Interview with Brian McKenna about Roy, Purescript, Haskell, Idris and dependent types

Federico Carrone
This is not a Monad tutorial
6 min readAug 26, 2015

As promised in our last interview for This is not a Monad tutorial we interviewed Brian McKenna, creator of the Roy programming language. In this interview Brian talks about Roy, its implementation, how it compares with Purescript, and also about dependent types and other interesting technologies like Morte and Unison. I highly recommend that you check Brian’s blog after you finish reading this interview.

In the following weeks we will be talking with the creators of Red programming language, Robert Virding — Erlang co-inventor and Lisp Flavored Erlang creator — and with MirageOS unikernel dev team. Stay tuned! Reach me via twitter at @unbalancedparen, if you have any comment or request.

What are Roy’s main features?

Roy featured things common to languages which are well suited to typed
functional programming:

  • Types and type inference (with row polymorphism)
  • Algebraic data types and pattern matching
  • Monadic syntax

Why did you create it?

I created Roy after doing years of JavaScript work. I learned Haskell
and it made a huge amount of sense to me. Functional programming with
types seemed like the ideal way for me to work on software and so I
wanted to bring it to web programming.

I am tempted to say that Roy has some big similarities with Purescript. What are the main differences between the two languages?

Roy was first!

PureScript had almost the exact same goals as Roy but had a much
better implementation. Quoting the PureScript wiki:

Roy is probably the most similar language on the list, and was a
large influence on the development of PureScript.

I stopped working on Roy once PureScript got around equal in
functionality. PureScript’s implementation means it’s a lot easier to
work on and has much fewer bugs.

Originally the PureScript FFI started off being very different (i.e.
it used inline JS instead of an externs file) but recently changed to
being similar to the original design Roy had. That was probably the
biggest difference the projects had.

You implemented the lexer and the parser. Did you do so to learn/play or because you thought that the available tools were not good enough?

I implemented a whitespace sensitive lexer which was passed into the
Jison parser generator. It was the same approach which CoffeeScript

A custom lexer was necessary because the Jison lexer generator was not
capable of stateful scanning of whitespace.

I prefer working with parser combinators such as Parsec and Trifecta.
They’re easier to work with and allow you to write reusable

Why did you use a whitespace sensitive grammar a la Python/Haskell in Roy?

Just to look like Haskell. I hate thinking about syntax — I copy
things as much as I can. I’m also annoyed that we’re still writing
programs using text. They’re trees, not lists of characters!

Why is it useful to have monadic sugar in a language that has unrestricted side effects?

Roy was not designed to allow side-effects, but you could do anything
with the FFI and so it was possible.

Scala has (pretty limited) monadic sugar and also unrestricted
side-effects. People use monadic sugar for things as straight-forward
as Option:

for {
name <- maybeFirstName
user <- lookup(name)
avatar <- getAvatar(user)
} yield avatar

Which can be easier to type than:

maybeFirstName.flatMap { name =>
lookup(name).flatMap { user =>

It doesn’t have anything to do with side-effects.

From what we could read in the Damas-Hindley-Milner type inference algorithm source comments it is based on Robert Smallshire’s Python code. Do you have any recommendation for those who want to implement it?

I recommend reading “Generalizing Hindley-Milner Type Inference
Algorithms” which turns the algorithm into explicit separate
constraint collection and constraint solving problems, which is a bit
easier to work with than plain Algorithm W. It’s then possible to do
tree annotation via the cofree comonad, which gives a pretty nice

What reading material do you recommend for implementing your first programming language?

Source code of other languages are great resources. I think the
PureScript and Idris compilers are somewhat easy to play around with.

Hackage has a lot of code to look at, such as reference
implementations of Algorithm W:

What would you recommend us to read to learn about different type systems?

Types and Programming Languages by Benjamin Pierce is a brilliant
resource for understanding both. It’s surprised me by being a very
good introduction to types and having pretty good reference
implementations in OCaml for each of the discussed type-systems. Very
highly recommended.

Have you tried Elm? What do you think of FRP?

I think Functional Reactive Programming could be generalised a bit to
just general stream combinator libraries and we could make it as
simple as libraries such as pipes, machines and scalaz-stream. I’d
like to implement one of those libraries in PureScript and try to
write combinators to fill in the gaps for developing user interfaces
to see how close we get to current FRP libraries.

You recently gave a talk about Idris, a language with dependent types. Could you explain what are dependent types?

In non-dependently typed languages we have a way of making values
depend upon other values: functions! In dependent typed languages we
have those functions, but also functions which can return types.

Haskell has two completely separate languages: the language of values
and the language of types. Recent versions of GHC give a way of
promoting certain values up to types, but if you want to write a
function over those values, you’ll have to write a version at the
value level and separately at the type level.

Dependent-types remove the separation. If you write a function, you
can reuse it for terms at any level.

What are the practical benefits of using a language with dependent types?

Since you can use values in your types, you can specify a lot more.
For example, I can specify that list reversal is an involution, i.e.
reversing twice is the same as not reversing at all:

reverseInvolution : (xs : List a) -> reverse (reverse xs) = r

No need for tests — if I implement a value for that type, I have a
proof for all possible values.

Or we can specify that a sort function will generate a list where each
element is smaller than the next. The implementation of sort will only
compile if we prove that to be true.

We can also do things like metaprogramming, since we know more about
the values which are passed in, we can compute fancy types for things
such as literals.

From what we have read from your blog you have learnt Coq and Agda. What can code monkeys like us learn from programming languages like Coq and Agda?

I know a tiny amount of Coq and Agda. They teach people what types are
capable of and how they can be used to interactively prove programs
correct. It’ll also show the potential of typed metaprogramming, for
example allowing the type of printf to depend upon the input string or
how it’s possible to write your own statically checked literal

Have you checked LiquidHaskell? What do you think about and refinement types?

I think refinement types are interesting. It’s very exciting to just
be able to add on annotations to existing programs and let proof
searching do the rest but I’d prefer dependent types to be a research
area for a couple of reasons:

  1. LiquidHaskell can do some dependent looking things but doesn’t have
    full pi-types so can’t do as much as real dependent types
  2. We’re relying on an SMT solver to come up with a reasoning for why
    something is true, dependent types allow you to create and manipulate
    your own justifications — this might be solvable just via tooling,

What other languages or technologies are you keeping an eye on that we should check?

  • Morte by Gabriel Gonzalez is a brilliant way of talking about
    distributable programs. I want to work on Morte to create a database
    of super-optimised code, where package management is about functions,
    not libraries. Morte has a pretty good introduction here.
  • Paul Chiusano’s Unison is an attempt at removing the “list of
    characters” problem from programming. It’s also trying to create a
    better UX for functional programming.



Federico Carrone
This is not a Monad tutorial

A happy member of The Erlang, Rust/ML and Lisp Evangelism Strikeforce. Network Protocol’s RFC fanatic. Big Data and Machine Learning