Cascade Of Insights

Personal Site of Adam Gordon Bell - Software Engineer

Lazy Evaluation In Haskell

This post is a work in progress and represents my getting to understand how laziness works in haskell and how it affects performance. Summary of Laziness:

Lazy is good when:

  • You are not going to use all the results
  • Because you are going to filter some things out at a later stage

Strict is good otherwise.

  • foldl’ for spine-strict results (Int, Map, …),
  • foldr for spine-lazy results (mostly just [a]),
  • Never use foldl

The key insight for me has been understanding that lazy evaluation means that functions take in a pointer to a thunk as arguments and then return a thunk as a value. Only looking inside those thunks inputs (via pattern matching or IO) actually forces anything.

This level of indirection improves composability, you can generate than reduce in a more modular fashion with only some constant overhead for holding on to thunks. The paper “why functional programming matters” has a great explanation of this.

This all works because whenever you throw something away with i.e. f (a,) = a, the pointer to the thunk, that was never evaluated, and all the evaluations that follow from can get garbage collected away.

This how foldr can short-circuit on some lazy list, if a condition of f that is passed in doesn’t care about the rest of the list, then we are done.