Welcome to the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of blog posts on research in functional programming. I see a lot of really neat papers come and go that show the great things that are happening in this design space, and I’m hoping to open their discoveries to a slightly wider audience by providing more what I hope are readable descriptions of them for people who don’t have the time to trawl through 20 pages or so. By using examples liberally I hope I can provide an alternative to the sometimes rather dry language of the abstracts. Anyway, that explained we can get on with the show!

A really cute paper just came up on Lambda the Ultimate, about the implementation of a new feature in the .NET functional programming language F# called Active Patterns. The basic idea is to let you pattern match not just structurally, like this:

> data Animal = Armadillo String
>             | Mink String
>             | FunctionalProgrammer String Integer
> show (Armadillo name) = name
> show (Mink name) = name
> show (FunctionalProgrammer name iq) = name ++ ", IQ of " ++ (show iq)</blockquote>

But also FUNCTIONALLY, by letting you define your own match functions:

> (|Text|Element|) xmlNode = if xmlNode.ContentType = Text then Text (xmlNode.Text)
>                                                          else Element (xmlNode)
> match myXMLNodeInstance of
>   Text s -> print ("Looks like a text node containing " ++ (show s))
>   Element e -> print ("Hmm, it's something else!")

And actually it goes beyond this because your pattern matching functions can receive arguments before the data you actually want to pattern match on, or can be partial functions (i.e. fail to pattern match on some inputs). Their “curried” nature lets the authors of the paper define a function which lets them write a pattern matching on the Nth bit of an integer, and on that integer rotated N times, where N is potentially supplied at runtime. This clearly has great potential for expressiveness!

I think that’s quite enough about active patterns, but I must say that I’m quite tempted to go and add F# to my repetoire now :-). Coming up next time, possibly: data parallel Haskell (concurrency for free!) or constructor tagging (cute optimisation for lazy functional languages).