I l@ve RuBoard Previous Section Next Section

4.6 Retrieving a Line at Random from a File of Unknown Size

Credit: Richard Papworth

4.6.1 Problem

You have a file of unknown (but potentially very large) size, and you need to select one line at random from it, with a single pass on the file.

4.6.2 Solution

We do need to read the whole file, but we don't have to read it all at once:

import random

def randomLine(file_object):
    "Retrieve a random line from a file, reading through the file once"
    lineNum = 0
    selected_line = ''

    while 1:
        aLine = file_object.readline(  )
        if not aLine: break
        lineNum = lineNum + 1
        # How likely is it that this is the last line of the file?
        if random.uniform(0,lineNum)<1:
            selected_line = aLine
    file_object.close(  )
    return selected_line

4.6.3 Discussion

Of course, a more obvious approach would be:

random.choice(file_object.readlines(  ))

But that requires reading the whole file into memory at once, which can be a problem for truly enormous files.

This recipe works thanks to an unobvious but not terribly deep theorem: when we have seen the first N lines in the file, there is a probability of exactly 1/N that each of them is the one selected so far (i.e., the one to which the selected_line variable refers at this point). This is easy to see for the last line (the one just read into the aLine variable), because we explicitly choose it with a probability of 1.0/lineNum. The general validity of the theorem follows by induction. If it was true after the first N-1 lines were read, it's clearly still true after the Nth one is read. As we select the very first line with probability 1, the limit case of the theorem clearly does hold when N=1.

Of course, the same technique holds for a uniform-probability selection from any finite sequence that, for whatever reason, is made available only one item at a time. But, apart from, for example, selecting a random word from /usr/dict/words, there aren't all that many practical applications of this pretty theorem.

4.6.4 See Also

Documentation for the random module in the Library Reference.

    I l@ve RuBoard Previous Section Next Section