Idempotent Applicatives, Parametricity, and a Puzzle

April 1, 2019

Some applicative functors are idempotent, in the sense that repeating an effect is the same as having it just once. An example and a counterexample are Maybe and IO, respectively (contrast Just 3 *> Just 3 with print 3 *> print 3). More precisely, idempotency means that f <$> u <*> u = (\x -> f x x) <$> u. Given the informal description I began with, though, one might wonder whether the simpler property u *> u = u, which seems to capture the intuition about repeated effects, is equivalent to the usual idempotency property. In this post, I will tell how I went about exploring this conjecture, as well as a few things I learnt about parametricity along the way.

Before I begin, a few remarks about this notion of idempotency. The earliest mention of it that I know of is in Combining Monads, a paper by King and Wadler 1. There, idempotent monads are presented alongside the most widely known concept of commutative monads (f <$> u <*> v = flip f <$> v <*> u). Both properties generalise straightforwardly to applicative functors, which has the neat side-effect of allowing myself to skirt the ambiguity of the phrase “idempotent monad” (in category theory, that usually means a monad that, in Haskell parlance, has a join that is an isomorphism – a meaning that mostly doesn’t show up in Haskell). Lastly, I knew of the conjecture about idempotency amounting to u *> u = u through a Stack Overflow comment by David Feuer, and so I thank him for inspiring this post.

Prolegomena

Given we are looking into a general claim about applicatives, our first port of call are the applicative laws. Since the laws written in terms of (<*>) can be rather clunky to wield, I will switch to the monoidal presentation of Applicative:

Note I am using an uncurried version of fzip, as I feel it makes what follows slightly easier to explain. I will also introduce a couple teensy little combinators so that the required tuple shuffling becomes easier on the eye:

The converse definitions of pure and (<*>) in terms of unit and fzip would be:

Using that vocabulary, the applicative laws become:

As for the idempotency property, it can be expressed as:

(*>) and its sibling (<*) become:

(Proofs of the claims just above can be found at the appendix at the end of this post.)

Finally, the conjecture amounts to:

That fzip (u, u) = dup <$> u implies snd <$> fzip (u, u) is immediate, as snd . dup = id. Our goal, then, is getting fzip (u, u) = dup <$> u out of snd <$> fzip (u, u) = u.

Drawing relations

How might we get from snd <$> fzip (u, u) = u to fzip (u, u) = dup <$> u? It appears we have to take a fact about the second components of the pairs in fzip (u, u) (note that mapping snd discards the first components) and squeeze something about the first components out of it (namely, that they are equal to the second components everywhere). At first glance, it doesn’t appear the applicative laws connect the components in any obviously exploitable way. The one glimmer of hope lies in how, in the associativity law…

… whatever values originally belonging to v must show up as second components of pairs on the left hand side, and as first components on the right hand side. While that, on its own, is too vague to be actionable, there is a seemingly innocuous observation we can make use of: snd <$> fzip (u, u) = u tells us we can turn fzip (u, u) into u using fmap (informally, we can say that they have the same shape), and that they can be related using snd while making use of a free theorem 2. For our current purposes, that means we can borrow the types involved in the left side of the associativity law and use them to draw the following diagram…

                  fzip
(F (a, b), F c) --------> F ((a, b), c)
     |      |                  |     |
     |      |                  |     |
  snd|      |id             snd|     |id 
     |      |                  |     |
     v      v                  v     v
(F   b, F   c ) --------> F (  b,    c)
                  fzip

… such that we get the same result by following either path from the top left corner to the bottom right one. Omitting the occurrences of id, we can state that through this equation:

In words, it doesn’t matter whether we use snd after or before using fzip. fmap and first, left implicit in the diagram, are used to lift snd across the applicative layer and the pairs, respectively. This is just one specific instance of the free theorem; instead of snd and id, we could have any functions – or, more generally, any relations 3– between the involved types. Free theorems tell us about relations being preserved; in this case, snd sets up a relation on the left side of the diagram, and fzip preserves it.

We can get back to our problem by slipping in suitable concrete values in the equation. For an arbitrary u :: F A, we have…

… and, thanks to our snd <$> fzip (u, u) = u premise:

Now, why should we restrict ourselves to the left side of the associativity law? We can get a very similar diagram to work with from the right side:

                  fzip
(F a, F (b, c)) --------> F (a, (b, c))
   |      |                  |    |
   |      |                  |    |
 id|      |snd             id|    |snd
   |      |                  |    |
   v      v                  v    v
(F a, F   c   ) --------> F (a,   c   )
                  fzip

Or, as an equation:

Proceeding just like before, we get:

Since fzip (u, fzip (u, u)) ~ fzip (fzip (u, u), u) (associativity), we can shuffle that into:

The equations we squeezed out of the diagrams…

… can be combined into:

This kind of looks like idempotency, except for the extra occurrence of u tagging along for the ride. We might have a go at getting rid of it by sketching a diagram of a slightly different nature, which shows how the relations play out across the specific values that appear in the equation above:

                                        fzip 
          (u, u) :: (F   a   , F a) -----------> F (  a   , a)
                         |       |                    |     |
                         |       |                    |     |
                        R|      S|               {dup}| {id}|
                         |       |                    |     |
                         |       |      fzip          |     |
(fzip (u, u), u) :: (F (a, a), F a) -----------> F ((a, a), a)

dup can be used to relate fzip (u, u) and fzip (fzip (u, u), u) on the right of the diagram. That this diagram involves specific values leads to a subtle yet crucial difference from the previous ones: the relation on the right side is not necessarily the function dup, but some relation that happens to agree with dup for the specific values we happen to be using here (that is what I have attempted to suggest by adding the curly brackets as ad hoc notation and dropping the arrow tips from the vertical connectors). This is important because, given how fzip preserves relations, we might be tempted to work backwards and identify R on the left side with dup, giving us a proof – dup <$> u = fzip (u, u) would be an immediate consequence. We can’t do that, though, as R only must agree with dup for those values which show up in a relevant way on the right side. More explicitly, consider some element x :: a of u. If x shows up as a first component anywhere in fzip (u, u), then the corresponding element of fzip (u, u) must have its first and second components equal to each other (because dup agrees with R on x, and R in turn relates u and fzip (u, u)), and to x (since snd <$> fzip (u, u) = u). If that held for all elements of u, we would have fzip (u, u) = dup <$> u. However if x doesn’t show up as a first component in fzip (u, u), there are no guarantees (as the right side offers no evidence on what x is related to through R), and so we don’t have grounds for the ultimate claim.

Close, but no cigar.

Something twisted

While those parametricity tricks gave us no proof, we did learn something interesting: the conjecture holds as long as all elements from u show up as first components in fzip (u, u). That sounds like a decent lead for a counterexample, so let’s switch course and look for one instead. To begin with, here is an inoffensive length-two vector/homogeneous pair type:

Here is its Applicative instance, specified in terms of the monoidal presentation:

Good, like any other applicative with a single shape, is idempotent – as there is just one shape, it can’t help but be preserved 4. That means we need a second constructor:

unit can remain the same…

… which means the Good-and-Good case must remain the same: the identity effect has to be idempotent 5:

The twist comes in the Evil-and-Evil case: we repeat our pick of a first element of the vector, and thus discard one of the first elements. (We can’t do the same with the second element, as we want snd <$> fzip (u, u) = u to hold.)

The Evil-and-Good case is determined by the right identity law…

… while associativity forces our hand in the Good-and-Evil case (consider what would happen in a Good-Evil-Evil chain 6):

Evil spreads, leaving a trail of repeated picks of first elements to the left of its rightmost occurrence in an applicative chain.

Getting an actual Applicative instance from those definitions is easy: fill unit with something, and take away the commas from fzip:

And there it is:

The conjecture is thus refuted. While parametricity isn’t truly necessary to bring out this counterexample, I am far from sure I would have thought of it without having explored it under the light of parametricity. On another note, it is rather interesting that there are biased applicatives like Twisted. I wonder whether less contrived cases can be found out there in the wild.

Appendix

Below are some derivations that might distract from the main thrust of the post.

Alternative presentation of the idempotency property

One direction of the equivalency between the two formulations of the idempotency property follows from a straightforward substitution…

… while the other one calls for a small dose of parametricity:

Alternative definitions of (<*) and (*>)

Starting from…

… we can switch to the monoidal presentation:

It follows from parametricity that…

… which amount to…

… or simply:

Lawfulness of Twisted as an applicative functor

Right identity:

Left identity:

Associativity:

fzip (fzip (u, v), w) ~ fzip (u, fzip (v, w))
-- Good/Good/Good case: holds.
fzip (fzip (Good x1 x2, Good y1 y2), Good z1, z2) -- LHS
fzip (Good (x1, y1) (x2, y2), Good z1, z2)
Good ((x1, y1), z1) ((x2, y2), z2)
fzip (Good x1 x2, fzip (Good y1 y2, Good z1 z2)) -- RHS
fzip (Good x1 x2, Good (y1, z1) (y2, z2))
Good (x1, (y1, z1)) (x2, (y2, z2)) -- LHS ~ RHS
-- Evil/Evil/Evil case:
fzip (fzip (Evil x1 x2, Evil y1 y2), Evil z1, z2) -- LHS
fzip (Evil (x1, y1) (x1, y2), Evil z1, z2)
Evil ((x1, y1), z1) ((x1, y1), z2)
fzip (Evil x1 x2, fzip (Evil y1 y2, Evil z1 z2)) -- RHS
fzip (Evil x1 x2, Evil (y1, z1) (y1, z2))
Evil (x1, (y1, z1)) (x1, (y1, z2)) -- LHS ~ RHS
-- Good/Evil/Evil case:
fzip (fzip (Good x1 x2, Evil y1 y2), Evil z1, z2) -- LHS
fzip (Good (x1, y1) (x2, y2), Evil z1, z2)
Evil ((x1, y1), z1) ((x1, y1), z2)
fzip (Good x1 x2, fzip (Evil y1 y2, Evil z1 z2)) -- RHS
fzip (Good x1 x2, Evil (y1, z1) (y1, z2))
Evil (x1, (y1, z1)) (x1, (y1, z2)) -- LHS ~ RHS
-- Evil/Good/Evil case:
fzip (fzip (Evil x1 x2, Good y1 y2), Evil z1, z2) -- LHS
fzip (Evil (x1, y1) (x2, y2), Evil z1, z2)
Evil ((x1, y1), z1) ((x1, y1), z2)
fzip (Evil x1 x2, fzip (Good y1 y2, Evil z1 z2)) -- RHS
fzip (Evil x1 x2, Evil (y1, z1) (y1, z2))
Evil (x1, (y1, z1)) (x1, (y1, z2)) -- LHS ~ RHS
-- Evil/Evil/Good case:
fzip (fzip (Evil x1 x2, Evil y1 y2), Good z1, z2) -- LHS
fzip (Evil (x1, y1) (x1, y2), Good z1, z2)
Evil ((x1, y1), z1) ((x1, y2), z2)
fzip (Evil x1 x2, fzip (Evil y1 y2, Good z1 z2)) -- RHS
fzip (Evil x1 x2, Evil (y1, z1) (y2, z2))
Evil (x1, (y1, z1)) (x1, (y2, z2)) -- LHS ~ RHS
-- Evil/Good/Good case:
fzip (fzip (Evil x1 x2, Good y1 y2), Good z1, z2) -- LHS
fzip (Evil (x1, y1) (x2, y2), Good z1, z2)
Evil ((x1, y1), z1) ((x2, y2), z2)
fzip (Evil x1 x2, fzip (Good y1 y2, Good z1 z2)) -- RHS
fzip (Evil x1 x2, Good (y1, z1) (y2, z2))
Evil (x1, (y1, z1)) (x2, (y2, z2)) -- LHS ~ RHS
-- Good/Evil/Good case:
fzip (fzip (Good x1 x2, Evil y1 y2), Good z1, z2) -- LHS
fzip (Evil (x1, y1) (x1, y2), Good z1, z2)
Evil ((x1, y1), z1) ((x1, y2), z2)
fzip (Good x1 x2, fzip (Evil y1 y2, Good z1 z2)) -- RHS
fzip (Good x1 x2, Evil (y1, z1) (y2, z2))
Evil (x1, (y1, z1)) (x1, (y2, z2)) -- LHS ~ RHS
-- Good/Good/Evil case:
fzip (fzip (Good x1 x2, Good y1 y2), Evil z1, z2) -- LHS
fzip (Good (x1, y1) (x2, y2), Evil z1, z2)
Evil ((x1, y1), z1) ((x1, y1), z2)
fzip (Good x1 x2, fzip (Good y1 y2, Evil z1 z2)) -- RHS
fzip (Good x1 x2, Evil (y1, z1) (y1, z2))
Evil (x1, (y1, z1)) (x1, (y1, z2)) -- LHS ~ RHS

  1. One of Philip Wadler’s papers about monads.

  2. For a gentle initial illustration of the underlying theme of parametricity, see What Does fmap Preserve?. For a more thorough introduction, see Parametricity: Money for Nothing and Theorems for Free, by Bartosz Milewski.

  3. A relation is a set of pairs; or, if you will, of associations between values. As an arbitrary example, we can have a less-than relation on integers which includes all pairs of integers (x, y) such that x < y. In particular, functions are relations: seen as a relation, a function f seen in this way includes all pairs (x, f x), there being exactly one pair for each possible value of the first component.

  4. One way to prove that is by using parametricity in tandem with the identity laws, analogously to how we used associativity in the previous section, while exploiting how there being only one shape means any applicative value can be related to unit.

  5. See the previous note about relating things to unit.

  6. The appendix includes a proof of the lawfulness of Twisted.