Point-Free or Die, Part 2: Wholemeal Programming

Posted on August 28, 2016

This is the second post in a series about tacit programming and point-free syntax in Haskell and other languages. Be sure to check out Part 1!

We left off in Part 1 having built three functions: lengths, sum, and totalNumber. Here are their point-free definitions:

lengths :: Foldable t => [t a] -> [Int]
lengths = map length

sum :: (Num a, Foldable t) => t a -> a
sum = foldr (+) 0

totalNumber :: Foldable t => [t a] -> Int
totalNumber = sum . lengths

Notes on types:

  1. lengths returns a list of Int.
  2. Int is a numeric type, because it implements the Num typeclass.
  3. Lists are Foldable containers.
  4. lengths returns [Int], a foldable container of values of a numeric type.
  5. sum receives a foldable container of values of a numeric type.
  6. Therefore, sum can receive the output of lengths.


  1. totalNumber receives the same type of input as lengths.
  2. totalNumber returns an Int, which is a type that sum can return.

All of this is exactly as it should be, since totalNumber is a composition of sum and lengths. Composition, that little dot, is a function, too:

(.) :: (b -> c) -> (a -> b) -> a -> c
(.) = \f g x -> f (g x)

The . operator is a combinator, a lambda expression that references no variables other than its own arguments. You can imagine that . takes two functions and lines them up in a pipe that goes from right to left.

totalNumber is a pipe that transforms a list of foldable containers into a single integer. When we describe it as a composition, we don’t have to explicitly walk through each “phase” of the transformation. We can be tacit about all that.

In my mind, there are a couple of problems with totalNumber:

First, sum . lengths is self-explanatory: it’s the sum of lengths. Renaming it to totalNumber doesn’t add much value. I could just opt to use the whole expression whenever I need a sum of lengths. And that could make for clearer code, since there would be no need to look up the definition of totalNumber.

Second, totalNumber is oddly specific. If our data is a list of containers, the total number of items is just one of many ways to summarize it.

It would be great if we knew something more general about the many ways to summarize a list of containers of items. Then we could derive more specific transformations, like totalNumber, as we needed them.

For instance, we could have functions like these

Wholemeal Programming

Something I love about functional programming is that it encourages you to think about how problems can be generalized. This directly contradicts my experiences with object-oriented programming, where YAGNI–You Ain’t Gonna Need It–is a watchword.

Many times, I’ve ripped out Ruby code that was prematurely generalized to handle never-used cases that complicated the implementation. With pure functions, immutable data, and Hindley-Milner parametric polymorphism, Haskell can provide general solutions that are often no more complicated than a specialized solution. Instead of tailoring your code to fit all the circumstances you can imagine, you broaden it so that it can always operate wherever the essential circumstance appears.

This is called wholemeal programming. Ralf Hinze writes:

Wholemeal programming means to think big: work with an entire list, rather than a sequence of elements; develop a solution space, rather than an individual solution; imagine a graph, rather than a single path. The wholemeal approach often offers new insights or provides new perspectives on a given problem. It is nicely complemented by the idea of projective programming: first solve a more general problem, then extract the interesting bits and pieces by transforming the general program into more specialised ones.

Let’s return to our overly specialized function, totalNumber. What’s the general problem we’re trying to solve? Considering the potential uses we brainstormed for a generalized “adding-up” function, perhaps we could put it this way:

We want to add up some metric derived from each container’s items.

In the case of totalNumber, that metric is the length. Therefore, we can replace our old definition,

totalNumber = sum . lengths

which we could have written,

totalNumber = sum . map length

with a new one:

totalNumber = aggregate length
        where aggregate f = sum . map f

aggregate abstracts the idea of measuring each container and adding up the results. To use it elsewhere, let’s promote its scope. It’s good practice to write out its type as well.

aggregate :: Num c => (a -> c) -> [a] -> c
aggregate f = sum . map f

And we might say:

aggregate is a composition of sum with a mapping of some function f.

We’re calling the argument f to indicate that it’s a function. As you can see, f has the type a -> c. It receives a value of type a and returns a value of c, a numeric type.

aggregate receives a function of type a -> c and then a list of a, returning a single numeric c.

Whereas totalNumber only understands length, aggregate is generalized to work with any metric!

Projective Programming

We have a general solution. Let’s project it onto a specialized problem:

the sum of the maximum values in each container

Haskell’s Prelude gives us maximum:

Prelude> :t maximum
maximum :: (Ord a, Foldable t) => t a -> a
Prelude> maximum [4,6,9,2,-3,2,0]

so how should we get the sum of maximum values of sublists in this list:

totalMax [[6,-1,3], [-2,-1,-4], [1,1,1], [9,10,11]]

You guessed it. We’ll use aggregate:

totalMax :: (Num c, Ord c, Foldable t) => [t c] -> c
totalMax = aggregate maximum

And yes, that’s a point-free definition. What does totalMax do?

totalMax aggregates maximum.

But we can also write totalMax in a point-ful way:

totalMax cs = aggregate maximum cs

That is, we can write it in a way that communicates at a lower level:

totalMax takes a list of containers and outputs the sum of their max values

One Last Look

Earlier, I said that aggregate receives two inputs: a function that measures a container, and also a list of containers. But in our definition, we didn’t mention the second input. Our definition isn’t point-free or point-ful–it’s somewhere in between:

aggregate :: Num c => (a -> c) -> [a] -> c
aggregate f = sum . map f

The first input, the measuring function f, is explicitly mentioned. The other input, the list of containers, is tacitly left out.

What would the same definition look like if both inputs were made explicit? Let’s apply some eta-abstraction, the opposite of eta-reduction to find out:

aggregate f = \cs -> (sum . map f) cs

That looks a bit complicated, so let’s simplify a bit:

aggregate f = \cs -> sum ((map f) cs)
aggregate f = \cs -> sum (map f cs)
aggregate f cs = sum (map f cs)

Or, if we want to use $:

aggregate f cs = sum $ map f cs

What’s that say, in plain English?

aggregate receives a function and a list of containers, maps that function over the containers, and returns the result of adding up the outputs.

We have a point-ful definition of aggregate. Could we have a point-free one too? Let’s eta-reduce!

aggregate f = sum . map f
aggregate f = (.) sum (map f)
aggregate f = (.) sum $ map f
aggregate f = (.) sum . map $ f
aggregate = \f -> (.) sum . map $ f
aggregate = (.) sum . map
aggregate = (sum .) . map

Well, that’s clear enough! How do we even read (sum .) . map?

aggregate is somehow a combination of sum and map. We don’t have the words just yet to describe the nature of that combination, but let’s have a closer look.

We can define a combinator to represent the abstraction (f .) . g:

oo :: (c -> d) -> (a -> b -> c) -> a -> b -> d
oo = \f g -> (f .) . g

With Haskell’s infix backticks, we can write:

aggregate = sum `oo` map

But what is this oo? Let’s eta-abstract:

oo = \f g -> (f .) . g
oo = \f g x -> (f .) . g $ x
oo = \f g x -> (f .) $ g x
oo = \f g x -> (f .) g x
oo = \f g x -> f . g x
oo = \f g x y -> f . g x $ y
oo = \f g x y -> f $ g x y

or, if you prefer:

oo = \f g x y -> f (g x y)

In other words, oo is another kind of pipe: in its first phase it applies a function to two inputs and produces a single output; in the second phase, it applies that output to another function and returns the final result.

The oo combinator is ubiquitous. We use it all the time in expressions like this:

concatMap = (concat .) . map
mapM      = (sequence .) . map

We might as well get comfy with (f .) . g, and to that end there’s a pretty good explanation here.

But I’m very excited because Today I Learned that oo already has a much nicer name. It’s a blackbird, so named by logician Raymond Smullyan in his classic puzzle book, To Mock a Mockingbird:

Smullyan’s exposition takes the form of an imaginary account of going into a forest and discussing the unusual “birds” they find there. Each species of bird in Smullyan’s forest stands for a particular kind of combinator appearing in the conventional treatment of combinatory logic.

So, there:

aggregate is a blackbird of sum and map.

Doesn’t that just fill your heart with song? :D