Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Algorithm of the Day: How to dissolve a marriage

If a respondent refers to a person of the same gender as their "husband/wife" on the 2010 census form, the Census Bureau will automatically assign them to the "unmarried partner" category. Legally married same-sex couples will be indistinguishable in census data from those who chose "unmarried partner" to describe their relationship. —Mike Swift reporting in "U.S. Census Bureau won't count same-sex marriages"

When I first heard the news that the Census Bureau would be "editing" the responses of gay married couples to change them into "unmarried partners," I envisioned a roomful of clerks with green eyeshades, pencils in hand, poring over a stack of census questionnaires searching for tell-tale signs of a gay marriage:

Head of household: Sam Doe          Gender: M
Others in household:  
    George Smith1      Gender: M Relationship: Husband/wife   
    Robert Doe          Gender: M Relationship: Son of Sam    

The clerk would then strike through "Husband/wife" and substitute "Unmarried partner."

Then I realized the impossibility of this scenario because work such as this would have to be outsourced to India where they are still struggling with the concept of "customer support." For an Indian supervisor to explain same-sex marriage to an eager but innocent workforce was clearly out of the question since delicacy would require all the women to leave the room.

So I looked up the original news item and spotted the word "automatically." Ah, computers will do the work! I thought.

Since the program to accomplish this would normally cost the government upwards of $10 million once a contract to the lowest bidder is awarded, I thought I'd do my civic duty by offering the basic algorithm for free:

FOR i=1 TO EOF        && "End of file" = population of the US
    IF Gender_of_Head="F"         && "F"="Female"
        IF Spouse=T                     && T=True
            IF Gender_of_Spouse="F"
                REPLACE Spouse WITH F    && F=False
                REPLACE Unmarried_partner WITH T
        IF Gender_of_Head="M"
            IF Spouse=T
                IF Gender_of_Spouse="M"
                    REPLACE Spouse WITH F
                    REPLACE Unmarried_partner WITH T

This can be expressed more succinctly as—

    IF (Gender_of_Head="F" AND Spouse=T AND Gender_of_Spouse="F") OR (Gender_of_Head="M" AND Spouse=T AND Gender_of_Spouse="M")
        REPLACE Spouse WITH F
        REPLACE Unmarried_partner WITH T

Thus may the dissolution of marriage be performed "automatically."



1The question of last names in same-sex marriages has not been resolved to anyone's satisfaction. But Bartleby offers a nice summary of the options. [back]

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