Thing I Learned Today: Foldable

by Brian Shourd on January 15, 2013

Tags: coding, haskell

It’s high time I explored this Foldable typeclass in Haskell. It’s a typeclass for data structures that can be folded up, compressed down to a single value in a meaningful way. Start with a data type constructor t, of kind * -> *. The same kind of constructor required to be a Functor or Monad. Then we have the typeclass Foldable, with methods

class Foldable t where
    fold :: Monoid m => t m -> m
    foldMap :: Monoid m => (a -> m) -> t a -> m
    foldr :: (a -> b -> b) -> b -> t a -> b
    foldr' :: (a -> b -> b) -> b -> t a -> b
    foldl :: (a -> b -> a) -> a -> t b -
    foldl' :: (a -> b -> a) -> a -> t b -> a
    foldr1 :: (a -> a -> a) -> t a -> a
    foldl1 :: (a -> a -> a) -> t a -> a

That’s a lot of methods! What do we need to define in order to create a minimum definition?

Only foldMap or foldr.

Really? That seems pretty amazing. In fact, it seems pretty astounding that we can get either of foldMap or foldr from the other. Let’s see how it’s done, then.

foldMap :: Monoid m => (a -> m) -> t a -> m
foldMap f = foldr (mappend . f) mempty

Ok, so if foldr is defined, then we can use the monoid structure of m to create foldMap. Let’s look at an example: if t is the type [] and m is also [], then foldMap becomes

foldMap f = foldr ((++) . f) []


foldMap f [1,2,3,4] = foldr ((++) . f) [] [1,2,3,4]
                    = (f 1) ++ (f 2) ++ (f 3) ++ (f 4)
                    = concat [f 1, f 2, f 3, f 4]
                    = concat $ map f $ [1,2,3,4]
                    = concatMap f [1,2,3,4]

Ok, then, I see. But how is foldr defined in terms of foldMap, then?

foldr :: (a -> b -> b) -> b -> t a -> b
foldr f z t = appEndo (foldMap (Endo . f) t) z

What is this Endo?

newtype Endo a = Endo { appEndo :: a -> a }
instance Monoid (Endo a) where
    mempty = Endo id
    (Endo f) `mappend` (Endo g) = Endo (f . g)

It’s just a type encoding the fact that endomorphisms create a monoid under composition of functions. That means that Endo . f is of type a -> Endo b. This actually makes great sense - when we foldr, we use the function f :: a -> (b -> b) to transform all of the objects in t a to endomorphisms, then compose them according to foldMap and apply them to the argument given.

Let’s get a bit more specific. The source for Data.Foldable includes instances for both Foldable Maybe and Foldable [].

instance Foldable Maybe where
    foldr _ z Nothing = z
    foldr f z (Just x) = f x z

    foldl _ z Nothing = z
    foldl f z (Just x) = f z x

This is pretty straightforward. We define foldr so that Nothing always becomes the identity map, and then is applied to z. If we don’t have Nothing, then we have Just x, so we get f x z. We also define foldl, presumably for speed, since it does exactly the same thing, only with a different argument order.

What, then, does foldMap do when our type is Maybe? Let’s try some examples:

foldMap :: Monoid m => (a -> m) -> t a -> m
foldMap f = foldr (mappend . f) mempty

foldMap f Nothing  = foldr (mappend . f) mempty Nothing
                   = mempty
foldMap f (Just x) = foldr (mappend . f) mempty (Just x)
                   = mappend . f x $ mempty
                   = (f x) `mappend` mempty
                   = f x

With lists, we are familiar with how foldr works, but let’s look at the implementation.

Instance Foldable [] where
    foldr k z = go
            go []     = z
            go (y:ys) = y `k` go ys

This is (apparently) a common idiom in Haskell, using a function called go to encapsulate the recursion.

Then foldMap on lists becomes

foldMap f (x:xs) = foldr (mappend . f) mempty (x:xs)
                 = (mappend . f) x (foldr (mappend . f) mempty xs
                 = (f x) `mappend` foldMap f xs

We apply f to every element of the list, and mappend the results together. We could use this to, e.g. get the nth approximation of the power series of \(e^x = \sum_{i=0}^{\infty} \frac{x^n}{n!}\).

import Data.Monoid 
import Data.Foldable

pSeries :: Double -> Int -> Double
pSeries x k = getSum $ foldMap f [0..k] where
    f n = Sum (x^n / (fromIntegral $ Prelude.product [2..n]))

ghci> pSeries 0.5 10
ghci> exp 0.5

We could probably use it for something a lot less superficial, too.

That’s a quick look at the Foldable type for today. I’ll have to take a look at the rest of the functions in Data.Foldable another day.