Polysemy Internals: Freer Interpretations of Higher-Order Effects

polysemy, internals, haskell, technical

aka “what the hell is that Yo type?”

This is the first post in a series of implementation details in polysemy — a fast, powerful and low-boilerplate effect-system library.

Even if you’re not particularly interested in polysemy, there are some functional pearls here — and a crash course on the history on the implementations of free monads in Haskell.


Critics of free monads often make the claim that higher-order effects aren’t possible. This has historically been true, but Wu, Schrijvers and Hinze’s paper Effect Handlers in Scope gives a technique for lifting the restriction. Today I want to illustrate the problem, discuss Wu et al.’s solution, and then show what changes polysemy makes to remove the boilerplate. In the process, we’ll look at finding free constructions for tricky typeclasses.

The Problem

Let’s consider the Error e effect, in which we’d like to be able to throw errors of type e, and catch any errors thrown within a specific block of code. You’re already familiar with this concept, in transformers it’s called ExceptT e, and in mtl, MonadError e. A typical usage of this effect might be:

We would expect foo to be pure False whenever someBool is False; and vice versa. The idea is that a throw should short-circuit the rest of the computation, until it reaches the end of a catch statement. This is the basis of every exception system of all time, so we won’t belabor the example any further.

Given some appropriate m, we’d like to model this problem with the following interface:

In first-order effect systems such as freer-simple, our effects have kind * -> *. With such a kind, we can easily model throw, but it’s less clear how to model catch:

We simply don’t have an m available to us in order to write something equivalent to m a -> (e -> m a) -> m a. There are a few unsatisfactory solutions here — you can either choose a concrete m and bake it in (which defeats the entire purpose of effect systems), or you can attempt to encode m somewhere inside of the Error e part. Neither is fruitful.

freer-simple actually takes a pretty clever approach to this problem. Instead of modeling catch in the Error e effect, it just provides catch as a function:

And what do you know, this solution actually works pretty well. It accurately captures the semantics of catch for ExceptT. Success! For most people, most of the time, this implementation of catch is perfectly fine.

But let’s consider an interpretation of Error e which isn’t completely analogous to ExceptT. After all, the whole point of effect-systems is to be able to arbitrarily reinterpret the meaning of your programs. So let’s pretend that we’re writing an interpretation of the system which wants to audit the happy code path. As a result, we’d like to log whether or not we successfully got to the end of a catch block.

In essence, we’d like to replace every call to catch ma f with:

meaning logSuccessfulExit will be called if and only if ma didn’t contain a throw statement.

Unfortunately, the clever encoding of catch as a separate function outside of Effect e means that this interpretation of catch is impossible. The problem is fundamentally that by virtue of being outside the effect, catch must choose its own interpretation of catching effects, and you’re out of luck if its choice isn’t what you want.

This is a bit of a contrived example, but it shows up every time you want to embed a computation; such as doing callbacks, coroutines, asynchronous work, or resource bracketing. It’s a big class of problems that quickly become untenable in the first-order world.

Effect Handlers in Scope

Wu et al. give us a real solution for the problem above. Instead of modeling our effects with kind * -> *, we give them a kind (* -> *) -> * -> *. This extra (* -> *) is enough to hold a monad in. As such, Error e is now modeled as:

This extra m parameter lets us write Catch as a constructor, meaning it is now part of the effect algebra. By writing clever constructors, we can force m to be the effect stack we’re running in:

which nicely ties the recursive knot.

This change is pretty straightforward, and has probably occurred to most people who’ve spent any time playing around with the internals of first-order free monads. However, here is where the first problem sets in.

Effect systems model interpretations of effects as functions. For example, lets’ assume we have a State s effect to play with. We can give an interpretation of it with the type:

In the first-order world, you can just have runState walk through every action in Eff, and handle the State s ones. In the higher-order world, however, we also need to run runState on all of the embedded computations (like Catch) as well — and then somehow merge the resulting side states back into the main thread.

Recall above that we tied the recursive knot on catch, so that the m in Error e m was always equal to the actual Eff monad its being run in. By calling runState, we’re promising that that m is of the form Eff (State s ': r). But now we’re eliminating the State s effect, and we want to maintain the invariant that m is the same monad. Which means, we need to somehow use runState to eliminate the State s inside of Catch.

It makes my head spin, too. English is not particularly good at describing these kinds of things, so pay attention to the types here:

  1. We called catch :: Eff r a -> (e -> Eff r0 a) -> Eff r0 a somewhere in our application code
  2. We then interpret the application via runState :: s -> Eff (State s ': r1) a -> Eff r1 (s, a)
  3. As such, we learn that r0 ~ (State s ': r1)
  4. After calling runState, we are left only with r1 in our effect stack.
  5. But catch still contains r0. We need to transform it into r1 to maintain our invariant that the computations embedded inside catch are in same monad as the call to catch.

Doing such a thing is going to require a function:

which for reasons that will become clearer later, we will uncurry into:

The implementation of this function is guided by the types, and looks like this:

Such an example is helpful for building intuition, but is completely infeasible in the real world. Not only do we need one of these functions for every effect inside of our stack, but we also need one for every interpretation of every effect in our stack! This is O(m*n) functions in the number of effects and interpretations we have.

The insight of Wu et al. is that we can get this down to O(n) — one function analogous to call'runState'InsideError for each effect. Let’s go through the derivation together.

The first thing to notice is that we don’t need to hard-code runState in call'runState'InsideError'. It’s fine to just pass it in as a parameter:

Note that the elimState function must be rank-2 so that we can use it on every instance of Catch — there’s no guarantee that they’ll all be called to produce the same type.

The next step is to notice that there’s a homomorphism here; we transforming a (s, m a) into m' (s, a), by somehow pushing the (,) s bit through the monad. We can make that a little more clear by explicitly factoring it out:

This type is identical to before, we’ve just renamed (,) s to f. Let’s do the same renaming trick on Eff (State s ': r):

and then again on Eff r:

As it stands, our current implementation of elimStateInsideError will actually work for any m and n; so we can just get rid of those renames:

Let’s now undo our uncurrying of our s -> Error m a -> ... as (s, Error m a) -> .... But since we’ve renamed s away, we’re not allowed to reference it anymore. Instead, we can use f (), aka (s, ()), which you’ll notice is isomorphic to s.

As one last step, we can rewrite the explicit destructuring of the f () parameter using its functor instance. Given the ice-cream cone function (<$) :: Functor f => a -> f b -> f a, which replaces the contents of a functor, we can rewrite elimEffectInsideError as follows:

and in doing so, are now fully functor-agnostic, so we can get rid of the f-renaming now:

That was a lot of work! But we’ve bought ourselves a huge amount with this. Now elimEffectInsideError is general enough that it supports eliminating any effect inside of Error. The last step is to wrap this thing up into a typeclass, which Wu et al. call weave:

Don’t worry about the extra mentions of Functor in this definition; they’re there for reasons we don’t care about today.

By giving an instance of Effect for e, we can now thread any other effects through e. If we give an instance of Effect for every effect, we get higher-order effects that can be run through one another in any order. Happy days!

This weave transformation is the major contribution of Effect Handlers in Scope. And while it does indeed solve the problem of higher-order effects, such a thing brings with it a lot of boilerplate; we need to write an instance of Effect for each of our effects, which is non-trivial and can’t be automated via today’s support for generics.

Free Effects

Back in the bad old days of free, we would have had to model the first-order version of Error e above (the one that just has Throw) as follows:

while State s would look like this:

It’s gross, and you’d need to give Functor instances for both. AND you can’t even derive Functor for Error e due to the existential.

The specifics here aren’t very important, but the point is that this was a bunch of boilerplate that got in the way of doing any work. The main contribution of Kiselyov and Ishii’s paper Freer Monads, More Extensible Effects is that we can use a free functor to automate away this boilerplate. The result is what puts the “simple” in freer-simple1.

The free functor is called Coyoneda2, and it looks like this:

As you can see, Coyoneda f is a Functor, even when f itself isn’t. Coyoneda just accumulates all of the fmaps you wanted to do, and you can choose later what to do with the resulting function.

This got me to thinking. Maybe there’s a free Effect that can likewise accumulate all of the weaveing we’d like to do, so that library users don’t need to write those instances themselves.

The “trick” to making a free construction is to just make a datatype that stores each parameter to the characteristic function. In the Functor example, you’ll notice a similarity between the types of (flipped) fmap and Coyoneda:

So let’s do the same thing, for weave, and construct an equivalent datatype. Recall the type of weave:

As a first attempt, let’s just turn this thing into a GADT and see what happens. I called it Yo a little because it’s sorta like Coyoneda, but mostly because naming things is hard.

While this looks right, it turns out to be a no-go. We can’t actually give an instance of Effect for Yo e. We can get close, by realizing that the composition of any two functors is also a functor (given via the Compose newtype). With that in mind, it’s just a little work to make all of the types line up:

Unfortunately, this definition doesn’t quite work. The problem is that weave s elim is supposed to result in a e m a -> e n (f a), but ours has type e m (g a) -> e n (Compose f g a)! By hard-coding that f into the result of our GADT, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner. Similar problems would crop up if we wanted to give a Functor instance to Yo e m.

As is so often the case in this line of work, the solution is to make f existential, and to take another function which is responsible for producing the desired type. We add a (f a -> b) parameter to Yo, and make it return Yo e n b:

We can now call getCompose in this last function — in order to undo our trick of packing the two pieces of state together.

Giving an instance of Functor (Yo e m) can also riff on this final parameter, exactly in the same way that Coyoneda did:

(The real implementation also needs hoist :: (forall x. m x -> n x) -> e m a -> e n a, which turns out to be a special case of weave. This is left as an exercise for the ambitious reader.)

All that’s left is be able to lift e m as into Yo e m as. In every free construction I’ve ever seen, this operation is to just fill all of your parameters with identity — and this case is no different!

We’re done! This funny Yo construction is powerful enough to coalesce entire chains of effect interpreters into a single call. We haven’t done anything magical here — someone still needs to figure out what these functions actually mean for their interpretation. By collecting it all into a single place, we can cut down on boilerplate and find easier ways to express these concepts to the end-user.

But that’s a tale for another time, when we talk about polysemy’s Tactics machinery.


  1. Plus, it provides better combinators and more helpful error messages.

  2. For further discussion of Coyoneda and how it can help performance, perhaps you might be interested in my book.

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