The Green Band

We (my erstwhile practicum partner and I) finally handed in our bachelor theses this morning. This is a highly formal, official act in which you submit two printed copies, each with a digital one on a CD in a plastic jacket glued to the final page, one spare CD, plus assorted signatures here and there, and you have to succeed in doing so on the day of submission that you have printed beforehand on the title page. We had an appointment with the on-campus copy shop at 9 AM to print and bind our copies which was already hectic alright, what with getting everything right, making sure that all the colored illustrations show up in the proper place in the proper colors, and the statement of authorship is in there and signed and so on, and all that took nearly an hour. Then we walked down the hall a few yards (yeah, that copy shop has a really favored location!) to the student office in the faculty administration to actually hand in.

And in my case, it almost went wrong in the last moment. You see, traditionally there is a broad green band on the cover page within which the author and the subject are printed. That is by no means a requirement clearly stated in the regulations, though they do mention that there are official templates available and that these templates are known by the green band on the cover page. There are a MS Word and a LaTeX template, and both originally included the green band. Also, there were purpose-printed stiff cover pages that had that green band physically included so you could print on that. Either way you got that green band. So I suppose all the theses handed in for the past 20 years or so had it.

Except that this spring the old, very dated LaTeX template got replaced, by a professor in the CS department, with a more modern one that no longer includes the green band (the Word template still does). And at the same time the faculty administration discontinued printing the physically green-banded cover pages. Probably assuming that the green band was in the templates anyway. Which was no longer true, at least not on the LaTeX side of things. But which they, apparently, didn’t know. What I, conversely, didn’t know was that there were no longer any physical cover pages, so I sort of expected it would all work out. We only learned of that problem this morning in the copy shop.

So I was already a bundle of nerves when we entered the student office. And sure enough the first thing the clerk said when I packed my copies on the counter was “This is not the official template. The green band is missing.”

Even though I knew this could happen, in the worst case, I hadn’t really expected it to. With shaking knees and as patiently as I could I pointed out to her that while the regulations clearly stated some hard requirements (there must be a title page with author and title of the thesis, a second page with a summary in German and English, a final page with a statement of authorship, and so on) they didn’t really say there had to be a green band. That argument fell on deaf ears. Probably too sophisticated.

Next I showed her that the now-official LaTeX template does not, in fact, include a green band. That, she said, must be a mistake.

So I finally produced my trump card which I had procured just to be sure, although I had not seriously expected to ever need it. As soon as I had realized, a month ago, that my thesis, using the new template, would be short one conspicuous green band, I had e-mailed the head of the examination board, our former math professor, and inquired whether he agreed with my impression that the regulations did not really require a green band, and if he did so, whether the student office would in fact accept my thesis without it. He replied saying it was OK, he would vouch for it.

How I praised my foresight in getting this assurance in time, this morning in the student office! I displayed the professor’s reply on my smart phone and made the clerk read it. Surely the head of the examination board is the higher authority and has the right to decide this? I hoped. And even though she complained that she could not understand why he would say this, she finally consulted with her superior and then grudgingly agreed to accept my thesis as properly submitted in spite of the missing green band.

This may seem like sheer satire to you–submitting a bachelor thesis hinging on a few colored pixels?–but for me this morning at 10 AM, after a nervous night of hardly any sleep, after that hectic session in the copy shop, it was real enough. I was still shaking for half an hour afterwards–in fact, until I got the expected e-mail with the confirmation of receipt for my thesis. By the by, could not the student office and the department have coordinated their actions in time so to find out that apparently the one assumed the green band would be on the physical cover pages while the other thought it should be in the logical template? And to think that I should have been the first one to stumble into this particular bureaucratic trench?

So this is over, but not before turning me into a complete nervous wreck. This day, mind you, came after about five days in which the thesis was already finished but I kept re-reading it and correcting minor things. On Thursday, I thoroughly read a printout for the second time, from cover to cover, which took two hours, and then changed a couple of dozen things, each time compiling the whole thing to instantly check the change, a cumbersome procedure. But you see, at this point I was more concerned about breaking something and not realizing. Because no way on earth I could read this a third time and still notice what I was reading.

When I was done, I studied a git diff –color-words, i.e. an output of my version control color-coding all changes since the last commit, for about five times before I was sure I had changed exactly what I wanted and nothing else. How easy to inadvertently mark some words, a line, even a paragraph, and then delete them! Then I compared the new PDF file, page by page, with the printout, to make sure all the page breaks were in exactly the same place, again to make sure nothing had changed that shouldn’t. And finally I got myself a PDF diff tool and compared the new PDF with one I compiled from the previous Git commit, inspecting every single change. And then I did it again. And then I compiled another version without colored hyperlinks, to save on color-printing in the hard copy, and compared that with the previous version (the same changes) and with the version with the hyperlinks (no changes). And then I did all that again.

Was that very paranoid? Probably. But after investing over 600 hours into the thesis I really didn’t want to take any chances to mess up something in the last moment. In any case, at 3:30 PM when I had to go to get my kids, I had truly convinced myself that I was done. And had no intention of ever looking at this stupid text again, lest I’d see anything I would still have to change and go through the same insane ritual once more.

That evening I asked my wife to give the whole thesis a final cursory glance to reassure me that I had not accidentally dropped an entire chapter or something. Did I mention my wife is a reader/editor? Needless to say her cursory glance found an extremely unlucky page break I had missed. So unlucky in fact that, once knowing, I had no choice but to fix it.

And then all hell broke loose at 10 PM when I really just wanted to go to bed after this day of staring at the same corrections again and again. Because my desktop computer at home refused both to compile the LaTeX to the same version my work laptop had done, plus it would not even find the PDF diff tool I had used at work in the Arch Linux repositories so I could install it. I was jittery like in a nightmare and finally gave up. I took the whole next morning to fix my Linux and my LaTeX installation and then to make the change, plus one other I found while doing so, and then went through the entire ritual again. A couple of hours more before I could convince myself that had, once more, a final version that I could hand in.

When you’re really perfectionist and really, really paranoid, making sure you’re done with something can take a long time indeed. Like in my case a couple of days.

I’m not quite sure why this was so hard for me. In truth, I can’t remember I was half as afraid letting go of my PhD thesis or the other dozen books I have published. And this thing here nobody except my two supervisors will ever read! Even more so since in the last moment (literally this night) I decided to refuse my consent to digital publication, in the light of the remaining few anonymous and vague mentions of the client of my employer who originally had the idea for this project but then got cold feet, and the Non-Disclosure Agreement we have with them. But somehow, it seems, I wanted to make this final act of the study program just perfect.

In any case it’s now over. Of the 2.5 grades still outstanding (oddly, the grade for the thesis has the weight of two courses while the oral presentation cum answering questions–the colloquium–counts half), this covers 80 per cent. All that’s left is preparing the presentation.

Which will be in three weeks, so there is plenty of time. In fact I am planning to spend most of that time learning something new, again. Like a little more Scala. And maybe some Kotlin and R on the side, since I have seen a data engineer job profile where Java, Scala, and these two languages were all required, and Kotlin, I then found out, is basically a poor man’s Scala with reduced functionality but much the same syntax. That’s too good to pass up. No, it won’t get boring any time soon.

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