Python, threads, and signals (oh my!)

Jason Lowe jlowe at
Tue Mar 13 01:42:57 CET 2001

I've been playing around with Python and threads, and I've noticed some
odd and often unstable behavior.  In particular, on my Solaris 8 box I
can get Python 1.5.2, 1.6, or 2.0 to core dump every time with the
following sequence.  I've also seen this happen on Solaris 6.

1. Enter the following code into the interactive interpreter:
import threading

def loopingfunc():
  while 1: pass


2. Send a SIGINT signal (usually Ctrl-C, your terminal settings may
   vary).  "Keyboard Interrupt" is displayed and so far everything looks 

3. Now simply press the <Enter> key to enter a blank line in the
   interpreter.  For my Solaris 8 box with the GNU readline 2.2 module
   present, this always ends up in a core dump.  It may take a while,
   since at this point the readline signal handler is being re-entered
   recursively until the stack overflows.

Looking more into this, it appears that on Solaris, more than one
thread is processing the signal handler installed by the readline
module (according to truss output of the process).  Unfortunately, the
readline signal handlers don't support being re-entered, as they have
global data that's not protected.  

Now granted, signals and threads are a dangerous business.  However, it
would be nice if the user sending SIGINT to a script wouldn't cause
instability.  Looking at the Python module sources, I noticed that the
signal module is somewhat "thread aware" -- it allows signal
handlers to be installed only by the main thread.  However, I found it a
little odd that the thread support, both in the core interpreter and in
the thread module, had no support code for signals -- even in the
specific thread cases like POSIX (pthreads).

According to various pthread documentation, it appears the "right" way
to handle the often volatile signal/thread mix is to mask all signals
except in one thread (usually the main thread) so that only one thread
will receive the signal.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find any Python
module that would allow one to change the signal mask of a thread
(pthread_sigmask) or even a process (sigmask, sigprocmask, etc.).  I'm
assuming the lack of this interface has to do with portability across

I was able to solve the problem by modifying Python/thread_pthread.h's
PyThread_start_new_thread() to block all signals before creating the new 
thread and then restoring the signal mask after the new thread was off
and running.  Therefore, all threads created by Python except the
initial thread will have all signals masked with this change.  Masking
all signals in new Python threads makes sense to me, given that the
signal module doesn't like other threads installing handlers anyway.

As a side note, I think part of the problem with sending SIGINT at the
interactive prompt while threading is aggravated by the Python readline
module's signal handler.  It setjmp()'s and longjmp()'s to do its dirty
work, and many thread implementations require the longjmp() be performed 
by the thread that did the setjmp().  If signals aren't masked in all
threads except the one doing the readline() call, then this isn't

So what's everyone else's take on this?  Has anyone else experienced
problems in Python when using threads and receiving signals (like
SIGINT)?  Should the thread code be at least a little more "signal
aware", so that new Python threads have all signals masked on platforms
that support this?

Thanks in advance.

Jason Lowe
Jason Lowe                                    Urbana Design Center
Motorola Personal Communications Sector       1800 South Oak Street
jlowe at                      Champaign, IL  61820-6947
                                              (217) 384-8513

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