Yearly Archive: 2015

Tablet Buttons?

Wacom Express keysI like sculpting with Zbrush on a tablet, but Zbrush really needs a few buttons to modify what the stylus does, notably Shift, Ctrl, and Alt.   There are a handful of other functions that is handy to have working on buttons rather than menus.   Unfortunately, most tablets really don’t have enough convenient buttons in place that can be easily customized.   This goes for my HP Spectre x360 and the Micrsoft Surface.   I’ve tried a few software solutions such as Radial Menu and TabletPCMouse, which give you pallets of onscreen “buttons.”  These work well enough for “tap-and-go” functions like “save” or “undo”, but they are less effective for function modifies such as “hold down shift for smooth” or “hold down alt to reverse the stroke depth.”   Because of palm rejection software/firmware, simultaneous touch and stylus is often rejected.  This means it’s hard to touch the screen with a finger at the same time as the stylus.   This leads to lifting the pen far enough from the screen before you can activate a screen function with your finger tip.   After a while, it was clear this was “clumsy” to coordinate getting the stylus an inch from the screen before I could press a button.   Tools like radial menu can make buttons “sticky” (press once for “on”, again for “off”), but this too has its workflow weaknesses by adding an extra press of a button.

It was becoming clear: I needed the feel and simplicity of buttons.

One solution was just to pair a Bluetooth keyboard, but when working with my computer in my lap or on the go, this was inconvenient and often more than I needed.   I could, of course, work with the Spectre X360 in laptop mode, but this also felt a little off, because the open screen is pretty far from my face and I like the intimacy of a sketchbook feel.  The tablet form factor was more comfortable than laptop form factor.  I thought of building a button box out of game controller (as some have done on the TabletPCReview forums.)

Then I saw that Wacom had just released a small button box originally designed for Wacom Cintiq 27HD.  It’s called the Wacom ExpressKey Remote.  At $99 it isn’t cheap, but using Wacom Cintiqs and tablets, I knew they were well experienced in making artist tools.   I ordered it the first day it was available, week before TechEd 2015, without hesitating.   It was waiting for me when I returned.

It connects to your computer by a small USB 2 wireless transceiver that sticks out about 10mm from the side of your laptop (it would be nice if this was bluetooth instead.)   The Expresskey Remote is in a thin little package about 50mm x 135mm and 10mm thick.  It has a soft rubber back, so you can set it on the screen and move it around as needed.   I let it sit next to the tablet on a customized lap desk that Vaughn constructed from unfinished bed desk.  Despite some comments on the web, I found that you did not need any other Wacom product installed.   I installed Wacom’s 6.3.15-1 driver without a Cintiq connected (although the transceiver for Expresskey Remote must be plugged in.)   Wacom intends the ExpressKey Remote for use with their profession products, so your mileage may vary, but I did not need to plug in any of my other Wacom products to install or later configure the Expresskey Remote.  (Hoperfully Wacom will clarify this aspect themselves in their FAQ, but as a customer of theirs for more than a decade, I wouldn’t count on it.

One install note:  If you’re using Microsoft/Ntrig’s wintab driver, you may need to reinstall or “repair” it after installing Wacom’s drivers.   I found that pressure sensitivity was in my stylus was lost until I repaired wintab-

Wacom obviously knew Zbrush users would want this.   As soon as I started Zbrush, a custom template was installed for the ExpressKey Remote.   It’s a great starting point to my eyes.   I have so far only made one change, which was to add the “M” key in place of the one of the less use buttons.   All-in-all, the 17 buttons work quite well, though my old friends, ctrl, shift, and alt are the principle ones I need.  I may re-assign another button to be “ctrl-shift” simultaneously just to simplify selecting meshes.   So far I haven’t felt the need to do this, but on many of my Cintiqs, I set one key aside for this just to avoid “fat finger syndrome” where I miss getting the two keys just right.

The Expresskey Remote definitely has made working with a tablet much easier and more comfortable.   To me it feels similar to working on my large Cintiq 21UX, but in a nice portable package.   The bottom line question I expect to be asked, is it worth $99?   I’d say yes if the comfort and time for art counts.  Compared to other approaches, I feel I can work faster and easier.  Could it be made better?   Probably.  For example it would be nice to use Bluetooth rather than a proprietary receiver.  Some might want fewer buttons and others more.  Some might want a bigger device and others smaller.   It’s hard to please all the competing ergonomics, and I have only focused on one application, Zbrush.   Overall, I think Wacom has hit on the right accessory device for tablets and two-in-ones.



ASUS Zenbook UX32VD Dead iSSD Workaround

issdA little background: The ASUS UX32VD was a slick ultrabook 2-1/2 years ago.   It featured an i7 Processor, 512GB of Disk with a 24GB iSSD cache and easily outfitted with 10 GB of RAM.   A nice little zBrush and Photoshop machine.

My trusty unit had been running great for the last two years.   Out of no-where it suddenly developed a terrible flaw: It took more than five minutes to boot, and almost as long to shutdown.   Reinstalling the OS didn’t help, repartitioning the main drive didn’t help.   Reloading drivers didn’t help.  Wiping the system clean didn’t help.   It seemed to be a motherboard problem and no combination of BIOS settings could get me around it.

A quick chat with ASUS confirmed my worst fears.   It’s out of warranty, the mobo probably needs replacing and I can mail it them for diagnosing (for a fee) and likely have the motherboard replaced (for a really big fee) and pay shipping both ways.   It was too much to invest in a 30-month old computer (hence I’m now typing this on an HP Spectre x360.)

What nagged at me was that after it got past booting (or shutdown), the ASUS worked reasonably well.    If I could get past this strange  boot-up problem, it would make a handy backup machine.    I started going through the internet and found this is not a novel problem with the ASUS UX32 series.   It seems that iSSD chip can fail (whether it’s the chip or its connection to the motherboard is a matter of debate) and when it goes, it causes the BIOS to have some real problems.  The standard solution: replace the motherboard.   Having rejected the cost of motherboard replacement, again, I was stymied.

Then I ran into his thread in the NotebookReview forums.   It turns out some folks were doing the unthinkable: remove the iSSD chip from the motherboard.  This was clearly a job requiring a delicate touch, finesse, and a steady hand.   Putting my experience in theoretical mathematics to work, the solution was obvious: get someone else to do it.

Fortunately, I had at my disposal my roomate Vaughn, who, besides having a good nature, is a trained mechanic with steady hands, patience, and skills with all manner of tools large and small.  After a bit of study and debate, we agreed we understood what chip needed to go and that with some persuasion the chip could be freed from the motherboard.  The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley …

The surface mount technology for the  ISSD chip was definitely pretty tough.   Through warming with a soldering iron it loosened unevenly.   There was a loud “snap” from the motherboard and half of the chip broke free.   A suitable amount of heart stopping examination revealed the motherboard seemed intact, so Vaughn proceeded to free the remaining half of an SSD chip from the circuitry.   A few minutes later, the other half chip was lying aside.

To cut a too long story short, a piece of insulating tape was applied to the wounded motherboard where the iSSD had been.   A few minute of re-assembly and the old ASUS UX32VD was booting in less than 15 seconds and shutting down equally quick.   It was a radical repair, but for less than a half-hour’s work, the ASUS UX32VD was returned to working condition.   Definitely not for the inexperienced, but it’s several hundred dollars less than an a motherboard replacement.

Hope this helps out someone else with a mysterious misbehaving ASUS UX series!

I’ll be at TechEd 2015 in Las Vegas

550x305_VenetianPalazzoI’ll be attending TechEd 2015 in Las Vegas this October.   While my schedule isn’t finalized, I’ll spend much of free time in the product showcase discussing data warehousing.and SAP’s latest technology HANA Vora.  The event is going to be held in the Venetian and Palazzo Hotel on the Las Vegas strip October 19-23.  If you’re at the event, drop by and say hello!




HP Spectre x360 & Zbrush

c04728044I’ve probably mentioned that I toy with Zbrush from time to time in other posts.   A fantastic sculpting program, I’ve always been looking at ways to liberate it from a workstation to a nice portable form factor.   Most of my solutions over the years is to take a laptop running Zbrush and Wacom tablet or more recently, a Wacom Cintiq 13HD.   This has been a bulky, but serviceable solution (The Cintiq 13HD is quite light and slips into the back of my suitcase perfectly for long trips.   Well, my trusty ASUS UX32VD developed iSSD rot (a disease that has been cured, but not without wailing, gnashing, and general misuse of a soldering iron…), so this was an excuse to pick up a shiny new HP Spectre x360 (13-4102dx) with it’s clever 2-in-1 design, QHD display, ultrabook form factor, i7 processor, etc., etc.   I figured I’d just be using my beloved little cintiq with this little speedster.

31lgRGSTy9L._SX425_Little did I know HP had an early Christmas present hidden in the Spectre’s design.   It turns out that the Spectre’s screen is not just multi-touch–it’s a pressure sensitive active pen display!   OK, so it’s active pen (Synaptic’s technology), what does that mean?   Well it means that with the right stylus, you have a nice, multi-level pressure sensitive device.  After reading the reviews, I picked up a Dell 750-AAGN stylus.   It had the advantages over the HP “Active Pen” in that 1) it was slightly cheaper,  2) had a 1mm tip that fells very comfortable and 3) was better rated by other reviewers who had tried it.   It runs on a AAAA (that’s 4 A’s) similar to the Wacom’s stylus for ipads (the Wacom creative stylus)–buy ’em by the bag full.

I fired up Photoshop CC 2015 and I was really pleased with the results.  Nice line variation with gentle modulation of pressure.   Perfect!  I didn’t even have to install a driver!

I then fired up Zbrush 4r7.  🙁   No luck.   It worked, but wasn’t pressure sensitive.  Apparently Zbrush can’t see the Active Pen technology in Windows 10.  I installed my Wacom drivers and figured it was just one of those tech things that I’ll have to wait for Pixologic to work out.   But this got me to wondering what is so different about Photoshop?   The signal is there–why does Photoshop see and and Zbrush doesn’t?   It turns out it is my old nemesis, wintab.   Active pen uses the new Microsoft interface to the stylus (introduced with the Microsoft Surface technology in Windows 8) and Zbrush depends on the “traditional” stylus interface, wintab.  Score one for Adobe being up to date on windows tech.

So I thought about it a little more.  How do Microsoft Surface Pro users get wintab programs like Zbrush to recognize the nifty pressure sensitivity with their n-trig (now owned by Microsoft) styli?  We’ll it comes down to a wintab driver.   After reading a bit more, I found someone else who had tried this magic driver, and sure enough it not only works for n-trig styli, but also Synaptics Active Pen!   All I had to do was find it.

The Synaptics website was no help.  They’re not well set up for end users and if there is a wintab driver out there, it isn’t to be found.   Then began the merry search of Microsoft’s labyrinthine web site.   It was a bit of search, but burried in the surface section is here.   (A shoutout to surfaceproartist’s blog for finding this little jewel is in order.)  In the myriad of SurfacePro drivers is one little file “”.   Trembling with excitement, I installed this unassuming bit of technical magic, fired up Zbrush 4R7 and voila!  Zbrush now recognizes pressure sensitivity on my HP Spectre 360’s display with the Dell active pen stylus.   While I will not suggest its a perfect replacement for Cintiq, it is ideal for on-the-go use.  It works well with almost no lag on my setup.  Hopefully Zbrush will support active pen in the future or Microsoft will package this little driver standard with Windows.


Various stroke strengths with the Dell 750-AAGN Stylus on an HP Spectre x360 running Win10

Hopefully this helps someone else with active pen setup!


Analytics & Advanced Analytics: What’s the difference?

AE ChalkboardAdvanced Analytics” is a relatively new term in the data management and data warehousing business.   “Basic” analytics is relatively a straight forward affair, mostly involved in answering ad hoc  questions (that is, questions that haven’t been pre-planned) about a set of stored data.  Most often these are business questions such as “How many customers have bought product X but haven’t bought product Y?” or “Did the London office sell more of product T than it forecast?”  The mathematics of the question isn’t very hard… generally it is basic arithmetic logic like adding up totals or perhaps computing a single average. Nothing exceptionally sophisticated or complicated.

By contrast, advanced analytics has grown out of the scale of the data we are now dealing with.  Even before there was big data, we started collecting enough data that we could start process it statistically.  So advanced analytics is often the intersection of large amounts and statistics.  We can start to answer some more interesting questions, predictive questions likes “Based on the last 12 months sales and social media trends, can we expect to sell more drought resistant crop seeds?” or “Is the current availability of low cost transportation going to suppress the costs of moving our heavy machinery for the next six months?”   These predictions can help business optimize or improve their offerings by better understanding market and customer needs.

Advanced analytics often relies upon both complex algorithms and statistical processing to tease out trends and correlations that is not directly obvious from the data.  What is often overlooked is that power of advanced analytics needs to be unleashed through availability of well curated set of data in the first place.  That’s where data warehouses come in and the power of high performance data management systems come in.  As we see the amount data available to us continuing to build, we begin to see the data warehouse paradigm will need to shift from basic analytics towards advanced analytics.

Free Video Series on Data Warehouses and Advanced Analytics

5-12-2015 9-37-57 AM

The video whitepaper series I produced last fall is now available to anyone who wishes to register.   There are three videos hosted by Mary Windishar.   In the first video, Shawn Rogers of Enterprise Management Associates takes us through the big changes in data warehousing.   In the next video, Ashish Sahu gives a great introduction to the state of the art in Advanced Analytics.  Lastly, the fall series wraps up with an interview of Neil McGovern talks about how to use dynamic tiering.  View them here:

Strategies to Evolve Your Data Warehouse

Leveraging Advanced Analytics with SAP

Managing the Tide of Big Data with Dynamic Tiering


Back From Sapphire


SAP SapphireNOW Orlando is over and I’m back at my California home.  We had great traffic at the data warehousing booth and it was fun to meet many of you in person.   Lots of in-depth conversations about how one goes about architecting the idea business warehouse for specialized applications.

A question I was asked a lot was about the future of SAP Business Warehouse.   Don’t worry, Business Warehouse is very much a part of SAP’s future plans.   While we are always looking for ways to eliminate copies of data, that it not the true power of Business Warehouse.  Business Warehouse provides the toolset to design the complex hierarchies of data warehouse as well as key process automation and monitoring.  It is a core modeler for an efficient data warehouse for its entire lifestyle, not simply loading data.  And Business warehouse provides the services to integrate data from many sources and manage the underlying data bases in ways far more sophisticated than basic SQL.   While these services will continue to be ever more closely tied with SAP HANA, our in-memory application platform and database, they are still distinct needs of the complex data warehouse.

Other customers asked me about our commitment to Hadoop and what was the difference between Hadoop, and our disk-based, HANA Dynamic Tiering.    Well, SAP is very into both.   Hadoop is, of course, an open source product of the Apache foundation.   Dynamic Tiering is underlied by the columnar database design and legacy of SAP IQ.  At its heart, Dynamic Tiering is a very powerful relational database.   When data is already well structured, it is an ideal store for large quantities of business data, video, and text.   Hadoop is, at its heart, a key-value pair on a distributed file system.   This makes it fantastic for the acquisition of fast moving, unstructured data in a cost-effective way.   Both are highly relevant for the future of data warehousing and SAP is committed to providing all the tools customers need to build data warehouses for the source data you will likely encounter in the future.

Will Artificial Intelligence Be The End of Us?

i robot 3d

Image from I Robot © 2004 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Recently there has been a bit of talk about Artificial Intelligence (AI) bringing about the final end of human kind.  Luminaries such as Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk suggest that man will soon invent what is called “Strong AI” and it will be the end of humankind.

I personally don’t believe it.

First of all, this is all too much like the techno-driven nightmares of the twentieth century.   With the industrial revolution having fully taken hold, it seemed man was always inventing better ways to kill his own kind and that inevitably the tools of total human destruction would be in hand.   That threshold was likely reached with the thermonuclear device, which, in quantity, can conceivably render the planet uninhabitable.  Waiting in the wings were new terrors as well, such as biologically engineered disease, pollution-driven global warming, and a host other ways to compromise the biosphere we depend on for life.

On a personal level, I’d place bets on these more proven forms of deadly technologies before I’m going to worry about my iPhone turning on me.  After all, the devastating power of thermonuclear weapons can go largely unquestioned with the demonstrations of their power throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.   Couple with very real if theoretically demonstrated concept of nuclear winter and other devastating after effects of a mass nuclear exchange, it simply seems a more plausible way for the world to come to end.   Bioengineering, also has a distinctly higher plausibility, since we’ve experienced the devastating effects of plague as a species.   The Black Death left such an emotional scar on our race, we still sing about it in nursery rhymes hundreds of years later: “Ring around rosy, a pocket full of poesy…” recalls the fear of the first signs of the plague and the idea that fresh flowers in your pocket might ward off its terrible effects.

Artificial Intelligence on the other hand seems to be a much more feeble threat.   For example, today we are surrounded by natural animals with varying degrees of intelligence, yet as an apex predator we feel little threat.   And today, Artificial Intelligence is seldom credited with being much smarter than a mouse.  The run-away effect that AI might somehow get away from us, expand its own consciousness, and throttle the life from our species seems strange if not all together implausible.  Modern computer architectures as staked out by Alan Turning and John Von Neumann are ultimately deterministic.   In other words, the do what they are told.  Make no mistake, we can wreak a lot of havoc on ourselves by mis-programming a computer; however, the computer is only doing what we told it to do.  There is no creative spark, no “will to make Evil” that a deterministic device can create of its own volition.   It can only inflict on us what we will it to do.  In a sense, we should fear our kind more than a soulless collection of electronic components.

The next barrier to Strong AI threatening us is whether it is even possible with our current understanding of how human consciousness works and how the machines we make might attempt to emulate it.   At the end of the day, the question becomes, can a machine of our devising, with our current understanding of electronics ever become conscious?

The key here is that I believe human consciousness implies a sense of free will and the ability to exercise that free will.   There are good number of reasons to believe this is true, rather than consciousness and free will merely being an epiphenomenon of electrochemical reactions in the cells of our brains. If we were to assume that human consciousness lacks free will, it would imply a host of new problems around good & evil, crime & punishment, altruism and many other distinctly human behaviors.  These issues are probably worthy of a philosophical essay in its own right, but when it comes to AI destroying human kind, it is probably axiomatic that it is acting upon some form of consciousness and will.

And this becomes the problem for computing machines.   Free will by definition must incorporate a non-deterministic behavior, or it isn’t free will, merely the obedience to the will of the programmer as defined in its algorithms and supplied data.   The mathematician, Roger Penrose, often refers to this exercise of non-deterministic free will as intuition.  He points to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem to suggest that there must be an incompleteness in our understanding of consciousness as it would relate to computers and that this incompleteness cannot be solved in a purely algorithmic way.   This essentially throws into doubt that Turing machine implemented on a Von Neumann architecture can ever really be conscious.  Essentially Penrose’s argument, best framed in The Emperors New Mind (1989), suggest that a conscious computer, self-aware, or even “spiritual” is, at present, quite unlikely.   (Penrose does make allowances that advancements in quantum theory might ultimately unlock some of the mystery of conscious, but to date his theories remain speculative.)

So although some the super-rich technologists entertain the press with prophesies of doom, for me it looks the old villains are still more frightening.   It is a re-telling of Frankenstein with transistors.   If the end comes by our own hand, I suspect the hangman will still have a human face.

One Week Until SAPPHIRE NOW 2015

1422368407252I will be attending SAP’s SAPPHIRE NOW 2015 conference next week.    In addition to helping out at the Platform Technology demonstration area (Data Warehousing pod), I will be introducing Milt Simonds from AmerisourceBergen who will be talking about their 14 Terabyte data warehouse (PT20262 Simplify Your Data Warehouse While Meeting Tough Requirements).   I’ll also be co-hosting a Microforum with Mathieu Page of Uniselect on cloud-based data warehousing (PT20284 Explore the Benefits of the Cloud Warehouse with In-Memory Technology).  We’ll be exploring how cloud and hybrid-cloud architectures for the data warehouse may change how you plan you next data project.     Lastly, I’ll be co-presenting a couple demonstrations of working with SAP data warehouse technology and Hadoop big data with Matt Schmidt (PT20268 Overcome Data Overload with Data Layering Techniques).  You’ll get to see how we merge big data from Hadoop with business data in SAP Business Warehouse by using SAP HANA’s smart data access technology.  If you have a chance, stop by and say hello!