Quick Sugar Free Cupcakes

I don’t cook every day, but I can cook. My specialties are meat dishes and vegetables. Until now, I haven’t done much with deserts. Normally, when it comes time for my wife’s birthday, I’ll go to the store, buy a premade sugar free angel food cake, and decorate it for her with sugar free whipping cream and fruit as shown here:

Baking01

It’s a perfectly wonderful way to enjoy a birthday together, but I wanted to try something else this year. Unfortunately, as I previously stated, my cooking skills are of a highly practical nature and tend toward meat and vegetable dishes (such as the Brussels sprouts recipes in my Making Brussels Sprouts Palatable), so I decided to try a mix for my first baking attempt. I found a perfectly wonderful Pillsbury Sugar Free Classic Yellow mix and the accompanying Sugar Free Chocolate Fudge frosting at my local store.

Baking02

In looking at the ingredient list, I did find that there is a certain amount of sugar alcohol in both products, in addition to the Splenda. When I compared the other ingredients, I didn’t see any significant differences. So, what you’re getting is a cake mix and prepared icing that has a number of artificial sweeteners in it. The calorie content of both products is lower per serving, but this is most definitely not a low calorie food. There isn’t any free lunch when it comes to excess calories.

I decided to make cupcakes instead of a cake. Making cupcakes will allow us to freeze what we can’t eat immediately and take them out a little at a time for deserts. The directions on the back of the package are easy to understand. The batter turned out nice and smooth. Spooning it into the individual cupcake cups took a bit of practice, but I got the job done. I used a toothpick to check whether the cupcakes were done. When the toothpick is clean, the cupcakes are ready to go. Here’s a picture of me putting the frosting on.

Baking03

I did cheat a little and added some sprinkles to the cupcakes. So, they did end up having a modicum of sugar on them after all. Here’s the final result:

Baking04

As you can see, I had a little trouble keeping the cupcakes an even size. I’m sure that I’ll get better with practice. We ended up with 21 cupcakes instead of the 24 that the package said we were supposed to get. Even so, some of the cupcakes were a bit on the small side. Rebecca says she usually gets 18 cupcakes out of a package and I must admit that if mine had been more evenly sized, I probably would have gotten 18 too. Unless you want truly pathetic looking cupcakes, you won’t get 24 out of the package.

So, what did they taste like? The cupcakes turned out moist and I didn’t notice any difference from any other packaged cupcake I’ve eaten (I tried one without frosting so I could check the cupcake, rather than the cupcake with frosting). There wasn’t any difference in consistency either. Overall, I think someone would be hard pressed to tell the difference between these cupcakes and any other mix.

The frosting is a little smother than canned frosting with sugar in it and a bit less sweet. The frosting lacked any sort of aftertaste though, so you couldn’t really taste the artificial sweeteners. Even so, if someone thought it might be a sugar free product, they’d probably be able to tell the difference in the frosting. It doesn’t taste bad (quite the contrary), it’s just a little different.

My first experiment with sugar free baking has been a success, so I’ll try it again in the future. The next time I’ll try baking a cake. If you’re on a diet or diabetic, I can recommend this combination though as a sweet alternative to losing control over sugar.

 

Review of Creative Close-Ups

You may have noticed that I use quite a few photographs in my blog entries. Some of these photographs look nice (they aren’t art by any means) and some of themwell, they didn’t quite work out as I hoped they would. Over the years I’ve grappled with unwanted shadows and close-ups that aren’t quite close enough. Focus is also a problem and fuzzy pictures never convey what you want when it comes to factual posts of the sort I create. I was recently talking with Harold Davis about my photographic ventures and he graciously offered me a copy of Creative Close-Ups. As expected, this is a self-help book for people who want to create better close-up photography, which is the sort found most often in my blog posts.

The one thing that will strike you immediately about this book is that Harold is quite talented and is possibly wasting him time writing books, but I’m extremely happy that he did. The book contains page-after-page of striking images. Some of them have been Photoshopped, something that Harold readily admits and even recommends to an extent. Because I’m looking more for better real world shots and not necessarily art, I’ll very likely not Photoshop anything on my blog from an artistic perspective (I could very well use Photoshop to enhance images to make them better convey the information I want), but the book also pointed out the usefulness of creative croppinga technique I intend to employ from now on.

 

I’ll always tell you if I’ve modified a picture in some way. Otherwise, you can be sure that the picture you’re seeing on the blog is the picture as it came from the camera. I know that there is a certain amount of discussion about this topic and plan to be up front about any modifications or twiddling I perform.

Harold has convinced me that using a tripod isn’t quite the waste of time I thought it might be. The discussion starting on page 64 will probably change your mind too. There are few sections of the book that provide a purely artistic view of a topic, but you won’t find many. Instead, Harold tries to provide good solid reasons for doing things a certain way and then backs them up with stunning pictures. In fact, there isn’t a single photograph in the book where Harold has kept the technique secrethe exposes every technique for your learning pleasure. Where there are multiple ways to accomplish the task, you’ll find them listed, along with any pros or cons of that particular technique.

I found the discussion of equipment helpful in many cases. For example, in page 60 you’ll find a tip about the Lensebaby 0.42X Super Wide Angle accessory lens. However, the text isn’t formatted differently (as a Tip or a Note found in other books), so finding the information later isn’t as easy as it could be. In addition, there isn’t any picture of the lens taken apart so that I can see what he’s talking about. The information is probably quite helpful, but it’s less useful than it could be due to a lack of pictorial backup.

Overall, the book is more focused on technique, than on how to apply the techniquethe discussions of equipment left me scratching my head and I ended up researching the information on my own online. (Harold also kindly answered my e-mail queries.) Admittedly, there is a short list of URLs on page 234, but you won’t find a resource for every piece of equipment listed in the book. Creative Close-Ups lacks pictures of any of the equipment, so someone like me has no idea of what these devices look like. If I were to go to a store, I’d be completely lost. It would also be nice to know if there are places online to buy equipment where I won’t be cheated since the nearest camera shop is in Milwaukee (170 miles away). So, this book will tell you how to do something, but not provide you much in the way of describing the means to accomplish the task.

That said, there are many sections that make the book worth the purchase price (if the amazing photography and associated setup instructions isn’t reason enough). The section on focusing on page 68 is especially insightful. In fact, the tips on page 70 are precisely what I need to do a better job with my own photography.

This book provides me with plenty of room to grow. The discussion of focus stacking starting on page 124 will require plenty of work on my part and I may never master the technique in the same way that Harold obviously has. Still, the discussion gives me some ideas and I hope that I’ll be able to use the technique in my blog.

Creative Close-Ups provides inspiration, food for creative thought, and lots of technique. I don’t think that a complete novice will be able to use the book because Harold doesn’t explain many terms such as ISO and what an f-stop is, making notations such as ISO 100 and f/40 useless. (There is a short description of these terms on page 72, but hardly enough for the novice and not early enough in the book to make the initial discussions helpful.) However, for someone who is truly serious about taking better photographs, this book provides a lot of informationmore than most people will be able to absorb in a single reading. I personally plan to read through some sections multiple times and use the book as a reference in the future. Whether this book makes me a better photographer remains to be seen. (As Harold says on page 46, “Cameras don’t take pictures; people do.”) I wish that there was more about the mechanics of performing these amazing tasks and better descriptions of the equipment the author used, but that may be asking too much out of a single book on a complex topic. Overall, I think the author has achieved his goals admirably and that anyone reading this book will truly be dazzled by what is possible.

Writing a Helpful Review

Reviews are a special kind of opinion, but they’re still an opinion. People often forget this fact as they read a review and accept as factual anything the reviewer has to say. However, even the best review is the opinion of the reviewermaking reviews extremely hard nuts to crack in determining their value to the reader. The best reviews do contain facts and the best reviewers do try to focus their opinion of the product from several perspectives. A good review takes time to write because the author must overcome biases to an extent and try to provide material that will appeal to a larger audience. Good reviews require critical thinkinga type of thinking that’s in short supply in our politically correct society.

Of course, examples of poor reviews abound. John Dvorak recently wrote a post about the potentially corrupt reviews on Amazon (something I’ve suspected for a long time). Short, single paragraph (or sometimes sentence) reviews aren’t all that helpful. Reviews that gush over a product without saying why the product is so great aren’t helpful either. Equally useless are reviews that decry a product as shoddy without explaining what makes it so terrible. In fact, there are few (if any) perfect or completely useless products out therereviews often become a question of balance between the two extremes. Unfortunately, some organizations that request reviews try to artificially balance the review by asking for the three best and three worst features (even when a product lacks sufficient good or bad features to fill the blanks).

So, how do you write a helpful review? First, you begin by actually using the product. If you’re reviewing a movie, watch the entire movie before you start writing anything. Likewise, read the entire book you’re reviewing or test other products in a real world environment, rather than in a lab. In some cases, you see reviews based on the beginning of a movie, a chapter of a book, or the reviewer’s impression after opening the package. Such reviews are useless because they don’t consider the product as a whole.

After you’ve examined the product completely, it’s time to start writing the review. Explore what you feel about the product. Does it work as intended? Is it helpful? Write down your impressions as they come to you. Take time to think about the product critically. Could someone other than you have a use for this product? After all, you already know how you feel about the producta review is meant to help someone else understand the product better, so you’re writing for them, not for yourself.

Verify your impressions by going back to the product. Does the book really contain 101 secrets to making a million dollars by age 10? Is the movie truly presenting a hidden agenda in a candy-coated package? The act of verifying your impressions is important because we all remember things that aren’t actually there. Checking your facts is the mark of a superior reviewer.

Put your impressions into some sort of comprehensible order. Nothing is worse than reading a review composed of seemingly unrelated thoughts. A review should flow in some sort of order. A movie or book often lends itself to a chronological flowfrom beginning to end. However, some reviews work best if you can provide an overview, the good parts, the bad parts, any special features, and then a bottom line that answers the question, “Is this a good product?” or “Why should you buy this product.”

Set the review aside for a day. Go back and read it again. Does the review still ring true? Do you still feel the words you’ve written or have things changed now that you’ve had time to think about the product more? A review is an opinionit’s biased in some respects. However, even with the opinion, even with the bias, a good review still conveys useful information about the product, especially when you back your opinions and biases up with facts.

Not many people want to take the time to write a helpful review. The best reviews require time and skill to write. A helpful review isn’t written in the heat of the moment and it doesn’t lash out at anyone. When you write a good review, it reflects your honest opinion about the product and doesn’t attack the product’s creator. After all, you know about the product, but know nothing about the product’s creator and there is nothing you can tell anyone about the product’s creator, so why go in that direction?

What else would you add to the skills of a good reviewer? Are there any special features you look for in reviews? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Review of Breath & Other Ventures

I wasn’t quite sure how to categorize Breath & Other Ventures (written by William Bridges, Green Market Press), but for me it was a self-help sort of a book, so I classified it that way. You may very well classify it some other way, which is certainly your right. In reality, this book is both more and less than a self-help book. It won’t help you control your weight or manage your anger, but it does ask an intriguing and thought provoking question, “How do you want to live your life?” It’s a deceptively simple question of the same sort as, “Who are you?” Most people have no idea of who they are, much less how they want to live their life, so this is a helpful book indeed. (Don’t make the mistake of confusing this question with, “What do you want to do with your life?”, which is actually quite easy to answer in comparison.)

The majority of the book is a series of non-fiction short storiesthe author uses the term essays. It’s in three parts. The first part is literally about breathing. Although William includes a number of medical terms and diversions in the book, the focus is on the actual act of breathingsomething I’ll never look at the same again. You’ll find breathing in all its forms, including the breathing that takes place during various sorts of meditation. I’m not a Zen practitioner, but I do meditate daily to manage stress and make some sense of the chaos that’s my life. Such meditation is Biblicalit’s mentioned more than a few times even though I know most Christians sadly leave meditation out of their lives. By the time you’ve finished this first section, I assure you that you’ll no longer take breathing for granted either.

The second part is my favorite. It’s a series of short historical stories. I found them compelling. In fact, I started reading this section and didn’t put the book down again until I had finished it. The historical section isn’t about major events or places that most people would consider all that exciting. You’ll discover something about average people in Indiana. The stories are all about the author’s relatives in some way, but not necessarily exclusively about his family. He digresses into other areas, which makes for an interesting read. (There is even a ghost story included in the set of stories.) You go down the road and aren’t quite sure what to expect nextthe twists and turns keep the eventual goal hidden and elusive.

The essays in the third part of the book are more focused on how the author has lived his life. I probably could have done without the first essay on Obama, but then again, I’m not a political person in the sense that I would go out and protest something, knock on doors, or even make a contribution. On the other hand, I feel quite good about exploring every detail of a politician’s career before voting and will write a letter or two to express my dissatisfaction. For whatever reason, this particular essay didn’t speak to meperhaps it’ll speak to you. I did enjoy the essay entitled, “Ten Weeks with the Circus” quite a lot (it isn’t actually about the circusI’ll leave the details of it for you to discover).

The book also has a very short fourth part (19 scant pages) that contains a fictional detective story about GeeGee Dapple. I found the story quite entertaining and a fitting end to the book.  There is little doubt in my mind that GeeGee is the author’s alter-ego. It appears that there is a number of these stories and I hope the author eventually puts them together into a compilation. For now, this is the first GeeGee story I’ve read. The addition reminds me of the “final page” entries often found in magazines. It was a nice ending to the book that doesn’t necessarily fit in with the rest of the book but is merely meant to entertaina kind of finishing touch not found in many books today.

If you’ve ever read and enjoyed Garrison Keillor, you’ll enjoy William’s style too. It has that same free flowing musing that Keillor employs in his books. This book isn’t meant to be funny though, so there are some distinct differences in the way the two authors approach things. This author also includes more than few pieces of poetry, most of which I found a good read and thought provoking. The poetry isn’t just stuck in place either (like many books out there), it always has a purpose for being placed precisely where the author has placed it in the book. I found the author’s word choices interesting as well. For example, you’ll find “blissninny” on page 44 (I’ll also leave it to you to discover the meaning of this word). If you want to see some examples of the author’s writing, check out his blog.

So, does this book answer the question, “How do you want to live your life?” Of course it doesn’t! That’s for you to decide. The author is relating a story of how he has decided to live his life and I think the hope is that you’ll spend a few moments pondering your life as well. I certainly found myself pondering mine. If nothing else, this is the sort of book you want to read as part of your own personal voyage of discovery.

 

Dune

Dune is an amazing read that’s hard to strictly categorize. Most people say that it’s a science fiction book, which I guess it is to a certain extent. After all, it does take place in the future when mankind has moved out into the solar system and colonized many worlds. The book takes place so far into the future that all knowledge of man’s origins has faded into obscurity. There are certain technology elements to the book, but you won’t find robots, space battles, or anything of that sort. In fact, the author deliberately downplays technology and offers technology run amok as a reason for man’s venture into an almost anti-technology society.

In some respects, Dune is a fantasy. You’ll find mention of the strange spice melange which imparts almost magical characteristics to those who indulge in it (and almost everyone in the book does to some extent with differing effects). The backdrop for the book reads somewhat like a Gothic novel with kings and queens. The main character is a duke seeking to repair an incredible wrong done against his family. The book is also filled with the mythical creature, a sand worm that’s so large that people can ride it. Dune is a desert planet and it invokes a somewhat romantic view of the difficulty of living in such an environment.

However, in its innermost being, Dune is a book about political intrigue and the author, Frank Herbert, does an amazing job of creating a twisted plot. Because this book is a bit complex, some people will find it hard to read. Still, once you get into the meat of the book, you’ll find that it keeps your interest. Dune is for someone who likes almost Machiavellian complexity and doesn’t particularly relish a book with little substancemere mind candy.

The book has a strong cult following and you’ll find many follow on editions for it. In fact, two movies have come out about Dune in the past. The first is a shorter version (a little over 2 hours for the original theatrical offering) that stars Kyle MacLachlan, Virginia Madsen, Francesca Annis, Leonardo Cimino, and Brad Dourif. This version also includes Patrick Stewart before he became famous as the captain of the Enterprise in Star Trek. The second is a longer 265 minute version that stars William Hurt, Alec Newman, Giancarlo Giannini, Uwe Ochsenknecht, and Saskia Reeves.

Both theatrical versions of Dune diverge from the original book plot in a significant waythe book doesn’t spend much time discussing the action in battles, while the movies seem to focus on it to an extent. In fact, Frank Herbert is apt to simply say that the battle occurred and that a certain party won. Consequently, the movies and the book both have something to offer and are different presentations of the same plot. I enjoy all three and plan to review the movies at some point.

Dune is the sort of book to get if you want to become totally immersed and forget your cares for a while. The writing is good and you won’t find yourself distracted by inelegant prose. When you’re done, you’ll definitely find yourself wishing for more (and fortunately, there is more to be had in tomes such as Children of Dune).

 

Rod Stephens’ Visual Basic Programming 24-Hour Trainer

Learning a new skill, such as programminglearning it quickly and easily, is much harder than it sounds, but “Rod Stephens’ Visual Basic 24-Hour Trainer” makes the task considerably easier. The book begins with possibly the best Introduction I’ve ever seen. The author tells you precisely how to use his book to learn how to code in Visual Basic in a short interval. Additionally, he makes it clear what the book won’t tell you. This is most definitely a book for the rank beginnersomeone who has never written code before and the author makes it clear that better educated developers need not apply. (More advanced readers will benefit more from another of Rod’s books, “Visual Basic 2010 Programmer’s Reference“.)

The chapters tell you how to perform most basic tasks associated with desktop applications. You won’t find any Web development techniques in this book, but the author makes that clear in the Introduction. The reason for focusing on the desktop is that it provides a controlled environment that works anywhereno Internet connection required, no special setup needed. All you need is your system and Visual Basic.

The first chapter is the usual description of how to get Visual Basic installed on your system. Rod discusses a few different options and doesn’t wimp out by covering only Visual Basic 2010 Express Edition like many beginner books do. Because of the target audience for this book, Visual Basic 2010 Express Edition works fine.

The book takes the usual college approach of starting with a basic application, working through variables and structures, and then moving toward more complex application types. You learn all of the basics of working with classes, printing documents, working with the clipboard, and other usual fare for a book of this type. Rod does provide a couple of nice perks such as working with LINQ and databases using the entity framework. The goal is to learn how to use Visual Basic at a basic level, so these exercises will serve the reader well. Someone looking to start by creating a relatively complex example almost immediately will be disappointed. I know that some readers look for this approach now and Rod’s book definitely won’t serve their needs; this book is more traditional (and proven) in its approach.

Each of the chapters provides several methods to learn the material. You can read about the technique, try it yourself on your machine, work through exercises, and even watch a video. Most readers will find a technique that works well for them. Rod suggests using some or ideally all of the techniques to obtain a better learning experience.

The videos are a nice touch and Rod does them well. The longest video I watched came in at 17 minutes, the shortest at 4 minutes. He has a nice speaking voice and an easy manner of approaching the topic. The reader should definitely feel at ease during the presentation. Rod doesn’t resort to humor to cover up a lack of depth in his book. It’s not that he’s incredibly serioushe’s simply straightforward and businesslike in his approach.

Will you actually get through this book in 24 hours as the title says? I doubt it. I tried out a number of the chapters and found that I averaged about an hour in doing them fully (including the exercises) at a rapid pace. There are 39 chapters in the book for a total of 39 hours of training as a minimum. Even if you attack the book at a rabbit-like pace and skip some of the features, you still won’t get through it in 24 hours and manage to gain anything worthwhile. I’d suggest setting aside at least 40 hours of focused time to get through this tome.

The bottom line is that this is a great book for the rank novice to learn a new skill and discover the joys of programming. It’s not the sort of book that anyone who has written code before will want and it’s also not the sort of book that the impatient reader will find helpful. Rod has done a marvelous job of presenting a complex topic in a manner that will help most people get up to speed working with Visual Basic in a short time.
 

The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others is a German-language movie about East Germany before the fall of the Berlin wall. The movie focuses on three individuals: Georg, an author who is initially devoted to the state, but eventually finds that the state is a dead end, Christa his actress girlfriend, and the Stasi policeman, Gerd, who is sent to bug Georg’s apartment. The movie received an academy award and deserves it. The plot is emotionally intense and well played.

This is a psychological movie. There aren’t any fabulous chase scenes or shootouts. In fact, the movie is about a single word, freedom. It asks the question, “How much is state safety worth compared to the freedom of living one’s life as one sees fit?” The movie answers the question by showing Georg risking his life to write articles for the West that show the state’s policies for what they arethe evil desires of a few corrupt individuals. It also shows Christa committing suicide and Gerd giving up a comfy position, all to protect Georg from the state. Both come to believe in what Georg is doing and are willing to die to obtain their freedom from extreme repression.

I can honestly say that I stayed focused throughout the movie because it has a lot to say, the actors do their jobs well. Actually, it has a lot to say to Americans who think that giving the state more power to make them safe is a good idea. Every time our government allows yet another freedom robbing bill to pass, I know we’re taking yet another step toward the sort of repression this movie presents.

Some people will find the scenes of torture during the movie hard to deal with. No, there aren’t any incidents of waterboarding or other physical cruelty. All of the torture depicted is of the psychological variety. I’m sure the actual torture techniques were far worse. Still, the way in which the torture is presented will almost certainly offend some people.

There are a few minor nits with this movie. The movie is in German, so I needed to watch with subtitles on, which isn’t a problem for me. However, some of the subtitles flashed by so fast that I had to go back and replay them in order to keep up with the movie. I also found a few of the scene transitions a little hard to follow. There was at least one scene where I lost track of where the actors are. It turned out that they were in Georg’s apartmentI had thought at first they might be somewhere else.

Overall, this is an excellent moviewell worth the time I invested viewing it. I don’t know that this is something I would watch very often and I’d have to be in the right mood to watch it again, but I did think that it’s worth at least one viewing and it has quite a lot to say. This is a movie of high social value and not very long on entertainment. It’s a thought provoking movie that more people should watch if for no other reason than to consider just how bad things could become if we don’t safeguard our freedoms.