On Clojure

June 24, 2009

Protecting mutable state in the state monad

Filed under: Uncategorized — Konrad Hinsen @ 4:19 pm

In part 3 of my monad tutorial for Clojure programmers, I explained that the main purpose of the state monad is to facilitate the implementation of stateful algorithms in a purely functional way. Here I will show a somewhat different use of the state monad: protecting mutable data in such a way that it is guaranteed not to be used incorrectly. I will use I/O as my example because I expect that everyone is familiar with it, but the same method can also be applied to modify mutable Java data structures, such as arrays, in a referentially transparent fashion.

The example I will use is stream-based I/O, based on the java.io library. Writing to such a stream has side-effects, so it is certainly not purely functional. But even reading from a stream is not purely functional: every time you call the read method, you get another return value. A stream object therefore represents mutable state. Passing around such an object among functions in a program makes it difficult to verify that the stream is read or written to properly.

Here is the basic idea of protecting state in the state monad. Suppose that the only way to create your mutable object is through a function that takes a state monad value as its argument. The function creates the object, calls the state monad value on it, and then destroys the object. Client code never obtains a reference to the object, so the only way to act on it is through state monad values that define useful operations on the object (such as “read a line from the stream”). To add another layer of protection, the object is wrapped in a protective data structure (such as a closure) before being passed to the state monad value. Only a well-defined set of state monad values gets the key to access the object, meaning that only those clearly identified operations can act on the object. You can then use those operations, and combine them in the state monad to define more complex operations. But no matter how you try, you will never get a reference to the object that you could assign to a var, pass to some function, or (ab-)use in any other way.

For stream-based I/O, this approach is implemented in the library clojure.contrib.monadic-io-streams. Before trying any of the examples below, you have to evaluate the following form that takes care of importing the libraries:

(ns monadic-io-demo
  (:refer-clojure :exclude (read-line print println flush))
  (:use [clojure.contrib.monadic-io-streams])
  (:use [clojure.contrib.monads]))

The :refer-clojure clause is necessary because clojure.contrib.monadic-io-streams defines a couple of names that are also defined in clojure.core. In general this is not a good idea, but here the names are the same as those of the Java functions that are being called, which is a useful feature as well. The number of good names for functions is unfortunately not unlimited!

With the bookkeeping done, let’s look at a basic application:

(with-reader "my-file.txt"

This returns the first line of the text file “my-file.txt”. To understand how this works, here is the definition of read-line:

(defn read-line
  (fn [s] [(.readLine (unlock s)) s]))

The call (read-line) thus returns a state monad value: a function that takes a state argument s, calls the Java method readLine on the unlocked state, and returns a vector containing the freshly read line and the state argument. The function unlock is defined locally in a let form and is thus inaccessible from the outside. It retrieves the real state value from the wrapper that only serves to protect it.

Next, we need to look at with-reader:

(defn with-reader
  [reader-spec statement]
  (with-open [r (reader reader-spec)]
    (first (statement (lock r)))))

The function reader that it calls comes from clojure.contrib.duck-streams. It creates the stream reader object which is then locked (wrapped inside a closure) and passed to statement, which happens to be the state monad value returned by (read-line). The with-open macro ensures that the reader is closed. The return value of the with-reader function is the first item in the return value of the monadic statement; the second item is the state which is of no interest any more.

There are two levels of protection here: first, the reader object is never made accessible to the outside world. It is created, injected into the monadic statement, and then made invalid by closing it. The only way to get a reference would be write a monadic statement that exposes the state. This is indeed possible, and the statement is even provided under the name fetch-state in clojure.contrib.monads. The following piece of code returns the state value:

(with-reader "my-file.txt"

But here the second level of protection takes over: the return value is the locked version of the state, which happens to be a closure. That closure must be called with the right key in order to unlock the state, but the key is not accessible anywhere. Only a handful of functions in clojure.contrib.monadic-io-streams can unlock the state and work on it.

The typical way to do more complex I/O using this monadic approach is to define complex I/O statements by composing the basic I/O statements (read, read-line, write, print, etc.) in the state monad. This permits the construction of arbitrary I/O code, all in a purely functional way. In the end, the compound I/O statement is applied to an I/O stream using with-reader or with-writer. That part is necessarily not purely functional: when reading a file, nothing guarantees that the file will be the same every time it is read. But the non-functional part is now localized in a single place, and the complex aspect of I/O, the composition of I/O statements to do the required work, is purely functional.

As I said earlier, the same approach can be applied to working with mutable arrays. There would be function make-array that takes a monadic array-modifying statement as its argument. This function would create an array, run it through the statement, and return the resulting modified array. The only array-modifying functions would be defined as state monad values. The net result would be a referentially transparent way to create a new array and have it initialized by an arbitrary algorithm. However, once returned from make-array, the array would be immutable.

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  1. Hi,

    I really liked this and the other blog entries about monads to let me understand the concept w/ Clojure. Thanks.

    To run the sample, I had to exclude write of clojure.contrib.monadic-io-streams. It’s w/ Clojure 1.2 and 1.3.0-alpha2.

    (:use [clojure.contrib.monadic-io-streams :exclude (write)])


    Comment by jaceklaskowski — October 29, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    • The need to exclude write in Clojure 1.2 and later is an example of what I consider a design fault in Clojure’s namespace handling: new symbols that get added to clojure.core break existing code that use the same symbols otherwise. I hope this will be fixed in the future.

      Comment by khinsen — October 29, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

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