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LINQ, infinity, laziness and oh my!

As a big fan of Erik Meijer's I feel necessary to write about LINQ, although he himself might be thinking differently about this topic.

There are fascinating things with LINQ that can elude even the most experienced users. Here I will try to share what I have learned.

Infinity

We start with infinity.

    var infinity = Infinity.Of(index => index); // the index can be useful
    // 0, 1, 2, 3 ...

    infinity.Take(10);
    // 10 elements

    infinity.Take(100000);
    // 100000 elements

Or, what's a fluent way to validate a password with 3 tries?

		var authenticated = Infinity.Of(_ => {
			Console.WriteLine("What's the password?");
			return Console.ReadLine();
		}).Take(3).Any(pass => pass == "boss");

Isn't this magical? Well in fact it's only a simple use of laziness, or, the deferred execution model of LINQ.

Here is the implementation!

public static class Infinity
{
    public static IEnumerable<T> Of<T>(Func<int, T> f)
    {
        var i = 0;
        while (true)
        {
            yield return f(i++);
        }
    }
}

To understand this, you'll need to learn about yield return (here).

Simply put:

All things combined - we get the magical Infinity helper!

lazy, or eager?

One popular practice I regret to find in using LINQ methods, is to invariably evaluate immediately after a query, for example, Select(...).ToArray().

While this does save us from undesired effects of LINQ, it basically reduces LINQ to any ordinary list comprehension methods, thus stopping us from getting the benefits of nuanced use of LINQ.

As an example, if we had evaluated Infinity eagerly, we wouldn't have been able to write the password validator:

Infinity.Of(_ => {
  Console.WriteLine("What's the password?");
  return Console.ReadLine();
}).ToArray()... // <--- this never ends, or result in stack overflow

The beauty of lazy evaluation, is that it gives us control over when and how exactly evaluation can happen. And before we get to that point, there is much we can do to keep the evaluation to a minimum:

All this is obvious with the Infinity example - have a play!

So the moral is - embrace the laziness, and accept the power and the challenge.

but when to evaluate eagerly?

In the example below, ToArray() becomes necessary (or even essential).

Assume that GetPeople() returns IEnumerable<Person>, which once evaluated, will call DB to query for a collection of Person.


public IEnumerable<Person> Get()
{
  var people = DbRepo.GetPeople();
  return people;
}

This can catch developers out quite often and quite badly - if the result IEnumerable<Person> is not evaluated now, and later used several times, each time it's used will result in a query to the database, poor!

Easy fix: add .ToArray() after GetPeople(). Because we want the side-effect to take place now, so further evaluation on people will not hit the database.

Now more about side effects.

keep out the side effects!

Developers who are used to for loops would usually try to shoehorn LINQ into loops, and inevitably, use FirstOrDefault() to emulate exiting a loop.

For example: update people's profile and stop on any error.

people.FirstOrDefault(person => {
  if (updateProfileInDb(person))
    return true; // failed, exit loop!

  ...and More
  return false; // keep updating
});

This may seem smart, but I would argue is a form of abuse to FirstOrDefault(). Firstly, it reverts the semantics, error becomes true, and success becomes false. Secondly, and possibly most importantly, I am one to believe that LINQ is not meant for side-effects.

Side-effects is actually where a lot of grievances for LINQ are from, for example, people complain that nothing gets saved in database with the below code:

people.Select(person => updateProfileInDb(person));

You would have guessed it: LINQ is lazy and because the result of the above Select is not used, the evaluation never takes place.

An easy fix:

people.Select(person => updateProfileInDb(person)).ToArray();

While this forces the evaluation, it's hardly idiomatic - Select is supposed to transform a collection of data, but the result is here thrown away.

A more LINQ-idiomatic way to write this, in my opinion, is to simply use a foreach loop, as it's made for side-effects.

foreach (var person in people) {
  updateProfileInDb(person);
}

And now a quiz: I believe there is a reason for LINQ to not come with a ForEach method, care to guess why?