[erlang-questions] Backtracking in Erlang, part 1 - control

Hynek Vychodil <>
Wed Mar 18 09:16:04 CET 2009


Have you seen 2.6.3 Parsing
http://www.erlang.org/doc/programming_examples/funs.html#2.6?

I think higher order function elegantly solve this even it can be slower
than straight forward approach.

2009/3/18 Robert Virding <>

> Sometimes you need to be able to do search algorithms which can step back
> and try other alternate ways of finding a solution, "backtracking".
> Generally this is difficult to do in functional languages like Erlang (most
> other languages too for that matter). A classic example of this type of
> problem is parsing ambiguous grammars.
>
> Prolog syntax is like that, in some cases you need almost indefinite
> look-ahead before you can decide how input is to be parsed. When I
> implemented Erlog (a prolog in and for Erlang) I decided to do the parser in
> Erlang so that it could run stand-alone and so I ran straight into this
> problem.
>
> Here is *a* solution to the problem. It is in two parts, the first
> describing the control structures and the second (more difficult) describing
> handling of data. There may also be a third part discussing some problems
> with the solution to control, if anyone is still interested.
>
> The main problem we have to overcome is that normally when you choose a
> path you "commit" to it and can't go back and try an alternate path. For
> example in:
>
>     case get_a_value() of
>         Choice1 -> ... ;
>         Choice2 -> ... ;
>         ...
>     end
>
> once you have chosen a path, say Choice1, there is no (simple) way to go
> back try Choice2 if you later decide that Choice1 was wrong. We can't
> backtrack.
>
> Another problem is that if we have:
>
>     a() -> foo(), bar(), baz().
>
> and once we have completed foo() then even if it gave an answer which later
> was shown to be wrong there is no way to step back into it, backtrack, and
> let it give a new answer.
>
> In this first section we will (almost) completely ignore arguments and
> return values.
>
> When looking at control we will (almost) completely ignore arguments and
> returning values. We will use the convention that functions return either
> '{succeed,Value}' when they succeed or 'fail' when they can't find a
> solution.
>
> The trick is to ensure that functions only return at all when they fail,
> otherwise they just continue by explicitly calling the next thing which
> should be done. We will do this by using a Continue Passing Style (CPS)
> where each function will have an argument which is the next function call to
> continue. (CPS is not new and is generally known) So functions will usually
> look like this:
>
>     a(Next) ->
>         <do our stuff>,
>         OurNext = fun () -> even_more_stuff(Next) end,
>         more_stuff(OurNext).
>
> We will use the convention that when a function fails and cannot go on it
> will return 'fail'. When *the* solution has been found then the final test
> will return {succeed,Value}. So the top level function will look something
> like:
>
> top_call() ->
>     Succeed = fun () -> {succeed,yes} end,        %We have succeeded
>     find_solution(Succeed).
>
> So now our program will keep going forwards until it finally calls the
> Succeed fun when it all returns back to the initial caller.
>
> The next problem is to introduce 'choice points' where we can choose one
> path but still allow the code to backtrack and make another choice. This is
> the done in the function cp/1 where the argument is a list functions which
> are separate paths to choose from:
>
>     cp([fun () -> do_stuff_a(Next) end,
>         fun () -> do_stuff_b(Next) end,
>         fun () -> do_stuff_c(Next) end,
>         ...]).
>
> Cp/1 will try the functions in order, if one succeeds then the choice point
> will succeed and return the same succeed value, if it fails then the next
> function in the list will be tried, until no more exist when the choice
> point will fail: The code for cp is simple:
>
>     cp([G|Gs]) ->
>         case G() of
>             {succeed,Value} -> {succeed,Value};
>             fail -> cp(Gs)
>         end;
>     cp([]) -> fail.
>
> That's it, we're done. A lot of explanation for very little code.
>
> A slight variation is to not chain the continuation together as shown here
> but to have Next as a list of functions to call. Instead of directly calling
> Next you call next/1 with argument Next, next(Next), where next/1 is defined
> as:
>
>     next([N|Ns]) -> N(Ns).
>
> There is no functional difference it just make writing some code a bit
> easier. For example the function defined above:
>
>     a() -> foo(), bar(), baz().
>
> would look like this in the normal way:
>
>     a(Next) ->
>         Next1 = fun () -> baz(Next) end,
>         Next2 = fun () -> bar(Next1) end,
>         foo(Next2).
>
> while using the list variant it would look like:
>
>     a(Next) ->
>         foo([fun (Ns) -> bar(Ns) end,
>              fun (Ns) -> baz(Ns) end | Next]).
>
> which can be easier to read, especially if there many calls in the
> continuation.
>
> After I introduce handling data in the next installment I can give a proper
> example.
>
> I have also posted this to my blogg for those who prefer to read there,
>
> Robert
>
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> erlang-questions mailing list
> 
> http://www.erlang.org/mailman/listinfo/erlang-questions
>



-- 
--Hynek (Pichi) Vychodil

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