Monthly Archives: September 2013

Spinal Tap and Requirements Management

In my field of Systems Engineering, one of the most important disciplines is Requirements Management, which is how you ensure that what you build corresponds to what the customer is asking for. The customer tells you what they want in their contract, you describe it back to them to make sure you both agree what is required, then you build it, making sure what you design/build/develop/produce matches up with the original request. It’s a pretty straightforward concept, even when described using only the most common thousand words in the language. Despite this, problems arise time and again, and there are classic diagrams which keep surfacing in seminars and powerpoints the world over.


The classic diagram, up with the kitten “hangin’ in there” for sheer clichedness

At the weekend I was having a rest after taking the dog for a hike, and while flipping TV channels I saw that the seminal “rockumentary” This is Spinal Tap was on, so I watched for a while. On a side note, it’s worth repeating that stars Christopher Guest and Michael McKean are widely agreed to do the best English accents by American actors in a movie.

Anyway, there is a classic sequence in the movie which illustrates the need for clear requirements definition and management. In a creative rut, the band decide to resurrect an old popular favorite song, ‘Stonehenge’, complete with a dramatic new piece of scenery. Guitarist Nigel Tufnell (Guest) sketches what they want on a napkin, and manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) takes the napkin and says, “Consider it done.”


Nigel’s napkin. Spot the unit error.

Later, when Ian goes to see how the artist (Anjelica Huston) is doing with the job of building the scenery piece, he discovers that what he thought was a small scale model prototype is actually the final finished piece.

Ian:    Are you telling me that this is it?  This is scenery?  Have you
        ever been to Stonehenge?
Artist: No, I haven't been to Stonehenge.
Ian:    The triptychs are...the triptychs are twenty feet high.  
        You can stand four men up them!
Artist: Ian, I was...I was...I was supposed to build it eighteen inches high. 
Ian:    This is insane. This isn't a piece of scenery.
Artist: Look, look. Look, this is what I was asked to build. Eighteen
        inches. Right here, it specified eighteen inches. I was given this
        napkin, I mean...
Ian:    Forget this!  F**k the napkin!!!

(emphasis mine)

So Ian is angry that the artist interpreted the instructions too literally. He thinks she should have understood from context that they wanted something 18 feet high, or better still asked and clarified the requirement.

I’m assuming there was no time to build the set the proper size, because the show goes ahead, the tiny Stonehenge makes the audience laugh, and there is an angry confrontation between Ian and the band afterwards.

David:   I do not, for one, think that the problem was that the band was
         down. I think that the problem may have been that there was a
         Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being
         crushed by a dwarf.  Alright?  That tended to understate 
         the hugeness of the object.
Ian:     I really think you're just making a much too big thing out of it.
Derek:   Making a big thing out of it would've been a good idea.
Ian:     Nigel gave me a drawing that said eighteen inches.  Alright?
David:   I know he did, and that's what I'm talking about.
Ian:     Now, whether he knows the difference between feet and inches is not
         my problem.  I do what I'm told.
David:   But you're not as confused as him are you?  I mean it's not your
         job to be as confused as Nigel is.
Ian:     It's my job to do what I'm asked to do by the creative element of
         this band.  And that's what I did.

(emphasis mine)

Interestingly, Ian defends the problem with the size of the set by saying, “I do what I’m told”. He doesn’t blame the artist, he takes her excuse and makes it his own.

So what should have happened? One of the following would have prevented this problem arising.

  1. When Nigel drew the napkin, Ian or one of the others should have looked more closely at it, considering they all know how “confused” he is.
  2. Ian should have spotted it when handing to the artist.
  3. The artist should have spotted it and asked for clarification.

What’s the lesson? I’m not sure it’s a particularly flattering lesson as regards the customer –

  • Don’t take any requirements from the customer at face value, especially if they seem unreasonable (the requirement, not the customer).
  • Make sure requirements are properly documented, clarified and agreed (no napkins (or emails)).
  • Ensure the project timescale has plenty of room for errors to be fixed (Hahahahah OK I’m just joking with that one).

Wrangling requirements can be tough. Balancing the “wants” of the customer with the “cans” of the project can be pretty stressful. Then again I’m sure I’d feel much worse if I weren’t under such heavy sedation.

Bike Share

I used to cycle all the time in Bedford – not for recreation, but for transport. I cycled to school for a long time, I cycled to work, I cycled to the pub, I cycled home (somehow). I wouldn’t call myself a “cyclist”, except for the fact that everyone who cycles is a cyclist. But I didn’t have all the gear or a fancy bike, it was just to get around.

I never actually passed my cycling proficiency test. There’s a story there. On the day of the test, we were all cycling around the primary (elementary) school playground on our motley assortment of bikes, and performing maneuvers under the squinty eye of the local beat policeman. One maneuver involved looking back over your shoulder and indicating before moving out. When it came to be my turn, I looked over my shoulder, and saw the copper looking somewhere else entirely and not paying attention. Later, when the test results came out, it said that I had failed the test because I didn’t look back! Fuck the police.

I’ve had various bikes, from a battered Raleigh Chopper that nearly rendered me sterile, to a cobbled-together thing with a three-speed Sturmey-Archer dynamo hub, to a drop-handlebar tourer, to a Raleigh street bike (like a mountain bike, but for streets instead of mountains). I even had the standard European rattly shopping bike with a built in through-spoke ring lock attached to it (surprisingly unknown in the US) that I rode to college when I lived in Germany.

When I moved to London, I never really cycled again. I sold my bike, panniers, reflective sash thing and various other bits and pieces to a friend. Nearly fifteen years have passed. Now I’m cycling again.

In my old job, I would take the Transbay bus over the Bay Bridge, then walk the four blocks to my office. When I started my new job, it was the same, except when I got to my old office, I would then have to wait for another bus, or walk for another 20 minutes. I’m not mad keen on walking. When waiting for buses, I would see signs up saying that there would soon be a Bay Area Bike Share station on that particular corner. Sure enough, a few weeks ago the service was up and running, with hundreds of bikes and dozens of station around the place.

I started riding about 2 days after the service came on line. The delay was due to me not having received my helmet yet, and I’m not about the take the risk. On a friends recommendation I had ordered myself a Nutcase in matte green. They had plenty of fancy designs in matte and gloss, and for a while I was tempted to get a stars and stripes one just so I would look like the M.A.R.K-13 killer robot from Hardware.


I settled for subtle in the end, but I added an EFF sticker, because they can read my email, watch my twitter feed and follow me on Facebook, but they don’t get to read my mind! (yet)

"This device" being my brain

When you sign up and pay your annual fee ($88, but there are other options), they send you an electronic key which allows you to unlock bikes from the stations. Because I was one of the first 1000 subscribers to the service, instead of a blue key I was sent a limited edition black one, which makes me kinda special I guess.


It’s going well so far. My route is slightly different, because rather than follow my old bus route, go directly through the city and deal with the traffic, I’m going out to the Embarcadero and riding on the dedicated cycle lane under the Bay Bridge and round onto Townsend, then all the way along to my office. Here’s my route, if you’re interested. It’s a nice ride, with the rising sun and bridge on my left side, and sleeping homeless people on my right.

I haven’t roamed too far from my regular commute route, but it has come in handy for other trips. For example, last week after an after-work appointment I was hurrying to catch the last Transbay bus to my street corner at 7.30, after which I would have had to get BART and then a cab to get home. I don’t think I would have made it had I not grabbed a bike and frantically pedalled the last few blocks, trailing sweat and curses in my wake.

I’ve made a spreadsheet to calculate how long it will take for the bus fare savings to pay for the yearly membership and the bike helmet, because of course I have. At $2 per bus ride saved, it will take 44 rides to pay for the $88 membership. Add to that the one-off cost of the helmet and reflective ankle trouser-protector things, and it becomes 85 rides. Here’s my progress.

Bike Share Break-even Progress

Bike Share Break-even Progress

I’ve assumed that I will make 8 rides per week, rather than 10, just to be a little conservative and factor in rides home, happy hours and BART rides. Still, I’m ahead of schedule at the moment, and I may have broken even by mid-November – and then it’s just savings all the way until September 2014, and next year it will be even easier without the initial cost of the equipment.

Winter may take its toll, but I’m looking forward to saving money, being fitter, and spending the first half hour of my day looking like this…

"Belleville Rendezvous" Sylvain Chomet 2003

“Belleville Rendezvous” Sylvain Chomet 2003

On Many Things


Gordon thinks it sure is windy! We hiked in Chabot, Gordon peeing on many things as well as barking at Drake



Gordon was frisky today, lots of running. Not really any playing, but a bit of racing with Riley. I like this Gordon, he’s funny 🙂

No Horses


Gordon enjoyed a damp but sunny hike in the Grass Valley this morning. Best of all, no horses!


Those of you eagerly awaiting more fun notes from the dog walker will have to wait a day or so. I need to get the notepad and take a bunch of new photos. In the meantime, here’s a classic Gordon moment, when he somehow graduated from obedience school.

The Quiet Hat


Gordon had a fun, relatively mellow hike in Leona Canyon today. He sure has a lot to talk about these days… the quiet hat still works great though.

And here’s a picture of the Quiet Hat. If Drake puts his hat on Gordon’s head in the car, he stops whining.

The Quiet Hat

The Quiet Hat

Sunday Two-Pager: Scary Voice



Gordon enjoyed his hike in Chabot this morning. We found a pair of horses and as I was leashing all the dogs, Gordon thought it would be cool to ignore me and run over to bark at the horses. So I yelled his name in my scary voice and he stopped, turned around, and came back to receive his leash. I win! 😀



Gordon sure is noisy today! We hiked in Leona Canyon, where Gordon met a friendly gay man he thought he would abandon me for… leash time!

Little Toes


Gordon enjoyed his hike in Redwood today. He dipped his little toes in the mud trough and then wiped them off in my car, as he always does.