[Haskell-cafe] Re: Exception handling in numeric computations

John Lato jwlato at gmail.com
Wed Mar 25 08:16:53 EDT 2009

> Jake McArthur <jake at pikewerks.com> writes:
>> Xiao-Yong Jin wrote:
>> | The problem is that there will be many functions using such
>> | a function to invert a matrix, making this inversion
>> | function return Either/Maybe or packing it in a monad is
>> | just a big headache.
>> I disagree. If you try to take the inverse of a noninvertable matrix,
>> this is an *error* in your code. Catching an error you created in pure
>> code and patching it with chewing gum it is just a hack. A monadic
>> approach (I'm putting Either/Maybe under the same umbrella for brevity)
>> is the only solution that makes any sense to me, and I don't think it's
>> ugly as you are making it out to be.
> Then, why is 'div' not of type 'a -> a -> ArithExceptionMonad a' ?
> Why does it throws this /ugly/ /error/ when it is applied to
> 0?  Why is it not using some beautiful
> 'ArithExceptinoMonad'?  Is 'Control.Exception' just pure
> /ugly/ and doesn't make any sense?
>> | It is impractical to use method (a),
>> | because not every function that uses 'invMat' knows how to
>> | deal with 'invMat' not giving an answer.  So we need to use
>> | method (b), to use monad to parse our matrix around.
>> |
>> |> > invMat :: Matrix -> NumericCancerMonad Matrix
>> |
>> | It hides the exceptional nature of numerical computations
>> | very well, but it is cancer in the code.  Whenever any
>> | function wants to use invMat, it is mutated.  This is just
>> | madness.  You don't want to make all the code to be monadic
>> | just because of singularities in numeric calculation.
>> For functions that don't know or don't care about failure, just use fmap
>> or one of its synonyms.
>> ~    scalarMult 2 <$> invMat x
>> See? The scalarMult function is pure, as it should be. There is no
>> madness here.
> Of course, 'scalarMult' is invulnerable and free of monad.
> But take a look at the following functions,
>> f1 = scalarMult 2 . invMat
>> f2 l r = l `multMat` invMat r
>> ff :: Matrix -> Matrix -> YetAnotherBiggerMonad Matrix
>> ff x y = do let ff' = f1 x + f2 y
>>             put . (addMat ff') . f1 << get
>>             tell $ f2 ff'
>>             when (matrixWeDontLike (f1 ff') $
>>                  throwError MatrixWeDontLike
>>             return $ scalarMult (1/2) ff'
> Yes, I know, it's not really complicate to rewrite the above
> code.  But, what do I really gain from this rewrite?

Apologies if this discussion has moved on, but I wanted to comment on this.

You gain correctness.  Any functions that need to be rewritten in this
case should be rewritten anyway, because they're already wrong.  Your
function ff can fail for certain inputs.  This statement:
>> | It is impractical to use method (a),
>> | because not every function that uses 'invMat' knows how to
>> | deal with 'invMat' not giving an answer.  So we need to use
>> | method (b), to use monad to parse our matrix around.

is conceptually wrong.  What does it mean to multiply the inverse of a
non-invertible matrix by a scalar?  Obviously this is nonsensical.  If
a computation can fail (as this can), the type of the function should
reflect it.  The above functions

>> f1 = scalarMult 2 . invMat
>> f2 l r = l `multMat` invMat r

should be

f1 :: Matrix -> Maybe Matrix
f1 = fmap (scalarMult 2) . invMat

f2 :: Matrix -> Matrix -> Maybe Matrix
f2 l r = fmap (multMat l) $ invMat r

Of course these could be written with Control.Applicative as well:

f1 m = scalarMult 2 <$> invMat m
f2 l r = multMat l <$> invMat r

>> ff :: Matrix -> Matrix -> YetAnotherBiggerMonad Matrix
>> ff x y = let ff' = f1 x + f2 y
         in scalarMult (1/2) ff'

(I think you may be missing an argument to f2 here.)

This computation can fail as well, if the constituent parts fail.  The
separate parts can be combined with applicative style:

ff :: Matrix -> Matrix -> Maybe Matrix
ff x y = scalarMult (1/2) <$> ( (+) <$> f1 x <*> f2 y)

Compare this to the same code using monadic Maybe:

ff :: Matrix -> Matrix -> Maybe Matrix
ff x y = do
  x' <- f1 x
  y' <- f2 y
  scalarMult (1/2) $ x' + y'

You gain clarity and brevity.  Both examples are shorter and easier to
understand because you aren't messing with all the plumbing of error
handling using exceptions, although I find the Applicative version
especially clear.  If you would like to keep track of why a
computation failed, then use Either instead of Maybe with the Left
carrying a reason for failure (e.g. NonInvertibleMatrix)

Finally, you gain safety.  When you use a function f1 :: Matrix ->
Matrix, you can be assured that you will get an actual, meaningful
answer.  If you use a function f2 :: Matrix -> Maybe Matrix, you know
that you may not get a meaningful answer, and it is simple to handle
at the appropriate level of your code.  I (and many other Haskell
users) find this to be conceptually cleaner than throwing dynamic
exceptions or using undefined.

Incidentally, this is one reason why many experienced Haskellers like
the applicative style.  It allows you to express your computations
without obtrusive error handling mixed in.  It's also more general
than monads, so can be applied in more instances.

div (and other non-total functions in the Prelude like head), are also
frequently considered ugly hacks.  Just because we're stuck with
something from H98 doesn't mean that it's necessarily good or elegant
(the fail monad method and Functor not being a superclass of Monad
come to mind).  In some ways FP has moved on since Haskell was

There is an alternative approach that I believe was suggested by
somebody else on the list:

newtype InvMatrix = Invert {unWrap :: Matrix}

then you can do
invertMatrix :: Matrix -> Maybe InvMatrix
invertMatrix = fmap Invert . invMat

If you put these in a separate module and export InvMatrix, unwrap,
and invertMatrix, but not Invert, then the only way to create an
InvMatrix is with invertMatrix, so any data of type InvMatrix is
guaranteed to be invertible (and inverted from what you used to create

Then your ff function becomes:

ff :: InvMatrix -> InvMatrix -> Matrix

the final value of the function could be InvMatrix if you can prove
that it's invertible after your operations (although to be efficient,
this would require exporting the Invert constructor and a proof from
the programmer).  This keeps ff pure; you don't even have to deal with
Maybe (although there are other ramifications to doing this that
should be considered).


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