MonadFix is Time Travel

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MonadFix is a pretty difficult concept, and I personally found much of the existing content about it online to be somewhat unhelpful. I answered a request for an ELI5 of MonadFix on Reddit, and someone suggested I turn my answer into a blog post. So here it is, edited with more content and detail.

First, let’s lay some groundwork. At the core of all of this is the fix function, which simply uses Haskell’s laziness to do recursion.

fix :: (a -> a) -> a
fix f = let x = f x in x

Now, this is a little hard to grok at first, so I’ll just link an article by Matt Parsons that does a good job explaining it, rather than explaining it here myself.

Know how to use fix now? Good, let’s move on. That article only really describes how to write recursive functions with fix. It’s important to know how to write other recursive structures. For instance, here is the infinite list [1..] defined in terms of fix:

[1..] = fix (\xs -> 1 : fmap (+1) xs)

If fix f is the infinite application of f to itself (i.e. f (f (f (...)))), then this fixed point is just 1 : fmap (+1) (1 : fmap (+1) (1 : ...)). We know the first element is 1, we know that the second element is (+1) 1, we know that the third element is (+1) ((+1) 1), and so on. As another example, you can encode the famous recursive fibonacci definition using fix:

fibonacci :: [Integer]
fibonacci = 0 : 1 : zipWith (+) fibonacci (tail fibonacci)
-- With fix:
fibonacci = fix $ \xs -> 0 : 1 : zipWith (+) xs (tail xs)

You’ll notice that it’s identical, except that we’ve replaced the recursive usage of fibonacci with the argument that fix gives us. It’s exactly the same definition, but fix is the one doing the recursion. But data structures defined via fix don’t have to be infinite. For instance:

> fix $ \(~(a, b, c)) -> ([1, c-5], head a + 2, b * 4)

(The ~ means to pattern match lazily, so that we’re not strict in our argument, which would blow up fix.)

Each of the elements in this tuple is defined in terms of another one of the elements. By using fix, we are gaining access to the future view of the tuple, and using the constant part 1:[_] to break the recursion. The equivalent let bound recursive definition would be this:

let a = [1, c-5]
    b = head a + 2
    c = b * 4

Since b only cares about the constant 1 in a, it will not trigger an infinite loop by trying to evaluate c. This brings up a couple of important concepts that should be described before we move on to MonadFix.

  1. fix is like time travel. In the function you give it, you have a lazy view of what you will eventually return. You get to “see the future” and put it somewhere in your result. But with time travel comes paradoxes. You can’t ask the future for any information that would let you change the future, because then the universe is in an inconsistent state; you have memory of a time that does not exist in the timeline. Similarly, functions passed to fix are not allowed to ask their views of the future for any information that would alter the calculation; i.e. the function must not be strict in its argument. Which brings me to my next point.
  2. Functions that you give to fix should be treated more like values than like functions. Since you know that the function will never ask its argument for any information, you know that the structure of its output is effectively constant. The function returns a constant shape, and the content has some holes where the recursive parts go. We can say that if f undefined `seq` () terminates without error, then so will fix f `seq` () and vice versa. Thus, we can use f undefined to freely determine some information about the “shape” of f, as long as we’re careful not to evaluate the wrong parts of the structure.

With that, I think we’re ready to move on to MonadFix.


class Monad m => MonadFix m where
  mfix :: (a -> m a) -> m a

MonadFix is just a monadic version of fix, and the same principles apply. It’s like time travel; the thunk passed to the function is from the future, representing the value returned at the end of the mfix. And a function passed to mfix will always yield the same monadic action parameterized only by a thunk it cannot inspect, lest it risks a temporal paradox.

A few of you may have noticed that there’s a definition for mfix that we could use for free.

mfix f = fix (>>= f)

The problem here is that since fix cannot take functions that are strict in their argument, it doesn’t work for instances of (>>=) that are strict. It would expand to ((...) >>= f) >>= f, and you can imagine how that wouldn’t work for many monads. Maybe, for instance:

mfix' f = fix (>>= f)

instance Monad Maybe where
  return = Just
  Nothing >>= _ = Nothing
  Just a >>= k = k a

ghci> mfix' $ \_ > Just 1
<hangs forever>

It will just keep iterating back, trying to make sure that none of the binds in the infinite chain are ever given a Nothing. It will, however, work for lazy monads, like Control.Monad.State.Lazy. But these seem to be the exception rather than the rule. You can think of this definition as running a monadic action infinitely many times, starting with the one farthest in the future. This obviously won’t work for, say, IO. Instead, we want something that will run the monadic action exactly once, but yield its result back to the past. This parallels the let-based definition of fix. The reason fix is defined the way it is, as opposed to fix f = f (fix f), is because the latter would actually spend time calling f multiple times, whereas the let based definition calls f just once, threading a thunk lazily through. Of course since fix is pure, the difference is unobservable without something like unsafePerformIO, but this difference is highly important in the side effecting world of monads.

So a class that allows each individual monad to choose for itself how to be lazy enough is necessary. Surprisingly, I think IO has one of the easiest MonadFix instances to understand, but it’s based on unsafeInterleaveIO, which is the basic primitive for lazy IO. Essentially, unsafeInterleaveIO someIOAction will return a new IO action that will not do any IO when run. Instead, it returns a lazy thunk, and when that thunk is evaluated, then it will execute someIOAction and return that. Now, as far as I know, unsafeInterleaveIO is not unsafe in the same way as unsafePerformIO, in that I don’t believe it violates any of the laws of pure functional programming or any monad laws or whatever else. I’m pretty sure it’s only considered “unsafe” because it means IO will run at times that are much harder to predict. It’s “safe” because you can pretend that it just schedules someIOAction to run at some later time, and then predicts the future about what it will return. There’s nothing saying IO can’t time travel! And by now, it should be clear that time travel is an asset to fixed points, so it’s no surprised that unsafeInterleaveIO is involved in mfix.

(Also, David Feuer recommends that everyone read Dan Doel’s blog post about the safety of unsafeInterleaveIO.)

Anyway, with that groundwork laid, here’s the MonadFix instance for IO

instance MonadFix IO where
  mfix f = do
    var <- newEmptyMVar                       -- 1
    ans <- unsafeInterleaveIO $ takeMVar var  -- 2
    result <- f ans                           -- 3
    putMVar var result                        -- 4
    return result                             -- 5

Let’s walk through this line by line in terms of our little time travel analogy:

  1. Create an empty mutable variable.
  2. Predict the future value that will be contained in that mutable variable.
  3. Call the function f with the predicted future value.
  4. Store the result of f in the variable, thus fulfilling the prophecy as required by line 2.
  5. Return that result.

In short, f will be called with the prediction of what f will return, just as we would expect given our understanding of fix. If f attempts to evaluate the thunk that it was given, then it will create a temporal paradox; i.e. it will forcefully execute takeMVar var when var has not yet had a result put into it. For the most part, this is usually only useful when you want to work with lazily cyclic structures. Like when you need to cough up a thunk to an IO action so that it can do some IO and create a data structure with that thunk placed somewhere inside, but you know that it doesn’t actually need to force that thunk. The wiki has some decent examples.

import Control.Monad.Fix
import Data.IORef

data Node = Node Int (IORef Node)

mknode = mfix $ \p -> do
  p' <- newIORef (Node 0 p)
  putStrLn "node created"
  return p'

The most compelling example I’ve found has been Reflex, the FRP library. The most common reason MonadFix is needed is that you want to define to widgets in a certain order, but you need their logic to go in the opposite order.

fmap snd $ mfix $ \(~(e', _)) -> do
  text <- textBoxWithClear e'
  e <- button
  return (e, text)

The button action returns an Event that we want to use to clear the text box, but we want the text box to come before the button in the layout. Now, we could have solved this by making text boxes totally mutable, and allowing the clear event to be changed at any time, but that’s not nearly as nice as the pseudo-pure approach we can take by relying on mfix, which requires no mutation at all (as far as we can see, that is; remember, there is an MVar in the mfix instance driving this whole thing).

So now let’s try defining a MonadFix instance ourselves. Maybe is an easy one. It will have the signature mfix :: (a -> Maybe a) -> Maybe a. The time travel analogy still works well here of course. We are given a function, and we have to call that function with a prediction of what it would return. The problem is: What if it returns Nothing? Well, we’re in luck. Since we’ve already mandated that it’s a paradox when the function is strict in its argument, we can just pass in a thunk that would error in the event that f returns Nothing. Since Nothing doesn’t contain any values, we can be certain that it can’t leak the false prediction. It’s basically safe for us to unilaterally predict that f will return Just, since it doesn’t matter when that prediction is wrong. So at this point, the function begins to sound a little bit like an a -> a rather than an a -> Maybe a, which should remind you of regular fix.

instance MonadFix Maybe where
  mfix f = let a = f (fromJust a) in a
  -- Or:
  mfix f = fix (f . fromJust)

With this instance, as long as f is not strict in its argument (a requirement for fixed points anyway), it can just return Nothing, and we don’t care, or it can return Just, and we’ll happily provide it with that result. This stuff about the Nothing case is just a variation on the point I made earlier. The function is partially constant, and we’re just exploiting knowledge about the constant parts to figure out what to pass back in time.

The instance for lists is similar, but more complicated.

instance MonadFix [] where
  mfix f = case fix (f . head) of
    []    -> []
    (x:_) -> x : mfix (tail . f)

We’re relying on the same idea, but taking it a bit further. We can take for granted that f won’t strictly use its argument, so we can use head to give it whatever it returns because the structure is constant. Either there will be a head, or there will be an empty list which can’t contain our false prediction. But we can’t call f with just the head element. Calling it with only one of its elements would be arbitrary and weird (and I bet it would violate the MonadFix laws, which I won’t get into). So we pattern match on it, and when it has a head element, we use that. But then we call mfix recursively with tail . f. We can do this because we already know that f is going to return a list with a head, so this time we’re going to have the fix (f . head) return the next element in the list.

This turns out giving the list monad some weird, but cool behavior. Normally, you would expect each bind to sort of introduce a loop. We iterate over the elements being bound out, and for each of them, we do all the statements that comes after it with that element bound immutably to a variable. But with mfix, it’s starts to look almost mutable:

mfix $ \b' -> do
  a <- [1, 2, snd b']
  b <- [3, 4]
  return (a, b)

> [(1, 3), (1, 4), (2, 3), (2, 4), (3, 3), (4, 4)]

We start with 1, and iterate over [3, 4], giving us the sublist [(1, 3), (1, 4)]. Then we do the same thing with 2. And finally, we try to do the same thing with snd b', except that b' depends on the statement that comes next because of mfix. Since we were lazy enough, this works out, and we end up with the a thunk being the same as the b thunk, which means that on each iteration of [3, 4], we’re changing what a is bound to. That’s how those last two elements of the list ended up with changing fst values, rather than constant.

Yea, MonadFix is weird.


The last thing I’ll talk about is the RecursiveDo language extension, which adds awesome syntax for using mfix more easily. Here’s how the last example with the list monad would look with RecursiveDo.

{-# LANGUAGE RecursiveDo #-}

foo = do
  rec a <- [1, 2, b]
      b <- [3, 4]
  return (a, b)

Using this syntax, we can just actually refer to a variable bound downstream, and RecursiveDo will handle using mfix for us. There are two different syntaxes available though (for some reason). Here, I’ve shown the rec syntax. But you can also just replace do with mdo and write the code without any rec statements.

foo = mdo
  a <- [1, 2, b]
  b <- [3, 4]
  return (a, b)

I believe the difference is mainly in how many mfixes are made, and where they’re put. If I understand correctly, mdo will always find the smallest mfixes possible, regardless of how many that means. Whereas one rec always results in one mfix around the lines that it covers.

With this, more people might be able to understand my hastily written post about Nix-style configuration. Recursion is a useful tool, and laziness is recursion’s friend!