On this page:
13.1 A Little Calculus
13.2 A Helpful Shorthand for Anonymous Functions
13.3 Streams From Functions
13.4 Combining Forces:   Streams of Derivatives

13 Functions as Data

    13.1 A Little Calculus

    13.2 A Helpful Shorthand for Anonymous Functions

    13.3 Streams From Functions

    13.4 Combining Forces: Streams of Derivatives

It’s interesting to consider how expressive the little programming we’ve learned so far can be. To illustrate this, we’ll work through a few exercises of interesting concepts we can express using just functions as values. We’ll write two quite different things, then show how they converge nicely.

13.1 A Little Calculus

If you’ve studied the differential calculus, you’ve come across curious sytactic statements such as this:

\begin{equation*}{\frac{d}{dx}} x^2 = 2x\end{equation*}

Let’s unpack what this means: the \(d/dx\), the \(x^2\), and the \(2x\).

First, let’s take on the two expressions; we’ll discuss one, and the discussion will cover the other as well. The correct response to “what does \(x^2\) mean?” is, of course, an error: it doesn’t mean anything, because \(x\) is an unbound identifier.

So what is it intended to mean? The intent, clearly, is to represent the function that squares its input, just as \(2x\) is meant to be the function that doubles its input. We have nicer ways of writing those:

fun square(x :: Number) -> Number: x * x end fun double(x :: Number) -> Number: 2 * x end

and what we’re really trying to say is that the \(d/dx\) (whatever that is) of square is double.We’re assuming functions of arity one in the variable that is changing.

So now let’s unpack \(d/dx\), starting with its type. As the above example illustrates, \(d/dx\) is really a function from functions to functions. That is, we can write its type as follows:

d-dx :: ((Number -> Number) -> (Number -> Number))

(This type might explain why your calculus course never explained this operation this way—though it’s not clear that obscuring its true meaning is any better for your understanding.)

Let us now implement d-dx. We’ll implement numerical differentiation, though in principle we could also implement symbolic differentiation—using rules you learned, e.g., given a polynomial, multiply by the exponent and reduce the exponent by one—with a representation of expressions (Representing Arithmetic).

In general, numeric differentiation of a function at a point yields the value of the derivative at that point. We have a handy formula for it: the derivative of \(f\) at \(x\) is

\begin{equation*}\frac{f(x + \epsilon) - f(x)}{\epsilon}\end{equation*}

as \(\epsilon\) goes to zero in the limit. For now we’ll give the infinitesimal a small but fixed value, and later [Combining Forces: Streams of Derivatives] see how we can improve on this.

epsilon = 0.001

Let’s now try to translate the above formula into Pyret:

fun d-dx(f :: (Number -> Number)) -> (Number -> Number): (f(x + epsilon) - f(x)) / epsilon end

Do Now!

What’s the problem with the above definition?

If you didn’t notice, Pyret will soon tell you: x isn’t bound. Indeed, what is x? It’s the point at which we’re trying to compute the numeric derivative. That is, d-dx needs to return not a number but a function (as the type indicates) that will consume this x:

fun d-dx(f :: (Number -> Number)) -> (Number -> Number): lam(x :: Number) -> Number: (f(x + epsilon) - f(x)) / epsilon end end

Sure enough, this definition now works. We can, for instance, test it as follows (note the use of num-floor to avoid numeric precision issues from making our tests appear to fail):

d-dx-square = d-dx(square) check: ins = [list: 0, 1, 10, 100] for map(n from ins): num-floor(d-dx-square(n)) end is for map(n from ins): num-floor(double(n)) end end

Now we can return to the original example that launched this investigation: what the sloppy and mysterious notation of math is really trying to say is,

d-dx(lam(x): x * x end) = lam(x): 2 * x end

or, in the notation of A Notation for Functions,

\begin{equation*}{\frac{d}{dx}} [x \rightarrow x^2] = [x \rightarrow 2x]\end{equation*}

Pity math textbooks for not wanting to tell us the truth!

13.2 A Helpful Shorthand for Anonymous Functions

Pyret offers a shorter syntax for writing anonymous functions. Though, stylistically, we generally avoid it so that our programs don’t become a jumble of special characters, sometimes it’s particularly convenient, as we will see below. This syntax is

{(a): b}

where a is zero or more arguments and b is the body. For instance, we can write lam(x): x * x end as

{(x): x * x}

where we can see the benefit of brevity. In particular, note that there is no need for end, because the braces take the place of showing where the expression begins and ends. Similarly, we could have written d-dx as

fun d-dx-short(f): {(x): (f(x + epsilon) - f(x)) / epsilon} end

but many readers would say this makes the function harder to read, because the prominent lam makes clear that d-dx returns an (anonymous) function, whereas this syntax obscures it. Therefore, we will usually only use this shorthand syntax for “one-liners”.

13.3 Streams From Functions

People typically think of a function as serving one purpose: to parameterize an expression. While that is both true and the most common use of a function, it does not justify having a function of no arguments, because that clearly parameterizes over nothing at all. Yet functions of no argument also have a use, because functions actually serve two purposes: to parameterize, and to suspend evaluation of the body until the function is applied. In fact, these two uses are orthogonal, in that one can employ one feature without the other. In Sugaring Over Anonymity we see one direction of this: parameterized functions that are used immediately, so that we employ only abstraction and not delay. Below, we will see the other: delay without abstraction.

Let’s consider the humble list. A list can be only finitely long. However, there are many lists (or sequences) in nature that have no natural upper bound: from mathematical objects (the sequence of natural numbers) to natural ones (the sequence of hits to a Web site). Rather than try to squeeze these unbounded lists into bounded ones, let’s look at how we might represent and program over these unbounded lists.

First, let’s write a program to compute the sequence of natural numbers:

fun nats-from(n): link(n, nats-from(n + 1)) end

Do Now!

Does this program have a problem?

While this represents our intent, it doesn’t work: running it—e.g., nats-from(0)creates an infinite loop evaluating nats-from for every subsequent natural number. In other words, we want to write something very like the above, but that doesn’t recur until we want it to, i.e., on demand. In other words, we want the rest of the list to be lazy.

This is where our insight into functions comes in. A function, as we have just noted, delays evaluation of its body until it is applied. Therefore, a function would, in principle, defer the invocation of nats-from(n + 1) until it’s needed.

Except, this creates a type problem: the second argument to link needs to be a list, and cannot be a function. Indeed, because it must be a list, and every value that has been constructed must be finite, every list is finite and eventually terminates in empty. Therefore, we need a new data structure to represent the links in these lazy lists (also known as streams):
<stream-type-def> ::=

  data Stream<T>:

    | lz-link(h :: T, t :: ( -> Stream<T>))


where the annotation ( -> Stream<T>) means a function from no arguments (hence the lack of anything before ->), also known as a thunk. Note that the way we have defined streams they must be infinite, since we have provided no way to terminate them.

Let’s construct the simplest example we can, a stream of constant values:

ones = lz-link(1, lam(): ones end)

Pyret will actually complain about this definition. Note that the list equivalent of this also will not work:

ones = link(1, ones)

because ones is not defined at the point of definition, so when Pyret evaluates link(1, ones), it complains that ones is not defined. However, it is being overly conservative with our former definition: the use of ones is “under a lam”, and hence won’t be needed until after the definition of ones is done, at which point ones will be defined. We can indicate this to Pyret by using the keyword rec:

rec ones = lz-link(1, lam(): ones end)

To understand more about recursive definitions, see Recursive Functions. Note that in Pyret, every fun implicitly has a rec beneath it, which is why we can create recursive functions with aplomb.


Earlier we said that we can’t write

ones = link(1, ones)

What if we tried to write

rec ones = link(1, ones)

instead? Does this work and, if so, what value is ones bound to? If it doesn’t work, does it fail to work for the same reason as the definition without the rec?

Henceforth, we will use the shorthand [A Helpful Shorthand for Anonymous Functions] instead. Therefore, we can rewrite the above definition as:

rec ones = lz-link(1, {(): ones})

Notice that {(): …} defines an anonymous function of no arguments. You can’t leave out the ()! If you do, Pyret will get confused about what your program means.

Because functions are automatically recursive, when we write a function to create a stream, we don’t need to use rec. Consider this example:

fun nats-from(n :: Number): lz-link(n, {(): nats-from(n + 1)}) end

with which we can define the natural numbers:

nats = nats-from(0)

Note that the definition of nats is not recursive itself—the recursion is inside nats-fromso we don’t need to use rec to define nats.

Do Now!

Earlier, we said that every list is finite and hence eventually terminates. How does this remark apply to streams, such as the definition of ones or nats above?

The description of ones is still a finite one; it simply represents the potential for an infinite number of values. Note that:
  1. A similar reasoning doesn’t apply to lists because the rest of the list has already been constructed; in contrast, placing a function there creates the potential for a potentially unbounded amount of computation to still be forthcoming.

  2. That said, even with streams, in any given computation, we will create only a finite prefix of the stream. However, we don’t have to prematurely decide how many; each client and use is welcome to extract less or more, as needed.

Now we’ve created multiple streams, but we still don’t have an easy way to “see” one. First we’ll define the traditional list-like selectors. Getting the first element works exactly as with lists:

fun lz-first<T>(s :: Stream<T>) -> T: s.h end

In contrast, when trying to access the rest of the stream, all we get out of the data structure is a thunk. To access the actual rest, we need to force the thunk, which of course means applying it to no arguments:

fun lz-rest<T>(s :: Stream<T>) -> Stream<T>: s.t() end

This is useful for examining individual values of the stream. It is also useful to extract a finite prefix of it (of a given size) as a (regular) list, which would be especially handy for testing. Let’s write that function:

fun take<T>(n :: Number, s :: Stream<T>) -> List<T>: if n == 0: empty else: link(lz-first(s), take(n - 1, lz-rest(s))) end end

If you pay close attention, you’ll find that this body is not defined by cases over the structure of the (stream) inputinstead, it’s defined by the cases of the definition of a natural number (zero or a successor). We’ll return to this below (<lz-map2-def>).

Now that we have this, we can use it for testing. Note that usually we use our data to test our functions; here, we’re using this function to test our data:

check: take(10, ones) is map(lam(_): 1 end, range(0, 10)) take(10, nats) is range(0, 10) take(10, nats-from(1)) is map((_ + 1), range(0, 10)) end

The notation (_ + 1) defines a Pyret function of one argument that adds 1 to the given argument.

Let’s define one more function: the equivalent of map over streams. For reasons that will soon become obvious, we’ll define a version that takes two lists and applies the first argument to them pointwise:
<lz-map2-def> ::=

  fun lz-map2<A, B, C>(

      f :: (A, B -> C),

      s1 :: Stream<A>,

      s2 :: Stream<B>):


      f(lz-first(s1), lz-first(s2)),

      {(): lz-map2(f, lz-rest(s1), lz-rest(s2))})


Now we can see our earlier remark about the structure of the function driven home especially clearly. Whereas a traditional map over lists would have two cases, here we have only one case because the data definition (<stream-type-def>) has only one case! What is the consequence of this? In a traditional map, one case looks like the above, but the other case corresponds to the empty input, for which it produces the same output. Here, because the stream never terminates, mapping over it doesn’t either, and the structure of the function reflects this.This raises a much subtler problem: if the function’s body doesn’t have base- and inductive-cases, how can we perform an inductive proof over it? The short answer is we can’t: we must instead use coinduction.

Why did I define lz-map2 instead of lz-map? Because it enables us to write the following:

rec fibs = lz-link(0, {(): lz-link(1, {(): lz-map2({(a :: Number, b :: Number): a + b}, fibs, lz-rest(fibs))})})

from which, of course, we can extract as many Fibonacci numbers as we want!

check: take(10, fibs) is [0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34] end


Define the equivalent of map, filter, and fold for streams.

Streams and, more generally, infinite data structures that unfold on demand are extremely valuable in programming. Consider, for instance, the possible moves in a game. In some games, this can be infinite; even if it is finite, for interesting games the combinatorics mean that the tree is too large to feasibly store in memory. Therefore, the programmer of the computer’s intelligence must unfold the game tree on demand. Programming it by using the encoding we have described above means the program describes the entire tree, lazily, and the tree unfolds automatically on demand, relieving the programmer of the burden of implementing such a strategy.

In some languages, such as Haskell, lazy evaluation is built in by default. In such a language, there is no need to use thunks. However, lazy evaluation places other burdens on the language [REF].

13.4 Combining Forces: Streams of Derivatives

When we defined d-dx, we set epsilon to an arbitrary, high value. We could instead think of epsilon as itself a stream that produces successively finer values; then, for instance, when the difference in the value of the derivative becomes small enough, we can decide we have a sufficient approximation to the derivative.

The first step is, therefore, to make epsilon some kind of parameter rather than a global constant. That leaves open what kind of parameter it should be (number or stream?) as well as when it should be supplied.

It makes most sense to consume this parameter after we have decided what function we want to differentiate and at what value we want its derivative; after all, the stream of epsilon values may depend on both. Thus, we get:

fun d-dx(f :: (Number -> Number)) -> (Number -> (Number -> Number)): lam(x :: Number) -> (Number -> Number): lam(epsilon :: Number) -> Number: (f(x + epsilon) - f(x)) / epsilon end end end

with which we can return to our square example:

d-dx-square = d-dx(square)

Note that at this point we have simply redefined d-dx without any reference to streams: we have merely made a constant into a parameter.

Now let’s define the stream of negative powers of ten:

tenths = block: fun by-ten(d): new-denom = d / 10 lz-link(new-denom, lam(): by-ten(new-denom) end) end by-ten(1) end

so that

check: take(3, tenths) is [list: 1/10, 1/100, 1/1000] end

For concreteness, let’s pick an abscissa at which to compute the numeric derivative of squaresay 10:

d-dx-square-at-10 = d-dx-square(10)

Recall, from the types, that this is now a function of type (Number -> Number): given a value for epsilon, it computes the derivative using that value. We know, analytically, that the value of this derivative should be 20. We can now (lazily) map tenths to provide increasingly better approximations for epsilon and see what happens:

lz-map(d-dx-square-at-10, tenths)

Sure enough, the values we obtain are 20.1, 20.01, 20.001, and so on: progressively better numerical approximations to 20.


Extend the above program to take a tolerance, and draw as many values from the epsilon stream as necessary until the difference between successive approximations of the derivative fall within this tolerance.