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2.21.3 Rationale

Harold Abelson and Gerald Jay Sussman discuss streams at length, giving a strong justification for their use. The streams they provide are represented as a cons pair with a promise to return a stream in its cdr; for instance, a stream with elements the first three counting numbers is represented conceptually as:

(cons 1 (delay (cons 2 (delay (cons 3 (delay '()))))))

Philip Wadler, Walid Taha and David MacQueen describe such streams as odd because, regardless of their length, the parity of the number of constructors (delay, cons, (quote ())) in the stream is odd.

The streams provided here differ from those of Abelson and Sussman, being represented as promises that contain a cons pair with a stream in its cdr; for instance, the stream with elements the first three counting numbers is represented conceptually as:

(delay (cons 1 (delay (cons 2 (delay (cons 3 (delay '())))))))

this is an even stream because the parity of the number of constructors in the stream is even.

Even streams are more complex than odd streams in both definition and usage, but they offer a strong benefit: they fix the off–by–one error of odd streams. Wadler, Taha and MacQueen show, for instance, that an expression like:

(stream->list 4 (stream-map / (stream-from 4 -1)))

evaluates to (1/4 1/3 1/2 1) using even streams but fails with a divide–by–zero error using odd streams, because the next element in the stream, which will be 1/0, is evaluated before it is accessed. This extra bit of laziness is not just an interesting oddity; it is vitally critical in many circumstances, as will become apparent below.

When used effectively, the primary benefit of streams is improved modularity. Consider a process that takes a sequence of items, operating on each in turn. If the operation is complex, it may be useful to split it into two or more procedures in which the partially–processed sequence is an intermediate result. If that sequence is stored as a list, the entire intermediate result must reside in memory all at once; however, if the intermediate result is stored as a stream, it can be generated piecemeal, using only as much memory as required by a single item. This leads to a programming style that uses many small operators, each operating on the sequence of items as a whole, similar to a pipeline of unix commands.

In addition to improved modularity, streams permit a clear exposition of backtracking algorithms using the “stream of successes” technique, and they can be used to model generators and co–routines. The implicit memoization of streams makes them useful for building persistent data structures, and the laziness of streams permits some multi–pass algorithms to be executed in a single pass. Savvy programmers use streams to enhance their programs in countless ways.

There is an obvious space/time trade–off between lists and streams; lists take more space, but streams take more time (to see why, look at all the type conversions in the implementation of the stream primitives). Streams are appropriate when the sequence is truly infinite, when the space savings are needed, or when they offer a clearer exposition of the algorithms that operate on the sequence.

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