Thursday, December 11, 2008

mapM, mapM_ and monadic statements

In my last post on F# I mentioned that do mapM f xs; return 1 caused a space leak, and that the programmer should have written mapM_. I also proposed that monadic statements should work more like in F# where non-unit return values can't be ignored. Various people seemed to misunderstand both points, so I thought I'd elaborate.

mapM as a Space Leak

First, I should clarify what I understand as a space leak. A space leak is not a memory leak in the C sense. A space leak is when a computation retains more live memory than necessary for some period of time. One sign of a possible space leak is that lots of memory is retained by garbage collection.

Comparing mapM and mapM_ on the following program:

main = do
mapM* putChar (replicate 10000 'a')
return ()

The mapM_ variant has a maximum heap residency of 2Kb, while the mapM variant has 226Kb. Given an input list of length n, the residency of mapM_ is O(1), while mapM is O(n).

The exact reasons for the space leak are quite detailed, and I'm not going to attempt to cover them. My intuition is that the return list is wrapped in the IO monad, and therefore can't be deallocated until the IO action finishes. In summary, unless you are going to use the end result of a monadic map, always use mapM_.

Monadic Statements

In the above example it would be nice if the compiler had complained. You generated a value, but you didn't use it. Fortunately, it is a very easy fix - change the type of monadic bind (>>) :: Monad m => m a -> m b -> b to Monad m => m () -> m b -> m b. Now, if a monadic statement generates a value that isn't (), you get a type error. The above examples with mapM would be rejected by the type checker.

But what if we really wanted to call mapM? There are two options. The first is to bind the result, for example do _ <- mapM f xs; return 1. The second option, which F# favours, is do ignore $ mapM f xs ; return 1, with the auxiliary ignore :: Monad m => m a -> m (). I prefer the second option, as it clearly states that you want to ignore the result of a computation. You could even write a rule ignore . mapM f == mapM_ f.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

F# from a Haskell perspective

I've recently started a full-time job at Standard Chartered. Before that I was doing an internship with Credit Suisse, where I spent a reasonable amount of time doing F# programming. Before I started F# I had 6 years of Haskell experience, plenty of C# experience, but little exposure to ML. I've now had 3 months to experiment with F#, using an old version (the one before the latest Community Technology Preview) and here are my impressions.

F# is a functional language from Microsoft, previously a Microsoft Research language, which is moving towards a fully supported language. F# is based on ML, and some (perhaps many) ML programs will compile with F#. At the same time, F# has complete access to the .NET framework and can interoperate with languages such as C#. F# is a hybrid language - at one extreme you can write purely functional ML, and at the other extreme you can write imperative C#, just using a different syntax. F# seems to be designed as a practical language - it isn't elegant or small, but does interoperate very nicely with every .NET feature.

The Language

The F# language is based on ML, with the addition of indentation based layout, and many of the weaknesses in F# come from ML. F# is certainly more verbose than Haskell: in some places you need an extra keyword (often a let); pattern matching is not nearly as complete; the indentation isn't as natural as Haskell. However there are some nice syntactic features in F# that are not in Haskell, including generalised list/array/sequence comprehensions and active patterns.

The type checker in F# is powerful, but unpredictable. I often get surprised by where type annotations need to go, particularly when working with .NET object types. The tuple type is treated specially in many cases, and this also leads to surprise - inserting or removing a pair of brackets can effect the type checker. Much of this complexity is necessary to manage the interaction with .NET, but it does complicate the language. Unfortunately, even with the advanced type features in F#, there are no type classes. The lack of type classes precludes the standard implementation of things such as Uniplate and QuickCheck. However, F# does have some nice reflection capabilities, and often entirely generic implementations can be given using reflection. There is certainly an interesting design trade-off between reflection based operations and type classes, something I have looked at in the past and hope to explore again in future.

F# is an impure language, which offers some practical benefits from Haskell, but also encourages a less functional style. In Haskell I sometimes work within a localised state monad - F# makes this much more natural. The impurity also allows simple interaction with .NET. Having programmed with an impure language I did find myself reaching for localised state much more often - and was occasionally tempted into using global state. In most cases, this state became problematic later. Before using F# I thought purity was a good thing, now I'm convinced that purity is a good thing but that impurity is often very useful!

Haskell could learn some things from F#. Every statement in F# must either be bound to a value or evaluate to (). In Haskell it is possible to write do mapM f xs; return 1. Any experienced Haskell programmer should spot that the mapM is a space leak (it should be mapM_), but the type system doesn't enforce it. In F# the type system does. The change in Haskell is simple, and in my opinion, desirable.

The Platform

F# is a fully fledged member of the .NET platform. You can write a class in VB.NET, write a derived class in F#, and then derive from that class in C#. All the languages can produce and consume the same libraries. This integration with .NET allows companies that already use the Microsoft tools to easily migrate - even on a function by function basis. However, the combination of both an imperative framework and a functional language at some times leads to confusing choices. All of the standard .NET libraries work with arrays, but for a functional program the list is a more natural type. F# provides both, and it was never clear which I should use where, leading to lots of conversions. The .NET libraries are very powerful, but often are overly imperative. For example, the XSD libraries (Xml Schema Description) are very imperative - you have to create objects, mutate properties, then make calls. However, in Haskell, I probably wouldn't have had any XSD support, certainly nothing as well-supported as in .NET.

The Tool Chain

The most impressive aspect of F# is the integration with the Visual Studio environment. F# contains a debugger, profiler, auto-completion, identifier lookup and many other tools. While other functional languages have some of these tools, the Visual Studio environment tends to have very refined and polished implementations. The integration with F# is sometimes a little fragile, or at least was in the version I was using, but the tools are already very powerful and are likely to continue to improve.


The F# language isn't the most beautiful language ever, but it's not bad. The integration with .NET is incredible, and while this requires compromises in the language, the benefits are considerable. I still prefer Haskell as a language, but for many users the tool chain is a more important consideration, and here F# excels.

This post was brought to you by Ctrl and v, as the computer I am currently using doesn't have a # key!

Update: I'd recommend reading Vesa Karvonen's comment below - he has additional perspectives on F# from a more ML perspective.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Enabling Reply To All in Outlook

Update: See for an updated version of this functionality.

Some companies lock down the use of Outlook by disabling the Reply To All button. This makes it harder to manage email, and requires manually copying email addresses to get the same effect. But using a bit of Office VBA, it is possible to make a functioning Reply To All button. The following solution has been tested in Outlook 2003, but should work for older versions as well.

First, enable macros in Outlook. Go to Tools, Macro, Security and select Medium or Low security.

Second, add a Reply To All action. Go to Tools, Macro, Visual Basic Editor and put the following code in the text editor.

Option Explicit

Public Sub ReallyReplyAll()
Dim o As MailItem
Set o = Application.ActiveExplorer.Selection.Item(1)
End Sub

Finally, add a toolbar button to invoke the action. Go to Tools, Customise, Commands, Macros, and drag and drop the command Project1.ThisOutlookSession.ReallyReplyAll on to the toolbar. You can put this command exactly where you used to have Reply To All, and give it the same icon/name.

To test, select an email and click on the button you just added, it should do exactly what Reply To All would have done. There are some minor limitations to this method:

  • The button will not disable itself when it isn't applicable, i.e. when there are no emails selected. You will still be able to click on the button, but it won't do anything.

  • If you select a medium level of macro security, you will have to go through a security confirmation the first time you click Reply To All in an Outlook session.

If possible, try to educate the person in charge that Reply To All is perfectly good email etiquette, and that people should be trusted to use it responsibly. However, if that fails, the above method is a useful fallback.