On scary terms – Alexey Raga

Alexey Raga

throw new InvalidIdeaException()

On scary terms

In my previous posts I tried to avoid using terminology as much as possible. Hey, I have been doing exactly what Microsoft has been doing all these years: trying to invent new terminology to avoid scaring people :)
With one big difference: I don’t expect my “simple” terminology to replace the “real” one in my readers’ heads pretending that the “real” and “scary” one does not exist.

I don’t know why some developer freak out when they see or hear some terms, but that’s a fact. When you say “context” or “Select” or “Workflow” then everything is fine and easy. But when you call these things with their “real” names then some people push back and think that it is overcomplicated or otherwise crazy.
From this perspective Microsoft’s move (inventing new “easy” terms) is smart, except that the “common” terminology remains unknown by developers.

In fact, Microsoft is not alone here. The Rust language recently has introduced one of the “scary” concepts in the language, the-one-we-don’t-name, and they called it “Burrito”. Yes, they make fun of this situation with the terminology, but nevertheless…

In this article I will not introduce anything new. All the stuff you already know. But I will name things with their “scary” names and explain what they are.

In the end of the day terms are just words, and it is strange to be afraid of one word and be happy use another one when both words mean the same thing :) It is also somehow cool and often useful to know what things really are.

.Select(...) or “mapping over a context”

I mentioned contexts before. I also mentioned how we can map a function over a context so a function can access and transform a value within a context. In C# you can use .Select combinator to do it. Some contexts don’t define .Select but provide other methods instead. For example, Task<T> provides .ContinueWith method to do basically the same thing: apply a function to the value within the context of a future.

Using .Select is just easier because it unifies the API for the same pattern. The pattern is, again, to transform a value within a context. Which context? Does’t matter that much, really. Could be anything.

Pretty much everywhere except in C# this operation is called map. That’s why we say that we map a function over a context. C# calls it Select.
When we have a context that we can map over, we can think of it as of some “mappable” context. We could even imagine some IMappable (or ISelectable) interface this context could implement. C# gives us extension methods, so we can define .Select without introducing an extra interface.

So what is expected from that hypothetical IMappable? Or without one, what is expected from a “mappable context”?

Not much.
First, it would only be logical to assume that nothing changes if we map a function that doesn’t do anything over a context:

var somethingNew = something.Select(x => x);

Here the function x => x (otherwise called an identity function) doesn’t change anything. Obviously we expect that something and somethingNew are identical.

Second, if map two functions over a context then the result should be the same as if we map one first, and then map another one:

var one = something
      .Select(x => DoSomething(x));
      .Select(y => DoSomethingElse(y))

//is the same as
var two = something
      .Select(x => DoSomethingElse(DoSomething(x)))

In this example we also expect one and two to be identical.

Very logical, isn’t it? Your would be surprised if these simple rules didn’t hold, it would be impossible to reason about the code or to refactor it. All of this you already know, no surprises.

The context that provides this ability to map over, this hypothetical IMappable is otherwise called a Functor.

IEnumerable<T> is a functor because there exist a map operation that obeys these two rules. This operation is provided by the .Select combinator.
Task<T> is also a functor and its map operation is provided by the .ContinueWith combinator. It is convenient, however, to unify the API and to have the same combinators for the same concept. Defining .Select on Task<T> (and other contexts) is useful from this perspective and here is how it can be done

A Functor term is not scary, it just means that you have something that you can map over in a predictable way. It is a pattern. In a pseudo code its definition would be:

fmap :: (a -> b) -> F a -> F b

which means that the fmap operation (fmap stands for functor map) takes a function from a to b, and some value a in a context of F, and returns some value b in the same context F. So it transforms a value within F
What is F? We don’t care. Some context. It could be IEnumerable, or it could be Task, or it could be Option, or anything else.
How F a is transformed into F b? Well, there is no other way but to apply a function a -> b within F a.

fmap :: (a -> b) -> List a   -> List b
fmap :: (a -> b) -> Task a   -> Task b
fmap :: (a -> b) -> Option a -> Option b

Not surprisingly the .Select combinator for IEnumerable looks very similar (see how my pseudocode is shorter and cleaner):

public static IEnumerable<B> Select<A, B>(
  this IEnumerable<A> source,
	Func<A, B> selector

It is designed to be a map operation. And C#’s syntax is specifically designed to support LINQ for any types, not only for IEnumerable so you can “promote” other contexts to be functors by implementing Select extension methods for them.

.SelectMany and composition

OK, we know how to transform a value within a functor. But how we compose contexts themselves? How do we compose two functions when both of them return contextful values?

Imagine we have two asynchronous operations, one that resolves dns names from ip addresses, and another one that goes the other way around. They both return Task for a reason: it takes time to make a dns query.

public static Task<IpAddress> ToIp(DnsName name) { ... }
public static Task<DnsName> ToName(IpAddress) { ... }

All we want is to check if the name/address pair can be resolved both ways: a name is resolved to an IP address and that IP address is resolved back to the same name. We want to compose these calls somehow.

We cannot use Functor and map one function over the result of another because the result type would not be what we want:

Task<Task<DnsName>> result = ToIp(name).Select(ip => ToName(ip));

The result type here is Task<Task<DnsName>> instead of expected Task<DnsName>.

This problem is not unique for Task, other functors have the same behaviour:

//convert list of strings into list of chars
IEnumerable<IEnumerable<Char>> result = GetWords(text).Select(w => ToChars(w));

//create database connection from the config
Option<Option<Connection>> conn = config
    .Select(connstr => MakeConn(connstr));

In the last example the .GetConnStr returns Option because the configuration file may not have the required settings, and the .MakeConn also returns Option because it is possible that the connection cannot be created for the specified connection string. Again, the result type is Option<Option<Connection>> when Option<Connection> is expected.

We already know the solution to this problem: use .SelectMany instead of .Select. It is especially easy to see in the “list of strings into list of chars” example.

.SelectMany allows us to compose two functions when both of them return contextful values:

ToIp   :: DnsName   -> Task IpAddress
ToName :: IpAddress -> Task DnsName

GetWords :: String   -> List String
ToChars  :: String   -> List Char

GetConnStr :: String           -> Option ConnectionString
MakeConn   :: ConnectionString -> Option Connection

With SelectMany the result types would be as expected:

//reverse dns query
Task<DnsName> reverseName = ToIp(name).SelectMany(ip => ToName(ip));

//convert list of strings into list of chars
IEnumerable<Char> result = GetWords(text).SelectMany(w => ToChars(w));

//create database connection from the config
Option<Connection> conn = config.GetConnStr("db").SelectMany(cs => MakeConn(cs));

Thats what Monads are about: they allow us to compose two functions when each of them returns a contextful value.
Just like if you have two functions a -> b and b -> c you can compose them into a -> c, you can do exactly this if when the return types are contextful:

'normal' functions     | 'contextful' functions
  f :: a -> b          |  f :: a -> M b  
  g :: b -> c          |  g :: b -> M c
  h :: a -> c          |  h :: a -> M c

What is M here? I don’t know. Can by anything. Can be IEnumerable, Option or Task, it’s all the same pattern.
How the composition happens? Well, SelectMany makes it happen. Each of the contexts implements SelectMany in a way that it can “bind” two parts together and provide the result value.

Just as Select represents Functor’s map operation, SelectMany represents what is called Monad’s bind operation. Microsoft just renamed it, again.

The monadic bind combinator has the following type:

bind :: M a -> (a -> M b) -> M b

It takes some value a in a context of M, and a function from a to a contextful value b (the context M stays the same), and returns that M b.

and it is not a surprise that SelectMany for IEnumerable has the same shape:

public static IEnumerable<B> SelectMany<A, B>(
	this IEnumerable<A> source,
	Func<A, IEnumerable<B>> selector

It takes some value A in a context of IEnumerable, and a function selector that goes from A to a contextful B (in the same context of IEnumerable), and returns that contextful B.

SelectMany is an extension method, and, again, LINQ is designed in a way that its extension methods could be implemented for any other type, not only for IEnumerable. We can substitute IEnumerable with other contexts (such as Task or Option) and it will be the same pattern.
Here is an example from Microsoft on how to use LINQ with Task<T>.

Look, LINQ is a Monad! :)
And it is not just my imagination, or something that I wish it to be. It has beed carefully designed and implemented this way. Erik Meijer, the “father” of LINQ highlighted this fact many times, it is not hard to google. Or just read his paper The World According To LINQ if you really want to dig into details.

The fact is: monads are nothing to be scared of. We do have them in C#, and we do love them. It is hard to imagine how we survived without the LINQ monad before it became available in our toolbox. It is just a term that people are usually scared of, not the concept. And because of this irrational fear some languages call monads “workflows” or “burritos” or “fluffy clouds”, etc.

Ok, that’s clear now. But what are our expectations of bind (or .SelectMany) to perform safe and predictable?

First, we should be able to put a value into a context (monad) without changing the value itself. For example, new List<int> { 42 } puts 42 in a context of a list, but the value itself remains the same and doesn’t become 41 or 43 (it would be very strange otherwise).

Second, it’s logical to assume that if we don’t do anything with the value within the context then nothing changes:

var newList = oldList.SelectMany(x => new [] { x });

Here we expect newList and oldList to be identical. It is a very straightforward assumption because we haven’t done anything, just put x back into the same context again!

Third, we assume associativity:
(f bind g) bind h == f bind (g bind h)

var allRoles = GetCompanies()
  .SelectMany(c => GetUsers(c))
  .SelectMany(u => GetRoles(u))

//is the same as
var allUsers = GetCompanies().SelectMany(c => GetUsers(c))
var allRoles = allUsers.SelectMany(u => GetRoles(u))

//is the same as
var allRoles = GetCompanies()
  .SelecyMany(c => GetUsers(c).SelectMany(u => GetRoles(u)))

Once more, nothing new here, we truly expect these “rules” to hold during our day-to-day refactoring, otherwise it would be just crazy.

These three rules above represent Monadic Laws. To be a monad a context must provide a bind (SelectMany) operation and it must obey these very logical laws.

But why?..

Scary words such as monad or functor are patterns. Just as other patterns they represent some functional aspects and capture them in a language.
We say “use a factory”, or “make a singleton”, or “have a façade”, or “implement it as MVC” and our colleagues immediately understand what it means. In the same way we could say “make it a functor” or “use a monad”.

Recognising patterns also helps to unify approaches when dealing with similar concepts. It is true for patterns in general, but it is even more important for a “monad” pattern because C# (and some other languages) has a special support, a special syntax for monads.

Context<D> result = from a in Context<A>
                    from b in Context<B>
                    from c in Context<C>
                    select CombineABC(a, b, c);

This code is very readable and very understandable even if we don’t know what the Context is. Do we really care? It could be Task<T>, or List<T>, or Option<T>, or Producer<T>, or Observable<T>, etc. But the code reads the same: use three contextful values and apply some function to them.

This C# syntax is designed to be extensible, it is not only for collections as some people may think. All you need is to identify a context and provide it with the extension methods such as Select and SelectMany keeping in mind the simple and logical laws that were mentioned above.

The syntax above is called “from comprehension” or “monadic comprehension”.

To me this fancy syntax feels less awkward compare to map and bind renamed to Select and SelectMany. Because, disregarding “SQL-ish” flavour, it still makes lots of sense: from value 'a' in this context, and from value 'b' in that context select their product. In fact it is much less “SQL-ish” and much less “collection-oriented” than the Select and SelectMany counterparts.

Unfortunately C# doesn’t allow to go far beyond that in unifying approaches when dealing with different contexts due to its type system limitation (I just hope that some day it will). But this alone is a very convenient and a very useful feature.


Being afraid of terms is illogical, especially if these terms represent something very familiar, something that we comfortably use every day.
Functor and Monad are these terms that people are often scared of.

In this article I tried to explain that Functor is just something that can be mapped over. It is just some hypothetical IMappable which is easy to imagine and which is not really needed because C# has extension methods. With extension methods we can add the map operation to virtually anything, and that’s what Select method does. Of course is important to remember the simple laws Functor must obey when implementing Select method, but these laws are very logical and anyone would expect them to hold anyway.

A Monad is a context that has SelectMany implementation (and obeys simple laws, similar to Functor). Monads are not that hard to understand and not difficult to deal with. LINQ for collections is an example of a monad that we use every day we write code in C#.
It is all about composition. How do we compose a -> List b and b -> List c? Or, more generally, a -> M b and b -> M c? A Monad is the answer.

C# has a special syntax for monads that works for any monad, not only for IEnumerable and that is designed to be this way. This syntax may initially look collection-oriented, but in fact it makes lots of sense when dealing with different contexts too.

Have a nice day. Use http://goo.gl/mLGwTL

Written on September 8, 2015