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A monad tutorial for Clojure programmers (part 1)

Monads in functional programming are most often associated with the Haskell language, where they play a central role in I/O and have found numerous other uses. Most introductions to monads are currently written for Haskell programmers. However, monads can be used with any functional language, even languages quite different from Haskell. Here I want to explain monads in the context of Clojure, a modern Lisp dialect with strong support for functional programming. A monad implementation for Clojure is available in the library clojure.algo.monads. Before trying out the examples given in this tutorial, type (use 'clojure.algo.monads) into your Clojure REPL. You also have to install the monad library, of course, which you can do by hand, or using build tools such as leiningen.

Monads are about composing computational steps into a bigger multi-step computation. Let’s start with the simplest monad, known as the identity monad in the Haskell world. It’s actually built into the Clojure language, and you have certainly used it: it’s the let form.

Consider the following piece of code:

(let [a  1
      b  (inc a)]
  (* a b))

This can be seen as a three-step calculation:

Compute 1 (a constant), and call the result a. Compute (inc a), and call the result b. Compute (* a b), which is the result of the multi-step computation. Each step has access to the results of all previous steps through the symbols to which their results have been bound.

Now suppose that Clojure didn’t have a let form. Could you still compose computations by binding intermediate results to symbols? The answer is yes, using functions. The following expression is in fact equivalent to the previous one:

clj ( (fn [a] ( (fn [b] (* a b)) (inc a) ) ) 1 ) The outermost level defines an anonymous function of a and calls with with the argument 1 – this is how we bind 1 to the symbol a. Inside the function of a, the same construct is used once more: the body of (fn [a] ...) is a function of b called with argument (inc a). If you don’t believe that this somewhat convoluted expression is equivalent to the original let form, just paste both into Clojure!

Of course the functional equivalent of the let form is not something you would want to work with. The computational steps appear in reverse order, and the whole construct is nearly unreadable even for this very small example. But we can clean it up and put the steps in the right order with a small helper function, bind. We will call it m-bind (for monadic bind) right away, because that’s the name it has in Clojure’s monad library. First, its definition:

(defn m-bind [value function]
  (function value))

As you can see, it does almost nothing, but it permits to write a value before the function that is applied to it. Using m-bind, we can write our example as

(m-bind 1        (fn [a]
(m-bind (inc a)  (fn [b]
        (* a b)))))

That’s still not as nice as the let form, but it comes a lot closer. In fact, all it takes to convert a let form into a chain of computations linked by m-bind is a little macro. This macro is called domonad, and it permits us to write our example as

(domonad identity-m
  [a  1
   b  (inc a)]
  (* a b))

This looks exactly like our original let form. Running macroexpand-1 on it yields

(clojure.algo.monads/with-monad identity-m
  (m-bind 1 (fn [a] (m-bind (inc a) (fn [b] (m-result (* a b)))))))

This is the expression you have seen above, wrapped in a (with-monad identity-m ...) block (to tell Clojure that you want to evaluate it in the identity monad) and with an additional call to m-result that I will explain later. For the identity monad, m-result is just identity – hence its name.

As you might guess from all this, monads are generalizations of the let form that replace the simple m-bind function shown above by something more complex. Each monad is defined by an implementation of m-bind and an associated implementation of m-result. A with-monad block simply binds (using a let form!) these implementations to the names m-bind and m-result, so that you can use a single syntax for composing computations in any monad. Most frequently, you will use the domonad macro for this.

As our second example, we will look at another very simple monad, but one that adds something useful that you don’t get in a let form. Suppose your computations can fail in some way, and signal failure by producing nil as a result. Let’s take our example expression again and wrap it into a function:

(defn f [x]
  (let [a  x
        b  (inc a)]
    (* a b)))

In the new setting of possibly-failing computations, you want this to return nil when x is nil, or when (inc a) yields nil. (Of course (inc a) will never yield nil, but that’s the nature of examples…) Anyway, the idea is that whenever a computational step yields nil, the final result of the computation is nil, and the remaining steps are never executed. All it takes to get this behaviour is a small change:

(defn f [x]
  (domonad maybe-m
    [a  x
     b  (inc a)]
    (* a b)))

The maybe monad represents computations whose result is maybe a valid value, but maybe nil. Its m-result function is still identity, so we don’t have to discuss m-result yet (be patient, we will get there in the second part of this tutorial). All the magic is in the m-bind function:

(defn m-bind [value function]
  (if (nil? value)
      (function value)))

If its input value is non-nil, it calls the supplied function, just as in the identity monad. Recall that this function represents the rest of the computation, i.e. all following steps. If the value is nil, then m-bind returns nil and the rest of the computation is never called. You can thus call (f 1), yielding 2 as before, but also (f nil) yielding nil, without having to add nil-detecting code after every step of your computation, because m-bind does it behind the scenes.

In part 2, I will introduce some more monads, and look at some generic functions that can be used in any monad to aid in composing computations.