Mastering foldr

by ertes, published on 2016-11-23 (draft)

I used to hate calculus; you know, that mathematical abomination that calculates slopes of 15-dimensional curves or the exact area under super-complicated graphs with a smile? As an algebraic thinker it feels wrong to me in so many ways, and yet I can’t deny that it works. It’s not wrong. It’s just weird. Consider this: it takes all these crazy edge cases of real analysis like infinitesimals, and reduces everything to… a calculus! A pragmatic and downright prosaic toolbox! Something physicists and engineers carry around on their belts to get their job done. Today I kinda appreciate it for that.

Now you may be asking what this has to do with the topic of this tutorial. Folds and unfolds actually do something very similar to calculus: they take concepts like infinite recursion and self-similarity and reduce them to a pair of functions with simple, well understood semantics and properties.

Yet beginning Haskell programmers often struggle even with one of the most fundamental list functions, foldr, and because of that they often write longer and more complicated code than necessary. This tutorial is an attempt to improve the situation, not necessarily by going slower than other tutorials, but by training readers to recognise patterns and use equational reasoning to use them. After all just like calculus folds are tools, and you should master them.

This tutorial is written as a literate Haskell file.

Folding Maybe

Before we talk about foldr let’s talk about its simpler cousin maybe. It’s defined as:

maybe :: r -> (a -> r) -> Maybe a -> r
maybe n _ Nothing  = n
maybe _ j (Just x) = j x

This function basically replaces pattern-matching on Maybe.

Example: mLength

Suppose we want to write a function of type Maybe [a] -> Int that returns the length of the argument list in the Just case and defaults to 0 in the Nothing case. We might do it by pattern-matching:

mLengthExplicit :: Maybe [a] -> Int
mLengthExplicit Nothing   = 0
mLengthExplicit (Just xs) = length xs

Try the following examples in GHCi:

λ> mLengthExplicit (Just "abc")
3

λ> mLengthExplicit Nothing
0

Now we would like to write the same function (this time calling it mLength) in terms of maybe. The resulting function should be of the following shape, which we will call its template:

mLength :: Maybe [a] -> Int
mLength = maybe _n _j

This means that we need to find _n and _j such that maybe _n _j is the same function as mLengthExplicit. As a useful feature note that GHC treats variables that begin with an underscore (and are undefined) specially as so-called typed holes. When you try to compile this code, it will actually tell you the types of _n and _j.

Okay, let’s fill in the holes. First let’s consider what the result of the function has to be in the Nothing case:

maybe _n _j Nothing = 0

If we substitute the definition of maybe for the Nothing case, we arrive at:

_n = 0

We have found _n:

mLength = maybe 0 _j

In order to figure out what _j has to be we follow exactly the same process. We consider what the result of maybe 0 _j (Just xs) has to be:

maybe 0 _j (Just xs) = length xs

Again substituting the definition of maybe we arrive at,

_j xs = length xs

or simply:

_j = length

And that completes our definition of mLength:

mLength :: Maybe [a] -> Int
mLength = maybe 0 length

If this felt a bit like school algebra, that’s because it is school algebra. We have constructed equations and then solved them. In fact most school algebra questions were more involved, because in this case all we had to do was to substitute definitions we had already known.

Example: flattenMaybe

Let’s do another example: We would like to write a function that flattens nested Maybe values:

flattenMaybeExplicit :: Maybe (Maybe a) -> Maybe a
flattenMaybeExplicit Nothing   = Nothing
flattenMaybeExplicit (Just mx) = mx

Again we write our template and construct a system of equations to fill in the two holes:

flattenMaybe :: Maybe (Maybe a) -> Maybe a
flattenMaybe = maybe _n _j

maybe _n _j Nothing   = Nothing
maybe _n _j (Just mx) = mx

Substituting the definition of maybe in our equations we get:

_n    = Nothing
_j mx = mx

So _n is just Nothing, and _j is the identity function, and we’re done:

flattenMaybe :: Maybe (Maybe a) -> Maybe a
flattenMaybe = maybe Nothing id

The maybe function is actually known as the Maybe fold. It takes a Maybe value and enough information to reduce it completely. We will see that foldr does basically the same thing for lists, but with a twist: there is recursion involved.

Exercises

Ready for a few exercises? Keep in mind that you have two goals here: the first goal is of course to solve these challenges, but the second and more important goal is to use the kind of mechanical equational reasoning that we have used above to do it.

Write myMaybeToList using the following template such that it satisfies the following test cases:

-- Template:
myMaybeToList :: Maybe a -> [a]
myMaybeToList = maybe _n _j

-- Test cases:
myMaybeToList Nothing    = []
myMaybeToList (Just 'a') = "a"

Write mApply using the following template such that it satisfies the following test cases:

-- Template:
mApply :: b -> Maybe (a -> b) -> a -> b
mApply defY mf x = maybe _n _j mf

-- Test cases:
mApply 0 Nothing 5     = 0
mApply 0 (Just (^2)) 5 = 25

foldr

Let’s review the definition of foldr. For the majority of this tutorial we will use a specialised version of foldr, namely the one for lists:

foldr :: (a -> r -> r) -> r -> [a] -> r
foldr f z []     = z
foldr f z (x:xs) = f x (foldr f z xs)

This looks strikingly similar to maybe now, doesn’t it? The major difference is that this one is recursive. But don’t worry: the method we have used in the last section applies here almost unaltered, so let’s just dive straight into an example.

Example: reverse

reverseExplicit :: [a] -> [a]
reverseExplicit []     = []
reverseExplicit (x:xs) = reverseExplicit xs ++ [x]

This is a function to reverse lists. In order to write it in terms of foldr first we write our template as before. Let’s call our function myReverse, because reverse is predefined:

myReverse :: [a] -> [a]
myReverse = foldr _f _z

Next we construct our system of equations based on the semantics we would like. Let’s do the two possible cases separately, starting with the empty case:

foldr _f _z [] = []

We substitute the definition of foldr to arrive at:

_z = []

Okay, now that we know _z we can amend our template:

myReverse = foldr _f []

Now let’s construct the equation for the non-empty case,

foldr _f [] (x:xs) = myReverse xs ++ [x]

and substitute the definition of foldr as usual:

_f x (foldr _f [] xs) = myReverse xs ++ [x]

Okay, this part is a bit tricky. Let’s make sure we understand this equation properly. First notice that foldr _f [] is just myReverse:

_f x (myReverse xs) = myReverse xs ++ [x]

What this equation is really saying is that the function _f receives as its second argument the reverse of xs, and its result should be the reverse of xs with the singleton list [x] appended at its end. In other words the myReverse xs on the right hand side of the equation is not a recursive application of myReverse to xs, but really just the second argument of _f! Here is perhaps a slightly clearer version of the same equation:

_f x revOfXs = revOfXs ++ [x]

And that is actually already a valid definition for the function _f, so we can use it:

myReverse :: [a] -> [a]
myReverse = foldr (\x revOfXs -> revOfXs ++ [x]) []

Example: printEach

Let’s do another example. The following function prints every list element, each on a separate line:

printEachExplicit :: (Show a) => [a] -> IO ()
printEachExplicit [] = pure ()
printEachExplicit (x:xs) =
print x >> printEachExplicit xs

Our template is,

printEach = foldr _f _z

with the following equations:

foldr _f _z []     = pure ()
foldr _f _z (x:xs) = print x >> printEach xs

As always we substitute:

_z = pure ()
_f x (foldr _f _z xs) = print x >> printEach xs

In the second equation we substitute printEach for foldr _f _z,

_f x (printEach xs) = print x >> printEach xs

and as before we notice that printEach xs on the right hand side is not a recursive use of printEach, but just the second argument to _f, so we rename printEach xs to rest:

_f x rest = print x >> rest

And with that we have found both _f and _z:

printEach :: (Show a) => [a] -> IO ()
printEach = foldr (\x rest -> print x >> rest) (pure ())

Example: append

Okay, let’s do a slightly trickier example:

appendExplicit :: [a] -> [a] -> [a]
appendExplicit []     ys = ys
appendExplicit (x:xs) ys = x : appendExplicit xs ys

This is the function to concatenate two lists. In this case it is important to identify on which of the two arguments the recursion happens. The first argument xs is the list we fold, while the second argument ys is just a global constant we can refer to throughout the fold. Therefore our template looks like this:

append :: [a] -> [a] -> [a]
append xs ys = foldr _f _z xs

Here is our system of equations:

foldr _f _z [] = ys
foldr _f _z (x:xs) = x : append xs ys

Substitution again reveals the solutions:

_z = ys
_f x (foldr _f _z xs) = x : append xs ys

In the second equation notice that foldr _f _z xs is just append xs ys per our definition above,

_f x (append xs ys) = x : append xs ys

and once again append xs ys is just the second argument:

_f x rest = x : rest

or much shorter:

_f = (:)

And that completes our definition:

append :: [a] -> [a] -> [a]
append xs ys = foldr (:) ys xs

This may still feel a bit alien; at least it did for me back when I was struggling with list folds. But the important things to keep in mind is that you can substitute by equational reasoning freely (one of the main strengths of Haskell!). Practice a bit, and you will eventually get the hang of it.

Exercises

Implement map using the following template:

myMap :: (a -> b) -> [a] -> [b]
myMap f = foldr _f _z

Implement concatMap using the following template:

myConcatMap :: (a -> [b]) -> [a] -> [b]
myConcatMap f = foldr _f _z

Implement filter using the following template:

myFilter :: (a -> Bool) -> [a] -> [a]
myFilter p = foldr _f _z

Stateful folds

Here is an interesting challenge: How can we implement sum or take in terms of foldr? These aren’t as straightforward as the ones from the previous section, because all our folds so far have been stateless. But for example take has to maintain a decreasing counter during the fold, and sum has to maintain a running sum.

At least for sum, if you have some Haskell experience, you might conclude that it’s just not a fold (also called a right fold, hence the name foldr), but in fact what we call a left fold. However, in addition to learning what left folds are we will see whether they are just special cases of folds.

With take the situation is even a bit more interesting. It is a stateful fold, but definitely not a left fold, because one property of left folds is that they cannot return anything, not even lazily, before the whole list has been traversed. However, a bare fold the way we have done it so far is stateless.

Do we need something more general than foldr to deal with state?

Append again

In order to figure this out let’s revisit one of the functions we have written above: append. What we have done is to just consider the second argument as extra information, something that is just a global constant throughout the fold and used at the end of it:

append xs ys = foldr (:) ys xs

There is actually a different way to write this one. Let’s review its recursive definition:

appendExplicit :: [a] -> [a] -> [a]
appendExplicit []     ys = ys
appendExplicit (x:xs) ys = x : appendExplicit xs ys

Pay attention to the structure of this function. What if we consider the fold to take a single argument xs and return a function of ys instead of a list? Due to currying this is just the same thing written slightly differently:

appendExplicit :: [a] -> [a] -> [a]
appendExplicit []     = id
appendExplicit (x:xs) = \ys -> x : appendExplicit xs ys

But now our template looks quite different:

append2 :: [a] -> [a] -> [a]
append2 = foldr _f _z

-- Old template for comparison:
append xs ys = foldr _f _z xs

Consequently our system of equations also looks different:

foldr _f _z []     = id
foldr _f _z (x:xs) = \ys -> x : append2 xs ys

Nevertheless the end result should still be the same, because we are really just using a different derivation method. So let’s just continue and see what we get. Substitution gives us:

_z = id
_f x (foldr _f _z xs) = \ys -> x : append2 xs ys

Once again we tie the recursive knot for the non-empty case:

_f x (append2 xs) = \ys -> x : append2 xs ys

Finally we rewrite this a bit, moving the lambda to the left hand side and renaming append2 xs to more:

_f x more ys = x : more ys

This leads to a seemingly different implementation from what we had before:

append2 :: [a] -> [a] -> [a]
append2 = foldr (\x more ys -> x : more ys) id

Here is the old version for comparison:

append :: [a] -> [a] -> [a]
append xs ys = foldr (:) ys xs

Are these really the same function? Well, they have to be! And indeed, a quick experiment at the GHCi prompt confirms it, at least empirically:

λ> append2 "abc" "def"
"abcdef"

Okay, what happened here? You have just witnessed a trivial example of stateful folds. Instead of returning the concatenated list, this fold returns a function that takes the latter part of the list (the ys) and while it consumes the argument list (xs), it just keeps passing ys to the next recursion level unchanged (more ys). At the very end of the fold, when xs is fully consumed and it has to decided what the remainder of the list should be, the fold decides that it should be the current state (id, or equivalently: \ys -> ys), which of course is just the initial ys, because the state was never changed.

Example: take

Alright, let’s tackle the take. As always let’s look at a recursive definition first:

takeExplicit :: Int -> [a] -> [a]
takeExplicit n (x:xs) =
if n > 0
then x : takeExplicit (n - 1) xs
else []
takeExplicit _ [] = []

If we try to solve this directly, we will get the following template and equations (after all substitutions):

myTake n = foldr _f _z

_z = []

_f x (myTake n xs) =
if n > 0
then x : myTake (n - 1) xs
else []

And now we have a problem. The function _f receives myTake n xs as its argument, but to proceed it would need myTake (n - 1) xs. There is no way to solve this equation (other than to actually use myTake recursively, which would defeat the point of foldr). The problem is that we cannot treat n as a global constant. It has to be state that we can change during the fold, just like takeExplicit does.

The idea now is to construct the result indirectly: Construct a function that takes as its argument the number of elements to take. This causes _f to receive a function of the remaining number of elements, so that it can change it in the recursive application. This turns n from a global constant to an initial state. We have done the same with append2 earlier, except we never actually changed the state.

However, myTake is not quite in a suitable form to allow this transformation, because here the initial state argument comes before the list. We need to construct our fold for a flipped variant to make currying work for us just like it did with append2:

flippedTakeExplicit :: [a] -> Int -> [a]
flippedTakeExplicit (x:xs) =
\n ->
if n > 0
then x : flippedTakeExplicit xs (n - 1)
else []
flippedTakeExplicit [] = const []

Here is the template and the equations:

flippedTake :: [a] -> Int -> [a]
flippedTake = foldr _f _z

foldr _f _z [] = const []

foldr _f _z (x:xs) =
\n ->
if n > 0
then x : flippedTake xs (n - 1)
else []

After initial substitutions we get our solution for _z and a promising equation for _f:

_z = const []

_f x (foldr _f _z xs) =
\n ->
if n > 0
then x : flippedTake xs (n - 1)
else []

This time foldr _f _z is equal to flippedTake:

_f x (flippedTake xs) =
\n ->
if n > 0
then x : flippedTake xs (n - 1)
else []

Great! This function receives flippedTake xs as its second argument, and that is exactly what it needs in order to continue. As usual we rewrite it a bit to be more readable:

_f x more n =
if n > 0
then x : more (n - 1)
else []

And finally we use it to complete our fold:

flippedTake :: [a] -> Int -> [a]
flippedTake = foldr f (const [])
where
f x more n =
if n > 0
then x : more (n - 1)
else []

Now we could define myTake as flip flippedTake, but it’s probably better to just discard flippedTake and write myTake directly:

myTake :: Int -> [a] -> [a]
myTake n xs = foldr f (const []) xs n
where
f x more n =
if n > 0
then x : more (n - 1)
else []

So what have we learned so far? For stateful folds we have to keep in mind that the result of the fold has to be a function:

flippedTake :: [a] -> (Int -> [a])

That means that the r in the type signature of foldr becomes a function type:

-- Stateful folds
foldr
:: (a -> (s -> r) -> s -> r)
-> (s -> r)
-> [a]
-> s -> r

It also means that the first argument is a function that receives three arguments: the current list element, the remainder of the fold (parameterised on next/updated state) as well as the current state. By the way, nothing stops us from introducing additional state arguments, should we need them, which is a bit nicer than tuples:

-- Stateful folds with two state variables
foldr
:: (a -> (s1 -> s2 -> r) -> s1 -> s2 -> r)
-> (s1 -> s2 -> r)
-> [a]
-> s1 -> s2 -> r

This also answers our question from earlier: foldr can handle stateful folds on its own, so we don’t need something more powerful.

Example: sum

Alright, next example: sum or rather mySum. We don’t want the naive version, but the efficient one, which looks like this:

mySumExplicit :: (Num a) => [a] -> a
mySumExplicit = go 0
where
go s' [] = s'
go s' (x:xs) =
let s = s' + x
in s `seq` go s xs

The whole recursion happens in go, so that is the function we would turn into a fold. But just like with take it’s currently not in the right shape, because state arguments have to come after the list:

mySumExplicit2 :: (Num a) => [a] -> a
mySumExplicit2 xs = go xs 0
where
go [] s' = s'
go (x:xs) s' =
let s = s' + x
in s `seq` go xs s

Let’s turn everything into lambda form one last time (we will do this in our head in the future):

mySumExplicit3 :: (Num a) => [a] -> a
mySumExplicit3 xs = go xs 0
where
go [] = \s' -> s'
go (x:xs) =
\s' ->
let s = s' + x
in s `seq` go xs s

Now we can write our template and equations:

mySum :: (Num a) => [a] -> a
mySum xs = foldr _f _z xs 0

foldr _f _z [] = id
foldr _f _z (x:xs) =
\s' ->
let s = s' + x
in s `seq` foldr _f _z xs s

Notice a slight difference: In all our previous examples the fold had its own name like myReverse = foldr _f _z, so we used that name in the recursive case. But here our fold doesn’t actually have a name, so we just use foldr _f _z directly on the right hand side. From here we proceed as usual:

_z = id

_f x (foldr _f _z xs) =
\s' ->
let s = s' + x
in s `seq` foldr _f _z xs s

Once again notice that the foldr _f _z xs on the right hand side is just the second argument to _f, and we move the lambda to the other side, too:

_f x more s' =
let s = s' + x
in s `seq` more s

This can be written much more succinctly using the (\$!) operator:

_f x more s = more \$! s + x

And thus we’re done:

mySum :: (Num a) => [a] -> a
mySum xs =
let f x more s = more \$! s + x
in foldr f id xs 0

Example: foldl’

So what are these left folds we have been talking about? Let me just show you one way to define them:

foldl'Explicit :: (r -> a -> r) -> r -> [a] -> r
foldl'Explicit f = go
where
go s' [] = s'
go s' (x:xs) =
let s = f s' x
in s `seq` go s xs

Doesn’t that look familiar? Yeah, almost like we have written the same thing just a moment ago. Indeed, this function looks a lot like mySumExplicit, except that it abstracts over the way the state is combined with the next list element, and over the initial state. If we had defined this function earlier, we could have written mySum simply as:

mySum2 :: (Num a) => [a] -> a
mySum2 = foldl'Explicit (+) 0

But at the same time we were able to define mySum in terms of foldr just as well, except that it was slightly longer, and the similarity suggests that we should be able to write foldl' as an actual fold, too. So what if we define left folds in terms of foldl' and foldl' in terms of foldr? Let’s see if we can.

Before we start a note about the strange name: Why do we call it foldl' and not just foldl? Good question. Whimsy, I guess. Well, there is this conspiracy theory that if you ever use the name foldl in your code, an evil demon created by the secret Haskell committee will appear, rip apart your computer and eat all your RAM. Some people have reported sightings of the creature, but before they could ever take a picture, their system would crash.

Alright, enough horror stories. Once again we need to flip the inner function.

foldl'Explicit2 :: (r -> a -> r) -> r -> [a] -> r
foldl'Explicit2 f s0 xs = go xs s0
where
go [] s' = s'
go (x:xs) s' =
let s = f s' x
in s `seq` go xs s

From that we can write our template:

myFoldl' :: (r -> a -> r) -> r -> [a] -> r
myFoldl' f s0 xs = foldr _f _z xs s0

This time we won’t even bother turning everything into lambdas first. We just turn the template as is into equations, so we get an extra argument s' everywhere:

foldr _f _z [] s' = s'
foldr _f _z (x:xs) s' =
let s = f s' x
in s `seq` foldr _f _z xs s

And substitute:

_z s' = s'
_z = id

_f x (foldr _f _z xs) s' =
let s = f s' x
in s `seq` foldr _f _z xs s

And rename:

_f x more s' =
let s = f s' x
in s `seq` more s

And use (\$!):

_f x more s = more \$! f s x

And complete:

myFoldl' :: (r -> a -> r) -> r -> [a] -> r
myFoldl' f s0 xs =
let g x more s = more \$! f s x
in foldr g id xs s0

So indeed left folds are just special right folds, but they are quite handy for some stateful folds, most notably the strict ones. Examples include calculating sums (initial state 0, add every element), products (initial state 1, multiply by every element),

myProduct :: (Num a) => [a] -> a
myProduct = myFoldl' (*) 1

and the function that computes the length of the argument list (start at 0, increment state for every list element):

myLength :: [a] -> Int
myLength = myFoldl' (\s _ -> s + 1) 0

However, keep in mind that left folds are always strict in the full list, not necessarily the elements, but they will always reach the empty list case before they can answer. That’s why there aren’t too many use cases for left folds.

Example: foldl

Alright, alright, I was lying about the evil demon. There is an actual foldl function that is pretty much the same as foldl', except that it doesn’t force evaluation of the state at every step, so it builds up an expression in memory as it traverses the list:

myFoldl :: (s -> a -> s) -> s -> [a] -> s
myFoldl f s0 xs =
foldr (\x more s -> more (f s x)) id xs s0

Since an unevaluated expression usually isn’t what we would want, this function is rarely useful. The reason is that foldl still cannot produce, not even lazily, before the whole list is traversed. In fact I couldn’t think of any use cases, until I was made aware of reverse, which is indeed a really good left fold:

myReverse2 :: [a] -> [a]
myReverse2 = myFoldl (flip (:)) []

In fact this definition of reverse is far better than our last one that used (++). In general if you’re building something from the back, and there would be no benefit in forced evaluation, then foldl may be the function to use.

Exercises

Implement drop using the following template:

myDrop :: Int -> [a] -> [a]
myDrop n xs = foldr _f _z xs n

Implement a function repInc (replicate increasingly) using the template below such that it satisfies the test cases below. It should replicate the first element once, the second element twice, the third element three times, etc.

-- Template:
repInc :: [a] -> [a]
repInc xs = foldr _f _z xs 1

-- Test cases:
repInc "a"     = "a"
repInc "abc"   = "abbccc"
repInc "abcde" = "abbcccddddeeeee"

take 10 (repInc [1..]) = [1,2,2,3,3,3,4,4,4,4]

Implement (!!?) using the template below such that it satisfies the test cases below. It should return the element at the given position, if it exists.

-- Template:
(!!?) :: [a] -> Int -> Maybe a
(!!?) = foldr _f _z

-- Test cases:
"abcde" !!? 0 = Just 'a'
"abcde" !!? 2 = Just 'c'
"abcde" !!? 4 = Just 'e'
"abcde" !!? 6 = Nothing
"abcde" !!? 8 = Nothing
"abcde" !!? (-1) = Nothing

Implement dropEveryOther using the template below. It should drop every other element of the argument list.

-- Template:
dropEveryOther :: [a] -> [a]
dropEveryOther xs = foldr _f _z xs True

-- Test cases:
dropEveryOther "abcdef"  = "ace"
dropEveryOther "abcdefg" = "aceg"

take 5 (dropEveryOther [0..]) = [0,2,4,6,8]

Reverse state

Now that we have mastered the algebraic part of the story it’s time to get a more intuitive understanding. The goal is to be able to write folds directly, not by deriving them from an explicit recursive definition. This intuition will not only make us better at writing folds, but will also help us at reading them.

The state we have seen in the last section has been forward (or perhaps inward) in the sense that we started at the head of the list with an initial state and then manipulated it as we traversed the list. Then _z (which is a function in the stateful case) would receive the final state. As the name suggests reverse state is backward (or outward) in the sense that the initial state is given by _z and is manipulated in the outward direction.

Here is the enlightening part: all folds involve reverse state. In fact folds are completely about reverse state. Let’s look at a few simple examples.

The identity fold

Is there a fold that just returns the original list unchanged? In other words, are there _f and _z such that foldr _f _z = id? Let’s see:

foldr _f _z [] = id []
foldr _f _z [] = []
_z = []

foldr _f _z (x:xs) = id (x:xs)
foldr _f _z (x:xs) = x:xs
_f x (foldr _f _z xs) = x:xs
_f x (id xs) = x:xs

We’re stuck with the second equation, but in order to continue we just need to realise that xs = id xs:

_f x (id xs) = x : id xs
_f x more = x : more
_f = (:)

Indeed, there is an identity fold:

idFold :: [a] -> [a]
idFold = foldr (:) []

Now let’s step back for a moment and review what the recursive definition would have looked like:

idFoldExplicit :: [a] -> [a]
idFoldExplicit [] = []
idFoldExplicit (x:xs) = x : idFoldExplicit xs

And let me rewrite the non-empty clause slightly:

idFoldExplicit :: [a] -> [a]
idFoldExplicit [] = []
idFoldExplicit (x:xs) =
let s = idFoldExplicit xs
in x : s

Even though it’s not quite the same thing as id, because it does actually traverse the list, it’s semantically indistinguishable from id. But more interestingly there is a pattern:

• I got x : xs.
• What’s my result for xs?
• Let’s call that one s.
• Then the result for x : xs is x : s.

This is actually a stateful pattern, except that the current state is not recevied from outside and then sent to deeper recursion levels potentially modified, but rather that the current state is received from inside, from deeper recursion levels, modified (by prepending the x) and then sent outward (sending outward really just means returning). Also instead of receiving the initial state from outside, here the initial state is given by the base case for the empty list, i.e. the innermost layer of recursion. It’s reverse state, state with the propagation direction flipped.

But something is interesting about reverse state: the base case (the initial state) does not have to be reachable. Try idFold for an infinite list, and it will still work. The reason is that the (:) constructor isn’t actually strict in its second argument and therefore not strict in the initial state. If you pattern-match on idFold [1..], then the answer is 1 : idFold [2..]. In order to return the head, the previous state wasn’t even needed.

A semi-constant fold

Let’s try something:

finite :: [a] -> ()
finite = foldr (\_ s -> s) ()

What is this? Give it a list x : xs, and it will ask itself: What is my result for xs? It will call that result s. Then it will just return s unchanged. For finite lists the fold will eventually reach the end of the list, at which point it will know what the initial s is: (). Since it was never changed (remember that _f just returned the s that it received), the final result of the fold is also ().

However, for infinite lists the fold will never actually reach a point when it can know what the initial state is. What is finite [0..]?

finite [0..]
= finite (0 : [1..])
= (\_ s -> s) 0 (finite [1..])
= finite [1..]

Evidently this will keep going forever. Therefore finite isn’t actually a constant function. It will eventually return () for every finite list, but for infinite lists the result is undefined, or as we like to call it in Haskell, the result is (bottom).

A different (but equivalent) way to explain why this function never returns for infinite lists is that its _f is clearly strict in its second argument: _f x s = s, therefore _f x ⊥ = ⊥. Therefore it will depend on the recursive result, which will in turn depend on the recursive result, etc.

Example: null

Regarding the amount of traversal done by a fold the null function is in a sense the exact opposite of the finite function, because except for one edge case it will never traverse the full list.

myNull :: [a] -> Bool
myNull = foldr (\_ _ -> False) True

If you look at the way _f is defined, it’s really obvious: When this function receives x : xs, it doesn’t even ask the question what its result for xs is. It just returns False and is done. The only way this function can return True is when it receives [] right away, because every non-empty list would cause it to return False.

Here _f is obviously non-strict. But not only that, the recursive result isn’t used at all, so even if you would evaluate this fold’s result to normal form, it still wouldn’t traverse the list. There is only one case when null looks at the entire list, and that is the empty list.

Heads, tails and a digression

Usage of the predefined functions head and tail is a clear sign of boolean blindness. Let me show you an example to explain what this means:

printHeadBlind :: (Show a) => [a] -> IO ()
if null xs
then putStrLn "Empty."
else {- blind: -} print (head xs)

The boolean-blind region of this code is the else branch. We (the programmer) have established as a fact that the argument we give to head can never be the empty list, in this case by branching on null xs, but within the boolean-blind region our program forgot that fact and used the uninformed head, which in turn has to check whether the list is empty or not. The printHeadBlind function is safe, but that safety was not established by construction, but rather by us, the programmer, knowing more about the circumstances than the code itself. This is a recipe for disaster, once we have to refactor our code.

The reason this code is boolean-blind is that the null function reduces its knowledge about the shape of the list to literally a single bit of information, but in the else branch we would have needed more than that. The way to eliminate boolean-blindness thus is to preserve all the information we need. Enter safeHead:

safeHead :: [a] -> Maybe a
safeHead = foldr (\x _ -> Just x) Nothing

This function returns both the information whether the list is empty or not and the head element. Then instead of if-branching on a boolean we would maybe-branch on the result of safeHead:

printHead :: (Show a) => [a] -> IO ()
maybe (putStrLn "Empty.") print .

This function is safe by construction. It has no boolean-blind regions.

But notice what the code does: It translates the argument list to a Maybe, and then folds it using Maybe. Why don’t we just fold the list directly?

printHead2 :: (Show a) => [a] -> IO ()
foldr (\x _ -> print x)
(putStrLn "Empty.")

And that raises the question: Do we actually ever need the safeHead function? We can always just use foldr and save ourselves the trouble of converting to Maybe first, which, if you think about it, is just a list type with a maximum length of 1.

What about tail? Well, we will talk about that one in the exercises below. =)

Example: bisect

For some algorithms like merge-sort it’s useful to bisect lists. You might be thinking of breaking them apart in the middle, but that would require knowing the length. A better idea is to split lists by alternating elements (think of unzipping). Here is the type signature:

bisect :: [a] -> ([a], [a])

And here are a few test cases:

bisect []        = ([],    []   )
bisect        = (,   []   )
bisect [0,1]     = (,     )
bisect [0,1,2]   = ([0,2],   )
bisect [0,1,2,3] = ([0,2], [1,3])

bisect [0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9] =
([0,2,4,6,8], [1,3,5,7,9])

There are a few ways to do this, but of course we are interested in a way that can be expressed as a fold, which means that we can only ever look at a single list element at any step. If you’re not used to this restriction, this might actually be quite challenging, so I invite you to stop here and just try to do it on your own first.

Given an element x and more = bisect xs, what would bisect (x : xs) be? Template:

bisect :: [a] -> ([a], [a])
bisect = foldr (\x more -> _) ([], [])

Well, more is a tuple, and we would prepend x to one of its components, but which one?

bisect =
foldr (\x more ->
let (ys1, ys2) = more
in _)
([], [])

There is actually a really simple way to do it. But first let’s look at a more complicated way. In the template more is a tuple:

If we just prepend to the left component ys1, then we will always prepend to the left component recursively and ultimately leave the right component empty. Same for ys2. What we need is some kind of state that allows us to go back and forth between the two. We could just add a piece of boolean state to do that:

bisectS :: [a] -> ([a], [a])
bisectS xs =
foldr (\x more l ->
let (ys1, ys2) = more (not l)
in if l
then (x:ys1, ys2)
else (ys1, x:ys2))
(const ([], []))
xs
True

However, as noted there is a much more elegant way using reverse state: Just swap the tuples:

bisect :: [a] -> ([a], [a])
bisect =
foldr (\x more ->
let (ys1, ys2) = more
in (x:ys2, ys1))
([], [])

Nice, isn’t it? Let’s clean this up a bit:

bisect' :: [a] -> ([a], [a])
bisect' =
foldr (\x (ys1, ys2) -> (x:ys2, ys1))
([], [])

Even nicer!

But I called this one bisect', and you might be wondering why. Well, it’s not the same function as bisect! There is a very subtle difference that could be overlooked easily: this one is strict in the tuple that we used to call more, which means that it insists on reaching the base case before the component lists are defined.

Patterns bound by a lambda are strict by default in Haskell, but patterns bound by let are not. That’s why bisect works on infinite lists, but bisect' doesn’t. Even for finite lists bisect' now shows terrible memory behaviour, because as it waits for the base case to be reached it builds up an expression in memory.

The way to fix it is to use a lazy (a.k.a. irrefutable) pattern:

bisect2 :: [a] -> ([a], [a])
bisect2 =
foldr (\x ~(ys1, ys2) -> (x:ys2, ys1))
([], [])

This one is actually equivalent to bisect.

TODO

Exercise solutions

Assuming that you are reading this visually and use a somewhat modern browser the solutions are initially invisible, and you need to hover with your pointing device over them to see them. That way you can view individual solutions without spoiling the rest.

myMaybeToList:

myMaybeToList :: Maybe a -> [a]
myMaybeToList = maybe [] (: [])

Derivation:

myMaybeToList = maybe _n _j

maybe _n _j Nothing = []
_n = []

maybe _n _j (Just x) = x : []
_j x = x : []
_j = (: [])

mApply:

mApply :: b -> Maybe (a -> b) -> a -> b
mApply defY mf x = maybe defY (\$ x) mf

Derivation:

mApply _n _j Nothing = defY
_n = defY

mApply _n _j (Just f) = f x
_j f = f x
_j f = f \$ x
_j = (\$ x)

myMap:

myMap :: (a -> b) -> [a] -> [b]
myMap f = foldr (\x ys -> f x : ys) []

Derivation:

foldr _f _z [] = []
_z = []

foldr _f _z (x:xs) = f x : myMap f xs
_f x (foldr _f _z xs) = f x : myMap f xs
_f x (myMap f xs) = f x : myMap f xs
_f x ys = f x : ys

myConcatMap:

myConcatMap :: (a -> [b]) -> [a] -> [b]
myConcatMap f = foldr (\x ys -> f x ++ ys) []

Derivation:

foldr _f _z [] = []
_z = []

foldr _f _z (x:xs) = f x ++ myConcatMap f xs
_f x (foldr _f _z xs) = f x ++ myConcatMap f xs
_f x (myConcatMap f xs) = f x ++ myConcatMap f xs
_f x ys = f x ++ ys

myFilter:

myFilter :: (a -> Bool) -> [a] -> [a]
myFilter p =
foldr (\x ys -> if p x then x : ys else ys) []

Derivation:

foldr _f _z [] = []
_z = []

foldr _f _z (x:xs) = if p x then x : myFilter p xs else myFilter p xs
_f x (foldr _f _z xs) = if p x then x : myFilter p xs else myFilter p xs
_f x (myFilter p xs) = if p x then x : myFilter p xs else myFilter p xs
_f x ys = if p x then x : ys else ys

myDrop:

myDrop :: Int -> [a] -> [a]
myDrop n xs = foldr f (const []) xs n
where
f x more n =
if n <= 0
then x : more 0
else more (n - 1)

Derivation:

foldr _f _z [] n = []
_z n = []
_z = const []

foldr _f _z (x:xs) n =
if n <= 0
then x : xs
else foldr _f _z xs (n - 1)

_f x (foldr _f _z xs) n =
if n <= 0
then x : xs  -- xs is not in scope, but ...
else foldr _f _z xs (n - 1)

_f x (foldr _f _z xs) n =
if n <= 0
then x : myDrop 0 xs  -- xs = myDrop 0 xs
else foldr _f _z xs (n - 1)

_f x (foldr _f _z xs) n =
if n <= 0
then x : foldr _f _z xs 0
else foldr _f _z xs (n - 1)

_f x more n =
if n <= 0
then x : more 0
else more (n - 1)

repInc:

repInc :: [a] -> [a]
repInc xs = foldr f (const []) xs 1
where
f x more n = replicate n x ++ more (n + 1)

Derivation:

foldr _f _z [] n = []
_z n = []
_z = const []

foldr _f _z (x:xs) n = replicate n x ++ foldr _f _z xs (n + 1)
_f x (foldr _f _z xs) n = replicate n x ++ foldr _f _z xs (n + 1)
_f x more n = replicate n x ++ more (n + 1)

(!!?):

(!!?) :: [a] -> Int -> Maybe a
(!!?) = foldr f (const Nothing)
where
f x _    0 = Just x
f _ more n = more (n - 1)

Derivation method 1:

foldr _f _z [] n = Nothing
_z n = Nothing
_z = const Nothing

foldr _f _z (x:xs) n =
if n == 0 then Just x else xs !!? (n - 1)

_f x (foldr _f _z xs) n =
if n == 0 then Just x else xs !!? (n - 1)

_f x (foldr _f _z xs) n =
if n == 0 then Just x else foldr _f _z xs (n - 1)

_f x more n =
if n == 0 then Just x else more (n - 1)

Derivation method 2:

foldr _f _z [] n = Nothing
_z n = Nothing
_z = const Nothing

foldr _f _z (x:xs) 0 = Just x
_f x (foldr _f _z xs) 0 = Just x
_f x _ 0 = Just x

foldr _f _z (x:xs) n | n /= 0 = xs !!? (n - 1)
_f x (foldr _f _z xs) n | n /= 0 = xs !!? (n - 1)
_f x (foldr _f _z xs) n | n /= 0 = foldr _f _z xs (n - 1)
_f x more n | n /= 0 = more (n - 1)

dropEveryOther:

dropEveryOther :: [a] -> [a]
dropEveryOther xs = foldr f (const []) xs True
where
f _ more False = more True
f x more True  = x : more False

Derivation method 1:

foldr _f _z [] b = []
_z b = []
_z = const []

foldr _f _z (x:xs) b =
if b
then x : foldr _f _z xs False
else foldr _f _z xs True
_f x (foldr _f _z xs) b =
if b
then x : foldr _f _z xs False
else foldr _f _z xs True
_f x more b =
if b
then x : more False
else more True

Derivation method 2:

foldr _f _z [] b = []
_z b = []
_z = const []

foldr _f _z (x:xs) False = foldr _f _z xs True
_f x (foldr _f _z xs) False = foldr _f _z xs True
_f x more False = more True

foldr _f _z (x:xs) True = x : foldr _f _z xs False
_f x (foldr _f _z xs) True = x : foldr _f _z xs False
_f x more True = x : more False