A Critique of Impure Reason

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Heterogeneous Lists and the Limits of the Java Type System

Today, we’re going on a journey. It is a sojourn to the outer limits of the expressiveness of the Java type system, and to the edge of what can be considered sane programming. This is definitely one for the power users. You will need a firm grasp of the Java language, and an iron constitution for type annotations. But the reward will be something far greater than any treasure: understanding, entertainment, and perhaps even enlightenment. Remember that we choose to do these things in Java, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Now then, to the ships.

A Most Versatile Vessel

In Java, we can create a list that contains values of type A, by constructing a value of type List<A>. The type system will enforce that each element in the list is in fact of type A. But sometimes we want lists of values that aren’t necessarily of the same type. Normally, for such a purpose, we would use a heterogeneous list, which in Java is just the raw list type List<?> or List<Object>. Since every class in Java is a subclass of Object (and now that we have autoboxing), such a list can contain any Java value. There are many kinds of situation where this would be necessary. For example, a row of database results will comprise values that are not all of the same type.

However, there’s a problem with the raw list approach. In using the List<?> type, we are dispensing with the type system. When you get a value from the list, how do you know what it is? How do you know which operations it supports? Well, you will have to defer that discovery until runtime, and use explicit type casting. Most will shrug at this and say: “So what?” After all, this is what we did anyway, before generics. Ah, but what if we don’t have to? Can we create generic heterogeneous collections that are type-safe? Yes, we can. Sort of.

Products of Types

What we would like to see is if it’s possible to declare some constraints on the types of a heterogeneous collection, to achieve essential type-safety while maintaining the extensibility of a list. Of course, it’s easy to create types that are the product of two or more types:

public abstract class P2<A, B> {
  public abstract A _1();
  public abstract B _2();

But the length of this kind of product is as fixed as the length of a string in Pascal. It isn’t extensible, so it’s more like a type-safe heterogeneous array than a list. If you want products of different lengths, you will need to declare separate classes for P3<A, B, C>, P4<A, B, C, D>, etc. What we’re trying to achieve is a product of arbitrary length, whose length might even vary at runtime. There’s no reason we couldn’t create products of products in a chain, like P2<A, P2<B, P2<C, D>>>, and this is more or less the approach that we will take.

Introducing HList

To achieve our goal, we’re going to implement linked lists in the type system. Let’s remind ourselves what a linked list looks like. A List<T> is essentially either the empty list or a value of type T paired with a List<T>. In Java, using the List<A> type from Functional Java, an unsafe heterogeneous list might be constructed in a manner like the following:

List<?> x = cons("One", cons(2, cons(false, nil()));

The cons method constructs a list, and the nil method returns the empty list. With just these two methods, we can create any homogeneous list. A list has two methods to access its members, head() which returns the first element, and tail() which returns the rest of the list. Getting the head or tail of the empty list is an error at runtime.

Let’s now take a step up into the type system, and say that a list of types is either the empty list or a type paired with a list of types. This gives rise to our heterogeneous list type:

public abstract class HList<A extends HList<A>> {
 private HList() {}

 private static final HNil nil = new HNil();

 public static HNil nil() {
   return nil;

 public static <E, L extends HList<L>> HCons<E, L> cons(final E e, final L l) {
   return new HCons<E, L>(e, l);

 public static final class HNil extends HList<HNil> {
   private HNil() {}

 public static final class HCons<E, L extends HList<L>> extends HList<HCons<E, L>> {
   private E e;
   private L l;

   private HCons(final E e, final L l) {
     this.e = e;
     this.l = l;

   public E head() {
     return e;

   public L tail() {
     return l;

That’s not a lot of code, and it’s all relatively straightforward Java. The HList class is parameterised with a parameterised subclass of itself. There are only two concrete subclasses of HList that can possibly occupy that slot: the type HNil and the type constructor HCons. These represent the empty list and the list constructor, respectively. HCons takes two type parameters, the first representing the first element of the list, and the second being another HList, allowing us to form a chain of them. HNil does not take type parameters, so it terminates the chain.

As with regular old lists, you can access the head() and tail() of the list. Note, however, that the fact that you cannot get the head or tail of the empty list is now enforced by the type system. There’s a nil method to get the empty list, and a cons method to construct a nonempty list, just like with regular lists.

Here’s an example of how we would construct a heterogeneous list using this new type:

HCons<String, HCons<Integer, HCons<Boolean, HNil>>> x = cons("One", cons(2, cons(false, nil()));

This is more verbose than the unsafe version before, but not by much. Obviously, the HList example assumes a static import of HList.cons and the List<?> example assumes a static import of List.cons. Using the type-safe version is, however, much nicer. Compare these two contrived examples:

if (x.tail().tail().head()) {
  return x.head().length() == x.tail().head();

if ((boolean) x.index(3)) {
  return ((String) x.head()).length() == (int) x.index(2);

The latter, of course, offers no static guarantees and may throw ClassCastExceptions, or we might inadvertently get the head or tail of the empty list at runtime. The former will always work as long as it compiles, guaranteed.

Concatenating HLists

Now let’s do something more interesting with these lists. Notice that the cons methods for both type-safe and unsafe lists prepend an element to a list rather than appending. Sometimes we want to append a list to the end of another. This is unsurprisingly uncomplicated for unsafe lists:

List<?> c = a.append(b);

Behind the scenes, we can think of append as reversing the first list and consing each element to the second list in reverse order. Doing that for HList is a little more involved. We have to construct a chain of types in exactly the right way, at compile-time.

Appending an HList to another is a function that takes two HList-valued arguments and returns an HList. Using first-class functions from Functional Java, the append operation for HLists of specific types L and R, would be a function of the following type:

F2<L extends HList<R>, L extends HList<L>, LR extends HList<LR>>

Where LR is the type of the concatenated HList. Now, since we necessarily have the two arguments, we know the specific types of L and R. Since Java doesn’t have type inference, it cannot automatically figure out the specific type of LR. We will have to supply it as type annotation. Not to worry. Even though Java doesn’t infer types, it can be coerced into doing some type arithmetic. All we have to do is a little inductive reasoning.

Types as Formulae

According to the Curry-Howard isomorphism, a program is a proof, and the hypothesis that it proves is a type for the program. In this sense, Java’s type system is a kind of crude theorem prover. Put another way, a type is a predicate, and values of that type represent the terms for which the predicate holds. The function type above therefore asserts that for any two HLists, L and R, there exists some program to derive the HList LR. The function type by itself does not put any constraints on LR, however. It can be derived by any function, not just the concatenation function. We will remedy that presently. We need a formula that states that the two types L and R imply a third type LR which is the HList concatenation of L and R, given some concatenation function. Here is the type that represents that formula:

public static final class HAppend<L, R, LR> {
    private final F2<L, R, LR> append;

    private HAppend(final F2<L, R, LR> f) {
      append = f;

    public LR append(final L l, final R r) {
      return append.f(l, r);

At this point, HAppend is still just a hypothesis without evidence. Remember that a value of a type is proof of the formula that it represents. So we will need to supply two proofs in the form of constructors for values of this type; one for the base case of appending to the empty list HNil, and another for the case of appending to an HCons. The base case is easy. Appending anything to the empty list should result in that same thing. So the HAppend constructor for appending to the empty list looks like this:

    public static <L extends HList<L>> HAppend<HNil, L, L> append() {
      return new HAppend<HNil, L, L>(new F2<HNil, L, L>() {
        public L f(final HNil hNil, final L l) {
          return l;

The case for the nonempty list is not quite as easy. Consider its type:

    public static <X, A extends HList<A>, B, C extends HList<C>, H extends HAppend<A, B, C>>
                         HAppend<HCons<X, A>, B, HCons<X, C>> append(final H h)

Read the return type first. This returns an HAppend that appends some B to an HCons<X, A>. The type of the head of the first list (X) becomes the type of the head of the concatenated list. The tail of the concatenated list is C. The type constraints state that C must be an HList, and that there must exist some way to append B (the second list) to A (the tail of the first list) so that they make C. We must supply proof that this last constraint holds, and you’ll see that such a proof is in fact supplied as an argument (in the form of the value h).
What this is saying is that, given the premise that A and B can be concatenated, the concatenation of HCons<X, A> and B can be inferred. A value of type HAppend<A, B, C> is precisely proof of the hypothesis that A and B can be concatenated, since there are only these two cases and we’ve supplied a proof for both. In other words, if we can append to the empty list, then that’s proof enough that we can append to a list of one element, which proves that we can append to a list of two elements, and so on. Given this, we can construct a chain of proofs. This concatenated proof, then, is a function that concatenates lists of the corresponding types.

OK, so how do we use this? Well, here’s an example program that appends one list to another:

public class HList_append {
  public static void main(final String[] args) {
    // The two lists
    final HCons<String, HCons<Integer, HCons<Boolean, HNil>>> a =
      cons("Foo", cons(3, cons(true, nil())));
    final HCons<Double, HCons<String, HCons<Integer&#91;&#93;, HNil>>> b =
      cons(4.0, cons("Bar", cons(new Integer[]{1, 2}, nil())));

    // A lot of type annotation
    final HAppend<HNil, HCons<Double, HCons<String, HCons<Integer&#91;&#93;, HNil>>>,
      HCons<Double, HCons<String, HCons<Integer&#91;&#93;, HNil>>>> zero = append();
    final HAppend<HCons<Boolean, HNil>, HCons<Double, HCons<String, HCons<Integer&#91;&#93;, HNil>>>,
      HCons<Boolean, HCons<Double, HCons<String, HCons<Integer&#91;&#93;, HNil>>>>> one = append(zero);
    final HAppend<HCons<Integer, HCons<Boolean, HNil>>, HCons<Double, HCons<String, HCons<Integer&#91;&#93;, HNil>>>,
      HCons<Integer, HCons<Boolean, HCons<Double, HCons<String, HCons<Integer&#91;&#93;, HNil>>>>>> two = append(one);
    final HAppend<HCons<String, HCons<Integer, HCons<Boolean, HNil>>>,
      HCons<Double, HCons<String, HCons<Integer&#91;&#93;, HNil>>>,
      HCons<String, HCons<Integer, HCons<Boolean, HCons<Double, HCons<String, HCons<Integer&#91;&#93;, HNil>>>>>>>
      three = append(two);

    // And all of that lets us append one list to the other.
    final HCons<String, HCons<Integer, HCons<Boolean, HCons<Double, HCons<String, HCons<Integer&#91;&#93;, HNil>>>>>>
      x = three.append(a, b);

    // And we can access the components of the concatenated list in a type-safe manner
    if (x.tail().tail().head())
      System.out.println(x.tail().tail().tail().tail().tail()[1] * 2); // 4

Holy pointy brackets, Batman! Do we really need all of that? Well, look at what it’s doing. It’s constructing a concatenation function of the appropriate type, by supplying the premise at each step. If this seems mechanical, then that’s because it is. There is only one possible implementation for the HAppend we need, but Java does not have any mechanism for figuring this out, nor does it provide a facility for the programmer to tell it how.
Contrast that to Scala. The above is a clear example of where Scala’s implicit arguments come in handy. If we import this to Scala, we can make both of the append functions implicit, and we can further make the H argument to the append function for nonempty lists implicit as well. There can be only one possible implementation of each function, so it can be declared once and used implicitly wherever proofs of the corresponding types are required. Jesper Nordenberg has implemented an HList library for Scala that demonstrates this well. With implicits and Scala, the whole middle section of our program is condensed from 12 lines of type annotations to just:

 val x = a.append(b)

Now, if you’re really into this Java stuff, you’re probably thinking: “implicits are just dependency injection”. Well, in a sense, you would be right. Both dependency injection and inheritance are degenerate forms of implicits. However, there is currently no dependency injection framework for Java that can abstract over type constructors such that it provides injection of parameterised types with injection of type parameters also. If you can prove me wrong, by all means send me evidence in the form of working code.


Clearly, Java is not very useful for this kind of type-safe programming. I was actually quite surprised that you can do this in Java at all, but we’ve definitely hit the outer boundary of what can be considered reasonably expressible.

The code you’ve seen in this article uses the new HList package that was released with Functional Java 2.16. And is based on the Haskell HS library by Oleg Kiselyov.

Higher-Order Java Parallelism, Part 4: A Better Future

This is the fourth installment in a series of posts about making highly concurrent software easier to write in Java. Previous entries are available here: part 1, part 2, part 3. However, I aim to make it possible to follow along even if you haven’t read the previous posts.

I Have Seen the Future…

If you have used the Java 5 concurrency API at all, you will have come across the Future class. For example, when you submit a Callable<Integer> to an ExecutorService, what you get back is a Future<Integer> which represents a computation, running concurrently, that will (hopefully) result in an integer at some time in the future. Once you have the Future<Integer> fi, you can later get the integer out of it by calling fi.get().

That’s all fine and dandy, but let’s say you want do do something like add two future integers. You could do something like this:

int sum = x.get() + y.get();

This will block the current thread until both of those integers are available, then add them together. But why wait for that? If you have an ExecutorService, you can create a new Future that computes the sum:

Future<Integer> sum = executorService.submit(new Callable<Integer>() {
  public Integer call() {
    return x.get() + y.get();

Now the current thread can continue, but we’ve started a new thread that does nothing until the values of x and y have both been calculated by yet another thread.

We’re beginning to see a problem here. We want to be able to compose Futures together to form new Futures, but find that the number of threads required to compose n Future values is on the order of O(n). If we have a fixed-size thread pool, we’ll run into starvation. If we have an unbounded thread pool, then we might start more threads than the operating system can handle, most of which will be doing nothing at all but wait for other threads.

This should all sound very familiar. Threads are a space resource. What kind of processes are O(n) in their space requirement? If you said “linearly recursive processes”, go to the head of the class. Intuitively, for the same reason that we can find iterative versions of any recursive algorithm, it seems that we should be able to find an algorithm to accomplish the same thing with O(1) threads.

…and it is a Monad

In the above example, it’s like we’re giving seperate instructions, waiting for the results of each in between. Imagine if we were working in an office with Bob and Alice, and we needed work on something from both of them. We might go to Bob and say: “Bob, process this and give me the result”. Then we’d take the result to Alice and say: “Alice, here’s a result from Bob.” It would be much better, if we could just go to Bob and say: “Bob, process this and give the result to Alice.” This is the essential difference between recursive and iterative processes.

But wait! We say that kind of thing all the time, in Java:

public Work bob(Work w) { ... }
public Work alice(Work w) { ... }

public Work bobThenAlice(Work w) {
  Work b = bob(w);
  return alice(b);

Here, we’re instructing a single thread to do some work, then use the result of that work to do more work. What’s really sneaky here is the meaning of the semicolon. In this context, what the former semicolon means is “take the stored value b from the previous statement and bind it to the free variable b in the next statement”. You can think of the second semicolon as binding a blank statement over the result of the preceding statement.

Using first-class functions from Functional Java, and using the Callables monad from the first part of this series, you could implement that same behaviour using something like this:

F<Work, Callable<Work>> bob = new F<Work, Callable<Work>>() {
  public Callable<Work> f(final Work w) {
    return new Callable<Work>() {
      public Work call() { ... }
F<Work, Callable<Work>> alice = new F<Work, Callable<Work>>() { ... };

public Callable<Work> bobThenAlice(Work w) {
  return Callables.bind(bob.f(w), alice);

That’s pretty neat. Now we have a single Callable that we can run concurrently in a new thread, turning it into a Future. But wouldn’t it be cool if we could bind Futures? That would let us take already running computations and combine them in exactly this way. We want a Future monad.

The problem with combining Futures is in the nature of the future. This is a deliberate pun on “future”. Think about time for a second. What does it mean to get a value that’s in the future? By the very fact that causality is sequential, it’s a violation of the nature of reality to have something that doesn’t yet exist. It’s the future; you’re not supposed to get stuff out. But, we can put stuff in, can’t we? Yes we can. You know those corny time-capsule things where people put their mountain bikes and Nintendo games for future generations to enjoy later? We can do that with data values. And not just values, but computations.

Here’s One I Made Earlier

The Future class in the standard Java libraries doesn’t come with any methods for projecting computations into the future. But Functional Java comes with a class called Promise<A> which does have that feature. It makes use of light-weight concurrent processes (actors), and parallel strategies, as described in the previous post, to implement the ability to combine concurrent computations into larger (concurrently executing) structures.

Since it is implemented as a monad, the methods it provides are all the usual suspects: unit, bind, fmap, join, etc. Here’s a quick overview of what they do and why they’re useful. Grasping them doesn’t just help you understand the Promise class, but any monad you may come across in the (ahem) future.

The unit function, the constructor of Promises, is just called promise. It has a few overloaded forms, but here is the simplest one.

public static <A> Promise<A> promise(Strategy<A> s, P1<A> p);

The P1 class is just a simple closure with no arguments, provided by the Functional Java library. P1<A> consists of one abstract method: A _1(). Strategy represents a method of evaluating P1s concurrently. I also talk about Strategies in the previous post, but the long and the short of it is that it has methods to evaluate the P1 value according to some parallelisation strategy, like with a thread pool for instance.

Calling the promise method starts a concurrent computation, in a manner according to the given strategy, that evaluates p. The resulting Promise value is a handle on the running computation, and can be used to retrieve the value later. Promise.claim() will block the current thread until the value is available, exactly like Future.get(), but this is generally not what you want to do. Instead, you want to bind.

The essence of the monad pattern is the binding function. If you don’t think you already know what a monad is, but understand this method, then you know more than you think:

public Promise<B> bind(F<A, Promise<B>> f);

This method means that if you have a Promise of an A, and a function from an A to a Promise of a B, you can get a Promise of a B. I.e. if somebody promises you an A, and I can promise you a B for every A, it’s the same thing as being promised a B in the first place.

The mapping function:

public Promise<B> fmap(F<A, B> f);

This method means that if you have an Promise of an A, and a function from A to B, you can get a Promise of a B. In other words, you can map any function over a Promise, and fmap will return you a Promise of the result. Behind the scenes, fmap is implemented by calling the bind and promise methods. The difference between this method and the bind method is subtle but important. Calling p.bind(f) is exactly equivalent to calling Promise.join(p.fmap(f)).

The join function:

public static <A> Promise<A> join(Promise<Promise<A>> a);

Join is a lot more useful than it looks. If you have a promised Promise, it’s the same as just having a Promise. In practise, that means that if you can start a concurrent task that starts a concurrent task, you can combine those into one concurrent task. You can think of it as the semantic equivalent of Thread.join(), except that our method returns the joined Promise immediately.

Coming back to Bob and Alice for a second, we can implement bob and alice from the Callables example above, using Promise instead of Callable . Both bob and alice will construct Promises using the promise method, putting whatever work they do inside a P1. That way, when you call bob, he’s already doing his work by the time you mention Alice’s name:

final Strategy<Work> s = Strategy.simpleThreadStrategy();
F<Work, Promise<Work>> bob = new F<Work, Promise<Work>>() {
  public Promise<Work> f(final Work w) {
    return promise(s, new P1() {
      public Work _1() { ... }
F<Work, Promise<Work>> alice = new F<Work, Promise<Work>>() { ... };

public Promise<Work> bobThenAlice(Work w) {
  return bob.f(w).bind(alice);

So now that we can build arbitrarily complex concurrent processes from already-running processes, how do we get the final promised value out? Again, you could call Promise.claim(), but that blocks the current thread as we know. Instead, Promise comes equipped with a method to(Actor<A>) which promises to send the value to the given Actor as soon as it’s ready. Control is returned to the current thread immediately, and the whole computation continues in the background, including the action to take on the final result. Actors were discussed in the previous post.

A Fully Functional Example

I think an example is in order. The following program calculates Fibonacci numbers using a naive recursive algorithm. This is an algorithm that benefits particularly well from parallelisation (barring any other kind of optimisation). If we were just using plain old Future instead of Promise, the number of Threads required to calculate the nth Fibonacci number is O(fib(n)). But since we’re using Promise, we can use a fixed number of actual Java threads.

package concurrent;

import static fj.Bottom.error;
import fj.Effect;
import fj.F;
import fj.F2;
import fj.Function;
import fj.P;
import fj.P1;
import fj.P2;
import fj.Unit;
import fj.data.List;
import fj.control.parallel.Actor;
import fj.control.parallel.Promise;
import fj.control.parallel.Strategy;
import static fj.data.List.range;
import static fj.function.Integers.add;
import static fj.control.parallel.Promise.join;
import static fj.control.parallel.Promise.promise;
import static fj.control.parallel.Actor.actor;

import java.text.MessageFormat;
import java.util.concurrent.ExecutorService;
import java.util.concurrent.Executors;

public class Fibs {

private static final int CUTOFF = 35;

public static void main(final String[] args) throws Exception {
if (args.length < 1) throw error("This program takes an argument: number_of_threads"); final int threads = Integer.parseInt(args[0]); final ExecutorService pool = Executors.newFixedThreadPool(threads); final Strategy su = Strategy.executorStrategy(pool);
final Strategy> spi = Strategy.executorStrategy(pool);

// This actor performs output and detects the termination condition.
final Actor> out = actor(su, new Effect>() {
public void e(final List fs) {
for (P2 p : fs.zipIndex()) {
System.out.println(MessageFormat.format(“n={0} => {1}”, p._2(), p._1()));

// A parallel recursive Fibonacci function
final F> fib = new F>() {
public Promise f(final Integer n) {
return n < CUTOFF ? promise(su, P.p(seqFib(n))) : f(n - 1).bind(f(n - 2), add); } }; System.out.println("Calculating Fibonacci sequence in parallel..."); join(su, spi.parMap(fib, range(0, 46)).map(Promise.sequence(su))).to(out);

// The sequential version of the recursive Fibonacci function
public static int seqFib(final int n) {
return n < 2 ? n : seqFib(n - 1) + seqFib(n - 2); } } [/sourcecode] For all you Scala fans out there, the Functional Java library comes with convenient bindings for Scala as well. Here’s the same thing written in Scala. Note that this does not use the Actor library from the standard Scala libraries, but the same lighter weight Java implementation that the Java example above uses.

package concurrent

import fj.control.parallel.{Actor, Promise}
import fj.Function.curry
import fj.control.parallel.Strategy.executorStrategy
import fjs.control.parallel.Strategy.parMap
import fjs.control.parallel.Promise._
import fjs.control.parallel.Actor._
import Integer.parseInt
import List.range
import java.util.concurrent.Executors.newFixedThreadPool
import fjs.F._
import fjs.F2._
import fjs.P1._
import fjs.P2._
import fjs.data.List._
import fjs.control.parallel.Strategy.ListPar

object Fibs {
val CUTOFF = 35;

def main(args: Array[String]) = {
if (args.length < 1) error("This program takes an argument: number_of_threads") val threads = parseInt(args(0)) val pool = newFixedThreadPool(threads) implicit def s[A] = executorStrategy[A](pool) // This actor performs output and detects the termination condition. val out: Actor[List[Int]] = actor{ ns =>
for ((n, i) <- ns.zipWithIndex) printf("n=%d => %d\n”, i, n)

// A parallel recursive Fibonacci function
def fib(n: Int): Promise[Int] = {
if (n < CUTOFF) promise(() => seqFib(n))
else fib(n – 1).bind(fib(n – 2), curry((_: Int) + (_: Int)))

println(“Calculating Fibonacci sequence in parallel…”)
out ! sequence(parMap[Int, Promise[Int], List](fib, range(0, 46)));

// The sequential version of the recursive Fibonacci function
def seqFib(n: Int): Int = if (n < 2) n else seqFib(n - 1) + seqFib(n - 2); } [/sourcecode] Here's an example run of this program using a pool of 10 threads. It runs about 7 times faster that way than with just 1 thread on my 8-way machine. The Scala version is also very slightly faster for some reason.

$ scala -classpath .:../../../build/classes/src concurrent.Fibs 10
Calculating Fibonacci sequence in parallel…
n=0 => 0
n=1 => 1
n=2 => 1
n=3 => 2
n=4 => 3
n=5 => 5
n=6 => 8
n=7 => 13
n=8 => 21
n=9 => 34
n=10 => 55
n=11 => 89
n=12 => 144
n=13 => 233
n=14 => 377
n=15 => 610
n=16 => 987
n=17 => 1597
n=18 => 2584
n=19 => 4181
n=20 => 6765
n=21 => 10946
n=22 => 17711
n=23 => 28657
n=24 => 46368
n=25 => 75025
n=26 => 121393
n=27 => 196418
n=28 => 317811
n=29 => 514229
n=30 => 832040
n=31 => 1346269
n=32 => 2178309
n=33 => 3524578
n=34 => 5702887
n=35 => 9227465
n=36 => 14930352
n=37 => 24157817
n=38 => 39088169
n=39 => 63245986
n=40 => 102334155
n=41 => 165580141
n=42 => 267914296
n=43 => 433494437
n=44 => 701408733
n=45 => 1134903170

Massive win! If we had been using Future instead of Promise, we would have needed at least 55 threads (since we’re using a cutoff at 35 and 45 – 35 = 10 and fib(10) = 55). Heck, we could even remove the threshold value altogether and calculate all 45 parallel fibs, in parallel. That would require 1,134,903,170 threads in the absence of non-blocking concurrency abstractions like Promise and Actor. We can run that in just one thread if we’d like.

Higher-Order Java Parallelism, Part 3: Threadless Concurrency With Actors

Multi-core processing is changing the way we write programs. Modern computers come with multi-core or multiple processors, and modern applications no longer do just one thing at a time. But all of this has left Java a little bit behind. While languages like Erlang and Haskell, even other JVM languages like Scala, have powerful concurrency abstractions, concurrent programming in Java is still mostly based around the threading practices of way back in the time of applets.

Threading in Java has long been the domain of the brave or foolish, weaving a brittle and intricate web of manual synchronization between threads, or threads waiting on other threads to feed them work. We all know the examples from old Java books where there might be a thread running in a loop, sleeping for a second, and waking up to check if work needs to be done. This kind of implementation is still being taught to newcomers to the Java language. And when they start writing their own applications in Java, they find that this approach does not scale. Not along the axis of program complexity, nor the axis of the number of threads. In a complex application or one with many threads, you may end up with a program that stops doing anything at all for long periods of time, or worse, hangs forever, while still consuming all the operating system resources that go with those threads.

Blocking vs. Nonblocking Concurrency

The new concurrency library in Java 5 help this situation a great deal. At least some advancement has been made towards better concurrency abstractions. But there are still pitfalls. For instance, as we’ve seen, the Future and Callable interfaces are really rather jolly useful, and they can take us a long way towards the kinds of things possible in those other languages. But at the end of the day, something has to call Future.get(), and that something will block unless the value is already available, until such time that it is. This can result in deadlocks or starvation, as you may end up in a situation where all threads are blocking on Futures and none are available to advance your program forward. This would be bad. In fact, we could say that in a highly concurrent system, blocking on shared state is a catastrophic event.

The Java libraries are a veritable minefield of methods that, ultimately, block on shared memory monitors. There’s Thread.join(), Future.get(), BlockingQueue.take(), and the list goes on. But what if we could solve this problem with a simple abstraction? Could we solve the blocking problem once and re-use our solution for different situations? Let’s see.

Instead of sleeping or blocking, what we really want is the ability for our code to say: “When X happens, wake up a thread to execute me.” That is, in some sense we want threads to go on doing useful work, and have them be notified when an event happens that requires more work to be done. For example, when Bob comes into my office and asks me for this month’s TPS reports, he doesn’t stand around and wait for them, nor does he check periodically to see if I have them done, and he certainly doesn’t go to sleep to periodically wake up and poll me for them. He will continue with his work (or whatever it is he does all day), since I have instructions to send him those TPS reports as soon as they’re ready. We’re independent and concurrent actors, so we don’t wait on each other.

There is a model of computation, called the Actor Model, that works very much the same way. This is the model employed in the design of Erlang, and it was a major motivator for languages like Simula and Scheme. An implementation of Actors comes with the standard Scala library, and as it happens an implementation of it for Java has just been released as part of the 2.8 version of the Functional Java library. You can read more about the actor model on your own, but I will explain in some detail how it works in Functional Java.

Algorithm + Strategy = Parallelism

The first thing to explain is Parallel Strategies. I’ve talked about them before, but I’ll do so again here since they’re important to what I’m trying to demonstrate. The idea of the Parallel Strategy is that we can capture a threading pattern, or some method of concurrency in general, in a separate abstraction called a Strategy, and write our concurrent programs independently of the particular threading pattern.

In Java terms, a Strategy<A> is a way of turning any Java expression, whose evaluated type is A, into a value of type A. How this happens is implementation-specific, but we’d like it to be concurrent. First, we need a way of capturing the idea of an unevaluated A. It’s a bit like the idea behind Runnable, only that we can get a value out of it. Java 5 has the Callable interface, which is really close to representing “any expression”, since we can create Callables anonymously, but its call() method throws Exceptions, creating a kind of barrier for the programmer. Instead, we’ll use fj.P1<A>. It’s an abstract class with one abstract method: A _1()

The Strategy class has an instance method called par(P1<A>). This will evaluate the given P1 concurrently, immediately returning another P1 that can get the value once it’s ready. Behind the scenes, it actually creates a Callable, turns it into a Future, then returns a P1 that calls Future.get(), but all of that is implementation detail. Strategy comes with some static construction methods that implement basic threading patterns, and you can implement your own by passing a Future-valued function to the strategy(F<P1<A>, Future<A>>) method.

You might be concerned that P1 can’t throw any checked exceptions. This is by design. You’ll find that once you start working with concurrent effects, the value of checked exceptions goes out the window. Besides, if our P1 did need to throw errors, we would use Lazy Error Handling and declare this in the P1's type.

Strategy + Effect = Actor

So now we have concurrent evaluation and parallel transformations. But we’re still ending up with objects that require us to call a blocking method to get their value. The only way around that is to not return any values at all. Instead, we’re going to let our P1s have side-effects. So instead of returning a P1 that lets us wait for the value, our P1s are now going to update a variable or send the value somewhere.

To model a P1 that doesn’t return a useful value, I’m going to use the Unit type. It’s another one of those trivial but useful classes. The Unit type is part of Functional Java, and it’s simply a type that only has one possible value. It’s a lot like the standard library’s Void type, except Void is even further impoverished. When you use this type, you’re saying that the actual value is immaterial. So to describe a P1 that doesn’t return anything useful, we use the type P1<Unit>. We can also describe a transformation from some type T to Unit, with F<T, Unit>.

Functional Java comes with a more honest version of F<A, Unit>, which is Effect<A>. It’s more honest in the sense that it doesn’t pretend to be a transformation, which properly should have no side-effects. Effect<A> is explicit about having side-effects, which is what we intend for Actors. It has one method that doesn’t return a value at all: void e(A a).

We now have what we need to instantiate the Actor class. Here’s an example of how to create and use a simple actor:

  Strategy<Unit> s = Strategy.simpleThreadStrategy();

  Actor<String> a = Actor.actor(s, new Effect<String>()
    {public void e(String s)

  a.act("Hello, actors!");

The actor receives “messages” on its act method, and the Strategy serves as a kind of mailbox for it. You will note that there’s no dependency at all on any particular threading strategy or any part of the concurrency library by the Actor class. The strategy could be sending our Effects to be evaluated by Threads, remote server farms, by ForkJoin tasks, or even by a Mechanical Turk.

An Actor With its Own Mailbox

The Actor class by itself doesn’t yet quite achieve the kind of actors model you see implemented in Erlang or Scala. The important difference is that the Actor above can process multiple “messages” simultaneously. This solution, then, is more general, although if an actor such as the above mutates some state, we’re likely to run into race conditions. Not to worry, it’s easy to construct the more specific case. We just add a queue and ensure that only one message is processed at a time. This construct is available as part of Functional Java, and it’s called QueueActor.

Of course, the “one thread at a time” requirement is not implemented using any blocking or synchronization. Instead, The QueueActor has two possible states–“suspended” or “running”–and, behind the scenes, this is enforced with an AtomicBoolean to keep it consistent in the face of concurrency. If the actor is suspended when it receives a message, it becomes running and its Effect is immediately handed off to its Strategy. If it’s already running, then callers will leave a message on its queue. The QueueActor's Effect is a concurrent, threadless recursion (i.e. it uses a Strategy rather than a Thread) that completely empties the queue, then puts the QueueActor's state back to “suspended”.

QueueActor puts some sanity into managing locally mutable state within an actor’s Effect, since it’s ensured that the state can only be mutated by one thread at a time. It is guaranteed to act on its messages in some unspecified order, but is otherwise semantically equivalent to Actor.

The Obligatory Example

We now have a light-weight implementation of the actor model, in Java. Don’t believe it? Have a look at this implementation of the canonical Ping-Pong example (imports omitted), and compare it to similar examples for Erlang and Scala.

First, a Ping actor that sends a number of pings to a given Pong actor, waiting for a pong reply each time before sending the next ping.

  public class Ping
    {private final Pong pong;
     private final Actor<Pong> ping;
     private final Actor<Integer> cb;
     private volatile int n;

     public Ping(final Strategy<Unit> s, final int i, final Pong pong, final int id, final Actor<Integer> callback)
       {n = i;
        this.pong = pong;
        cb = callback;
        ping = actor
          (s, new Effect<Pong>() {public void e(final Pong pong)
             if (n > 0)
             else // Done. Notify caller.

    // Commence pinging
    public P1<Unit> start()
      {return pong.act(this);}

    // Receive a pong
    public P1<Unit> act(final Pong p)
      {return ping.act(p);}}

The Pong actor simply receives ping messages and responds.

  public class Pong
    {private final Actor<Ping> p;

    public Pong(final Strategy<Unit> s)
      {p = actor(s, new Effect<Ping>()
        {public void e(final Ping m)

    // Receive a ping
    public P1<Unit> act(final Ping ping)
      {return p.act(ping);}}

And here’s the main program that uses the Ping and Pong actors. There’s only one Pong actor that responds to any number of Ping actors pinging it concurrently. There’s also a further QueueActor that is contacted by each Ping actor once that Ping actor has done its work. The example uses a thread pool to back its Strategy. When all the Ping actors have sent all their pings and received all their pongs, the program is terminated by shutting down the thread pool.

  public class PingPong
    {private final int actors;
     private final int pings;
     private final Strategy<Unit> s;
     private final Actor<Integer> callback;
     private volatile int done;

     public PingPong(final ExecutorService pool, final int actors, final int pings)
       {this.actors = actors;
        this.pings = pings;
        s = Strategy.executorStrategy(pool);

        // This actor gives feedback to the user that work is being done
        // and also terminates the program when all work has been completed.
        callback = QueueActor.queueActor
          (s, new Effect<Integer>() {public void e(final Integer i)
             if (done >= actors)
               {System.out.println("All done.");
             else if (actors < 10 || done % (actors / 10) == 0)
                       ("{0} actors done ({1} total pongs).", done, pings * done));}})

    public static void main(final String[] args)
      {final int actors  = Integer.parseInt(args[0]);
       final int pings   = Integer.parseInt(args[1]);
       final int threads = Integer.parseInt(args[2]);
       new PingPong(Executors.newFixedThreadPool(threads), actors, pings).start();}

    public void start()
      {// We will use one Pong actor...
       final Pong pong = new Pong(s);
       // ...and an awful lot of Ping actors.
       for (int i = 1; i <= actors; i++)
           {new Ping(s, pings, pong, i, callback).start();
            if (actors < 10 || i % (actors / 10) == 0)
               System.out.println(MessageFormat.format("{0} actors started.", i));}}}

What follows is an example run of this Java program, with a million concurrent Ping actors pinging 7 times each. Each actor takes about 300 bytes of memory, so we need a sizable heap for one million of them, but 19 real Java Threads handle this quite nicely on my 8-core machine.

$ time java -Xmx600m -cp ../../../.build/classes/src:. concurrent.PingPong 1000000 7 19
100,000 actors started.
200,000 actors started.
300,000 actors started.
400,000 actors started.
500,000 actors started.
600,000 actors started.
700,000 actors started.
800,000 actors started.
900,000 actors started.
1,000,000 actors started.
100,000 actors done (700,000 total pongs).
200,000 actors done (1,400,000 total pongs).
300,000 actors done (2,100,000 total pongs).
400,000 actors done (2,800,000 total pongs).
500,000 actors done (3,500,000 total pongs).
600,000 actors done (4,200,000 total pongs).
700,000 actors done (4,900,000 total pongs).
800,000 actors done (5,600,000 total pongs).
900,000 actors done (6,300,000 total pongs).
All done.

real    1m16.376s
user    3m53.612s
sys     0m10.924s

As you see, these simple tools, built on basic components of the Java 5 concurrency library, paired with powerful abstractions from programming in functional style, makes it seem like we have millions of tasks running concurrently. We get a virtually unbounded degree of concurrency while never seeing any locks nor performing any blocking calls. The number of concurrent tasks is limited only by the size of your heap.

Again, everything you see here, and more, has been released just recently as part of the Functional Java library. So head over to their download page and put those extra cores to use with Java, today!

Higher-Order Java Parallelism, Part 2: Parallel List Transformations

With a Callable monad and Parallel Strategies in hand, we’re ready to construct some general-purpose parallel functions of a higher order.

Something we’ll want to do quite often in parallel programming is run a function over a whole list of values, in parallel. So often, in fact, that it would be very tedious and repetitive to write a loop every time we want to do this, sparking off threads for each function call, and collecting the results. Instead, what we’re going to develop next is a kind of parallel list functor. That is, a higher-order function that will turn any function into a function that operates on every element of a list simultaneously.

First, let’s get some terminology out of the way, since I’ve been accused of not defining my terms.

A higher-order function is simply a function that takes a function as an argument.

A functor is any type T for which there exists a higher-order function, call it fmap, that transforms a function of type F<A,B> into a function F<T<A>,T<B>>. This fmap function must also obey the laws of identity and composition such that the following expressions return true for all x, p, and q:

  fmap(identity()).f(x) == x
  fmap(compose(p, q)).f(x) == fmap(p).f(fmap(q).f(x))

Here, identity is a first-class function of type F<A,A> that just returns its argument, and compose is function composition. Composition is defined to mean that compose(p, q).f(x) is the same as p.f(q.f(x)).

For example, Functional Java’s List class is a functor, because it comes equipped with a method List<B> map(F<A,B> f) which obeys the laws above. The implementation of List’s map method is trivial: It iterates over the list, calling the given function for each element, and returns the list of the results.

There’s a lot of information about functors and monads on the Internet, and I’ve written about them before, with examples in Java. Tony Morris also wrote a great post where he explains functors as “function application in an environment”. That’s a good way of looking at things.

I also want to make it clear, if you’re just now tuning in, that I’m using classes from Functional Java in the code examples, in addition to classes from the J2SE concurrency library. Basically only Callable and Future are from the J2SE library. Strategy, List, and the Callables utility class are from Functional Java. The code used here is from the latest trunk head revision of that library and may differ from the current official release.

Now, let’s get to the money.

Mapping Over a List in Parallel

We’re going to make a very similar kind of thing to a list functor, except it’s going to map a function over a list in parallel. Our parallel list transformation will take the form of a static method called parMap. It will take any existing function and turn it into a parallel function on lists. That is, if we already have written a function that takes an Integer and returns a String, we can pass that function to parMap, and it will return us a function that takes a list of Integers and returns a list of Strings. This means that nothing has to be rewritten or refactored to support the mapping of a function over a list in parallel. The parMap function will convert our existing code to parallel code, at runtime.

Here’s parMap:

  public <B> F<List<B>, Callable<List<A>>> parMap(final F<B, A> f) {
    return new F<List<B>, Callable<List<A>>>() {
      public Callable<List<A>> f(final List<B> as) {
        return sequence(as.map(compose(par(), callable(f))));

That’s a lot of power for so little code. Let’s read through what it does. It takes a function f and returns a new function that takes a list called as. This new function transforms f with Callables.callable to wrap its return type in a callable (or: callable(f) applies the Kleisli arrow for Callables to f), and composes that with a function called par(). It then maps the resulting composition over the list as, which will result in a list of Callables, which we turn into a Callable of a List with the sequence function. The only new thing here is par(), which is a very simple instance method on Strategy:

  public F<Callable<A>, Callable<A>> par() {
    return compose(Strategy.<A>obtain(), f());

So par() is just the Strategy’s function composed with the obtain() method that we created in Part 1. This turns the Future back into a Callable so that we can manipulate it in a lazy manner. This little guy is the meat of parMap. That is, parMap is basically just mapping par() over a list.

The result of parMap(myFun).f(myList), then, is a Callable of a list that, when called, will give us the results of calling myFun on every element of myList in parallel. What’s more, it will work for any kind of parallelisation Strategy, and it will return immediately (remember, Callable is lazy), ready for us to make further calculations on the results even while those results are being calculated.

I think that’s pretty cool.

Nested Parallelism

Sometimes the problem at hand is not quite so flat that it can be solved with just a map over a list. You might have a need for nested traversal of lists, where for every element in a list you traverse another list. We can model that behaviour with a higher-order function very similar to parMap, except that it takes a function that generates a list. This higher-order function is parFlatMap:

  public static <A, B> Callable<List<B>> parFlatMap(final Strategy<List<B>> s,
                                                    final F<A, List<B>> f,
                                                    final List<A> as) {
    return fmap(List.<B>join_()).f(s.parMap(f).f(as));

In this definition, fmap is from the Callable monad, as described in Part 1. Notice that parFlatMap provides an example use of parMap, using it to turn the given function into a parallel function. The call to parMap with that function will actually yield a Callable<List<List<B>>> (can you see why?), so we use a final join lifted into the Callable environment with fmap, to turn the List of Lists into just a List.

The parFlatMap function is analogous to a parallel list monad, and it works very much like a parallel version of nested loops. For example, given a list of Points pts, a distance function dist that takes two Points and returns the distance between them, and a Strategy<Double> s, we can use parFlatMap to calculate the distance between every Point and every other, in parallel:

  Callable<List<Double>> distances = parFlatMap(s, new F<Point, List<Double>>() {
    public List<Double> f(final Point p) {
      return pts.map(dist.f(p));
  }, pts);

The inner “loop” is represented by List.map, so we’re traversing the list serially, multiplying every element in parallel with each element in sequence. I.e. the outer loop is parallel and the inner loop is serial. It’s quite possible to replace map with parMap, and I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader (hint: you will need both fmap and join). Note that the call to parFlatMap will return immediately, and the computation will be carried out in the background.

Position-Wise Parallelism and Concurrent Folding

Another function I want to talk about is the parZipWith function. By contrast to parFlatMap, it is like a parallel version of a single loop over two lists. Values from each list are taken at matching positions and the pairs are fed through the argument function all at the same time:

  public static <A, B, C> F2<List<A>, List<B>, Callable<List<C>>> parZipWith(final Strategy<C> s,
                                                                             final F2<A, B, C> f) {
    return new F2<List<A>, List<B>, Callable<List<C>>>() {
      public Callable<List<C>> f(final List<A> as, final List<B> bs) {
        return sequence(as.zipWith(bs, compose(Callables.<B, C>arrow(), curry(f))).map(s.par()));

You will note that parZipWith simply uses zipWith from Functional Java’s List class. There’s some manouvering required to turn the argument function into the right form. The curry method turns the F2<A,B,C> into the equivalent F<A,F<B,C>> (sometimes called a Curried function). The arrow function is the first-class Kleisli arrow for Callables. That just means that composing it with f yields a version of f which returns a Callable.

Let’s take an example of using parZipWith to do useful work. If we had a list of Points representing a path, and we wanted to get the total length of the path, we could zip the list and its tail (every element except the first) with the dist function and take the sum of the results:

  Double length = parZipWith(s, dist).f(pts, pts.tail()).call().foldLeft(curry(sum), 0);

For brevity’s sake, I’m pretending that there’s already a function called sum, which is just an F2<Double, Double, Double> that returns the sum of its two arguments. If foldLeft is something new to you, then have a look at one implementation of it. It’s a more general abstraction of a for-loop than map() is. Folding a list {1,2,3} with the sum function (and 0) can be thought of as replacing all the commas with plusses to yield [0+1+2+3]. We could have just as well iterated over the list, adding each value to a total, instead of using a foldLeft function. But we didn’t, for a reason that will become apparent presently.

There’s something about the above example that’s dissatisfying. We’re getting the distances in parallel, but then call() sticks out like a sore thumb. The computation will block until the list of distances is ready, then it will fold the list with the sum function. What’s worse, call() might throw an Exception. There’s a way we can avoid all that by traversing the list of distances while they’re being calculated. What we need to do is somehow lift the foldLeft function into the Callable environment. The call to foldLeft above turns a List<Double> into a Double. What we want is to avoid the call to call(), and turn our Callable<List<Double>> into a Callable<Double> directly.

This is really easy to do, and it’s a good thing we’re using a folding function rather than a for-loop. Here’s what we do:

  Callable<List<Double>> edges = parZipWith(s, dist).f(pts, pts.tail());
  Callable<Double> length = par(fmap(List.<B, B>foldLeft().f(curry(sum)).f(0)).f(edges));

There. No exceptions, and no waiting for results. This code will return immediately and perform the whole computation in the background. The part that calculates the edge lengths is the same as before, and we’re keeping that in a variable edges for clarity. The other line may require some explanation. We’re getting a first-class foldLeft function from the List class, partially applying it to yield a function that folds a List<Double> into a Double. Then we’re promoting it with fmap into the Callable monad. The promoted function then gets applied to edges, and finally the whole fold is evaluated concurrently by passing it to par.

Hopefully you can see what an immensely powerful tool for parallel programming functional style and higher-order functions are, even in Java. We were able to develop a couple of one-liners above that are terser, clearer, more maintainable, more re-usable (and more type-safe) than anything we could write in imperative object-oriented style using producer/consumer, factories, inversion of control, etc. There’s no secret sauce, no special syntax, no functional fairy dust. It’s just plain old Java with a handful of very useful interfaces.

In the third installment of this series, we will develop a tiny light-weight library for threadless Actors that can juggle millions of simultaneous computations in only a few threads. Stay close.

Note: The code herein is adapted from a Haskell library by Phil Trinder, Hans-Wolfgang Loidl, Kevin Hammond et al.

Higher-Order Java Parallelism, Part 1: Parallel Strategies and the Callable Monad

Now that even budget desktop and laptop computers are shipping with multi-core processors, it’s more important than ever to design programs so that they can take advantage of parallel processing. If you’re already writing software in Erlang or Parallel Haskell, then lucky you. But if you’re writing in Java (and are unable or unwilling to take up Scala), you will need to get organized.

Since Java 5, the JDK comes with a concurrency library that makes concurrent programming a lot easier than it used to be, and the library has been improved further in Java 6. This provides some basic abstractions that take care of the nitty-gritty of thread management for us. In this short series of articles, I’m going to show how we can build on top of that library to achieve concurrent programming of a higher order. We will employ some design patterns and simple abstract building blocks from functional programming. This style of writing concurrent programs will afford us the ability to:

  • Compose ordinary functions into concurrent programs.
  • Decouple parallel behavior from the algorithm itself.
  • Turn existing code into parallel code, without refactoring, at runtime.
  • Work with hypothetical results of concurrent computations, before they finish.

We will not use any locking or explicit synchronization. Basic familiarity with the java.util.concurrent package is assumed but not required. Familiarity with generics is highly recommended, and I recommend reading parts 1 and 2 of my Lazy Error Handling series as it explains some preliminaries. Most of the source code herein is already part of the Functional Java library, and I’ll use a fair bit of interfaces and classes from it, which I’ll introduce as we go along.

When we’re through, I will have demonstrated that a functional style of programming promotes code-reuse and modularity of parallel programs, above and beyond what can be achieved with the canonical object-orientated style.

The Callable Monad

The Callable interface is new in Java 5. It’s similar to the old Runnable interface that we all know and love, except that its call() method returns a result, and it may throw an Exception. If you followed my Lazy Error Handling articles, you will immediately notice that Callable is nearly identical to the Thrower interface described in that series, and you’ll know that it is indeed a potential monad. Treating Callable as a monad will allow us to work with it at a higher level of abstraction, letting us compose Callables, chain them, and project computations into them.

As you may already know, we need three ingredients (and only these three) to have a monad:

  1. Type construction. This comes free with the Callable interface, since it takes a type parameter (i.e. it’s generic).
  2. A unit function. This allows us to turn any value into a Callable that returns that value again.
  3. A binding function. This allows us to chain together Callables with functions, without actually calling them.

Here is the unit function for Callable (we will refer to it as unit in the text to avoid ambiguity):

  public static <A> Callable<A> callable(final A a) {
    return new Callable<A>() {
      public A call() {
        return a;

And here is its binding function:

  public static <A, B> Callable<B> bind(final Callable<A> a, final F<A, Callable<B>> f) {
    return new Callable<B>() {
      public B call() throws Exception {
        return f.f(a.call()).call();

Note: The F interface is from Functional Java. It represents a first-class function (a function that can be treated like any other value). F<A, B> has one method that takes an argument of type A and returns a value of type B.

Given the above two methods, Callable is now a monad. All monads are also functors, so we can define a Callable functor. What I mean by “functor” is that we can define a method to turn any existing function into a function on Callables, or, in other words, to apply any function to a value wrapped in a Callable, without actually calling it (i.e. lazily). This method is called fmap, and we can define it in terms of bind:

  public static <A, B> F<Callable<A>, Callable<B>> fmap(final F<A, B> f) {
    return new F<Callable<A>, Callable<B>>() {
      public Callable<B> f(final Callable<A> a) {
        return bind(a, new F<A, Callable<B>>() {
          public Callable<B> f(final A ab) {
            return new Callable<B>() {
              public B call() {
                return f.f(ab);

Useful operations on Callables, that the methods above allow us to implement, include sequence—which is a method of turning a list of Callables into a single Callable that returns a list—and join, which peels one layer of Callables from a Callable<Callable<A>> so that it becomes just Callable<A>. You will find the source code for those as part of Functional Java.

Parallel Strategies

When working with the java.util.concurrent library, you normally don’t work with Threads directly. You might instead implement Callable<A> and submit instances of your implementation to an ExecutorService, which yields values of type Future<A> which represents a running computation that yields an A. Future has a method called get() that returns the result as soon as it’s ready. This is a great improvement over managing threads and Runnables ourselves, but it still ties our hands somewhat to the ExecutorService, and encourages tight coupling of our code to the parallelisation library.

Inspired by Haskell’s “Parallel Strategies”, let’s instead work with parallelisation in the abstract. For what is ExecutorService, really? It’s a method of turning Callables into Futures. That means it’s a kind of function, so we can abstract from it, using a function type: F<Callable<A>, Future<A>>. Such a function can then be backed by an ExecutorService, or by something else entirely, such as a load-balancing facility that serializes Callables to be executed on remote servers.

We will use a new class, Strategy<A>, that allows us to effectively separate parallelism from the algorithm itself:

  public final class Strategy<A> {

    private F<Callable<A>, Future<A>> f;

    private Strategy(final F<Callable<A>, Future<A>> f) {
      this.f = f;

    public F<Callable<A>, Future<A>> f() {
      return f;

    public static <A> Strategy<A> strategy(final F<Callable<A>, Future<A>> f) {
      return new Strategy<A>(f);


We’ll add a couple of static functions to create simple strategies:

  public static <A> Strategy<A> simpleThreadStrategy() {
    return strategy(new F<Callable<A>, Future<A>>() {
      public Future<A> f(final Callable<A> p) {
        final FutureTask<A> t = new FutureTask<A>(p);
        new Thread(t).start();
        return t;

  public static <A> Strategy<A> executorStrategy(final ExecutorService s) {
    return strategy(new F<Callable<A>, Future<A>>() {
      public Future<A> f(final Callable<A> p) {
        return s.submit(p);

One of the neat things that working with Strategies as functions allows us to do is use the Callable monad to compose them with existing functions. Any function can be lifted into the Callable monad using fmap, and then composed with a Strategy to yield a concurrent function. Moreover, we can use Strategies to convert existing functions to concurrent functions. The following method on Strategy will take any function and return the equivalent function that executes concurrently. Calling such a function will give you a Future value from which you can get the computed result whenever it’s ready.

  public <B> F<B, Future<A>> lift(final F<B, A> f) {
    final Strategy<A> self = this;
    return new F<B, Future<A>>() {
      public Future<A> f(final B b) {
        return self.f().f(new Callable<A>() {
          public A call() {
            return f.f(b);

Alert readers will note that lift represents the Kleisli arrow for the Future monad. As for most monads, this arrow is a very useful kind of thing (see Lazy Error Handling, Part 2). In the Future monad, the Kleisli arrow provides parallel function application. If you already have a function f, then calling lift(f).f(x) will apply that function to x while simultaneously continuing with the next statement in the current program.

Lazy Futures

For functions involving Futures, we generally always want to have the Future type in the codomain (on the right-hand side, in the return type). If you think about it, you’ll see that functions that take Futures in their arguments won’t be able to do much without blocking on Future.get(). However, that doesn’t mean we can’t compose Future-valued functions together. It just means that we can only compose two of them together in such a way that we either wait for the first Future to obtain a value before firing off the second one, or we have to spark a new thread that does nothing but wait on the first Future. We’re much better off composing Callables and then turning those into Futures as needed. In fact, we might want to wrap values of type Future<A> inside of a Callable<A> again so that we can manipulate their return values while they are running:

  public static <A> Callable<A> obtain(final Future<A> x) {
    return new Callable<A>() {
      public A call() throws Exception {
        return x.get();

And this takes us full circle back into the Callable monad, where we can compose computations, bind them to functions and map functions over them, all lazily. Which means: without actually asking what their values are until we absolutely need to know.

So we have accomplished what we set out to do in this first part of the series. We’ve written a Callable monad that lets us compose existing code into concurrent programs. We’ve implemented parallel strategies to run those programs in parallel, without regard to the actual parallelisation implementation. We have a Kleisli arrow that lets us run ordinary functions concurrently with each other, and finally we have a way of taking concurrently running computations back into the Callable monad. Not bad for a day’s work.

In the next part of this series, we will employ what we’ve built here to develop some higher-order parallel functions, including a parallel list functor. I hope you join me.

Lazy Error Handling in Java, Part 3: Throwing Away Throws

In parts 1 and 2, I covered how we could create first-class functions in Java that declare, in their types, the exceptions they might throw. I talked about exploiting a functor to lift any existing function so that it carries exception information with it, and how to compose functions of that kind by using a monad. In this third and last installment, we’re going to fully abandon checked exceptions and embrace the functional style of handling errors.

First, let’s examine what exceptions really are. During the evaluation of some expression (some function), unexpected conditions or data are encountered, with which it is undefined how to proceed. That is to say, for some inputs, the result of the computation is undefined. For example, when a parseInt function encounters a character that isn’t a digit (or a minus sign), what do we do? Well, we don’t know exactly, so we need some way to indicate failure. It would be invalid to return an integer. One could return null, but that isn’t exactly reliable, nor correct, and well, it would be lying since the type signature promises an integer.

So far, I’ve shown how we can use a Thrower monad to indicate that a computation can error. But the Thrower monad doesn’t do anything except wrap Java’s existing exception handling with a datastructure. And what do you think Java’s existing error handling is? It’s a monad. No, really, it is. In fact, Java is one big monad with bells on.

Note that throws changes the type of a method so that it may throw exceptions. Sound familiar? That’s what Thrower does (see part 1). Java’s throws keyword is the Kleisli arrow (see part 2) for Java’s exceptions functor. Binding is done with a combination of try and a Java keyword called “;” which I’m sure you use all the time without even batting an eye. You can then think of catch as a function that takes a monadic value and “extracts” from it, performing case analysis on the result.

Why did we need Thrower then? The difference is that throws needs to be hard-coded at method definition time, while our Kleisli arrow, which we called Partial, transforms function values “at runtime”.

Returning Errors

We now find that we can take this idea further. We don’t actually need the throws monad at all, and hence, we don’t need Thrower either. Don’t get me wrong. I like the Trower monad. I use the Thrower monad in production. But let’s explore what we can do to approach a more functional style of error handling, just for grins.

Instead of throwing Exceptions, we can just collapse error types into the return type. We’ll use a monad called Either, which looks very similar to Thrower except that errors are returned, not thrown. The Functional Java library luckily has Either already defined:

  public abstract class Either<A, B>

Either is the disjoint union of two types. A value of type Either<A, B> simply wraps a value of either type A or type B. The Either class comes with two static data constructors:

  public static <A, B> Either<A, B> left(final A a)

  public static <A, B> Either<A, B> right(final B b)

We’ll use the standard convention that left values represent failure, and that right values represent success.

Let’s see how we might use this data type for error handling. It’s really quite straightforward. The following declares the return type of parseInt to be either an Exception or an Integer (the left value can actually be any type, but… baby steps).

  public Either<Exception, Integer> parseInt(String s);

Oh, but wait. We’ve lost the laziness. Functional Java’s Either, by itself, is not lazy like Thrower is. If we do want laziness, we have to wrap the computation in a closure. For example, we can use fj.P1, which is just a generic interface with one method _1() which takes no arguments.

  public P1<Either<Exception, Integer>> parseInt(String s);

That’s better. Raising errors is done by returning a left value:

  return new P1<Either<Exception, Integer>>() {
    public Either<Exception, Integer> _1() {
      return Either.left(new Exception("You broke it!"));

Sometimes you’re able to call functions that might fail, recovering with a default value:

  P1<Either<Exception, Integer>> a = parseInt(s);
  int addFive = (a._1().isLeft() ? 0 : a._1().right().value()) + 5;

Other times, you will be catching exceptions thrown by other people’s code and converting them to Either:

  public static P1<Either<Exception, Double>> divide(double x, double y) {
    return new P1<Either<Exception, Double>>() {
      public Either<Exception, Double> _1()
        try {
          return Either.right(x / y);
        } catch (Exception e) {
          return Either.left(e);

An error is sent to the caller simply by returning it. In the example below, the parse errors are explicitly caught and re-raised, while any errors raised by the divide method are implicitly returned.

  public static P1<Either<Exception, Double>> parseAndDivide(String sx, String sy) {
    final P1<Either<Exception, Integer>> x, y;
    x = parseInt(sx); y = parseInt(sy);
    return new P1<Either<Exception, Double>>() {
      public Either<Exception, Double> _1() {
        if (x.isLeft() || y.isLeft()) {
          return Either.left(x.isLeft() ? x.left().value() : y.left().value());
        return divide(x.right().value(), y.right().value());

Either is a monad, so we can lift existing functions into it, compose Eithers, sequence them, just like we did with Throwers. Here I’m taking an existing sine function and reusing it for values of type Either<Exception, Double>:

  F<Double, Double> sin = new F<Double, Double>() {
    public Double f(final Double a) {
      return Math.sin(a);

  P1<Either<Exception, Double>> z =
    divide(x, y).map(Either.rightMap_().f(sin));

If you need to work with more than one kind of error at a time, you can. Simply nest them on the right, like so: Either<E1, Either<E2, A>>. This is something we could not do with Thrower.

Nothing to Declare

Now, we’ve been returning Exceptions, but what does an Exception give you, really? You get some information about the failure, like an Exception type name, an error message, a stack trace, and possibly a nested Exception. If you know how to recover from an error, are you going to need the stack trace and the error message? No. You don’t actually have to return Exceptions to indicate errors if you don’t want to. You could just as well return String, Integer, fj.Unit, or your favourite data structure. Or you could return… Nothing.

There’s a simpler monad than Either which is often used in functional programming. It’s called Option (sometimes known as Maybe). An example is Functional Java’s fj.data.Option class, which I’ll demonstrate briefly here. Option<A> is a lot like a List<A> that can either be empty, or contain a single value of type A. For example:

  public static Option<Double> divide(double x, double y) {
    if (y == 0) {
      return Option.none();
    return Option.some(x / y);

This is similar to returning null on failure, except that callers won’t be surprised if the method fails to return a value. It’s declared in the method signature, after all. Option.none() has the correct type and will respond to methods declared on the Option class. If you want a lazy Option, simply wrap it in a P1 like we did with Either.

Not surprisingly, Option comes equipped with monadic methods like fmap (or simply “map”) to lift an F<A,B> to an F<Option<A>, Option<B>>, “bind” to chain Option-valued functions together, and “join” to collapse an Option<Option<A>> into an Option<A>. Option’s unit function is the static method Option.some. The instance method some() returns the value in the Option, if any. This last one is the Option equivalent to Thrower.extract().

So, now that we’re using Option and Either to indicate recoverable errors, what about unrecoverable errors? Those are the kinds of errors that we’re not going to catch, nor expect any reasonable application to catch. They should result in immediate and visible failure. For example, we might decide that it’s not reasonable to recover from a critical function if it returns nothing:

  Option<MyAppConfig> config = getAppConfig();
  if (config.isNone()) {
    throw new Error("No configuration!");
  } else {
    // Do stuff with config here.

At this point, we have completely obviated Java’s checked exceptions mechanism. Recoverable errors are simply returned, and unrecoverable errors are thrown all the way out. We can now construct computations, and even if they might fail we can pass them around, compose them together, extract values from them, etc. All without a throws keyword in sight. The circle is complete.

That’s the end of Lazy Error Handling in Java. We’ve gone everywhere from throwing exceptions lazily, to higher-order chaining and manipulation of exception-throwing computations, to doing away with checked exceptions altogether. I hope you have found this short series educational and as fun to read as it was to write.