[Python-ideas] Proposal: allow length_hint to specify infinite iterators

Steven D'Aprano steve at pearwood.info
Tue Nov 28 20:34:03 EST 2017

PEP 424 allows iterators to optionally offer a hint as to how long they 
will be:


Unfortunately, there's no good way for an iterator to report that it is 
infinitely long. Consequently, even those which are known to be infinite 
report finite lengths:

py> from itertools import count
py> from operator import length_hint
py> infinite = count()
py> length_hint(infinite)

This wastes the opportunity to fail fast on operations which cannot 
possibly succeed, e.g. list(count()) must eventually fail with 
MemoryError. Or worse: if the OS starts thrashing trying to meet the 
memory requests, you can lock up the computer.

I propose that we:

(1) extend the __length_hint__ protocol to allow iterators to report 
that they are infinite;

(2) and recommend that consumers of iterators (such as list) that 
require finite input should fail fast in the event of an infinite 

Four possible ways that __length_hint__ and operator.length_hint 
might signal an infinite iterator:

(a) return a negative value such as -1 (this is currently an error);

(b) return some special sentinel value;

(c) take the convention that returning sys.maxint means infinity;

(d) raise an exception.

The advantage of (d) is that consumers of check __length_hint__ don't 
need to do anything special to fail fast on infinite iterators:

py> class Thing:
...     def __length_hint__(self):
...             raise ValueError('infinite')
...     def __iter__(self):
...             return count()
py> x = Thing()
py> list(x)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
  File "<stdin>", line 3, in __length_hint__
ValueError: infinite

but if they can cope with such, they can explicitly catch the exception.



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