[Haskell-beginners] doing state right

Quentin Moser quentin.moser at unifr.ch
Thu Apr 23 02:55:47 EDT 2009

On Thu, 23 Apr 2009 00:59:37 -0500
Floptical Logic <flopticalogic at gmail.com> wrote:

> I am using a PPM library to generate a square image where each white
> pixel represents a prime number.  The PPM library takes a function
> (Int -> Int -> Colour) to create the image.  This interface isn't
> ideal but it is what I have to work with.  I am convinced that using a
> sieve is faster than testing every pixel in the image for primality,
> but the (Int -> Int -> Colour) interface makes this awkward.  The code
> below attempts to treat the list of prime numbers as a stack via
> global mutable state, popping the head whenever the pixel is prime.
> Obviously this is not idiomatic Haskell.  What is the correct approach
> of dealing with state here?  Thanks for reading.
> import ONeillPrimes
> import PPM6
> import Colour
> import Data.IORef
> import System.IO.Unsafe
> limit = 2000
> slimit = limit*limit
> primeList = takeWhile (<=slimit) primes
> p :: IORef [Int]
> p = unsafePerformIO (newIORef primeList)
> pcol n = unsafePerformIO $ do
>     xs <- readIORef p
>     if null xs then return black else
>         if n == head xs
>             then do
>                 writeIORef p (tail xs)
>                 return white
>             else
>                 return black
> main = quick_ppm "foo.ppm" (\i j -> pcol ((i-1)*limit+j)) limit limit
> -- quick_ppm :: FilePath -> (Int -> Int -> Colour.Colour) -> Int ->
> Int -> IO () _______________________________________________
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Since Haskell is a pure language, the type (Int -> Int -> Colour) means
that the result of the function will _only_ depend on its Int
parameters. Not on some external state, not even on the order of

Using unsafePerformIO to nevertheless fit a dependency on state in such
a function, like you did, is extremely dangerous. First of all,
the interface to quick_ppm makes absolutely no guarantee regarding the
order in which the colors of the different pixels will be evaluated;
after all, it simply shouldn't matter. Second, and worse, a function
such as pcol risks breaking compiler optimisations that rely on its
purity. The fact that your current program actually happens to work
(if it does) is simply a stroke of luck.

The bottom-line is: the quick_ppm interface is simply too restrictive to
implement your algorithm. You'll have to either
 - Find another function in the library with a more flexible type.
 - Drop the optimisation and search the whole primes list from the
   beginning every time (urk!).

As for the proper use of unsafePerformIO:

Referential transparency (the fact that a function, called with the
same arguments, will always produce the same result) is not just a
safety restriction; it's a fundamental part of the semantics of
Haskell, and compilers rely heavily on it. Using unsafePerformIO to
create an unpure function means breaking the language's semantics, which
will result in misbehaving or segfaulting code.

So that's definitely not what unsafePerformIO is for. You should instead
only use it when you can _prove_ that the resulting function will
actually be referentially transparent, i.e. whatever side-effects it
uses are purely local and don't affect the rest of the program at all.

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