Notes from "Practical Foundations for Programming Languages"


Practical Foundations for Programming Languages (PFPL), by Robert Harper, is an introduction to the theory of programming languages. I recently finished reading through it. My read was fairly cursory - I stopped to think about ideas which seemed important or interesting, but I didn’t read everything deeply, and I didn’t do a lot of exercises.

In this post I’ll summarize the things I got from it that seemed really interesting. I’ll be giving my own perspective (much more category-oritented), not trying to stick to the book. This also means I might be mixing in some of my own thoughts that weren’t really in the text, without any effort made to distinguish them. Sorry! If there’s a dumb thing here don’t assume that means the book is dumb.

Should you read it?

I don’t regret skimming. The book spends a lot of time on concepts which didn’t really seem interesting to me - but of course that’s highly personal, and I guess it’s trying to be somewhat comprehensive, so that’s the price you pay. I might have strongly preferred to read a summary of the interesting ideas (like this one), but it’s hard to say how much I would have absorbed - somehow you usually learn more from being a bit immersed in things.

Table of contents

(of the book). Reproduced here so you can see if anything strikes your fancy:

  1. Judgment and rules
  2. Statics and dynamics
  3. Total functions
  4. Finite data types
  5. Types and propositions
  6. Infinite data types
  7. Variable types
  8. Partiality and recursive types
  9. Dynamic types
  10. Subtyping
  11. Dynamic dispatch
  12. Control flow
  13. Symbolic data
  14. Mutable state
  15. Parallelism
  16. Concurrency and distribution
  17. Modularity
  18. Equational reasoning
  19. Appendices.

My notes won’t be following this structure.

Induction and coinduction

This is probably the biggest thing I got out of this book. A lot of this is just my existing learning on this stuff finally crystallizing - so what I’ve written here may reflect me a lot more than the book.

Given a functor \(F: \mathcal{C} \to \mathcal{C}\), we can try to solve the equation \(F(X) \cong X\) in at least two ways: We can take an initial algebra of \(F\), or a terminal coalgebra of \(F\). Recall that an algebra is an object \(X\) with a map \(FX \to X\). There’s an obvious category of algebras, and it’s a theorem that for the initial object \(I\), if it exists, the map \(FI \to I\) is an isomorphism. Dually, a coalgebra is an object with a map \(X \to FX\), there’s a category of coalgebras, and if there is a terminal object \(T\), \(T \to FT\) is an isomorphism. These correspond in some sense to “minimal” and “maximal” solutions of the equation \(F(X) \cong X\).

Example: Let \(\mathcal{C} = \mathsf{Set}\), \(F(X) = 1 + X\). The initial algbra is the set of naturals, with \(\xi: 1 + \mathbb{N} \to \mathbb{N}\) taking \(* \in 1\) to \(0\) and \(n \in \mathbb{N}\) to \(n+1\). The terminal coalgebra is the set of conaturals, \(\mathbb{N} \cup \{\infty\}\), with \(\xi\) taking \(0\) to \(*\), and every other conatural \(n\) to \(n-1\) (with \(\infty - 1 = \infty\)).

Let’s say you want to construct a map \(\mathbb{N} \to X\). You can do so by induction: specify an \(F\)-algebra structure on \(X\), and there’ll automatically be a unique homomorphism \(\mathbb{N} \to X\). This algebra structure corresponds to a map \(f: 1 + X \to X\). This map tells you:

  1. \(f(* \in 1)\) is where \(0\) should go
  2. \(f(x \in X)\) is where \(n+1\) should go, if \(n\) goes to \(x\).

In other words, and inductive definition.

Moreover, you can prove properties of such maps using initiality. Let \(f: \mathbb{N} \to X\) be an algebra homomorphism, and let’s suppose I want to show that \(f(n) \in U \subset X\) for some subset. Then it suffices to prove that there is an algebra homomorphism \(p: Y \to X\) with image contained in \(U\). The obvious way to construct this homomorphism is to let \(Y\) be some subset of \(X\), contained in \(U\). For \(Y\) to be an algebra, we must have, if \(s: 1 + X \to X\), \(s(*)\in Y\) and \(s(y) \in Y\) for \(y \in Y\). In other words, \(Y\) must be stable under successor and contain the initial element.

We can in particular do ordinary induction by applying this to the identity map. Let \(U \subset \mathbb{N}\) be the subset of elements satisfying some property. I want to show that the identity has image contained in \(U\), i.e that \(U\) is the whole thing. It suffices to show that it contains \(0\) and is closed under taking successor, i.e to perform induction in the usual sense.

Coinduction is dual to this. It lets you construct maps into the terminal algebra, and prove equality between such maps. Now maybe let \(F(X) = A \times X\) for some set \(A\). The terminal coalgebra is the set \(A^\omega\) of streams, functions \(\mathbb{N} \to A\), with the structure map \(A^\omega \to A \times A^\omega\) slicing off the first element.

Given a map \(X \to A \times X\), we get a map \(f: X \to A^\omega\) by terminality. Moreover, we can use coinduction to show that \(f(x) = f(y)\) for some \(x,y \in X\). Namely, if we can find any coalgebra homomorphism \(g: X \to \bar{X}\) so that \(g(x) = g(y)\), then we must have \(f(x) = f(y)\), since we automatically have \(f = f’g\), with \(f': \bar{X} \to A^\omega\) the unique map. How do we construct such a map? The obvious way is to let \(\bar{X}\) the quotient of \(X\) by some equivalence relation \(\sim\). For \(X/\sim\) to still be an algebra - in other words, for the map \(X \to A \times X\) to descend to a map \(X/\sim \to A \times X/\sim\), we must have that

  1. \(x \sim y\) entails \(s_1(x) = s_1(y)\)
  2. \(x \sim y\) entails \(s_2(x) \sim s_2(y)\)

where \(s_1: X \to A, s_2: X \to X\) are the two components of \(s: X \to A \times X\).

The general slogan is that induction lets us understand maps out of the structure - which includes

What does “type safety” even mean?

The simplest explanation of this is that type safety is a property of a type system and a “operational semantics”, i.e of a model of program execution. In turn the simplest notion of execution is to give:

Then type safety means, if \(e\) is well-typed of type \(\tau\), either \(e \mapsto e'\) for some \(e' : \tau\), or \(e\) is a value. You don’t want to say something like “any well-typed program evaluated to a value of that type”, because your type system probably doesn’t guarantee termination (if it does, you language is not Turing complete). Obviously you need more sophisticated versions of this to account for more complicated models of program evaluation, programs with side effects, etc, but this is the idea.

Quantified and self-referential types

Given a type \(T\) with a free type variable \(t\) (like \(t \times \mathrm{int}\)), we can form the type \(\forall t. T\). An element of this type should be something that can “play the role” of \(T\) no matter what \(t\) is. For example \(\lambda x^A.x: A \to A\) gives an element of \(\forall A. A \to A\).

The behaviour of elements of this type is basically:

Similarly you can make sense of “existential types” \(\exist t. T\).

Once you have these, you can define recursive types, too. Take something like a list of integers: Data Intlist = Nil | Cons Int Intlist. In other words, Intlist = () + (Int,Intlist).

We can type this using universally quantified types as \(\forall t. ((() + \mathrm{Int} \times A) \to A) \to A\). This basically means: you give me an \(a : A\) and a map \(m: \mathrm{Int} \times A \to A\), and I give you an \(A\), for any type \(A\). The Nil constructor is the map which simply returns the given \(a\). The Cons n l constructor, for n an integer, returns an intlist which, given \((a,m)\), feeds it to l (returning \(a'\)), then computes \(m(n,a')\) and returns it.

If you unpack this in your head, you’ll see that this is exactly folding. A list is something you can fold over - the \(a\) provided is the initial accumulator and the \(m: \mathrm{Int} \times A \to A\) is the combination map.

The general formulation of the above is \(\forall a. (T(a) \to a) \to a\). Essentially, we are picking out the initial algebra of \(T\), by saying that this is the universal thing with a map to \(a\) for each $T$-algebra structure on \(a\)1.

We could also pick out the terminal coalgebra, by writing \(\exists (a \to T(a), a)\). This has the dual meaning - given any $T$-coalgbra structure, and a point in the carrier, we obtain a point of the terminal coalgebra. The terminal coalgebra of \(T(x) = () + x \times \mathrm{Int}\) is the type of “colists” - possibly infinite lists (of integers). We see above that to produce a colist, we have to provide an element \(a : A\) of some type, as well as a map \(s: A \to () + A \times \mathrm{Int}\). \(s(a) = ()\) means the list is empty, \(s(a) = (a',n)\) means \(n\) is the head and the rest of the list corresponds to the pair \((s,a')\). This is “iteration”, or maybe “cofolding”.

How a call stack works

This is about how to evaluate programs. Simple “pure functional” languages can “just” be evaluated by successively applying reduction rules. But this is pretty limited - both in performance terms, but also prevents you from doing a few cool things, like continuations.

A call stack is basically a list of functions - in the sense of “expressions with a hole in them” - that are waiting for the result of computation, along with a value that’s being evaluated, and a “pointer” which tells us whether the next step is to reduce the active value some more, or to return it, i.e plug it into the next function

So eg the stack a;b;c > e means “we’re in the process of evaluating e. Once that’s done, evaluate c e, then b (c e) and so on”. On the other hand a;b;c < e means “e is a value that’s done evaluating, pass it to c, then b, then a.

Then you need to make up some rules for how to handle these things - which order to evaluate expressions and so on.

To augment this language with continuations, you can add expressions like callcc : (Cont(a) -> a) -> a and throw : a -> Cont(a) -> b, where the meaning of callcc is “run this function with a “continuation” pointing the current state - if the continuation is ever “used” by throw, just immediately return the value a that was supplied”. Then the dynamics of this stuff is:


You might have heard about “free theorems”, from Wadler’s paper Theorems for Free!. Parametricity is the technical term for those things. The basic idea is that a term of polymorphic type has certain properties purely by virtue of its type. This is the so-called “free theorem” associated to that type.

The basic idea behind parametricity is to associate a relation to every type:

The statement of parametricity is then that \(x \sim x\) for all (well-typed) terms \(x\) of closed type.

For example, parametricity for \(id: \forall A. A \to A\) means that for any relation \(\sim: A \leftrightarrow B\), we have \(id_A(a) \sim id_B(b)\) if \(a \sim b\). Specializing eg to \(a \sim b\) if and only if \(a = a_0\) for some fixed element (taking maybe \(B=()\)), we see that \(id\) must be the identity. The precise version of this is more complicated, because you need to deal with the possibility that there may be free type variables around, and also the fact that a type is not really a set (so you need to work with relations on terms - this is what the book does - or use domain theory - this is what Wadler does).

  1. Although the quantified definition is more general, because it works even when \(T\) is not a functor in \(a\), but just some type that depends on \(a\) ↩︎