" $ do
          \(QuickCheck.NonEmpty (xs :: [Int])) ->
            NonEmpty.nonEmpty xs `shouldSatisfy` Maybe.isJust
      describe "conversion to regular list" $ do
        prop "converts back to the original regular list" $ do
          \(QuickCheck.NonEmpty (xs :: [Int])) ->
            let Just nonEmptyXs = NonEmpty.nonEmpty xs
            in NonEmpty.toList nonEmptyXs `shouldBe` xs

Basically, nonEmpty is a safe constructor:

nonEmpty :: [a] -> Maybe (NonEmpty a)

There is also an unsafe constructor called fromList. I wouldn’t use that except in case I really know that a list was not empty, because it was returned from an API that guaranteed it but not in a typed way. For example, I’ve faced this annoying problem when writing parsers using libraries such as parsec, because combinators such as many1 have a type

many1 :: Stream s m t => ParsecT s u m a -> ParsecT s u m [a]

even though the library guarantees that if the parse succeeds, the resulting list has at least one element! So in a situation like this, I would feel justified in using the unsafe NonEmpty.fromList to immediately unsafely wrap to get my known-to-be-nonempty-list into a more refined type.

A note on QuickCheck internals: QuickCheck.NonEmpty (ignore the coincidence of the token NonEmpty in common with our module and type in question!) is just a newtype in QuickCheck to generate regular lists [a] that happen to be nonempty at runtime (as in they are of the form (x:xs)). Imagine if QuickCheck had been written when the NonEmpty type we want had existed. Then it could just generate a real NonEmpty rather than a fake newtype!

If you don’t use QuickCheck or similar generative testing libraries, check them out! These methods of testing are far more useful than the example-based tests that I’ve provided so far in these articles just for illustrative purposes. When possible, generative tests should be written instead of manual example-based tests.

(The use of [Int] type annotations is because QuickCheck requires a monomorphic type in order to generate concrete data to test. ScopedTypeVariables is a GHC extension that I wish were just part of the standard Haskell language; it was covered in a 2014 Day of GHC Extensions.)

(Update of 2015-12-14) Using NonEmpty for a parser

On day 14, I used NonEmpty to represent in a principled way the result from a parser.

A few notes on the full NonEmpty API

map behaves as expected, because it doesn’t change the number of elements and therefore mapping over a NonEmpty is clearly a NonEmpty:

map :: (a -> b) -> NonEmpty a -> NonEmpty b

However, filter on a NonEmpty returns a regular possibly-empty list, as it should, because the predicate can potentially fail on every element:

filter :: (a -> Bool) -> NonEmpty a -> [a]

And foldl1, unlike that of the regular list, is safe. It cannot fail, because it always starts off the reduction with the first element as the seed.

There are a whole bunch of other useful list functions.

Oh, and the internal implementation is what you might suspect: it’s just a tuple of the first element with the possibly-empty tail, with a special “cons” operator :| that resembles the normal list’s :.

data NonEmpty a = a :| [a]

A case study in refactoring

Let’s look at refactoring some code posted on Reddit that was throwing an exception unexpectedly at run time.

We won’t go into how the code might be written in a completely different way, but just focus on identifying and removing unsafe code that might throw exceptions.

The code uses the excellent package split which I am a happy user of. I have taken the liberty of adding comments to the code and explicit imports for presentation here.

Original unsafe code

import qualified Data.List.Split as Split

totalArea :: [(Int, Int, Int)] -> Int
totalArea xs = foldl (\acc x -> (acc + partialArea x)) 0 xs

partialArea :: (Int, Int, Int) -> Int
partialArea (l, w, h) = 2 * (l*w + w*h + h*l) + slack
  where areas       = [l, w, h]

        -- 'maximum' is unsafe
        smallSides  = filter (< maximum areas) areas

        -- 'foldl1' is unsafe
        slack       = foldl1 (*) smallSides

parseFile :: String -> [(Int, Int, Int)]
parseFile xs = map (splitDimensions) (breakLines xs)

breakLines :: String -> [String]
breakLines = Split.splitOn "\n"

-- | 'read' is unsafe. '(!!)' is unsafe.
splitDimensions :: String -> (Int, Int, Int)
splitDimensions xs = (item 0, item 1, item 2)
                   where item n = read ((Split.splitOn "x" xs)!!n)

This crashes on foldl1:

spec :: Spec
spec =
  describe "UnsafeListExample" $ do
    it "totalArea crashes for a particular input" $ do
      let contents = "1 x 1 x 1"
      evaluate (totalArea (parseFile contents)) `shouldThrow` anyException

I’ve already identified the problems above.

We’ll ignore the fact that read and list indexing (!!) are unsafe, because that’s not what is of interest here today.

But maximum and foldl1 are both unsafe on lists because they crash on empty lists.

It turns out from manual inspection, acting as a human static analyzer that the use of maximum is OK here, because it’s operating on a 3-element list [l, w, h] created just before being passed to maximum. But this safety is not reflected in the types.

How about foldl1? If you carefully think about what filter returns, you can deduce that it might return an empty list, and if you can’t guarantee that it’s nonempty, then the foldl1 will crash hard. And it does.

That was a lot of human thinking we had to do. Luckily, tests were run that discovered the bug, but still, the code ended up posted to Reddit asking what the bug was, so it’s not trivial to find these kinds of lurking bugs. Is there a better way?

Refactoring to NonEmpty lists

Let’s use NonEmpty. First of all, we change totalArea to take a NonEmpty because that’s what we really want.

totalArea :: NonEmpty (Int, Int, Int) -> Int
totalArea xs = foldl (\acc x -> (acc + partialArea x)) 0 xs

Note that we only had to change the type of the parameter, not any of the code, because foldl has been implemented on NonEmpty as well as regular lists.

Next, we change the body of partialArea:

partialArea :: (Int, Int, Int) -> Int
partialArea (l, w, h) = 2 * (l*w + w*h + h*l) + slack
    areas :: NonEmpty Int
    areas = NonEmpty.fromList [l, w, h]

    -- 'maximum' is safe on 'NonEmpty'
    -- But 'smallSides' can be empty because of 'NonEmpty.filter',
    -- and 'NonEmpty.fromList' is unsafe!
    smallSides :: [Int]
    smallSides = NonEmpty.filter (< maximum areas) areas

    -- unsafe!
    smallSides1 :: NonEmpty Int
    smallSides1 = NonEmpty.fromList smallSides

    -- 'foldl1' is safe on 'NonEmpty'
    slack = foldl1 (*) smallSides1

We made a number of changes:

So by refining the types used in the program, we have identified the exact point at which we could not write the necessary code without resorting to NonEmpty.fromList. So, strictly speaking, we haven’t made a run time error turn into a compile time error, but we have narrowed down what is going on purely mechanically by means of following the types.

The real problem in the code here seems to be that we wanted smallSides to be nonempty. The attempt to use only safe code automatically resolved one possible source of unsafety (maximum) and pointed at a more complicated situation requiring a proof obligation on the result of the filter. partialArea could be written to avoid the proof obligation, by not using a list type at all for areas to perform the desired logic.

Maybe the real problem is that we shouldn’t use lists at all here

You may have protested at this entire NonEmpty exercise all this time, because NonEmpty is just the wrong type for all of this work! There’s no point in trying to use some kind of fancy type that doesn’t fit the problem. There was no reason for the list [l, w, h] to be created at all. If you’re using a type and you still run into proof obligations, often that means the type is not the right one.

In partialArea, if we state the logic of what we really wanted (the two smallest values out of three), then we can just write what we mean:

-- | Don't use lists at all!
bestPartialArea :: (Int, Int, Int) -> Int
bestPartialArea (l, w, h) = 2 * (l*w + w*h + h*l) + slack
    (side0, side1, _) = sort3 (l, w, h)
    slack = side0 * side1

where we created a utility module Sort3:

module Sort3 (sort3) where

-- | Sort exactly 3 values.
sort3 :: Ord a => (a, a, a) -> (a, a, a)
sort3 (a0, a1, a2) =
  if a0 > a1
  then if a0 > a2
       then if a2 < a1
               then (a2, a1, a0)
               else (a1, a2, a0)
       else (a1, a0, a2)
  else if a1 > a2
       then if a0 > a2
            then (a2, a0, a1)
            else (a0, a2, a1)
       else (a0, a1, a2)

Yes, I did look on Hoogle (as recommended in my article yesterday on searching for utility modules), and although I did not find this exact function, I found the logic for it embedded in a context of optimal sorting of vectors, in the Data.Vector.Algorithms.Optimal module of the excellent vector-algorithms package that I highly recommend when working with vectors. I copied and pasted the logic in order to work on a simple triple.

The value of tests

QuickCheck is a great tool. Suppose we didn’t want to or couldn’t refine the types in our code, for some reason. We can often still make of testing to try to weed out easy-to-discover bugs. For example, we could have written a sanity check test on totalArea by generating a whole bunch of random input and checking that the result is what we expect, or at least something reasonable:

import UnsafeListExample (totalArea, parseFile)

import Test.Hspec (Spec, hspec, describe, it, shouldSatisfy, shouldThrow, anyException)
import Test.Hspec.QuickCheck (prop)
import Test.QuickCheck (Positive(..))
import Control.Exception (evaluate)
import Text.Printf (printf)

spec :: Spec
spec =
  describe "UnsafeListExample" $ do
    it "totalArea crashes for a particular input" $ do
      let contents = "1 x 1 x 1"
      evaluate (totalArea (parseFile contents)) `shouldThrow` anyException
    prop "totalArea gives something reasonable on any triple of ints" $ do
      \(Positive (l :: Int)) (Positive (w :: Int)) (Positive (h :: Int)) ->
        let contents = printf "%d x %d x %d" l w h
        in totalArea (parseFile contents) `shouldSatisfy` (> 0)

Very quickly we get a counterexample reported by QuickCheck:

  1) UnsafeListExample totalArea does not crash on any triple of ints
       uncaught exception: ErrorCall (Prelude.foldl1: empty list) (after 4 tests)
       Positive {getPositive = 2}
       Positive {getPositive = 2}
       Positive {getPositive = 2}

Also, you may have wondered about that complicated optimal sort of 3 values. Did I copy and paste the logic correctly? For peace of mind, I wrote a QuickCheck test for it:

spec :: Spec
spec =
  describe "Sort3" $ do
    prop "sort3 sorts correctly" $ do
      \(triple :: (Int, Int, Int)) ->
        let (a0', a1', a2') = Sort3.sort3 triple
        in a0' <= a1' && a1' <= a2'

I love QuickCheck. What would life be without it?

Some bonus refactorings

Some other type-oriented refactorings into NonEmpty as much as possible that I won’t discuss in detail because they were mostly irrelevant here:

parseFile :: NonEmpty Char -> NonEmpty (Int, Int, Int)
parseFile xs = NonEmpty.map (splitDimensions) (breakLines xs)

-- | We ended up not needing the fact that the input is nonempty, and
-- converted it to a regular list.
breakLines :: NonEmpty Char -> NonEmpty String
breakLines string1 = ourSplitOn "\n" (NonEmpty.toList string1)

-- | 'read' is unsafe. '(!!)' is unsafe.
splitDimensions :: String -> (Int, Int, Int)
splitDimensions xs = (item 0, item 1, item 2)
                   where item n = read ((Split.splitOn "x" xs)!!n)

-- | Using unsafe 'NonEmpty.fromList' is safe because we know
-- the result 'from Split.splitOn' is nonempty. Note that the elements
-- themselves can be empty.
ourSplitOn :: Eq a => [a] -> [a] -> NonEmpty [a]
ourSplitOn subList list = NonEmpty.fromList (Split.splitOn subList list)

The most interesting thing was a tangential observation that Split.splitOn always returns a nonempty list of lists. So in principle we could wrap the result into a NonEmpty. I even wrote a little passing QuickCheck test:

spec :: Spec
spec =
  describe "split" $ do
    prop "splitOn always results in nonempty list" $ do
      \subList (list :: String) ->
        Split.splitOn subList list `shouldSatisfy` not . null

Note: split already has a huge set of property tests for its own purposes. I love the split library. I think it’s been very well-tested. Check it out.

A brief note on semigroups Semigroup

A Semigroup is a type class representing an algebraic structure requiring a single associative operation to be defined on it, “append”, which in this library is provided as an operator <>.

import Data.Semigroup ((<>))

A QuickCheck test verifying what we already know, which is that String has a Semigroup instance, string append, and is associative as required:

    describe "Data.Semigroup.Semigroup" $ do
      prop "<> is associative for String" $ do
        \(x :: String) y z -> (x <> y) <> z `shouldBe` x <> (y <> z)

You may already use this operator <> in Monoid, which is already in the standard library, but the Monoid type class should really be a subclass of Semigroup and that’s what’s going to happen in a future version of Haskell (conceptually, it should have been there all along, but Haskell was invented 25 years ago in 1990 and Semigroup was apparently not considered important enough to put into the type class hierarchy then). The difference is that a Monoid also requires an identity element mempty.

There’s no space here to say anything about why semigroups and monoids are useful in computing. Monoids in particular have become an everyday word in Big Data circles because of MapReduce, which based on monoids for performance.

A few Haskell oriented resources on monoids to check out:


The main takeaways today: consider using NonEmpty when you have a list that you know is not empty, so that you can confidently perform operations on it without throwing an exception. It’s just one additional Cabal dependency away! Also make sure that you actually wanted a list, and not a tuple or fixed-size vector or something like that. And use QuickCheck.

All the code

All my code for my article series are at this GitHub repo.

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