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ListT done wrong

The typical definition definition of ListT, for example from transformers, is

newtype ListT m a = ListT (m [a])

The definition of join for this type is

  1. given a m [m [a]]
  2. run the outer action to get a [m [a]]
  3. run all the inner actions to get a [[a]]
  4. concat (i.e. join) the list of lists to get a [a]

Pictorially, join turns this tree

   / | \
  B1 B2 ...
 /|\ |\
p q..x y ...

into this tree

A, B1, B2, ...
 / /   \ \   
p q ... x y ...

That is, the actions A, B1, B2, … are all run in order and their results are concatenated.

That type checks, but it doesn’t satisfy the monad law join . fmap join = join . join. To see this, suppose we have the following structure of three nested levels of ListT:

 / \ 
B   D
|   |
C   E
|   |
()  ()

join results in

  A, B, D
   /  \
  C    E
  |    |
  ()   ()

and a further join results in

A, B, D, C, E
   /   \
  ()   ()

On the other hand, if we fmap join first we get

     / \
    /   \
B, C    D, E
  |      |
  ()     ()

and a further join gives

   A, B, C, D, E
       /     \
      ()     ()

So join . fmap join gives us a different order of m actions than join . join, hence the requirement that “m should be a commutative monad”.

ListT done right


Here’s some code you can run to check the claims in this article.

import Control.Monad (join)    
import Control.Monad.Trans (lift)
import Control.Monad.Trans.List (ListT(ListT), runListT)
import Control.Monad.Trans.Writer (tell, execWriter, Writer)
foo :: ListT (Writer String)    
       (ListT (Writer String)    
        (ListT (Writer String) ()))    
foo = do    
    lift (tell "A")    
    ListT (return [bar, baz])    
bar :: ListT (Writer String) (ListT (Writer String) ())    
bar = do lift (tell "B")    
         return (lift (tell "C"))    
baz :: ListT (Writer String) (ListT (Writer String) ())    
baz = do lift (tell "D")    
         return (lift (tell "E"))    
go1 = (execWriter . runListT . join . fmap join) foo    
-- "ABCDE"
go2 = (execWriter . runListT . join . join) foo
-- "ABDCE"