[Haskell-cafe] Ambiguous type variable with subclass instance (also: is there a better way to do this?)

Andy Gimblett haskell at gimbo.org.uk
Thu Sep 17 09:40:10 EDT 2009

Hi all.  This email is in literate Haskell; you should be able to load
it into ghci and verify what I'm saying (nb: it won't compile without
alteration: see below).

I'm trying to do something which may anyway be stupid / not the best
approach to what I'm trying to achieve; however, it's not working and
I can't see why not.  So I'm asking for help on two fronts:

1) Why is this failing?

2) Maybe more usefully, how should I actually be doing this?  It seems
    an ugly approach; a voice in my head is saying "scrap your
    boilerplate", but I've no idea yet if that's actually applicable
    here; should I look at it?

On with the show...

I need these for "subclass" stuff later on...

 > {-# LANGUAGE FlexibleInstances #-}
 > {-# LANGUAGE OverlappingInstances #-}
 > {-# LANGUAGE UndecidableInstances #-}

 > module Ambig where

I wish to define a number of algebraic data types with the ability to
turn Int values into instances of those types.  So I define a
typeclass saying this is possible.  I use Maybe so I can encode the
existence of out-of-range Int values, which will vary from target type
to target type.

 > class Target a where
 >     convert :: Int -> Maybe a

E.g. here's a type Foo which only wants values between 1 and 10:

 > data Foo = Foo Int deriving (Show)
 > instance Target Foo where
 >     convert n | n `elem` [1..10] = Just $ Foo n
 >               | otherwise = Nothing

(That's a simple example; some are rather more complex.  How to do
this isn't what I'm asking about, really.)

So we have, for example:

*Ambig> (convert 1) :: Maybe Foo
Just (Foo 1)
*Ambig> (convert 11) :: Maybe Foo

Now, some of those algebraic data type types happen to be
enumerations; in this case, my idea is to list the constructors, with
the rule that each constructor's position in the list is the Int which
gets converted into that constructor.

 > class Enumerated a where
 >     constructors :: [a]

E.g. here's a type Bar with three constructors:

 > data Bar = X | Y | Z deriving (Show)
 > instance Enumerated Bar where
 >     constructors = [X, Y, Z]

(This is certainly ugly.  Any suggestions?)

Now we get to the crux.  If a type is an instance of Enumerated, it
should also be a Target, because we should be able to convert from Int
just by list lookup.  But we include a bounds check, naturally...

 > instance (Enumerated a) => Target a where
 >     convert n | n `elem` [0..len-1] = Just $ constructors !! n
 >               | otherwise = Nothing
 >         where len = length constructors

So I would _hope_ that then, e.g., we'd have:

*Ambig> (convert 0) :: Maybe Bar
Just X
*Ambig> (convert 1) :: Maybe Bar
Just Y
*Ambig> (convert 3) :: Maybe Bar

Sadly, this function doesn't compile, dying with an "Ambiguous type
variable" error:

     Ambiguous type variable `a' in the constraint:
       `Enumerated a'
         arising from a use of `constructors' at Ambig.lhs:74:29-40
     Probable fix: add a type signature that fixes these type  

If we replace "length constructors" with "3" (say), it compiles (but
is useless).  Adding a type signature doesn't help: it's "misplaced"
in that context.  If I break it out of the instance declaration so I
can add one, I still get the same problem:

 > convert' :: (Enumerated a, Target a) => Int -> Maybe a
 > convert' n | n `elem` [0..len-1] = Just $ constructors !! n
 >            | otherwise = Nothing
 >     where len = length constructors

I guess I see roughly what's going on; the question is "which
constructors instance is meant?", right?  In the "Just" part it's OK,
because it can be inferred from the function's return type (right?).
But in the guard we don't have that help, so it could be any
Enumerated instance?

Any advice appreciated!  Particularly if this is just a dumb approach.
For context, this is related to deserialisation of binary data (they'll
actually be Word8's, not Int's) into a variety of data structures.

Hmmm, maybe I should just be using Data.Binary...

Many thanks,


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