Path to Beginnery in Functional Programming with Haskell
Path to Beginnery in Functional Programming with Haskell
Introduction to the Series
I have done a little functional programming in Scala. I tend to write short scripts to help myself and users on the University of Pittsburgh’s compute resources. Because of the JVM startup and length of my scripts it just made more sense to use Python. I want to embrace FP completely and decided something like Haskell would fit my needs better. Additionally, I did a PhD in Theoretical Chemistry so I am not averse to math and theory. In fact, I would like to continue working with math and theory without writing Fortran. So, I recently started working through the Learn You a Haskell book.
In this blog series, I want to document my path to “Beginnery” in Haskell. I have no formal training with Computer Science and I wouldn’t call this series educational. If it helps anyone that would be a great bonus. I just want to be able to look back and track my own progress. I don’t really want to accept comments on this website, please direct message me on Twitter @chiroptical. and I will try to fix any mistakes, accept feedback for my crappy code, or potentially accept new problems.
Here’s the format I want to follow: Take a project from somewhere and try to solve the problem without reading the solution. Then, attempt to add some additional functionality to the project. Finally, read the solution and hopefully learn something.
Project 0
Definition of the Problem
Let’s consider two paths from a starting point to an end point. We’ll label the
paths A
and B
. Along the paths there are additional paths which connect A
to B
. Here’s a pictoral representation:
Path A
would be along the top and B
along the bottom. We want to determine
the shortest path from Start
to End
.
Breaking up the Problem
I will break the problem up into sections which look like:
Where $ a_1 $ is the length along path A
, $ b_1 $ is the length along
path B
, $ c_1 $ is the length along the cross section of the paths, and
the $ \bullet $ represents the current path. The knowledge of the current path
is helpful because there are two potential combinations of sections:
To determine the next shortest path you would evaluate:
 starting on path
A
: take minimum of $ a_2 $ and $ c_1 + b_2 $  starting on path
B
: take minimum of $ b_2 $ and $ c_1 + a_2 $
Solving the Problem
This is the layout of a folding problem. If you are unfamiliar with folds the
basic idea is that we will layout our sections into a list and define a function
which will combine them one by one into a new data structure until we reach
the End
. The definition of our data structures:
type RoadSec = (Int, Int, Int)
type Path = (Int, String, Int)
A RoadSec
is a tuple of $ (a_i, b_i, c_i) $. The Path
is the data structure
we will use to combine on. The first element is simply the distance travelled
(m
for minimum distance). The second element is the actual path taken (p
for
path), e.g. abaa
means:
 Start along
A
 Take the next cross section to
B
 Take the next cross section to
A
 At the next cross section, continue on
A
If you look at the 2 possible combinations of sections above, you will notice we
don’t use $ c_2 $! The final element in the Path
tuple is $ c_1 $ for the next
section combination.
To do a fold, we first need to define the base case. The base case is what you
want to combine on, in our case the initial Path
. To construct it, take the
first RoadSec
$ (a_0, b_0, c_0) $ and construct the initial Path
: (minimum
distance of $ a_0 $ and $ b_0 $, the path to take "a"
or "b"
, and the cross section
for the next combination $ c_0 $).
Next, you have to define a function to combine the initial Path
with a RoadSec
to make the next Path
:
foldRoadSecs :: Path > RoadSec > Path
foldRoadSecs (m, p, c1) (a2, b2, c2)
 head p == 'a' = (m + min a2 crossB, takeWhich a2 crossB ++ p, c2)
 otherwise = (m + min b2 crossA, takeWhich crossA b2 ++ p, c2)
where
crossB = c1 + b2
crossA = c1 + a2
Reminder: m
is the overall minimum distance, p
is the overall path taken, c1
is
the cross section from the previous combination, (a2, b2, c2)
is the next RoadSec
. If we are on path "a"
,
we want to take the minimum of continuing on path A
or crossing over (i.e.
crossB
). Starting on path "b"
is obviously similar and the only other option,
hence otherwise
. To figure out what path we are on, we take the first entry in
p
. It turns out prepending to a list is faster than appending in Haskell (i.e.
p
is stored backwards). I have read this observation about Haskell
in a few different places and I trust that in most cases it is true. However,
never forget: “premature optimization is the root of all evil” and I should
measure to be sure. The function takeWhich
generates the string to add to the path and
c2
is used as c1
in the next combination. Now, assuming we have a list of
RoadSec
we can simply do a foldl
:
minPath :: [RoadSec] > Path
minPath ((a, b, c): xs) = foldl foldRoadSecs (min a b, takeWhich a b, c) xs
Notice how I separate the base case from the rest of the list. Also, foldl
takes a function B > A > B
(e.g. foldRoadSecs
), a B
(Path
),
and a [A]
(list of A
, RoadSec
) and generates a B
(Path
). Now, we
can take the first element of the resulting Path
to get the minimum distance
travelled, reverse
the second element to get the path you should travel, and
the third element is not useful in this case.
Practical Considerations
Data Layout
I changed the layout of the data compared to the book because I thought it was more readable. Our program will read a CSV file with exactly 3 columns, i.e.:
[
a_0,b_0,c_0
a_1,b_1,c_1
…
a_n,b_n,c_n
]
Each line represents a section and there are n
sections.
Reading the Data
I decided that the program should take the CSV as STDIN
. I came up with:
main :: IO ()
main = do
contents < getContents
let path = minPath $ csv3ToRoadSecs (lines contents)
Starting from the right, lines contents
generates a [String]
which is fed
to csv3ToRoadSecs
, defined as:
csv3ToRoadSecs :: [String] > [RoadSec]
csv3ToRoadSecs = map (toRoadSec . map (read::String>Int) . splitOn ",")
This took me longer than I want to admit to get correct, but that is okay.
Starting with the function composition: toRoadSec . map (read::String>Int) .
splitOn ","
, on the right: splitOn ","
takes a String
and generates a
[String]
splitting on commas. Then we map
read
on each String
to
generate an Int
, finally we convert the [Int]
to a RoadSec
. Then we
map
the function composition over the [String]
from lines contents
.
It isn’t too hard when you follow the types.
String and [Char]
Conceptually, I wanted to represent p
in Path
as [Char]
but some of the
type checking became problematic. String
is exactly the same as [Char]
, but
[Char]
didn’t operate as I expected. This could have been a misunderstanding
on my part, but it was easier to use String
everywhere. I think this is a minor
point, but I did get hung up on the type checking.
Adding a Feature
The feature I decided to add was generating a pictoral representation of the path
travelled. Basically, it is another folding problem which is great because I
know how to solve those. Our [A]
in this case is the p
from the final Path
and
the B
will be a PictoralRepr
, defined as:
type PictoralRepr = (String, String, String, String)
Where the first entry will contain the current path similarly to the first element
of Path
, but we don’t need to keep the overall path! Only the most recent one.
The next 3 will build a top, middle, and bottom row as a String
. For example,
if we had p = "aa"
we would want to generate the representation:

and, p = "ab"
would generate:



Our base case is simply the starting path ("a"
or "b"
) and three empty strings to hold the representations.
Our folding function:
foldPaths :: PictoralRepr > String > PictoralRepr
foldPaths (p, t, m, b) n
 p == "a" && n == "a" = (n, "" ++ t, " " ++ m, " " ++ b)
 p == "a" && n == "b" = (n, "" ++ t, " " ++ m, " " ++ b)
 p == "b" && n == "b" = (n, " " ++ t, " " ++ m, "" ++ b)
 otherwise = (n, " " ++ t, " " ++ m, "" ++ b)
Where p
is the current path, t
is the top representation, m
is the middle
representation, b
is the bottom representation, and n
is where we are headed
next. There are four possibilities, "aa", "ab", "bb", "ba"
. Depending on the
combination we prepend the new strings to the representations (remember prepend
faster than append) and the final representation should be reversed. Finally,
the actual foldl
call:
pictoralRepr :: String > PictoralRepr
pictoralRepr (x:xs) = foldl foldPaths ([x], "", "", "") (tail . splitOn "" $ xs)
The input is a String
and we take off the first Char
which is why [x]
is necessary (reminder: String
made type checking easier). The composition
tail . splitOn ""
converts a String
(xs
) into [String]
. It’s easier
to show you why the tail
is necessary:
$ stack ghci
Prelude> import Data.List.Split (splitOn)
Prelude Data.List.Split> a = "babb"
Prelude Data.List.Split> splitOn "" a
["","b","a","b","b"]
splitOn
adds an empty string in the head
position. Finally, there is
one issue. The final path is never added to the representation and we
need to deal with it specially. Luckily we already have our folding function,
so it is easy as:
let repr = pictoralRepr (pathStr path)
let lastRepr = foldPaths repr (prev repr)
Where pathStr
extracts the p
from a Path
. prev
extracts the “previous”
position which would have been used to make the next combination. We can simply
using our folding function on repr
itself to generate the last part of the
representations.
Compile and Run
I am using stack
, which I know very little about thus far. I compiled the
code with:
$ stack exec  ghc dynamic v2.hs
[1 of 1] Compiling Main ( v2.hs, v2.o )
Linking v2 ...
Run on the example in the book which generates p = "babb"
:
./v2 < toLondon.csv
"Minimum distance travelled: 75"
"Path travelled: babb"
"Take the following path:"
"  "
"   "
" "
Sweet! I generated a larger random CSV file with Python, numpy, and pandas (obviously I should be using Haskell!):
$ ipython
In [1]: import pandas as pd
In [2]: import numpy as np
In [3]: df = pd.DataFrame(np.random.randint(0, 100, size=(100, 3)))
In [4]: df.to_csv("test.csv", index=False, header=False)
Run the code:
$ ./v2 < test.csv
"Minimum distance travelled: 4143"
"Path travelled: bbbbbbbbaaaaaaaaaaabbbbbbbbbbbbbaaabbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbaaaaaaabbbbbbaaaaaaaaaaaaaabbbbbbbbbbbaabbbbbbb"
"Take the following path:"
"      "
"           "
"     "
Wrapping Up
This was a fun little project. I am feeling a lot more comfortable about folding. The entire code with all of the helper functions can be found in this gist. I can’t stop you from making comments, but understand I am a novice. I will learn better techniques as I continue.
Hope you enjoyed this post, let me know what you think on Twitter @chiroptical