Learning Haskell messily

By: on April 27, 2018

So, over the past year or so, a few of us at work have been meeting weekly1 to read the book Haskell Programming from first principles, so having finally having finished it, I thought I’d give writing something non-trivial another go. I say another, as I’ve made a whole bunch of attempts before, but for one reason or another (eg: too ambitious for my skills at the time, or mere impatience) gave up on them.

One thing I realised when I was learning a second language, is that input, that is reading and listening to material in the target language is absurdly valuable, even if you don’t actually understand it all.

For example, I would end up watching TV drama shows where, even though I couldn’t actually understand a word of the dialogue, i could just about infer the plot from how the characters on-screen interacted. And because those characters were compelling, I’d want to find out what they were saying, and thus I’d end up going over the subtitles (in the target language) with a dictionary where needed, and attempting to match them up with the audio dialogue.

And honestly, sometimes the only way I could match them was via the timing of the subtitles, as the first task when learning to listen is just being able to pick out broad structures, say sentences, and then maybe the roles of words in a sentence from the timing and intonation, never mind what the word was.

So I’d noted that a similar thing happens with programming language. I’d learned OCaml years ago, so whilst the broad shape of ML languages was relatively familiar, things like why you have ‘do’ notation with a bunch of left arrows in one place and ‘let’s in another was kinda beyond me. But sometimes, I’d find a bit of code that I could broadly follow, and used that as a springboard to dig into how the code itself was structured, and attempt to develop intuitions and relationships between how Haskell did things, and other languages did things.

So, the one thing that Haskell does very differently is how it manages Effects, or how a program will interact with the outside world. People will often discuss “Monads”, and attempt to explain them, but until you’ve got a feel for how lazy evaluation works within Haskell, and that statements in a program won’t necessarily be evaluated in the order they appear in the program text (at least compared to other languages, like Java or C and the like), it’s difficult to get a sense of why we even need to care about this seemingly alien construct.

But read enough code, thinking through how you think it probably works (maybe trying some experiments to see if you’re right?) and eventually you will build an intuition for it.

But of course, it’s totally fine to not understand things. Even if you don’t understand half of what the code does, you can still use the other half to get a feeling for how it uses libraries, or just the shape of how the source is laid out.

However, reading things is only half of the battle, but if you’ve read far more than you write, you’ve got a far better chance of understanding how and why other developers express solutions in the way they do. And besides, when you’re learning (which in my case is most of the time) it’s totally fine to try experiments, like copying and pasting an example, and then changing bits and seeing if they produce say, the error messages you expect. And if not, then that’s something to dig into.

And when you do feel like starting something from scratch, it’s totally fine to make a complete pigs ear of something, and then either try something else, or as I’ve been doing recently, figure out how to re-factor the code to be neater, or figure out how to take advantage of these “Monad” things, or whatever.

So, crucially:

  • It’s okay to get things wrong.
  • It’s natural to feel like you should have done better, but aren’t quite sure how. It just shows that your judgement is ahead of your ability to express it.
  • It’s okay to make a mess! Nobody else has to see it, unless you want them to.
  • Learning works best when it’s done playfully. If you enjoy solving crossword puzzles, maybe programs to help do that.
  • It’s okay to feel like you’re not making progress
  • It’s okay to take a break. I’ve occasionally put things down for a couple of months (or years) and come back to find that something that seemed opaque, and suddenly realise just that it makes a whole lot more sense.

  1. Well, occasionally

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