Polysemy Internals: The Effect-Interpreter Effect

polysemy, internals, haskell, technical

aka “what the hell is that Tactics stuff?”

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

In the last post we discussed the Yo type, which accumulates weaving functions of the form Functor f => f () -> (∀ x. f (m x) -> n (f x)) -> e m a -> e n (f a). As a quick reminder, the f functor corresponds to some piece of (possibly trivial) state, and the ∀ x. f (m x) -> n (f x) is a distribution function, roughly analogous to a function like runStateT.

Where our story left off, we had accumulated all of our desired weaves into Yo, but hadn’t yet used them for anything. The developer experience around Yo is fraught with peril, and even as the guy who implemented it, I’m often stymied about how to get all the types to line up. Such a detail is not the sort of thing you can expose in a library that you expect people to actually use.

At the types Yo usually gets instantiated, it looks something like Yo (State s) (Sem r) Int. Which looks easy enough, until you realize that packed inside of this thing is an existential m (which was originally a Sem r0 for some unknown effect row r0), and an existential functor f which is all of the initial state we’re carrying around from other effects who have already run.

Yo is the free Effect, which means that like all free structures, it provides dependency injection so you can later decide what that Effect means. It’s not a magic bullet — you still need to actually write code somewhere. Somebody needs to actually use that f () and ∀ x. f (m x) -> n (f x) to actually do something!

As a first attempt, let’s see what happens if we just expose them in the interpretation API. We’ll write a quick interpret function which can handle an effect e m x by producing a Sem r (f x). The implementation is given below. Don’t worry too much about its body; but pay attention to just how gruesome the type is.

For example, we can use it to implement an interpretation of the Reader effect:

Because Ask doesn’t have any embedded computations, it doesn’t need to do anything fancy. It can just ice-cream cone to put i inside of the state it was given, and return that. But Local is a more complicated beast! It must ice-cream cone its ma computation into the state, and then distrib that thing into a Sem (Reader i '; r), and then run the Reader effect off of that!

It’s not the end of the world, but it’s a nontrivial amount of boilerplate that needs to be duplicated for every interpreter. Combined with the terrifying types, this feels like a no-go.

Let’s look at an interpretation for the Resource effect (which gives bracket semantics.) Resource is more complicated than Reader, and this complexity serves to illustrate some common patterns that come up and up again when writing interpreters.

The bracket function allocates some resource of type a, provides it to the use block for some computation, and ensures that it will be cleaned up via finalize — even if the use block crashed.

There are a few subtleties in the type instantiation here. In the comment marked -- 1, we run distrib on our m a parameter, which transforms it into an Sem (Resource ': r) (f a). Note that we’ve introduced an f here! This in turn unifies our finalize and use types as f a -> m b and f a -> m c, respectively. Because we later need to distribute to turn those ms into Sem (Resource ': r)s, we also introduce fs into b and c.

In essence, we end up with functions alloc :: Sem (Resource ': r) (f a), finalize :: f a -> Sem (Resource ': r) (f b) and use :: f a -> Sem (Resource ': r) (f c). This threading of f evident in the types corresponds directly to the fact that we need to keep track of other people’s state. As we’ll see in a future post, is indicative of a huge problem with the naive semantics we’ve given to Resource here.

Anyway, looking at runReader and runResource, we see two particular patterns emerge in our interpreters:

  1. distrib $ ma <$ state for the case of an m a argument
  2. \fa -> distrib $ fmap mb fa for the case of an a -> m b argument

The insight here is that maybe we can just make these combinators a part of the interpret interface directly, rather than have people write them by hand for each interpreter. It doesn’t help the horrifying types:

But it sure as heck improves the ergonomics:

Much nicer! If only we could do something about those gnarly types, we’d be in business!

The last conceptual step here is to realize that the start :: ∀ y. m y -> Sem (e ': r) (f y) and continue :: ∀ y z. (y -> m z) -> f y -> Sem (e ': r) (f z) parameters are static. That means we could stick them into a reader monad — or perhaps more mind-crushingly, an effect.

And so, we can provide the two following primitive actions in our Tactics effect, and then derive start and continue from them:

This thing is a mess of type parameters, but f is exactly what you’d expect. The n corresponds to what m used to be (it’s standard operating procedure in polysemy to use m as the name of the second-last type argument.) And we introduce r which corresponds to the effect row that we’re trying to interpret.

Interpreters for effect actions e m end up running with the ∀ f. Functor f => WithTactics e f m r effect row. This thing gives us access to a Tactics capable of producing Sem (e ': r)s, but doesn’t itself have access to e effects.

Finally, we use a type synonym to hide most of the nasty details.

Given an appropriate runTactics interpreter:

We can finally implement interpret:

We’ve hid all of the nasty type inside of that Tactical synonym (which admittedly is still gross, but at least it’s not rank 3.) And we’ve create an effect interpreter effect in which we can put any combinators people will need for writing interpreters.

After renaming start to runT and continue to bindT for branding purposes, runResource ends up in its final form:

I’m unable to properly express the amount of joy I get in using a library to implement core features in itself. The result is one of the most mind-crushingly meta things I’ve ever written, but it elegantly solves a real problem — so why not?

In the next post in this series, we’ll discuss the semantics behind the order in which you interpret effects, and how this can get you into trouble with things like runResource. Stay tuned.