‘Dear Dylan’: The Wonkblog advice column for everything

August 16, 2013

We at Wonkblog love advice columns. But we wish they were a little...wonkier. Fewer feelings, more graphs. So we asked Dylan -- who is king of the fewer-feelings-more-graphs approach to life -- to answer some Dear Prudence questions. Going forward, he'll be taking questions by e-mail -- at least assuming you want someone who should be a character in a David Lynch movie to help you with your problems.

Pamoscar
Remember when Pam (left) tried to set up Oscar (right) with Matt (center) because they were literally the only two gay guys she knew? Disaster. That's what this is like. (NBC Universal)

Question: I am getting married in the fall, and we are inviting a fair number of gay couples and single people. Enough to fill a few tables. Some of these guests know each other and some of them don't. Would it be inappropriate to have a few gay tables? I don't want to create small gay ghetto but genuinely think that they would like to meet each other and will get along really well. Should I distribute the gay guests throughout the wedding just to avoid having gay tables?

Gay Table at the Wedding

Answer: The question here is really whether you're right that your gay friends would get along better with each other than with other guests. And there's a way to test that intuition.

Here's what you do: Make a list of every couple, individual or family you're inviting to the wedding. I urge you to not invite families of three or more who expect to sit together; this makes modeling more difficult. "If the family size is not constrained, then this problem is at least as hard as the partitioning problem," Dan Hirschberg, a computer scientist at UC - Irvine who's worked on matching problems, tells me. And the partitioning problem is pretty hard.

For each individual/couple, make a list of all the other individuals/couples/families ranked in order of their likeliness to get along with the couple in question. Now, select a maximum size for each table. Quite a bit rides on this. Suppose you have four seats per table, so two couples. That's a straightforward stable roommates problem. But if you have six seats, that's a 3-dimensional stable roommates problem, which is more complicated.

So I strongly recommend tables of four, maximum (assuming that you've banned families and/or split them up). Pair each individual with another individual whom you know they like. That way, you're just matching couples up with each other rather than with an individual. If you can't pair every individual up, just treat the remaining individuals as couples with a "phantom partner," and they can be matched with a real couple. You'll have some tables of three; no biggie.

Et voilà: You've turned the situation into a stable roommates problem. Use one of the many algorithms that exist for solving that to find the value-maximizing seat chart.

Now look at that chart. If there's a "gay ghetto," then your hunch was right: your gay friends really would like each other enough that it makes sense to put them together. If not, still go with the chart the algorithm produces, and think hard about whether you're treating your gay friends like actual friends or like accessories.


Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson aren't married, for tax reasons. This couple could learn something from that. (Courtesy of Sarah Miller Photography)

Question: I have been dating a wonderful, handsome, caring man for almost three years. The first two years we enjoyed a wonderful life, but lived separately. About three months ago we decided to move in with each other, and two weeks after we moved in together, his son's mother fell into a near coma due to drinking. My boyfriend’s son (who is 8) is now with us permanently and will probably be for a long time. My issue here is that I am now a mom and wife without the badge. My boyfriend has said he's "just not there yet" when it comes to marriage and that he would only marry me at this point to make me happy. I feel kinda duped and stuck now that I am living with him and his child and he doesn't see us getting married. Meanwhile, I am very successful professionally, still quite young (30), and a complete catch! How can he not want to marry me!? What should I do?

Milking the Cow?

Answer: Emotions and crap aside, you should only get married if there are tax benefits from doing so, and, given that it sounds like you're both working professionals, there probably aren't. Check it:


The more equal your incomes are, the likelier a marriage penalty is, especially if you make under about $30,000 or above around $300,000. Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson at the University of Michigan — who are unmarried because of the tax implications — estimate that the average cost to a dual-earner household of marriage is about $1,500 a year. That's no joke.

So you need to ask yourself whether that "badge" is worth thousands of dollars. If it is, I guess you should do it. But seriously consider saving yourself a little on taxes. If you care about the ceremony, have your parents spend money they would have spent on a wedding on throwing a really baller party that does not involve marriage.

Also, the mother of your boyfriend's child, like, just went into a coma, and due to alcoholism, which I assume was not unrelated to why he left her. Maybe give the dude a break.


I have a feeling this one is going to be an evergreen. (New Line Cinema)

Question: My 20-year-old son "Ted" has a 19-year-old girlfriend named "Dahlia." Dahlia is very well-endowed and rarely wears a bra. However, she does wear low-cut clothing and often looks like she's about to fall out. The dress she was wearing last night was so small on her that it she couldn't zip it up all the way and she was very close to a nip slip. When she walked in the door she looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and said, "I know this is a low-cut dress," as if she knew she was coming to my house, knew what my expectations are, but came looking like that anyway. Here's my problem: She's going on vacation with us in a week. I don't want to seem prudish, but I do want to get through to her that this type of dress isn't appropriate for the places we'll be going and the people we'll be seeing. I'll be asking her before we leave if she's got bras in her suitcase, and I am ready to leave her behind if she doesn't or make her go out and buy a few or buy them for her. What do I do? How do I handle this without alienating her but helping her to understand that something that is fine when you're out clubbing is not fine when you're trying to make a good impression with your boyfriend's family?

- No, Everyone Does Not Want to See Your Nipples

Answer: Literally everything about this situation is your fault. Allow me to demonstrate with a decision matrix. I assume that Dahlia, ceteris paribus, prefers both to be in your good graces / not be judged by you and to not wear a bra, and that the latter preference is lexically prior to the former, so any situation in which she wears a bra is worse than any situation where she doesn't, regardless of what it means for her relationship with you. That seems to be born out by her willingness to not wear bras when she knows it makes you uncomfortable.

I assume that you both want to not be mad at Dahlia and/or get along with her and for her to wear a bra, but the latter is lexically prior to the former. So any scenario where Dahlia's wearing a bra is better than any scenario where she's not. That assumption seems justified by the fact that her bralessness apparently made you angry enough to write this letter.

Anyway, here's what the game looks like:


As you can see from the arrows, this game has one Nash equilibrium. That's her not wearing a bra and you just getting over it. If she doesn't wear a bra but you decide that this is going to be a thing, not only is she worse off, but you are, too, since you have additional conflict with her. Think about it this way: You'd rather her just wear a bra on her own than have to tell her to; that's why you prefer "wears bra" + "gets over it" to "wears bra" + "decides to have a problem". And you'd rather not have a nasty fight if she's not going to wear a bra regardless, so you prefer "doesn't wear bra" + "gets over it" to "doesn't wear bra" + "decides to have a problem". Just get over it.

Of course, this model assumes that this is a non-cooperative game, wherein she has no influence over your decision-making and you have no influence over hers. This seems like a fair assumption. She's 19; obviously she's not going to listen to you. So, I repeat: just get over it.


If you've somehow ended up more neurotic than the Woody Allen character in a Woody Allen movie, you need to think about your life and your choices. (Orion Pictures)

Question: I am a young woman who recently married a very successful athlete. He is caring, kind and thoughtful. We both want children, but in a world where so many children are without loving homes, I can't imagine having biological offspring when we could provide a wonderful life for children who would never otherwise have one. My husband has always been supportive of this, but recently he brought up an interesting proposition. His ex-wife, who is older than me and has never remarried, asked him to be a sperm donor. She has a successful career and would not need financial support, but I think the proposition is bizarre. He argues that they both have excellent genetics that would be "wasted" if they do not jump at what could be their only chance to have biological children. He said it is no different from donating sperm to a bank, except that he knows the mother will be able to provide well for his offspring. The two split amicably due to pressures of both of their careers. Am I being selfish to say she should find another sperm donor?

Confused Wife

Answer: I watched Hannah and Her Sisters, the 1986 Woody Allen picture, a few days ago. In the movie, Mickey (Woody Allen) used to be married to Hannah (Mia Farrow), but they ran into problems when they discovered that he is (they think) infertile. They get around this by asking their friend Norman (Tony Roberts) to donate sperm, and Hannah proceeds to have Norman's babies. Mickey isn't thrilled about this development by any means, but he goes with it, and he loves the twin sons that Norman and Hannah sired.

All of which is to say — in a quite similar situation, a character played by Woody Allen was less neurotic than you're being. Think on that.

Pilotinspektorriesgraflee
Beth Riesgraf  and Jason Lee  with their son, whom they — like heroes —  named Pilot Inspektor. (Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

Question: What's the appropriate way to act/respond when your pregnant friend tells you the name she's selected for her baby? She's asked what I think, and the truth is I think she's punishing her soon-to-be child for life with such a silly moniker. But she's obviously put a lot of thought into it, and I don't think anything positive will come from me sharing my thoughts. Is it okay to tell a white lie and just say, "Ohh, how original!" And on a similar subject, what's a good way to shut down the conversation when friends start gossiping about her choice? It's sure to come up as a topic of conversation among our group of friends, and I don't want to take part in bashing my friend's name selection.

— Etiquette on Sharing Opinion of Baby Names

Answer: In the future, basically the only criteria for names will be, "Will my son or daughter be the first Google hit for this name?" and "Will I able to buy TheirFirstNameAndLastName.com?"

Naming kids stuff like "John Smith" or "Mary Martin" will rightly be considered a cruel impediment to their future success. Google should be your friend's only consideration, too, and given that she's chosen a "silly" name it seems that it is. But just to be sure, Google it and try it as a .com address. If someone already has the name, then bash away until they pick a truly unique name. For the baby's sake.

On an unrelated note, dylanmatthews.com is owned by a 10-year-old in Colorado for some reason. When he is of age I will duel him for it. Until then I'll wait, like Beatrix Kiddo waits for Nikki Bell.

GiveDirectly distributes donations to Kenyan families through cellphones. (Photo – Google)

Question: My boyfriend of three years and I are getting married in December. I am so excited! He is perfect many in many ways. There is one thing, however, that bothers me to the point of tears the times we have discussed it. He gives 10 percent of his income to his church. Yes, it is a good church, hardly a cult. And, we have agreed on a "mine, yours, ours" method of family financing. So, his 10 percent to his church, over $8,000 a year, will come out of his sole funds. This seems so foolish to me! When I ask him about it, he simply explains it as his way of thanking God. God is for free, right? I don't get it. And I really need to get some advice on how to get him to tone down his giving to a more sensible donation.

Fiance and Fanatical Giving

Answer: It's fine to give money to a local church for religious reasons, or community reasons. If he wants to do that, it's his money, and you should back off. But if your boyfriend is giving them his money in order to be charitable -- well, that's a problem.

I looked through the charity recommendations of organizations I trust — GiveWell, Giving What We Can, The Life You Can Save — and not a one recommends an actual religious charity. And, of course, only a fraction of that $8,000 is going to go to charitable projects; a lot more will pay for heating the church, paying the pastor, etc. And that's all great, but not exactly charitable in nature.

But that's not all bad. I probably shouldn't spend much of my salary on things other than donations to the Against Malaria Foundation or GiveDirectly, but I do, because I'm weak. I don't spend $8,000 a year going to E Street Cinema, but I spend a lot there, and if you think of his church payments as club membership fees, or spending on a service that makes him feel better and enriches his life, that's not actually that bad relative to spending that money on movies and bars like a certain type of nonreligious urbanite tends to do.

That said, you should probably convince him to spend at least a few hundred out of that $8,000 on a charity. We all have our leisure spending, but almost all of us should be reducing it. In terms of how to win him over, Against Malaria (by acclamation the best charity in the world) uses World Vision, a Christian group, to distribute some of their bednets; maybe that'll convince him?

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Timothy B. Lee · August 16, 2013