Posted on February 12, 2019

This post will not be about Haskell but rather focus on Kotlin. My dayjob is half Haskell half Kotlin (and a tiny bit of Typescript) so I frequently have to write Kotlin code. Kotlin is certainly no Haskell but it does adress some of the worst pain points of Java and lets you sort-of write code in a functional style. Even if you’re not familiar with Kotlin but with other “modern” programming languages you should be able to follow along. Also, there is nothing specific to Kotlin in this post that you couldn’t (with relative ease) implement in any other “modern” mainstream programming language. I’ll keep the code as simple and “obvious” as possible. You can find a quick overview of the Kotlin syntax here.

Many algorithms are most naturally expressed using recursion, but the JVM is just not very good at this since it quickly runs out of stack frames. You can of course always increase the JVM stack size but this hampers the portability and safety of the code when deployed.

A special case of recursion is called tail-recursion. A tail-recursive function has recursive calls only immediately after a return. Or as stated in this StackOverflow answer:

… the return value of any given recursive step is the same as the return value of the next recursive call.

For (a contrived) example:

Such functions can be optimized into an iterative style through tail-recursion optimization. You can probably imagine in your head how to rewrite countdown above using just a loop, and the same general transformation can be done by a compiler. In fact, Kotlin is capable of tail-recursion optimization but there is not always an easy way to express an algorithm with tail-recursion only. Instead, we can rewrite our recursive code using trampolines. Wikipedia has this to say about trampolines:

… a trampoline is a loop that iteratively invokes thunk-returning functions (continuation-passing style). A single trampoline suffices to express all control transfers of a program; a program so expressed is trampolined, or in trampolined style; converting a program to trampolined style is trampolining. Programmers can use trampolined functions to implement tail-recursive function calls in stack-oriented programming languages.

There are multiple blog posts out there (this, that and this one) explaining trampolines (typically in Javascript), but what they all fail to mention (as does wikipedia) is that trampolines can in fact also be used to express recursive functions in general, and not only tail-recursive functions. We’ll see how shortly but first an example of trampolining a function.

It is straightforward to port existing recursive code to trampolined code. For example the factorial function1.

Note that it is not tail-recursive, because the last statement in the recursive case is not simply a recursive call but is “guarded” underneath the multiplication.

We can rewrite factorial with trampolines as such:

If you’re not familiar with Kotlin, the most foreign syntax for you is probably the anonymous (lambda) functions. The fun () = ... argument to delay introduces an anonymous function2 that doesn’t depend on its arguments and computes tfactorial(n - 1) thus effectively delaying the execution of the recursive call to tfactorial. The expression fun (m) = done(m * n) binds m to the result of recursive call on which we call flatMap.

I’ll explain the meaning of the combinators soon, so don’t be scared if it is non-obvious! Note that the structure of the code remains the same as in the un-trampolined version, but we wrap the branches in the appropriate trampoline combinators and use flatMap to use the result of a recursive call.

The examples we’ve seen so far are rather easy to rewrite in an iterative style. A slightly more involved example is the (inorder) map function defined on (unlabeled) binary trees:

Implementing this without recursion is a bit more difficult. Once you get the trick it’s not too complicated but essentially you’ll have invented a specialized version of a trampoline! The iterative version also lacks the declarative nature of the recursive formulation. With trampolines we can retain the recursive structure of the algorithm while avoiding overflowing the stack.

Stack-based trampolines

The principle of a trampoline is that instead of expressing the recursion directly in Kotlin we instead build up a data structure that encodes the recursion. Upon evaluation we then manually maintain a stack on which we store the continuations. We use a loop to iterate through the computation without using the JVM’s function stack.

Before we begin, we need a proper stack data structure. Kotlin’s built-in list is unfortunately terrible for this purpose, so we’ll quickly handroll our own.

This is just a standard persistent linked list and a helper “infix” function used to extend it at its head.

A trampoline is built using three combinators:

  • done encodes a base case in the recursive computation.
  • delay encodes a recursive call that does not depend on any other recursive calls. It delays the recursive call by placing it under a function with unit domain (that is, a function that just ignores its result, also called a thunk or a suspension).
  • flatMap lets you continue with the computation after the result of a recursive call.

I’ve not written down the type signatures, but perhaps you can spot that a trampoline forms a monad! It’s not important but an interesting aside.

We can encode these combinators in Kotlin as such:

The Delay constructor is not strictly necessary in terms of expressivity, since it can be encoded in terms of FlatMap. However, it does allow a significant performance improvement since we can avoid allocating a continuation on the stack.

Now we can define how to run a trampolined computation. This is the signature:

The backbone of the algorithm is a while loop that runs until the trampoline is Done and there are no continuations left. We keep track of the current result (call it r) which initially is tramp. We’ll define stack to be a list of continuations to be run after a recursive call is done. Now it is a simple matter of inspecting the current result r:

  • If r is Done then
    • If there are continuations in stack then pop the first one and call it with r.t. Then set stack to be the rest.
    • Otherwise we are done and we return the result inside r.
  • If r is Delay then we force the suspension and set r to be the resulting trampoline.
  • If r is FlatMap then we pop r.cont on the continuation stack and set r = r.waitFor.

Here is the full Kotlin code:

Unfortunately we have to subvert Kotlin’s type system in order to implement this, because it lacks heterogenous lists. It is perfectly safe though since a continuation will always be called with a result of the type it expects.

To show it off on a slightly more complicated example, here is the Fibonacci function:

If we code-golf it a bit, use Kotlins lambda notation and add a few helper combinators we can also express it in an “applicative” style:

That’s it! Trampolined code does not run as fast as natively recursive code of course. FlatMap is the biggest sinner since it requires allocating a continuation on the (heap-allocated) stack. While it may not be super performant, trampolined code is completely guarded against stack-overflow errors! If you can catch StackOverFlowErrors (or their equivalent) in your language, you can even run an un-trampolined version first and then resort to the trampolined algorithm if you run out of stack space.

There are other approaches to implementing trampolines. For example Scalaz directly composes trampolines when flatMaping and PureScript uses a (much more complicated) technique described in Reflection without Remorse. I can’t speak to their performance characteristics compared to the approach I’ve delineated here, and I don’t have the time for a proper comparison. They’re probably faster but this approach wins on simplicity in my opinion.

Converting normal recursive code to trampolined code is in general not difficiult:

  • base cases are wrapped in done.
  • recursive calls are wrapped in delay.
  • if you need to depend on the result of a recursive call, call flatMap on it and define the rest of your computation in the lambda function.

As such, we can write our recursive algorithms and then later mechanically trampoline them to get rid of those pesky StackOverflowErrors.

  1. Of course, the factorial function can be implemented simply and effectively with both loops and tail-recursion but we’ll use its recursive formulation here for expositional purposes.

  2. Kotlin has some much more ergonomic syntax for lambda functions but I felt this was clearer in case the reader is not familiar with Kotlin.