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8:30am on Tuesday, 25th April, 2006:



There was an extraordinary staff meeting for the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering yesterday (made all the more extraordinary because we have a normal one next week). Usually, such extraordinary meetings are for very mundane reasons, eg. organising a thank-you gift for some long-standing member of the secretarial staff about to go and have a baby or something. When it was discovered, however, that Computer Science also had an extraordinary staff meeting at the same time, it became clear that Something was Afoot. In particular, it looked an awful lot like ESE and CS were going to be merged.

I couldn't make the staff meeting as I had a lecture, but I've now received the formal announcement by email: yes, ESE and CS are indeed going to be combined to make a new "super-department". Given that ESE is itself made up of the old Electronics and Physics departments, I suppose the new department could equally well be described as a "super-super-department", but that would be cynical. Besides, if the new department eventually absorbs the rump that that is the Mathematics department, it would be a"super3-department"...

A merger between CS and ESE has been mooted for decades. CS used to have 3 divisions: software, numerical analysis and hardware. The NA group atrophied long ago, mainly because optimising numerical algorithms rapidly produced diminishing returns. It became harder and harder to shave execution time from algorithm implementations, and once it had been done it was available to everyone. Nowadays, if you want to reticulate a spline, you go to the NAG library and use the spline-reticulation function; if you want to develop a new algorithm for reticulating splines, good luck. CS's hardware group was always an uneasy fit, given that there was an Electronics department around doing the same stuff. In recent times it's taken the robotics route, but it's still more Electronicsy than Computer Sciencey. Likewise, Electronics has got more and more into software, teaching things like databases and (hey!) computer game development, as well as looking at networks and computer graphics. It was inevitable that CS and ESE would merge eventually, and now it's set to happen.

It could have been done a lot better, though.

On the radio yesterday, I heard a discussion about the EU. An American analyst was saying that basically the EU was an elitist project which had been foisted on the population by its leaders without discussion or consent. If the politicians had engaged in debate with the electorate instead of announcing that it was good for them and was inevitable anyway, then they could have got a majority on board. They may even have developed a better system as a result of the exchange. As it is, the organisation is a mess, and Europeans feel their leaders are disconnected and aloof, treating voters as ignorant children.

It does make sense to merge CS and ESE, although the way that the university is structured one department — even a large one — doesn't punch as heavily as two departments. However, it's made sense to merge them since I was an undergraduate in CS back in the late 1970s. Why make the change now? More to the point, why make the change without first consulting the two departments involved?

It'll help me, personally, to be part of a combined ESE/CS department: I won't have to have my research published in an IEE or IEEE-sponsored journal for it to count. If I'd had a vote, I'd probably have voted for the merger. The thing is, though, I didn't have a vote. Neither did anyone else in the departments concerned. The reason, I suspect, is because if there were a vote then the merger would be rejected, at least initially. However, debate would follow, people would come to see the advantages, their fears for their jobs and careers would subside, they'd make suggestions, and we may get a better department as a result. Alternatively, we wouldn't get a merger because the high-ups would take the points raised by the members of staff and realise that things wouldn't be as rosy as they had been planning after all.

We just got the diktat, though.

It's the EU decision-making process in miniature.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).