Stepan ParunashviliTwitter

Inventing Monads

I got into a discussion about monads recently. On a search to find some resources to share, I realized that most essays explained them with type signatures and rules. A missing ingredient to grok them, I think, is to understand the intuition behind them. How could you end up inventing monads?

Okay, let’s try to build that intuition. We’ll avoid both types and category theory.

Problem

Say you have a few functions to get a user, a profile, and a display picture:

function getUser(id) { 
  return USERS[id] 
}

function getProfile(user) { 
  return user.profile
}

function getDisplayPicture(profile) { 
  return profile.displayPicture
}

Now, given an id, how would you get the profile picture?

You could write this:

getDisplayPicture(getProfile(getUser(id)))

Buut, this would throw an error: all these functions could return null. If getUser returned null for example, you would see:

Uncaught TypeError: Cannot read property 'profile' of undefined

To fix this, you may end up writing something like this:

function getDisplayPictureFromId(id) { 
  const user = getUser(id)
  if (!user) return
  const profile = getProfile(user)
  if (!profile) return
  return getDisplayPicture(profile)
}

But, this is getting pretty ugly. All these conditional returns distract from what you’re really trying to do. What if there was a way to get rid of these conditionals?

Chainer

So, that’s our challenge: let’s get rid of these conditionals. One way we can do this, is to make some kind of helper. This helper would let us chain these functions together:

new Chainer(getUser(id))
  .whenExists(user => getProfile(user))
  .whenExists(profile => getDisplayPicture(profile))

This looks pretty good. Let’s implement it.

whenExists

.whenExists would only run the callback if the value exists. Here’s how you could write this:

class Chainer {
  constructor(v) { 
      this.value = v
  }
  whenExists(f) { 
      if (!this.value) return this;
      return new Chainer(f(this.value))
  }
}

And voila, with just this, we can now write

function getProfilePictureFromId(id) { 
  return new Chainer(getUser(id))
    .whenExists(user => getProfile(user))
    .whenExists(profile => getDisplayPicture(profile))
}

More Problems

Notice that getDisplayPictureFromId now returns a Chainer.

Imagine we had another function resizeDisplayPicture, that also returned a Chainer

function resizeDisplayPicture(pic) { 
    return new Chainer(pic).whenExists(pic => ...
}

What would happen, if we wrote:

getProfilePictureFromId(id).whenExists(pic => resizeDisplayPicture(pic))

Let’s look at whenExists again:

whenExists(f) { 
  if (!this.value) return this;
  return new Chainer(f(this.value))
}

If getProfilePictureFromId(id) did exist, we would run

new Chainer(f(this.value))

which in this case is

new Chainer(resizeDisplayPicture(this.value)) 

Which becomes

new Chainer(new Chainer(this.value)...

Uh oh. We now have a Chainer inside of a Chainer. Ideally, we’d want a function that somehow “merged” these chainers together.

whenExistsMerge

So let’s do that. We can call it whenExistsMerge

class Chainer {
  constructor(v) { 
      this.value = v
  }
  whenExists(f) { 
      if (!this.value) return this;
      return new Chainer(f(this.value))
  }
  whenExistsMerge(f) { 
      if (!this.value) return this;
      return f(this.value)
  }
}

And with that, we can write

getProfilePictureFromId(id)
  .whenExistsMerge(pic => resizeDisplayPicture(pic))
  .whenExists(resizedPic => ...)

Eureka

Aand voila, you’ve just invented a specific type of monad. Kind of (1). Chainer is analogous to the Maybe monad. whenExists is analogous to its fmap operation, and whenExistsMerge is analogous to its bind operation. If you’re curious about the type-based technicalities now, see this essay.

More uses

So, now we’ve found this cool Chainer. We can stop here, or think a bit further. What’s so special about it?

Well, it’s like a box that wraps around some information. We can interact with that box with whenExists and whenExistsMerge.

How else can we use the idea of box and whenExists?

Here’s one. Let’s say you were dealing with callback hell:

fetchUser(id, (err, user) => {
  if (err) ... 
    fetchProfile(profile, (err, profile) => { 
      if (err) ...
        fetchDisplayPicture(...
    }
}

What if we created something like an Async Chainer: it stores the result of some future computation. Then, you could use the whenExists* functions, which let you interact with the value when it is computed. We turn the callback hell into

 fetchUser(id).whenExistsMerge(fetchProfile).whenExistsMerge(fetchDisplayPicture)

Well, replace whenExistsMerge with then, and you're on a road to discover Promise, which is also a monad. Kind of (2).

Abstract all the way

Now, it’s pretty cool to notice that both the nullable use case and the async use case have the same interface. The name whenExists may be a bit too specific. Really, what it does is give you an interface to map over the value. If you use the word map, whenExistsMerge really lets you flatMap over the value.

This begins to get us to the fundamental abstraction of a monad: a box, with an interface for map, and flatMap. As you look deeper, you’ll notice that this abstraction can handle a lot of other things. If you’re curious, research the Result monad for example.

Fin

And with that, you’ve invented monads : )

Aside: Do you really need this?

As you went through this, you may have realized that there are other ways to solve the problems that monads solve. Instead of Chainer, your language could have a safe call abstraction. Instead of Promise, your language could have an async/await abstraction. Sometimes those can be a better better choice. Nevertheless, if your language doesn’t have those abstractions, you can use monads to solve them. And of course, like any powerful abstraction, you can invent new monads to simplify your business logic.


(1) I cheated a bit with Chainer, by avoiding the subtypes Just and Nothing. This makes it so you can’t express something like Just(null). Still, it gets at the essence : )

(2) Likewise, Promise isn’t quite a monad, because it mixes both flatMap and map with then. This makes it so you can’t have a Promise<Promise<Res>>. Again though, it gets at the essence

Thanks to Joe Averbukh, Mark Shlick, Daniel Woelfel, Irakli Safareli, Jacky Wang for reviewing drafts of this essay


Thoughts? Reach out to me via twitter or email : )