Tangle: the dynamic programming monad

I’ve been playing around with the TangleT monad transformer for the last couple days. It seems pretty interesting, but I haven’t been able to find any papers or blog posts about it, so I thought I’d ask if anyone had any pointers.

TangleT can be thought of as the “Dynamic Programming Monad Transformer” or the “Memoization Monad Transformer”. I first saw TangleT in the extensible package, but there is a simpler formation that I haven’t yet been able to find on Hackage. In the rest of this post I explain what I’ve figured out so far about these data types, as well as follow-up with some questions I still have.

TangleT from extensible

The extensible package from Fumiaki Kinoshita provides a rich library of open sum types, open product types, and extensible records.

The TangleT monad transformer is provided by this package:

newtype TangleT xs h m a = TangleT
  { unTangleT :: RWST (xs :& Comp (TangleT xs h m) h) () (xs :& Nullable h) m a }

This is somewhat complicated if you’re not familiar with extensible (and probably somewhat complicated even if you are familiar with extensible), so in the next section I introduce a simpler version of this data type.

Simpler TangleT

A simpler version of TangleT may look like the following:

newtype Wrangle a = Wrangle { unWrangle :: [Wrangle String] -> IO a }

There is one important operation that this monad gives:

hitchAt :: Int -> Wrangle String

The running function looks like this:

runWrangle :: [Wrangle String] -> IO [String]

Wrangle is a monad that lets you build up a list of Strings recursively, while using hitchAt to get other Strings from the list.

Here is an example of using it, along with inline comments:

example1 :: IO ()
example1 = do
  strings <- runWrangle myWrangle
  print strings
    myWrangle :: [Wrangle String]
    myWrangle =
      [ do
          -- Get the 3rd String from this list.  This causes the third
          -- computation in this list to be evaluated.
          thirdStr <- hitchAt 2
          pure $ "in first, got third: " <> thirdStr
      , pure "second string"
      , do
          -- read in a string from the user
          lift $ putStr "in third, asking for string: "
          str <- lift getLine
          pure str

Running this would look like the following:

> example1
in third, asking for string: foo
in third, asking for string: bar
["in first, got third: foo", "second string", "bar"]

You can see how Wrangle allows you to build up a list of computations that returns Strings, but where all the computations can use hitchAt to refer to other elements in the list.

This formulation of Wrangle is a little easier to understand than TangleT, but it is not useful. We can’t easily use Wrangle as a dynamic programming monad.

In the above example1, you see that the third element of myWrangle is evaluated twice, asking the user to input two strings. In order to use this for dynamic programming, we’d like the value of each computation to be memoized, so it is only ever evaluated once.

Memoized Wrangle: Mangle

Mangle carries around a list of Maybe String as a State monad:

newtype Mangle a = Mangle
  { unMangle :: [Mangle String] -> [Maybe String] -> IO (a, [Maybe String]) }

The type signatures on hitchAt and runMangle are the same as the above, but now hitchAt is also responsible for updating the [Maybe String] list whenever it is called.

example1 would look exactly the same as above (just replacing Wrangle with Mangle), but now running it is slightly different:

> example1
in third, asking for string: foo
["in first, got third: foo", "second string", "foo"]

You can see that the third element in the list only gets evaluated once, so the user is only asked to input a string once. The user inputs foo, and this gets memoized.


There are a couple generalizations we can make to Mangle.

First, we can make it a monad transformer (instead of hard-coding to run in IO):

newtype TwogleT m a = TwogleT
  { unTwogleT :: [TwogleT m String] -> [Maybe String] -> m (a, [Maybe String]) }

hitchAt and the run function are similar to above.

You can also stop hard-coding String, and instead use any type:

newtype ToogleT b m a = ToogleT
  { unToogleT :: [ToogleT b m b] -> [Maybe b] -> m (a, [Maybe b]) }

hitchAt and the run function are still similar to above.

The most interesting generalization is making it be able to build up any data structure, not just lists:

newtype StoogleT f b m a = StoogleT
  { unStoogleT :: f (StoogleT b m b) -> f (Maybe b) -> m (a, f (Maybe b)) }

This changes the type signatures of hitchAt and the run function:

  :: forall f b m
   . Monad m
  => (forall x. Traversal' (f x) x)
  -> StoogleT f b m (Maybe b)

The first argument to hitchAt is a Traversal'. This would generally be the Traversal produced by ix.

The run function is generalized to work with any TraversableWithIndex:

  :: forall b f i m
   . TraverableWithIndex i f
  => f (Stoogle f b m b)
  -> m (f b)

This allows you build up not only lists in f, but any data structure that is TraversableWithIndex, including Maps, Vectors, multi-dimensional arrays, etc. This is quite convenient, given that these types of data structures are often used in dynamic programming problems.

(Actually, the constraints on runStoogleT are somewhat of a lie. You also need a constraint similar to forall x. Ixed (f x), which would let you use [ix] on the f (Stoogle f b m b) argument. However, type families are involved in Ixed, so it is not possible to write this type of constraint.)

Questions / Additional Observations

I’ve been playing around with TangleT for a while, but I still have some fundamental questions:

  • Is the StoogleT type above some sort of specialization of a more general or well-known data type?

    The only reference I’ve seen to a type like this is a paper that uses it as a memoization monad in section 4.2.

  • I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a recursive type where the recursion happens in a negative position. Are there any other good examples of common data types that do this?

    I was also somewhat surprised that the recursion isn’t polymorphic on the a, but it makes sense why this can’t be the case (can’t write the Functor instance).

  • The running function is monomorphic in the b (which was String above). This makes it feel somewhat similar to ContT.

  • I’ve seen MonadFix used for doing recursive monadic stuff, but StoogleT doesn’t use MonadFix anywhere. Is there some relation between StoogleT and MonadFix?

  • Is there some relationship to hyperfunctions? I asked if anyone was familiar with TangleT on the FP Chat Slack, and someone pointed me to hyperfunctions. However, I couldn’t really figure out a way to make TangleT into a hyperfunction.

  • Is there some comonadic version of StoogleT that does something interesting?

Full Code

While I don’t have any clean, understandable code implementing the above, I do have some hacky, hard-to-understand code that implements the various flavors of TangleT I show above:


A bit of newb question: what problem is this stack/method solving? Eg, what compels you to use the method, where would it be most-useful?

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what problem is this stack/method solving? Eg, what compels you to use the method, where would it be most-useful?

That’s a good question. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure.

I thought the shape of the TangleT monad transformer was interesting, which is what lead me to looking into it. I didn’t necessarily come at it from the perspective of “here’s a problem that only TangleT can solve”.

However, what I’ve found out so far is that TangleT seems to be convenient for dynamic programming problems. These are the types of problems where you need to build up a data structure, where each value in the data structure might recursively depend on other values in the data structure. When computing values in the data structure, you need to make sure to cache/memoize the computed values, so that they can be cheaply read by other computations. TangleT gives you an nice way to do this effectively (running in IO, or any other monad stack).

Above, I implemented a solution to Advent of Code 2020 Day 10 with manual recursion building up a Map, as well as using my non-HKD TangleT to build up a Map. The TangleT solution seems pretty easy to work with.

Here’s an example of using the original HKD TangleT to build up a record where the fields refer to each other, and use IO:

The bmi field is calculated from the height and mass fields.

As I said above, I’m pretty sure you can also use MonadFix (and the associated machinery) to do stuff like this, but I’ve not sure of the relationship between these two approaches, or when it is best to use which. I’d like to continue looking into this.

My main motivation for TangleT, as you figured out, is to resolve dependencies between calculations. At work I have a 40-field record type, where calculation of each field may depend on others. It would be difficult to maintain if their dependency were written explicitly via function arguments, because they can’t be reordered easily. I invented TangleT in order to store computations in an HKD and let it figure out dependencies automatically.

Caching is a big advantage too; you can supply pre-computed values to runTangleT and it will compute the rest of the fields. We have a centralised application that serves fields that are expensive to calculate, so that the client application can just fetch them and fill other trivial fields themselves. They share the same code (a record of TangleTs) so it’s easy to tweak the set of fields to persist while preserving the semantics.


Thanks for the explanations!

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