hi im chet

While Elm’s purity comes with a whole bunch of benefits, it makes us tackle some problems differently than we would in impure languages. Because of referential transparency, one value is as good as another in Elm if it represents the same thing.

So if we have a tree full of fives (high-fives, maybe?) and we want to change one of them into a six, we have to have some way of knowing exactly which five in our tree we want to change. We have to know where it is in our tree. In impure languages, we could just note where in our memory the five is located and change that. But in Elm, one five is as good as another, so we can’t discriminate based on where in our memory they are. We also can’t really change anything; when we say that we change a tree, we actually mean that we take a tree and return a new one that’s similar to the original tree, but slightly different.

One thing we can do is to remember a path from the root of the tree to the element that we want to change. We could say, take this tree, go left, go right and then left again and change the element that’s there. While this works, it can be inefficient. If we want to later change an element that’s near the element that we previously changed, we have to walk all the way from the root of the tree to our element again!

In this chapter, we’ll see how we can take some data structure and focus on a part of it in a way that makes changing its elements easy and walking around it efficient. Nice!

Taking a walk

Like we’ve learned in biology class, there are many different kinds of trees, so let’s pick a seed that we will use to plant ours. Here it is:

type Tree a = Empty | Node a (Tree a) (Tree a)

So our tree is either empty or it’s a node that has an element and two sub-trees. Here’s a fine example of such a tree, which I give to you, the reader, for free!

freeTree : Tree Char
freeTree =
    Node 'P'
        (Node 'O'
            (Node 'L'
                (Node 'N' Empty Empty)
                (Node 'T' Empty Empty)
            (Node 'Y'
                (Node 'S' Empty Empty)
                (Node 'A' Empty Empty)
        (Node 'L'
            (Node 'W'
                (Node 'C' Empty Empty)
                (Node 'R' Empty Empty)
            (Node 'A'
                (Node 'A' Empty Empty)
                (Node 'C' Empty Empty)

And here’s this tree represented graphically:

polly says her back hurts

Notice that 'W' in the tree there? Say we want to change it into a 'P'. How would we go about doing that? Well, one way would be to pattern match on our tree until we find the element that’s located by first going right and then left and changing said element. Here’s the code for this:

changeToP : Tree Char -> Maybe (Tree Char)
changeToP t = case t of
  (Node x l (Node y (Node _ m n) r)) -> Just (Node x l (Node y (Node 'P' m n) r))
  _ -> Nothing

One thing to note right now is that our changeToP function returns a Maybe (Tree Char). Because the tree we pass to this function may not have the path we’re matching against, we need to account for the possibility of this function failing. This will be a common theme in this chapter, and it will be discussed periodically throughout the chapter as the need arises, but there will also be a more in-depth discussion at the end. So feel free to briefly skip to the end if you’re confused. Otherwise, just remember, as we saw earlier, Maybe is just a way of encapsulating the possibility of failure in our data type, and know that this will have some implications for the design and implementation of the functions throughout this chapter.

So back to the function. Yuck! Not only is this rather ugly, it’s also kind of confusing. What happens here? Well, we pattern match on our tree and name its root element x (that’s becomes the 'P' in the root) and its left sub-tree l. Instead of giving a name to its right sub-tree, we further pattern match on it. We continue this pattern matching until we reach the sub-tree whose root is our 'W'. Once we’ve done this, we rebuild the tree, only the sub-tree that contained the 'W' at its root now has a 'P'.

Is there a better way of doing this? How about we make our function take a tree along with a list of directions. The directions will be either L or R, representing left and right respectively, and we’ll change the element that we arrive at if we follow the supplied directions. Here it is:

type Direction = L | R
type alias Directions = List Direction

changeToP : Directions -> Tree Char -> Maybe (Tree Char)
changeToP d t = case (d, t) of
  ((L::ds), (Node x l r)) -> (\l -> Node x l r) (changeToP ds l)
  ((R::ds), (Node x l r)) -> (\r -> Node x l r) (changeToP ds r)
  ([], (Node _ l r)) ->
    Just (Node 'P' l r)
  (_, t) ->

If the first element in the our list of directions is L, we construct a new tree that’s like the old tree, only its left sub-tree has an element changed to 'P'. When we recursively call changeToP, we give it only the tail of the list of directions, because we already took a left. We do the same thing in the case of an R. If the list of directions is empty, that means that we’re at our destination, so we return a tree that’s like the one supplied, only it has 'P' as its root element. And, if the list of directions passed to the function describes a path which does not exist through our tree, we ultimately return Nothing.

To avoid printing out the whole tree, let’s make a function that takes a list of directions and tells us what the element at the destination is:

elemAt : Directions -> Tree a -> Maybe a
elemAt d t = case (d, t) of
    ((L::ds), (Node _ l _)) -> elemAt ds l
    ((R::ds), (Node _ _ r)) -> elemAt ds r
    ([], (Node x _ _)) -> Just x
    _ -> Nothing

This function is actually quite similar to changeToP, only instead of remembering stuff along the way and reconstructing the tree, it ignores everything except its destination. Here we change the ‘W’ to a ‘P’ and see if the change in our new tree sticks:

> elemAt [R,L] newTree
Just 'W' : Maybe.Maybe Char
> elemAt [R,L] <| changeToP [R,L] freeTree
Just 'P' : Maybe.Maybe Char

Nice, this seems to work. In these functions, the list of directions acts as a sort of focus, because it pinpoints one exact sub-tree from our tree. A direction list of [R] focuses on the sub-tree that’s right of the root, for example. An empty direction list focuses on the main tree itself.

While this technique may seem cool, it can be rather inefficient, especially if we want to repeatedly change elements. Say we have a really huge tree and a long direction list that points to some element all the way at the bottom of the tree. We use the direction list to take a walk along the tree and change an element at the bottom. If we want to change another element that’s close to the element that we’ve just changed, we have to start from the root of the tree and walk all the way to the bottom again! What a drag.

In the next section, we’ll find a better way of focusing on a sub-tree, one that allows us to efficiently switch focus to sub-trees that are nearby.

A trail of breadcrumbs

whoop dee doo

Okay, so for focusing on a sub-tree, we want something better than just a list of directions that we always follow from the root of our tree. Would it help if we start at the root of the tree and move either left or right one step at a time and sort of leave breadcrumbs? That is, when we go left, we remember that we went left and when we go right, we remember that we went right. Sure, we can try that.

To represent our breadcrumbs, we’ll also use a list of Direction (which is either L or R), only instead of calling it Directions, we’ll call it Breadcrumbs, because our directions will now be reversed since we’re leaving them as we go down our tree:

type alias Breadcrumbs = List Direction

Here’s a function that takes a tree and some breadcrumbs and moves to the left sub-tree while adding L to the head of the list that represents our breadcrumbs:

goLeft : (Tree a, Breadcrumbs) -> Maybe (Tree a, Breadcrumbs)
goLeft t = case t of
  (Node _ l _, bs) -> Just (l, L::bs)
  _ -> Nothing

We ignore the element at the root and the right sub-tree and just return the left sub-tree along with the old breadcrumbs with L as the head. Note that an empty tree doesn’t have any sub-trees, so when we call goLeft on an empty tree, there isn’t anything meanigful to return. As we’ve seen with List.head, we can return a Maybe type to encaptulate this value that may or may not be returned.

Here’s a function to go right:

goRight : (Tree a, Breadcrumbs) -> Maybe (Tree a, Breadcrumbs)
goRight t = case t of
  (Node _ _ r, bs) -> Just (r, R::bs)
  _ -> Nothing

It works the same way. Let’s use these functions to take our freeTree and go right and then left:

> goLeft (goRight (freeTree, []))
Just (Node 'W' (Node 'C' Empty Empty) (Node 'R' Empty Empty),[L,R]) : Maybe (Tree Char, Breadcrumbs)


Okay, so now we have a tree that has 'W' in its root and 'C' in the root of its left sub-tree and 'R' in the root of its right sub-tree. The breadcrumbs are [L,R], because we first went right and then left.

To make walking along our tree clearer, we can use the |> function from the core library, which is defined like so:

(|>) : a -> (a -> b) -> b
(|>) x f = f x

Which allows us to apply functions to values by first writing the value, then writing a |> and then the function. So instead of goRight (freeTree, []), we can write (freeTree, []) |> goRight. Using this, we can rewrite the above so that it’s more apparent that we’re first going right and then left:

> (freeTree, []) |> goRight |> Maybe.andThen goLeft
Just (Node 'W' (Node 'C' Empty Empty) (Node 'R' Empty Empty),[L,R]) : Maybe (Tree Char, Breadcrumbs)

We used Maybe.andThen, because we can’t simply pass the value of one application on to the next function. As was mentioned earlier, we have encapsulated the possibility of failure in our return type, as Maybe (Tree a, Breadcrumbs). However, this type doesn’t align with the input parameter type. We can’t pass goLeft a Maybe (Tree a, Breadcrumbs). We need a way to unpack this Maybe to get the value out, while also considering what should be done in the event that we’re dealing with Nothing. And, in a nutshell, that’s what Maybe.andThen is going to do for us. We’ll talk more about this at the end of the chapter, but for now all you need to know is that Maybe.andThen helps us keep a handle on the constant possibility of failure at each step, so we can chain together our goLeft’s and goRight’s like this, even though any one of them could fail at any moment.

Going back up

What if we now want to go back up in our tree? From our breadcrumbs we know that the current tree is the left sub-tree of its parent and that it is the right sub-tree of its parent, but that’s it. They don’t tell us enough about the parent of the current sub-tree for us to be able to go up in the tree. It would seem that apart from the direction that we took, a single breadcrumb should also contain all other data that we need to go back up. In this case, that’s the element in the parent tree along with its right sub-tree.

In general, a single breadcrumb should contain all the data needed to reconstruct the parent node. So it should have the information from all the paths that we didn’t take and it should also know the direction that we did take, but it must not contain the sub-tree that we’re currently focusing on. That’s because we already have that sub-tree in the first component of the tuple, so if we also had it in the breadcrumbs, we’d have duplicate information.

Let’s modify our breadcrumbs so that they also contain information about everything that we previously ignored when moving left and right. Instead of Direction, we’ll make a new data type:

type Crumb a = LeftCrumb a (Tree a) | RightCrumb a (Tree a)

Now, instead of just L, we have a LeftCrumb that also contains the element in the node that we moved from and the right tree that we didn’t visit. Instead of R, we have RightCrumb, which contains the element in the node that we moved from and the left tree that we didn’t visit.

These breadcrumbs now contain all the data needed to recreate the tree that we walked through. So instead of just being normal bread crumbs, they’re now more like floppy disks that we leave as we go along, because they contain a lot more information than just the direction that we took.

In essence, every breadcrumb is now like a tree node with a hole in it. When we move deeper into a tree, the breadcrumb carries all the information that the node that we moved away from carried except the sub-tree that we chose to focus on. It also has to note where the hole is. In the case of a LeftCrumb, we know that we moved left, so the sub-tree that’s missing is the left one.

Let’s also change our Breadcrumbs type alias to reflect this:

type alias Breadcrumbs a = List (Crumb a)

Next up, we have to modify the goLeft and goRight functions to store information about the paths that we didn’t take in our breadcrumbs, instead of ignoring that information like they did before. Here’s goLeft:

goLeft : (Tree a, Breadcrumbs a) -> Maybe (Tree a, Breadcrumbs a)
goLeft t = case t of
  (Node x l r, bs) -> Just (l, LeftCrumb x r::bs)
  _ -> Nothing

You can see that it’s very similar to our previous goLeft, only instead of just adding a L to the head of our list of breadcrumbs, we add a LeftCrumb to signify that we went left and we equip our LeftCrumb with the element in the node that we moved from (that’s the x) and the right sub-tree that we chose not to visit.

goRight is similar:

goRight : (Tree a, Breadcrumbs a) -> Maybe (Tree a, Breadcrumbs a)
goRight t = case t of
  (Node x l r, bs) -> Just (r, RightCrumb x l::bs)
  _ -> Nothing

We were previously able to go left and right. What we’ve gotten now is the ability to actualy go back up by remembering stuff about the parent nodes and the paths that we didn’t visit. Here’s the goUp function:

goUp : (Tree a, Breadcrumbs a) -> Maybe (Tree a, Breadcrumbs a)
goUp t = case t of
  (t, LeftCrumb x r::bs) -> Just (Node x t r, bs)
  (t, RightCrumb x l::bs) -> Just (Node x l t, bs)
  _ -> Nothing


We’re focusing on the tree t and we check what the latest Crumb is. If it’s a LeftCrumb, then we construct a new tree where our tree t is the left sub-tree and we use the information about the right sub-tree that we didn’t visit and the element to fill out the rest of the Node. Because we moved back so to speak and picked up the last breadcrumb to recreate with it the parent tree, the new list of breadcrumbs doesn’t contain it.

With a pair of Tree a and Breadcrumbs a, we have all the information to rebuild the whole tree and we also have a focus on a sub-tree. This scheme also enables us to easily move up, left and right. Such a pair that contains a focused part of a data structure and its surroundings is called a zipper, because moving our focus up and down the data structure resembles the operation of a zipper on a regular pair of pants. So it’s cool to make a type alias as such:

type alias Zipper a = (Tree a, Breadcrumbs a)

I’d prefer naming the type alias Focus because that makes it clearer that we’re focusing on a part of a data structure, but the term zipper is more widely used to describe such a setup, so we’ll stick with Zipper.

Manipulating trees under focus

Now that we can move up and down, let’s make a function that modifies the element in the root of the sub-tree that the zipper is focusing on:

modify : (a -> a) -> Zipper a -> Maybe (Zipper a)
modify f z = case z of
    (Node x l r, bs) -> Just (Node (f x) l r, bs)
    (Empty, bs) -> Nothing

If we’re focusing on a node, we modify its root element with the function f. If we’re focusing on an empty tree, we return Nothing. Now we can start off with a tree, move to anywhere we want and modify an element, all while keeping focus on that element so that we can easily move further up or down. An example:

> newFocus = Maybe.andThen (modify (\_ -> 'P')) (Maybe.andThen goRight (goLeft (freeTree,[])))

We go left, then right and then modify the root element by replacing it with a 'P'. This reads even better if we use |>:

> newFocus = (freeTree,[]) 
  |> goLeft
  |> Maybe.andThen goRight
  |> Maybe.andThen (modify (\_ -> 'P'))

We can then move up if we want and replace an element with a mysterious 'X':

> Maybe.andThen (modify (\_ -> 'X')) (Maybe.andThen goUp newFocus)

Or if we wrote it with |>:

> newFocus2 = newFocus |> Maybe.andThen goUp |> Maybe.andThen (modify (\_ -> 'X'))

Moving up is easy because the breadcrumbs that we leave form the part of the data structure that we’re not focusing on, but it’s inverted, sort of like turning a sock inside out. That’s why when we want to move up, we don’t have to start from the root and make our way down, but we just take the top of our inverted tree, thereby uninverting a part of it and adding it to our focus.

Each node has two sub-trees, even if those sub-trees are empty trees. So if we’re focusing on an empty sub-tree, one thing we can do is to replace it with a non-empty subtree, thus attaching a tree to a leaf node. The code for this is simple:

attach : Tree a -> Zipper a -> Zipper a
attach t z = case z of
  (_, bs) -> (t, bs)

We take a tree and a zipper and return a new zipper that has its focus replaced with the supplied tree. Not only can we extend trees this way by replacing empty sub-trees with new trees, we can also replace whole existing sub-trees. Let’s attach a tree to the far left of our freeTree:

> farLeft = (freeTree,[]) |> goLeft |> Maybe.andThen goLeft |> Maybe.andThen goLeft |> Maybe.andThen goLeft
> newFocus = farLeft |> (attach (Node 'Z' Empty Empty))

newFocus is now focused on the tree that we just attached and the rest of the tree lies inverted in the breadcrumbs. If we were to use goUp to walk all the way to the top of the tree, it would be the same tree as freeTree but with an additional 'Z' on its far left.

I’m going straight to the top, oh yeah, up where the air is fresh and clean!

Making a function that walks all the way to the top of the tree, regardless of what we’re focusing on, is really easy. Here it is:

topMost : Zipper a -> Maybe (Zipper a)
topMost z = case z of
  (t,[]) -> Just (t,[])
  z -> Maybe.andThen topMost (goUp z)

If our trail of beefed up breadcrumbs is empty, this means that we’re already at the root of our tree, so we just return the current focus. Otherwise, we go up to get the focus of the parent node and then recursively apply topMost to that. So now we can walk around our tree, going left and right and up, applying modify and attach as we go along and then when we’re done with our modifications, we use topMost to focus on the root of our tree and see the changes that we’ve done in proper perspective.

Focusing on lists

Zippers can be used with pretty much any data structure, so it’s no surprise that they can be used to focus on sub-lists of lists. After all, lists are pretty much like trees, only where a node in a tree has an element (or not) and several sub-trees, a node in a list has an element and only a single sub-list. When we implemented our own lists, we defined our data type like so:

type List a = Empty | Cons a (List a)

the best damn thing

Contrast this with our definition of our binary tree and it’s easy to see how lists can be viewed as trees where each node has only one sub-tree.

A list like [1,2,3] can be written as 1::2::3::[]. It consists of the head of the list, which is 1 and then the list’s tail, which is 2::3::[]. In turn, 2::3::[] also has a head, which is 2 and a tail, which is 3::[]. With 3::[], the 3 is the head and the tail is the empty list [].

Let’s make a zipper for lists. To change the focus on sub-lists of a list, we move either forward or back (whereas with trees we moved either up or left or right). The focused part will be a sub-tree and along with that we’ll leave breadcrumbs as we move forward. Now what would a single breadcrumb for a list consist of? When we were dealing with binary trees, we said that a breadcrumb has to hold the element in the root of the parent node along with all the sub-trees that we didn’t choose. It also had to remember if we went left or right. So, it had to have all the information that a node has except for the sub-tree that we chose to focus on.

Lists are simpler than trees, so we don’t have to remember if we went left or right, because there’s only one way to go deeper into a list. Because there’s only one sub-tree to each node, we don’t have to remember the paths that we didn’t take either. It seems that all we have to remember is the previous element. If we have a list like [3,4,5] and we know that the previous element was 2, we can go back by just putting that element at the head of our list, getting [2,3,4,5].

Because a single breadcrumb here is just the element, we don’t really have to put it inside a data type, like we did when we made the Crumb data type for tree zippers:

type alias ListZipper a = (List a, List a)

The first list represents the list that we’re focusing on and the second list is the list of breadcrumbs. Let’s make functions that go forward and back into lists:

goForward : ListZipper a -> Maybe (ListZipper a)
goForward lz = case lz of
  (x::xs, bs) -> Just (xs, x::bs)
  _ -> Nothing

goBack : ListZipper a -> Maybe (ListZipper a)
goBack lz = case lz of
  (xs, b::bs) -> Just (b::xs, bs)
  _ -> Nothing

When we’re going forward, we focus on the tail of the current list and leave the head element as a breadcrumb. When we’re moving backwards, we take the latest breadcrumb and put it at the beginning of the list.

Here are these two functions in action:

> xs = [1,2,3,4]
> goForward (xs,[])
Just ([2,3,4],[1]) : Maybe.Maybe (ListZipper a)
> goForward ([2,3,4],[1])
Just ([3,4],[2,1]) : Maybe.Maybe (ListZipper a)
> goForward ([3,4],[2,1])
Just ([4],[3,2,1]) : Maybe.Maybe (ListZipper a)
> goBack ([4],[3,2,1])
Just ([3,4],[2,1]) : Maybe.Maybe (ListZipper a)

We see that the breadcrumbs in the case of lists are nothing more but a reversed part of our list. The element that we move away from always goes into the head of the breadcrumbs, so it’s easy to move back by just taking that element from the head of the breadcrumbs and making it the head of our focus.

This also makes it easier to see why we call this a zipper, because this really looks like the slider of a zipper moving up and down.

If you were making a text editor, you could use a list of strings to represent the lines of text that are currently opened and you could then use a zipper so that you know which line the cursor is currently focused on. By using a zipper, it would also make it easier to insert new lines anywhere in the text or delete existing ones.

A very simple file system

Now that we know how zippers work, let’s use trees to represent a very simple file system and then make a zipper for that file system, which will allow us to move between folders, just like we usually do when jumping around our file system.

If we take a simplistic view of the average hierarchical file system, we see that it’s mostly made up of files and folders. Files are units of data and come with a name, whereas folders are used to organize those files and can contain files or other folders. So let’s say that an item in a file system is either a file, which comes with a name and some data, or a folder, which has a name and then a bunch of items that are either files or folders themselves. Here’s a data type for this and some type aliases so we know what’s what:

type alias Name = String
type alias Data = String
type FSItem = File Name Data | Folder Name (List FSItem)

A file comes with two strings, which represent its name and the data it holds. A folder comes with a string that is its name and a list of items. If that list is empty, then we have an empty folder.

Here’s a folder with some files and sub-folders:

myDisk : FSItem
myDisk =
    Folder "root"
        [ File "goat_yelling_like_man.wmv" "baaaaaa"
        , File "pope_time.avi" "god bless"
        , Folder "pics"
            [ File "ape_throwing_up.jpg" "bleargh"
            , File "watermelon_smash.gif" "smash!!"
            , File "skull_man(scary).bmp" "Yikes!"
        , File "dijon_poupon.doc" "best mustard"
        , Folder "programs"
            [ File "fartwizard.exe" "10gotofart"
            , File "owl_bandit.dmg" "mov eax, h00t"
            , File "not_a_virus.exe" "really not a virus"
            , Folder "source code"
                [ File "best_elm_prog.elm" "main = toString (fix error)"
                , File "random.elm" "main = toString 4"

That’s actually what my disk contains right now.

A zipper for our file system


Now that we have a file system, all we need is a zipper so we can zip and zoom around it and add, modify and remove files as well as folders. Like with binary trees and lists, we’re going to be leaving breadcrumbs that contain info about all the stuff that we chose not to visit. Like we said, a single breadcrumb should be kind of like a node, only it should contain everything except the sub-tree that we’re currently focusing on. It should also note where the hole is so that once we move back up, we can plug our previous focus into the hole.

In this case, a breadcrumb should be like a folder, only it should be missing the folder that we currently chose. Why not like a file, you ask? Well, because once we’re focusing on a file, we can’t move deeper into the file system, so it doesn’t make sense to leave a breadcrumb that says that we came from a file. A file is sort of like an empty tree.

If we’re focusing on the folder “root” and we then focus on the file "dijon_poupon.doc", what should the breadcrumb that we leave look like? Well, it should contain the name of its parent folder along with the items that come before the file that we’re focusing on and the items that come after it. So all we need is a Name and two lists of items. By keeping separate lists for the items that come before the item that we’re focusing and for the items that come after it, we know exactly where to place it once we move back up. So this way, we know where the hole is.

Here’s our breadcrumb type for the file system:

type FSCrumb = FSCrumb Name (List FSItem) (List FSItem)

And here’s a type alias for our zipper:

type alias FSZipper = (FSItem, List FSCrumb)

Going back up in the hierarchy is very simple. We just take the latest breadcrumb and assemble a new focus from the current focus and breadcrumb. Like so:

fsUp : FSZipper -> Maybe FSZipper
fsUp fsz = case fsz of
  (item, FSCrumb name ls rs::bs) -> Just (Folder name (ls ++ [item] ++ rs), bs)
  _ -> Nothing

Because our breadcrumb knew what the parent folder’s name was, as well as the items that came before our focused item in the folder (that’s ls) and the ones that came after (that’s rs), moving up was easy.

How about going deeper into the file system? If we’re in the "root" and we want to focus on "dijon_poupon.doc", the breadcrumb that we leave is going to include the name "root" along with the items that precede "dijon_poupon.doc" and the ones that come after it.

Here’s a function that, given a name, focuses on a file or folder that’s located in the current focused folder:

break : (a -> Bool) -> List a -> (List a, List a)
break p ls = case ls of
  [] ->  ([], [])
  (x::xs) ->
    if p x
        ([], ls)
          (ys, zs) = break p xs

fsTo : Name -> FSZipper -> Maybe FSZipper
fsTo name fsz = case fsz of
  (Folder folderName items, bs) ->
      (ls, rs) = break (nameIs name) items
      case rs of
        (item::rs) -> Just (item, (FSCrumb folderName ls rs::bs))
        _ -> Nothing
  _ -> Nothing

nameIs : Name -> FSItem -> Bool
nameIs name fsi = case fsi of
  (Folder folderName _) -> name == folderName
  (File fileName _) -> name == fileName

fsTo takes a Name and a FSZipper and returns a new Maybe FSZipper that focuses on the file with the given name. That file has to be in the current focused folder. This function doesn’t search all over the place, it just looks at the current folder.

wow cool great

First we use a helper function break which we implemented here to break the list of items in a folder into those that precede the file that we’re searching for and those that come after it. break takes a predicate and a list and returns a pair of lists. The first list in the pair holds items for which the predicate returns False. Then, once the predicate returns True for an item, it places that item and the rest of the list in the second item of the pair. We also made another auxilliary function called nameIs that takes a name and a file system item and returns True if the names match.

So now, ls is a list that contains the items that precede the item that we’re searching for, item is that very item and rs is the list of items that come after it in its folder. Now that we have this, we just present the item that we got from break as the focus and build a breadcrumb that has all the data it needs.

Note that if the name we’re looking for isn’t in the folder, our patterns won’t match, and we’ll fall through to the case where we return Nothing. And similarly if our current focus isn’t a folder at all but a file. This is yet another example of how Elm forces us to consider all of the possible edge cases, and to plan and design for failure, instead of maybe someday in some far off future trying to shoehorn error-handling in where it wasn’t designed to go.

Anyway, now we can move up and down our file system. Let’s start at the root and walk to the file "skull_man(scary).bmp":

> newFocus = (myDisk,[]) |> fsTo "pics" |> Maybe.andThen (fsTo "skull_man(scary).bmp")

newFocus is now a zipper that’s focused on the "skull_man(scary).bmp" file. Let’s get the first component of the zipper (the focus itself) and see if that’s really true:

> Tuple.first newFocus
Just (File "skull_man(scary).bmp" "Yikes!") : Maybe.Maybe FSItem

Let’s move up and then focus on its neighboring file "watermelon_smash.gif":

> newFocus2 = newFocus |> Maybe.andThen fsUp |> Maybe.andThen fsTo "watermelon_smash.gif"
> Tuple.first newFocus2
Just (File "watermelon_smash.gif" "smash!!") : Maybe.Maybe FSItem

Manipulating our file system

Now that we know how to navigate our file system, manipulating it is easy. Here’s a function that renames the currently focused file or folder:

fsRename : Name -> FSZipper -> FSZipper
fsRename newName fsz = case fsz of
  (Folder name items, bs) -> (Folder newName items, bs)
  (File name dat, bs) -> (File newName dat, bs)

Now we can rename our "pics" folder to "cspi":

> newFocus = (myDisk,[]) |> fsTo "pics" |> (fsRename "cspi") |> Maybe.andThen fsUp

We descended to the "pics" folder, renamed it and then moved back up.

How about a function that makes a new item in the current folder? Behold:

fsNewFile : FSItem -> FSZipper -> Maybe FSZipper
fsNewFile item fsz = case fsz of
  (Folder folderName items, bs) -> Just (Folder folderName (item::items), bs)
  _ -> Nothing

Easy as pie. Note what happens if we try to add an item but we weren’t focusing on a folder, but were focusing on a file instead. This function returns a Maybe type, to indicate that this operation might fail. A Result might have been more appropriate here, semantically, but as we’re already working with Maybes elsewhere, it will be simpler for the sake of the example to use Maybe here as well.

Let’s add a file to our "pics" folder and then move back up to the root:

> newFocus = (myDisk,[]) 
  |> fsTo "pics"
  |> Maybe.andThen (fsNewFile (File "heh.jpg" "lol"))
  |> Maybe.andThen fsUp

What’s really cool about all this is that when we modify our file system, it doesn’t actually modify it in place but it returns a whole new file system. That way, we have access to our old file system (in this case, myDisk) as well as the new one (the first component of newFocus). So by using zippers, we get versioning for free, meaning that we can always refer to older versions of data structures even after we’ve changed them, so to speak. This isn’t unique to zippers, but is a property of Elm because its data structures are immutable. With zippers however, we get the ability to easily and efficiently walk around our data structures, so the persistence of Elm’s data structures really begins to shine.

Watch your step

In the examples throughout this chapter, while walking through our data structures, whether they were binary trees, lists or file systems, we always considered what would happen if we took a step too far and fell off the edge. For instance, our goLeft function takes a zipper of a binary tree and moves the focus to its left sub-tree:

goLeft : Zipper a -> Maybe (Zipper a)
goLeft z = case z of
  (Node x l r, bs) -> Just (l, LeftCrumb x r::bs)
  _ -> Nothing

falling for you

What happens if you were to try to go left from an empty tree? There’s nowhere to go. Because Elm requires that all possibilities are covered when we pattern match, in our example functions (such as goLeft, goRight, etc.) we were forced to consider the case(s) where these functions could fail. For example, if someone were to call goLeft on an empty tree. What we choose to do in these cases was entirely up to us. Taking goLeft again as an example, if we really, really wanted the return type for this function to be a Zipper, perhaps we could have chose to just return an empty zipper when goLeft was called on an empty tree. But an empty zipper would also be a valid return value in other cases, so handling this edge case like this might cause strange and unexpected results in our program. What we really needed was a return type that can represent either success or failure. It’s no surprise, then that we chose to use the Maybe monad which adds a context of possible failure to normal values. We could have also chose to use the the Result type, which is also in Elm’s core library. The Result type reprents the possibilities of either a success or failure, where the failure has it’s own associated value (e.g. an error string), as opposed to the empty Nothing we get with Maybe. These are both good choices, but which one you choose for a given situation will just depend on your requirements. For these examples, we didn’t need to convey any information about the failures, so the simpler Maybe suited our needs.

Our choice of handling these failures with Maybe had some other implications in our program. If our goLeft function had a type signature like Zipper a -> Zipper a, we could have simply used forward function application to naturally express navigation throughout a tree. E.g.

> newFocus = (freeTree,[])
  |> goLeft
  |> goRight
  |> goLeft
  |> goLeft

However, as we could encounter failure at any one of these steps, we can’t simply blindly apply these functions one after the other. We might have failed on the previous step. We might have failed ten steps back. And furthermore, our types don’t line up, anyway, so the Elm compiler won’t let us apply functions like this even if we really wanted to. goLeft and goRight both have type signatures like Zipper a -> Maybe (Zipper a), so we can’t use forward function application as we did in the example above, because we can’t apply the result of one call as an argument to the next.

All is not lost, however. As you may have noticed, we were able to express our navigation in a way very similar to the example above, but with one very minor difference. We used forward function application, but we passed the results forward, not to the next goLeft or goRight in the sequence, but to Maybe.andThen applied to the next goLeft or goRight. So what’s the difference? Well, Maybe.andThen is defined like this:

andThen : (a -> Maybe b) -> Maybe a -> Maybe b
andThen fn maybe = case maybe of
  Just value -> fn value
  Nothing -> Nothing

The implication that will hopefully be clear from the type signature, and from the implementation itself, is that with andThen we can define a sequence of functions, where the result of the previous function will be applied to the next function in the sequence, just as we did before, but any function in the sequence can fail and we don’t need to worry about the following functions in the sequence. If we encounter a failure at any point (i.e. one of our functions returns Nothing), all following functions in the sequence will short-circuit and return Nothing as well, and overall the expression will evaluate to Nothing. Pretty neat. Using the example above, this would look like:

> newFocus = (freeTree,[])
  |> goLeft
  |> Maybe.andThen goRight
  |> Maybe.andThen goLeft
  |> Maybe.andThen goLeft

This may feel a little cumbersome, though, after a while, so we can define a helper function that will combine the forward application with Maybe.andThen. Keeping in mind that |>’s type signature is a -> (a -> b) -> b (and remember it’s an infix function), and that andThen’s type signature is (a -> Maybe b) -> Maybe a -> Maybe b it should hopefully be clear, after some careful consideration, that what we’re after is a function with the following signature: Maybe a -> (a -> Maybe b) -> Maybe b. Which, if you squint at it you may notice this is just andThen with the first two arguments flipped. And we already know a function which can flip the first two arguments for us! It’s called flip! So putting it all together, we come up with:

(>>=) : Maybe a -> (a -> Maybe b) -> Maybe b
(>>=) = flip Maybe.andThen
infixl 0 >>=

Using our new function, our example above becomes:

> newFocus = (freeTree,[])
  |> goLeft
  >>= goRight
  >>= goLeft
  >>= goLeft

This new function we’ve created is actually called bind in Haskell (which is where we borrowed the >>= syntax from), and is called flatMap in some other languages like Scala, and it’s one of the two fundamental operations for monads (the other being return, aka identity, which just takes a plain value and turns it into a monad). The significance to us here is that bind allows us to take our Maybe monad, which is (potentially) wrapping up some value, apply some function directly to the wrapped value itself, and to return a new monad. In other words, it’s unwrapping the plain value a from Maybe a, applying a function (a -> Maybe b) to this value, and returning a newly wrapped Maybe b, which we can feed into the next function in the chain via >>=. It’s also handling the special context of the Maybe monad, namely the potential for failure, and as such if there’s no value to unwrap, this context gets maintained and passed along. And, in fact Maybe.andThen really already did all of this for us. It was already equivalent to the monadic bind or flatMap. All we did here was put the arguments in a nicer order, and provide an infix operator which we could use to make our program a little more succinct. Either method is fine, so take your pick.