leah blogs

May 2005

17may2005 · Lazy Streams for Ruby

On #ruby-lang, we talked about SICP yesterday, and that reminded me I didn’t look into this wonderful book for a long time. I had enough time today to open it…

Quickly skipping over the first two chapters that I remembered fairly well (and that are “easy”), I started reading chapter 3 Modularity, Objects, and State. The section on Streams finally made me switch to my always-open Emacs window and port that beautiful Scheme into even better Ruby. :-)

In short, streams can be explained like this:

From an abstract point of view, a stream is simply a sequence. However, we will find that the straightforward implementation of streams as lists doesn’t fully reveal the power of stream processing. As an alternative, we introduce the technique of delayed evaluation, which enables us to represent very large (even infinite) sequences as streams.

Stream processing lets us model systems that have state without ever using assignment or mutable data.

What a great target for an functional installment in Ruby! Should you not be any familiar with streams, I recommend you to read above chapter now, and come back after. Or just read on, if you want to bite into the code.

To make use of Ruby’s object-orientation, I decided to make each string-cons instances of class Stream. A Stream contains two objects, car and cdr, whereas cdr is evaluated lazily. In Ruby, we do this using a block:

class Stream
  def initialize(car, &cdr)
    @car = car
    @cdr = cdr

  def car; @car; end
  def cdr; @cdr.call; end

Now, we can create a simple cons:

cons = Stream.new(1) { 2 }
[cons.car, cons.cdr]  # => [1, 2]

That way of creating new conses is not very beautiful, but everything we get in Ruby (no macros…).

We will also need a few helper methods:

class Stream
  def self.interval(low, high)
    if low > high
      new(low) { interval low+1, high }

  def filter(&pred)
    if pred.call car
      Stream.new(car) { cdr.filter &pred }
      cdr.filter &pred

  def take(n)
    stream = self
    results = []
    n.times {
      results << stream.car
      stream = stream.cdr


Stream.interval(1, 100) will return a new stream that will evaluate in the numbers of 1 to 100.

Stream#filter returns a new stream that only contains elements that satisfy a given predicate. Lazily of course.

Stream#take finally will evaluate the string n times and return an Array of the evaluated values.

Now, let’s do an example from SICP, calculate the third prime between 10000 and 1000000. If this was evaluated eagerly, you still wouldn’t see the result. Instead, we simply run:

def prime?(n)
  2.upto(Math.sqrt(n).round) { |i| return false  if n % i == 0 }

Stream.interval(10000, 1000000).filter { |s| prime? s }.take(3).last
# => 10037

The answer comes instantly. Why is this? In the end, the stream behaves just a loop: We loop over all the integers in the range, and, basically, trackback if the numbers aren’t primes. Now, we do that only three times, because that often the stream will be evaluated. Therefore, we only test 37 numbers for being prime, not 999000.

Another nice example are fibonacci numbers, where each element—I hope you knew that already—is the sum of its successors. But first, we need to add two streams:

class Stream
  def self.fibonacci
    new(0) { new(1) { fibonacci.cdr + fibonacci } }

  def +(other)
    Stream.new(self.car + other.car) { self.cdr + other.cdr }

A quick test, it works:

# => [0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34]

Now, by the way, we also can calculate the golden mean, which is the can be approximated as the quotient of two successive fibonacci numbers.

n = Stream.fibonacci.take(20).last(2)
n[1] / n[0].to_f            # => 1.61803405572755
(Math.sqrt(5.0) + 1) / 2.0  # => 1.61803398874989

Unfortunately, lazyness with lambdas is not exactly a wonder of speed in Ruby, therefore Streams are, beyond their very interesting properties, not of much use for the usual Ruby programmer. In purely functional languages (e.g. Haskell), where lazy evaluation is a common thing, they are however a very common way of implementing state without actually changing things.

NP: Jetscreamer—Front Porch

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