Higher order functions and data types

Higher Order Functions

The solution for last week’s homework might have been solved with this code, which draws a row and then draws a column:

pictureOfMaze :: Picture
pictureOfMaze = drawRows (-10)

drawRows :: Integer -> Picture
drawRows 11 = blank
drawRows r  = drawCols r (-10) & drawRows (r+1)

drawCols :: Integer -> Integer -> Picture
drawCols _ 11 = blank
drawCols r c = drawTileAt r c & drawCols r (c+1)

drawTileAt :: Integer -> Integer -> Picture
drawTileAt =

Clearly there is some repetition going on here, with drawRows and drawCols doing very similar things. In prose, what they are doing is “21 times, do something similar each time, but varying with the count”. They differ in two aspects:

I promised that Haskell is a language with good abstractions, so it should be possible to abstract over this pattern. So lets give it a try:

draw21times something = helper something (-10)

helper something 11 = blank
helper something n  = something & helper something (n+1)

pictureOfMaze = draw21times drawRow
drawRow = draw21times drawCol
drawCol = drawTileAt ? ?

Now we are stuck: In the definition of drawATiles, we need to know the current row and column number, but we do not have that! If we would write n (which maybe a perl programmer from the last century would try here), we would get an error about a variable being not in scope. And even if we somehow could access the n there, which one would it be – draw21times is run twice here!

So the helper needs to pass down the n to something. And similarly, drawRow has to tell drawCol what row it should draw:

draw21times something = helper something (-10)

helper something 11 = blank
helper something n  = something n & helper something (n+1)

pictureOfMaze = draw21times drawRow
drawRow r = draw21times (drawCol r)
drawCol r c = drawTileAt r c

Nice, so this works. But what exactly have we done here? Let us clarify things by adding type signatures, conveniently provided to us by the CodeWorld interface:

For draw21times it says

draw21times :: forall a. (Eq a, Num a) => (a -> Picture) -> Picture

Now that is a mouthful. We’ll skip the details for now, but simply follow the heuristics that Num a says that a is a numeric type, so we just use Integer, and similarly for the other functions:

draw21times :: (Integer -> Picture) -> Picture
helper :: (Integer -> Picture) -> Integer -> Picture
drawRow :: Integer -> Picture
drawCol :: Integer -> Integer -> Picture

The type signature of draw21times again has two arrows, but it does not take two arguments! The parenthesis around the first argument are important: This means that there is one argument, which happens to be a function, which itself takes one argument.

Similarly, the type signature of helper says that there are two arguments, the first being a function taking one argument, and the second being simply an Integer.

The types of drawRow and drawCol are again straight-forward function types. Note that the type of drawRow is precisely the type of of the argument to draw21times – and therefore we can pass drawRow as an argument to draw21times.

What you see here is an instance of an Higher Order Function, i.e. a function that takes other functions as arguments. It is a central idea in functional programming and one main reason for the great abstraction possibilities in Haskell.

Partial application

There is something odd about the use of drawCol here. It seems that drawCol is a function of two parameters, but we use it with only one parameter, as an argument to draw21times. How can that work?

To understand that, let me write the type signature of drawCol differently:

drawCol :: Integer -> (Integer -> Picture)

This suddenly changes the perspective: Now drawCol is a function taking one argument, and returning another function, which again takes one argument. And this returned function nicely fits the argument type of draw21times.

But it really is just a change of perspective. The two types are identical. In this sense, every function in Haskell takes one argument – it is just that some return a function.

You can also understand that from looking at a function call. The expression f x y is equivalent to (f x) y.

We note that the function type arrow is right associative and function application is left associative.

Local definitions

Let us clean up the code a bit. First of all, the definition drawCol r c = drawTileAt r c looks quite useless. All it says is that “using drawCol is equivalent to using drawTileAt”. So let us remove drawCol.

The next code smell is the helper function. It really is a helper to draw21times, so it would be nice to have this function only available within draw21times. To do so, we use local definitions. They come in two varieties:

  1. As let-bindings:

    draw21times :: (Integer -> Picture) -> Picture
    draw21times something =
      let helper :: (Integer -> Picture) -> Integer -> Picture
          helper something 11 = blank
          helper something n  = something n & helper something (n+1)
      in helper something (-10)

    A let-binding contains definitions for functions and values, quite like top-level definitions. It can contain multiple definitions, and makes them available to both the definitions it contains, as well as to the expression after the in. The let-construct is a self-contained expression and can be used wherever any other expression is expected.

  2. In a where-clause:

    draw21times :: (Integer -> Picture) -> Picture
    draw21times something = helper something (-10)
        helper :: (Integer -> Picture) -> Integer -> Picture
        helper something 11 = blank
        helper something n  = something n & helper something (n+1)

    This is just a syntactic variation, and equivalent to the code above. One or more definitions can follow the where, and are available to those definitions and the body of the function.

It is a matter of style which ones to use. Generally, where clauses are prettier, require less indentation and are almost always used for local functions. They also have the advantage of scoping over multiple guards. For local values (e.g. some computation), a let clause can also work well. You’ll get the hang of it.

A more common name for such a local definition is simply go. It is ok to use such a non-descript name, because its scope is so small and clearly defined. Also, type signatures for such local definitions are often omitted.

Captured variables

Making go a local function and moving it into draw21times has another advantage: It can reference the parameters of draw21times. Currently, go goes through quite some lengths to pass the something parameter around. But that is no longer necesary: It can simply refer to something as it is bound by draw21times:

draw21times :: (Integer -> Picture) -> Picture
draw21times something = go (-10)
    go 11 = blank
    go n  = something n & go (n+1)

A note on indentation

By now you might have noticed that indentation seems to be significant in Haskell – how else would you know where the where clause ends. Indeed, like Python, but unlike most other programming languages, Haskell is indentation sensitive. This has two advantages:

The indentation rules are somewhat technical, so I will not explain them here. Instead, I appeal to intuition: From the examples given in class and the exercises, you will soon get an intuition about how that works, and that will be sufficient. In fact, I myself cannot give you the exact rules, but I have not had a problem with indentation since many years.

If it does not work: Experiment. If you are stuck: Ask (e.g. on Piazza).

If you really want to know the rules start with the chapter on indentation in the Wikibook on Haskell.

Lambda expressions

We have now seen already three way of defining a function: Global, in a let or in an where clause. The form of the definition has always been the same, though, and all of them required giving a name to the thing.

Giving a name is not always desired. Naming things is hard! Therefore, at least for very small functions that are used only once, it is desireable to just define them on the spot where they are used.

Consider the drawRow function: All it does is to call draw21times with drawTileAt as its argument. That is hardly worth giving a name, writing a type signature and so on.

So instead of using drawRow, we can define this functionality right on the spot in pictureOfMaze:

pictureOfMaze = draw21times (\r -> draw21times (drawTileAt r))

The backslash is a poor rendering of the greek letter λ (lambda), and indicates that this defines an anonymous, local function, which, when called, takes one parameter r, and returns the stuff after the right arrow, i.e. draw21times (drawTileAt r).

We could use it twice to make it a bit clearer what this code does, by naming the variables for the row and the column appropriately, and also showing the symmetry:

pictureOfMaze = draw21times (\r -> draw21times (\c -> drawTileAt r c))

Higher order functions, local functions and lambda expressions allow for very concise, but yet readable code. Use it!

You can see the final code on CodeWorld.

Data types

On to the next topic, and again we will motivate and introduce it by adressing some wart in the code from last weeks homework.

The functions drawTile and maze designate the different types of tiles by a number. That calls for trouble: It is easy to mix them up, extending the list of tiles is error-prone, as you might forget to extend the code somewhere else that handles the numbers.

The problem is that Integers are not a a suitable type to represent types: There are too many of them, and their meaning is implicit.

So we want a type that is tight, i.e. large enough to encompass all tiles we want to represent, but no more, and explicit, i.e. the meaning of a value of such a type is clear.

So we simply introduce such a type:

data Tile = Wall | Ground | Storage | Box | Blank

The keyword is data, followed by the name of the new type, followed by an equals sign, followed by a list of constructors of this type, separated by bars. Type and constructor names always start with a capital letter, and they each have their own namespace (so you can use the same name for a type and a constructor).

The new type Tile now consists of exactly these five constructors as values, no more and no less. So the type is tight. And further more, every value is self-explanatory.

We can return them in maze, and pattern match in drawTile, just like with numbers (open on CodeWorld):

drawTile :: Tile -> Picture
drawTile Wall    = wall
drawTile Ground  = ground
drawTile Storage = storage
drawTile Box     = box
drawTile Blank   = blank

maze :: Integer -> Integer -> Tile
maze x y
  | abs x > 4  || abs y > 4  = Blank
  | abs x == 4 || abs y == 4 = Wall
  | x ==  2 && y <= 0        = Wall
  | x ==  3 && y <= 0        = Storage
  | x >= -2 && y == 0        = Box
  | otherwise                = Ground

Note how suddenly the type signature of drawTile and especially of maze has become much more helpful!


You have actually used such a datatype before, in last week’s class: We were using the type Bool, with its values True and False. And it may come as a surprise to you that this type is defined using the very same mechanism that you just learend:

data Bool = False | True

It is a sign of good programming language design if many concepts can be implemented using the language itself, instead of having to be built in.

The same then holds for operators like (||) and (&&) – there is nothing special about them, and you could have definded them yourself. (Try to come up with their definition, and then compare it against the real one!)

The type is still somewhat priviliged though, because guards, like the one in maze, need to be expressions of type Bool. But that’s just a use of the type, not the definition of the type.

More data types for Sokoboban

Let us work towards making our animation interactive. To start with, we might want to move the maze around, using the keyboard, in case it is larger than our screen (or just as a preparation for moving the player around).

To that end, let us first talk about the types involved. It makes sense to have one type that describes the possible ways to interact with the system. For now, the only interaction is moving the view into one of the four directions, so we can define a data type for that:

data Direction = R | U | L | D

We also need to keep track of the current position, after a few key presses. Now, there are infinitely many possible positions, so a simple enumeration does not cut it. We could describe the position with two integer numbers, so we need a type that stores two such numbers. We can do that also using the data keyword, and giving the parameters to the constructor:

data Coord = C Integer Integer

Here I define the type Coord. There is a single constructor to created this type, called C, which takes two Integers and turns them into one Coord.

Just like above, the constructors are value we can use in expressions, we can do this with C, which is a function of type Integer -> Integer -> Coord.

If you like math-talk: The type Coord is now isomorphic to the product type of Integer with Integer, and C is an isomorphism between them. If follows that constructors are always injective, and if that does not mean anything to you right now, you can ignore this.

Here is an example use of C as a function:

initialCoord :: Coord
initialCoord = C 0 0

So it is straight forward to create a Coord (just use the constructor as a function). How do we use a Coord? This works by pattern matching. We will need a function that translates a picture to have its origin at a given coord. Let us write it, first thinking about the type and then the code:

atCoord :: Coord -> Picture -> Picture
atCoord (C x y) pic = translated (fromIntegral x) (fromIntegral y) pic

So when we pattern match against a constructor with parameters, we simply give names to the parameters. We have to put parentheses around this, to distinguish it from multiple function parameters – this applies consistently in pattern just as well as in expressions.

(The fromIntegral is needed to convert the Integer to a Double. Why did we not put Double in the type of Coord in the first place? Because Integer is more honest: If we just use the keyboard, there will never be non-integral coordiantes there.)

The next function that we will want to write is one that calculates a new coordiante, based on the current coordiante and a direction.

adjacentCoord :: Direction -> Coord -> Coord
adjacentCoord R (C x y) = C (x+1) y
adjacentCoord U (C x y) = C  x   (y+1)
adjacentCoord L (C x y) = C (x-1) y
adjacentCoord D (C x y) = C  x   (y-1)

That was a lot of coding without seeing anything. Let us try it out (also on CodeWorld):

someCoord :: Coord
someCoord = adjacentCoord U (adjacentCoord U (adjacentCoord L initialCoord))

main = drawingOf (atCoord someCoord pictureOfMaze)

Pure Interaction

Time to put these thing to good use. The goal is as follows: The maze should be centered when we start the program. Then we can use the arrow keys to move it around. We have already implemented most functionality for that, but you might wonder: How can we have interaction in a world without side-effects? How can we remember the current state in a world without mutable variables?

Well, we solved such a riddle before, when we implemented an animation, by modelling our thoughts in terms of pure functions, and then having some “machinery” that executes our pure functions, yielding the desired effect. We can do it again.

An interactive program changes state whenever a new input event happens. If we want to separate the logic of the state change from the logic of remembering the current state, the former becomes a pure function again, namely one that, given the input event and the current state, calculates the new state. Additionally, we need to specify the initial state, and then of course how to visualize the state.

Interaction on CodeWorld

This functionality is provided in CodeWorld by the following function, which has quite a large type signature:

interactionOf :: world ->
                (Double -> world -> world) ->
                (Event -> world -> world) ->
                (world -> Picture) ->
                IO ()

Its type signature mentions the type world. This is not a specific type, but rather a type variable. We’ll get to that later; all we need to know for now is that this type can be any type we want it to be. This type contains the state of the program. In our case, it is simply a Coord.

The function interactionOf takes four arguments:

  1. An initial state.
  2. A function modifying the state if a certain amount of time (given as a the first argument) has passed.
  3. A function modifying the state if a certain input even thas happened.
  4. A function to draw a picture according to the current state.

Let us try to use this function, in a simple way (open on CodeWorld):

main = interactionOf initialCoord handleTime handleEvent drawState

handleTime :: Double -> Coord -> Coord
handleTime _ c = c

handleEvent :: Event -> Coord -> Coord
handleEvent e c = adjacentCoord U c

drawState :: Coord -> Picture
drawState c = atCoord c pictureOfMaze

That does … something. But as soon as we move the mouse over the picture, it disappears. Which makes sense, as mouse movements are also events.


So we need to look at the Event type. According to the documentation, it is a data type. We know data types!

data Event = KeyPress Text
           | KeyRelease Text
           | MousePress MouseButton Point
           | MouseRelease MouseButton Point
           | MouseMovement Point

There are five constructors, for different kind of events. We care about KeyPress events. This constructor has an argument, which is a Text. We have not seen this type before, but we can guess what it means. So let us handle this (open on CodeWorld):

handleEvent :: Event -> Coord -> Coord
handleEvent (KeyPress key) c
    | key == "Right" = adjacentCoord R c
    | key == "Up"    = adjacentCoord U c
    | key == "Left"  = adjacentCoord L c
    | key == "Down"  = adjacentCoord D c
handleEvent _ c      = c

(From now on, make sure you have {-# LANGUAGE OverloadedStrings #-} on top of the file, or you will get strange error messages.)

And there we go, we can move the maze around! (You might have to click on the embedded picture before it reacts to your key presses.)

Some terminology

With that knowledge (and some cleverness) you should already be able to write a fully functional Sokoban, although we will use this week’s homework for some more prelimaries, and learn more next week that will help us finish the game.