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About Paul Banas

Paul Banas is happy married dad of two great kids living in San Francisco. He writes now about kids, new technology and how the two interact for GreatDad.com and for Pregnancy Magazine (pregnancymagazine.com) where he is also the publisher.

Here are my most recent posts

Why you need to teach your kids skills now

My wife is reading Barbarian Days, the memoirs of a now 60-year-old surfer. While reading it, she stopped dramatically and looked at me to say, “He says that if you really want to be able to surf completely naturally, you have to start by age 14.” She continued, “Wow, by age 14. Can you imagine that?” I have to admit that I wasn’t really listening, immersed as I was in my New York Times crossword puzzle.

It was only later that I started turning the surfing puzzle around in my mind and thought about how solipsistic (the author’s) comment was. In his special surfing world view, surfing was special in that it could only be learned “organically” by age 14. However, when you think about it, most skills are learned best by age 14. We know that language acquisition (first or second) really needs to take place before adolescence for it to really stick. We also know the same for music with all its similarities to language, a fact I know all too well not having seriously started piano until age 48. Ditto: skiing, tennis, and basketball. I’d even venture to say that all rote learning is similar in this regard. While we as older adults have a fantasy that if we only had the time, we could learn make up for all that lost time and learn lots of stuff. But kids have both the luxury of a long time horizon and an ability to mold their brains to new challenges that we as post-adolescents will never have. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or can’t try, but it does mean that we’re far less likely to develop fluency in subjects we pick up later in life. It takes even more dedication and discipline for older people to learn new skills because training the brain is that much harder.

But for little kids, there are still plenty of chances. As a dad, that presents a special responsibility. If you start when they are up walking, talking and taking directions, you only have about nine years to identify and expose your kids to skills they can acquire for the long haul. As in all things parental, you can decide on what these things are going to be in an alchemy of what interests your child, where they have natural abilities and what you think are important life skills.

In our house for example, music acquisition is important. That means the kids both started piano at age 5 and have continued through to high school with weekly lessons and mostly one hour per day of practice. Even if I took it away today, they would still have music programmed in their brains. We also believe it physical activity. They have had tennis lessons since about age 7 and while they will never be playing at Wimbledon, they have skills in a sport they can hopefully play and enjoy into their ‘70s. Both kids have also played soccer and my son has overcome his disparate size at the onset to have real skills. I’ve failed however, in getting either interested in basketball, a sport I never learned and prevented me from joining in some social outings. Golf has also come late to my kids and at no real disciplined level though they both play it fairly naturally perhaps thanks to the tennis.

if you have little or even growing kids, now would be the time to ponder what life skills you want them to have that can’t be learned at the same level later in life. They can’t learn everything so whatever you choose, it should be a combination of what you think has value, but also what you can support them in. If you fancy fencing, but that would require an hour commute to the fencing studio every evening for the next 15 years, you might want to reconsider. Piano does require a piano. Tennis does mean you have to get them to a court. Chess, however, is cheap and readily available anywhere.

What skills do you wish you had learned? What skills are you teaching your kids? Add them in the comments below.

Review: Epson FastFoto high speed photo scanner

As a new parent, you know how your collection of photos just explodes. It’s suddenly time to buy a new laptop and upgrade to a phone with the maximum storage available. And despite all the headaches new photo storage entails, it’s certainly a lot better than the “good old days” when baby photos filled shoeboxes rarely to be seen. Additionally, in the olden days of just 15 years ago,  photos were often destroyed in natural disasters and fires with no possible source of backup.

It’s now been about 15 years since the widespread adoption of digital cameras, so depending on how old your kids are, you may not have any photos in hard copy of your little darlings. Our kids are 12 and 16, and we only have a year or two of printed baby photos around. However, for anyone over 20, there is still all that pre-digital history, including albums handed down through the generations and old sleeves of Kodak-developed pictures from Instamatics and fancy SLRs. If you have a lot of those, you may have already gone to photo scanning services to get boxes of photos scanned and put on CD-ROM and now DVD. If you have, you likely know the issues with these services:

  • You send your precious memories out and can’t really be sure they are in process or lost at sea. I used one service where I finally contacted them 6 weeks later because I was worried I’d lost my most prized photos. The online services have also gone through a lot of failures and consolidations and some people have lost their photos during the merging or sales of operations.
  • Scanned photos are never organized by date or subject so when you import them into an app like Apple Photos, you suddenly have  a lot of photos from 1988 showing up as October 2016. These scanning services scan quickly and have no time to organize and tag your photos.
  • Photo services can’t guarantee the orientation of the photos, so be ready to spend a lot of time changing photos from landscape to portrait.
  • If you have many photos, it does get expensive very fast unless you only do very small quantities. That’s why they usually draw you in with a $40 “box” of 200 photos. But what happens to all the rest of the stuff you have?

Epson now has created a scanner that allows you to quickly scan all the photos in your house, eliminating most of these drawbacks. At $650 on Amazon, the Epson FastFoto FF-640 scanner does not come cheap but it does everything it says it will do very efficiently.

The Epson FastFoto promises to help you make JPGs of your old photos very fast and of very good quality.  Both are true.

Ease of use

We found setup to be very easy. We first installed the FastFoto scanner software which was pretty straightforward though did involve some updates. Setup of the scanner took just seconds after removing packing materials and we were ready to get going.

I started with some partially faded photos from the 70’s that were in an odd 3.5X4.5 inch size. Using the Epson application, I was prompted to describe my photos and made few entries to establish the year and month (I could have chosen season as well). I also added a subject to create a subfolder. I clicked “start scanning” and as promised, the photos zipped through at 1 per second making quick work of the project. The scanner scans at 30 at a time, but if you have the photos ready, as soon as one scan is finished, you’re asked if you want to add more without having to re-enter your settings.  Epson bills this as the world’s fastest scanner (at 300 DPI). I have no reason to doubt them.

The scanner only has 3 buttons and 2 switches. One switch actually just allows you to open the scanner to fix any blockages. The second switch toggles between two levels of thickness. I used what I call “thin” for photos and “thick” for postcards.  The buttons are just as direct: ON/OFF, Scan, and cancel.  I like stuff this easy.

Scan quality

You can choose to do scans in 300 or 600 DPI, depending on whether you’ll need to later blow them up or crop them. I found 300 DPI was fine for old pictures shot with a 110 cartridge camera from the 70’s where the pictures were already grainy. If you have the space, Epson recommends scanning everything at 600 DPI since you never know when you might need an enlargement or poster-sized version of any of your photos.

Automatic photo enhancing:

The FastFoto will also enhance your photos on the fly, removing another tiresome step. In our testing, I found this great for removing yellowing of postcards from the 70’s.  In the example below you can see the yellowing on an old postcard and how the application made the borders less yellow without taking away from the original image.

Epson FastFoto scan example

 

 

 

 

I wondered whether Apple Photos would do a better job. The image on the left in this example is what the Photos app did to enhance the original image. Apple Photos brought out more magic in the colors, but the yellowing was untouched. In the example on the right, I had Apple Photos “enhance” the original which was already enhanced by FastFoto. In this case, you get reduced yellowing PLUS brighter colors.  Bottom line: FastFoto will be good enough for most enhancing but for special photos, you still may want to go in and play with them in your photo editing software.

Epson ScanFoto example

 

 

 

 

FastFoto has an option (recommended) to save your original and their enhancement which can also correct specifically for fading and redeye. The original is saved as 000.jpg and the enhanced as 000a.jpg. FastFoto will also scan the back of your photo for ultimate in record-keeping. That info is stored as 000b.jpg so it will sit right next to your original for reference.

Other scanning uses

FastFoto makes it easy to not only scan old photos but if you have them, old postcards as well. A setting on the scanner just adjusts for the added thickness. I have a collection of old holiday cards from family and friends my wife has been asking me to throw out forever. As a veteran packrat, I know that the minute you throw something away, its value becomes apparent. Now, with FastFoto, I finally have a use for all those old photos. In literally just a few minutes, I’m going to scan 15 years of holiday card photos and make a slideshow I can project on the wall during our holiday party.

You have to hand it to the product guys and gals at Epson. They realized that by making this job easy, the FastFoto may not get much use beyond a very productive Sunday afternoon.  So they also bundled other scanning software with the photo scanning software. This has two advantages:

  1. It makes the photo scanning application very easy, with few distractions or options. It’s set up to do one thing and it does it very simply
  2. The FastFoto then can be used as a home document scanner for complete scanning as well as OCR of different size documents. A simple switch in the FastFoto software changes the SCAN button on the scanner to activate the document scanner instead of photo scanning. It’s just as easy to change it back.

Once you have the scanner, you’ll be overwhelmed by how many photos and postcards could be scanned and archived. I started with a small stack and couldn’t stop. Soon my wife was getting on me about the mess I had spread across the dining room table. Let’s be clear, the FastFoto makes a hard job doable, but it does not do the work for you. The Epson engineer I talked to related a story of scanning 10 plastic bins full of thousands of photos during one Saturday afternoon. Dream on!  You very quickly realize that photos come in all sizes and are often mixed for one major event depending how many photographers were going at it. Go back 50 years, and prints came in lots of weird sizes. Epson has made this job a LOT easier but if you’re the type to really get into a project, you’ll find a lot of permutations to adjust to.  That’s not Epson’s fault but make sure you have mental space for the job ahead.

 

At $649.99, the Epson FastFoto scanner will not be for everyone. It will, however be cheaper and less anxiety-producing than sending your photos by mail to some outsourced scanning facility who-knows-where. My recommendation though is to see if you can buy it with a few other family members and split the cost. Everyone has old photos and albums that they would hate to lose. After your family member’s safety, it’s the first thing people worry about when they imagine a fire or storm destroying their home. The Epson FastFoto, coupled with cloud storage, is a way to at least remove at least this one source of anxiety.

How to talk to kids about Donald Trump and the election

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht (1938), the night most people agree was the beginning of the Holocaust. It would be offensive to compare last night’s election results to this birthing of evil 78 years ago, yet many people felt something ominous did occur last night. The reaction was beyond the disbelief that many felt when Nixon was re-elected or when GW Bush first beat Al Gore. This reaction was more akin to what we all felt on 9/11. There was a “this can’t be happening” feeling. It felt as if we were watching a dream, a very bad dream. And worse, a dream that will become far, far worse before we are awakened.

If you have kids, it may have been difficult to hide your reaction. I know I was more irritable than usual and had to apologize to both kids and spouse for snapping a few times. Everyone was edgy though. We all couldn’t sit still, moving from seat to standing over and over, with some vague idea that changing perspective might actually change history in the making. There were no tears but we all felt sick. I had to put away my wine glass. It would have just been too easy to keep on drinking without even thinking.

Late in the evening, as the final states closed, my 12 year-old son left the room and I saw that he was crying. I apologized to him and told him that it was probably unfair of us to make the situation seem so dire. He replied, “Dad, it’s not you. I read the articles.” He was worried about a possible war and an economic crash to rival 2008.

So, this is the problem with raising kids who read and watch the news. You want them to be involved and interested early on, and yet too much knowledge can be a painful thing. How do you talk to kids about Donald Trump and the election?

So, here’s what I’m reiterating to my kids this week as we talk about the future of the United States.

First, one election is not an existential event. We know a lot about Donald Trump, but we don’t know how he’ll govern. We can be sure of a  few things that will not be fun for anyone concerned (the end to Obamacare, relaxation of environmental regulations, a continued war against women’s reproductive freedom among many), but we just don’t know what really happens after January 20.

Second, we have to believe, as Theodore Parker wrote and Martin Luther King Jr. paraphrased, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There is no other way. I need my kids, especially now, to believe that we will pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get back on track to a better world. I may have to keep repeating that to myself as well, so it’s motivating to say it to the kids.

Third, kids do understand the battle between good and evil. From an early age, we read them horrible stories filled with metaphors about the very struggles they see played out on the evening news. It is not a bad thing for them to try to understand what is really evil and what is disagreement. While the world on the Internet seems to be black and white, I want our kids to see all these issues in terms of grey. The world they will inhabit will demand people who are more critical in their thinking powers and who leave the quick tweets and snarky one-liners to others. I want them to understand why some Trump voters voted the way they did despite what they heard about their candidate. I’d love to easily shelf them in that famous basket of deplorables, but not all these people are bigoted and small-minded. I have to believe that because I come from small town America where a lot of Trump’s votes came from. Their concerns and fears are a reaction to the pace of change we haven’t seen since the advent of the industrial age.

A lot of parents are concerned that young boys will hear vocabulary and attitudes about the treatment of minorities and women. We need to reiterate that this is not cool. Kids today learn societal norms in the form of “we don’t do that in our school” or in our family. It is so important to establish norms of behavior and attitude within your family and community. It makes it easier to resist the temptation to act like others if your kids can say, “That’s fine for them, but we don’t act like that.”  While we’ve enjoyed a president who has been a great role model for the past eight years, we shouldn’t expect that all presidents, or sports stars or celebrities, will fill that role. It’s important to talk to your kids about why they respect a president like Obama or another celebrity they admire. Trump doesn’t have to be part of that role modeling for your kids. They may argue back to you that a president “should” model exemplary behavior, but that opens up a whole series of other discussions on the behavior of past “great” presidents who did wonderful things but who were also bigoted and misogynistic.

Fourth, we have to fight on. Every election like this creates an immediate depression. It’s hard to look at your neighbors. It’s hard to face the unknown of 2017. But by February, our passions will again be ignited and I have a feeling, for better or worse, that the counter-reaction will be strong. Give yourself a few weeks to grieve and then discuss with your family what you want to do about it together.

Finally, voting does matter. Take a look at this analysis of “voting trends from Wisconsin. where 243,000 fewer Democrats went to the polls in 2106 than in 2012 (Republicans were even). We’ve learned in election after election how mostly Republican legislators will make it difficult for good people to vote, just because voter suppression does work to control elections.

Now resolve to put on your game face before you see your family later today.  Tell your kids that things won’t be as bad as you’ve made it out to be during this long campaign. The world will continue to turn and the fight continues. There is no spin to make this a positive moment, but can help us give our kids perspective on this eternal struggle between good and evil.

Review: Epson Workforce Ecotank 4550 printer

Epson Workforce Ecotank 4550 All-in-one Printer

We love our Epson Workforce printer with reloadable ink cartridges!

I’ve been using the Epson Workforce ET-4550 for about six months after Epson sent us a machine to try out. It’s taken me a while to write a review because I wanted to see how fast the ink ran out and if the printing was consistent day in, day out. I also wanted to use it long enough so I could find those issues that bother you at first but then fade away, and more importantly the ones that are minor irritants but over time become major bugaboos.

As a dad of middle school and high school teens, we do a lot of printing. I was tired of nagging kids not to print too much because of the steep cost of print cartridges and how fast they seem to go out, rendering all printer functions useless, including scan or b&w copying. While I try to be a attentive dad, the calls to run down to my home office to receive an email with their document so I could print it for them, was getting tiring. The Epson Workforce promised to make these issues magically disappear, and so they did. While the Workforce is not perfect in every way, it is a darn good printer.

Let’s discuss this in order:

1. Setup – The Epson was easy to take out of the box and set up. Like any other printer, the Workforce requires a special printer USB cable (not included) and it was easy to find space on my desk given the Workforce’s small footprint. As you might imagine, setting up the ink cartridges was what took some time and orientation. Epson had sent me gloves to wear which I was too pig-headed to wear, but I also like to test things more the way an ordinary consumer would. Like most men, I don’t go looking for protective gear before getting down to business. Pouring ink and filling all cartridges took a bit of time but was straightforward. Once completed, I felt like I had that task done for a while, though each time I turn on the machine, I get a warning to “check ink levels.”

2. Ease of use – It was easy to add paper to the one the paper slot and get started. Connection to my computer was easy at first through USB, and then with a simple connection to my home Wi-Fi. With those two options set, i’ve been able to print from my computer, as well as my iPhone and iPad. This is the family’s first wireless printer and the kids love printing their homework assignments without having to send them to me first through email. The kids also think it’s super cool that the printer can do two-sided printing without reinserting the paper. At the same time, we’ve been slightly disappointed there isn’t a second paper tray for different paper sizes. Additionally, a single paper tray is relatively small and needs to be refilled often. There is no manual paper insert, so if you’re printing an envelope, for example, you have to replace the paper in the paper tray.

The Workforce prints very fast at 7.3 pages per minute, but importantly, there is little latency after you push “print.”

3. Print quality – Print quality is not the same as the laser printer. With laser printers, output tends to be more saturated and darker, and some prefer that look. The prints from the Epson WorkForce ET-4550 EcoTank are not as saturated and have a somewhat wet look but the effect is very clear. After you see a few pages, you actually quit noticing the difference. However, don’t expect that Pro printer look you might expect if you had send your document out to be printed. You can get better results using better paper but regular paper will have this effect.

4. Scanning – Like most recent printers, the Epson has buttons to copy and scan right from the dashboard of the Workforce itself. “Copy” is pretty dependable and with one or two buttons you can choose to copy in B&W or in color. However I’ve had mixed results with scanning. It appears scanning is only done with a wired connection. Pushing the “Scan” button on the Workforce opens a Scanner window on the laptop allowing me to then change settings and destination for the scanned file. While this isn’t exactly “one button” scanning, I don’t see how it can be avoided. Epson also has created a cloud-based scanning ability, but I did not try this function.

Pros:

  • No ink cartridges! This of course, is the biggest benefit of the Epson Workforce printers.
  • Easy to set up and use over wired USB, ethernet or WIFI
  • Far more economical than ink jet or laser jet printers.
  • Scanner, fax and print r functions do not quit working if you run out of ink
  • Very fast printing
  • 2-sided printing

Cons:

  • Only one paper slot. No manual paper slot so you must remove paper to print odd-sized shapes like envelopes.
  • Print quality differs from Laser Jet though this may be unnoticeable to readers.

I’d highly recommend this scanner for families or home office where you need to print out a lot of copies efficiently. The idea of refillable tanks is a game-changer for this industry.

GreatDad.com Review Policy: The featured product for this review was provided to us, at no cost, by the manufacturer or representing PR agency for the sole purpose of product testing. We do not accept monetary compensation for reviewing or writing about products. We only review products that we have personally tested and used in our own homes, and all opinions expressed are our own.

Review: Raumfeld One S wireless speakers

image001.jpgI had a chance to sit down with the nice guys as Raumfeld who have the latest entry into the wireless speaker system category. During a morning meeting, I saw their full line of speakers which is similar to the basic set for competitors like Denon and Sonos. Like it’s competition, Raumfeld also has a play bar to accentuate TV sound, a sub-woofer and then three levels of speakers that can be used as single speakers or dual speakers to create home theatre sound or fill rooms big or small. Raumfeld does have more speaker options than other manufactures, so more choices but also more chances to customize the system to your living situation.

The biggest draw to these speakers is that you can avoid re-wiring the house if you want to control sound throughout, or finally get rid of the clutter of an older system. The latter is what prompted me to dump my old college receiver and speakers in favor of a SONOS system two Christmases ago. I don’t think any manufacturers promise to deliver better sound quality than an analog stereo system using big speakers, but you do get nice looks, connection to music services and full control from mobile device or laptop.

All the marketing materials for the wireless speaker companies make big promises for even their small speaker’s abilities to fill a room with sound. However, a small speaker, even from the best company, can only do so much. The trick, or financial challenge, is to buy the size of speaker or speakers you need to fill the room you have rather than hope that a $199 single speaker could somehow duplicate your current big speaker system.

I don’t pretend to be an audiophile, but I do like what I consider good music: jazz and classical with a smattering of pop thrown in. The Raumfeld demo I heard provided rich sound, good bass and improved TV. If you’re really serious about sound quality — the last 1% of sound difference — look to experts to delineate between the sound in different systems. What we can help with is ease of use, attractiveness of cabinetry, and additional features.

The guys at Raumfeld gave me a Raumfeld One S , just now available for sale in the U.S. to try out the features in my own house. Here are my reactions:

* Ease of use: a Raumfeld system was very easy to set up. The iPhone app interface walks you through a few simple steps to connect to your WIFI and you’re done.

* Appearance: All speakers have a black front but you have the option of white or black trim. The unit is a standard box size, which is good if you need to fit into a bookcase.

* Price: Competitive with SONOS Play 1 ($199) at $249 at Amazon.

* Features:

  • As of February, SONOS and Denon have a big lead in the race to add music services. Raumfeld has just added SoundCloud and will add Google Cast including Pandora, iHeartRadio and other popular services this Spring.
  • What Raumfeld has that (all?) other speakers don’t is a series of buttons on the top of the speaker which can be used for preset music services or radio. Sometimes you don’t want to pull out your phone to change the channel. Like its competition, box-top controls also feature volume up and down.

I like the Raumfeld look and sound and would recommend it among options in the category. If your favorite music service is not among those offered by Raumfeld, it likely will be at some point. On the other hand, it’s worth checking out the current list to avoid disappointment after you plug it in.

GreatDad.com Review Policy: The featured product for this review was provided to us, at no cost, by the manufacturer or representing PR agency for the sole purpose of product testing. We do not accept monetary compensation for reviewing or writing about products. We only review products that we have personally tested and used in our own homes, and all opinions expressed are our own.