Yesterday I came across a post on the haskell reddit where somebody posted the following application of replicateM:
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It obviously results in all three-character combinations of zeros and ones and in general, replicateM x “01” generates all x-character combinations of zeros and ones accordingly.
replicateM is a standard library function and its haddock
documentation says: “replicateM n act performs the action n times,
gathering the results” and its type actually is
replicateM :: Monad m
=> Int -> m a -> m [a]. So replicateM is not a function
explicitly crafted for the purpose of a “get me all x-ary combinations
of my string” task, it is actually defined for all monads. Just
imagine a more obvious application using the IO monad, which performs the action of
printing hello 3 times and gathers the result.
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It is typical Haskell practice to use a function with such a general look to solve a rather special problem as our original one – to such a degree that it seems like magic to programmers with a different background. Actually, it might look like “dark” magic when you don’t grasp how/why the hell that result comes about in spite of looking at the source of replicateM, and you might start getting annoyed with Haskell altogether if that happens several times… anyway, there is no such thing as (dark) magic ;) so let’s demystify that interesting example!
Why it works
Before looking at the source – and getting to the operational side of replicateM – let’s ask ourselves why we get that result.
By taking the documentation into account we can paraphrase replicateM 3 “01” by saying:
It performs “01” 3 times and gathers the results. But what sort of action is
As a string is a list of characters, it’s equal to
[‘0’,‘1’] which denotes a ‘non-deterministic’ character value.
Imagine it as a two-faced character which doesn’t know if it really is a ‘0’ or a ‘1’! So what does performing “01” really mean?
I picture it as creating two parallel universes where that value dissolves into ‘0’ in the first and into ‘1’ in the second universe.
Performing another “01” branches those two universes again so that we get 4 universes. Doing that a third time, those 4
universes branch again in choosing the third value of either ‘0’ or ‘1’. As a result, we get 8 universes which really are 8 lists of characters.
When you gather them you obviously get [“000”,“001”,“010”,“011”,“100”,“101”,“110”,“111”]! Confused? Maybe you like the ‘How’ better!
How it works
Hoogle is my tool of choice to quickly get to base library haskell source. So this tells how replicateM is defined:
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By hoogling for replicate and sequence we get the whole picture:
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replicate surely is the easiest function to grasp:
replicate n x
results in a list with n elements of value x. For instance:
So we can actually get the following equations:
So the magic somehow lies in the sequence method or rather in the List monad!
As in our application sequence operates in the list monad you can picture it using a list comprehension if you are more familiar with it:
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Let’s have a closer look at the last call of k in sequence.
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At first x is selected to be ‘0’ and prepended to all strings of xs, the resulting list of strings is then concatenated with x being ‘1’ prepended to all strings of xs again. As a result, we will always get a lexicographically correct ordering of all n-ary combinations of “01” no matter what n we choose in replicateM n [‘0’,‘1’].
We have seen how an innocent-looking function like replicateM can – when it is used with the List monad – produce a “magical” result, only to then discover that there is no magic involved ;)