In this tutorial I would like to talk all about continuations, to attempt to demystify this rather simple concept somewhat. For it’s not so much that continuations are difficult, but that the ways in which they’re used can get complex pretty fast.
In essence, a continuation is a function which represents the next block of code to be executed. Take this code for example:
main = do putStrLn "alpha" putStrLn "beta" putStrLn "gamma"
It may not look it, but this code uses continuations! In order to see them, let’s desugar that do-notation. You can click on the Run button to convince yourself that this code has the same behavior:
main = putStrLn "alpha" >>= \_ -> putStrLn "beta" >>= \_ -> putStrLn "gamma"
As you can see, each expression, such as
putStrLn "alpha" is bound to a continuation function that “continues” the execution of main in an explicit series. Thus, any language which allows for sequential statements uses implicit continuations. It just happens that the continuation always means “the rest of the code”.
Let’s give our continuation functions explicit names, just for fun:
main = putStrLn "alpha" -- main >>= \_ -> -- k putStrLn "beta" >>= \_ -> -- j putStrLn "gamma"
We can now read this code as follows:
main evaluates the expression
putStrLn "alpha", then takes the result of that evaluation and calls the function
k, which in turn calls the function
j, which implicitly calls a function we might call
So far this isn’t very useful. But what if we could truly name our continuation function, and even call them whenever and wherever we wanted?
In order to name continuations, we must operate within a special monad called
Cont. We’ll actually use the transformer variety, called
ContT, so that we can do some IO at the same time. Here is our
main function, moved into
import Control.Monad.Trans.Class import Control.Monad.Trans.Cont main = flip runContT return $ do lift $ putStrLn "alpha" lift $ putStrLn "beta" -- k lift $ putStrLn "gamma" -- j
flip runContT return prolog just means that we’re entering the
ContT monad transformer, demarcating a kind of “scope” within which named continuation functions may be called. Once we exit the
ContT block, it is not possible the invoke our named continuations again.
ContT, we use the function
callCC (“call with current continuation”), to name the “current” continuation: the continuation which now follows immediately after the call to
import Control.Monad.Trans.Class import Control.Monad.Trans.Cont main = flip runContT return $ do lift $ putStrLn "alpha" callCC $ \k -> do k () lift $ putStrLn "beta" -- k lift $ putStrLn "gamma" -- j
Nothing special happening here. We inject a call to
callCC, capture the current continuation as a function value, and then immediately call it – just as the code would have done itself had we not interfered. In fact, all we’re doing right now is making something explicit that was always there, hiding behind the mask of do-notation.
Also note that in the code above, not calling
k would have had the same effect, since there is an implied call to
k after the call to
callCC. Our making it explicit really had no effect at all. But things can get progressively interesting from here, so let’s cover each possibility in turn.
The first useful thing to do with a continuation is to call it from someplace other than where it would get called ordinarily. For example:
import Control.Monad.Trans.Class import Control.Monad.Trans.Cont main = flip runContT return $ do lift $ putStrLn "alpha" callCC $ \k -> do k () lift $ putStrLn "uh oh..." lift $ putStrLn "beta" -- k lift $ putStrLn "gamma" -- j
Can you guess what the output of this code will be before running it?
That’s right! Calling
k invokes the continuation, meaning that execution moves to the block immediately after the
callCC block, giving us a way to terminate the
callCC block early, as if the rest of the code it contained didn’t exist, in this case.
We can get even trickier when there is logic within the
import Control.Monad.Trans.Class import Control.Monad.Trans.Cont main = flip runContT return $ do lift $ putStrLn "alpha" num <- callCC $ \k -> do if 42 == 7 * 6 then k 42 else lift $ putStrLn "uh oh..." return 43 lift $ putStrLn "beta" -- k lift $ putStrLn "gamma" -- j lift $ print num -- l
Coming back again
But wait, there’s more. I never said that the continuation function could only be called once, or that it had to be called within the
callCC block! Check this out:
import Control.Monad.Trans.Class import Control.Monad.Trans.Cont main = flip runContT return $ do lift $ putStrLn "alpha" (k, num) <- callCC $ \k -> let f x = k (f, x) in return (f, 0) lift $ putStrLn "beta" -- k lift $ putStrLn "gamma" -- j if num < 5 then k (num + 1) >> return () else lift $ print num -- l
You may want to spend some time with this example, to get comfortable with what’s happening here. The lazily recursive magic inside the
callCC block is saying the following: We want to return from
callCC a function which, when called with a number, will invoke the current continuation and return that same function along with the given number. So basically, this code packages up the continuation in a nicely callable form.
As an exercise, try finding a way to hand back
k directly, without wrapping it up in the helper function
f. You’ll run into problems with infinitely recursive types. But why is that? Read the definition of
f more closely to find your answer. (As a bonus: The trick we’re using here is called “tying the knot”, and allows us to deal with just these sorts of recursive expressions).
Let’s cover what we’ve learned so far:
- Any code which represents sequential “statements” uses implied continuations.
ContT) monad allows us to name these continuations.
- We can call a named continuation at any time to jump to that point in the code.
- We can invoke continuations as many times as we like, with different arguments.
Using only what we’ve learned so far, it should be possible to implement:
- pretty much any iterative control construct from your favorite imperative language.
- exception handling (hint: the “try” block is just a
callCC, with the continuation pointing at the “catch” block following just after it, and “throw” is just calling the continuation function with an exception value. But how do you make the continuation function known to the code that does the throw?).
- green threads (hint: when you “sleep” to transfer control to another thread, you are really invoking
callCC, calling the continuation with a “not now” argument, returning that continuation function to the scheduler, which then later calls it with an “ok now” argument that allows the thread to resume executing).
Next up, delimited continuations, which let us get even fancier!