My Haskell tooling wishlist

By Chris Done

I spend a lot of my time on Haskell tooling, both for my hobbies and my job. Almost every project I work on sparks a desire for another piece of tooling. Much of the time, I’ll follow that wish and take a detour to implement that thing (Fay, structured-haskell-mode, hindent, are some Haskell-specific examples). But in the end it means less time working on the actual domain problem I’m interested in, so a while ago I intentionally placed a quota on the amount of time I can spend on this.

So this page will contain a list of things I’d work on if I had infinite spare time, and that I wish someone else would make. I’ll update it from time to time as ideas come to the fore.

These projects are non-trivial but are do-able by one person who has enough free time and motivation. There is a common theme among the projects listed, which is that they are things that Haskell among most other well known languages is particularly well suited for and yet we don’t have such tooling as standard tools in the Haskell tool box. They should be!

An equational reasoning assistant

Equational reasoning lets you prove properties about your functions by following a simple substitution model to state that one term is equal to another. The approach I typically take is to expand and reduce until both sides of the equation are the same.

Here is an example. I have a data type, Consumer. Here is an instance of Functor:

instance Functor (Consumer s d) where
  fmap f (Consumer d p) =
    Consumer d
             (\s ->
                case p s of
                  (Failed e,s') -> (Failed e,s')
                  (Continued e,s') -> (Continued e,s')
                  (Succeeded a,s') ->
                    (Succeeded (f a),s'))

I want to prove that it is a law-abiding instance of Functor, which means proving that fmap id ≡ id. You don’t need to know anything about the Consumer type itself, just this implementation. Here are some very mechanical steps one can take to prove this:

id ≡ fmap id
   ≡ \(Consumer d p) ->
        Consumer d
         (\s ->
            case p s of
              (Failed e,s') -> (Failed e,s')
              (Continued e,s') -> (Continued e,s')
              (Succeeded a,s') -> (Succeeded (id a),s'))
   ≡ \(Consumer d p) ->
        Consumer d
         (\s ->
            case p s of
              (Failed e,s') -> (Failed e,s')
              (Continued e,s') -> (Continued e,s')
              (Succeeded a,s') -> (Succeeded a,s'))
   ≡ \(Consumer d p) ->
        Consumer d
         (\s -> p s)
   ≡ \(Consumer d p) ->
        Consumer d p
   ≡ id

So that’s:

These are pretty mechanical steps. They’re also pretty laborious and error-prone. Of course, if you look at the first step, it’s pretty obvious the whole thing is an identity, but writing the steps out provides transformations that can be statically checked by a program. So it’s a good example, because it’s easily understandable and you can imagine proving something more complex would require a lot more steps and a lot more substitutions. Proof of identity for Applicative has substantially more steps, but is equally mechanical.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a tool which given some expression would do the following?

Then I could easily provide an interactive interface for this from Emacs.

In order to do expansion, you need the original source of the function name you want to expand. So in the case of id, that’s why I suggested stating an axiom (id a ≡ a) for this. Similarly, I could state the identity law for Monoids by saying mappend mempty a ≡ a, mappend a mempty ≡ a. I don’t necessarily need to expand the source of all functions. Usually just the ones I’m interested in.

Given such a system, for my example above, the program could actually perform all those steps automatically and spit out the steps so that I can read them if I choose, or otherwise accept that the proof was derived sensibly.

In fact, suppose I have my implementation again, and I state what must be satisfied by the equational process (and, perhaps, some axioms that might be helpful for doing it, but in this case our axioms are pretty standard), I might write it like this:

instance Functor (Consumer s d) where
  fmap f (Consumer d p) = ...
proof [|fmap id ≡ id :: Consumer s d a|]

This template-haskell macro proof would run the steps above and if the equivalence is satisfied, the program compiles. If not, it generates a compile error, showing the steps it performed and where it got stuck. TH has limitations, so it might require writing it another way.

Such a helpful tool would also encourage people (even newbies) to do more equational reasoning, which Haskell is often claimed to be good at but you don’t often see it in evidence in codebases. In practice isn’t a standard thing.

Promising work in this area:

Update 2014-01-25: Andrew Gill got back to me that HERMIT is the continuation of HERA. It seems that you can get inlining, general reduction and a whole bunch of case rewrites from this project. Check the KURE paper for the DSL used to do these rewrites, it looks pretty aweeome. So if anyone’s thinking of working on this, I’d probably start with reading HERMIT.Shell or HERMIT.Plugin and see how to get it up and running. It’s a pity it has to work on Core, that’s a little sad, but as far as trade-offs go it’s not too bad. Doing proofs on things more complicated than core might be hard anyway. It does mean you’ll probably want to make a rewrite that does a global variable replacement: x and y is a little easier to read than x0_6 and the like that you get in Core.

Catch for GHC

Ideally, we would never have inexhaustive patterns in Haskell. But a combination of an insufficient type system and people’s insistence on using partial functions leads to a library ecosystem full of potential landmines. Catch is a project by Neil Mitchell which considers how a function is called when determining whether its patterns are exhaustive or not. This lets us use things like head and actually have a formal proof that our use is correct, or a formal proof that our use, or someone else’s use, will possibly crash.

map head . group

This is an example which is always correct, because group returns a list of non-empty lists.

Unfortunately, it currently works for a defunct Haskell compiler, but apparently it can be ported to GHC Core with some work. I would very much like for someone to do that. This is yet another project which is the kind of thing people claim is possible thanks to Haskell’s unique properties, but in practice it isn’t a standard thing, in the way that QuickCheck is.

A substitution stepper

This is semi-related, but different, to the proof assistant. I would like a program which can accept a Haskell module of source code and an expression to evaluate in the context of that module and output the same expression, as valid source code, with a single evaluation step performed. This would be fantastic for writing new algorithms, for understanding existing functions and algorithms, writing proofs, and learning Haskell. There was something like this demonstrated in Inventing on Principle. The opportunities for education and general development practice are worth such a project.

Note: A debugger stepper is not the same thing.

Example:

foldr (+) 0 [1, 2, 3, 4]

foldr (+) 0 (1 : [2, 3, 4])

1 + foldr (+) 0 [2, 3, 4]

1 + foldr (+) 0 (2 : [3, 4])

1 + (2 + foldr (+) 0 [3, 4])

1 + (2 + foldr (+) 0 (3 : [4]))

1 + (2 + (3 + foldr (+) 0 [4]))

1 + (2 + (3 + foldr (+) 0 (4 : [])))

1 + (2 + (3 + (4 + foldr (+) 0 [])))

1 + (2 + (3 + (4 + 0)))

1 + (2 + (3 + 4))

1 + (2 + 7)

1 + 9

10

Comparing this with foldl immediately shows the viewer how they differ in structure:

foldl (+) 0 [1, 2, 3, 4]

foldl (+) 0 (1 : [2, 3, 4])

foldl (+) ((+) 0 1) [2, 3, 4]

foldl (+) ((+) 0 1) (2 : [3, 4])

foldl (+) ((+) ((+) 0 1) 2) [3, 4]

foldl (+) ((+) ((+) 0 1) 2) (3 : [4])

foldl (+) ((+) ((+) ((+) 0 1) 2) 3) [4]

foldl (+) ((+) ((+) ((+) 0 1) 2) 3) (4 : [])

foldl (+) ((+) ((+) ((+) ((+) 0 1) 2) 3) 4) []

(+) ((+) ((+) ((+) 0 1) 2) 3) 4

1 + 2 + 3 + 4

3 + 3 + 4

6 + 4

10

Each step in this is a valid Haskell program, and it’s just simple substitution.

If the source for a function isn’t available, there are a couple options for what to do:

It’s another project I could easily provide see-as-you-type support for in Emacs, given an engine to query.

Again, this is just one more project which should just be a standard thing Haskell can do. It’s a pure language. It’s used to teach equational reasoning and following a simple lambda calculus substitution model. But there is no such tool. Haskell is practically waving in our faces with this opportunity.

Existing work in this area: